What makes a game good? No, really, what makes a game worth talking about and remain worth talking about? What makes a game stay around for decades instead of fading away into obscurity after its launch week?
Most of the discourse around video games are reviews, Top 10s, and analyses. Those certainly have a place in our discussion wheelhouses, but they’re not the only things worth saying about a game. Imagine if all people said about art was “Is Starry Night worth seeing?” or “These are my Top 10 Mozart sonatas” or “This is how Stephen King writes a novel.” Those are all important, and they have their place, but wouldn’t we be missing the whole point of art if that was all we said about it?
As passionate as I am about video games, I mostly stick to writing reviews and game design analyses. My biggest change to this blog has been adding more “biographical” pieces about game developers, and I’ve found a lot of satisfaction from these projects. However, as I began working on 2021’s game dev summer project, the scope grew much larger than I originally anticipated. Not only did I play this director’s video games, but I also watched movies that inspired him and dove down interview after interview, trying to piece together the real story. And in order for this blog to get from Point A to Point B with this writer, we’re going to have to go through Points C, D, E… and maybe the rest of the alphabet, too. So think of this blog post as the “summer reading” for a school class, material to prime you for what I’m going to talk about later this year.
For those who don’t know, I’m going to play though Hideo Kojima’s games and then write a miniseries of blog posts analyzing his works. I’m planning to publish these in August. In previous years, I’ve discussed Shigeru Miyamoto and Masahiro Sakurai. These developers have interesting gameplay ideas, but their works are very light on the story. Consequently, my analyses mostly discussed gameplay.
However, if you’ve played a Kojima game, then you know that his games are almost… the opposite of Miyamoto. There’s no way I can properly discuss Kojima’s games without spoiling their stories, at least some of them.
I’m going to try to keep spoilers to a minimum, but if you want to follow along, I suggest you play at least Metal Gear Solid 1, 2, and 3. I will 100% spoil these games. Don’t worry, these games are rather quick to finish, none of them should take you more than 15 hours to beat. Kojima’s games follow similar trends and themes, so thankfully I can avoid spoilers for the rest of his games, but I need examples in order to prove my points, otherwise the writing is going to be too vague. Don’t worry, the rest of Kojima’s body of work will only be “spoiled” for their general themes.
From an Art Theory perspective, you could say that, in the past, I’ve been taking a Formalist approach to my posts. In other words, I looked at Miyamoto’s and Sakurai’s game compositions — how each game element works together to create a whole experience. This is the equivalent of saying, “In Starry Night, Van Gough used yellow paint and blue paint in splotches to create the impression of stars in the sky at night.” Most mainstream reviews use Formalist theory, whether they realize it or not. Graphical performance, voice acting, sound design, gameplay loop all are Formalist theory elements that tell you if a game is good or not, and whether or not it’s worth buying.
For Hideo Kojima, though, it’s near-impossible to discuss his games from solely a Formalist approach. In fact, from that perspective, he’s a rather lackluster writer and game designer. However, I think his games will provide some of the best discussions we’ll ever have.
How is that?
In addition to looking at his works using Formalist theory, we’re also going to be using Instrumentalism Theory. Instrumentalism believes that art is a cultural message, with authorial and historical roots, and those pieces are only made important because of the cultural impact the art leaves behind. Kojima borrows ideas from movies, books, and even real world events, and concocts some profound statements out of them. From an Instrumentalist perspective, I believe Kojima is an absolute genius. When his characters start monologuing about the Post Cold-War proliferation of nuclear arms, or the tyranny of language to shape thoughts, his stories simultaneously become Formalist Trash and Instrumentalist Treasure. Kojima knows what he’s talking about, too, for the most part. He’s done his research. He fumbles when he writes characters, but scores countless touchdowns for your Philosophy class.
We’re going to take that a step further, though. Traditional discussions about art and video games typically talk about what the game designer intended when they wrote the story and designed the gameplay. Part of why I do game dev biographies is to acknowledge the people behind the games, and so I will try to discuss Kojima’s intentions and inspirations. However, I’m also going to bring my own conclusions to the games, separate from whatever Kojima “intended” to be in the game or not. Roland Barthes’ The Death of the Author claims that once an author publishes their work, they release it into the wild, where readers can interpret it however they see fit, without the writer looking over their shoulder. I will be using this “Dead Author” theory as another tool for my analysis. Kojima’s games are highly divisive. Some people hate them, and some people love them. There’s no way to interpret a Kojima game “correctly,” even when taking his intentions into account. To be honest, it’s been devilishly hard to find out what his original intentions are in the first place. He frequently contradicts himself in interviews. He revels in deceiving fans and disguises his game reveals as elaborate mysteries. His games take many risks, and each have their own long list of pros and cons. Your experience with a Kojima game is entirely your own: some of his ideas will bond with you, and some won’t. You may even dismiss his themes entirely because of his writing mistakes, and that’s also okay.
Thankfully, the video game industry is expanding and diversifying, and there are now several people on the internet who are talking about games from more than just a Formalist perspective. We will be joining them as we pull Kojima’s games apart. If you’ve never played any of them before, you’re in for a trip!