Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain is a phenomenal swansong from series creator Hideo Kojima, easily taking the top honors of our Game of the Year Awards in 2015. But if The Phantom Pain is your first time entering the world of tactical espionage action, you'll quickly find yourself drowning in one of the most ridiculously dense narratives in video game history. For nearly 30 years, Kojima has built upon the foundation laid by the 1987 MSX/NES classic, bolting on plot points and new characters wherever they fit to serve the narrative of the current entry, until the series transformed into a Frankenstein's monster of double (and triple)-crosses, name changes, and retcons.
But you don't need to fret, because I've compiled a timeline detailing the series' most important events. There's even a glossary at the bottom in case you get your Snakes mixed up (it happens to the best of us). If you're hopping into Big Boss' shoes for the first time (or simply need a refresher), and you don't want to watch hours upon hours of cutscenes to get the big picture, this will get you properly up to speed. The events of the Metal Gear saga cover over a century of world history, so strap in and enjoy the ride. Oh, and if anything doesn't make sense to you, just remember: nanomachines probably did it.
Big thanks to the Metal Gear wikia and the Metal Gear Solid 4 Database on PS3 for helping me keep my dates and names straight while I wrote this.
1914 - The Philosophers are formed, and aim to control world events
Metal Gear's story truly begins in the aftermath of World War 1, as the wealthiest and most influential members of the US, the Soviet Union, and China form a secret organization known as the Philosophers. With their vast reach and near limitless resources, the Philosophers aim to influence world events so we never have to experience another global conflict on the scale of WW1. As its members die off, the group begins to splinter, and by the 1930s, the true purpose of the organization had distorted from its original ideals, eventually giving way to the Cold War, an era of nuclear tension that began thanks to the infighting between members of the Philosophers.
Before their nasty break-up, the Philosophers pooled together vast sums of money to stop World War 2 in its tracks, gathering over $100 billion (or over $1.6 trillion, in 2014 dollars) to develop nuclear weapons and genetically-enhanced supersoldiers. The money-laundering records needed to store this amount of cash were kept on microfilm - called the Philosophers' Legacy - along with the names of all of the organization's members. The Cold War started because each of the world's three major superpowers fought over this massive chunk of change, until a Soviet commander and Philosopher agent named Boris Volgin stole the microfilm and passed it on to his son after his death.
The Philosophers may have lost their slush fund and they may be fractured, but they haven't lost their teeth. Before the events of Metal Gear Solid 3, President John F. Kennedy goes against the will of the Philosophers during the Bay of Pigs invasion and is subsequently assassinated - such is the power of this shady organization.
1964 - Naked Snake prevents all-out nuclear warfare by killing his mentor (Snake Eater)
A Soviet rocket scientist by the name of Nikolai Sokolov wants to defect to the US, so the government calls upon FOX, a CIA covert operations unit formed by Major Zero (a British SAS officer) and The Boss (head of Cobra Unit, a legendary squadron of soldiers who fought numerous battles in WW2). John (code name: Naked Snake), an ex-Green Beret and the first-ever FOX operative, is sent into the Soviet jungles to retrieve Sokolov, but is stopped when The Boss, Snake's mentor and mother figure, double-crosses him. The Boss recaptures Sokolov and joins up with members of Cobra Unit and Commander Volgin (son of Boris Volgin), who steals the Shagohod, a nuclear-equipped tank and Metal Gear progenitor, and launches a Davy Crockett nuke at his homeland, ensuring the US gets blamed for its illegal presence in the Soviet Union.
In order to prevent retaliation and mutually-assured destruction, Naked Snake must return to Volgin's command center, destroy the Shagohod, and kill The Boss. Along the way, he receives help from EVA, an ex-NSA agent/actual Philosopher agent and Snake's sole contact in the Soviet Union. He also meets Russian GRU officer Adamska (code name: Revolver Ocelot), forming a special warrior's bond with him despite their opposing allegiances. With their help, Snake defeats each of the members of Cobra Unit, destroys the Shagohod, takes down Volgin, and faces off against The Boss. Before Snake deals the final blow, The Boss hands over half of the microfilm containing the location of the Philosophers' Legacy.
Snake returns to the States a hero, and receives the title of Big Boss, but he also learns the horrible truth of his mission. The Boss was secretly working for the US from the inside to recover the Legacy, but thanks to Volgin's nuke, the parameters of her mission changed: she had to die by Snake's hands, forever known as a traitor. While Snake succeeded in his mission, he grew disillusioned with the government who betrayed him, renounced the title of Big Boss, and quit FOX.
1970 - The beginnings of a soldier's paradise (Portable Ops)
FOX has gone rogue, and is now being led by Gene, a super-soldier the Philosophers used as a subject for genetic experiments. Gene wants the Philosophers' Legacy to create his own empire, so he captures a base on the San Hieronymo Peninsula and kidnaps and tortures Naked Snake, since he's the last person to know its whereabouts. Snake promptly escapes from the facility, along with Green Beret Roy Campbell. After meeting up with Major Zero, he learns that the government has classified him as persona non grata, thinking he is the cause of the FOX revolt. In order to clear his name, Snake forms the beginnings of FOXHOUND along with Zero, Ocelot, and Frank Jaeger, a war orphan Snake rescued a few years prior.
Snake recruits a variety of soldiers and finally defeats Gene, who recognizes him as the true successor to The Boss, and bequests FOX to him, as well as the plans to a soldier's paradise called 'Army's Heaven'. Of course, this wouldn't be a Metal Gear game without some kind of twist: the entire rebellion was actually staged by Ocelot and Major Zero as an attempt to lure the CIA director out of hiding and grab his half of the Legacy. Ocelot kills the director, snags the Legacy, and forms a new, even more shadowy secret organization called the Patriots with Major Zero and Naked Snake.
1972 - The Patriots, Les Enfants Terribles, and the final straw
Snake, Major Zero, and Revolver Ocelot originally formed The Patriots to honor The Boss' dream of a perfect world. Zero interpreted this to mean creating a 'World Without Borders', effectively uniting the nations of the world under one rule. So Zero exaggerated and distorted the legend of Big Boss, using it as a means of control. Snake isn't too happy about being a puppet for Zero, believing that Zero is skewing The Boss' vision for his own gains.
The final straw was Zeros creation of the Les Enfants Terribles project without Snake's knowledge or consent. The project aimed to take Snake's DNA and use it to clone a series of enhanced supersoldiers. From the project came three 'Sons of Big Boss': Solid, Liquid, and Solidus, each one representing the best parts of Big Boss' DNA, with some accelerated aging thrown in to prevent the enemy from copying the clones' genetic code. Snake finds out about this and is understandably pissed off. He leaves The Patriots and FOXHOUND, drifting from skirmish to skirmish, until he meets Kazuhira Miller and forms the Militaires Sans Frontieres. Sometime after Snake's departure, Major Zero and the Patriots take on the code name 'Cipher'.
1974 - Militaires Sans Frontieres and the birth of Mother Base (Peace Walker)
Snake is asked by Costa Rican agents Paz Andrade and Ramon Galvez Mena for assistance regarding a mysterious army that's holed itself up in the Latin American nation. He only agrees when he hears a recording of The Boss' voice, seemingly alive and well. That voice actually belongs to an AI program attached to Peace Walker, a nuclear-equipped weapon created to ensure that mutually-assured destruction could never come to pass by guaranteeing mutually-assured destruction would occur if anyone ever launched a nuke. It's best if you don't think about that too much.
Anyway, Snake and Miller set up Mother Base off the Costa Rican coastline and design it to resemble an offshore oil rig. Snake wanders the jungles, recruiting soldiers for his army, researching new tech, rescuing Dr. Huey Emmerich (the scientist responsible for Peace Walker's design), and building his own nuclear deterrent, a walking battlemech called Metal Gear ZEKE. Snake discovers that Galvez is a KGB agent who wanted Peace Walker for himself, but Snake puts a stop to him and once again prevents a nuclear holocaust, finally adopting the title Big Boss as his own.
Oh, it's not over yet. Paz is also a double agent, who actually works for Cipher (aka Major Zero). She attempts to steal ZEKE and frame MSF for launching a nuke should Snake decide not to join Cipher. Snake quickly defeats ZEKE, and Paz is flung into the ocean from the resulting explosion. Miller was also apparently a business partner with Cipher and knew all about Paz's plot, using his connections to build MSF into a driving force of the Cold War economy. Snake is apparently cool with this, and the two continue to operate MSF together, growing Mother Base into massive mercenary operation.
1975 - A nation falls (Ground Zeroes)
On the eve of a nuclear inspection (brought about by Huey's insistence that MSF proves to the world that it's running a squeaky clean operation), Miller and Snake receive word that Paz had survived their encounter, and is currently being held at Camp Omega, a US black site in Cuba. To make matters worse, one of Snake's recruits, a young teen named Chico, went off to rescue her and got himself captured. Both Paz and Chico know of the existence of Metal Gear ZEKE, so Snake needs to rescue them before they reveal any information to their captors.
Snake infiltrates the facility and rescues them, but returns to find Mother Base under attack by operatives of a mysterious new organization, XOF, led by their equally enigmatic CO, Skullface. Snake finds Miller and the two escape via chopper, only to be thwarted by a bomb planted inside Paz's body by XOF. She leaps from the helicopter in an attempt to save Snake, but the blast causes their helicopter to crash, putting Snake into a coma which lasts for nine whole years.
1984 - Already demons (The Phantom Pain)
Big Boss (aka Venom "Punished" Snake in this one) awakens from his coma inside a hospital in Cyprus and finds himself under attack by XOF forces and minus one left hand. He escapes the facility with the help of Ishmael, a mysterious man covered in bandages, eventually coming into contact with Revolver Ocelot. Ocelot helps get him back on his feet, equipping him with a bionic arm and assisting him in an operation to infiltrate Afghanistan and rescue Kazuhira Miller. Together, the three form a new private military corporation, now known as Diamond Dogs, and rebuild Mother Base off the coast of the Seychelles.
Diamond Dogs accepts various missions within Afghanistan and the Angola-Zaire border region in Africa, both in an attempt to recruit new soldiers and earn money, as well to gather intel on Skull Face's operations and wait for the right time to strike back. Snake rescues Huey Emmerich from his clutches, but Miller is reluctant to believe his loyalty, believing Huey to be the one that sold out MSF nine years ago. Snake also brings on Quiet, a crack-shot sniper who doesn't wear enough clothing; Eli, a kid who is suspected to be one of Snake's offspring from the Les Enfants Terribles project until a blood test provides a negative result; and Code Talker, a Navajo scientist forced to work for Skull Face to create a strain of vocal cord parasites that infect and kill off people who speak specifically targeted languages. Together they confront and defeat Skull Face, finally taking the revenge that had eluded them for so long.
But the story continues well after the climax, drifting aimlessly as Diamond Dogs finds itself without purpose. Eli escapes from Snake's care with a massive Metal Gear in tow. An outbreak of a mutated strain of the parasites back on Mother Base forces Snake to gun down his own men to prevent further infection. Huey is accused of releasing the strain, and is exiled as a result. Quiet gets captured and when a rescue mission goes south, she speaks English for the first time in the game in order to call a rescue helicopter for Snake, activating the dormant vocal cord parasites inside her body, effectively dooming her. A series of cassette tapes reveal that Major Zero's organization has spiraled wildly out of his control, culminating in Skull Face's mutiny against Cipher and his attack on MSF in the 1970s. And in the biggest twist of all, it's revealed that the true star of the game wasn't Big Boss, but rather a medic for MSF and one of his most trusted soldiers. Through a series of hypnotism and plastic surgery, the medic was molded to look and act like Big Boss, while the real Big Boss (revealed to be Ishmael from the hospital) ditched Miller and began plotting Cipher's destruction while in hiding. Eventually, Fake Boss forms Outer Heaven during events that take place between The Phantom Pain and Metal Gear.
1995 - Assault on Outer Heaven (Metal Gear)
The US learns of a secret weapon of mass destruction in a South African facility known as Outer Heaven, and calls on Big Boss and his FOXHOUND unit to take care of the situation. One problem: the US doesn't know that Outer Heaven belongs to Big Boss (now revealed to be Big Boss' decoy, thanks to some audacious retroactive continuity), and he's using it as a staging ground to build another Metal Gear and take down the Patriots. The real Big Boss sends his son, the young and inexperienced Solid Snake, as a way to stall the operation so he can complete his own nefarious plans
Fake Boss feeds Solid Snake faulty intel, leading him into a series of traps, all of which Snake overcomes. He rescues Gray Fox (aka Frank Jager), destroys the Metal Gear, and defeats Fake Boss before NATO carpet bombs the place into oblivion. Fake Boss dies in the blast, while the real Big Boss gathers the survivors together to form a new stronghold in Zanzibar Land.
1999 - Big Boss returns (Metal Gear 2)
The world is rapidly running out of oil, and Dr. Kio Marv has the perfect solution: OILIX, a synthetic fuel source that could solve a potential global crisis. So of course he gets kidnapped by a mysterious new military force in Zanzibar Land. Roy Campbell, now head of FOXHOUND, brings Solid Snake out of retirement to rescue the doctor.
Snake finds a hell of a lot more than that in Zanzibar Land: Gray Fox is now his enemy, Big Boss is alive (thanks to the death of his decoy in 1995), and - you guessed it - there's another Metal Gear. Dr. Marv is tortured and killed, and the OILIX formula ends up in Gray Fox's hands. Snake is able to defeat both Fox and Big Boss before the day is through. Snake leaves Big Boss for dead and retires to the Alaskan wilderness. The Patriots pick up Big Boss' body and place him into a nanomachine-induced coma, where he will remain for the next 15 years as a sentimental prize of Zero's. Oh, and his genes are once again stolen from him, this time to create the Genome Soldiers used in...
2005 - The Shadow Moses Incident (Metal Gear Solid)
Keeping FOXHOUND around seems like a hell of a lot more trouble than it's worth. Liquid Snake, Solid's twin brother/clone, is now commanding officer, and - I sound like a broken record here - has gone rogue, using the newly-created Genome Soldiers to take over Shadow Moses Island, a nuclear weapon storage facility and home of Metal Gear REX. Liquid, Revolver Ocelot, and friends plan on launching a nuke unless the government hands over the remains of Big Boss and $1 billion.
Roy Campbell drags Solid Snake out of retirement once again to rescue a few VIPs, all of whom die of mysterious heart attacks thanks to the FOXDIE virus Dr. Naomi Hunter secretly injected into Snake's body before the mission. After a battle against Revolver Ocelot, Snake learns that Gray Fox isn't just alive, he's been turned into a cyborg ninja - who promptly slices off Ocelot's hand with his katana. Snake then meets up with Campbell's daughter Meryl Silverburgh, as well as REX designer Hal Emmerich (Huey's son), both of whom help Snake make his way through the facility.
After a variety of trials and tribulations, Solid Snake finds himself face-to-face against his brother Liquid and Metal Gear REX. Gray Fox steps in to sacrifice himself, giving Solid Snake enough time to destroy REX. Liquid then gives Solid a long-winded speech about his origin as a clone of Big Boss. The two do battle on top of the destroyed mech, Solid Snake wins (because of course he does), and escapes the facility alongside Meryl. Liquid continues his dogged pursuit, ultimately dying at the hands of the FOXDIE virus. Revolver Ocelot escapes (sans one hand), and in the game's closing moments, we learn that Solidus (aka George Sears and the perfect clone of Big Boss) is currently President of the United States and was essentially in on the whole thing.
2007 - The Tanker Incident (Sons of Liberty)
Prior to MGS2's events, Revolver Ocelot grafts Liquid Snake's hand onto his arm and begins selling Metal Gear REX's schematics to the highest bidders. Oh, and Liquid's hand starts taking over Ocelot's mind, affecting his speech and thought patterns (more on that later).
On a tip from Hal's sister Emma (an AI programmer who is also working on a type of Metal Gear), Solid Snake infiltrates an oil tanker off the coast of Manhattan. He arrives just in time to see the ship being taken over by Russian soldiers, but Snake doesn't care too much about that - he just wants to find Metal Gear RAY and expose its existence to the world. After wending his way into the belly of the tanker, he finds and photographs RAY and uploads the images for Hal. Just in time, too, because Ocelot/Liquid shows up, betrays his Russian comrades, steals RAY and blows up the tanker, leaving Snake for dead. Snake is framed for the destruction by the Patriots, as tons of oil allegedly seep into the New York coastline. It's enough to greenlight the construction of Big Shell, an offshore facility designed to clean up the 'oil leak'. But nothing is ever so simple in this universe, as the facility is actually a front, housing the construction site of the greatest weapon of them all: Arsenal Gear.
2009 - The Big Shell Incident (Sons of Liberty)
Big Shell is taken over by the Sons of Liberty, a terrorist group made up of members of Dead Cell, an (ironically) anti-terrorist organization that has - say it with me now - gone rogue. They're led by Solidus Snake (aka ex-president George Sears), and they've taken the current US president hostage and have demanded $30 billion in ransom. Of course, that's not why they're really there - Solidus wants access to Arsenal Gear and GW, the AI program inside of it.
Raiden, a rookie operative trained by VR (and the player character for the rest of MGS2), is sent to Big Shell to stop the terrorists at all costs. He finds a poorly disguised Solid Snake, who helps him infiltrate and navigate the facility. As Raiden closes in on Solidus, he finds a cyborg ninja, everyone he's supposed to save mysteriously dies of a heart attack, and his ultimate goal is to find the GW AI and upload a virus that mimics FOXDIE. If a lot of the events of MGS2 sound familiar, it's because the Big Shell incident was an attempt to recreate the events of Shadow Moses in order to train a soldier on par with Solid Snake.
Or not. The Big Shell incident was actually part of a Patriot plot to prove the effectiveness of the GW AI's ability to control and distort information and manipulate individuals through this distortion. The Colonel Campbell giving Raiden orders throughout MGS2 was actually this AI, and thanks to Raiden's unquestioning devotion to the mission, the program was a smashing success. An out-of-control Arsenal Gear smashes into the Manhattan coastline, and Raiden and Solidus are forced to do battle atop Federal Hall. Raiden emerges the victor, completing his role as the Patriots' pawn. Ocelot/Liquid once again escapes, this time with RAY in tow. Ocelot uses RAY, as well as the remnants of the GW AI found in Arsenal Gear, to quickly build an army of private military corporations, forming the basis of a newly-created war economy.
2014 - The beginning of the end (Guns of the Patriots)
A rapidly aging Solid Snake is brought out of retirement (once again) by Roy Campbell. His final mission: to assassinate Liquid Ocelot (yeah, he's basically Liquid at this point) and stop the never-ending proxy battles fought by his PMC organizations. This wouldn't be so difficult if it weren't for the fact that everyone is loaded up with nanomachines, and Liquid controls the AI program that governs them, causing soldiers to convulse wildly at the push of a button. Snake fails to capture him in the Middle East, but tracks his assistant, Dr. Naomi Hunter, to South America and rescues her - with a little help from Raiden, who's gone full cyborg ninja by this point.
Snake then makes his way to Europe, searching for Big Mama (aka EVA, from Snake Eater), and the remains of Big Boss. Ocelot finds Snake and uses the remains of Big Boss to unlock the final key in the Patriots' AI program, giving him control of virtually every army on the planet. Things are looking grim: EVA is dead, Snake is wounded, and Ocelot escapes to Shadow Moses, where he plans on stealing REX's nuke (because it's one of the only ones freely available that isn't controlled by the Patriots) to use it to destroy the Patriots' global AI network. Snake gives chase, reliving old memories in the derelict facility, but ultimately fails to stop Liquid from stealing the nuke.
In a last ditch effort, Snake and his crew storm Liquid Ocelot's base of operations, Outer Haven (*nudge*), where he uploads a virus of Dr. Hunter's design called FOXALIVE (*nudge nudge*) and defeats Liquid one last time. With the world saved and free from the Patriots' influence, Snake visits The Boss' grave for one final goodbye... and discovers a Big Boss who is very much alive. It was Solidus' body that actually burned back in Europe, and when the Patriots' AI went offline, Big Boss was awoken from his years-long coma. Big Boss explains how Ocelot used nanomachines and psychotherapy to make himself believe his body had been taken over by Liquid's hand in order to trick the Patriots into granting him access. He then suffocates a geriatric Zero and shares a final tender moment with his son before succumbing to the FOXDIE virus still mucking around in Snake's body. With their deaths, the Patriots are effectively destroyed, and Snake can finally retire - for good, this time.