[This post contains some information and speculation surrounding Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes’ marketing and age ratings that could be considered light spoilers.]
My heart dropped when I learned yesterday that Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes would feature sexual violence. I have to admit I’ve been a fan of the series for a long time, it’s one of the few game franchises that even remotely interest me these days. There’s something about the series that hits a very special place in my soul that otherwise, quite simply, hasn’t been satisfied by any other game around. I love the mystery of a simple spy operation premise suddenly complicated by the introduction and foreshadowing of a bizarre cast of characters. I love the contrived storylines that everyone writes off as pretentious. I love the marriage of outlandish and pompous supernatural elements together with a plot founded on political intrigue, and how Snake’s world-weary nihilism stubbornly continues in the face of all this wonderful mysticism and spirituality. I love how he stands around pointing his gun for ages while the villain postures and monologues and only then attacks, because Snake is a very patient man. It’s all so desperately silly and intelligent and I can’t resist it. I also enjoy playing it, I had to remind myself to include that.
But historically it’s also been really bad for the representation of women. Hideo Kojima, MGS‘s brainfather, has taken special care to make explicit in each game the sexualization, degradation and objectification of women in countless forms. I won’t go over every example but we’ve seen female soldiers suffering from PTSD stripped down to skin-tight costumes as they writhe and bend seductively for the camera, there have been jiggle physics for you to play with a character’s breasts, you’ve been able to peek and leer as your lady associate while she gets dressed, women have been constantly damselled and fridged, posters of underwear models are a series recurrence since the PlayStation days, if a woman is on-screen there’s a good chance she’ll take off her top before the scene ends, and so on. It’s deplorable and it’s entirely needless except to stoke the fires of misogyny in Kojima’s mind and the fancies of the audience. His shitty attitude towards women have stained the series for a long, long time.
So given Kojima’s reputation, when I read there would be sexual violence in Ground Zeroes my expectations were of the worst. It would be titillating, it would be entirely structured to be pleasurable to a voyeuristic camera and to you watching at home, it would show this woman her place in the narrative by violating her for entertainment. I’m far from the only person whose expectations, informed by the standards of the franchise, were set to this.
The ESRB text describing the content in question said this of it:
“The game includes an audio file in which a female character is sexually assaulted by male characters; while there is no visual depiction, sounds of ripped clothing and struggle can be heard. The words “f**k” and “sh*t” are heard in the dialogue.”
At once the reassurance that the sexual violence would only take place in an audio file was a relief. It meant none of that camera work lingering over the female form that’s familiar to the series. It meant the scene wouldn’t be shot for the erotic pleasure of the viewer, unlike the scenes in MGS4 where you defeat the Beauty corps members. It doesn’t mean the sexual violence will be frightening rather than titillating, that the scene will be “OK” and “done well”, by which I mean where we are expected to hate the attackers and root for the well-being of the woman. It is entirely possible for an audio file to be built around satisfying misogynistic urges, although to my knowledge it hasn’t been a done thing in the MGS games. So my relief here is founded on an understanding of the series’ history of degrading and objectifying women and the belief (or should I say faith?) that this falls outside those parameters. (This all being said, we’ll only be able to tell the tone of the scene when the game comes out.)
So I’d like to take a bit to talk about sexual assault in games, because it’s something that comes up usually in response to developers making a mess of it and fans blithely welcoming it uncritically. Bear in mind that I’m a man of privilege, my words come from a certain place of social advantage that might be slightly informed but in absolutely no way overrules the lived experiences and opinions of people closer to the reality of the subject. If this is grounds for my dismissal in your eyes, that’s OK. If not, please don’t carry onwards anything I say as a tool to contradict the opinions and experiences of people who know better than me.
The subject of sexual assault in games sets off alarm bells for a lot of people–it’s so seldom done with the respectability and sensitivity it deserves, though there must be a few examples I don’t know of somewhere that are tolerable, if not acceptable. This industry can be summarized by Crystal Dynamics’ Ron Rosenberg smacking his lips over a scene in Tomb Raider where Lara almost gets raped. It’s used to victimize, to sensationalize and demean women. It’s used violently and pornographically, as a gag, as a beat to move along the plot, as a quick exit for a backstory, as shorthand for a character’s villainy then forgotten by the next scene.
Many critics feel games just shouldn’t try to feature sexual violence in any form, that the industry has lost the right to try to tackle that subject since it is one demanding a finesse that is near universally lacked. In there it’s implied that one day the industry might grow to a point where it may be able to handle it competently, and then we might give the benefit of the doubt. To anyone wondering what a competent handling of sexual violence might look like, though, and how it differs to what is currently offered by the medium, I might suggest casting over to Law and Order: Special Victims Unit.
This TV show centres on a New York police unit specialized in investigating sexually-based crimes. Every episode opens with such crimes being called heinous, and most episodes involve the tracking down of a serial rapist or apprehension of a child molester. The criminals are invariably abusive and horrible, but their actual crimes are very seldom shown on-screen. Instead we see their aftermaths–traumatised victims, bereaving families, shocked investigators, impassioned to track down the criminal and bring them to justice.
The process is arduous and frustrating, obstacled by a broken uncaring system and distanced societal responsibilities, but this is the goal of the audience’s participation of the show: to see justice delivered to the people committing these crimes. Not to see incidents of sexual assault or the torturing of women. The crimes aren’t framed to eroticize and titillate; instead they’re shocking, unpleasant, deplorable. The same thing that would be presented as pornographic by, say, Sade, would be villainized in SVU. The main cast of characters and the show’s framing favour the victim in every incident, it respects the realities of these subjects that people are going through every day and be respectful and caring towards them. At the end of the day it’s entertainment, but the thing you’re looking to get out of it is stories of victims becoming survivors and finding justice.
In many ways Law and Order: SVU presents a fantasy of the world (one where justice occurs in nearly all cases). And it’s far from perfect in everything it presents. There are many arguments against it, such as that it encompasses torture porn, in that sexual crimes against women serve as a source or premise for entertainment for the audience. This is another view that relates to the games industry: many people hold that you simply shouldn’t feature sexual assault in fiction structured for entertainment, as it’s exploitative of real trauma present in the world. Content like that can easily prove to be triggering and damaging to people who absolutely do not deserve to have that on their plate, day after day. This is an absolutely fair and valid stance to have on the subject. I don’t share it personally (my thoughts more align with those here) but it’s one we should be considerate of and respect, so while I say Law and Order: SVU might be a useful guideline on how to include sexual assault in fiction, please know it’s not all cut and dry.
Returning to Ground Zeroes‘ audio file, another thing is it also doesn’t mean sexual assault will be justified within the structure of the narrative. Through Ground Zeroes‘ marketing we’ve been introduced to a character named Quiet, a mute sniper whose dress is largely only torn stockings and a bra. Last September, we heard how her design was based off a desire for a “more erotic character”, later ‘corrected’ to have meant unique and sexy. A song and dance was made about how vehicles and guns can be sexy too, but the fact of the matter is here is a female character designed by men for a series that typically objectifies women, dressed in a way compatible with objectifying traits described by a culturally prevalent male gaze. Her character design is in no way comparable to the sleek aesthetic of a truck. It hits all the cultural boxes of objectification and sleaze.
Kojima’s attempts to assuage our expectations were dashed by the enormous contradiction that was his track record. He did, however, have this to say:
“But once you recognize the secret reason for her exposure, you will feel ashamed of your words & deeds.”
Which many people are now adding to the presence of sexual violence in speculation that Quiet dresses the way she does because she was raped. In other words, here is possibly a female character who was sexually assaulted to such an extravagant degree that it would impact her character being totted around for the arousal of the player. Here is sexual assault being used as the justification for a character’s erotic appearance. Here is sexual assault being used for a backstory. That is, if this speculation is on the money, which, in my mind, seems likely. I wish I didn’t have to side-eye a game I’ve been looking forward to for years, I wish I didn’t have to hold at arm’s length a series I so want to love, but there you go.
When it comes to sexual violence in games, the key thing is to examine it structurally, how it’s framed within the scene, by the camera, how it’s spoken about by the other characters and according to what we’re expected to think about these characters, what the character’s narrative arc is going for, its placement in the context of the story and the fictional world–there are many, many factors that determine tone and meaning and dictate what a piece of fiction is trying to say through the things it includes. While I can trust Law and Order: SVU to have a good head on its shoulders when talking about sexual violence, I’ve been given every indication to think the worst of Metal Gear Solid. I hope to god it ends up proving me wrong.
If you liked this post, please consider helping me continue my writing by visiting my Patreon and supporting me with your patronage.