There’s a difference between not being good at a video game and not being good at video games in general.
When you’re not good at a particular video game, it implies a slight disconnect between your possessed gaming knowledge and the knowledge the game wants you to possess. It’s either a gap crossed with an application of time and effort, or it’s a deliberate gap created as part of a system that helps you figure out what games you do or don’t want to play.
But to be bad at video games as a whole? That’s something different. That's like being a toddler learning how to walk, a bird awkwardly flapping its way out of the nest. If being a skilled gamer means having an awareness of one tiny fraction of the gaming world, then not being good at gaming means barely having an awareness of that world's existence.
Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes sent me back to that state. But not for the reasons you might think...
I’m good at stealth games. I’ve slowly learned to love them after realizing a good stealth game isn’t about a perfect run. It's about being a predator, your ability to rapidly improvise or achieve mastery over the level design. But it wasn't my multiple deaths during my 90-minute run of Ground Zeroes that brought me back to my formative years.
You might have heard that Ground Zeroes is only one level. That’s moderately true. The game only has one open-world area, but it also has the main mission, multiple side missions, collectibles, and reformatted versions of the map that redefine the replayable space. But it’s causing annoyance among some gamers. Some say it’s not worth the price, some say it’s just a $30 demo. But for me, I was blasted back to that time when I didn’t understand how gaming worked at all.
When I first discovered Ground Zeroes didn’t have more than 90 minutes of story campaign, I’ll admit, I was a little befuddled. But I remembered that I have done this before. I thought back to my first computer games that my mom reluctantly installed on her Windows 98 PC -- games like Lego Racers and Star Wars: Pod Racing.
I recall these games when I think about Ground Zeroes because I remember what it was like to willingly play the same level over and over again. This stage of childhood provided this very shallow pool of gaming to me. There was just one level or just one race, mostly because I was too nervous to go any further, too afraid of the challenge to go beyond what I knew I could accomplish.
At the time, the incentive to go further never existed. The knowledge of something that lives beyond completion, an "endgame," wasn't there. Progression meant something different, fun was viewed from a different lens.
And at that time, I was bad at video games.
Gaming isn’t just what happens when we pick up the controller. It’s a language and culture, a set of shared understandings that could have wound up completely different if certain events hadn’t happened at certain times. The concept of levels, boss battles, PVP versus PVE, all of these are interpretations created by people, not concepts inherent to the idea of "gaming." And when we start off gaming, we don’t understand that.
And in Ground Zeroes, I felt that once again.
The game wants you to have a vague idea of progression. It ends with a trailer showing Snake waking up in 10 years in the hospital after a coma. But in this game, right now, I can’t go forward. I can only play the same level over and over again, just with different modifiers and objectives. Somewhere out there in the world, there is a version of this game that lets me progress forward.
Maybe Kojima wants some gamers to feel like they’re bad at video games when they play Ground Zeroes. It didn't help that I had absolutely no idea what was going on in the cut scenes or radio chatter, but maybe for all of us, casual gamers to game developers, games like Ground Zeroes can help us reevaluate what we understand about video games and the core expectations we go into these games with.
Maybe there’s something to be learned from going back to a time when we didn’t know there was anything to understand about video games.
Maybe we should just play that same level again, over, and over, and over…