Arts Desk

Still Solid: Metal Gear Creator Hideo Kojima on “The Art of Video Games”

One of cinema’s great modern innovators doesn’t have a single Hollywood film credit. That’s because Hideo Kojima works in the video game industry. Kojima, whose best known as the creator of the Metal Gear franchise, grew up aspiring to be a movie director, but wound up designing video games for Konami. The influence of film is clear across his work, where gameplay seamlessly transitions from controllable action to dramatic cut scenes that unspool the complex narrative the games tell. In addition to the emphasis on storytelling and a tendency to break the fourth wall, Metal Gear originated the stealth genre, which spawned popular series such as Splinter Cell and Assassin's Creed. So it's not surprising that  the Smithsonian American Art Museum's new exhibit "The Art of Video Games" includes Metal Gear concept art and gameplay video.

Kojima spoke at SAAM on Saturday in an event pegged to “The Art of Video Games”; the day before, he sat down with a roundtable of journalists. He discussed what recognition by the Smithsonian means for his field, how advances in technology affect his games, and the importance of storytelling. Kojima spoke in Japanese and Kojima Productions Assistant Producer Sean Eyestone translated. Excerpts from the interview are below.

On the games he's most proud of
I guess you could say, I’m very pleased with all of them, but very displeased with all of them, as well. Every time I make a new game, I put all of my effort completely into that new game. It’s like putting all of your effort into a new child being born. So every time I make a new game, that’s my No.1 priority. Once the project is done, I can step back and look at it objectively and see all the flaws. So that’s when I start the project over again and make a new game that fixes those flaws I saw. I guess, from that perspective, if you’re asking what is the best, in my mind, what I’m making right now is the best. Although, I can’t really talk about it right now.

On what it means to have his work featured in a Smithsonian museum
To me, games are a collaborative art, or a synthesis of various things—technology, story, and art. I think games take a lot of these various elements and combine it into a whole. But unlike traditional art or music, it’s not something where the creator’s vision can be conveyed completely 100 percent to the user. It’s something that has to go through the medium and it’s something that has limitations within the scope of the service that’s being provided to the consumer. In that respect, I still don’t think games are maybe not fully art in that sense but, of course, at the same, I’m very, very happy to see my games shown in this Smithsonian institution—I’m very happy that this is taking place.

To put it in perspective, the service game creators provide is kind of like Disneyland—a setting for players to have fun in. If you look at each part of that service, break down the parts, then you’ll see that each part is comprised of artistic elements. But on a whole, it is more of a service than an art.

Kojima

On how he views video games
I’ve been in this industry for about 26 years or so. One difference is that, when I was young, there weren’t games. It wasn’t established as a medium, so we drew inspirations from other things, like films, music, or art, or various other creative things around us, and turned those into games. At that time, there was no clear definition of what a game was. It was our responsibility to take these various elements around us and craft a game, turn it in to something.

I think people entering the industry now have some very concrete visions about what a game should be. In their mind, this is a game. And they feel they must create within that shape, within those boundaries. It’s different from my generation when we were truly creating something and we weren’t limited by those things to create a new definition of a game. So it seems like a lot of creators, nowadays, they seem very limited in their ideas and their scope. So, to a certain extent, I’m a little saddened by that.

On his development of fourth wall-breaking gameplay (most notably, with the Psycho Mantis boss battle in Metal Gear Solid)
I didn’t have, in my mind, a concrete definition of “this is what a boss level should be.” I just wanted to do something exciting. When I though about it, I thought it would be a really cool way to make a boss. Even now, that’s still the way I approach boss levels.

At the time, a lot of people had this preconceived notion that games had to exist within this box in your living room. It had to be limited to the TV screen that you’re looking at while you’re in the room. What I thought is, “Why does it have to be that way? Why can’t we expand the game out of the TV, into your actual living room, into your visible space?” That’s why a lot of things, like implementing backroom box into the game, or having the controller move—that’s how I came up for the idea of Psycho Mantis.

It’s always been my approach to look at what technology is available to me and push games as far as they can to get out of their traditional boundaries. Now, looking back on it, a lot of people talk about that, having the codec code on the back of the box or the Psycho Mantis battle. People look back on that with respect and a lot of people praise me for it. But at the time, there were actually a lot of people pissed off at me for it and said, “This isn’t the way you should make a game.” Even a lot of people in my team, in Konami, said, “This isn’t what a game should be.” But actually, I really enjoyed being yelled at for that. I like doing something different, so, I’m not gonna change that and I hope you look forward to more exciting things, moving forward.

One thing I can tell you, back when I was making Snatcher, which was a PC game, at the time, we used floppy discs. One thing that I wanted to do that I wasn’t able to do, I wanted to have a secret message on the disc, actually have something printed or written on the disc, or have some chemical use for that. Maybe when you put it in your disc drive and you’re playing for 15 minutes, the heat from the disc drive interacts with that chemical and creates a certain smell—it smells like blood or something like that. And when you pull it out, you see a dying message on the disc. That was actually an idea I had for the original Snatcher, but unfortunately I got yelled at for it and they didn’t want to keep it.

On the power of virtual reality and how technology affects video game immersion
It’s getting to a point where you can do a lot of things with technology and games can be very immersive. But as for what we actually implement, I think you have to look from a gamer’s standpoint to see what would actually be fun to implement.

If you look at the medical field and places like that, they’re using virtual reality to simulate things in a very real way. I think that’s a very good use of VR because that’s some place where having things be as close to real life as possible is advantageous. But for a game, you really have to filter that. First and foremost, gameplay should be fun, not necessarily the most realistic.

If you look at the military, they’re using VR training to prepare soldiers for actual battle and I’ve actually played some of these simulations. As a simulation, they’re very well done and they’re very useful. But from a gameplay standpoint, they’re actually not all that fun. So that’s something that we always have to be aware of. Don’t push the technology just for the sake of it, but do something for a reason and that reason should be gameplay.

Recently, we went to an actual military base in San Diego, I can’t really talk too much about it, but at that time, we actually went to one of these shooting simulators. [One of our design team members] was really good and he was kicking ass with that thing. People asked him, “Where’d you learn how to shoot?” And he said, “Oh, playing games.” [Laughs]

On incorporating historical events into the storylines of his games
As far as taboos are concerned, I don’t really shy away from them. As much as possible, I want to bring these real-life issues to the forefront. So, I’m always pushing for that. But, of course, at the same time, it has to be something that’s fun. I’m not just going to make a statement, it has to be fun, as well. I think that I always want to push the envelope. And the game I’m working on right now actually is dealing with quite a few issues that I feel are pretty delicate and taboo. I’m not sure if they’ll end up being in the final product or not, but that’s something that I will continue to strive for.

On the character of Snake, Metal Gear’s protagonist, evolving along with technological advances
As far as a character that’s evolved with the hardware, that would have to be Snake. If you look at the original Metal Gear, he was a very silent type of character—he didn’t speak much. Probably the reason for that is, on that hardware, we were unable to make the characters speak.

You could compare it to movies. The original Metal Gears were kind of like silent-era movies and Metal Gear Solid 1 is when it became talkies and sound movies. But at the same time with Metal Gear Solid 1, he could speak but there still wasn’t emotion on the face. So everything had to be done through the voices. He had to say whether or not he liked something or if he was feeling hot or it hurt. Everything had to be explained vocally. Then we saw 2000, the next step in his evolution, where we could have emotion on his face. We get things like motion-capture and try to make games realistic and believable. That was the next stage in his evolution.

For Metal Gear Solid 4, we were able to get more resolution and add more detail to the faces. We added wrinkles and we added the aspect of age to the equation. So: telling a story through wrinkles. If you really look at the evolution of Snake, the character, it’s also looking at the evolution of the gaming industry and hardware. I think that’s something that’s pretty unique to Snake as a character and you don’t see it in any other form of media where the character evolves with hardware. I’m not sure what the future holds for the next iteration.

On the preservation of video games in museums
The one thing I want to say is: Games are an interactive medium. When you look at games, it’s a window into that era. It’s very important to point out that just preserving games is not enough. I think you have to preserve other elements with it. If you look at previous generations of games, the type of gameplay, the controls, the humor, the type of stories that those games provided are significantly different from what we have today. It’s all these cultural elements that go into making a game. If 100 years from now, people look at the Smithsonian and saw these games that we have today, I think if all these cultural elements aren't there to accompany it and provide some sort of context for the game, then people aren’t really going to be able to understand. They’ll look at it and think, “What was so great about this? This doesn’t look fun at all.” So I think it’s important to preserve all those elements along with the game, as well.

On the pressure to meet fan expectations
Honestly, as a creator, I actually want to betray the fans’ expectations, in a good way. The thing is, games are interactive, so it’s a bit different from a movie, where—it’s interactive so, in a movie, you can really play with people’s expectations and it’s something completely different. But with a game, because it’s interactive, the player still has to interact with the game to a certain extend. So you can’t completely pull the carpet out from under them. For example, if it’s a steering wheel, it’s a car for example, you can’t swap the steering wheel with something completely different. To that extent, you have to keep certain elements with the games, but within those confines, I want to do something new and betray those expectations...

If you could image the fans’ expectations is a straight line down the center, I think there’s a certain degree of flexibility that we have where we can take freedom to a certain extent and not be completely off the mark and still push things as much as possible and betray expectations and try to do something new. So I always try to push things as far as I can and make things off-center as much as I can with every game I do.

On the importance of emotion in his video games
I think it’s very hard to create a complicated, involving story where you’re just running around shooting people, that’s something I always wrestle with when I make a game. But I think the emotional side of things is very important. Games, unlike movies or books, have that interactive element and using that interactive element in ways that strengthen the emotional experience is very important and it’s a new type of storytelling achieved through gaming.

On the biggest failure of his career
My biggest failure is having Metal Gear sell. [Laughs] My biggest failure and my biggest success.

"The Art of Video Games" is on view to Sept. 30 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Images courtesy Konami.

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