MGSV: Ground Zeroes - Story (Xbox 360)
If Ground Zeroes’ gameplay is an incomplete metamorphosis with a few outstanding design issues, its storytelling is accomplished but acts service of a tale that’s a bit AWOL. It also has a howlingly misjudged sequence in the middle of some already-problematic subject matter, but I would like to tiptoe around the edge of that particular smouldering volcano for the moment.
Ground Zeroes modernises the series’ esoteric approach to storytelling. Long cut-scenes and CODECs overloaded with redundant information are out in favour of pacey, show-don’t-tell bookend sequences chronicling Snake’s arrival to his mission and his eventual exfiltration, with a couple of short, narratively-essential dialogue scenes in the middle of the mission. This lean new Metal Gear is more naturally written, if still somewhat cartoonish, and maintains pace and mood much more gracefully than earlier instalments.
This core narrative is the only mandatory storytelling in the game, but it’s built upon through optional storytelling techniques. There’s still a radio to call in background information, but this no longer interrupts the game; tapping the L button triggers a call from home base with information appropriate to the situation you’re in or whatever you’re looking at. Enemies can be eaves-dropped on to develop a sense of the situation around the enemy base, while cassette tapes hidden around the base contain chapters of a recording telling the tale of Paz and Chico’s interrogation. These techniques are not new in gaming at large, but it’s a pleasure to see them finally arrive in a series that already rewards exploration and was crying out for fewer interruptions.
As for the story itself, it’s enjoyable enough on a superficial level, and improved as so many open-world games are by the sense of participation, but suffers from being wilfully opaque. When Mother Base succumbs to its “trojan horse” attack in the finale, it’s dramatic, but it would be more meaningful if there was any sense as to why it was happening. Attempting to unpick this by reaping background information - tapes, enemy chatter, the daringly quasi-canonical side missions - just leads to a morass of contradictions and dead ends. There are so many cool-looking and bewildering questions thrown up that it’s rather like playing an extended interactive version of one of Kojima’s trailers, which is not meant as a complement. I rather hope this is an artefact of Ground Zeroes’ “missing link” status, because taken in isolation, it feels like the awful “lots of speculation from everyone” storytelling style of hacks like Roberto Orci.
Lying right slap bang in the middle of this is one of the most teeth-curlingly bad attempts to deal with a serious topic that I have yet seen in a videogame. I’m referring to Chico’s Tape 4, and the moment Hideo Kojima takes a narrative about torture and makes it one about sexual assault. Those particular themes with that director should be reason enough for alarm - I was troubled by Kojima’s insistence that MGSV would attempt to deal with taboo topics, given his shaky track record with basic storytelling. The actual result in Ground Zeroes is downright abominable and deeply misguided, from its basic narrative purpose to the detail of the dialogue.
It’s hard to tell what, exactly, Kojima was hoping to accomplish in this sequence beyond using a deeply problematic bit of subject matter as a crude way of emphasising that Skull Face - a man with a face that looks like a skull - is evil. If that is the objective, it’s a resounding failure, because it’s very hard to look past the content of that tape to the characters when you keep asking yourself how a large entertainment consortium could allow something like this to happen. It’s a child’s idea of how these sorts of themes should be approached, sophomoric in the extreme, and executed with all the subtlety of Kojima’s worst output.
This is a pity, because there’s something that almost works in the tapes overall, subtle reveals that force you to view the characters in the original narrative in a new light, as all good optional storytelling should/ Trying to get to those bits of writing is like trying to peek at a sungrazing comet; it’s obscured by the blazing sphere of awfulness that it finds itself orbiting. That the sequence hasn’t merited further comment in the press in general and reviews in particular is arguably because it’s so utterly divorced from the tone and content of the rest of the game that it’s hard to get any analytic grasp on it. It’s singular, mind-stopping in its crassness.
So I really don’t know where MGSV is going to go from here. The tools for telling the Metal Gear story have arguably never been better. However there are the strongest signs ever that Kojima is in need of an editor - a “no” man to force him to justify his decisions creatively. I’m a little worried, given the quietness of the reaction around Ground Zeroes, that the press is no longer providing that function.