Ground Zeroes features lots of fun, fascinating gameplay embedded into a thoughtless structure. This article discusses these structural choices, why they matter, and how could they have been improved.
< This article contains no spoilers. >
Metagame: The non-thematic layer of design and interaction which frames core, thematic gameplay. Determines game structure, rule emphasis, and high-level strategy possibilities.
What I mean by “metagame”
Game design is something notoriously difficult to discuss. Not many useful terms exist, and those that do are often too vague, too specific, or too heavily associated with a particular phenomenon. We need more terms that apply to almost every game, and open the door to a whole discussion of aspects that fit together. That’s why I hate the term “metagame” as it’s currently used, and I’m fine with giving it a better meaning. It gets thrown around by gaming communities all the time with seriousness, as if the word “strategy” didn’t exist already, but I’d prefer if the term metagame included high-level strategy without being solely about it. The key is to distinguish between “thematic” core gameplay and “non-thematic” structural design.
Thematic gameplay is tied to the premise of the game, whether its a 2D puzzle game or a 3D shooter. The inputs and systems related to solving puzzles are thematic, while the ability to see your high score is not. You could replace the High Score screen with a big XP progress bar and the core gameplay would remain unchanged. You could replace the mission select screen with a linear sequence of levels divided by cutscenes and the core gameplay would be unchanged. These are things we rarely question. We don’t even think of the game really “beginning” until we get involved with thematic gameplay. In other words, we don’t question why a car has four wheels and two doors, we simply classify it according to these structural choices and then proceed to question how well it drives compared to other things in that classification.
I want to comment on stuff like how we load and save our progress, how we pick missions, and the boundaries of the “open world” itself, because I feel like Ground Zeroes makes several important metagame choices that deserve their own attention. These things are interconnected with regular gameplay, but not what we usually think of as the “game itself”. Metagame dovetails with core gameplay on a regular basis, and can be hard to separate, but using my definition I think we can talk about some of the important design choices that define the shape and rhythm of play, even if they’re not the supposed focus.
Scenes from a hat
Ground Zeroes is divided into missions that are selected from the main menu, similar to its predecessor, Peace Walker. Each mission is considered an “episode”, complete with its own objectives, time of day, and story. Aside from the main “Ground Zeroes” mission, which is officially a chapter in Big Boss’ history leading up to the events of The Phantom Pain, these are “what if” scenarios designed to add replay value and — perhaps more importantly — show off the range of gameplay possibilities you can get from just reusing the same map. This is an admirable, logical goal for Kojima Productions, but it could have been done better if they were willing to flesh out the bigger picture.
MGSV is going to be hundreds of times the size of Ground Zeroes, and Kojima seems determined to prove that his new method of adding content through “mission design” (as opposed to linear “level design”) is going to make the most out of every square mile. Peace Walker gave us reasons to revisit locations over and over for different reasons, and it struck a balance between freedom and focus that not many games can achieve. You are free to pick whatever mission you want, but each mission is focused on a specific thing. You don’t “live” in the “world” and find characters who provide you with missions, which means you feel like a soldier on a… well… mission. Get in, do the job, and get out.
Unlike Peace Walker, however, you don’t return to Mother Base anymore. In fact, there’s no strategic layer to the game whatsoever. You don’t research and develop tech, send units out on mercenary ops, or manage your army — which means each mission has to be worth playing for its own sake, without the promise of rewards that help elsewhere. From a metagame perspective, this changes everything. People don’t mind playing boring missions if it means they get a reward that helps them do something interesting, and they’ll play their favorite missions despite not having any unlocks or perks. It’s like how people grind for levels in Final Fantasy Tactics, or grind for better weapons and armor in Torchlight. Progress is motivation, and Ground Zeroes has none.
To drive the point of being isolated home, every mission has a (seemingly identical) credits sequence, which plays each and every time you beat one of them. This is instantly annoying, especially when you realize that it’s a lazy attempt to misdirect your attention from the lack of a rich metagame.
As for the missions themselves, they’re a decent sample of what you might expect. One is about contacting a double agent within Camp Omega, another is about shooting stuff from a helicopter (not flying it) while protecting a VIP target, while another is about destroying anti-air turrets with C4, along with an assassination gig with unremarkable, cosmetically unique targets. Each has a “Hard” difficulty that gets unlocked when you beat it the first time, along with various “Trials” that measure your skill at different ho-hum tasks, but that isn’t much variety. And unlike Peace Walker, there’s no customization to be had either, so you test out different loadouts and gear combinations. Do you see how big of an opportunity was missed here? Do you see how a strong metagame (as I’ve defined it) would tremendously enhance the experience? Do you see how this “episodic” design choice is a big lazy step down from Peace Walker’s cohesive Mother Base system, while also being an even bigger step down from what The Phantom Pain will supposedly offer (such as day/night cycles, weather patterns, and huge vistas that let you approach your destination from different angles)? This, despite being positioned as the crucial bridge that connects these two innovative giants, which are tragically separated by five years of silence, wildly different hardware, and nine years of canon chronology complete with Big Boss now sporting a robot arm and a horn in his head? It’s hard to conceive how much pressure weighs on each of these charming little “episodes” as a result. It’s a damn shame.