Saturday, April 19, 2014

Here's To You, Kojima and Snake: GROUND ZEROES REVISITED

Pictured: The massively superior "B Side" reversible cover art by Yoji Shinkawa.

So METAL GEAR SOLID V: GROUND ZEROES - the somewhat expensive "prologue" to the upcoming MGSV: The Phantom Pain due, presumably, sometime in early 2015 - has been out for long enough that I think it's safe to clear the air about a few things. The game has practically wallowed in minor controversy since its very inception as, effectively, a "Pay to Play" game demo that features crucial narrative content for the "full" game, and my personal curiosity piqued when the ESRB warned that the "M" (17+) rated game would include audio logs relating to sexual assault, along with the usual warnings about graphic (non-sexual) violence and crude language.

You guys know I'm fascinated by the ugliness of art, and having long been confused, amused, and ever so slightly aroused by the insanity-inducing world of Hideo Kojima, there was no way I wasn't going to at least try and revisit this one. Not that Kentai should ever be writing video game reviews, we all know that, but hey - there's a lot of controversy to talk about that I usually stress over in regards to film, so why the hell not give it a go? Buckle up, kiddies. This'll take a while and involve a lot of SPOILERS, and discussion of some pretty grim stuff - for an M-rated video game, anyway. Compared to Cruising, Mysterious Skin or Salo, trust me, it's a walk in the fuckin' park.

Video games, the narrative therein, contain a wide variety of storytelling options that only interactive mediums possess when compared to traditional film and prose - is absolutely worth talking about, and giving at least an attempt at serious critical consideration. An example I recently completed that uses some of those very specific tools is Max Payne 3, a game that switches between leaving the player wounded and unable to fire, making them feel vulnerable and helpless one minute, but switching from stylish cinematics to morally ambiguous trigger-pulls the next; the game doesn't let us choose the outcome of Max's tale so much as it forces us to feel it, which is an admirable goal; it makes those ridiculous set-pieces at the end of the game feel so much more satisfying, having "survived" with Max through the whole ordeal, both the times that were exhilarating and the times in which you could feel your life literally slipping though your fingers, one push of a button at a time. Max Payne 3 may have merely used those commands to augment the immersion, but it's a curious, fun layer put on top of the average shoot-em-up popcorn flick, which it so clearly adores, but wants to prove can only be expanded upon by involving the viewer in the literal struggle of the protagonist.

Hey, remember that awesome game from last year for $60?
Here it is in 1080p! For another $60! Isn't living in the future AMAZING...

A game can also use those tools to make its narrative connections with the characters that much stronger to the player. Without going into specifics - a friend of mine hasn't played it yet, and he'll punch me in the dick if I ruin it - the prologue chapter in The Last of Us once more forces the player to react to a heinous situation, making them feel like every decision is directly tied to the two characters it involves. That connection ends in a tragic, harrowing way that sets the tone for the rest of the game, and when a section of the game forces you to use those same controls... well, it makes all the difference in the world. You feel Joel's determination to change fate, to undo the shame and pain of his former failure, and when that sensation bleeds all the way back to the narrative taking a shocking, unexpected turn... well, the game has forced you to live through Joel's struggle, and with that sensation of being put in Joel's shoes fresh in your mind, you understand the hard choice he makes in that split second. Once more, a book or a TV series could use those same exact scenes and present them as compelling and satisfying storytelling, but letting a small part of the viewer interact with the actions that build towards those choices can make the experience more... personal, I suppose.

I think a lot of people may have had somewhat unrealistic expectations as to how dramatically their personal, in-game decisions would affect the, ultimately,  "A, B or C" nature of Mass Effect 3, I can at least understand why they were angry. The game was designed to convince the player that their decisions carried weight, and that their interaction with the character mattered. To strip that down to an ultimately simplistic choice - while the only realistic option a massive game who's finale is, basically, just an expensive CG short film - players felt betrayed because they felt like they were, quite literally, part of the experience. This is the power that video games, in their current iteration, have over a player - and it's something that's been evolving with the technology for about two decades now. While they may in some ways have aged poorly, the narrative and emotional connections formed in games ranging from Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time to Silent Hill 2 and, yes, even the original Metal Gear Solid still "work", because the games were designed to provide a fun play experience along with a story that's far more honest and timeless than the limited graphics processing that delivered them.

Games are serious business as a delivery medium, and have been for a lot longer than people are giving them due credit for... but that doesn't mean the games themselves have to be serious. Metal Gear as a franchise is, to be blunt, inherently silly. It's not something we can't take with a dash of self-awareness, and with creator Hideo Kojima having long had an almost bipolar mood that should shift gears between deadly serious espionage drama, followed by lengthy fart jokes and discussions about rubber monster movies. Metal Gear Solid is a goofy goddamn franchise - and I don't say that to disparage or discredit it, I'm just stating a fact, since it needs to be pointed out lest people defend the possibility and strengths of the narratives without understanding that not everything it does supports the argument they're having. Film is my favorite medium of expression, but that doesn't mean that Deuce Biggalow 2: European Gigolo is on the same pedestal as Midnight Cowboy, even though they're both films about men selling their bodies. Heck, Hokuto no Ken is pretty goddamn goofy too, when you boil it down to its core elements of "manly men punch each other 'till one of them explodes", but that doesn't mean I don't adore and respect a hundred different aspects that define and shape it. Sometimes a work's strengths are more than the sum of its parts, and I absolutely think that's the case with Metal Gear Solid... but that doesn't mean we can't at least try to take a step back from it and admit that any franchise that calls a man "Big Boss" without a trace of irony is at least a little bit silly at its core.

Pictured: Self Awareness.

Violence in particular has come under scrutiny as of late - not from the usual political pundits swatting at boogeymen that'll make their equally old and ignorant voters fearful for what the youth is doing on their computerboxes, but from the industry itself, with games including the 2013 reboot of the once oh-so cheeky Tomb Raider drenching the player in universes where blood, agony and terror become as much a fabric of the experience as the soundtrack, world design and actual "game play" - the one thing that's, oddly, become less and less worth talking about the further the medium marches forward... these days, a game can have simplistic, or even limited gameplay so long as the experience and narrative around it can carry it to something original (see in particular: Thomas Was Alone, Gone Home). Anyway, the fascinating part was that the controversy was coming not from outside the medium, but from the reviewers and analysts who's job was typically to shoo those people away as the McCarthy styled Witch Hunters they were... no, they came from a far more interesting, and perhaps worrying place: From the industry itself.

Discussions about "Ludonarrative Dissonance"* - which, for the record, isn't really a thing in criticism, it just could be - were dredged up for Bioshock Infinite in particular, a fascinating narrative about a violent man who finds redemption in saving a young woman from a beautiful prison in the clouds. The basic idea - without getting too deep into it - was that critics argued that the "violence" in the fanciful steampunk universe felt tacked-on and unnecessary, that the rampant gore only distracted from the pretty sights and the tragic themes. To these people, I say stick it up your arse; the whole arc of Booker DeWitt's character is him accepting that he's a violent, heartless man who's past can't be erased. Every drop of blood spilled in New Columbia is not only a small part of the gilded prison being chipped away to reveal the violent racism and xenophobia brimming under the idealized image of what a "Perfect" America might have been envisioned as a century ago, but it's the affirmation that Booker - even despite having, if only occasionally, noble intentions - can't erase his own past. Bioshock Infinite wasn't a matter of the gameplay not gelling with the themes that propelled it; it was a game about violence, but such a smart and pretty one that the critics who want to convince the world around them that there's more to the medium were embarrassed that they had to find a new way to spin why they loved this one. They didn't love Bioshock Infinite because it was violent - they loved it because it had something to say about violence. They just didn't know how to articulate it, and decided to feel ashamed of it when they realized they weren't smart enough to convince people who weren't as understanding of the difference between content and context.

* I'd talk about Spec Ops: The Line, too, but that'd be unfair as I haven't played it yet. All I can really say for sure it that the developers behind it wanted to create something akin to an interactive version of Full Metal Jacket. My god, that sounds incredible... actually, why the fuck haven't I installed that yet?

And man, have several of those same critics had plenty of unpleasant things to say about the latest entry into the Metal Gear Solid franchise. Here's one of the most notable write-ups on the subject complete with its own snark-riddled warning at the end, but rest assured, you'll find plenty of others mirroring its general sentiment.

Go ahead, hate on Kojima's baby all you like. Just ask yourself this:
What did you ever do to deserve your own OOAK Play-Arts Kai figure?

Having been appraised by the basic standards of interactive digital entertainment - ie: As "just a video game" - Ground Zeroes has reviewed fairly well, all things considered. Much as I tend to cringe at the thought that critical consensus can be boiled down to a numerical value, having a Metacritic rating of 75% isn't anything to be upset about, particularly when most of the negative comments lowering those ratings come down to critics saying "Great little game, but not long enough to justify the price." Very few of these middling or even low ratings have anything to do with the gameplay mechanics, the controls, the enemy AI, the graphics, or anything that would be the fault of the game's design or overall execution. Indeed, while tastes will certainly vary and some long-term fans of the franchise are in for a shock, the actual game part of Metal Gear Solid V's little prologue is the least of its problems. Ultimately, the big issue most of these critics (and, truth be told, the majority of the less-forgiving general public) comes down to the hefty price tag attached to what is, no matter how you choose to slice it, an extremely short game without nearly as much content as the sum expected of it would typically suggest.

I largely agree with that assessment myself, for what it's worth; Playing Ground Zeroes is an absolute joy while it lasts, and it did take me two and a half hours or so to finish it the first time... but, that was with be being utter garbage at the game, as I tend to be in this genre I so ironically can't get enough of. People who aren't inherently terrible at stealth games have already proven you can speed-run this little ditty in under 10 minutes, and that's without resorting to glitching or anything you could really call "cheating". Considering that Metal Gear Solid's unique focus on the cinematic absurd means there was already going to be plenty of critics turned off by the title before they saw it, so the fact that a miniature prologue has been met with hesitant-positive reactions is about the best case scenario Konami could have hoped for... because, let's face it. Polished and gorgeous or not, this is ultimately a $30 (average!) demo, and I honestly don't care how many side-missions and Easter Eggs are hiding in it to justify the price. Even Hideo Kojima himself has, effectively, admitted this was an unexpected cash-grab, so... yeah. If even Kojima is admitting this wasn't part of the master plan, I think it's more than justified calling it Shenanigans.

I was glad I played it, and even knowing it's quite literally a glorified demo, I'll pick up a copy myself once I've succumbed to the burning need to buy a PS4. Probably just in time for Black Friday,  just as last year I succumbed to my Wii U lust (and then literally never played with the damned thing, save to cross-play Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate with the wife on my 3DS). But in the meantime I think I've seen enough of the game to make any important judgments on it, even if I haven't had a chance to replay it a dozen times yet... which, frankly, the game's open-ended playground nature kinda' demands.  It's a fun little prologue, but ultimately that's all it is, and Konami should be slightly ashamed for pretending it's anything more.

Opening the box is basically half the runtime.

And therein lies the big problem of people trying to dissect it like it's anything but an isolated chapter of a larger whole. But we'll get to that... the question remains, what do we have in its isolated, incomplete state?

Context is everything, so let's get this point out of the way first: This is the direct follow-up to a trilogy of games starring Big Boss - Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, MGS: Portable Ops*, and MGS: Peace Walker - a cycle of games that started out as a stylized ode to the old-school cinematic adventures of James Bond, and slowly morphed into a tongue-in-cheek satire of its own excess involving cardboard tanks, tickle-rod torture, sexy beach-themed missions with both male and female companions, and Doritos and Mountain Dew branded power-ups. In Central America, circa 1974. Say what you will about the Halo and Doritos/Mountain Dew connection, at least the products never materialize in the game itself! Then again, Peace Walker also has missions involving talking cats and giant dragons pulled straight from the Monster Hunter franchise, so exactly how canonical any of that is "supposed" to be is pretty much anyone's guess...

Metal Gear Solid may have a dramatic core built around the angst that only comes from surviving your brothers in arms on the battlefield, but it's always been tempered with a thick scoop of absurdist comedy to make the otherwise serious political posturing as imagined by a madman who thinks of military conflicts solely as imagined by Hollywood, but with all the actual battle footage replaced by gloriously kinetic action anime. Hideo Kojima's stance against weapons of mass destruction, private military companies and the inevitable loss of humanity in the pursuit of conquest have always sounded fairly sincere, but when the franchise starts delivering these monologues by way of presenting an American triple agent who posed as a teenage girl and pilots a giant walking tank in a bikini... well, yeah. It grows increasingly harder to take whatever moralizing the creator weaves into the structure of the story completely seriously. But that's part of the charm, really; the same way South Park wraps whatever particular societal frustration Trey Parker and Matt Stone decide to cast some light on inside of a disgusting and clearly over-the-top parody, the moral feels sincere, even if the means to get there go out of their way to be absurd.

Pictured: Self Awareness.

Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes is fully aware of what's come before it. It just doesn't really care - not at first, anyway. Horrifically disfigured villains, politically charged ballads composed by Ennio Morricone as background music, savage off-screen torture, explicit impromptu surgery, and an overwhelming sense of loss and anger seep into every corner of the campaign for MGSV:GZ - henceforth just "Ground Zeroes", for simplicity's sake - and while the game features very little of the sly, seemingly self-aware humor in the main campaign of its direct predecessors, it doesn't do it entirely at the expense of the previous chapters. In fact, among the "hidden" tapes that make up the bulk of the unseen backstory of Ground Zeroes, several tapes from Peace Walker are left for the player to listen to from the start. Some critics have balked at including the pseudo-comedic tapes exploring comparatively innocent, at times even cheekily romantic interludes alongside the utterly filthy, vile content that's introduced in Ground Zeroes... but that's kind of the whole fucking point, isn't it?

* Whether or not Portable Ops is "officially" canon is up for debate, though the events therein factor heavily into later games.

As the Metal Gear franchise has been crystal clear about from the start, Big Boss... well, to paraphrase the shit out of a Batman film, he lives long enough to see himself become the villain. The "Naked Snake Trilogy" leading up to Ground Zeroes went a long way towards humanizing a character who, by all rights, was kind of a bastard; he was willing to potentially sacrifice his own son to distract a heavily armed paramilitary base long enough to capture a weapon capable of leveling an entire city, and when Solid Snake learned the truth, he tried to put him down personally. That's a bit of a stretch from the character we've seen in the Naked Snake Trilogy, where he feels he's so ill-suited to make those life and death decisions that he actually rejects his official code name of 'Big Boss', despite having earned it with blood on his hands. Something had to happen... some switch had to be flicked. Some light had to be snuffed. For Naked Snake to abandon being the hero and become the vengeful specter of Big Boss as we know him in Solid Snake's storyline, something dramatic must have happened. Something must have broken Snake.

Enter Ground Zeroes - a cold wasteland of violence, torture and betrayal. The vaguely-futuristic technology and over the top nature of the previous franchise is still here, but it's shifted gears from the utterly fantastic nature of vampire wrestlers, cyborg ninjas and ED-209 battle machines to apply its sensibilities to the grim realities of "Black Site" treatment of interned prisoners, the sexual violence perpetrated against women in times of war, and the explosive futility of standing against a better armed and better prepared enemy.

 Pictured: The man who will finally kill He-Man. 
He'll probably feed him Battle Cat's testicles, first.

Ground Zeroes isn't necessarily perfect in its execution toward these ends, I admit. As I've already said, subtlety and tact aren't exactly Kojima's strong suits, and anyone who was expecting the game to suddenly jump into strictly semi-realistic Tom Clancy as directed by David Fincher are probably going to be somewhat letdown by the rather simple commentary it raises towards what's, effectively, an in-universe version of Guantanamo Bay without having much more to say that "This is clearly fucked up"... which, to be fair, it is. The use of torture as interrogation, and the rape and abuse of prisoners that comes with unchecked military power is cruel, unjustified and morally deplorable. These ideas should absolutely be explored... but Kojima's deep and brooding assessment of this boils down to "Torture, rape, and murder as a means to an end is bad because... what are you, an asshole?" Anyone expecting Kojima to dive much further below the surface that these things are the reality behind "enhanced interrogation" were probably expecting too much to begin with. Much as Kojima has never been secretive about how he approaches these subjects, he isn't necessarily complex with his assessments - just overly convoluted in their presentation. "Nukes are bad, so here's a bipedal anime mech that can launch them. FEAR THEM!" Okie doke. Fair enough.

That said, one of the most infuriating arguments against the content found in Ground Zeroes - for me, at the very least - is the argument that video games, as a medium, straight up "aren't ready" to tackle the content being explored here, particularly the acknowledgement of sexual assault and coercion towards prisoners that fall outside of the Geneva Convention. Hate to burst any bubbles about the medium being inherently unable to showcase lurid, disturbing of offensive presentations of controversial subject matter, but Phantasmagoria featured frontal nudity and [harilosuly bad] graphic rape... in 1995. Silent Hill 2 introduced the franchise's mascot, Pyramid Head, by showing him violently dry-humping some mannequins and then violently disposing of them, all set to imagery pulled directly from David Lynch, in 2001. Fahrenheit/Indigo Prophecy featured interactive intercourse (outside of North America, at any rate) in 2005, despite the game not being pornographic.

Recent, critically acclaimed blockbusters including the aforementioned Tomb Raider and The Last of Us both feature female protagonists put in close quarters with men who clearly intend to molest them when given the chance, but these are largely given a pass because the female character in question overpowers and dispatches with their would-be attackers. In other words, to suggest that the presence of either sexuality or sexual violence is new to the medium is incorrect: The problem is that because the implications of rape are so severe and uncomfortable, they tend to either be "not real" by way of horror-imagery symbolism, or they tend to end with the attacker having the tables turned, giving the player a sense of vindication for their near-abuse. Rape exists as a vague or a symbolic concept in the history video games... it just doesn't actually happen. And that feels a little insulting, to be perfectly honest.

There is, at least, one major exception in which unwanted sexual congress is at least acknowledged in video game history... care to guess which one that was?

I'm not even going to get into the line from the first MGS
in which it's suggested that Meryl was tortured "...and worse".

Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (and its various "enhanced" remakes)  introduces a character who's job is to stay close to a sadistic enemy operative, and - for those who pay attention to her medical charts - there's mention of "proctitis", or an inflammation of the rectum, which is quite often (though not quite exclusively) the result of sexually transmitted infections. This isn't directly an explicit example of a character stating that they've anally plugged another to the point where it's causing health problems, but that's certainly the obvious implication. Now, admittedly, Eva knowingly using her sexuality as part of her job as a spy isn't quite on par with the literal, brutal activities of Camp Omega, but being sexually tortured by Volgin was surely no walk in the park, and the game did show the various scars and burns that the less explicitly sexual nature of his sadism left behind, mentioning them as the end result of something the non-English native speaker called "hentai play".

To anyone who claims that games are a valid narrative medium but also thinks they aren't "ready" to handle subjects like pedophilia, rape, and torture, I have a simple question: When will it be "ready", and who gets to decide when it's ready? Who decided that film was ready for The Last House on the Left, or Thriller: A Cruel Picture? Should film have avoided the subject of sexual abuse until the introduction of The Accused or Irreversible - and just as importantly, would those films have even existed if earlier works hadn't pushed the boundaries to begin with? I'm a firm believer that art, regardless of its medium, is never "ready" for anything - it's merely a tool to express ideas and images, and once artists stop trying to find new things to say or new ways to say it, the medium is dead anyway. If video games are capable of being art and expressing concepts in a way that no other medium can - which I firmly believe - we can't question the mere presence of something upsetting.

Science Fiction wasn't ready for the thematically driven exploration of a higher power in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Horror wasn't ready for the racially charged imagery of Night of the Living Dead. Christians weren't ready for the historically accurate portrayal of Jesus of Nazareth in The Gospel According to Saint Matthew. That's why these films are importantIt's that rejection of the safety of convention that propels them to new, unexpected and morally, politically or artistically driven new places that concurrent film makers had before never feared to tread. Evolution only comes from experimentation, and while I'm certainly not trying to directly compare Hideo Kojima with the late Stanley Kubrick, I am willing to bet you that the people irate over the content in Ground Zeroes are probably the same sort of people who would have been no less upset about the controversial content presented in A Clockwork Orange: People who had no interest in the game themselves and who's children aren't in any danger of actually playing it to begin with, but are drawn to all the controversies like a moth to the flame regardless.

Pictured: Evolution at work.

It's clear that "Comic Books" were not ready for Alan Moore's Watchmen in 1986. The violent, sexually tinged and ultimately fatalistic portrayal of the notion that super heroes would be anything but sociopaths in a mask that shook the foundation of costumed do-gooders so hard they've never really been looked at the same way since within the popular culture. But the content was good enough that DC simply invented the word "Graphic Novel" to suggest it was something better, something new, and it worked; Time Magazine included it in their annual list of top 100 novels, and nobody demanded that it be changed. That's simple evolution for an artform: You do what can't be done, and then watch as the rest of the industry bends and breaks to support what's been lurking beneath the surface the whole time. Evolution isn't always a good thing, but it's absolutely necessary, and it's not something that can be predicted or entirely prepared for. More importantly, without evolution you will only see stagnation, repetition and it'll crush the industry in the long term. Whether you like Watchmen or not, you can see a visible shift in the notion of artists at least trying to use sequential art to tell stories in ways they were never confident or allowed to do in years prior,

"Mature" use of potentially hazardous materials aside, everything in Ground Zeroes was at least done for a a clear reason, and the notion that the fifth entry in a single continuous saga can't take itself at least more seriously than its predecessors seems... short sighted, at best. A shift in tone, a change in demographics is often the result of a franchise having been modified-by-committee into a bland, tasteless mass of nothing that vaguely appeals to everyone but doesn't really stand out to anyone, but that's not what happened here in the slightest. If anything Kojima is cutting away the audience who loved the franchise in part because it was a glorious walking contradiction of tone and ethics... with a common criticism left behind that the resultant ugliness has either gone too far, or is taking narrative short-cuts, abusing and then throwing away its characters solely to build the narrative for the player, resulting in lazy storytelling and a misuse of Grimdark imagery just for the sake of itself. If anything, I tend to think he went this hard in that direction to un-do some of the weird, canoncally questionable nonsense that went down in Peace Walker, finding a way to both thematically and literally silence the intentionally wide-eyed and comedic aspects of the previous entry... but, again, that's just a guess.

I'm a firm believer that if these two very different interpretations of the same character can exist side by side in the popular culture with fans of equal sincerity:

Admit it: All you really want to see is Adam West and Christian Bale fight crime together.

Then there's no reason why Metal Gear can't re-invent itself as a "serious" franchise, at least as far as this latest chapter is concerned. Players who refuse to take it seriously because prior entries had their tongue firmly in cheek aren't giving Ground Zeroes itself enough credit. There's nothing in Ground Zeroes that feels ridiculous or phoned-in, and if its connection to previous works kill your ability to judge it on its own terms... well, that's kind of your fault. To be fair to the tone of previous games, the various daylit Side Ops and the hidden console-exclusive Deja Vu/Jamias Vu missions bring the levity and tongue-in-cheek humor the rest of the franchise is known for to the forefront, giving the player some canonically 'iffy visits to Camp Omega that take place weeks before the campaign story, and give the player a more complete view of how the Black Site came to be whilst giving Hideo Kojima a chance to quite literally wink at the audience over how long they've waited for a new chapter in this endless franchise. The brief, VR Mission inspired challenges are amusing enough, but locking them away until after the player has already completed the dour, brutal campaign makes their comedic tone feel, perhaps, slightly inappropriate - like telling a dirty joke immediately after a funeral.

Humor works to lull the audience into a false sense of security before you start splitting people down the middle, not the other way around, which again leaves me to wonder how much of this was spit-balled into existence at the last minute, solely to justify Ground Zeroes as a "game" rather than a "demo". With all of that in mind, people being upset by the particularly weird shift in tone isn't an entirely unfair reaction, even if I think it's a little extreme - after all, previous Metal Gear Solid games were linear, so keeping the campaign straight-faced and making the side missions comedic is new to the franchise, but not an entirely unfair use of their new open world technology, allowing people who don't care about relieving tension to plow through the darker fall of Big Boss uninterrupted. Even placing it in the context of the rest of the Metal Gear Solid franchise, the new structure makes the extreme gap between the grueling campaign and the eye-rolling silliness of the Jamias Vu meta-gag of introducing Snatcher continuity, and Metal Gear Rising's interpretation of Raiden being dropped on the same map feel just a little tasteless. The Deja Vu missions might sound slightly less silly by their very nature, but as we're re-creating things that won't happen for another 30 years in the continuity (despite "Deja Vu" implying that things have happened, not will happen!), and even do it with 32-bit PSX character models, it may be the most blatant fourth-wall breaking thing to be found in Ground Zeroes.

Mind you, that's the joke itself: Works of parody only work if you can actively recognize it it the context of other media surrounding the work in question. So while I can understand why people are upset with the direction in general, to crap on the Metal Gear Solid V cycle just for being "different" in tone from the rest of the franchise just seems  lazy and short-sighted to me. While the Peace Walker tapes and, I suppose, the mere presence of both Chico and Paz remind players of the more goofy, fantastic previous entries, they've been stripped down to their barest elements here; they're hostages, they've been maimed, and their presence at Camp Omega are as victims of war crimes, not idealist militant wannabes or triple-agents wrapped in layers where secrecy and parody become nigh-indistinguishable. The argument that Metal Gear can't shift its focus or become something it previously wasn't is the close-minded retort of a fan who can't accept that the creators behind their supposed favorite things are capable of change and growth and exploring and expanding ideas that they weren't interested or ready to tackle in previous work.

Yes, there's always the danger that an artists new work sucks - and let's face it, sometimes it does. But to disregard what Ground Zeroes has actually done based on what Hideo Kojima has done leading up to it is lazy, at best, and is more telling of the critic who can't separate that a creator is capable of more than one kind of thing, even in the context of it being directly related to another.


Pictured: Controversy squared.

And before anyone else tries to use the word "Reward" about the hidden tapes issue, I'll defer to Ravi Singh's excellent write-up on The Snake Soup, posted between the time I started writing this and the time it goes live. The tapes are (arguably) "Collectibles", but calling the process being rewarded with rape is... just a gross misrepresentation, even at its best. You collect the tapes for playing the game thoroughly, and that fills in the narrative gaps left by the total lack of Codec conversations and cut scenes of previous Metal Gear Solid games. You aren't "Rewarded" for doing well with rape footage, you act like a fucking spy and put the pieces together on an atrocity you weren't good enough to prevent. If that's a reward, I'd hate to think what you consider a punishment.

If your argument is "That's gross and I don't want to hear it" - Hey, all the power to you! If you find content unpleasant or inappropriate and you want no part of it, that's cool, avoid it. There's plenty of other stuff to play. What bothers me is the back-bending people use to say "That's gross and so I'm going to argue about the artistic integrity of the work until you feel bad for liking it, too." Which is the most common argument for situations like these. 'I don't think using rape is inappropriate for games, I just think THIS game used it inappropriately.' Uh-huh. I've seen this argument at least a dozen times, That's a bit like those guys who start a sentence with "I don't want to sound like a racist, but..." and then say something hilariously offensive about the Polish*, assuming that pre-loaded defense means they aren't at least saying something they know is racist. I'd much rather deal with the guy who says "I don't like Polocks." or whatever. Granted he's probably a racist prick, but at least he's an honest racist prick, and there's more value in that than frothing hate and finding a sensible-sounding way to convince yourself you're actually doing the opposite. Anyone using phrases like "Going Too Far" is falling into that trap, trying to convince us that the problem isn't their reaction, but this whole crazy world we live in that has boundaries and checks and ballances to make sure games stay in their little sandbox to begin with.

* Actually, does anyone hate the Polish? Is that even a thing, or did Hollywood movies just decide we could make fun of them because they were just white and infrequent enough in the States that it wouldn't piss off enough people to worry about

An entirely different complaint leveled at the same basic content is that of Kojima using the graphic mistreatment of Paz - and to a lesser extent, Chico - as a lazy narrative shortcut: A shock-treatment tactic meant solely to further Big Boss' narrative with a gross-out gag, rather than looking at Paz' suffering as it relates to her character specifically. This actually sounds like a fair criticism in and of itself, particularly since the shocking finale of Ground Zeroes ends with Paz exploding into a fireball that leaves the player character in a coma, despite a gory impromptu surgery meant to prevent just that outcome. While I tend to think there's a meaningful discussion to be had with this one, I also think it's a bit of a stretch considering that the very nature of video games - particularly games in which you play as a single protagonist, as is the cast in pretty much all Metal Gear games (barring the infamous bait-and-switch of MGS2) - tend to use "shortcuts" by their very nature. Video Games in general - not all of them, mind you, but most of the big budgeted, story driven games we all love to wank on about - tend to have a serious issue with character agency for anyone who isn't the player's avatar. There's a simple reason for that, too; when characters besides the protagonist have a lot of agency, then the actions of the player kind of mean fuck-all in the long run.

To use a cheap, simplified example, Princess Peach is little more than a plot device in the vast majority of the Mario games... but that's because if Peach could just punch Bowser in the turtle-hole and rush off herself, Mario stompin' a mess of goombas wouldn't amount to much in the first place. He'd basically arrive at the castle only to find the hollow corpse of Bowser's minions, his surviving children weeping in his blood, and Peach sitting on Bowser's massive throne with a smirk, a new-found passion for  bloodlust wetting her--

Jay Phenrix, ladies and gentlemen. 
He gets where I'm going with this.

...I think I lost my train of thought. The point here is "Peach can't fight because Mario is the player avatar." Besides, with the rampant regularity the Princess is "kidnapped" I'm under the impression it's actually just some fairly dramatic roleplay and Mario's too naive to see that they have a schedule every time he's out of town... which would further explain why they all hang out to play tennis and ride go-karts and whatever. And before you give me any shit for getting into a Mario related addendum, let's not forget that Solid Snake was a playable character in Super Smash Brothers Brawl, which means that Vamp and Skull Face technically share a universe with Kirby and Sonic the Hedgehog. Which only further convinces me that anyone legitimately upset about Ground Zeroes' content really, really needs to chill out by at least 30%.

Unlike a novel, or a movie or a TV series or whatever, most narrative driven video games pick one main character and stick with them to the bitter end, or perhaps passes the torch back and fourth where it seems appropriate. Giving secondary characters - like Paz and Chico - more agency and control of the situation puts even less incentive for Big Boss [ie: The Player] to complete their mission. If we assume that Paz and Chico are fine, then Ground Zeroes has no reason to exist. With that in mind, while torturing and killing these characters is an extreme way to handle it, not "developing" secondary characters is really a problem that most games with a single protagonist end up facing by their basic design. This is one of the weaknesses that comes with that interactivity I spoke of earlier, and while it's never inherently a bad thing, it does always make me roll my eyes when certain people go on and on about how characters are second-stringers in games that are literally a collection of second-string characters orbiting around the player.

Yes, it's kind of shallow and prevents a lot of great games from having more meaningful relationships short of simply cramming all the character interactions into the cut scenes - like every other MGS game to date - but it's simply one that we're going to have to either live with, or come up with dramatically more complicated game designs to fix. I'm not personally a big fan of Bioware and their  "dialogue wheel" system, but it's a start to a more nuanced treatment of secondary characters, if nothing else. It's actually a function stolen from Japanese dating simulators called "flags" in which how many cool things you say to Girl X is weighed against how many things you said to Girl Y, and in the end you get to fuck whichever one you were generally less of a shit-head to. I'd say that BioWare's games are different, and they are, but only because which character you fuck is substantially less important in a BioWare game to its ultimate outcom, making it literally a dating-sim lite function jammed into a larger RPG system. But hey, at least they're trying.

Behold! The great self-eating philosophical serpent, ouroboros!


And, yes, there's a brilliant level of absurd irony in that South Park made fun of Jack Bauer by hiding a bomb in Hillary Clinton's vagina, and here Metal Gear Solid is turning this not only into a very real sequence of drama, but is doing it with Kiefer Sutherland himself as the surgeon... I don't know if this was some sort of divine coincidence, or of Kojima is really into Eric Cartman. Either way, the second I saw that, I was in love. Perhaps for all the wrong reasons, but what can I say? I'm a man who likes what he likes.

Y'know what? There is, potentially, merit in this argument that Paz' sexually-assault riddled murder being a cheap shot - a narrative shortcut specifically designed to make you hate Skull Face, sacrifing a character's life and dignity in one blow just to make Big Boss (ie: you, the player) despise him that much harder. This is an example of the character quite literally being used as a violent plot device... but that may or may not be true in the context of Metal Gear Solid V as a whole. Remember, what we have in our hands is a truncated prologue for MGSV: The Phantom Pain -  the choice to split it and sell it as a stand-alone prologue rather than part of the game proper having come from Konami as a savvy business move, not from the creator Hideo Kojima himself: This is a VERY important distinction, because it leaves us with a comparison to someone criticizing the narrative value of sexual violence based on a single episode of a TV series - or, perhaps more accurately, the first 10 minutes of a two hour film, since at least TV episodes tend to be written and cut to be stand-alone episodes of a larger whole. You can dissect, deconstruct and study the first episode of Breaking Bad, Twin Peaks, Game of Thrones or what have you, but whatever conclusion you come to are probably not going to hold up through the run of the entire series. That's the nature of serialized entertainment, and that's effectively what we've been handed.

Think about that for a moment: Imagine being shown the first 10 minutes of a film, and being expected to piece together how all of the thematic and narrative implications tie into the rest of the movie - without ever having seen it! Maybe you saw a trailer or two - you get the basic idea, blah blah blah - but the connective bits, the actual majority of the movie where narrative and character development happens, is nowhere to be found. Honestly, imagine trying to grasp the thematic weight of The Godfather in just the first reel of the film, before it's even clear if Al Pachino knows what his father does for a living. Maybe just fade Taxi Driver out 30 minutes in, long before DeNiro ever shoots anyone and it's all just a hazy, sympathetic snapshot of a lonely, socially broken man looking for love. That couldn't have a dramatic impact on the core themes of the movie or the realizations of the characters themselves, could it?

Those arguing that Paz, as a character, gets a rather shoddy treatment to another character's betterment in the long run are absolutely right in the context of Ground Zeroes. I'd argue the previously unknown content featured on the hidden tapes actually goes a long way in showing her being a strong, resiliant person, but if that's how you felt, fair enough. Even if that's true, though, we flat out don't KNOW what impact her suffering - her rape, her torture, and her being used as bait - will have on the overarching narrative of The Phantom Pain, which is the majority of the story being told, because we haven't even fucking seen it yet. Judging Ground Zeroes as a stand alone work - something Konami, at the very least, is desperately hoping you'll do - simply doesn't work because it was never consciously constructed as a stand-alone work in the first place. This is actually evident in the gameplay itself just as much as the story structure, where despite being sold as a stand-alone product, there isn't anything resembling a climactic boss battle, despite the boss battles being oft-considered the most memorable parts of any Metal Gear Solid game. No, what we have here is (to return to my low-handing Batman fruit) closer to the "Dark Knight Prologue" included with the latter-day DVD releases of Batman Begins: An exciting 10 minute slice of what's to come, utterly devoid of context, rather than a stand-alone short with any particularly compelling reason to exist but to leave customers hungry for more. The problem is that even in this comparison, you got the full length Batman Begins flick and the prologue was bonus material... but we'll get back to that.

The censored Japanese finale, missing all shots of actual intestines.
Despite the content being less graphic, the context is really no less grueling, is it?

If you want further proof that judging Ground Zeroes on its own merits is a waste of time, let's talk about The Medic. You remember him, don't you? The gruff-voiced surgeon who actually cuts Paz up like a thanksgiving turkey, and pulls the bomb out of her gut? Yeah, you... probably didn't think much of him. There's actually a reason for that. His face was subtly hidden using objects in the chopper the whole time, despite the partial-glimpses of a chin here and there we get of him having clearly been motion captured by the voice actor. Weird, right? Oh yeah, that voice actor is specifically not credited either: Popular opinion is that it was Kiefer "Big Boss" Sutherland with some pitch-correction thrown on top. Now, Hideo Kojima has already cracked jokes about having Snake say as little as possible to avoid needing to pay a Hollywood heavyweight like The Suth overtime, so why would they have him play this seemingly inconsequential character they could have had a fucking intern voice?

Because, presumably, "The Medic" is important. Not to Ground Zeroes, where he doesn't get so much as a name... but it's not unthinkable that this seemingly nothing character is a much more dramatic part of what's to come in Phantom Pain. The most interesting logical theory is that The Medic is actually the mysterious new character known as "Ishmael", who can be seen - as voiced, again, by Kiefer Sutherland - in the following gameplay demo from GDC 2013:

Pictured: Jacob's Ladder 2...?

In short, Ground Zeroes has laid the groundwork for some crazy, Tyler Durden-esque shit... and nobody even noticed it. Because they lack the context of the rest of the story this small fragment has been pulled from to make those connections in the first place. Context is everything in storytelling, and if you want to dissect it, argue what works and what doesn't - great! I'm all for it. But you need to see the entire story before you can say anything was relevant, or handled "properly", otherwise you're simply saying that whatever particular chapter you were on wasn't to your liking, regardless of what the rest of the story around it may contain, or do to re-contextualize those sequence. I call on Fight Club with a reason: The reveal in the third act of that film COMPLETELY contextualizes a lot of scenes that, up to that point, don't entirely make sense - nor were they supposed to up until the big reveal. The scene in which "Jack" learns the truth behind Tyler Durden completely changes every moment of the film before it - whether or not you, the audience, figured out the truth before him being irrelevant - and if you want to talk about Fight Club as a work of narrative fiction, you can't logically analyze any part of it without the big twist at the end. A lot of the imagery and pacing are inherently broken, and only become justified and contextually relevant once that big "blank" has been filled in by the narrative itself.

Keep in mind that even though this may be a nastier, more brutally realistic version of Hideo Kojima's world... well, it's still being written by Hideo Kojima. The guy who decided that "The Perfect Soldier" would have several clones made to try and emulate his badassery without the complications of Big Boss actually getting involved in the process. The guy who has totally irrelevant CODEC conversations about Godzilla. The guy who decided to turn Raiden into a break-dancing Robocop when a ninja sword when nobody liked him last time. The guy who decided that getting an arm transplant would infuse the body with the desires of the hand's owner because fucking nanomachines or whatever - it's so ridiculous I don't even remember at this point. It's safe to say that if Hideo Kojima is hiding this guy's face but also giving him the same voice as the hero, it's not without a concrete reason. Could Ishmael be a body-double crafted specifically to take Big Boss' place at a later date? Could he be an imperfect clone afflicted with the same bizarre Progeria-esque "Super Aging" virus that turned Solid Snake into Old Snake in the span of a few years? Is it just Decoy Octopus working for Cypher the whole time?!

Well, that's just the bitch of it: Nobody but Hideo Kojima and his team at Kojima Productions knows for sure. That's why discussing the narrative importance of "The Medic" in regards to Ground Zeroes doesn't matter, and is sorely lacking in every review and forum post that complains about how offensive, shallow and cheap the treatment of Paz was: We don't have the full story to draw the lines necessary to make the distinctions as to if seeing him blown away in a firey explosion and saving Big Boss' life means anything or not, because we as an audience don't know what happens next. Again I stress this, Ground Zeroes is not - nor was it ever meant to be - a stand alone story. It's an incomplete snapshot of what's to come, a $30 teaser, and while we can dissect the character motivations and the writing flaws in this single section of the narrative all we want, it doesn't mean anything... yet. It's not that the narrative choices are irrelevant or that they won't matter in the long term, it's that shitting all over Kojima for literally raping and killing a character who factors prominently into the last the game doesn't mean anything because we don't know what effect those actions will have in the rest of the game.

There's also an almost oddly... gynocentric slant to the anger. Don't get me wrong, people should be upset that the game features torture and implicit sexual abuse - that's the narrative goal here, is it not? - but it's a little weird that Paz - long the victim of the player's overtly male gaze, I know - is given substantially more focus than Chico. For those who didn't get to the end of Peace Walker (or don't know what Wikipedia is), Paz is actually 24... Chico is 13. If you're paying attention to Chico's Tapes - specifically the grotesque contents of Tape #4 - you'll see that Skull Face, a grown man, forced a 13 year old boy to molest an assumed-to-be 25 year old woman at the threat of being next in line for the abuse he'd been forced to watch her endure up to that point. Paz may be young, but she's also no stranger to being victimized, and even Peace Walker went to great lengths to show how much hardship and torment she's endured over the years; what she's subjected to by Skullface and his XOF operatives - the details of which are never directly clarified, by the fucking way - is clearly unforgivable in any moral sense, but it's also likely nothing new for her, and having tried to literally instigate World War 3 in the previous entry, the player is clearly supposed to be disgusted by this whole affair despite her having been, by any rational definition, a villain in the franchise. This is important, at least insofar as it being a piece of character study rather than a narrative dissection.


Sorry, kid. You're just a little too Latin American,
and not female enough to give a half-fuck about.

While Paz may well be dead, Chico is, presumably, alive and well - though so far we don't have any confirmation one way or another. If the whole point of focusing on the horrific physical and sexual abuse known to happen to prisoners of war was the goal, being able to explore this from the perspective of a male character is, if absolutely nothing else, a potential venue for male players who might have trouble empathizing with the threat of sexual assault on a different level than most media tries to portray it. If anything, the tape shows that Paz is a strong character; she doesn't crack under pressure, even after being abused, and the bit at the end where she tries to console Chico was clearly less about her actively wanting to have sex with him and more about trying to make him feel that what he did wasn't his fault. For all the talk of Paz being nothing more than a victim, she ultimately stands strong: it's the adolescent boy who breaks, after being forced to watch someone he only wanted to protect be hurt repeatedly, and then - based on the content of the tapes - be forced to hurt her himself. The fact that audio implying sexual assault* was hidden in Ground Zeroes is something we've known... the fact that it involved forcing a child to take part in it, or be cornholed himself, adds so many new dimensions to it that I can't believe that aspect of it all isn't being given more thought.

* Don't get me started that all you really hear is the clothes tearing and then the continued beatings, with the only "sexual assault" being implied through dialogue. From all the rage this thing has created, you'd think the tape was 10 solid minutes of Butt Fuck Sluts Gone Nuts 7 intercut with sobbing.

Even with that reading of the dynamic between them giving them, in my view at least, enough weight to justify "Fridging" Paz... I'm not convinced that we've seen the last of her, which would potentially make all the arguments that her character has been abused and then silenced for the narrative of the hero null and void. It also detracts from the indecipherable grim notion that "rape is worse than murder" - at least insofar as the argument goes that people who were abused or victimized can't heal and move on from the experience, something that's literally impossible to do when murdered.

The specter of sexual assault is also being used for a very specific purpose, one I'm not convinced a lot of people - fans of Metal Gear Solid or not - are consciously realizing. The idea that "rape is worse than murder" is, in part, the result of semantics; what is murder, and what is rape? The former is taking life by force, the latter is taking sex by force. The former is often both legally and morally justified by context: War, self defense, and the morally ambiguous concept of revenge "justified" reasons to take another human being's life. Nobody calls killing another person on the battlefield "murder", but the act itself - pulling a trigger, whatever the case may be - is effectively the same. While hardly universal, the concept of a death penalty for dangerous criminals is a common one that persists throughout history to this day, often reserved for convicted killers, and is seen as justified by society and the community at large due to the risk or re-introducing known dangerous sociopaths where they may cause harm to the society again. Killing killers to prevent more killings makes sense, broadly speaking - there are moral, ethical and even financial concerns to consider, of course, but it's embedded in many cultures by this point that it's accepted that "Death Penalty" isn't just some medieval throwback.

Violence isn't just common in video games: It's damn near the entire economy of the medium. Metal Gear Solid as a franchise encouraged stealth, but the top selling franchise. Perhaps the poster boy for the modern first person shooter, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 sold an estimated 6.5 million copies in 24 hours. Certainly there's a number of non-violent games available, and plenty of them are popular in their own right, but the console fueled "AAA" market literally exists due to violence simulators with little variety between pulling the trigger. That's not a complaint, or even a moral judgment; it's simply a fact that the most popular genre out there are military-style shooters that can release an updated version annually. Violence itself is not shocking in video games because it's literally the only thing that keeps the industry alive.

Torture gets a little murkier to blatantly ignore, but - ironically - was brought back into the mainstream by Kiefer Sutherland himself, by way of Jack Bauer in the popular espionage-fantasy 24. The thought experiment known as the "Ticking Time Bomb Scenario", the idea that torturing someone in an emergency situation would prevent a disaster that would destroy countless lives, has been used since the 1960s to show people that, sometimes, using "enhanced interrogation" - which sounds much less gauche than "torture", doesn't it? - is morally justified, if it'll prevent more harm than it creates. The trouble is it's almost never even remotely how torture works; it's usually administered to prisoners weeks, or even months after they were captured, and as people who have carried out interrogations themselves point out, torture actually encourages detainees to lie. Honestly, why wouldn't it? Start clamping my nipples with live piranhas and I can pretty much guarantee you I'll cop to being a communist witch alien sympathizer without a whole lot of resistance.

Grand Theft Auto 5: The Single Top Selling Game of 2013

Torture makes rare, but not unheard of, appearances in video games. Information is extracted via violence and intimidation in both Max Payne 3 and The Last of Us, though neither of these scenes are interactive. Grand Theft Auto V, however, does have an interactive torture sequence that plays like a deleted scene from a Lethal Weapon sequel... but it's used solely to establish that A) the torturer himself is a crazy and irredeemable bastard, and B)  that, ultimately, torture is a shitty way of extracting information, and that he knew the whole time he wasn't going to get anything out of it but the satisfaction of torturing the poor son of a bitch. In other words, GTAV encourages the player to torture someone for their own amusement... and complaints have been pretty few and far between, at least compared to the 19 million copies sold. More people were upset that none of the playable characters were female, in a game that's basically .

Now try to justify rape. I'm serious: Come up with a single instance where forcibly putting any object into another human being's orifice, or even molesting them without their consent, seems like something that'll prevent something bad from happening. And don't give me any bullshit about how a 19 year old fucked a 17 year old and now they're a sex offender - yes, that whole thing's stupid, but I'm talking about one person forcing themselves on another person who's either not willing, or capable, to give consent to that action. Did you come up with an answer? If so, great! Now you take that answer, shove it up your tailpipe, and kill yourself, immediately.

Even with the knowledge that Paz was ready to nuke the Eastern Seaboard and start WW3 doesn't leave a particularly positive impression of the character on me... but that doesn't mean she "deserved" to be raped. Nor did Chico "deserve" to be held at the threat of bodily harm and ordered to do the same to Paz as the rest of the group, lest them string him up next. There's simply no justifiable reason for it, and the XOF team abusing, beating, starving and maiming these two kids know it. They're doing it because they can. Because the very nature of man compels them to. That's all there is to it. The cruel, savage nature that lurks within us all is a very real and fascinating element worthy of study, exploration and at least consideration - particularly in works of art that are themselves fascinated by those darker aspects of humanity. This oh-so controversial sequence is there because it's an omnipresent and grotesque part of being human.

But what have we just established? Violence in video games has been normalized to the point of it no longer being offensive. Torture is admittedly less common, but as it's literally an optional mission in the best selling game of the prior year. If the point of Ground Zeroes is to show the gradual decay of Big Boss from an antihero to a villain, we need to relate to his state of mind. We need to be angry. We, the player, need to hate Skull Face* and XOF for everything they've done to Paz and Chico, to Mother Base, and every gross, mean spirited detail we uncover through the course of the game is meant to add to that sensation of overwhelming fury and darkness.

* Have I mentioned that they never actually say "Skull Face" in the entirety of Ground Zeroes? It's his official moniker, I get that, and odds are it'll come up in The Phantom Pain, but it's been used as a back-handed insult so many goddamn times that it's actually starting to piss me off. Much like "Two Face" in Nolan's The Dark Knight, the name is never said aloud, but fans should know exactly who it is by association.

But is this really the end of Paz Ortega Andrade? Yes, I know we saw her blown to smithereens in that cut scene above... but you know what else we saw in the 2013 GDC Trailer and Demo for Metal Gear Solid V, which features plenty of footage from The Phantom Pain?


As you can see, Asylum Films' Snakes on a Plane knock-off went in a very strange direction.

We saw a WHALE MADE OF FIRE doing a belly-flop on a chopper, a psychic child wearing what looks to be Psycho Mantis' gas mask, and a daring escape from Volgin-as-Satan on the back of a flaming Pegasus. Without any further context to guide us, we can only assume that this is all some sort of illusion - this can't be "real", not even in Kojima's world of hologram walkie talkies and talking robot dogs with chainsaw-tails. With that in mind, is it not possible that Paz' death itself was all an elaborate hoax? And if so, could that mean that the "New" sniper with a tragic past is actually just--

They're just like like Twins!
The movie with Arnold and DeVito!

...actually, no. Even I'm not convinced that 'Quiet' isn't an entirely new character,  even keeping in mind how similar the original Shinkawa designs were between Paz and Quiet were. The facial structure's just very... different, even with a 9 year gap. If she turned out to be Chico with a sex change I'd be almost more okay with that, appearance wise.

The more Kojima talks about how Paz' original death was going to play out - off camera, without anything resembling tension or closure, which really would have been a terrible bit of anti-climactic storytelling - the less convinced I am that we'll ever see Paz alive after Ground Zeroes, chronologically speaking at any rate. With that previous fate in mind, the current ending all feels like it's finally in perspective; we know Paz is in trouble, but she's saved, hooray! Back to Mother Base! Aw, psyche, that's in shambles and your entire empire is in ruins. Oh well, could be worse, I mean at least you saved-- oh. Oh, snap. Even having seen the bomb removal in the insanely long and spoiler-filled trailers we've seen for the last year, I wasn't expecting a Snuke in Paz' Sniz, and if you thought that the massive thing in her gut was just a decoy and that the "real" bomb was hidden where the sun don't shine, fuck you - you're either a liar or a witch. As overlong and gruesome as the finale might be, it's paced specifically to give the player a sensation of closure over the established world of Peace Walker and give them all a moment of hope that things will be alright, until reality comes crashing straight into the player's face. Honestly, the only thing that reeks of bullshit about the ending to Gorund Zeroes is the fact that Chico seems to be standing just fine with his Achilles Tendons bolted in place, and that Paz is able to stand up and move around despite her entire abdomen having just been split wider than a Thanksgiving turkey's cooch. THAT, my friends, is bad writing, and with the added curio of Chico mumbling that "I saw them kill her..." - which isn't true, according to the tapes - I wonder how dramatically this entire first chapter was re-written in a hurry once Konami made it clear that Ground Zeroes was being upgraded from a prologue mission to a full blown stand-alone paywall.

The most telling part of the thought process behind Metal Gear Solid V - which, again, at this point we've onl seen the proverbial tip of - comes from an English translated interview he gave to Gamespot. There's a lot of interesting stuff in there - comparisons between what Kojima wants to do with Big Boss and the arc of Breaking Bad's Walter White, in particular - but the big one that's been trotted out time and time again in the discussion was this gem:

"If we don't cross that line, if we don't make attempts to express what we really want to express, games will only be games... If we don't try to go beyond that, we won't be able to achieve what movies or novels have achieved. I didn't want to stay away from these things that could be considered sensitive. If we don't go that far, games will never be considered as culture."

While, again, subtlety and consistency in tone were never a part of Hideo Kojima's creative arsenal and its lack seems to have caused a lot of upset here... I find myself agreeing with the sentiment all the same. The miniscule slice of gameplay we get to explore is fantastic, and while the tone and focus of Ground Zeroes is more bleak than anything to come before it, it's still delivered in the hyperbolic, intense, and ultimately pulp-espionage meets science-fiction-extreme way that the franchise has always been; it's just shifting in a nastier direction than usual to set up the inevitable fall of Big Boss. Anyone who expected "more" or a dramatic departure were letting Kojima's hype get the better of them; what we get is still quite good, but it's also still a Hideo Kojima game, with all of the oddities, weaknesses, fetishes and stumbling points that being a Hideo Kojima game implies. If you liked previous MGS games, you'll probably love your time in Camp Omega... if you're not already in the fold enough to know what Metal Gear ZEKE is, or why Paz is a threat to the existance of Mother Base, you'll probably spend most of the time just scratching your head and wondering why Big Boss doesn't just call in a bunch of choppers to make the mission go faster. It's very much a project for fans only, but it's so well executed and dedicated to its own sense of self that it's hard not to be impressed by it all.

Someone played us like a damned fiddle alright, but contrary to the people who aren't willing to accept Ground Zeroes for what it is (or, perhaps, what it isn't), at least it wasn't Hideo Kojima, who seems as dedicated to his own unique brand of insanity as ever. Konami are the real villains here, slicing off their little finger in contrition, but telling us it's a whole limb and we should be grateful for it. While I'll always prefer a good, short game to a bloated long one... well, this is somehow slightly less than the sum of its fragile parts - a fantastic glimpse of a game, yes, but not enough of one for the price, even by my forgiving standards. The last time I bought a short, stand-alone game was Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon, which takes about 8 hours to beat (before trophies) and cost a mere $15. That was a bargain title for a short game. Ground Zeroes charged twice as much for a game one-third the length, even at best, and that's straight up bullshit, PS4 demo material or not. It's like being promised a great appetizer for half the price of the meal, and instead you get a single 1/2" cube on a toothpick; it doesn't matter how good that microscopic mouthful might be, there just isn't enough there, goddamn it! It's an encouraging experience for those looking forward to The Phantom Pain next year, and will unlock some bonus content for it to boot, but unless you're desperate to push your new console to its limits or can't live without experiencing every second of Big Boss' fall from grace as soon as possible, you're probably better off spending that $30 on a hundred other cheaper, longer things. They aren't necessarily better games... just a better bang for your buck.


DISCLAIMER: I'm sure there's a hundred things left unsaid, and another dozen explained very poorly. Sorry folks, this is something I've had to get off my chest for weeks now, and real life keeps getting in the way of that. Tune in next time, when I talk about something you might actually give a shit about!