An Introduction to Hideo Kojima14 min readReading Time: 10 minutes
When Hideo Kojima announces a new project, the video game world braces for something unlike any other. When Hideo Kojima announces a director’s cut for one of his games, it’s one of the few instances in the industry that doesn’t feel like a quick cash grab.
The concept of an “auteur” is largely associated with the film world, used to describe directors who have distinctive traits and styles in their works. Think Wes Anderson and Park Chan-Wook. Very rarely is the term used with film’s close cousin, video games. Unlike films, where they are often marketed based on directors’ name brands, first impressions of video games are usually based on the publishers and studios behind them; they are seen more as a product of teamwork rather than of a singular creative’s vision.
However, there is one exception. Video game designer and director Hideo Kojima is, perhaps, the most fitting definition of an auteur in the video game industry, treating every one of his games with the same amount of attention to storytelling flair and personality as a film auteur would. Describing a game as “very Kojima” is as understood in the lexicon as describing a film as “Tarantino-esque”.
His style is unmistakable, known for constantly pushing the envelope of the medium as much as his tendency to come up with insanely complicated (or just sheer insane) plots. His stories are, on one hand, intricately crafted affairs that have proven to be oddly prescient while, at the same time, are littered with poorly written and eccentric dialogue with characters often going on ridiculous diatribes. Opinions about Kojima are almost never in the middle, either celebrating him as a once-in-a-generation talent or criticising him as a pretentious hack.
However, all agree that he has revolutionised video games. He popularised an entire genre — the stealth action game — while transforming video games from straightforward affairs to emotional, thought-provoking blockbusters, kicking open the idea that there can be more to ponder over and discuss after saving the princess.
We venture into the world of video games, ponder just how far the medium can go in being a unique storytelling art form compared to film, and how video game director Hideo Kojima can be seen in the same light as auteurs in the filmmaking space.
Who is Hideo Kojima?
In 2012, a trailer for video game The Phantom Pain was showcased at the year’s Spike Video Game Awards, developed by an unknown company named Moby Dick Studio. According to its website, the studio is based in Sweden and is led by CEO Joakim Mogren.
Almost immediately, the Internet figured out that Hideo Kojima is behind The Phantom Pain. Most apparently is with how “Joakim” is an anagram for Kojima. Other dead giveaways are the trailer’s over-the-top imagery (such as the trailer’s flaming whale) and distinct visceral grittiness; his style is just too unique within the industry.
The Phantom Pain would soon be revealed as the latest entry to Kojima’s long-running Metal Gear Solid series. It would be also the last game he directed under Konami, a video game publisher Kojima was synonymous with for almost three decades.
Born in Tokyo to film buffs, a young Kojima would spend every night watching films with his family. He would take up an interest in filmmaking in his teens. However, the financial hardship brought by his father’s death would lead him to take up economics in university instead.
Kojima didn’t intend to enter the video game industry. In those early years, the word “game designer” practically did not exist in the Japanese language. He held on to filmmaking dreams, writing scripts in his spare time before eventually joining Konami in 1986 as a planner despite his lack of technical skills. The following year, he worked on Metal Gear. Originally planned to be a shoot-em-up akin to countless video games of its time, Kojima looked to inverse the dynamics: instead of a beefcake gunning down hordes of enemies, Metal Gear’s hero had to sneak around and avoid gunfights to survive.
The surprise success of 1987’s Metal Gear in sales and critical acclaim would lead to several sequels and spin-offs for the next three decades. Most notable is 1998’s Metal Gear Solid, one of the first video games to make use of 3D models and cut scenes to tell its story, bringing filmic storytelling principles such as shot-reverse shots and close-ups to the medium.
Video Games and Storytelling
In 2002, American auteur Gus Van Sant released Gerry, a film about two men lost in the desert. Starring Matt Damon and Casey Affleck (both playing characters named Gerry), the film is notorious for its exceptionally long continuous takes of the two Gerrys traversing the desert in silence. Not much else happens (although the cinematography is beautiful) — at least when Gerry is seen as a film.
While this tedious approach can be attributed to being derived from Andrei Tarkovsky’s works, fascinatingly enough Van Sant has cited 1996 video game Tomb Raider as a key inspiration for Gerry — not for the video game’s story or style but for the medium itself. Tomb Raider was his first experience with video games and he was fascinated by how they are often made up of moments that would otherwise be cut from films, namely characters traversing and travelling large distances. Gerry is a reflection of the mundaneness that colours reality but would otherwise be lost in film.
Despite both being essentially visually-centred experiences, Gerry’s polarising reception perhaps best demonstrates that certain storytelling languages simply can’t be translated from video games to film. The inverse definitely was the case in 1996, with graphical limitations leading to games largely relying on text for their narratives.
While video games have come a long way since then, it is still considered a rarity for video games to go beyond emulating film in terms of storytelling. On paper, the participatory nature of video games allows unique narrative opportunities such as through the shared experiences between player and character leading to unparalleled emotional investments into stories, and how video games can disempower or empower players to heighten tense situations and moments of triumph.
In reality, games today rarely strive to go beyond proven formulas. Most big-budget titles elect to be blockbuster spectacles of their own. Others focus on scale, looking to create sprawling open worlds or sandboxes but offer little in the way of storytelling.
These are seen as safe bets by major publishers with little motivation to deviate; the creative malaise in the gaming industry today is comparable to Hollywood. Why would there be a need for innovation or to fulfil the promise of fleshed-out narratives that could surpass film when boyfriends across the world will get every new edition of Fifa or Call of Duty when they come out?
If his career so far is any indication, Hideo Kojima’s answer would probably be: “Why not?” His works are among the few that merges cutting-edge technology, substantial budgets, and immersive narratives.
How Kojima Tells His Stories
Even die-hard fans of the Metal Gear Solid series will have trouble explaining or even understanding its overarching plot — but hardly any will have trouble vividly recounting the emotions and reactions to experiencing the games for the first time.
Metal Gear Solid’s world starts deviating from ours during the Cold War with the invention of the titular Metal Gears, or two-legged military tank with the ability to fire nuclear missiles from anywhere in the world, owned and developed by a private military company looking to achieve world peace through nuclear deterrence. Most entries in the series see players control spies sneaking past armies of guards in military compounds, facing off against super soldiers and dismantling the numerous versions of the tank.
Sounds straightforward enough — until players come across cyborgs, clones, nanomachines, vampires with nanomachines, a dramatic fistfight between two geriatrics, a supersoldier spitting bullet bees out of his mouth while doing a gymnastic routine, characters commenting on cardboard boxes being their deadliest weapon, characters comparing their situation to their favourite anime, diseases that are spread by language…
The irony with praising Kojima’s works as pinnacles of video game storytelling is that he is a terrible storyteller narrative-wise. His scripts always feel like they are in desperate need of an editor; drawn-out dialogues filled with overbearing expositions are exceptionally common. The series is tonally erratic with ridiculous imagery and over-the-top voice acting that feel more at home in a low-budget sci-fi film from the 1980s.
Yet somehow, his works have also weaved in memorable and mature handlings of themes such as revenge and the horrors of war, while being oddly prophetic in his commentaries on the military-industrial complex and the destructive power of internet fake news years before these topics made headlines.
Undoubtedly, Kojima’s strength when it comes to storytelling is with his experimentations with the video game medium; what makes his stories so engrossing is how they are completely self-aware that they are housed within video games.
Some examples include:
In 1998’s Metal Gear Solid, the hero is confronted by a powerful psychic. It’s a seemingly impossible fight with every one of the player’s moves being predicted. Even what the player has been up to outside of the game is revealed by the antagonist naming off other video games they have played on their console. The solution? Players have to plug their controllers into the second controller port to avoid ‘their mind’ being read.
The 2001 sequel, with a plot about artificial intelligence, censorship and memetics, is practically all about being meta. The game’s villains, the Patriots, have programmed soldiers to mutter “la li lu le lo” whenever they try to voice out their name. It’s a string of words that is impossible for Japanese speakers to vocalise, given the lack of the “L” sound in their language, essentially ‘censoring’ the antagonists’ presence at a metanarrative level.
In 2003’s Metal Gear Solid 3, the hero gets into an intense shootout against a centenarian sniper. It’s an incredibly difficult fight that could take at least an hour to complete. Alternatively, the player could save the game and return a week later to find the sniper dead from old age.
Fourth-wall breaks can be detrimental to the immersion of any story. More often than not, they are seen as cheeky tricks without any motivation other than to dazzle or impress players. How Kojima turns these around is by being tonally consistent while remaining self-aware. Players are told to unplug their controllers with the same intensity as desperate cries for help. Tutorials on how to control the game are casually weaved into mission briefings.
Paired with his fondness for the unreliable narrator trope, this handling leads to Kojima’s games becoming uncomfortably tense affairs because of the interactivity that the medium offers. Characters don’t look at the camera to address the audience; the game itself does. The blurring of the lines so often forces players to grapple with the morality behind the decisions they have to make to progress, especially when it touches on sensitive themes such as child soldiers and betrayal. The psychic and the sniper doesn’t face off against the character as much as they are facing the player.
It’s a creative atmosphere that builds and rewards unorthodox solutions and emotional investment through countless spectacular and unforgettable moments — even when the story veers towards yet another unbearably ridiculous turn. Then again, it’s all part of Kojima’s unabashedly eccentric style. In an industry that values the studio over any individual director or game designer, he is one of the very few in gaming to have his name plastered over promotional materials the same way film auteurs do. Fans have stuck with him throughout his highs and lows the same way fans of Christopher Nolan or Quentin Tarantino have through theirs.
‘Death Stranding’ and What’s Next for Kojima
2019’s Death Stranding is Kojima’s first project after leaving Konami. Free from the studio system without any other creative input other than his own, the game is his most divisive yet.
It features a cast straight out of a festival film: Mads Mikkelsen, Léa Seydoux, Norman Reedus, and characters in the likeness of directors Guillermo del Toro and Nicolas Winding Refn. Death Stranding is set in a post-apocalyptic America with invisible creatures roaming the country occasionally setting off rainfalls that rapidly age anything or anyone it hits.
Death Stranding demonstrates the pitfalls of auteurship and complete creative control over a work. The game’s plot makes Metal Gear Solid sound straightforward in comparison. Characters’ names range from the mundane to the absurd such as Die-hardman and Heartman, all engaged in a poorly written script filled with countless awkward lines.
As strange as it sounds, Death Stranding could be seen as a video game adaptation of the aforementioned Gerry. Players control a courier tasked with braving the barren lands to deliver goods and messages between scattered colonies. It’s no hyperbole to describe a majority of Death Stranding’s gameplay as walking and delivering, complete with an entire mechanic dedicated to ensuring the character does not lose balance carrying his goods, leading to the game being dubbed a walking simulator.
This integral part of the game was a big ask even for the most die-hard Kojima fans, where the cinematic flair of the Metal Gear Solid series was seemingly traded in for large swathes of mundane hiking.
However, it’s still clear that the crux of Kojima’s storytelling approach remains intact. With the dangers of the wilderness in mind, players have to consider the equipment they need to complete travels and balance their weight with those of the packages that have to be delivered. Over the course of the game, players build infrastructure that cuts down on the risk and travel times which can be shared online with other players. Where the game’s narrative falls short, its gameplay does a far better job at expressing Death Stranding’s overarching theme of human connection. It’s a game built on loneliness and how technology can close the gaps — much like how the global pandemic has affected our lives.
Kojima’s next project is still up in the air but thanks to his penchant for cryptic messages and unorthodox promotional campaigns, he has recently been implied to be part of a vast conspiracy not unlike the rollout for Metal Gear Solid 5. Despite his successes with video games, his love for film has seemingly never waned. He is a fantastic film commentator, penning his thoughts on his Twitter page and with Rolling Stone. There have also been rumblings of formal ventures into filmmaking.
Regardless of his next move, very few can command the level of attention within the industry as Kojima does. He is a key figure in bringing a filmic eye to the medium and has remained at the forefront of innovation throughout his career, with each new work showcasing the possibilities of just how far video games can go in storytelling; how video games can evolve from film to become the next dominant visual medium. Beyond his achievements, perhaps his greatest pull amongst fans is with how he has remained unabashed about his artistic visions in all his works — even when they turn out to be terrible ideas.
Besides, his games are almost always a blast to play.
Banner image credit: Hideo Kojima’s Twitter