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Thursday, Apr 24, 2014
Wander through the house of Metal Gear and marvel at the marvelous and the grotesque.

This post contains spoilers for Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes.

Playing Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes is like visiting an old friend’s new house. In this case, you’ve known the friend for 27 years (Megal Gear came out in 1987!). They’ve had plenty of time to accumulate the various pieces of furniture, wall art, and knick-knacks that define their various homes, and you’ve had plenty of time to form your expectations (there have been over a dozen Metal Gear games!). So here you are, standing in the foyer of Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes. What do you see?

Immaculate hardwood floors, enormous bay windows, and restaurant-grade stainless steel appliances—this place looks expensive. Ground Zeroes is one of the first games that I’ve played that has made a strong case for the move to current-gen hardware (I played it on a PS4). The entirety of the main mission takes place in a rain storm, which at a certain point begins to feel boastful. The frame rate remains smooth during intense action sequences and shows you individual rain droplets during interactive slow-motion sequences. Small details like a character’s skin texture or the way that the light glints off the hood of a truck come together to create a visually magnificent game. The sound design is equally impressive and is used to subtly convey information about dangers in the environment. From a purely aesthetic perspective, Ground Zeroes is stunning.

Those south-facing windows let in a lot of natural light, and while the recessed light fixtures aren’t really your thing, they do complement the long hallways. The people who built this were clearly focused on functionality. Ground Zeroes is an intricate game, but it is also elegant. Everything but an ammo count is removed from the screen, which means that you have to glean knowledge from your environment to understand everything from enemy positioning to the extent of your injuries. 

Clunky holdovers from previous games have been stripped away or enhanced. It used to take several button presses and some navigation to use the radio, but now it is a single button and is turned on without stopping the action.  You can bring up the map at any time, but the world will go on while you study topography. Either keep moving with one eye on the ground and the other on the map, or follow your instinct. The standout innovation is the brief slow down sequence that is triggered when an enemy spots you. Again, the game never pauses, but the effect gives you a crucial few seconds to try to recover from a mistake or unexpected encounter. It’s a graceful way of allowing for both careful planning and improvisation.  It achieves that elusive stealth game goal of allowing for failure without destroying a player’s flow.

It is by no means minimalistic game. Simply trying to grab and interrogate an enemy involves multiple distinct button presses, control stick movements, and trigger button mashing. The game is designed to force you into a tactical mindset. There are specific button sequences for aiming in first person vs. third, for sprinting vs. walking vs. crouching vs. crawling vs. rolling, and for carrying people and objects. Ground Zeroes‘s feel matches its baroque aesthetic style. Judging by how effectively Kojima Productions was able to pare down certain elements of the game, all these aspects feel like intentional choices meant to challenge those who make the choice to engage with them.  Not everyone will like them, but they have a certain philosophical merit.

It’s hard to say the same for this metaphorical house’s decor. Hanging on the walls of this sleek, modernist structure are the same framed velvet Elvis paintings and old Hustler centerfolds that adorned this friend’s freshman year dorm. Ground Zeroes’ narrative themes range from absurd to insulting. Aside from its fetishistic detail towards guns, the Metal Gear series has long since diverged from reality. By introducing “Skull Face,” as the main enemy, Ground Zeroes demonstrates that it is not about to abandon the flat out silliness of the previous games. That’s fine for people who enjoy a good story about an AI collective who secretly control the war economy, but it is definitely not a new or bold story telling decision.

More disturbing is the treatment of Paz, the game’s only female character. Other folks have written good pieces on this, but it bears repeating; the sexual violence against Paz is nothing more than a tool to advance the story.  It is masked in a faux-statement about the atrocities of war and the frailties of human relationships, but Paz is never developed as anything more than a quasi-human object to be saved or abused as a means to drive the stories of other (male) characters.

Paz’s treatment suggests that for as forward thinking Kojima Productions is from a gameplay perspective, they have failed to take a similar approach to storytelling. In a climate when more developers are at least attempting to create characters that are people rather than symbols, Ground Zeroes comes off as a mid-2000s torture porn throwback. It does nothing to inspire confidence in The Phantom Pain, a game that is already under criticism for over-sexualization and violence towards its female characters. Ground Zeroes is continuing to carry on the tradition of the inscrutable Metal Gear while also managing to conflate the idea of “adult themes” with making informed artistic statements about them.

Thus ends the metaphorical tour of Metal Gear’s current home, a game that feels made by people who have been paying attention to mechanical but not story-related trends since 2008. It’s a spectacular structure, one that is striking in its construction while simultaneously bogged down by its decor. For better and for worse, it is a statement about where the Metal Gear came from, what it has held on to, and what it may bring into the future.

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Thursday, Apr 17, 2014
The Stick of Truth represents the best of what South Park offers: satire with sincerity.

When I’m looking to encapsulate a game’s tone and its own treatment of its subject matter, I listen to its music. For example, Skyrim takes its high fantasy very seriously. Forged iron, arcane magic, and fearsome dragons rule the land and are treated with respect. It is an earnest world of sword and sorcery that treats all our D&D fantasies with the reverence that we secretly harbor. Just listen to its theme:

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Thursday, Apr 10, 2014
Experimenting with broken design lets you examine the ways small changes could have profound effects on play. We are all better for having played an unbalanced version of a well designed game.

Earlier this week right here on PopMatters, Erik Kersting gave his reasons for why the April Fools’ Day game mode for League of Legends needs to go. I agree with Erik, albeit for different reasons that I’ll get to shortly. But before URF takes a bow, we should spend a moment reflecting on what makes a game breaking event like this wonderful. When balance is thrown out the window, we can learn a whole bunch about good game design.

For those missing out on the manatee-inspired “prank,” Ultra Rapid Fire (URF) mode is the same basic Summoners Rift version of League of Legends with a massive twist. All players enter the arena with an endless supply of mana, 80% cooldown reduction on all of their spells, and a 100% faster attack speed bonus for ranged champions. The result is an absolutely chaotic exercise in keyboard mashing. It’s a treat.

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Thursday, Apr 3, 2014
Broken Age takes a chance by letting us feel the boredom and absurdity felt by the main characters.

The following post contains spoilers for the first part of Broken Age (part 1) and BioShock.

Broken Age is a placid experience compared to many other popular games.  As in most point-and-click adventures, action sequences and reflex challenges are minimized in favor of puzzles and conversations with other characters.  In many ways, most of what you do is mundane: collect items, combine them in goofy ways, bring them to other characters, and repeat.  However, these types of actions fit well with the game’s story of characters rebelling against the banal.  Broken Age is about quiet, yet determined struggle against an oppressive status quo.

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Thursday, Mar 27, 2014
An entire year has passed since I last played Journey, but the weathered ruins and scattered tombstones seem instantly familiar. I have come to this place as a pilgrim, transforming play into ritual.

I have made this crossing over glittering sand nearly a dozen times, but this time is different. Two years ago to the day, Thatgamecompany released Journey. Now on its anniversary, to relive my affection for the game and meditate on its excellent design, I glide over the dunes. An entire year has passed since I last played Journey, but the weathered ruins and scattered tombstones seem instantly familiar. I have come to this place as a pilgrim, transforming play into ritual.

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