Besides being spoiled before it was even released thanks to the many trailers and demonstrations, Ground Zeroes manages to make a sordid mess out of a very basic story. Or maybe that’s the point.
< This article contains spoilers. >
Are you watching closely?
Here’s how the story goes. Big Boss is tasked with rescuing two prisoners from a US military camp in Cuba, which is basically Guantanamo Bay. He accomplishes this, and then returns home. When he returns home, he finds out his home base was destroyed while he was away, and that the rescue was just a diversion. In the end, he’s nearly killed when one of the prisoners turns out to have a bomb planted inside her, causing everybody to become injured and the helicopter to crash. Considering that’s really all there is to the story, it’s amazing how poorly it’s told. Or maybe you think it’s cool. I don’t know, so I’ll just tell you what I found to be problematic, and you can decide. Just know that I’m looking at this game as a crucial “bridge” between Peace Walker and The Phantom Pain (we can agree on that, I hope) and therefore an opportunity for Kojima to bring players up to speed with the post-MGS3 Big Boss, replete with a private army and a new outlook on life. It’s also an opportunity to make us really care about what comes next.
The first thing you see when you start Ground Zeroes? A loading screen containing some handy exposition. At least it’s supposed to be handy. Ground Zeroes is sandwiched between two massive, extremely dense story arcs, so it’s nice of the game to try to get us up to speed. But there’s hardly any point: people will either know about The Boss, Zero, Dr. Strangelove, and the rest of the crazy events leading up to Ground Zeroes without needing to be reminded, or they’ll be pretty much clueless and need to start from scratch. Nevertheless, we have page after page of dry, hard-to-follow text, talking about characters and events that span decades and seem to have no discernible “core of interest” to revolve around. You’d think maybe the titular “Metal Gear” would play a big role in the whole thing, but nope; here, the only Metal Gear you hear about is the one you supposedly own (but never see) which is supposedly being hidden (which you don’t see) from some inspectors from the “IAEA” (who you also don’t see). Just the name “IAEA” is enough to make my brain want to stop keeping track of things, nevermind the amount of imagination necessary to use to picture all the off-screen activity taking place.
I know there’s been seen some praise about the opening cutscene of Ground Zeroes, and this is mostly due to the fact that it’s “filmed” in one continuous “shot”, strategically revealing bits of information along the way, following one thing after another and eventually landing behind the playable character, Big Boss. I’ll admit there is some charm to this idea, and it looks very pretty and immersive, but the coolness doesn’t make up for the confusion it brings. Confusion may have been the point, as Kojima’s own commentary on the trailer reveals that he intended for players to be guessing at what they were seeing and putting a puzzle together. And while this is fair enough (we know Kojima loves to tease players with hints in his cutscenes, as early as MGS2’s Tanker mission) it seems too high-concept for its own good. The face of the person we’re initially following is hidden, but as he moves around we more of the setting and characters, and one detail which, according to Kojima, he expected players to notice is a badge worn by this mystery character. We see it for a moment in the reflection of a soldier’s rain-spattered goggles, and if we look closely enough we might be able to make out “FOX”, which is the name of the old special forces unit that Big Boss belonged to. That hint is supposed to trigger memories of Big Boss’ history, and suggest that maybe the character we’re following is part of Big Boss’ old unit, if not Big Boss himself. The logo is seen in a reflection, however, which means it’s actually backwards! It actually spells “XOF” when read correctly! Doesn’t ring a bell, but hey, at least you’re paying attention.
When the mysterious character starts talking, we hear what is either very bad acting or a deliberately hammed-up performance. Unless the character enjoys sounding like a cartoon, this is not good. Additionally, the dialogue is written in a naturalistic way, which means the characters aren’t helping the audience to understand what’s going on in the scene. It’s “realistic”. References are made without context, like how “she” told them everything, and he kept his end of a “bargain” we don’t know about. The prisoner is told to give his regards to his “boss”, which could be anybody as far as most people would know, because it’s just some kid in a cage. Or how about when the kid plays a cassette tape on a Walkman while the mystery guy walks off, and we hear the song “Here’s To You” start playing It’s a political song, written for a soundtrack to a movie released in 1971. Why is this child prisoner in Cuba listening to an American soundtrack song about Italians who were wrongly executed in the USA? Well, granted there is some pretty heavy overlap if you know the whole backstory of both stories, and the meaning of the song, but less than 0.1% of the people playing would catch that. To the average player, it’s just random shit.
As the jeep carries our mystery man to a helipad, we hear new voices having a conversation. They launch straight into details about somebody named “Paz” being alive, who was found by a Belizean fisherman. She was found drifting in the Caribbean, according to a report they received 10 days ago. The bolded parts are utterly pointless details. You never have to travel to the Caribbean or talk to this Belizean fisherman, and the 10 days has no relevance to your strategic timetable. But the jeep drives on. We hear about the “plan”, and how it’s based on the knowledge that their “friends” at “Cipher” suspect she could be a double agent. Who is Cipher, what is their deal, and why are these guys “friends”? Does it have anything to do with the Belizean fisherman by any chance? Don’t know, just keep watching.
Then we hear about the camp, which is obscured by awkward language. The naturalistic tone is gone, and now we have stilted, forced comments. When Kaz mentions that she’s being held on the southern tip of Cuba for interrogation, Big Boss says, “Blacksite. Nice. A slice of American pie on Communist soil, and out of US legal jurisdiction.” Why talk like that? Everything he just said would be painfully obvious to both of these globetrotting, highly trained, ex-Special Forces warmongers. The only reason he says it is because Kojima wants to comment on Guantanamo Bay. Respectable as it may be, the dialogue is still forced. That might be part of the reason Kiefer Sutherland doesn’t know what the hell to do with the lines, and just mutters them.
Anyway, you won’t be thinking of forced dialogue or any of that, because the conversation moves quickly and doesn’t let you catch up. We hear about the “upcoming inspection of Mother Base”, and how “the timing is too perfect”, to which Big Boss simply offers, “The U.N.’s nuclear inspection…” Yes, that’s the inspection I just mentioned, Snake. Glad you’re following. Kaz talks about how they might be trying to corroborate a link between Paz and themselves: “We’re an army without a nation,” states Big Boss. What does that have to do with corroborating a link to Paz? Is this supposed to pass for banter? I don’t like it. When Kaz and Big Boss start talking about what happens if the world finds out they had nuclear weapons, Kaz says, “Having an American private intelligence agency involved is bad news.” Yikes. That might look fine in text, but it’s practically a tongue twister when you say it out loud, and there’s something laughable about Kaz putting it this way.
Just for fun, here’s how I might have re-written the dialogue:
KAZ: “Boss! Come here, we’ve got big news.”
BOSS: “What is it?”
KAZ: “You’re not going to believe this, but Paz is alive.”
BOSS: “Alive? That’s impossible. I watched her fly sixty feet into the ocean…”
KAZ: “It doesn’t matter. She’s in Cuba now, being held at a US blacksite for interrogation. If we don’t get her out of there, she’ll fall back into the hands of Cipher one way or another.”
BOSS: “A prisoner in Cuba…?”
KAZ: “Yeah, and now that we know who she’s really working for, we can use her to get closer to them. I have a feeling she’ll be willing to cooperate after what they must be putting her through there. When a Cipher agent fails their mission, I don’t imagine they just let it go”
BOSS: “They might not trust her loyalty anymore. But even if she’s there, we’ve still got the Mother Base inspection tomorrow.”
KAZ: “The intel is solid, Boss. Me and Huey can handle the circus with the UN while you’re away. I know you weren’t looking forward to dealing with all of that anyway, and this Paz situation can’t wait much longer. Our last radio contact was already 40 hours ago.”
BOSS: “Yeah, but the timing is too perfect.”
KAZ: “It might not be as simple as a standard rescue mission, but it also wouldn’t be the first time you walked into a trap and still came out on top. That’s why they call you Big Boss.”
BOSS: “Hmph. Bullshit answer…”
KAZ: “So you’ll do it. Good. We don’t want anyone slowing you down, so you’ll be going in solo this time. Do it your own way, but get it done. We’ll send a chopper when you give us the call.”
BOSS: “Fine. Send the intel to the iDroid. It’s about time I give the new toy a shot, and I have a feeling with a plan as half-assed as this, I’m gonna need it.”
KAZ: “Will do, Boss. You’ll be home before dinner, I know it.”
BOSS: “Try not to blow up Mother Base while I’m gone.”
Alright, that last line might be too much. But the point is, the story can be told coherently, without hokey-sounding “slices of American pie”, Belizean fishermen, and “involvement of American private intelligence agencies” being bad news.
Omissions and overload
If you could actually show Mother Base, that would be best, of course, since it feels like a glaring omission right now. I mean, you could easily have Kaz and Big Boss talking on one of the struts, and immediately you establish what the hell we’re supposed to be caring about, when it finally blows up. Instead we’re looking at some stranger’s back. The more I learned about the behind-the-scenes work involved with motion capturing all the Konami employees on a prop jeep, leaning to one side or another in sync while it “turns”, and trying to coordinate everybody in a green room, I can’t help thinking the elaborate opening shot was purely to justify the time and money to make it. Because right now, when Mother Base is destroyed, we don’t even have a fleeting attachment to it, since the game neglected to make it important or personal to us. The whole point of Ground Zeroes — besides the cynical money making aspect of course — was supposed to be to help players identify with the anguish and drive for revenge that Big Boss feels after Mother Base gets destroyed. The opening of Ground Zeroes is the correct place to teach us how cool it is. It fails to do so by a long shot.
Even if you enjoy the counterproductive cinematography and scattershot dialogue because it really forces you to ask questions and start thinking about what’s going on, this effect is totally ruined by the absurd level of spoilers we got in advance. We already knew about The Phantom Pain, Big Boss getting put in a coma, and that Skull Face is the guy who set him up, as well as the visual gimmick of XOF being FOX spelled backward. We even know (from Kojima Productions employees showing us where to go in gameplay demonstrations beforehand) roughly how to get around the camp! By the time you play the game, the big intriguing cutscene’s impact is lost. Kojima went as far as to say he wanted players to follow Skull Face from Chico’s prison cell to the helipad so that players could follow this same path to reach Chico when they started playing. I’m sorry, but how moronic is that? How many things are we supposed to be keeping track of at the same time, man? We’re listening to an obscure song about Nicola and Bart, while listening to Kaz and Big Boss talk politics, while watching a mystery man drive around an unfamiliar base, and on top of this we’re supposed to map out the route, in reverse? I admire the minute details and the level of effort put into motion capturing all this shit, but it’s just wasted in the worst way. The dialogue is above our heads due to bad writing and worse performances, but mostly due to the refusal to show anything relevant. A few decent establishing shots of Camp Omega would have given us the hints we needed as far as finding a route.
There are more problems to pick on, so I’ll just run through them quickly. Kaz and Big Boss sound vocally similar to the point where it can be hard to tell who’s talking. The dogs prominently shown off in the prison area of the camp don’t exist while you’re playing. Kaz tells Snake “Age hasn’t slowed you down one bit”, which is fine, but then Big Boss says, “Kept you waiting, huh?” which now sounds stupid. If age hasn’t slowed you down one bit, then no you didn’t keep us waiting. Does Kojima even think about the logic of these one-liners anymore? Also, even though Chico keeps telling Big Boss that Paz is dead, nobody acknowledges it. And let’s not forget the now-classic “Damn fiddle” line, which has all the impact of a whoopie-cushion. Finally, I can’t help criticizing how we get more screens of text after Big Boss’ chopper gets destroyed, including a timeline that has so many seemingly irrelevant pieces of information on it that it almost seems like a parody.
Forgive me for wanting a straightforward, helpful storytelling method. I’m not asking for my own sake. I could watch bizarre, overwrought, half-baked, high-concept, random rabbit-hole shit all day from Kojima, because I’m already “in”. I’m a certified member of the club, and I don’t mind spending a few months watching other people unfold the weird hints and sort out the mess. But it’s still a mess, and that might have been a mistake this time. People like me and you don’t represent most people, dear reader. Ground Zeroes should have been accessible to the general public, or at least the casual Metal Gear fan who tunes in and out and can’t be bothered with learning the new volume of Metal Gear Encyclopedia every time. Most people didn’t play Peace Walker, and if they did, they never saw the secret ending where Paz becomes a villain who works for Cipher and hijacks Zeke and then gets apparently killed.
Big secret reasons
I don’t know why Kojima felt the need to continue directly from Peace Walker, but I think it was a bad choice. There are dozens of ways Big Boss could get get put into a coma for years; there are plenty of ways to tie up the loose ends of characters like Chico without discarding their meaning to Big Boss later on, too. I believe Peace Walker is a fantastic game, but it was clear that the supporting cast of characters was disposable even when it first came out. Most Metal Gear games ask us to save the world from nuclear holocaust, but here our mission is to rescue two traitorous little shits from a two-bit prison camp. When I read the back of the box I actually laughed out loud: “LEGEND. HERO. MERCENARY. Play as the legendary hero Snake and infiltrate a Cuban military base to rescue the hostages. Can you make it out alive?” Can we make it out alive? Really? Not only is that literally all it says about the game, but think about it how underwhelming those stakes are for such a “legendary hero”.
Then again, there’s always more to a Metal Gear story than meets the eye, right? I mean, this is a website largely devoted to unmasking secret layers of meaning in Metal Gear games, so I should know! I’ve already written about the possible allegorical implications of Big Boss becoming consumed with a need for revenge, and I’ve become a big fan of theories from people like Threedogg who are speculating about Skull Face’s true identity, and the bizarre parallels between him and Big Boss. Maybe Kojima needed to continue directly from Peace Walker for reasons we don’t know yet. By the time The Phantom Pain is over, we might look back on Ground Zeroes as another work of genius, giving us all the pieces of the puzzle while also misdirecting us completely. We might find out that none of it really happened that way, or that Skull Face was a Tyler Durden-like character living within Big Boss’ subconscious. We might find out lots of things that would retroactively make it a lot more cleverly put together than it seems right now. But until then, it has a different mission to accomplish, and I can’t say it does a great job.
Throughout the various missions in the game there are cassette tapes Big Boss can collect in order to unlock more hints about the story. The tapes eventually form a whole, which can be played chronologically in order to understand what happened to Chico and Paz before you arrive at the camp, along with very important information about Skull Face and his intentions. This is the “real” story of Ground Zeroes, the one not spoiled by trailers or discovered simply by racing through the main mission. It’s a disturbing, thought-provoking, rather unblinking story of love, courage, fear, pain, and sacrifice.
I’d say the tragic little story of Paz and Chico is the first big “taboo” Kojima wanted to include in MGSV, which he thinks will help advance the maturity of the medium to the point of rivaling movies or TV. Paz is beaten, tortured, raped, and has an explosive shoved in her vagina for good measure. As many have pointed out, it’s the squishing sound that makes it particularly gross. If we knew or cared who Paz was, this would make her cruel fate feel that much more powerful. And, if the performance of Skull Face was even slightly believable, it would be downright chilling. Unfortunately, right now it’s just a bunch of really grim concepts to think about, not the gut-punch it was meant as.
Another question is the tape itself. We know how it fits into the narrative, and we know that despite collecting parts of it throughout different missions, it’s supposed to be a single tape that Big Boss collects off Chico when he rescues him. The tape even explains that Big Boss is supposed to listen to it, which is why it’s planted on Chico. So the weird thing is, why from a story perspective does Big Boss not hear the entire thing during the mission, before rescuing Paz or leaving the base? He has the tape, which logically would include discussions of Skull Face luring Big Boss to Cuba, the plan to kill Zero, and so on, and yet Big Boss and Kaz go on without acknowledging it.
This really bothers me. Was Kojima trying so hard to avoid dealing with the reactions of the characters in real cutscenes (which would involve halting the story, listening to 30 minutes of audio, animating characters, writing tons of dialogue, and multiplying production costs) that he went so far as to gloss over the role of the tape in the story altogether? The bombshell revelations contained in the tape have everything to do with the destruction of Mother Base, and yet Kaz sits in the helicopter and screams at Paz to “start talking” and exclaims that they were played like a damn fiddle as if it were all new to him. So, it’s impossible that they heard the tape. I mean at the very least, even if you can make up some explanation for how they could have heard the tape but still had those reactions in the helicopter before dying, the bottom line is that they would have checked her pussy for an explosive if they had listened to the damn thing! It makes NO – SENSE – WHATSOEVER.
Either Big Boss and Kaz selectively listened to only the portion of the tape that contained clues about how to reach Paz from the prison area, and they crash into the ocean without ever hearing the recordings that Skull Face purposely left for him, which would be idiotic to the point where they deserve to be nearly killed, or they heard it somewhere in between and still got tricked by the second bomb. I’m not satisfied either way.
Splitting up the story, the backstory, and the character side-stories into dozens of poorly labelled audio files is already a lazy way of avoiding real codec conversations, real cutscenes, and real consideration of the characters during the mission, but when this desperation to pad gameplay and minimize the workload creates a plot hole the size of Paz’s exploded nethers, I simply have to object. The cassette tapes are bad. They worked beautifully in Peace Walker for reasons we’ve all heard before, but the way they’re used here is just plain wrong and sloppy. The main game would have benefited wonderfully from characters acknowledging what was on the tapes, and the tapes would have benefited wonderfully from actually making sense in the game, and the fact that it would have prevented the story from developing the way it ultimately does, only proves how ignorant it all is. I’d say The Phantom Pain deserves better, but I can only hope that’s true.