The highlight for many at Develop: Brighton 2016, the UK’s premier game dev conference by the seaside, was undoubtedly the interview between industry rock star Hideo Kojima and PS4 architect and veteran developer Mark Cerny. The event had filled the largest hall in the Hilton Metropole with people eager to find out more about Kojima’s latest title, Death Stranding, following its already notorious reveal on Sony’s stage at E3. Although the answers, as might be expected of Kojima by now, were more enigmatic than revelatory, the talk did reveal something of Kojima’s outlook past, present and future, as well as indicate a new direction for his creative process; a direction involving string.
Now as you might know from my blog about The Phantom Pain, I’m not the biggest Kojima fan in the world. Metal Gear Solid on the original PlayStation remains an important game in my own personal video game journey, as well as a landmark game for the medium in general, but I’ve felt the series has nose-dived into absurdity since then, succumbing to and doubling down on its worst elements: the over convoluted plotting, the hour long expository cut scenes and the casual sexism. Whilst I’ve always appreciated Kojima’s attempt to tackle real world social and political issues ranging from cloning and nuclear proliferation, to PMCs and gulf war syndrome, for each moment the theme rang true another moment would make me wonder if the game hadn’t been written by an over enthusiastic 14-year-old. Still, in spite of my reservations with Kojima’s work as a whole, it’s hard to dispute his importance to the medium as one of its first and most enduring auteurs, and so I felt as excited as anyone to be sitting there, his magnetic presence emanating from the stage, all chic and unassailable. For further evidence of Kojima’s coolness see Twitter, where he was very active over the three days of the conference seeking out locations from cult film Quadrophenia, buying Ultravox records in Brighton’s hipster record stores or simply chilling on a deckchair on the beach.
Hideo Kojima Stranded. pic.twitter.com/TtKFZSxRmH
— Ayako (Touchy!) (@Kaizerkunkun) July 14, 2016
Kojima, who was at the show to collect the Development Legend Award, has been enjoying his trip to the seaside and admits that his ideal life would be to travel like this constantly and talk to people from different cultures, but since “time is limited” he tries to experience these things by diving into books and films. Indeed, as his mission to visit the locales of Quadrophenia whilst in Brighton demonstrate, Kojima is greatly influenced by an eclectic and broad range of media as much as he is the world around him.
After a thirty-year relationship with Solid Snake, a character who has slowly and subtly been shaped by time, the world and his growing literary and filmic reference points, Kojima now has the unenviable task of starting from scratch
When asked about how he came up with Solid Snake as a character, for instance, Kojima admits that he didn’t initially put a lot of thought into his traits or identity, rather he felt that over the 30 years he has come to complete the character along with the players. After a thirty-year relationship with Solid Snake, a character who has slowly and subtly been shaped by time, the world and his growing literary and film reference points, Kojima now has the unenviable task of starting from scratch, with the pressure of following in Snake’s shadow. Kojima also tries to understand the broader changes of the political landscape of the world and reflect them in his characters so that, “for me it feels like time has shaped this character.” Because of the close control he exerts over the creative process of his games, he filters these influences more or less directly into his work, which makes him fascinating for anyone interested in the postmodern notion of intertextuality. But it wasn’t always this way, as was evident when he spoke of his first years in the industry.
Long before Kojima was famous for making games all he ever wanted to do was to make movies (something that might come as no surprise to anyone who has struggled through Metal Gear Solid 4), but that growing up in the Kansai region made it difficult to get into the film industry. Instead Kojima saw the early storytelling potential of video games and joined the nascent games industry, and it was a decision that would not only change his life but the history of video games on which Metal Gear has had such a profound influence. The Japanese film industry, especially at the time Kojima would have been looking to join was indeed impenetrable. Budding filmmakers were expected to work their way up the ranks, apprenticing under a master director for up to a decade before finally being given the chance to make their own films, at which point they’d had most of their youthful vigour and creative zeal worn away. With a far less developed indie scene, most filmmakers of note in this era cut their teeth and found expression for their ideas working in Japan’s Pinku (pink) film industry of softcore pornography, where directors were largely left to their own creative devices providing the inserted a mandatory sex scene every 10-15 minutes, resulting in some of the most bafflingly creative, experimental and politicised filmmaking in Japanese history. I digress, but Kojima’s route into the industry isn’t as far removed as all that and might explain something of his obsession with sexuality. Indeed, there’s an interesting comparison still to be drawn between Kojima’s brand of excess and the pink film industry and if you don’t believe me watch The Glamorous Life of Sachiko Hanai, which plays out like a Kojima fever dream (see the trailer below, which may not be safe for work).
Kojima discussed the limitations of the medium as a storytelling form in his early years, particularly his efforts to be taken seriously as a rookie given that he had no coding skills to speak of. This was, after all, a period in which story was very far from taken seriously in the games industry, with John Carmack famously locking horns with John Romero over the issue as recounted in David Kushner’s Masters of Doom, and saying, “Story in a game is like a story in a porn movie; it’s expected to be there, but it’s not that important.” This was the reason Kojima turned to the adventure game genre with titles like Snatcher (1988) and Policenauts (1994), since he felt it gave him more control over the process through the script, which was more intrinsic to adventure games, making them closer to films. For better or worse few people would challenge Kojima’s creative decisions today, making him a videogaming equivalent of an auteur like Tarantino, who has the final cut and ultimate say over his works.
Kojima says that what he imagines in his head is a complete image of the ideal gameworld, which he then has to adapt to what is possible based on the technology available. One can almost imagine the scene at the beginning of Metal Gear Solid in which Campbell and Naomi brief Snake on his sneaking suit being entirely made with ‘currently existing technology,’ as a kind of lament from the designer on the limitations he is always struggling with. According to Kojima Metal Gear was always meant to be super slick, “but we didn’t have polygons.” Thanks to PlayStation and its realtime polygons, something of the ideal of Metal Gear series was enabled, allowing players to hide from guards in lockers, with the resulting view shift allowing them to look out the viewing vent as well as ‘admire’ the posters of pin up girls in private. We’ve certainly come a long way and now fully immersive hiding in locker simulators like Alien Isolation owe a debt to Kojima’s pioneering work.
Kojima speculates that one hundred years ago film changed our landscape forever, but because of VR for the first time we can break away from the idea of the frame as a structuring device.
Joking aside, Kojima suggests that the ability of 3D environments to accommodate changing perspectives like this can help create different emotions in the player, and he suggests that VR will only serve to reinforce this, making it easier to create emotion through human contact. “That future,” Kojima says, “is right behind the door.” Unsurprisingly by now, using cinema as an analogy, Kojima speculates that one hundred years ago film changed our landscape forever, but because of VR for the first time we can break away from the idea of the frame as a structuring device. Kojima is clearly interested in the potential for VR liberating the player, although given his history with hour long cut scenes and player manipulation (Raiden anyone?) I’d say his interest in being in control might trump this desire. Whether he plans to use it for Death Stranding remains to be seen, but it certainly seems like he’s making overtures in that direction and with PlayStation wanting to push their VR system, they’d be crazy not to encourage Kojima down that route.
For Kojima it’s clear that creative potential is intrinsically bound up with technology. Indeed, this was the subject of the talk that followed Kojima’s, a discussion from Vince Farquharson and Sylvain Cornillon of Bossa studios, who spoke of the importance of disruptive design accompanying disruptive technology. In short they sought to encourage designers to think not just, “how does this new tech improve our workflow?” but, “what new narrative or design potentials does this tech allow that were not possible before?” It was the perfect follow on from Kojima’s keynote since Kojima’s work is a perfect illustration of this paradigm. One thing you can’t deny of the Metal Gear series is its willingness to experiment with new systems and ideas; from the fourth wall breaking excesses of the Psycho Mantis fight to the complexity of Snake Eater’s camo system, The Metal Gear series has never been content to merely tread the beaten path.
With tech having improved so much and so quickly over the years, Kojima suggests that Death Stranding is closer than ever to allowing him to realise the image he holds in his head. Technology affords creativity as well as accommodating Kojima’s cinematic aspirations, which he clearly has never been totally able to let go of. Now Kojima says, “everything I wanted to do in films I can do in video games.”
One might say that the interview with Kojima was pedestrian for someone with such a turbulent couple of years behind them, but then Cerny was never going to ask Kojima the tough questions, and Kojima was probably never going to answer them. In the brief time allotted to audience questions someone hazarded to mention the elephant in the room, the Silent Hills project which was to be a collaboration with cult filmmaker Guillermo del Toro before it was canned by Konami in its ignominious haste to vacate the games industry, much to everyone’s dismay, to which I’ve never heard such an audible intake of breath from the audience. It turned out the questions was innocent enough; a query about whether Silent Hills and Death Stranding demonstrates a new interest in the horror genre, to which Kojima responded that he always felt the Metal Gear Solid games were already in the horror genre, since they were about the fear of being spotted; the fear of other humans.
Most games are still based on the stick, but I want to bring in the string.”
With such probing questions off the table, we ultimately have to be content to infer Kojima’s relationship to former long-time employer Konami and his now relinquished Metal Gear Solid franchise from his actions, and it is largely in that context the Death Stranding trailer has been received, with many reading the symbolism of it – a man waking up naked on a beach, his infant child snatched from him – as being more about Kojima’s psyche and current world view than anything to do with the game it purported to be promoting. My theory is that it is about the notion of freedom as double edged sword.
In 1993 the Polish arthouse auteur, Krzysztof Kieślowski, made the sumptuous Three Colours: Blue, the first in a trilogy of films designed to interrogate the themes of the French flag: Liberté, égalité, fraternité (bear with me, this will be relevant). In it Juliet Binoche is cast adrift following a car crash that kills her husband, a famous composer, and her child. Struggling with grief and attempting to rebuild her life, Kieślowski suggests that she is now completely ‘free,’ but that such freedom isn’t always completely desirable, as it is often accompanied by loss. Just so Hideo Kojima is free, his body double Norman Reedus laying naked and vulnerable on the beach, his caesarean scar testament to the legacy torn from him, and the future uncertainly floating in front of him in the form of five mysterious figures…
How Kojima will use his new found freedom is still anyone’s guess, but towards the end of the interview Kojima gives his most tantalising and insightful suggestion of where he hopes to go with Death Stranding, and despite my reservations about his work I can’t help but feel inspired by his words. Kojima believes that when human kind evolved to use tools they first developed the stick, a weapon designed to keep others at bay, and then the string, which served to bind together. “Most games are still based on the stick,” Kojima says enigmatically, “but I want to bring in the string.” So we don’t know much about Death Stranding, but we know Kojima wants to make it a game about “connection,” and seems to be using his new found freedom to move himself and games in a new and tantalising direction.