I've been thinking a lot about video games lately. Not actually playing them, of course - since that would suggest a level of time and energy I simply don't have to dedicate to them right now - but I've been spending quite a bit of time trying to pin down exactly why they mean as much to me as they tend to. And, with the specific oddity of one of the most intriguing acts of marketing hooplah in recent memory, trying to directly quantify what that meaning is worth.
The reasons are as varied as the titles themselves, which makes trying to sift this down to their barest essentials all the more difficult. I adore traditional 2D platformer adventures, ridiculous fighting games, twitchy arcade rail shooters and increasingly convoluted J-RPGs in equal measure. Simply put, games - like any other form of art - are capable of sweeping emotional fulfillment, grotesquely pognographic visceral thrills, and everything in between. It's with that in mind that I don't think loving the ultimately brainless but perfectly weighted custom-combo system of God Hand is any less valid than loving the slow-burn character drama that anchors the intuitive, but never unpredictable gameplay of The Last of Us. I have friends to whom the gameplay is the only factor that matters, and friends to whom the story is the driving appeal; I find myself with a foot in both camps, fully acknowledging that the infuriatingly slow and at times clunky RTS nature of Valkyria Chronicle undermines how much I like watching the goofy drama unfold, but acknowledging that Vanquish could have been written by Michael Bay's erect penis on a coke fueled bender for all I care - and maybe it was! - doesn't make a difference, so long as I still get that sweet ground-slide bullet-time action...
Pictured: An adolescence squandered,
Mario 64 and Ocarina of Time notwithstanding.
Mario 64 and Ocarina of Time notwithstanding.
* Truth be told, the story mode on the Kenshiro PSX game is actually a lot more intuitive and interestingly realized that either of the Hokuto Musou games, and the game's voice acting and graphics were above average... for the period, mind. PSX games haven't aged well, if you ask me - they're still fun, but most of them look and handle like a sack of ass, even compared to the previous generation. But that Devilman game is a twitching, steaming pile saved only by the totally arbitrary inclusion of a totally badass opening video, an Aguel/Gelmar/Jinmen fusion demon, and enough atmosphere to almost make up for the fact that the first hour of the game is basically just Resident Evil but a hundred times more shit.
Uh, Quentin Tarantino Presents...?
You might think this massive cluster of a fuck would leave me lukewarm to more. You would be very wrong. For everything confounding and seemingly senseless that Guns of the Patriots might have done, because the game itself was kind of amazing. I have to specify the "game part", because when you watch just the cut scenes that piece the story together - literally skipping all of that needless and intrusive "tactical espionage action" gameplay element - THE "GAME" STILL RUNS OVER 8 FRIGGIN' HOURS. See, the whole experience is equal parts literal gameplay and raving lunacy as cinematic excess, playing out sort of like the entirety of 24 if it were written by pasting post-it notes from an unfinished reboot of The Manchrian Candidate, clipped random panels of old Amazing Spider-Man comics and a transcript of whatever it is Steven Segal sees when he closes his eyes and drifts off into the sweet, tangy embrace of Mister Sandman that allows him to wake up the next morning and keep doing... whatever it is we'd call what Steven Segal does in the 21st century.
Hideo Kojima/小島 秀夫: Visionary. Foodie Microblogger. Casual latex fetishist.
That said, I'm saying all of this by way of having just seen the cumulative ends of this journey. I never owned the original Metal Gear Solid, just rented it for a weekend - and man alive, if you aren't ready to unlearn every Rambo fantasy every game before it had fed you from the time it was all about stompin' on turtles, that's no way to get involved in Metal Gear Solid. To make up for my sins I'm currently playing through the full Hideo Kojima Approved canon: The original 1998 Metal Gear Solid, the PS2 follow up Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, the prequel Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, and its direct PSP follow-up Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker. These four games represent an unreal timeline that begins in 1968 (Snake Eater) and ends in 2014 (Guns of the Patriots), which means the year the franchise ends - chronologically speaking - is also the year they begin to drill all the way to the bottom of the barrel, hoping to strike oil when all else is exhausted. An ironic twist, to be sure, but with the final planned chapter not due until 2015, it's perhaps not quite ironic enough to mean anything.
Shockingly enough, there appears to be just enough narrative wiggle-room left for Konami to justify squeezing blood from Kojima's franchise one last time. You see, while Solid Snake was the protagonist of the first and fourth game, and shared the second with a character he specifically made to try and hook ladies onto the franchise(!), the third game - which, reportedly, Kojima made a prequel specifically because he felt the previous story prorgession had run its course - star solid Snake's "Father", a mercenary who, in later games, is known only as 'Big Boss':
He's basically Che Guevara. Just a bit less of an asshole.
Yes, I'm aware that I've just insulted every college dorm room wall ever.
In short, Big Boss was a complicated character who never saw himself as a bad guy; he was just the one guy willing to set the world on fire to cleanse it and re-create the world in the image he felt was better for everyone. It's important to point out, again, that his goal was "No More War", which is a more amicable goal than most international terrorist organizations, no?
This is where my curiosity gets piqued: Despite the storyline establishing Big Boss' true intent and goals having been wrapped up in Peace Walker, thereby having shifted him in the eyes of the player from a villain to something of a tragic anti-hero who lived long enough to see him become the villain, the upcoming pair of games in the franchise both being released under the Metal Gear Solid V moniker - the "prologue" Ground Zeroes set in 1975, and the final piece of the puzzle The Phantom Pain set nine years later - fill in the gap between him having shifted gears from a heroic to a villainous character, at least from Solid Snake's point of view. In other words, Metal Gear Solid V is going to be a "Hero's Journey" for a character who's going to become so bitter and jaded that he's willing to go to extreme lengths to get what he wants. It's a Villain's Journey, but neither one soaked in clever irony like Shadow of the Colossus or Spec Ops: The Line, nor played for grimy exploitation like Kane and Lynch or Manhunt. It's got all the potential to be a sincere, nuanced take on a character willing to torch the whole world if it'll make his dreams come true, and something about that is intensely intriguing to me.
The 9 minute long red-tagged "Director's Cut" trailer that premiered at E3 2013 established that Metal Gear Solid V is going to be, by far, the darkest exploration of Kojima's universe yet; even holding aside the brutally realistic torture, dismemberment, impromptu emergency surgery, child soldiers and mining slaves, and the ESRB's confirmation that sexual assault will play a role for one of the characters (if only off-screen), the narration they chose is a brooding, hissing condemnation of the world itself, playing out - even bereft of context - as the closest thing to John Rambo's iconic monologue about Joey's legs in First Blood I've seen in a video game. The divide between Ground Zeroes and Phantom Pain of nine years is going to involve some seriously nasty shake-ups, and the suggestion we're left with is that Big Boss' fall from grace of being a rogue operative with the world's future on his mind to a heartless bastard willing to sacrifice his own son to achieve his endgame begins with a quest for vengeance... but against whom, and for what, we still don't know.
"Why are we still here? Just to suffer? Every night, I can feel my leg, and my arm - even my fingers!
The body I've lost - the comrades I've lost... it won't stop hurting. It's like they're all still there.
You feel it too, don't you?"
"I'm gonna make them give back our past."
So why do I have to take all of this time to defend my MGS Boner? Because the game hasn't exactly been split in half. For all intents and purposes The Phantom Pain - which isn't due until 2015 - is the "real" Metal Gear Solid V. Ground Zeroes is important to the narrative and takes place in an exclusive setting with a host of details and events that'll be necessary for following the already convoluted and scattershot storytelling... but it's only a single location. A single base with a campaign that's been suggested takes about two hours to complete... a prologue. Sort of like the tanker mission in Sons of Liberty or the Virtuous Missions in Snake Eater. A short, stand-alone experience meant to teach the player how to play the game and get them on the ground running.
In other words, Ground Zeroes is a demo. A demo you're expected to pay about half the price of the actual game for.
I'd say this is a shocking or at least an original tactic to eek every penny out of a popular franchise... but fans of Metal Gear Solid should be so lucky. Originally the demo for Sons of Liberty - dubbed the "Trial Edition" at the time, and containing the original Japanese voice track with English subtitles - was actually a bonus disc packaged with the unrelated Hideo Kojima game Z.O.E - ZONE OF THE ENDERS. At least then the price tag seemed perfectly justified; not only did you get a taste of the new Metal Gear, but you also got acomplete (if otherwise unrelated) game to go with it. Not to be outdone in cunning dickery, this scheme was repeated roughly a decade later when it was announced that purchasing the HD Collection re-release of Zone of the Enders plus its sequel would net you a demo for the upcoming METAL GEAR RISING: REVENGEANCE - a spinoff starring Raiden from the Solid franchise in his own hectic hack-and-slash adventures, sharing a universe with Solid Snake but ultimately little else in terms of gameplay. But again, you get two full games for that price, and the demo was merely a bonus - not the main course. For $30, at least you got a free burger with your scoop of piping hot demo fries.
The pricing scheme is actually far more convoluted than it should be*: The original announcement was that it would cost $20 for a digital download on the PS3/XBOX 360, or a full $30 for a physical, disc-based copy. The PS4/XBOX ONE release was the same sliding-scale... but with a Next Generation Premium, meaning a digital copy would set you back $30... and a disc-based copy would cost $40. Fourty, fucking, dollars.
How did the internet react to that bit of news, you ask?
This. Basically just this.
* These are all North American prices, rounded up from the real-world "29.99" and so fourth, because I'm typing far too much as it is. To everyone in Europe, Australia and basically everywhere else in the world who are already paying $80 ~ 100 USD for a typical console game: You have nothing but sympathy. But Ground Zeroes has comparable pricing world-wide to the local marketplace, if nothing else: About half the price of a "Full" game regardless of what that implies.
It's hard to blame them, either. Even holding aside the precedent that Metal Gear has always had by holding demos hostage to remind you that Z.O.E is also a franchise, we've seen publishers go out of their way to cut content - or even lock it behind a paywall, just to eek a few more dollars out of the paying customers. You want to use those alternate outfits in Street Fighter IV already encoded onto the disc? Better pony up for it, then. Then you have those mind-boggling situations like Final Fantasy XIII-3: Lightning Returns, where the price of the DLC which are literally items that help you play the game are so numerous they actually dwarf the price of the retail game itself! And that Fist of the North Star: Ken's Rage 2 game that defied the odds and found a way to be crap? $60 download... plus $80 worth of bonus material to purchase. No joke. The Hokuto no Ken sequel that nobody liked costs more than the upcoming Dark Souls II Collector's Edition that comes with a foot tall fucking action figure. I find that positively inconceivable... and yet, it's all real.
Let's be clear here: I have nothing against developers creating additional content after the fact to keep the game alive and kicking after its initial sales kick by way of effectively offering expansion packs down the road, I can't help but think that the model's useful potential has already been stretched to the limit. Offering a useless character costume for $5? Eh, whatever, that's fine. Offering the ending or half the in-game items for a nominal fee? Now we're clearly getting into bullshit territory. Offering a "Season Pass" that'll include a bunch of as-of-yet-unannounced DLC bonuses? That sounds like Science Fiction to me, and yet it's a very real - even omnipresent option from several different publishers. But nothing is shittier than instances where DLC is offering basic components of the game, like level-up bonuses or extra lives or even nonsense like the "Big Head Mode" in Dead Rising 2. Y'know, for everyone who happens to be somehow nostalgic for the unplayable mess that was Turok. The very idea that cheat codes would be sold to customers instead of hidden as a gag is literally offensive, and makes holding a demo hostage for cash seem like an almost honorable alternative.
Konami has since backpedaled a little and is now quoting a $30 price on physical PS4/XB1 copies, but there's been no suggestion that the digital copies have dropped to match. So we're still talking an estimated $30 average on all systems with a moderate discount for digital copies on last-generation hardware - and hell, for all we know this could change before release date, up or down. That's a pretty hefty hunk of change for what, in context, Kojima has said is "1/200th" the size of the full version of the game looming off in the far-flung year of 2015. In short, he's not hiding the fact that this is at best a teaser... but I'm sure Kojima himself isn't the one insisting that it be a $30 game, either. Heck, I'm sure if anyone bothered to ask him, he'd be fine with including it on an HD remake of Policenauts... Wink-wink? Nudge-nudge?
What makes this even more frustrating is the fact that purchasing Ground Zeroes up front will give the inevitable addition of The Phantom Pain some additional bonus content... but, only for the initial batch of copies sold. You snooze you lose, apparently, and while I have little doubt that some sort of Ground Zeroes + Phantom Pain bundle will materialize in 2015... well, that's a hell of a lot of time to wait for a prologue that's going to be widely available in a mere two weeks. Fans of Metal Gear Solid haven't had a new stealth game from the franchise since 2008, and telling them that they can have a delicious little taste of that Fox Engine they've been perfecting in a hidden underground supervillain lair for the last five years is an allure that makes turning it down pretty damned difficult... until, of course, we remind you that for the same price you could get any number of complete games instead.
This got me thinking, though... is $20 ~ $30 (or even the original $40 price tag!) too much to ask for something that's legitimately good, short as it may be? Hell, I can remember when SNES carts were regularly $60~75 a piece, and that was in 1990s money! Or, to bring up a substantially more recent example, I recently saw the ROBOCOP remake and--
It was such a shallow shit puddle I don't even want to talk about it.
If I had to sum it up in two words: WASTED POTENTIAL.
So just to clear the air on this one, the only reason I subjected myself to the dull sensations in this film I now recognize as trauma was because I had a pair of coupons, knocking $7.50 off the ticket price, which I was given for purchasing both the 4K Remastered Special Editions of the original Robocop, and The Terminator. So I didn't pay full price out of pocket for those tickets, and if I did, it would have been solely to commit seppuku from the balcony and try to stain everyone below with my intense shame. Anyway, the tickets would have been $12 a piece for me and the wife, plus snacks, which even on the cheap-ass end of things will kick it up by another $10~15, depending on how fat you're feeling. In summation, seeing Robocop '14 with a popcorn and a soda - which at this point I simply shrug off as part of the entrance fees of going to see a movie in public - theoretically cost the wife and I just shy of $40... so hey, let's round it off to $35, since I honestly don't remember how hard parking was comped.
Now then, who thinks paying $35 for less than 2 hours of watching Robocop get sodomized by mediocrity and cowardice is a better deal than paying $30 for Ground Zeroes? Anyone? Anyone at all?
But perspective plays a part in all of this, no? I know I'm hardly "typical" when it comes to my video game habits; I pre-order only a handful of titles that excite me personally, and I'm content to play a game a year or two - or hell, five or ten - down the line. Just like music, film and all other popular culture, what's good now is good later, which explains why I'm currently stuck on that mother fucking stairwell level in the original Metal Gear Solid right now... yeah, I was hoping to catch up on this labyrinthine franchise before Ground Zeroes came out, but Max Payne 3 distracted me pretty fucking hard, and unlike MGS, every time I fuck up in that game I feel like it was my fault and not the shit controls. But I digress. I brought this up specifically to say that Ground Zeroes was one of those rare gems that excited me to the point where I was ready to throw money at it, particularly when I saw just how tantalizing the Japanese collector's edition turned out to be... did I mention the game features full English subtitles and menus, meaning you can play the whole thing without a hitch, even if your understanding of 日本語 is total shite? Hot damn... have I mentioned that, in Japan, both Big Boss and Solid Snake are voiced by Akio OHTSUKA, the voice of Amon himself in Apocalypse of Devilman?
A Yamaguchi Revoltech with superior head sculpt and improved paint job?
WHERE DO I RUB THE DOLLAR BILLS, COMPUTER?!?!
WHERE DO I RUB THE DOLLAR BILLS, COMPUTER?!?!
Then I realized I couldn't pre-order the Premium Edition anymore, and my boner to "compromise" on the PS3 version until I could justify upgrading to a PS4 was more or less null and void. The thought that purchasing Ground Zeroes leads to more bonus content for Phantom Pain is an appealing one, but I imagine once 2015 rolls around the PS4 will have a few worth-while games that neither the PS3 nor my old-but-still-chugging custom PC can play... at which point I'll look at my PS3 copy, sigh, and feel like a fool for not having gotten the character skins for the 1080p/60 frames-per-second PS4 sexiness. Suddenly, this Revoltech Enhanced Edition just doesn't seem as sexy as it could, and it has less to do with the "stuff" being used to incentivise the part of me that loves toys than the actual game itself. And that's a damned shame - though I have no doubt it'll be a decent enough experience, even on "Generation 7" hardware.
Mind you, I'd buy this on PC in a fuckin' heartbeat, but Konami has - in their infinite wisdom - decided that the Glorious PC Master Race wasn't ready for the Fox Engine. Factoring in that Konami has been advertising "Metal Gear Solid V" for PC from the start, this is a troubling revelation. My PC may not be the beefiest custom build on the block, but near as I can tell it outputs just as much raw graphical horsepower as an Xbox One, and I'm more than willing to turn down shadow detail if it means running at 1080p without any obvious screen tearing or stutter. Mileage is bound to vary, of course, and if a player would rather have super sexy HD tessellation effects and razor-sharp shadows at 30fps, hell, I'm not going to give them shit for it.
With both current generation systems from Microsoft and Sony being glorified PC hardware disguised as stand-alone consoles, it's a shame they don't let the end user decide if resolution and detail, or framerates and consistency are more important... though, of course, anyone with even a passing interest in both of the "new" consoles should know that the Xbox One is set to play the game at 720p/60fps, while the PS4 is set to play at 1080p/60fps. With the PS4 being a hundred bucks cheaper than an Xbox One, complete with the front-end and controller having been redesigned to the point where some of my 360 faithful-friends say it blows the competition out of the water, it sounds like a no-brainer to me... unless you absolutely need Titanfall or Halo 2: Remastered to die happy, I honestly can't see why you'd pick an Xbone over a Pissa. For those comfortable enough with their PS3 or Xbox 360, the game is set to run at 30fps at a "scaled" 720p, which suggests the actual native resolution the systems will be handling might be even lower.
Also, seemingly just to fuck with us, both Sony and Microsoft systems get completely different "exclusive" bonus content. Sony faithfuls get the Deja Vu Missions in which you complete missions as an old-school PSX era Solid Snake sneakin' around in cardboard boxes, where Xbox players get the Jamais Vu Missions in which Raiden gets to fuck up the small Cuban base with rockets and cyber-swords. Different strokes, but both appealing in their own right
I do wish I'd known about the pre-order incentives...
And not to pat the back of the so-called AAA game publishers too hard, but let's face it; games are costing more and more to produce, despite the market not growing substantially to match. Make no mistake, the latest Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto game will always break new records as playing games becomes more normalized in day to day life of the public, but we've somehow come to live in a world where every game is trying to ape these franchises in tone and scale, despite certain genres - for example, survival horror - never having sold in numbers even approaching military shooters and bad-behavior simulators. But there's this strange obsession with every title being a massive seller, which has pushed publishers and developers to go bigger and badder, until we're left stranded with bloated, massive games that ignore the audience that actually wanted them in the first place, but are still "different" enough from the mainstream crowd-pleasers that they're never going to hit the same numbers. For all the critical acclaim and opening world-wide at #1 with over 3 Million Units sold in the first month, the Tomb Raider reboot was still considered less than successful by its masters at Square Enix, even though no previous Tomb Raider game had seen sales on that scale. It was a massive success, just not massive enough for the insane businessmen holding the purse strings.
This is clearly what failure looks like, ladies and gentlemen:
On better hardware, one year later, for $60. Because... reasons?
There's also, of course, the distinct possible that maybe games should scale back on some of their budgetary splurging to focus only on what's necessary... I mean, for fuck's sake, Tomb Raider has an online multi-player versus mode despite the controls being made to make you feel vulnerable and awkward. I OWN the damned game and I still don't believe it!
So short of simply switching the entire industry to a series of indie developers - a change that's happening of its own accord, by all counts - how do you combat this? Well, you try new things, including new pricing. One of the things we have seen are lower prices on "smaller" game projects, usually HD remakes of beloved classics or spin-off entities, like how my beloved Blood Dragon was basically a 1980s' kitsch-filter thrown on top of some left over Far Cry 3 assets. Blood Dragon was a perfectly fun stand-alone experience with a great sense of humor and some decent replay value, and the small $15 price tag made it all the sweeter... but ultimately the game never would have existed had Far Cry 3 not already done its thing and made its money back on what, to be fair, a fairly ambitious new set of game mechanics and a fairly massive in-game world to explore. Blood Dragon was a $15 add-on, but they were savvy enough to sell it as a stand-alone game for those of us who - like me - were far more interested in playing as Cyborg Michael Biehn than they were living out their Stallone vs Somali Pirates fantasies.
With this in mind I firmly believe that if Ground Zeroes were released *AFTER* the main game as an expansion, rather than before it as a prologue, fewer people would be as upset with it as they are. To be fair it's still an unusually expensive taste for a game that isn't even out yet, but it's also a taste that involves the new FOX Engine that Konami's been working on in secret underground bunkers since the late 2000's, and if Tomb Raider's "failure" is any indicator of what sort of insane budgets made a game a game capable of selling over 3 million copies a disappointment, it's doubtful that selling every product at the same set price is going to work going forward. It seems doubtful that it'd even work if they tried.
That's not to say that $60 was ever unfair - it's actually cheaper than games were 20 years ago, even before you consider inflation. But at what point does a big, expansive and gorgeous game justify its price tag? If Metal Gear Solid 4 cost $60 in 2008, isn't it fair to assume that the larger and more expensive to produce Metal Gear Solid 5 would cost the consumer more seven years later? If we're going to demand that the industry continues to increase the complexity and quality of games, it's at the very least selfish to expect the consumer to continue paying outdated pricing models - that's just absurd. The way they've gone about it so far -by locking on-disc content as "DLC" and so on - has felt like a bit of a dick move, but maybe breaking larger games into smaller pieces like this is a fair way to continue justifying the development of massive "AAA" games without simply doing the inevitable and ratcheting the price up by ten or twenty bucks? That's not to say paying for glorified demos should ever become standard, but, if Konami is giving Kojima and friends a literal fortune to perfect this whole thing, I suppose it's not totally unreasonable to ask that they get more than $60 out of the customer for it.
Sometimes, we don't even need words. Penis.
It's not much different that Hollywood studios demanding that everything be converted to IMAX and 3D after the fact, whether the film will actually benefit from the experience or not; those budgets are going up, but the population isn't changing to match, so those annoying "enhancements" are exactly what makes the difference between The First Avenge: Captain America, and the direct-to-video Albert Pyun Captain America from 1990. Look, I love me some Albert Pyun, but can't we all agree that the over-priced over-hyped excuse-to-let-Joss-Whedon-make-The Avengers is, overall, still a pretty dramatic improvement? Even with the stupid fucking plastic glasses we have to see it with?
This is where the concepts of "Price" and "Value" have to be weighed. Clearly, a cheap game that you enjoy is both a good price and a good value... but a cheap game that you don't enjoy is a waste of money. Much like the endless circle-jerkery that surrounds every single discussion of the Twilight Time Blu-ray label which offers strictly limited editions for the "insane" price of... the very same MSRP most other labels charge minus the expected Amazon discounts, I remind myself that - collectible and being given a false sense of urgency or not - aren't we ultimately just paying for a copy of a film? One that the viewer has probably seen before, and thus knows exactly how much value they personally have vested in it? To put it another way, Twilight Time's release of Night of the Living Dead '90 isn't worth the $35 I paid for it - and not even because of the bullshit color grading controversy, but because the movie is a pile of shit to begin with. Yet I think my copy of Christine was worth every red cent solely because the film itself is great. Same price, same basic item, but one of them held more value to me personally despite the price being exactly the same. Mind you this isn't a perfect example - the actual presentation of NOTLD '90 is a well known clusterfuck, and at least Christine kept its bonus features from the previous DVD - but it only serves to highlight that price and value are not the same concept. Sometimes they aren't even on the same planet.
Case in point in the opposite direction: For as shit as the Albert Pyun Blu-ray of "CA: DIRECTOR'S CUT" may have been, and as miserable as the film itself was, I got a copy hand-signed by the director and the inscription "AMERICA! FUCK YEAH!" written above his noggin'. What price can you even begin to put on something that beautifully absurd?
Is it possible that Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes has the potential to be a high-priced experience that's "good enough" to justify its high price/short runtime? I guess we'll know in two weeks, one way or another. All things considered, I may roll the dice on the PS3 version's relatively low $20 price point and find out myself. Those of you worried this might be the tip of some Phantom Iceberg ready to split upcoming "big" AAA games into smaller pieces are justified in your concern, but looking over the industry as a whole I think it might be the least offensive alternative to such games either skyrocketing in price as a single piece, or simply ceasing to exist going forward. Something's gotta give, and you think people are pissed off now at a $20 prologue, just wait until they see their first $80 main course...