Can spoils bloom... even on a battlefield? This article contains major spoilers for Metal Gear Solid and The Phantom Pain. Be alert and alarmed.

Every character in Metal Gear exists at some point on a very well-worn circle. The circle itself shrinks and grows, wobbles this way and that, shatters and reassembles itself from the broken pieces; but it is always the same circle. People exist as clones–figuratively and literally–of their former or future selves, doomed to walk the same paths and free to define exactly how those paths work. Metal Gear Solid is a deliberate mess of chronology, intention, revised histories, misinformation and idealogical inbreeding. Solid and Liquid Snake are clones, destined to follow in their father’s footsteps thanks to his genetic and historical legacy. Otacon makes the same mistakes as Huey because of how he feels about that father. Big Boss and Major Zero go to war over differing interpretations of a dead hero’s words.

At one spot on this spiralling loop, there are two snipers. In 1984, Quiet fights for and against Venom Snake as he cultivates his private army; in 2005, Sniper Wolf participates in the Shadow Moses takeover and battles the legendary Solid Snake. There’s no evidence these two women ever met one another, and yet they are inextricably linked by their professions, their actions, and their connection to Big Boss. Wolf creates Quiet, and is then created by Quiet.

“Everyone’s here now. Okay hero… set me free.”

Let’s go back to the beginning, by which I mean the middle: the death of Sniper Wolf. Aside from being yet another chance for Hal “Otacon” Emmerich to burst into tears, Wolf’s pre-bucket discussion with Snake is our only real chance to get to know the character. Born in Iraqi Kurdistan, Wolf grew up amid the horrors of military conflict. She was hunted from place to place by the Iraqi regime, often waking up surrounded by the dead bodies of her family and friends. Some time in the late 1980s or early-to-mid-1990s–after the events of The Phantom Pain–a young Wolf is rescued by Big Boss. She becomes a follower of the man she calls “Saladin” and eventually begin training with Nepalese Gorkhas to eventually become a sniper. After the presumed death of Big Boss, she is recruited into FOXHOUND, remaining in their ranks until Metal Gear Solid.

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That’s it for her. She dies when Solid Snake pops a mercy bullet in her face. There are echoes that persist into the future–Hal’s self-absorbed ideas about his cursed life and inability to protect women, Crying Wolf’s memory-jogging appearance in Metal Gear Solid 4–but the woman herself is a closed case.

But then there’s Quiet. Decades before Shadow Moses, but after players have experienced the life and death of Sniper Wolf, we meet another sniper. Again, she’s very pretty, and very dangerous. She also forms an important relationship with Big Boss. This isn’t a story about Quiet, of course, but it is about the Quiet-shaped hole in Big Boss’ life. Venom Snake and his skimpy sniper friend go through a hellish time, bond over mutual isolation and the self-loathing soldier archetype, then she vanishes. Forever. The moment when she leaves is heartbreaking for a man who has had no lasting or fulfilling relationships beyond those with mentors and colleagues, and most of those he has been close to have betrayed him in some way. In a now-infamous earlier scene, we watch Quiet dance happily in the rain, and share a borderline romantic–if quite silly–moment with Venom as they playfully splash one another. The scene ends with an embrace that, if you set aside the ridiculous costuming, represents one of the most intimate moments in the series. Snakes are bound by duty and necessarily separated from the real world, but in Quiet we see a real chance for Big Boss to experience humanity, just as in-game events conspire to turn him into one of history’s greatest villains.

What does this have to do with Sniper Wolf? When you consider the timing, and the sequence of events that follows, something twisted appears on that story circle. It’s important to realise that the Big Boss who rescued Wolf, her Saladin, is almost certainly Venom Snake. Venom isn’t the original Big Boss, but a mimetic copy. Not just a body double, he is a complete recreation of Big Boss’ being, his ideas, his actions. So the man who brings Sniper Wolf under his wing is the same man who had Quiet ripped cruelly from his life by a chaotic storm of external forces, good and bad. A broken man.

Venom takes this equally damaged Kurdish girl and trains her to defend herself, more than likely to defend him and his ideals as well. Specifically, he trains her to be a sniper. Big Boss, perhaps unconsciously, shapes and moulds this girl into a makeshift substitute for his own lost sniper. She spends time with him, by all accounts a sort of surrogate father, and develops an affinity for wolves, much as Venom did when he rescued D-Dog–the first wolf he turned into a weapon. In the same way that Venom Snake is an imperfect copy of Big Boss, Sniper Wolf is a hasty reassembling of the pieces that Venom believes make up the complicated human being known as Quiet. Make her a sniper, even though sniping is, at best, a tiny contributor to her actual personality. Make her sexy, even though Quiet wasn’t a particularly sexual character (clothing choices notwithstanding), and despite how uncomfortable and troubling it is to think of a father figure pushing his daughter towards such tactics. Teach her to feed her hatred of humanity so she becomes more isolated and functions better as a sniper, ignoring the fact that Quiet was isolated by the specifics of her contagious parasitic infection.

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Back in 2005, we see the grown-up result of this conditioning. Sniper Wolf is a woman who displays her sexual power prominently, with unzipped jackets and beckoning commentary. She has a complicated relationship with men, but particularly with Solid Snake. In most scenes in seems unclear whether she wants to murder him, seduce him or simply impress him. She turns up to his torture scene, but leaves before the real pain begins. When you consider that Liquid and Solid look very much like Big Boss, it’s easy to see why Wolf would have joined a rebellion under Liquid, and had mixed feelings when a man turns up who acts much more like her Saladin than a campy Bond villain. Then she has to kill that man who so closely resembles her savior.

“I’m going to send you a love letter, my dear. Do you know what that is? It’s a bullet straight from my gun to your heart.”

Maybe she wants to, as well. Ocelot mentions that Wolf becomes so obsessed with her targets that she falls in love before she kills them. But given that Snake is a convenient proxy for her proxy father (who was, in turn, a proxy Big Boss), it seems plausible that whatever twisted feelings of love she had for Solid were real echoes of the love she had for Big Boss, and that her murderous intentions were a manifestation of the resentment she might have had for a father that, in retrospect, treated her like nothing but a replacement for his ex-girlfriend. It lends a sad new perspective to the already morose end of Wolf’s life. In her last moments, she has an epiphany, stating “I finally understand. I wasn’t waiting to kill people, I was waiting for someone to kill me. A man like you. You’re a hero.” If Wolf really is a replacement, then these comments come from a woman who has realised that her whole life is merely a reflection; a manufactured existence perpetrated by the man who saved her life. She’s asking Big Boss, not Solid, to finally let her die.

From our perspective, where 1984 comes well after 2005 has come and gone, Quiet represents the other side of this strange coin. We remember the death of Sniper Wolf, and our complicity in it. It was a dying woman’s request, but it could only be completed by someone as hollowed out and isolated as Solid Snake. In that version, we were unable to act; a cutscene did our dirty work for us. When we defeat Quiet in The Phantom Pain, the game offers us the option of redemption. Again we find ourselves standing over a wounded woman, a pistol in our hand. The scene knowingly and openly recalls Wolf’s end, you’re supposed to think about it as your chittering consciences–Kaz and Ocelot–argue about whether to kill the assassin. And this time you can put your gun away, return her to base. You can save Wolf, even though she’s dead, even though she doesn’t really exist yet. You can fix your mistakes, if they even were mistakes.

That’s the curious thing about Metal Gear‘s closed loop. Some characters exist to fix the mistakes of the past (or the future), others only exist as a result of those mistakes. Some represent both. Sniper Wolf’s legacy moves forward in the memories of other characters, but back in time to create Quiet. At the same time, Quiet’s presence in the story overwrites and expands upon items from our past and the Metal Gear universe’s future. We’re part of the ouroboros, travelling from point to point to experience, interpret and misinterpret as we see fit. Sniper Wolf is evil, good, misunderstood and mistreated. We are the ones who kill her, rescue her, save her life and ruin it. We become what the games have made us, just as our real-world selves are created by every experience we’ve had so far.

Sniper Wolf’s past, manipulated as it is by the hands of Venom Snake and the Metal Gear developers, doesn’t absolve her of her actions. Instead, it makes her desire for release and absolution all the more tragic, understandable and necessary. She escapes by dying, and no longer has to live in the shadow of past deeds, be they hers or her predecessor’s. For her, at least, the cycle is broken.