ALERT! This post contains medium-to-large spoilers for Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. You have been warned. Time Paradox!

Dear mum, I’ve decided to join the Diamond Dogs. I know I said I’d stick with the Russian army thing until I could get enough money to buy that bookstore, but instead I’ve moved to the middle of the ocean to live with hundreds of men (and three women) in pursuit of a vague idealogical goal. This place is for soldiers, not slaves. They want to make sure there’s somewhere in the world for us military types to be free from control. As long as we never leave the base for non-work reasons or tell anyone about what we do here. Food is pretty good, uniforms nicely worn-in right off the bat. I’ve not met the leader, but they say he’s a really amazing guy. He once saved the world from nuclear war, he’s fought, like, actual robots, and he can talk to animals. My barracks buddy, Giggling Meerkat, got to meet him one time. Meerkat was patrolling the research platform when the Boss kicked him in the back of the knee and choked him until he passed out. He’s pretty excited.

Anyway, this will be the last time I speak to you, mum, as we’re not really allowed to keep talking to our families. Also, you won’t get this letter as I’m only writing it as part of an “educational exercise” and I’ll be burning it once I’m done. Give my love to dad and Valentina.

The most insidious thing about life on Mother Base how normal it all seems from the inside. You are a soldier, in charge of other soldiers, and all of you go on missions to stop terrorists, ne’er-do-wells and sometimes-do-wells from wreaking havoc on the established status quo. Like any other military organisation. New facilities are built, staff and prisoners come and go as time goes on, supplies are brought in, weapons and equipment are researched, designed and constructed. Patrolling guards have casual discussions about everyday life on the base. Every now and then, someone has a birthday.

Fluff and fun obscures every inky surface within Diamond Dogs. 80s pop songs ease the burden of heavy mission objectives and the countless murders required to reach them, as you flutter in on your gold-plated military helicopter to the upbeat melancholy of The Cure’s Friday I’m In Love. The sheer quirkiness of hooking an industrial balloon to a zebra transparently, but effectively, masks the disturbing truth of a world so torn apart by conflict (in which you are an active participant) that the local ecosystem is being decimated. Painting your base bright pink and laughing at the result, briefly pushing to the back of your mind that you are actively constructing a self-contained military-industrial complex in international waters. And on top of all that, you’re regularly kidnapping soldiers and forcing them to join your private army, then naming them after silly animals.

Mother Base most blatantly advertises itself as the terrifying and mysterious home to a weird death cult through its recruitment policies. Men (and, very occasionally, women) secreted away from the familiar and put in the brig, a place you never get to see outside of cutscenes. When you do see the inner sanctums of Diamond HQ, it’s usually to watch someone getting tortured, from which we can extrapolate that a heck of a lot of torture must go on when you’re not watching. New recruits spend a certain amount of time in the brig before being convinced to join the organisation. Then they appear, like magic, on your base, as they wander about speaking perfect English and respectfully referring to you as “Boss”. Mechanically, all players get to see of this process is a tiny progress bar under the soldier’s portrait, but the implication is that a certain amount of mental and physical brainwashing techniques have been carried out.

Interestingly, there is a limit on how many soldiers can be in the brig at one time (or, more specifically, a limit on how many soldiers you can have on your base). Friendly coercion sessions in the brig can’t be interrupted, so if players recruit too many new soldiers they will be excised immediately. Again, this is presented mechanically as a strategic consideration: step back and think about how your base is progressing before recruiting. From a narrative perspective, it also makes sense; dumping an untrained outsider is a lot cheaper than stopping an in-progress cognitive reprogramming protocol.

Behaviours around Mother Base shift from lovably weird to sinister when viewed in the context of all that brainwashing. Staff salute you when you come close to them, no matter the time or place. Is this a set-in-stone rule, or just something people started doing because they’re taught so well to love the Glorious Leader? Punch a soldier in the face and they will actually thank you for it, shoot them with a tranquiliser dart and their friends will continue to salute your magnificence. You can even choke people if you’re in a Darth mood, and on occasion the slowly suffocating human being trapped between your legendary muscles will ask you to do it a little harder.

Deep beneath the silly bearded men with flowing robes and too many wives, cults are about ideas. A cult usually begins to form when a faction develops within a large existing group (often religious), with a notably different dogma or perspective. At the point where the faction’s ideas or behaviour become incompatible with the organisation as a whole, it splinters. Sometimes this is led by a charismatic individual, sometimes not. In the case of Diamond Dogs, we’re looking at a group which broke free from the established norms of national military structure. They describe themselves as free agents, soldiers without borders, able to choose when to live or die and for what cause. Any given religious cult would probably describe itself in similar terms; The Children of God are guilty of heinous acts of sexual abuse, but from their perspective they are exercising their divine right to have sexual relations with children, for example.

Metal Gear Solid V presents an interesting relationship to the player through this dogmatic cult. As Venom Snake, you are ostensibly the leader of Diamond Dogs. Venom makes at least some of the important decisions–or appears to–and he is the god-like figure at the head of the pyramid. The legendary soldier. Of course, you’re not really the leader; you go on the missions you’re given, just like any other soldier, even if they do tell you it’s work only you could possibly accomplish. Training is handled by Revolver Ocelot, finances by Kazuhira Miller, research and development by Huey Emmerich, and so on down the line. This is played off like the whole operation is some utopia of democratic mercenaries, but there’s always a leader.

So the true power at Mother Base lies with the ideals that it was founded upon. Those principles we talked about earlier act like the DNA of the cult, manipulating its constituent members to ensure its own survival. Much like the parasites which infest the villains and heroes of The Phantom Pain and alter their bodies to make them resistant to destruction, the idea behind Diamond Dogs and MSF–that soldiers should have a place where they can’t be used and abused by governments or other groups–pushes and pulls human beings to get them in the positions it needs to be passed on to more people. The player is complicit here, even if they don’t agree with the sentiment. You must recruit more members and indoctrinate them in order to stand up against the chaos that lies outside. This, in turn, increases the chaos, requiring more soldiers to feed it.

The game’s big twist, that Venom Snake is actually an expensive and convincing copy of the real Big Boss, is just another way the cult passes itself on, and reinforces belief in not only the soldiers, but in us, the players. It doesn’t matter who Snake is, because you’re Snake, it proclaims, and we rejoice. It’s a pretty exciting and heart-warming thought, that it’s the players who bring Snake to life. But it has a darker meaning. It doesn’t matter who Snake is at all, it only matters that he does what he needs to do. That you do what you need to do. That the ideas survive and are passed on to others. Maybe I’m helping this parasite worm its way into a few minds right now.

Ever since the first game, Metal Gear Solid has been about the transfer of information, and The Phantom Pain is full of such transactions, without ever explicitly being about that. Venom is given all of Naked Snake’s memories, thoughts and beliefs through hypnotherapy. Big Boss enacts the Venom plan in order to distract his enemies, but knowing that it will also spread his ideas (if you believe they are his) across the world. Discussions between Venom, Ocelot and Miller confirm that the rise of private militaries is a direct result of Snake’s previous actions. Eli is consumed and driven by one simple piece of passed-on data: that he is a clone–a physical copy–of his father, Big Boss.

This all accidentally-on-purpose paints Skull Face as something of a hero in comparison. At first glance the burbling maniac is a Bond-standard super villain with a ridiculous plan to strip language from the planet. But, in a world where ideas spread like a destructive, unstoppable disease, removing language actually begins to look like a real solution. When viewed less as a direct threat to the main characters, whose only motivation is petty revenge, and more as a idealogical opposite, Skull Face gains depth and purpose where none seemed to exist.

Of course, simply pointing to information transfers doesn’t prove that the Diamond Dogs cult is some kind of sapient virus, wilfully jumping from person to person in pursuit of global domination. And it isn’t consciously directed, any more than biological evolution or a parasitic infection. But it can be seen to have developed certain mechanisms that improve its survival. First, the cult self-selects for strong individuals, while at the same time only allowing for members who are completely dedicated to the cause. Players ditch soldiers with poor statistics because they will be less useful to the group, and the system allows nobody on the base who hasn’t gone through the indoctrination procedure. Soldiers who don’t make the cut are “dismissed”, which, when you consider that Mother Base’s location is a secret, means they are likely murdered for the greater good and used to feed the animals.

Second, it is resistant to uncontrolled change, or change that could endanger the ongoing effort. Consider the trauma of Mission 43: Shining Lights, Even in Death. Snake must enter the medical platform and, eventually, eliminate all the infected Mother Base staff trapped inside. It’s for the greater good, and many of the soldiers accept their fate willingly. As a player, it stings. These are your people, carefully selected from across the globe and nurtured in your own personal soldier farm, and you’re forced to take them out. Most who’ve played the mission admit to some lasting effect on their psyche, a gut-punch to their world view.

On Mother Base itself, the reaction is very different. There is mourning, sure, and repercussions for the guilty, but nothing changes. There is no point of self-reflection, where Snake and his cohorts consider that it is, perhaps, their ideas and ideals which led them down this path. At no point do they consider throwing in the towel and becoming a more positive force in the world–they already believe this to be the case. Because the ideals of Diamond Dogs demand it, they honour the dead by vowing to carry them into battle, even though it wasn’t conflict that killed them. They pledge to always remember the soldiers’ sacrifice, but not to learn from it. The cult survives.

And then there’s Huey Emmerich, who plays his part. Huey is the only true villain in the game; a pathological liar who endangered his infant son and facilitated the slow, painful death of his lover; an opportunistic sociopath who tried to sell dangerous parasite weapons to persons unknown on the strength of data from an outbreak he probably caused. He is, in short, a man so disgusting that he cannot be redeemed, a big call to make in a series that constantly reprimands players for judging its villains as villainous before the curtain falls.

But why? Why make Huey such a bastard? Before we know for certain he is an awful human being, Huey is the voice of reason. He cautions the others about falling too far into their idealogical madness, he worries about the tunnel vision they have when it comes to getting revenge. During Mission 43, he loudly berates Snake for killing his own men, bemoaning the legend’s fall from grace. Then he is tried in a kangaroo court and exiled, and as if guided by unseen forces, we have a reason to dismiss every logical point he ever made. He is a bastard, after all. It doesn’t matter if he had some good points about Diamond Dogs’ descent into hell, he killed a woman. Protected once again from criticism, the cult survives.

By far the greatest trick this devil ever pulled is convincing us these problems aren’t much of a problem. That despite the mass conflicts, biological weapons, brainwashing, abduction, murder, human sacrifice, war profiteering, identity theft, regular theft, genetic tinkering, dead children, child soldiers and brutal torture sessions, everything on Mother Base is going according to plan. Because we’re set down right in the middle of it, we can’t see what’s really going on, and that is a deliberate choice the game makes. It’s why we still see everyone as the villain except ourselves, and why a common complaint about The Phantom Pain is that it failed to deliver on a promise to show how the Legendary Soldier and World Saviour, Naked Snake, became the unrepentantly evil and warmongering Big Boss. They might have a point. I mean, everything is fine at Mother Base, right?