BASS 2021:  Jamil Jan Kochai, “Playing Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain” (TNY 12/30/19)

TNY art: Illustration by Max Guther
This story largely started out as a joke. While I was playing the video game Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, the first third of which is set in Kabul, Afghanistan, I joked to my brothers that I should have Big Boss journey south to Logar in the video game and see if he could help our father and his family fight the Soviets in their village. We laughed at this idea, but it stuck with me.

Jamil Jan Kochai, Contributor Note

I’ve never played a video game (unless Pong and PacMan count, which I gather they don’t). So when this story started with Zoya setting out on his bike to buy a highly-anticipated new release of a popular series (I don’t even know if I’m saying that right) I kind of gritted my teeth. But it was in second person, which I always find interesting, given how allergic editors are to second-person stories; they tend to be good stories because they have to be to break through that prejudice. There’s something about Zoya’s dad being out of work for years, and about “kids in Kabul are destroying their bodies to build compounds for white businessmen and warlords.” Which maybe meant it was not going to be your typical teenager-with-a-joystick story (do they still use joysticks?).

And sure enough, on the second page as Zoya returns home with his prize – a prize he hides in his underwear so his father won’t see it – something shifts.

…[Y]our father is ankle deep in the dirt, hunched over, yanking at weeds with his bare hands the way he used to as a farmer in Logar, before war and famine forced him to flee to the western coast of the American empire, where he labored for many years until it broke his body for good, and even though his doctor has forbidden him to work in the yard, owing to the torn nerves in his neck and spine—which, you know from your mother, were first damaged when he was tortured by Russians shortly after the murder of his younger brother, Watak, during the Soviet War—he is out here clawing at the earth and its spoils, as if he were digging for treasure or his own grave.

Dad has something he wants to talk to Zoya about (I initially typed “you” instead of the name, this second-person voice is powerful) but the kid hightails it off with a thought from Harry Potter (another piece of culture I haven’t participated in) about escaping this life and entering anew one as a Mudblood “without the weight of your father’s history, pain, guilt.…” Yeah, this isn’t really about a video game.

Except it is, because the game is set in 1980s Afghanistan.

…[T]he fact that nineteen-eighties Afghanistan is the final setting of the most legendary and artistically significant gaming franchise in the history of time made you all the more excited to get your hands on it, especially since you’ve been shooting at Afghans in your games (Call of Duty and Battlefield and Splinter Cell) for so long that you’ve become oddly immune to the self-loathing you felt when you were first massacring wave after wave of militant fighters who looked just like your father.

This is the power of story. What it would feel like to be an Afghan kid, shooting Afghans as part of a game; it never occurred to me to wonder about that. The closest I can come is the cowboys-and-Indians of my childhood, and how it must’ve felt to be an Indian child, to always be the bad guy when you hadn’t done anything wrong, and the stories your family told were quite the opposite. Our deepest prejudices are enshrined in recreation; it’s no wonder they are also perpetrated in attempts at AI while claiming the algorithm is above all that. The algorithm, like the video game, is written by people with agendas, and one of those agendas is to appeal to a mass market. In America, that doesn’t mean kids whose families come from Afghanistan, even though it’s those kids who scrimp and save so they can pedal their bike to the store and buy the game on release day.

But the best is yet to come. I’m given to understand that’s a song from the game. It’s not the Frank Sinatra croonfest (damn, I’m old, it’s a good thing I read stories by younger people or I’d be hopelessly out of touch) but is instead a haunting Gaelic song.

I thought to myself, What if, while playing Metal Gear Solid, an Afghan gamer did discover his family inside the video game? How might he react? What might he do? And how might this experience change him and his relationship to his family and their history?

Jamil Jan Kochai, Contributor Note

This, too, is the power of story: Zoya gets a chance to set it right, to save his father, and even his dead uncle “Watak, your father’s sixteen-year-old brother, whom you recognize only because his picture (unsmiling, head shaved, handsome, and sixteen forever) hangs on the wall of the room in your home where your parents pray…” by playing the hottest video game of the year.

I read this story in public; in the grocery store, actually, after I’d finished my shopping and was waiting for the bus, indoors this time because it was raining, so I was wearing my mask. As Zoya’s game character ran into the cave “with your father on one shoulder and your uncle on the other,” I discovered how messy it is to cry while wearing a mask.

Ward classified this story as “transformations of place” and it truly works that way, as Zoya’s bedroom becomes Afghanistan. It could also be considered in the “transformation of time” category – in fact, I got confused and thought it was – as Zoya is drawn from the present into a before time, where it’s still possible to fix things, and plays the game like his life, like his father’s life and his uncle’s life, depends on it. Even the game’s song captures time, translated to: “Can you still remember / When little things made you happy?….Life can be simple if you can only see / The best is yet to come.” Time past, present, future, all in Zoya’s bedroom. It would also fit her “immersion” category, since I was captivated by this story I didn’t think I’d like. It’s all these things, and more.

I noticed something as I was pulling quotes for this post: Each paragraph is one sentence. Some of the paragraphs are only a line – or even a word – but others are half a page, and  this style choice gives those a breathless quality, while the single-lines allow breaking it up, adding a stacatto note. I’d like to know more about this, the reason Kochai chose to do it this way, the effects it generates.

In his TNY interview, Kochai gives his reasons for the second person voice, related to his sense of intimacy and alienation, the disrupted subject-object relationship he felt when playing videogames:

For me this sense of becoming the shooter in first-person gameplay was often disrupted by the depiction of the enemies in video games like Call of Duty. There I am in the game, playing as a white soldier, and all of a sudden I’m murdering an Afghan man who looks just like my father. Or even like me. My status as the hero facing the enemy, as the subject facing the object, falls apart. “I shoot you” becomes “I shoot me.” I wanted to capture that sort of alienating intimacy in my story. Second person seemed like the best way to go about it.

Jamil Jan Kochai, TNY Author Interview

So he rewrote the scenario, changing the player from murderer to savior, repairer, hero. The power of story.

* * * 

  • Story online at TNY
  • Kochai’s interview with Deborah Treisman at TNY
  • Metal Gear Solid Soundtrack: The Best Is Yet To Come video on Youtube
  • “The Best is Yet to Come” lyrics and translation
  • Review at The Inquiring Reader by Jon Duelfer
  • Comments at The Mookse and the Gripes

4 responses to “BASS 2021:  Jamil Jan Kochai, “Playing Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain” (TNY 12/30/19)

  1. Excited to see this story in BASS 2021! Although I don’t think it will stand the test of time, writing a serious reflection on modern video games is a crucial piece of work for an anthology like this. I’m glad they picked it up.

    I completely agree with your comment on Kochai’s endless paragraphs: “this style choice gives those a breathless quality, while the single-lines allow breaking it up, adding a stacatto note.” Really well said.

    I played this game a couple years ago (and all the others he mentions). When I was a teenager, none of these thoughts crossed my mind. But once I got into my twenties, even though I enjoy the action and thrill of these games, I just couldn’t bring myself to buy and play them any longer. There is way too much ideology stuffed into them. I now play games with flying cars or fantasy-based series to get away from all that. Games like this aren’t going away anytime soon though (honestly because they are really well made in a technical sense) and we have to think seriously about how it affects us. Great story.

    And thanks for mentioning my review!

    • The only (contemporary) video game that’s tempted me is Portal (that’s the “the cake is a lie” one, right?) and then mostly because of the song “Still Alive”. I don’t understand how video games have plots. I’m still back in the days of Pong. Pong was my speed. No plot. Just the ball, back and forth. And that sound. Pock. Pock-dub.
      So I’m in foreign territory with this story, in more ways than one. And it still had great impact.
      I didn’t realize the paragraphs were single sentences until I tried to pull a couple of quotes, and kept going back, and back, and realized I had to artificially cut it or quote the whole paragraph. It did read like that, though, faster and faster, all in a rush, and then the short paragraphs served as speed bumps. Clever technique.

  2. This is a story that is growing on me more and more as I keep returning to it. While I would not want to for one second compare my relatively soft escape from 1968 Czechoslovakia to the narrator’s dealing with being a refugee from Afghanistan, some thoughts certainly reverberate. I love his “the children of refugees trying to reach a point of understanding with their parents often have to deal with additional forms of disconnect—the loss of language, the weight of guilt, the shame of difference, the pressures of societal discrimination, and memories of incomprehensible trauma” Yes. For my mother the loss of language was akin to the loss of a child and she never recovered. The shame of difference, oh yes. Trying, unsuccessfully, to assimilate is familiar to me as well as my mother. Guilt, of course. And the end of the story, “you feel compelled to keep moving into a darkness so complete..” is magnificent. I am glad I am thinking about the story, and reading about it more than my first superficial reading.

    • I kept thinking of you as I read this story. Your experience is not the same as Zoya’s – I don’t think there are video games where Americans (or Canadians) get points for killing Eastern Europeans – but I know you’ve spoken before of what you left behind, an experience many of us have never had.

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