Metal Gear Solid V's Trip Over the Line of Good Taste

By Zack Wheat on April 4th, 2014 (16 comments)

Last January, I wrote an article about Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes concerned that the “dark content” we had been promised wouldn’t be handled in a mature manner, or would be shock value for the sake of shock value.

Upon the game’s release, I reviewed it and responded quite positively! You can watch the review below.

However, I should note that – in my eyes, at least - there is a huge difference between giving the game itself a positive critique and being a-okay with how it handles its subject matter. What is presented in Ground Zeroes is deserving of a discussion beyond just a section of a review, and frankly, even a dedicated article really isn’t enough.

Spoilers below, and trigger warning for sexual assault, violence against children, and torture.

In Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes, Snake/Big Boss rescues child soldier Chico and former foe Paz from a “black site” military base, i.e. a base beyond the restrictions of silly things like “international laws” and “the Geneva Conventions.”

The dark subjects of Ground Zeroes come from two places: the ending cinematic, and cassette tape recordings of the torture Chico and Paz endured during their stay. Combined, I would argue, the content of the game forms up into an image of something that is instead of “mature” and “gritty,” just “cruel” and “excessive.”

The ending cinematic, featuring a sequence in which we watch every step as a doctor rips Paz open and sticks his fist inside of her intestines to pull out a bomb - yes, they modeled her intestines with some detail - while she, conscious, writhes in agony, is a horrifying, disgusting scene, as it is meant to be. I came away from it happy that it hadn’t gone on longer, or that the camera hadn’t gone in closer, but I still felt like something had rubbed me the wrong way.

The tapes are a nightmare. Chico and Paz were both subjected to some of the worst kinds of torture imaginable during their stay, starting at beatings and working their way up higher. Off the top of my head, there’s: jamming metal into Chico’s Achilles tendons so he’ll never be able to walk again, gang-raping Paz in front of Chico, making Chico rape Paz, slicing Paz open and placing a bomb inside of her chest, and then jamming a bomb inside of her womb. You hear all of this. It is unpleasant.

And here is the issue in both cases: We speak of the atrocities committed, about how horrifying they are and how awful it is and how disgusted we are, but we don’t speak of the characters and what this means to, or for, them. The characters become nothing more than sponges for abuse, to be beaten and brutalized in order to get a reaction out of the viewer.

When violence or cruelty is inflicted upon a character, ask who grows from it or is fleshed out by it. Do we understand or emphasize with the victim as a result of their suffering? Do we see them in a more meaningful light, or does it simply fuel the main character’s anger/motivation/sadness and/or show us that the bad guy is bad? If it’s the latter, as it is here with Ground Zeroes, it’s incredibly problematic. The victim has been tossed aside, jammed in a refrigerator for another character's benefit.

Consider the extent of it, too. If we derive the meaning of a torture scene after five minutes, why continue it for twenty? If we understand that Skull Face is a Really Really Bad Guy after hearing about how he beat up Chico and Paz, what more do we as viewers get out of hearing Paz gang-raped other than shock? If the plot was going to advance with Paz exploding at the end of the game from her womb-bomb anyway, why make us endure the sickening field surgery scene? Remove that scene, and the ending advances the exact same way with the exact same meaning.

I abhor the use of shock value to get a rise out of viewers when good storytelling should be able to do the job all on its own, and from where I stand, this isn’t a message that Hideo Kojima appears to have learned. It’s startling, really, as many of the directors he claims to admire are much better at this: In Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, early in the film is the depiction of a family being slaughtered. However, the impact comes not from spurts of blood and dismembered limbs, but suspenseful direction, an excellent soundtrack, and tense, firm close-ups. You’d think Kojima would have picked something up from the guy.

Understand that I took all of this into account when awarding the game the praise that I did. I don’t feel it my place to judge a user’s comfortability with any of this material, and wanted instead to take the time for a longer, more dedicated discussion of the subject.

For now, I can just hope The Phantom Pain doesn’t have any cassettes lying around.

PAX Contest Entry Question: Have you ever been offended by a video game?

*Please specify if your answer is meant to be a contest entry.

Tags: Metal Gear Solid, metal gear solid v, Kojima Productions, Ground Zeroes, the phantom pain, Konami, hideo kojima

Zack Wheat

Zack Wheat is the Lead Writer at 4Player and fights the urge every day to make sweeping statements about video games using as many words as possible. He has an unbridled love for anything Metal Gear or Ace Attorney, a fondness for JRPGs, and a bias towards Atlus games. Follow him on Twitter, because he loves you.

Comment!
  • daethwing188 3 months, 3 weeks ago

    Contest Entry. Nope. I don't offend easily.

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  • PenguinPJLara 3 months, 3 weeks ago

    While it's not your place to determine how comfortable viewers are, I feel as someone who reviewed the game, being uncomfortable is something you would put in a review. Maybe as warning for other players that might not alright with that kind of content, or in an instance like this,where you believe it takes away from the story, in which the game can be held accountable. While I haven't been offended by a game per say, I have been offended by what developers have intended to put in a game, such as Lightning suddenly being a fanservice character in Lightning Returns, or the random mini-game (?) where the players touches random parts on a woman to hear her moan in Dragon's Crown. Though now reading this... It colors my perspective of Ground Zeroes differently, and I can say that I am very unsettled by the content.

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    • PenguinPJLara 3 months, 3 weeks ago

      *Contest Entry*

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  • Incomingnumbers 3 months, 3 weeks ago

    *contest entry* I've gotten mad over things like that, but getting "offended" usually means you're giving too much credit to the game.

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  • Zyll666 3 months, 3 weeks ago

    *Non contest entry* No,I am fucked up bastard. I like "cheap and edgy" crap in my media.

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  • arteslife 3 months, 3 weeks ago

    Nope never, it's a video game for crying out loud no ones trying to offend someone they're just creative Contest entry*

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  • Mohamed Khsoafa 3 months, 3 weeks ago

    I have never really been offended by a game because its a game and it will never harm me. *CONTEST ENTRY*

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  • vodydrakonchik 3 months, 3 weeks ago

    *Contest Entry* I wouldn't say offended, really, but there have definitely been some disappointments.

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  • Tuffty 3 months, 3 weeks ago

    To me, listening to the tapes had the same effect on me as watching torture porn movies. It's not satisfying and it doesn't mean anything to me other than shock value. I've no problem with a game that handles dark themes (heck rape and torture isn't even new to Metal Gear), but I do have a problem if they're executed poorly and on reflection, I thought GZ didn't do a great job. Problem is, the game's over very quickly and the whole vagina bomb thing happens right at the end, which doesn't give the characters, especially Chico, time to react or reflect on what happened, so it does feel like cheap shock value. I'm interested in Phantom Pain (the most important thing I took away from GZ was that the game itself is really very good) and I expect it will be a crazy ride, but PP will be, by definition, a larger game than GZ. If it keeps up the same intensity as GZ did over the course of 10-20+ hrs or more, then I can see it being pretty divisive from a narrative aspect.

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  • Elizabeth 3 months, 3 weeks ago

    Zack you are a beautiful human creature and I want to hug you. First, I'm impressed with your formal review (the video format one) and largely agree with you. GZ has gameplay that is pushing the bar in all the right places. In that aspect, GZ is great. In nearly every other fathomable way I loathe GZ so much I'd love give Kojima a kick to the groin. All of the horrid shock value that Kojima Productions is hoping to bank in on to make their game "dark" and "edgy" is disgusting. It reminds me of a kid learning a swear word before all of his friends have, and starts dropping it here and there so everyone else on the playground thinks he's a badass. If there's no way to make a sensitive subject matter contextually, to use it to further a character or show something with meaning, you're doing it wrong. Not to mention one of the massively lazy plot fuck-ups I've ever seen. In the endgame, Paz's stomach contains a bomb which is disgustingly pulled out of her body. Okay. Whoa. That's intense, glad we were able to snip that in the bud. What happens a matter of MINUTES later? THERE IS ANOTHER BOMB IN HER. I can't think of a metaphor of how lazy this writing is. I seriously sat back and felt offended that this was "storytelling".

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  • Padraic 3 months, 3 weeks ago

    *Contest Entry* I have been offended by video games before. But not because of the subject matter, the subject can be as horrible as the creator wants it but only if it has a purpose. The idea of 'Shock' value or throwing in something truly horrible that serves no purpose to me is what is truly horrible. Book, films, and television shows all have some truly terrible scenes and yet we watch them and have almost gotten past the idea that a story is being told and because of that generally conflict has to happen in some form. That being said I don't necessarily agree to stereotype has to happen like the idea of the "girl in the refrigerator" there are better ways to handle story telling the just recycling old stereotypes.

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  • Jeffrey Demelo 3 months, 3 weeks ago

    Zack nails this. For the sole purpose of being "edgy" is never a great answer for why something is in your piece of art. In the case of GZ, I found - like Zack and others - that the payoff for his content to feel unexistant. I didn't gain anything - but the taste of disgust - from the subject matter Kojima decided to turn to in his latest. In 2003, Patty Jenkin's wrote/directed a movie called 'Monster'; a film in which Charlize Theron is brutally raped with a wooden baseball bat. It's depicted in the film, violently, but is done in the right place for the narrative. First Acts of stories are intended to build our relationship with characters. Make us feel their pain, hate their situation, relate to them and their motivations. As short as the mission is in Ground Zeroes, it can still be paced like a 3 Act arc. Had Kojima blatantly introduced the vagina bomb and rape tapes in the first act of GZ, I might have paced/effected its narrative differently. Instead, he tucks away the rape tapes and leaves the vagina bomb to be a surprise twist - in case you missed the context of the tapes - and that to me feels like a smirky decision. As if he wanted it to be the most important reveal of the experience. It feels like a tired decision. A poor choice. And I can only hope Kojima is a little more careful with his narrative choices and story arc in Phantom Pain.

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  • mroblivion 3 months, 2 weeks ago

    Having just played ground zeroes, I found myself saying "wow...that's pretty fucked up." more than once. I will be picking up phantom pain, but I feel like it might have some of the same kinds of stuff in it. *contest entry*

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  • Revrevs 3 months, 2 weeks ago

    Interesting how you bring up Sergio leone and his use of graphic subtlety in Once Upon a Time in the West when he would later depict more murdered children graphic body wounds, extensive rape, submission rape, and the use of racial slurs in A Fistful of Dynamite and Once Upon a Time in America. One could even note that as censors became lighter, Leone's films became more and more graphic. Undoubtedly Once Upon a Time in the West is very tasteful given its subject matter it is however a very controversial film of its time. It is Henry Fonda's darkest starring role, easily. I wonder what viewers of that film,during its time,would think of this game. I also wonder if MGS V's gratuitous subject matter will turn into your massacre scene on the McBain homestead, given the proper amount of time and understanding. In the end when you're trying to tell a story, or in this case a drama, you need to provide a certain kind of brutal reality that takes advantage of your creative options. Kojima knows his audience. He knows who plays his games today. It's no more "thanks for saving the world, kid!" in Snatcher or "this is just like one of my Japanese animes!" in MGS 1. This is supposed to be war, it's hell. And I think I'm also coming to understand these depictions in films and media more and more, as time marches on.

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    • Zack Wheat 3 months, 2 weeks ago

      Ah, finally someone else who knows the film/scene I'm speaking of! I think you touch upon a fascinating idea - that as the film industry's acceptance of more explicit content grew, the amount that directors pushed also grew. Video games seem to have undergone the same sort of flow, have they not? Chainsawing people in half is practically de rigueur, and lordy do we get the details spot-on. Still, it could be stated that video games have always been at this level but have simply never before been able to fully depict what was being displayed. Mortal Kombat now is more horrifying than the original Mortal Kombat, but in a number of cases what you're seeing fatality-wise is the same techniques just in current-gen detail; MGS1 had a dude with a sword ripping people to pieces and getting ripped up himself; Resident Evil never shied from gore. The video game industry's true escalation appears to instead have occurred in the *themes explored* and the nature of the explicit content being shown on-screen or being executed by the player. You make a great point. I'll have to think about this.

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  • Binary79 3 months, 2 weeks ago

    Torture is not a new thing in the Metal Gear series, Snake was electrocuted in MGS1, Big Boss had his eye shot off in MGS3. However these latest scenes are a step up to say the least. My understanding is that they are taking it in a bold new direction with Ground Zeroes and the upcoming Phantom Pain. Kojima and the people who worked on this were aware of the Dark and serious subject manner of this game and were brave enough to be pioneers of this type of story. This was always going to be a rough and in some cases unwanted transition for gamer's and fans of the series's more goofy aspects. That said the ESRB rating doesn't hide any of this so you had to have some idea going in what was to be expected. [ http://www.esrb.org/ratings/synopsis.jsp?Certificate=33278 ] Clearly they are making a statement that this isn't the Metal Gear players are used too, and that they're not going to hide the reality of war any longer. I'm confused as to what exactly people are upset about (apart form the obvious). For years people have been vying for more mature Video games, and when someone actually does it, its not there cup of tea. So where is the compromise. The fact is there isn't one.

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