Assassins are supposed to catch you off guard. Maybe there’s a glint of a sniper scope before everything goes dark, but assassins aren’t the distracting type. In Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, however, the sniper/assassin/partner active in 1980s Afghanistan known only as “Quiet” could not be more distracting without being pornography. How does the game square this? Quiet is a salamander. Sort of. This is Metal Gear, after all.
Spoilers for MGSV from here on out. Did you hear me Snake? Snnnaaaakkkkkeeee!
Early on in MGSV’s story, Quiet is attempting an assassination that quickly goes awry. Her body is badly burned, and she is subsequently thrown out a window. To recover and excel past her injuries, Quiet is then infected with a parasite that infests her vocal cords. This infestation prevents her from speaking English (hence “Quiet”), but also allows her to both breathe and drink through her skin to reduce the sway a sniper might incur while aiming. In addition to losing the need for lungs, Quiet becomes photosynthetic like the legendary sniper “The End” from Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. She also gains superhuman visual perception abilities, and her skin can now produce camouflage patterns. That’s a lot of genetic meddling for one parasite, but again, this is Metal Gear.
The scantily clad sniper wears nearly nothing because she needs to breathe and take in nutrients through her skin. (Later on in the game she is forcefully clothed and begins to suffocate, but we’ll get to that later.) Though perfectly bizarre enough for a Metal Gear game, Quiet’s abilities aren’t that far-fetched, at least not in the animal kingdom.
You can likely blame 1964’s Goldfinger for popular belief that human can, or in some way need to, breathe through their skin. In the film a woman suffocates when her skin is completely covered in gold paint, and apparently the filmmakers were concerned enough with her well being that they made sure not to paint over the base of her neck.
Though human skin emits a small amount of carbon dioxide and may be able to sense oxygen (or even take a small amount in), it does not breathe like lungs do. Respiration is the lungs’ job – the gas exchange that happens in the balloon-like alveoli that extend like fleshy fractals inside the lungs is the only way we breathe. But other animals don’t need lungs as much as we do, which brings us back to Quiet.
Whatever parasite was given to Quiet, it transformed her physiology into that of a spotted salamander (pictured above). Native to the eastern United States and Canada, this little amphibian is nature’s very own bikini-wearing sniper – the majority of its breathing is done through its skin. One estimate figures the salamander’s cutaneous, or skin-based, respiration contributes 70 percent to its gas exchange with the environment. If the assassin’s genes were hijacked to force this kind of change, then yes, wearing more clothing would interfere with respiration.
The spotted salamander has Quiet’s other bikini-philic in common as well: it is the first vertebrate found to be photosynthetic.
Embryos of the spotted salamander sparkle green in a pond or under a microscope, but that isn’t because the babies will ever be green. Soon after they are deposited, the growing amphibians are colonized by a species of single-celled algae known as Oophila amblystomatis. For a long time scientists knew that there must be some reason the algae are there – most likely a symbiotic relationship where the organisms fed off the byproducts of the embryos and provided sustenance in the form of oxygen in return. But just five years ago, a Canadian researcher named Ryan Kerney discovered that the relationship went much deeper than that, all the way into the salamander’s cells.
Kerney found that O. amblystomatis was living inside the cells of both the embryonic and adult salamanders, usually close to the power plants of the cell: mitochondria. The thinking is that the algae — through photosynthesis happening in their own solar power plants, chloroplasts — are providing oxygen and carbohydrates to the mitochondria.
It’s not yet known how the algae colonize the salamanders’ cells and when. Though the spotted salamander is the first vertebrate known to harbor a visible symbiont within its cells, it certainly can’t be the only one. Other animals with spines are likely to harbor beneficial stowaways within them. The more we study our own microbial stowaways, collectively called the “microbiome,” the more we find that our health isn’t wholly dependent on human cells.
In the Metal Gear universe, almost every just out of reach sci-fi tech is possible: perfect bionic limbs, adaptive camouflage, cell-sized nanobots, and Pacific Rim-style robots are commonplace. Infecting soldiers with parasites that change human physiology is still science fiction, but something like it probably isn’t far off. In that respect, if a genetically engineered parasite could invade Quiet’s skin cells and provide photosynthesizing machinery while making proteins and genetic changes allowing for cutaneous respiration, you’ve got a silent, bikini-wearing sniper.
Here’s the problem: all of this imagination seems like a mere retrofit of sci-fi concepts in order to get a half-naked, well-endowed woman on screen. In MGS3, the photosynthetic sniper The End was clothed in a cumbersome ghillie suit. In MGSV, Quiet must be naked. The absence of clothing is the only condition her abilities bring along. And later on the in game, because Quiet can absorb large amounts of water through her skin, an extended shower scene is necessary. There is also an attempted rape that Quiet only escapes because the removal of her clothing makes her stronger.
For a mostly older, mostly male audience, marketing a character that appeals visually to players is an understandable, if depressing, choice. Quiet could have been the mysterious sniper with salamander skin and a penchant for silence. Instead she’s a sex object infected with a parasite that extends her showers removes her clothing.
I would have preferred an amphibian to that.
IMAGES: Konami Digital Entertainment; Will Thomas
Kyle Hill is the science editor at Nerdist Industries. Follow on Twitter @Sci_Phile.
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