My parents didn’t like video games; I was forbidden from playing them when I was growing up. So, most of the “games” I played as a kid were demos.
I learned to get a lot out of those abbreviated pieces of video games, developing a taste for playing the same content over and over again, finding new and interesting ways to handle things. This experience has shaped the way I value games: if a game can be a new experience each time it’s played, it’s well on its way to greatness.
My penchant for these smaller, infinitely repeatable games led me to a Hideo Kojima masterpiece, Metal Gear Solid V. No, not The Phantom Pain, but its deceptively small prequel, Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes.
Ground Zeroes has just one map. It’s that small. The map is a secret U.S. Naval base in Cuba that’s heavily reminiscent of Guantanamo Bay. It’s a direct sequel to Peace Walker, so you play as Big Boss, and you have to rescue two of your comrades, Chico and Paz, along with a handful of other optional, nameless prisoners, if you so choose. If you play it straight, you can blaze through Ground Zeroes’ first mission in a matter of minutes, which is why I felt uninspired the first time I played it. I found Chico; I found Paz; I extracted both by helicopter. Bing, bang, boom, done.
I had no intention of playing again, but I was curious to see how it ran on my PC, so I gave it another try. Same result. Then I found out about some of the unlockables for The Phantom Pain, so I decided to try one last time. I decided to try something different—something drastic. I decided to kidnap all 40 guards.
When you spawn in Ground Zeroes, there are 40 guards on the map. This drops to 37 after a truck drives off with one of the soldiers. I’m not sure where the other two go, but they leave shortly after. You can knock out any guard and carry them to one of the game’s four extraction points, where your helicopter can fly them off the map. New sets of guards will spawn after you save Chico and Paz, but until then, you have 37 guards to contend with.
For a while, my plan went swimmingly. I started learning the guards’ movement patterns. Careful observation revealed lengthy, detailed guard patrols, with plenty of opportunities for exploitation. The guard in the tower was easily dispatched once his nearby friends headed out. I could circle around to the left, clear out some more guards and take out another tower, evacuating my first few soldiers in a matter of minutes.
I streamed my attempt on Twitch. One of my viewers, annoyed at my pace, told me to find the jeep. I couldn’t find it, so I continued slowly ferrying prisoners to the helicopter and flying them out. Another viewer directed me to the base power facility—as it turned out, I didn’t have to kidnap guards under the bright lights of a fully-powered base, not when I could turn all the lights and cameras off. This made my life significantly easier. It made the hardest area of the base much easier to navigate.
In the open areas of Ground Zeroes’ base, guards follow lengthy patrol paths. They often go off on their own, leaving themselves vulnerable to kidnapping. Near the command area of the base, guards are in much closer proximity, and they rarely split up in ways that are easy to exploit. Fortunately for me, shutting off the power got their attention. They sent guys over, one by one, to switch the power back on. Whenever they did, I’d kidnap the guard.
Eventually, I got lazy—instead of moving guards all the way to the helicopter, I started stashing them all in one spot. Somehow, one of them woke up. I noticed him just as he began radioing headquarters. I stunned him again, rushed my prisoners to the helicopter, and slowly cleaned up the rest of the base. I had a few close calls, but nothing to be worried about.
I’m not really into the whole Michael Bay Movie vibe of games like Uncharted 2. To me, the best games are the ones that give you stories to share. In a cinematic, linear action game, every player experiences the same thing in the same way. Nothing unique happens. What can I share about Uncharted 2’s train or collapsing building that you haven’t already seen?
Games are about interaction, but cinematic games aren’t; they introduce spectacle at the expense of interaction. Everyone travels through the exact same carefully constructed scenarios. The big blockbuster movie games neither take advantage of being a game, nor do they offer anything special to the players who spend time with them. Ground Zeroes offers a different approach to design, one that takes advantage of game interactivity to tell the kind of stories no other medium can produce.
Ground Zeroes lets its story grow from the game’s mechanics. It’s my story and the game’s story. Kojima and his team set up the framework, but introduced mechanics that meant that everyone’s story is going to be different. They have faith that its mechanics will provide the player with interesting stories to share.
I admire developers who do this. I admire games that can make this kind of story possible. The ones that don’t will grab a player’s camera, force it to stare at the umpteenth collapsing bridge, and offer a pithy witticism. The ones that do place absolute faith in the player’s ability to do something unexpected and to do their best to give it meaning. That faith in the player is one of the reasons I love games like Dishonored and Thief. Every once in awhile, along comes a game like S.T.A.L.K.E.R. or Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes, and with them, players get to experience some of the coolest stories their designers never wrote. The technical term for this is called “emergent storytelling.”
How does a game pull something like this off? It relies on three things: artificial intelligence, tools for creative player interaction, and good level design..
First, and most important, is complex, responsive artificial intelligence. One of the reasons Assassin’s Creed rarely manages any emergent storytelling is due to the relative simplicity of its AI. As much as I love the Assassin’s Creed games, their simplistic AI means that scenarios largely play out the same way. A soldier in Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes is far more complex and capable than a guard in Assassin’s Creed.
Once you’ve got great AI, you need to offer the player plenty of tools that work well together with the AI. MGSV: The Phantom Pain gives you a pooping horse, and poop on the road can cause enemy cars to spin out of control. Ground Zeroes gave me an armored personnel carrier, and that APC, when empty, was something the AI could hop in and use against me.
Finally, you place all these things in great levels. Ground Zeroes has this tight, varied map with plenty of things to do and find. can’t overstate the importance of great level design. Where things are put, how you move through the space,—all of that tied together makes a huge difference.
Back to my big Ground Zeroes kidnapping spree. I hadn’t counted on the guards changing their routes after I rescued Chico. If you rescue him without rescuing the other prisoners, I learned, a cutscene will play where the prisoners call for your help, alerting the guards to your presence. In many games, this kind of thing would happen regardless of whether you rescue the prisoners or not. The developers want a dramatic sequence, so they engineer one, ignoring whether or not you’ve gone out of your way to ensure it won’t. Not Ground Zeroes, though. No sir. I had kidnapped all the guards at this point, so I assumed that I would be fine. Some new guards show up after Chico is rescued, but I assumed they’d begin normal patrol patterns. You know what they say about assumptions.
Guards showed up alright, but they showed up where I least expected. The first guard came out of nowhere, figuratively stunning me, so I literally stunned him with a knockout pistol. Guards weren’t supposed to show up on my hidden cliff route to the helicopter! Yet here this guy was. I had disabled Ground Zeroes’ slowdown effect to ensure a higher game completion score, so I had little time to react. I was too slow, and before I stunned him, He alerted his friends. I managed to rescue Chico. Unfortunately, things had gone loud, so I ran over to the map’s lone armored personnel carrier, hopped in, and proceeded to kill everyone in sight, running over some and using the APC’s main gun on the rest.
Overkill has its perks, and driving an APC in a stealth game is one of them. My rampage cleared the enemy guards in no time. Apparently I wouldn’t be kidnapping every guard. I was alone once more, so I parked the APC outside the command center and entered the basement to rescue Paz. By this point, I’d been playing for two hours. I’d kidnapped 37 guards and killed a dozen more. I’d rescued every single prisoner on the map except for Paz. It was getting late, and I had other things to do. “Don’t worry,” someone in my stream audience said, “when you rescue Paz, two guys will show up. They’re easy to avoid.”
Rescuing Paz was easy. I scooped her up, started to carry her out… and came face to face with a guard. After a clumsy takedown, I picked up Paz, relieved. One down, one to go. Cautiously ascending a flight of stairs, I spotted the guard running off, like a coward. Good. For safety’s sake, however, I elected to go another route. I’d leave, put Paz in the chopper, and complete the mission. Everything would be fine. That screwup with the APC was nothing.
...which is when I ran into the jeep.
As best I can tell, the empty jeep spawned once I’d rescued Paz. Figuring I’d give my streamers what they’d been asking for, I dropped Paz in the jeep and raced off. That one, lone guard would simply watch in horror as I raced off, having kidnapped 37 guards and rescued 7 prisoners.
When the APC I’d just been driving began firing at me, I realized my huge mistake. As it turns out, the guy I’d seen running off had the bright idea to hop in that APC I’d parked right outside the building. My jeep was now in mortal danger, the APC’s gun trained squarely on me. Oh, and there was another guard or two outside. My commenters had apparently gotten the number of guards wrong.
So, there I was, racing off, screaming as an APC fired at me with its hefty cannon. Alarms started up all around the base. I decided to race toward a landing zone that I was pretty sure the APC couldn’t reach.
More guards showed up, firing at me. I almost died leaping out of the vehicle, clumsily switched to my rocket launcher when I meant to access my machine gun, somehow managed to heal, heard the APC firing as it approached me, and somehow—somehow—managed to kill both guards, sling Paz over my shoulder, race off to the landing zone, plant her in a safe spot, radio the chopper, and prepare to make my final stand… which never actually happened.
The guards stayed at a safe distance, weapons trained my position. The APC couldn’t get close. Morpho, my chopper, landed. I loaded Paz aboard and flew off into the night, firing rockets at the remaining guards like a madman. I didn’t care anymore. After 222 minutes and 40 seconds of stealth, I was ready to go home.
No game designer could have planned a better conclusion. They wouldn’t need to. A great designer and his team had simply created the framework for my story to unfold. They placed their faith in me to try something crazy, and as a result, I have something to share that no one else will experience.
Things happened that neither Kojima nor I could have foreseen. They just happened. The jeep showed up at the right moment. I parked the APC in the right place for the guards to use it against me.
The detail and idiosyncrasies of the level design helped make my story possible. The jeep was too hard to find. The AI showed up where I least expected it. The walls of the commander put the APC out of sight and out of mind. The guard towers changed how I navigated the game world.
While there are more things to do in Ground Zeroes’ acclaimed successor, The Phantom Pain, the levels of that game are much bigger game are much more open and empty. That results in fewer areas to utilize your tools—fewer places for surprises to happen. The best emergent stories come from the densest set of possibilities—the densest spaces in which the tools can be used.
I like the stories that emerge from the games that I play. I got those sorts of stories from playing all those game demos. I got it from learning to love the games I could get the most out of. I love being transported to new worlds that feel like real worlds, because the things that happen in them follow the logic of that world. It’s why, on my third try, I finally loved Ground Zeroes. The lure of possibility is impossibly strong.
GB Burford is a freelance journalist and indie game developer who just can’t get enough of exploring why games work. You can reach him on Twitter at @ForgetAmnesia or on his blog. You can support him and even suggest games to write about over at his Patreon.