Let's talk about the sexual violence in the Cassette Tapes in Metal Gear Solid 5: Ground Zeroes. No doubt if your only exposure to Ground Zeroes are stories and jokes about its brevity, you probably have no idea what I'm writing about. Cassette Tapes, in a game that can be beaten in six minutes? Surprise, surprise, outside of those six minutes the game has a lot more to offer.
A quick note, this article is made of spoilers for Ground Zeroes and other games in the Metal Gear series, so you have been forewarned.
"Ground Zeroes" is the primary of five missions set in the same location that have Naked Snake (Big Boss) running around a small military prison-base, fulfilling different objectives. Outside of completing the mission objectives, one side-mission revolves around the collection of audio cassette tapes that present gruesome details for those who have suffered sexual assault or rape.
The tapes lay out the subplot of child-soldier Chico who tries to rescue 25-year-old double agent Paz from a US black site prison and what happened to Chico after his capture. The tapes begin as a series of false records Chico has been forced to make to draw Naked Snake in, the content changing as more is revealed about how and why Chico betrays Snake after being broken by Metal Gear Solid V's villain, Skullface.
It's how Chico is broken and how it relates to Paz that is a problem. The most incendiary of these tapes is the fourth, in which Skullface tells Chico (after cutting off Paz's clothes, mocking her body, and intimating that he or his men have violated her) that if Chico doesn't rape Paz then the boy will take her place. What Chico does is undetermined (the tape cuts out), but it is implied by his despondent reactions that either he sexually violated her or took her place and was likely sexually assaulted or raped in turn.
This is compounded in the last tape. Skullface mentions the need to remove Paz's organs so that they can fit a large bomb in her abdomen (meaning she'll only live for another 24 hours, even if rescued by Snake) and then the player hears the sound effect of Skullface putting a second bomb into Paz's vagina.
In any case the role of sexual violence in the game is meant to establish just how awful Skullface is supposed to be and give Snake the added justification for revenge in The Phantom Pain. We could talk about why Kojima—now 50 years old—thought this was acceptable as a cultural signifier (comparing women in Kojima's games to those of his contemporaries, like his friend Goichi Suda, paints an interesting picture of the man's culture) or the general media bias in which rape and the trauma associated with it is ill-understood by other major media producers, right down to the question of what rape is and how it is delineated.
There's no ambiguity to the rape or sexual violence in Ground Zeroes. It is as profoundly unambiguous as possible, existing to paint Skullface as completely and totally morally bankrupt and contemptible. Kojima is no stranger to this sort of hamfisted storytelling built around complex concepts in the hopes of making his audience more culturally aware. The original Metal Gear Solid is filled to the brim with information about the slow and perilous reality of gradual nuclear disarmament and the continuation of nuclear détente, albeit in a wrapper of mystic warriors, burn-victim pyrokinetics, and unlikely genetically superior clones, who all confess their overly dramatic backstories upon the moment of their deaths.
It might be giving Kojima too much credit that he's trying to use rape as an act of sexual violence for both the rapist and raped, though as Ria Jenkins points out in her article on the subject, 13-year-old Chico is raped by virtue of being underage and not able to emotionally or intellectually consent to the act. The trailer for The Phantom Pain shows child soldiers and Kojima may be referencing the lives of child soldiers in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo, where officers once ordered their soldiers to commit rape as part of the act of war.
There's an element of synchronicity that Kojima is returning to the child-soldier motif that has been a part of many of his games, including Metal Gear, Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake, and the backstory for Metal Gear Solid 2's Raiden. In the second game, Solid Snake encounters child soldiers in Zanzibarland who give him clues to solving one of the environmental puzzles in the game. This time, Kojima's returning to their plight with the capacity to tell the horror of child soldiers in greater detail and appears to be drawing particular attention to the issues in places like the DRC and Central African Republic.
But if Kojima wants a darker, more realistic world for Naked Snake (now Punished Snake after the events in Ground Zeroes), he has an issue that supersedes the violence itself and that's the aforementioned broad brush he's used to paint his stories in the past. Pushing darker and more realistic themes is allegedly why he chose Kiefer Sutherland as his new voice and face motion-capture model for Snake and yet in Ground Zeroes none of the other characters are played with any more realistic nuance than prior games.
The degree and tone of the violence doesn't match the scenario or performance or its context as a Metal Gear game (this is made more jarring since Paz's cassette diary from Peacewalker, which paints the character very broadly, is available in Ground Zeroes audio logs and doesn't fit the darker tone established for the character). There isn't the appropriate set-up for it to have accurate gravitas, so instead of having a heavier emotional weight it feels like the exploitation of sexual violence for emotional manipulation and shock value.
This devalues the actual horror of the violence, placing it in a context in which it is surrounded by material that undercuts the nature of sexual violence (especially if Kojima is meaning to reference the plight of child soldiers caught in unending wars, which it seems might be his goal). This is leaving aside the high number of reported rapes in the US military and the prevalence in general of American rape culture as a part of the monoculture that encourages sexual violence against women and shames them for stepping forward to report being assaulted. In the aforementioned article by Jenkins, she does a great job of running down how being victim to the violence vilifies Paz and makes the only acceptable course of action for her a death through self-sacrifice.
One thing that has changed in recent years is that there is actually a push to talk about female roles and sexual violence in games on a cultural level as gaming demographics have diversified and as the press has become more socially active. This is not the first Metal Gear game to contain sexual assault. Metal Gear Solid 2 has a scene, played for laughs, where the President of the United States grabs Raiden's crotch as a way of initiating unwanted sexual contact, only to discover Raiden's not a woman.
In Metal Gear Solid 3, Eva discusses Colonel Volgin's sexual sadism and Volgin grabs a disguised Snake's crotch to determine whether or not he's the man he's disguised as, Volgin's lover. In another scene Volgin grabs Eva's breasts and electrocutes her, appearing to get off on it. These scenes were largely ignored at the time by the gaming press and gaming public, but the rhetoric of what is acceptable in games is changing.
Recently, in referencing what he wants to do, Kojima has spoken about the darkness and limits pushed by Breaking Bad as an influence. However, even in its absurd and comic moments Breaking Bad is always well-written, always focused on the reality of its characters. Kojima's track record on female characters isn't exactly shining; his strongest female character, The Boss, is ultimately killed by Naked Snake after being forced into a suicide mission, denying her any personal agency. That she is a strong female character who becomes the catalyst for the conflict of the entire series is somewhat undercut by her being unable to decide her own fate, whereas every male protagonist in the series has somehow cheated death, right down to Big Boss' cinematic-epilogue-return in a mid-end credit scene in Metal Gear Solid IV.
How acceptable are these scenes in the new game and what may they presage for The Phantom Pain? It's difficult to say. The rape material was difficult for me to listen to and made me feel queasy, though in the way that it felt exploitative rather than sympathetic to the characters. Clearly the best thing that we can do, if we want to see adult issues like this handled in mature ways, is to have discussions about the context of sexual violence in video games: What is socially acceptable?
If sexual violence is portrayed, how can we express it in a way that doesn't cheapen the horror of it? Better still, how can games draw attention to the cultural problems that facilitate sexual violence? I wouldn't call the inclusion of sexual violence a personal dealbreaker at this point. I still plan on playing The Phantom Pain, and expect to enjoy its exhilarating gameplay and what will no doubt be another bafflingly intricate puzzle piece in the greater Metal Gear story; but as I do so I may occasionally find myself adding a mental asterisk to Big Boss and his partner Miller's quest for vengeance.