There’s a decent argument that Hideo Kojima produces his best work when he’s working within tight constraints. Those can be technological ones, like Metal Gear Solid pushing the PlayStation to its limits or self-imposed design one, like P.T. iterating on a single looping corridor over and over. Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes goes a long way towards proving that argument to be true.
Everything I’ve heard about Ground Zeroes‘ development indicates that it was borne of Konami getting antsy that Kojima Productions was taking too long with The Phantom Pain. To justify the ever-increasing budget, Kojima Productions needed to get something out the door in order to bolster numbers for Konami’s financial year 2014-15.
From this unpromising soil was born Ground Zeroes. Unfairly maligned as merely an overly short paid demo for The Phantom Pain, it’s not-so-secretly one of the best games Kojima has ever released. So how can a game featuring one smallish location that can be beaten in ten minutes (the speedrun record is 3 mins 43 seconds) be so good?
Well, first up it plays like a dream. This is about as good as stealth gameplay has gotten to date, with the enemies smart enough to pose a threat, but dumb enough to satisfyingly goof on. The limited selection of tools and ammo means you’re forced to be creative and take risks.
The small environment means that every inch of it has been tuned to perfection. Ground Zeroes is a bespoke gaming experience where every tuft of grass and spotlight has been carefully placed. Plus nearly six years on from its release it still looks incredible.
But where it really stands out amongst Kojima’s work is its focused political message. Granted, this is as simple as “Guantanamo Bay is a fucking nightmare and should be destroyed”, but hey, at least that’s coherent.
Cards on the table time. Despite spending a lot of time playing and thinking about the Metal Gear series I’ve never quite understood what Kojima is trying to say with the whole Big Boss/Outer Heaven thing. It’s a weird and incomprehensible mix of anti-state anarchism, military fetishism and free market economics – all wrapped in a revolutionary Communist bow.
Ground Zeroes zips past all that with a straightforward condemnation of the US military’s black sites and the abuses that take place within them, zeroing in on Guantanamo Bay. It can’t be over-stated that the game’s Camp Omega literally is Guantanamo Bay’s ‘Camp Delta’ with the numbers filed off. Kojima Productions has clearly taken visual inspiration from photos of the facility, down to the style of the fencing and the look of the guard towers.
Within this, Kojima shows an uncharacteristic amount of restraint when delivering his message. For a man who has a reputation for lengthy cutscenes didactically spelling everything out in exhaustive detail, Ground Zeroes shows rather than tells the player things like the psychological trauma of the prisoners, the fact that they’re kept in cages exposed to the elements, or the bolts shoved through their Achilles tendons.
It’s notable that the prisoners you find are never treated as anything less than victims, and you’re rewarded for rescuing as many as you can. And the deeper you delve into the cassette tapes hidden around the base, the more you learn about the nightmare they’re living through.
These tapes contain graphic torture and sexual humiliation and are by far the most disturbing thing in the entire franchise. There’s a compelling case they go too far, but this shit and worse is actually happening, right now, fully condoned by the governments we elect. Sure, the Ground Zeroes tapes are a hard listen, but sanitising the horrors that go on in these black sites would be a far worse crime. Basically, don’t shoot the messenger.
This is all especially valuable in an industry where just making a straightforward political statement – especially in a major multi-million dollar franchise – is anathema to almost every major publisher. After all, Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney recently said: “we as companies need to divorce ourselves from politics and say that that is for individuals to engage in and we as platforms should be neutral”. What a load of cowardly shite.
Kojima himself described Ground Zeroes‘ development as being torn between wanting to make a political statement and knowing that this will likely alienate the large audience who just want play as the cool sneaky action hero. But, as he tells it, he decided that “prioritising creativity over sales” was the only way to proceed.
And he succeeded. Ground Zeroes makes it case against Guantanamo Bay in a way that an article or documentary never could – by making the player slowly infiltrate it and discover its horrors for themselves. That’s why it’s a great game. It’s focused, it’s succinct and it’s coherent. And maybe – just maybe – that’s why it might be better than it’s fully-formed big brother.
I’ll decide in March, when I replay Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain for the first time since its 2015 release.