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 part discusses the game’s iconic main menu screen.
< This article contains no spoilers >
Game Design: The Main Menu
Ground Zeroes is doomed to be uncool thanks to terrible marketing schemes and a gouging price tag, but that doesn’t mean the game itself is bad. Kojima has been working for years in secret on this game (or rather, this and The Phantom Pain combined) and has said he’s willing to sacrifice his sales numbers and his entire career to fulfil his vision this time. Powerful messages, a dazzling open-world game engine, and grand scale unlike anything we’ve seen before in the series had been promised, and Ground Zeroes is the appetizer. Does the game design shine through all the confusion and redeem Kojima’s promises?
This part analyzes the main menu screen.
In Part One I said overly-insular thinking and complication for its own sake were a common thread in Ground Zeroes, and here we see it again. Normally I wouldn’t pay much attention to a menu screen, but you’ll be looking at it this one a lot, and I believe a quick study will expose the cynical heart of Ground Zeroes.
First of all, common sense says that when you’re making a menu, you put most important things at the top of a menu for emphasis, right? You want to reduce the number of options as much as possible to make it less of a chore to navigate over the course of a hundred hours, and make everything as compact and functional as possible. So the fact that there are seven options on the main menu for Ground Zeroes, when only three are necessary, raises my suspicion:
- Mission Select
- Play Records
- Trial Records
- Cassette Tapes
Play Records / Trial Records
I’ll admit, the Metal Gear games have never had very well-designed menus (except Peace Walker, arguably) but I think this list is bloated in order to contrive social media (screenshots posted by Kojima and players) that the game is bigger and more fully-featured than it actually is. For example, why have separate “Play Records” and “Trial Records” options here? Why can’t they have their own section called “Statistics and Rankings”, or better yet be grafted into the “Mission Select” screen, since that’s where you’d naturally look at missions and their related information anyway? Even if I cared about seeing my stats for a mission, I would expect to see it in the mission screen, not off on its own.
I hate scrolling past these options every time I want to pick Cassette Tapes or change the options. I hate that the stat screens themselves are badly designed, unmemorable eyesores with poor layouts, not even doing a good job making clear that useless data about your Total Time Spent Crouched. I hate that we’re living in the age of the smartphone, where minimalist aesthetics and user-friendliness rule the lands, but Kojima would rather slap this junk on a Metal Gear game than show people how it’s done. I especially hate the irony of trying to “Forest Gump” the smartphone by giving the “iDroid” to Big Boss back in the 1970s – which Kojima has turned into a piece of promotional merchandise that you can buy – without streamlining something as obvious as the main menu to work well.
The words “Play Records” is just stupid, honestly. It could easily be misinterpreted by players, like I did when I first saw it. I assumed it would be an option to “Play” something that had been “Recorded”; perhaps it would be the new Briefing section, where you watch old VHS tapes like in MGS1. Or, perhaps it would have something to do with capturing and sharing gameplay footage, since Kojima was so keen to promote the “Share” button of the PS4 leading up to release. Nope, there’s already a “Backstory” and “Cassette Tapes” option for this stuff, and when I realized these were nothing more than statistics, I shook my head in shame. Not only because of the poor wording, but because of what their prominence on the main menu is communicating to the player.
“Is this what we’ve sunk to?” I wondered. Since when is measuring headshot distance at the heart of the Metal Gear series? Is this what Kojima thinks will keep me coming back for more? To me, it’s the game design equivalent of an admission of guilt: “There’s so little content that we’re going to shove statistics in your face and hope you don’t notice.” Statistic obsession can go to hell, along with achievement hunting, Gamer Scores, and grinding for experience points.
Maybe I’m being too harsh, though. Different strokes for different folks, etc. And if I’m being honest, there were two numbers I noticed that made a big difference to me personally. Unfortunately they’re not listed in the game:
- Fastest Time to Reach Main Menu: 115 seconds
- Fastest Time to Take First Action: 145 seconds
Pretty good scores, huh? Bet you can’t beat them.
Or maybe you can if you downloaded it digitally, but that’s basically cheating! Using an expensive retail disc, 115 seconds is how long it takes me to reach the main menu when I start the game from my PS3. To start moving Big Boss around the map is another 30 seconds. This feels absurdly long considering how small the game is.
How much can it be loading each time? The only thing I can think of is the pointless, fully-3D Big Boss sitting with dynamic lighting by the window. Thanks for that beautiful screen, Kojima! It only takes 270 seconds for some people to finish the entire main mission, but I’d gladly spend over half that time twiddling my thumbs! And let’s not forget how gorgeous that main screen looks for all those promotional screenshots — right next to a big list of options!
Getting to the “Title Screen” takes a long time, but getting to the “Main Menu” requires you to press the Start button, at which point the game will bother to actually check my save files. And only after checking my save files does it connect to Konami servers. After this, I am finally allowed to navigate the menu. This means I can’t even take a piss and come back to the main menu fully loaded, because I haven’t pressed the Start button to initiate the final fucking phase. Don’t say it’s a little thing, because we’re clearly supposed to play this thing to death by the time The Phantom Pain comes out, and every wasted minute adds up.
Backstory / Cassette Tapes
Moving on, I’d say that “Backstory” and “Cassette Tapes” are essentially the same idea too, and should be combined as well. There should just be a “Briefing” section for those who want to learn the history of Big Boss in the most lazily-designed, deliberately confusing way possible.
Why “deliberately confusing”? I’ll get to that later. But how should I describe a series of text-filled screens spouting extremely awkward exposition, the way “Backstory” does? How should I categorize a truckload of poorly-labelled, chopped up audio files that you’re invited to listen to while sitting on your sofa, holding your controller, and staring at a high definition TV for minutes each? This is truly a zero-effort solution, and I won’t give it any leeway just because it worked perfectly for the PSP. The audio tapes in Peace Walker were great, because the game already pushed the system to its limits, and they truly felt like bonus material in an already huge and rewarding experience. Better yet, they could be listened to while sitting in a movie theatre waiting for the show to start, because it’s a handheld system. I pity anybody unfamiliar with the series trying to follow along with the audio log mess. I can’t even be bothered to sort it out, and I own all the games, played them repeatedly, and have my own site dedicated to the series! I appreciate the story, but this method is wrong.
Think about it this way: in MGS1 we had the amazing, hand-drawn and animated Briefing section, with lovingly edited angles and even the ability to control the view at some points. We saw Snake without his uniform, we saw his expressions, his blonde hair, and felt like excited to watch this badass talk shit to the crazy military people who just barely kidnapped him and stripped him naked in a holding cell, in a submarine, in arctic waters. It’s a cool scene, and it makes all the exposition go down smoothly. I sometimes go back and watch them online just out of appreciation. I can’t imagine anybody new to the series going to be equally hooked by listening to Paz’s overwrought, implausible cassette diaries. You might care about her rambles about the futbol match being played by MSF soldiers, or the lesbian encounter with Dr. Strangelove, but that’s the kind of stuff you want to see, not listen to. It’s especially bad because it’s so hard to keep track of who’s who in this returning cast of nobodies.
Next on the list we have “Manual”, which you may not understand at first either. This is the actual game manual, scanned with a scanner and uploaded as JPEGs for you to browse. I’m talking limited warranty pages in this bitch. The miniscule text is almost impossible to read, even on a large HDTV, so they thoughtfully added controls to it! You can click the R3 to zoom in or something, and L1 hides the interface, I think. Forgive me if I’m wrong on that, but I couldn’t be bothered to memorize an extra set of controls for a fucking instruction manual. What kind of nerve is that? Seriously, if anybody is trying to glean information from that thing, I feel deeply sorry for them. You paid for the game, you bothered to read the manual, and this is the best you get? Ouch.
And lastly, “Options” are just options, so that’s fine.
If nothing else bothers you about the main menu, this should. The most ridiculous, insulting, contrived, and ham-fisted feature in Ground Zeroes is the “Completion Ratio” found in the bottom left corner of the main menu screen. I haven’t read reviews for the game yet, but I imagine that every reviewer with half a brain will spare some words for this abomination. It’s so transparently cynical, it hurts, and it single-handedly turned me against Ground Zeroes from a game design point of view.
Playing through the “Ground Zeroes” mission only bumps the number up to a measly 10% or something, which is meant to suggest that there is a huge amount of fresh content yet to be explored, right? Wrong. Beating all of the missions available will only take you to to around 25%, and doing everything interesting will get your score to around 35%. The other 65% is filler, and not even the kind you can get into. I would have to really force myself to get that number up to 50%, and I can’t imagine the willpower necessary to 100% all the dumb, repetitive crap in there.
I’ll talk about the proper gameplay next, but for now the best proof that the completion ratio is an insulting filler game design is that you don’t unlock a single thing by reaching 100%. Nothing. Not even a cassette tape of Kojima saying “Thanks for the money, asshole.”
Ground Zeroes constantly withholds things in the name of “unlocking”, forcing you to play the same mission over and over to achieve higher ranks on each mission, to unlock cooler starting weapons. It forces you to scour the map for hidden cassette tapes if you want the whole story. You’d think that jumping through every idiotic hoop in the game would give you something other than a smack in the face, but this is proof that Kojima didn’t even want to put players through the punishment. If there had been even a token reward at the end, players would be outraged, and Kojima knew it.
There’s something pathetic about seeing people post their 100% completion screens online. I know they’re doing it because they feel like they did everything they were asked to, but haven’t been validated. The game designer in me wants to give them unlimited ammo, like a puppy begging for a treat because he ran around the house 40 times on command. These people didn’t get a reward, so they’re going to reward themselves by going online and getting attention at least. “Please tell me I did good, Kojima.” If they’re lucky Konami or somebody will Retweet them. Congratulations, man.