(Editor’s Note: Patrick’s views are his own and do not reflect on Pixelitis as a whole, but we expect everyone to be kind and remember Wheaton’s Law. Also, this article contains heavy spoilers for Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes and mentions of disturbing sexual violence.)
Leading up to the last week’s release of Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes, both Konami and series creator Hideo Kojima stressed that it would ruffle a few feathers with its grittier style of storytelling.
After playing through Ground Zeroes, it dawned on me that he really wasn’t kidding.
During a preview event for MGSV in Tokyo, Kojima said he was “already thinking about sensitive things” during the writing process.
“If we don’t cross that line, if we don’t make attempts with what we want to express, if we don’t go beyond that, we won’t be able to achieve what movies or novels have achieved,” Kojima said. “It’s trying to go beyond what the original media was supposed to be. If we don’t go this far, games will never be considered as culture.”
And the nine-minute long E3 2013 trailer for The Phantom Pain gave us a glimpse into the controversial themes that we can expect: child soldiers, torture and ruthless executions.
While the release of MGSV’s prologue has given us an early glimpse into how dark the series can get, it was one moment of jaw-dropping, sexual violence that personally left me with chills as the credits rolled.
The sexual violence in Ground Zeroes starts off with an audio cassette that the player can find by rescuing a prisoner during the game’s brief main mission. The tape in question is a nine minute-long audio clip that heavily implies that Paz, one of the game’s targets that Big Boss has to rescue, is raped while in captivity.
Without going into too much detail, the player hears Paz being tortured and gang-raped by guards as a way to get the child soldier Chico to divulge the location of Big Boss’ and Miller’s Mother Base. Following this, the captured Chico is forced by the game’s villain, Skull Face, to rape Paz.
This revelation is also combined with the game’s conclusion in which players bear witness to a gruesomely disturbing scene that sees Paz’s guts opened up in order to extract a hidden bomb. And as if that wasn’t unsettling enough, it is heavily implied that the second bomb that ultimately kills Paz and takes down Big Boss’ chopper during the game’s ending was lodged into Paz’s womb by Skull Face.
All of this has caused a lot of consternation on social media. Some argue that Paz’s torture and rape are used as a plot device to make Skull Face look even more terrible and for fueling Big Boss’ and Miller’s revenge that will eventually come to a head in The Phantom Pain. There’s also the thought that Metal Gear Solid V will need a far more evil villain, given that it will be the entry to show Big Boss’ fall from grace.
While the latter argument could theoretically make sense, it fails to address the recurring misogyny that permeates the games we play.
Though Ground Zeroes certainly depicts rape as a terrible thing, it doesn’t do anything to raise the issue in a thought-provoking way. Gearbox Software writer Anthony Burch argued on Twitter that the game’s portrayal of rape only serves to further the development of the male villain, and not the female side character.
“It makes the victim not a person, but an object that furthers a story which is not their own. We think ‘Skullface is bad’ not ‘what will become of Paz, how will she overcome this, what is her experience like[?]'”
For the entirety of Peace Walker, Paz deceived Big Boss and Miller into thinking she was a sweet, youthful girl caught up in a conflict that was out of her control, when in fact she was a spy for an organization named Cipher that was hellbent on taking out Big Boss’ operation. Even then, it never felt like her or the child soldier Chico were as remotely fascinating as other supporting characters in other Metal Gear titles. We learn a little more about her and Chico through optional audio tapes in Ground Zeroes‘ main menu, but it never felt to me like they were well-developed characters.
By having Paz subjected to these atrocities and ultimately die before the player gets to know her really makes her seem like a throwaway character. Considering how she’s the only female in Ground Zeroes, it really flies in the face of what BioWare Montreal gameplay designer Manveer Heir said just over a week ago at GDC when he spoke about how games need to eliminate the sort of social injustices found within the medium. Heir specifically tailored his speech to address such issues as misogyny, sexism and racism, among others.
In his speech, Heir said game makers “should use the ability of our medium to show players the issues firsthand, or give them a unique understanding of the issues and complexities by crafting game mechanics along with narrative components that result in dynamics of play that create meaning for the player in ways that other media isn’t capable of.”
Ground Zeroes fails to give players any understanding in regard to Paz’s treatment other than “it’s bad” and “this is why Skull Face is a terrible person.” Worse yet, the sexual violence in the audio log is something that the player needs to go out of his or her way to actually get, which indicates a reluctance by Kojima Productions to tackle an issue like this appropriately. For many game critics like Ian Miles Cheong and Burch, it’s an example of lazy writing, of using a stereotypically helpless female to further develop a diabolical, Bond-like villain.
In essence, it does nothing to help eliminate the lack of well-developed female characters in games.
Good female characters are hard to come by in videogames, even in huge titles like Metal Gear Solid. For every strong female in the series (MGS3‘s The Boss and MGS4‘s Meryl come to mind) we still get ones like Eva and the B&B Corps that are overly sexualized in various ways, be it through the camera focusing on particular parts of their body during cutscenes or a mode in which players could engage in a “photoshoot” with said characters.
Given the series’ history, it’d be incredibly difficult to think that Kojima Productions could turn The Phantom Pain around in its depiction of females. Even before Ground Zeroes‘ release, there was controversy surrounding The Phantom Pain‘s Quiet character and her lack of an outfit. Kojima explained that he envisioned Quiet as a “sexy” character but that her outfit serves a deeper purpose, as an “antithesis” to the stereotypical female characters one would often find in the fighting genre. He ultimately believes that players will “be ashamed of [their] words and deeds” when they discover the secret reasoning behind her revealing look.
Kojima talks about pushing boundaries for the sake of the medium, but the sexual violence in Ground Zeroes comes off as being edgy for the sake of being edgy, without providing any meaningful impact. It’s a real shame too, given that Ground Zeroes proves that The Phantom Pain shows great promise both gameplay and plot-wise.
Paz’s traumatic suffering shouldn’t just be there for shock value. In line with what Heir was talking about, there needs to be depth to it, where the player can learn something more than simply “war is bad.” That latter idea has been fed to us since 1998.
As deplorable as this whole portion in Ground Zeroes is, it’s encouraged a lot of discussion in the community. It’s certainly made me contemplate how something as utterly atrocious as rape could be used in a way to, as Heir stated, to help players understand the issues and complexities of it and create meaning.
I think it’s entirely possible for games like Ground Zeroes to discuss rape in a meaningful way that does not seek to employ it for narrative’s sake. I only wish we could have seen that with Paz.
The Phantom Pain is far from finished, but judging by the game’s E3 2013 trailer, we’ve barely scratched the surface of controversies that Kojima Productions is brewing. I can only hope that the game’s impending controversial topics will be better handled than what we’ve witnessed in Ground Zeroes.