Jake Muncy has basically grown up as a gamer. He’s of a generation where video games have always existed, and as he has matured, so have they. Which is why we’re giving him the space to do Save Points, a column where he revisits his gaming history and works through the significance of the video games that have had a meaningful impact on his life and on video games. Up first is Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes, the first part of a series of Metal Gear Solid V games which functions as the prologue to the upcoming The Phantom Pain and thus is uniquely situated to point out the complexity of the MGS mythos.
Growing up on the suburban edges of Fort Worth, Texas, the military was a constant presence in my life. I remember going to watch fighter jets do maneuvers on the Fourth of July. One of my best friends growing up, a boy who lived across the street, had a mother who worked at the joint Naval-Air Force base on the other side of town. His was a Navy family, and it wasn’t the only one I knew. Graduating from high school, many of my friends and acquaintances considered military service a viable and even desirable career option, and I still know many people who serve in the United States Armed Forces. The American military mindset has always had a place in the edges of my world.
And there’s something about it that fascinates me. The pageantry of it, the formality, the way it shapes people and bodies into forms more machinelike than they were before. I remember watching Zero Dark Thirty, following Kathryn Bigelow’s rendering of the mission to kill Osama bin Laden and being utterly captivated. The ballet of it, the choreography of each soldier’s movements, the efficiency with which they handled their equipment. All well-trained precision. It was riveting.
Despite that, if you asked me what I thought about the American military, I’d probably mutter something polite, but inside, I’d be scornful. My feelings about the military and its place in the world are decidedly negative, even bordering, occasionally, on malice. I don’t think wars ever did much good for anyone, and I can’t help but suspect that the American military, despite all the nobility and good intentions of many of the people serving in it, is largely a tool to secure and enforce martial power against arbitrary political enemies.
This contradiction of feeling makes me deeply uncomfortable. I’ve never shot a gun, and likely never will. But I’ll spend hours reading about them. And I’ll spend equivalent hours playing military-themed video games. I’ve shot and killed more imaginary people than I could count. Is this something I should feel guilty about?
It goes deeper than that, though. Video games have not functioned for me just as outlets for my ideological contradictions. They’ve also fostered them. Video games fuel, in turn, both my admiration and my distrust, my suspicion toward the military and the pleasure I take in its appearances. And in this venue, no other game series has shaped me more than the Metal Gear franchise.
Metal Gear embodies my own conflict: It’s a game about the glories of the military action hero with a politics that borders on pacifism. Everywhere in Metal Gear, you take up the role of tough, hard men in extreme situations, fighting to save the world from people who want to do untold harm to it. And yet everywhere in Metal Gear, power is interrogated and critiqued, even as it’s portrayed with a focus nearing the pornographic. The most recent Metal Gear game, Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes, is a perfect microcosm of this conflict and the thematic resonance these games wring out of it. Ground Zeroes is a short downloadable game (the main campaign can be beaten in an hour, two or three if you’re thorough or, uh, bad) that will serve as the prologue for the full installment, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, out… sometime. Ground Zeroes is a short story set in the middle of the Metal Gear series’s fictional timeline, a central inciting incident with echoes throughout the rest of the series. It’s about cruelty and the indifferent brutality of power, and it casts you as a legendary soldier on the brink of a fall.
I first played a Metal Gear in 2004, but the series began in 1987. At the time, a young game company called Konami was producing games for the MSX2, a brand of personal computers released by Microsoft in Japan. A young designer named Hideo Kojima was tasked with the completion of an action game with a modern military aesthetic. The game had a problem, though: It was boring. The MSX2 hardware limited the amount of objects that could be on screen at once, meaning that few enemies could appear and few bullets could fly.
Kojima’s response? Instead of a game where you fought enemy soldiers, he designed one where you were supposed to sneak past them. You were cast as Solid Snake, a young special operative deep in enemy territory. The game encourages you to avoid confrontation whenever possible, avoiding enemies instead of dealing with them directly.Whereas most military-themed games prized quick reflexes and pyrotechnics, Metal Gear prized patience, care, planning, and nonviolence. As a technical solution, it was a coup: it turned avoidance into a game mechanic. It was also thematically novel, allowing Metal Gear, as video games slowly became more of a storytelling medium, to tell stories with a more nuanced, distanced approach than other games about soldiers.
A sequel, Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake, was released in 1990. In 1999, the series received something of a reboot in the form of Metal Gear Solid, the first 3D entry for the franchise, on the Sony Playstation. Since then, Metal Gear has put out new entries regularly and has become one of the strangest and most contested tentpole franchises in gaming.
Along with its signature stealth gameplay, it has a few other salient elements that deserve mentioning: First, complex serialized storytelling of the Tom Clancy-esque military fiction variety. The series tells the story of tragic hero-turned-villain Big Boss, a legendary soldier, and his sons (well, clones, but whatever), particularly one son, the aforementioned Solid Snake (everyone has codenames, and they’re all this silly). Second is the titular Metal Gear, a powerful and dangerous military weapon capable of firing nuclear weapons from any terrain. It is, in many ways, the major antagonist of the series, present across nearly all installments.
It’s a tank with legs. Everyone in the Metal Gear universe thinks this is a revolutionary idea.
Which brings me to what I’ve been putting off: Metal Gear can get very silly. The Metal Gear franchise is known for operating under a sort of sci-fi magical realism, taking place in an alternate history version of the modern world that features walking death tanks, psychics, clones, and, at one point, a guy who can control bees with his mind. It can be a bit of a tonal mess, but it’s one that somehow has always worked for the series. The silliness often functions as a disarming element: if you can accept the goofy campiness of fighting bee guy (his name is The Pain for godsake), the Illuminati conspiracies and generational dramas fought with super weapons at the heart of the plot are easy to swallow. In a way similar to something like Twin Peaks, the weirdness functions as a way to simultaneously familiarize and defamiliarize: the comfy silliness of, say, David Duchovny in terrible drag serves to make the world of the fiction seem both manageable and entirely alien.
Now, let me try, very briefly, to catch you up on the plot up until Ground Zeroes, which takes place in 1974, more or less exactly the middle of the series chronology. Its protagonist is Big Boss, a legendary soldier trained by (who else?) The Boss. In this world, The Boss is known as the best soldier who ever lived, and she was instrumental in bringing about the end of World War II.
Ten years ago, Big Boss earned his title by killing her. Under orders from the United States government, she pretended to defect to the Soviet Union, and in order to make the ruse work and acquire its objectives, America ordered Big Boss—then under the codename “Naked Snake”—to kill his mentor. He followed his orders, but the experience left him a haunted man.
Now Big Boss is the leader of an organization called Militaires Sans Frontières (MSF), a private mercenary company that allows Big Boss to use his talents without submitting to any government. At this point, MSF has a huge arsenal, an army of elite soldiers working for various interests around the world, and their own nuclear-equipped Metal Gear. Ground Zeroes follows Big Boss as he goes on a rescue mission, attempting to prevent information about the Metal Gear, intended as a trump card to protect MSF from interference from the international community, from leaking to the US government.
It’s not exactly a hero’s quest.
Ground Zeroes opens with rain. The game starts you in a cutscene, the camera following a man in a rain-slick black coat. It hones in on his jackboots, one hard step after another. He is flanked by guards, uniformed and precise. He walks along a chain link fence, past a sign. It reads: CAMP OMEGA. Dogs bark and enter the frame, jumping on the fence, barely contained against their leashes. As the man—clearly the commander—continues walking, a row of prisoners comes into sight, on their knees, black bags over their heads. Other prisoners are in free-standing cells—animal cages. One of them is Chico, a boy taken in by our protagonist, Big Boss. The commander pauses briefly to taunt him, hands him his cassette player, and then continues on.
The camera continues to follow the commander—a cartoonishly deformed villain, dubbed “Skull Face,” in one of the only typically silly Metal Gear elements to appear here—as he gathers his soldiers, boards a helicopter, and leaves. Voiceovers appear overlaid with this sequence, a briefing between Big Boss and his second-in-command, Kaz. Big Boss, going by his classic codename, Snake, is to infiltrate Camp Omega, an American black site on the southern tip of Cuba, and rescue Chico and Paz. Paz is a teenage girl who betrayed Snake in the recent past, revealing herself to be a double agent, before getting picked up by Skull Face’s men. Both Chico and Paz know too much about MSF and their capabilities, and they can’t be allowed to remain in unfriendly hands.
The camera follows Skull Face’s choppers out before whipping back around to find Snake scaling the cliff side. He reaches the top, radios Kaz to let him know that he’s made it into the base (“Kept you waiting, huh?” he intones, a line that functions as an inside joke—Metal Gear Solid 2 opened with the same line), and does a bit of recon. Then the camera pulls in close and the game seamlessly gives you control to the player.
Now, let’s get the obvious out there: Welcome to Guantanamo Bay.
Camp Omega is a clear facsimile of Camp X-Ray, the prison camp that opened up in 2002 on a bit of American-owned Cuban land, which would then become the Guantanamo Bay detention camp that remains in use today. The prison camp is cast here as a black site, a dark Cold War secret for undesirables, explicitly mentioned as a place where rights are suspended, identities taken. “Nice,” mutters Big Boss in the opening, voiced by Kiefer Sutherland channeling his Jack Bauer, “a little slice of American pie on Communist soil.” His voice drips with cynicism, the sort of attitude cultivated by someone who’s seen horrible things his entire life.
For the players, though, Camp Omega is new and disturbing. Rarely do games approach settings this topical or politically charged. And Ground Zeroes gives you free run of the complex, letting you poke your head into every nook and cranny. As an environment, it’s dilapidated, haunted, and tense. On the east and west ends of the main complex, there are rain-soaked tents set up, housing for anonymous “refugees.” Tucked away, beyond the east refugee camp, is the free-standing cage area from the opening cutscene. This is your goal.
Stealth games are novel in their approach to the environments they take place in. Unlike, say, a shooter, where the surroundings often provide little but backdrops in which to shoot people, stealth games focus on their environments as starring elements. Since the enemy only becomes aware of your presence upon failure, a typical successful gameplay experience is one where the enemies are going about their business as usual. They patrol around the perimeter, have conversations, drive supplies around the complex, even sneak in naps. Stealth games, by their nature, demand a certain amount of realism in the way they portray enemies and the space in which they occupy.
By this metric, Camp Omega is practically unparalleled. It’s a network of overlayed systems for you to poke and prod: guard paths, searchlights, armories, supply vehicles, even a rudimentary sort of power grid. By learning these systems, you can master your environment in a way that’s incredibly satisfying. As Big Boss, you weave in and out of guard paths, sticking up and knocking out guards in your way, learning to move undetected through the base in silence. Camp Omega, like the environment of any stealth game, is one big puzzle for you to solve.
The satisfaction, however, is constantly at odds with the reality of Camp Omega. Your mastery is rewarded by the game with more clear doses of horror. Your exploration leads you to finding cassette tapes detailing torture (surreptitiously recorded by Chico, presumably, although this is something of a liberty the game takes to deliver you more narrative) . As you sneak up on guards, you might overhear them talking casually about checking the vitals of a barely-alive detainee. When you successfully reach the old prison area, the prisoners rattle their cages, agitating for release, black bags fixed over their head for no reason except to be cruel.
Ground Zeroes encourages you to be a trickster god cum legendary soldier, then designs its environmental storytelling to make you rethink that ambition, to remind you of the real human cost of secretive government operations and ongoing warfare. It teaches you to be Big Boss, the greatest soldier to ever live, while also reminding you that maybe that’s not someone you want to be. It’s revealed in the course of finding the hidden cassette tapes that Chico and Paz are being held, at least in part, due to their association with Big Boss. The game insists the gravity of this is not lost on you.
“Chico! It’s me! It’s me.” When you reach Chico, he immediately panics. He fights Big Boss, and in order to rescue him, Snake has to put him in a chokehold until he passes out. The young Latin boy shudders and cries as you carry him to the extraction point. He can’t be more than twelve. He’s clearly been through hell, and as I direct Big Boss to the waiting extraction chopper, I listen to Chico’s groans of pain. It’s revealed that Skull Face’s men put bolts through Chico’s Achilles’ heels, crippling him. He believes Paz is dead, and when he regains consciousness, he mutters her name, staring blankly at the ground.
Does he resist you because he’s traumatized by his experience, just blindly lashing out in fear? Or does he mistrust Big Boss, blaming him for what happened? He wouldn’t be wrong to. Paz and Chico were introduced in the previous entry in the series, a PSP game called Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker. It details the origins of MSF, and in it, Big Boss takes in Chico and Paz, essentially recruiting them into the care of his mercenary army. This is where Metal Gear’s trademark campiness, its tendency toward the absurd, becomes a problem: How are we to interpret Chico and Paz? Are we to read this as the horrifying thing it would be in real life, essentially recruiting child soldiers? Or is this like when Robin goes out with Batman to fight crime, an absurdity we’re supposed to overlook? In Peace Walker, the answer skews towards the latter: it’s a lighter, sillier outing in the series, the only one to not merit an M rating from the ESRB. It adds to series canon, but it doesn’t carry the same weight the main MGS installments seem to.
Ground Zeroes, on the other hand, does away with almost every vestige of campiness (silly naming conventions aside). Paz and Chico are children caught in the middle of a violent, paranoid world, and it tears them apart. Big Boss goes on to save them, acting out of a mixture of pragmatism and compassion, but he is at least partially responsible for their plight in the first place. Peace Walker’s storyline ends with Paz as a double agent, secretly working for the United States, and she tries to steal Big Boss’s Metal Gear before disappearing. When she reappears at Camp Omega, she’s distrusted, and Skull Face tortures her for information. But she’s just a child, a teenage girl trying to survive, manipulated by handlers and intelligence agents. And Chico is only there because he wanted to save Paz, who he fell in love with during the previous game. They’re children in a world that never should have admitted them.
When you find Paz, hidden deep in the administrative building of the complex, she’s barely alive. Your last goal is to sneak her catatonic body out of the complex and onto the evac chopper. Like Chico, she cries and mutters to herself about her suffering as you carry her. Some of the hidden casette tapes go into grim detail about Chico and Paz’s torture, and reveal the ultimate horror waiting at the end of Ground Zeroes: this entire mission was a trick. Paz, in addition to being tortured, has been made into a weapon. Remember when the Joker places a bomb inside that guy’s abdomen in The Dark Knight? Yeah. Skull Face has planted two bombs inside Paz’s body, and has taken Big Boss’s absence from his base as an opportunity to attack it, tricking MSF’s defenses by pretending to be UN inspectors.
Ground Zeroes ends in flames. MSF’s base is destroyed, Paz (and possibly Chico with her) is killed, and Big Boss is mortally ruined, knocked into a coma that will last nine years.
The closing sequence of Ground Zeroes is one of the more disturbing things I’ve ever witnessed in a video game. Chico notices the ugly suture marks on Paz’s body while flying back to the base, and Big Boss’s medic has to cut her open in the middle of the chopper and remove the bomb. The camera follows all of this unflinchingly. Metal Gear normally isn’t this gory—it’s dark, but the more horrendous elements are typically implied, discussed but not shown. They get the bomb out, though, and Paz is for the time being saved. Then they return to the base to find it under attack, and after Big Boss fails to defend his home, the helicopter again makes for an escape. This time Paz regains consciousness, and begins to look at the men in the vessel with her in horror. “A bomb… there’s a bomb…” she insists.
“It’s alright, we got it. We got it out,” Big Boss replies, his arms open to her, trying to soothe her. She presses the button to open the chopper door. “There’s another,” she says. “In my…” She throws herself out before anyone can stop her. There’s an explosion, the helicopter careens out of control. Roll credits.
A lot of people are highly critical of this scene, and for good reason. The violence here is gendered in an upsetting way (why is it the only female in the game is also the one who gets the most brutal treatment?), with subtext that invokes the most unnecessarily gruesome sexual violence imaginable. There were certainly ways to communicate the horror of what’s happening here without so blatantly calling attention to Paz’s femininity. Kojima is obviously trying to emphasize the brutality of this violent act, but he does so in a way that’s arguably in poor taste and brings in to bear connotations and a context that the game isn’t prepared to deal with.
With that said, this moment still works for me, if only because of its role as thematic centerpiece to Ground Zeroes. Ground Zeroes is the tragedy of Chico and Paz, a story of how these two young people got insinuated in a world of absolute brutality. This, the game says, is what the militant power portrayed by its characters—Big Boss and his mercenary army, Skull Face and his attack force from the opening—comes down to: the violation and destruction of bodies. Paz and the bombs, Chico and the bolts gruesomely shot through his ankles. Even Big Boss and Skull Face carry the damage; Big Boss lost one of his eyes in Metal Gear Solid 3, and Skull Face, as revealed in an optional audio tape, is deformed as a result of a bombing he was caught in in his youth. To touch the realm of military power is to come away with scars, if you come away at all.
The stark dehumanization encountered in Camp Omega, the prisoners tortured and treated like animals, the enemy soldiers you knock out and then drag into hiding places, all reinforces this: war reduces people to bodies.
This theme reverberates throughout the entire Metal Gear series. No one who has been drawn into the military world of these games has emerged without extensive damage, psychological or physical. It’s a space that warps and destroys, that funnels everything through the filter of dominance and cruelty. On the surface, these games are about taking on the identities of legendary soldiers and completing their greatest missions, saving the world time and time again. But these heroes are always just tools of those in power, means to ends. Bodies and pawns. The life of a soldier, Metal Gear argues, is a life of dehumanization, of pyrrhic victories and repeated traumas. To enter this world is to put yourself at the mercy of other people who will make you ground zero if that’s what’s necessary to accomplish their goals.
Multiple times during Ground Zeroes, a song plays. It first appears in the opening cutscene, coming from Chico’s cassette player. It’s later identified as his favorite song. The song is “Here’s to You” by Joan Baez and Ennico Morricone. The song is from the soundtrack of the Italian movie Sacco e Vanzetti, which tells the true story of two anarchists who were convicted of murder and executed in the United States in the 1920s. Most believe the men were innocent, due to significant witness accounts and circumstantial evidence that exonerated them. Despite this, likely due to their political beliefs, they were killed.
Metal Gear is operatic and overwrought, maybe not the best place to get one’s political opinions, but the clarity of its insight sticks with me. It nags at the back of my mind every time I see a story about military action on the news, or even when I see a friend post something about the armed services. I think of those warped spaces where the powerful can do harm to the weak. I think of Camp Omega and the real places like it, the ones we know about and the ones we don’t. I think of Chico and Paz.
In Metal Gear Solid 4, you play as Solid Snake, Big Boss’s son, who has been consigned to a lifetime of conflict due to the actions of his father. At this point, Snake is an old man, and he’s tasked with stopping one last catastrophe. Every once in a while, someone will call the old soldier a hero. He takes the chance to remind you just where Metal Gear stands.
“I’m no hero,” he replies. “Never was. Just an old killer, hired to do some wetwork.”
Jake Muncy is a freelance writer, editor, and poet living in Austin, TX. In addition to writing for Loser City, his writing appears on Ovrld and anywhere else he can convince people to post it. You can contact him by email or twitter, where he tweets regularly about video games, the Mountain Goats, and sandwiches. He has very strong feelings about Kanye West.