Shocking, underwhelming, and confusing at the same time, where does one begin to discuss Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes? I’m not sure, so I’ve decided to divide my commentary into a few different aspects.
< This article contains no spoilers >
Ground Zeroes introduces a new style of stealth-action and gritty storytelling from Hideo Kojima, and that means big changes all around, whether you like it or not. Some of these changes are great! Some of these changes are questionable. And some are for the worse. But at least we’ve got this demo to help us adjust before The Phantom Pain falls in our laps, right?
Whoops, did I call it a demo? It’s not a demo, it’s a prologue. But not the kind of prologue that you put at the start of something larger and more complex. More like the kind of prologue that costs $40 at retail, released months ahead of a product nobody understands.
Not even Kojima can easily explain what Ground Zeroes is supposed to be. Judging by the amount of trailer footage, developer walkthrough videos, and random piecemeal explanations we’ve gotten, it’s obvious that Ground Zeroes suffers from an identity crisis unlike anything we’ve seen in the series’ history, or at least a running paranoia that nobody will be able to handle the crazy things it has to offer. It sits in a territory of its own: a kind of glorified, premium tutorial/briefing experience, for something quite far removed.
Although it’s easy to wrap your head around once you’ve played it, Ground Zeroes is surrounded by confusion when it comes to the average gamer who hasn’t been paying attention. I haven’t talked to a single non-Metal Gear fan who knew what it’s about, much less where the value of the thing might come from. “Ahhh yeah I heard about that. There’s a new Metal Gear out?” replies a devout gamer when I mention it to him. But before I can reply, another butts in and answers, “Yeah, but I heard it’s only takes 7 minutes to beat!” And so it begins. A surreal debate between myself, a person who owns the game and has completed everything there is to see in it, versus a violently determined YouTube detective who has debunked the scam. Anyone who had been listening to my pitch drifts away in the meantime, embarrassed and staring at their phones. I can’t blame them. What am I defending, anyway?
Think about it from an outsider’s perspective. It’s called “Metal Gear Solid V”, but it seems to be nothing more than a demo; it costs at least $20, but they were going to charge up to $40 until first-hand reports of its short length caused a widespread backlash. (The backlash caused the price to drop, which is also suspicious.) People can easily beat it in under an hour, and some crazy people under 4 minutes. The story has nothing to do with MGS4 or MGS3, and despite spoiling everything in the numerous trailers online, none of it makes sense to fans who aren’t deeply familiar with Peace Walker, which was an unnumbered PSP game. For a series as long, complicated and imposing as Metal Gear Solid, this can only mean one thing: it’s “for fans of the series”. That’s a rotten shame.
Kojima has said that he wanted to release something around the launch of the new consoles because console launches just aren’t the same without a Metal Gear game. Pressure from KONAMI to make some cash off this massive controversial investment before the end of their fiscal year must have been a factor too; Kojima decided how to package something to serve everyone’s interests. The question is whether he made the right choices.
Slowly going round the bend
Round the bend: crazy; having lost sanity.
Let’s go back to the beginning, and look at the weird way we found out about Ground Zeroes in the first place.
Originally it was called “Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes” — with no “V” in the title. This was already odd, because it was a gorgeous looking game meant for consoles. It caused people to wonder what the term “ground zeroes” meant, too. Was the Metal Gear franchise done using numbers ever since Peace Walker, which was also a fully-fledged sequel without one? Kojima said something about how it was a reboot for the franchise, with a new engine, new gameplay direction, and that pretty much explained it.
But then, we found Ground Zeroes was related to The Phantom Pain, which Kojima had been lying about being involved with. Of course people knew he was lying, but that didn’t make it any easier to figure out what the connection was. Many assumed it was all the same game shown at different points, meant to add mystery and play mindgames, but when Kojima finally dropped the act and confirmed that they combined to become “Metal Gear Solid V”, we still didn’t know why these games had different names. Would they be released separately too? Slowly, Kojima filled in the details. It was no “Tanker Chapter” or “Virtuous Mission”, but a separately sold game with its own release date. It was a prologue.
If that made perfect sense to you, congratulations. Most gamers couldn’t be bothered.
So Ground Zeroes now gained a big red “V” in its title, showing that it was part of the full game, even though it was not nearly as big or fully-featured as the upcoming one. The subtitle’s meaning became more clear as well, since this prologue would become the traumatic focal point around which the aftermath in MGSV: The Phantom Pain would revolve. None of this made it less awkward to say “ground zeroes” in a sentence, however, and it still didn’t clear up why it was “zeroes” instead of just “zero”. Overly-insular thinking and complication for its own sake is a common thread that I’ll unpack later.
Whether you followed the marketing or not, you were confused. For example, the “V” in the title doesn’t necessarily even translate into the obvious Roman numeral for five, but could be interpreted as “V” for “Victory”. Victory against what? Why, none other than the “West”, believe it or not — in fact why not watch Kojima say it (at 11 min 20s). So is it supposed to be a five, or should we be calling it “Metal Gear Solid vee”? Maybe both are valid.
At the same time, when it came to the letter “V” fans were more intrigued by the cryptic hint at the end of the grand reveal trailer, which concludes with the mysterious words, “V has come to”. But Kojima didn’t explain what that refers to. Once again the plot thickened, but at this point the plot was about as thick as wet concrete.
Show and tell
From here Kojima released what is clearly too much footage of Ground Zeroes, in an attempt to build hype while clarifying what the game was at the same time. Detailed walkthroughs with running commentary exposed large sections of the map, along with Fox Engine demonstrations which showed them in different times of day, and broke any sense of immersion. Additional trailers showed extra side missions that would be included on the disc. Little was left to the imagination regarding the once-mysterious game.
This information overload was so clearly damaging to the game’s mystique that the marketing campaign itself added confusion. Did Kojima really not trust fans to be able to figure out the basics of how to play? Did he assume there’d be a huge backlash to a new style of gameplay, even though he promised to make MGS games more open and seamless since before MGS3? Or was he just churning out filler content to present at trade shows and events, knowing that fans and media would gobble it up? Why wasn’t the game’s mystique preserved? This is the series that made itself infamous by setting the media on fire with gorgeous teaser trailers, only to “submerge” for an extended period of time, only to hide a massive controversial twist. The mystique of the Metal Gear games is legendary, and to this day people wait with anticipation to see what massive twists and turns Kojima had up his sleeves. Ground Zeroes is a flop by that standard, as everything turns out exactly as we’d been shown.
The cost of caring
Pricing is another matter, and this time it lies at the heart of everybody’s complaints. Without delving into the arguments justifying higher prices for games, it’s fair to say that people expect more from a $30 game than what Ground Zeroes offers. I’ll look at the substance of the game in later sections, but there is some funny business around the “amount there is to do” in the game, and I can’t blame anyone for doubting its value.
I’m doubtful about the reasons to release Ground Zeroes separately to begin with. Kojima has claimed that fan excitement and anticipation pushed him to release the prologue separately; that it was originally intended to be part of the same game, but long development time and crazy hype made the waiting period seem unreasonable. I’m sure this was what Kojima expected and hoped to exploit, but the hype just wasn’t there. With so many strange marketing twists, so much gameplay/story spoilers, and so much confusion surrounding what exactly we were getting, there wasn’t much to get hyped about. Kojima and KONAMI’s plan to double-dip into fans wallets after blowing their minds with the Fox Engine seems to have backfired, and I’d hate to see the backlash have a negative impact on The Phantom Pain. If the game is considered a flop by KONAMI’s sky-high expectations, they might trim the fat, and that would be shooting itself in the foot even more.
A part of me feels like Ground Zeroes is a tax for loving the series. Part of me feels like The Phantom Pain is sort of being held hostage, and Ground Zeroes is the ransom. Part of me feels like KONAMI is a greedy, desperate, and yet arrogant company who thinks this is somehow a great deal. We all know Metal Gear is their biggest cash cow, and times have changed since the old 2000’s. Everything will be multi-platform, feature paid DLC, and be monetized as much as we can tolerate. They’ll chop $10 off the price tag if we complain loudly enough, because even they realize what assholes they’re being right now.
As for Kojima, this time it’s all about pushing the medium forward. He says he’s “prioritizing creativity over sales” with MGSV, and presumably that extends to Ground Zeroes as well. However, that was in the context of his new obsession with the “taboo”, not marketing mishaps and brand confusion.
Ultimately I think the marketing and concept of Ground Zeroes was a miscalculation. Kojima had a clever plan, but he outfoxed himself by assuming everybody would follow his arrogant lead. We’d rip our hair out trying to figure out The Phantom Pain, while salivating over Ground Zeroes separately, only to explode with delight when we found out they combined into a single epic sequel to Peace Walker — which presumably we all played and therefore loved. We would kill for the Fox Engine and the new possibilities it offered, and demand an early release date for Ground Zeroes once we found out they were conveniently divided into separate parts anyway. In the end, he’d throw down the $40 price tag, and watch the money and praise flood in as if it were all a natural chain reaction. That didn’t happen.
A better strategy (and perhaps one KONAMI would never have indulged) might have been to keep The Phantom Pain a complete surprise until after you beat Ground Zeroes, at which point it unlocks a trailer that you can watch. Forget the “Moby Dick Studios” bluff and the “Joakim Mogren” nonsense, and just let Metal Gear Solid V be an awesome surprise at the end of the seemingly straightforward extra epilogue mission to Peace Walker, designed for consoles and to show off the Fox Engine. Hell, sell the thing for $10 so people can be blown away by how generous and appreciative Kojima Productions is. Goodwill goes a long way. Make sure every gamer worth his salt feels obligated to check out this amazing little game, with its amazing surprise ending, and its amazing new gameplay direction. Get people on board, cast a wide net, and make your money with love from the community, not gouging those who try to support you most.
Expectations decide half of how much we enjoy anything. Ground Zeroes stumbled and fell over its attempts to manipulate and exploit our expectations, and now it’s the one paying the price.