The 1963 film High and Low begins with a renowned Japanese shoemaker, Mr. Gondo, sitting in a luxurious living room. He is surrounded by his fellow company shareholders. Dozens of shoes pile up on the center table. Between puffs of cigarettes, the men discuss how to move their shoe company forward, and the conversation quickly gets heated. Mr. Gondo takes apart one of the company’s cheap shoes, decrying how it wouldn’t last a month, that this one shoe betrays everything he learned about making quality products in his youth. The shareholders retort that the cheap shoes keep costs down and make customers come back for more, raising profits. They begin to gang up on Mr. Gondo, like sharks approaching a lone tuna. Mr. Gondo sees what’s coming.
I’ll skip the details and the mystery thriller that follows, but at the end of it all, Mr. Gondo ends up with his own, more modest shoe company. Despite his glaring character flaws, you can tell that he’s happy with his own work again, and you feel happy for him.
I can’t help but see this film as a serendipitous allegory for Hideo Kojima’s life. He started out as a starry-eyed movie geek, made it to the top of a prestigious video game company, only to be pushed out and made to start over. I have a few issues with Kojima and his works, but I respect his massive contributions to the video game industry, and I’m very happy with how his trajectory has turn out.
Before we dive into the details of his life, let’s address the biggest question people may have:
Why Bother Studying Hideo Kojima?
I think it’s easy to justify why we would study universally praised game designers such as Shigeru Miyamoto and Masahiro Sakurai. However, Hideo Kojima is a bit more divisive. It might be difficult to pin down what exactly this person did for video games, especially for people who didn’t grow up in the ’90s. It can be confusing to see Hollywood directors such as J.J. Abrams and George Miller praise Kojima’s Death Stranding while some gamers say it was underwhelming.
Hideo Kojima’s approach to video games is wholly unique, both in how you play them and in how you experience their stories. The following are just a few of Kojima’s contributions to the video game industry:
- He helped pioneer the Stealth subgenre (Metal Gear, 1987).
- He helped popularize cutscenes and voice acting in video games. In other words, he pushed games towards feeling more “cinematic” (Metal Gear Solid, 1998).
- He created the first Postmodern videogame (Metal Gear Solid 2, 2001).
- His games were among the first to explore real-world issues and trends — from the diaspora of nuclear arms after the Cold War (Metal Gear Solid), to the rise of misinformation on the internet (Metal Gear Solid 2), to the ethics of the United States interfering in foreign countries during the Cold War (Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker and Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain).
- He pioneered a new subgenre of indirect multiplayer interactions, which he christened a “Stranding” game (Death Stranding, 2019)
Time will tell if Point 5 will be as influential as Kojima wants it to be.
I want to frame this study in the right way. Sometimes, historical figures become idolized when people start talking about them. They become untouchable heroes. I want to make it perfectly clear: Kojima is no hero. I have some big issues with his games. However, his games have also helped me re-examine things I took for granted. Death Stranding even helped me come to terms with some of my own existential anxieties over what I’ll leave behind after I die. I’m trying to approach Kojima with the same nuance as a U.S. historian would study George Washington or Thomas Jefferson — people who did important things, but also people who were deeply flawed. Now, Kojima never did anything as glaringly bad as, say, owning and selling other people as if they were property. However, I find some stories and gameplay mechanics to be problematic and potentially hurtful, just as I found others to be strokes of genius and soothing to my soul. Both of them need to be discussed.
With that said, let’s learn about Kojima.
“I Turned the TV on to Not Feel Alone”
Hideo Kojima was the youngest of three children. His early years were defined by family movie nights, where everyone would gather around and watch the classic films of the ’50s and ’60s. His parents even allowed him to watch more “adult” films, including horror movies.
By the age of 10, his parents began a program where he could go to the movie theater by himself, on the condition that he come back with a makeshift “book report” about what he saw and what he felt. As a naturally imaginative child, this spurred his creativity and planted the seed of wanting to be a film director. By borrowing a friend’s 8mm camcorder, he began making his own home movies, often zombie flicks.
By age 13, his father passed away, and this became a major blow for Kojima. His mother began going to work to take care of the family, and as the youngest in the family, Kojima often returned from school to an empty house. It was here that film and TV took on a new role: escapism. The stories helped carry him through rough times and provide him a creative outlet. He strove to make his father proud.
And yet, Kojima’s love for film didn’t make his dream any easier to achieve. At the time it was extraordinarily difficult for Japanese to get into filmmaking. There was no film school, no method to get into the industry. Kojima began university as an economics major, writing novels in his spare time in the hopes that they would help him earn some renown, that someone would want to see his stories put on the big screen.
No one did.
It was during this time that Nintendo released the Famicom (the Japanese name for the NES), and Kojima played Super Mario Bros. and The Portopia Serial Murder Case, the latter of which was a visual novel made by Dragon Quest creator Yuji Horii. These games made Kojima consider an alternative: become a video game designer and create an entirely different storytelling experience.
He applied for a job at Konami, which at the time was one of the few video game companies that was publicly traded, in the hopes that that status would help him remain respected among his peers. To his disappointment, his friends thought that he was throwing his life away. Even more to his disappointment, Konami decided to put Kojima on the MSX team. Though it was on this team that Kojima finally started his upward trajectory.
The Early Konami Years
Konami’s development teams were assigned to different consoles, with the Famicom team acting like the equivalent of a high school’s Varsity Football Team. They pumped out classic after classic and made the company a lot of money. The MSX, on the other hand, was an personal computer with a fraction of the Famicom’s horsepower, and didn’t quite make as much money. The MSX team were more like freshmen — runts who had yet to prove their worth. Kojima found a comradery among them. However, Kojima’s skillset oriented more towards artistic expression over technical precision, and so he struggled with the daily aspects of programming and design. He was not the most reliable member of the team. He had to overwork himself in order to keep up and get noticed by his superiors. His first attempt directing a game ended up crashing before it even left the ground, a devastating blow to the burgeoning designer. Konami gave him one last chance to salvage a struggling action game project. The team had been trying to develop a military-themed shooter, similar to the Famicom team’s Contra, but the programmers were having a difficult time getting the MSX to render more than 2 soldiers on the screen at once.
Kojima’s love of films finally came in handy. He thought back to the movies depicting daring WWII heists such as The Guns of Navarone and The Great Escape, and decided to lean into the MSX’s limitations. What if the game revolved around avoiding enemies instead of directly engaging them? The game would alternate between two states – a “hidden” state, where the guards would patrol on set paths, and a “discovered” state, where the guards would actively seek out the player and try to annihilate them. If the player could avoid capture long enough, the game would revert back to the “hidden” state. Kojima designed it less like realistic espionage and more like hide and seek, blown up to a larger scale and placed in a fictional military compound. He named the game Metal Gear, after the enemy’s robotic secret weapon, and released the game in 1987.
Metal Gear was a modest success. Konami decided to create a version for the Famicom, without Kojima’s knowledge or input, and similarly decided to make an action-oriented sequel for the same console. Kojima moved on to make a Cyberpunk visual novel called Snatcher, which originally released on the MSX but later became remastered for the Sega CD and other systems. While working on Snatcher Kojima heard about Konami’s sequel and decided to show them up, making a true sequel called Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake. Kojima expanded the original’s hide and seek mechanics to have the guards follow the player across different screens and respond to sound. Once again the game sold reasonably well. Kojima’s final PC game came out as another SciFi detective visual novel, called Policenauts, this time becoming a sort of interactive anime set on an interplanetary space station. It was also later ported to CD-based consoles such as the Panasonic 3DO and the Sony PlayStation. With the advent of the CD-based technology, came the opportunity for Kojima to finally blend his love of film into his experience with game design.
A Solid Success
Kojima decided to create a game with 3D graphics, creating a hybrid remake/reboot/sequel for Metal Gear 2. Development originally started on the Panasonic 3DO before switching over to the Sony PlayStation. Kojima planned to use every bit of the new technology to the fullest extent – dynamic cutscenes that would pan over the characters and environments, ambient soundtrack, and, of course, voice acting. To help conceptualize the levels and figuring out where to place the camera, Kojima used Lego bricks and physically moved around a camera. He wanted the player to change from 3rd-Person to 1st-Person on a dime. There would be dozens of weapons, bombastic boss battles, tense escapes, and introspective monologues. Yoji Shinkawa joined Kojima as the character and visual designer, giving Metal Gear Solid a distinct realistic yet elegant look that would be characteristic of every Kojima game since. Metal Gear Solid was shaping up to not only be just a video game, but an experience.
Up until that point, most video games in the West were decidedly “video gamey.” In other words, they had expected detachment from reality, and from any other medium. Movies didn’t have a High Score. Books didn’t have Game Over screens. There was a language — and the assumption — that games were supposed to be challenges first, and story was nothing more than the backdrop. I think the arcade roots of the medium are to thank for that. However, there were some who were trying to push that narrative and experiment with how video games could tell stories first, and challenge the player second. Yuji Horii already began that with The Portopia Serial Murder Case, and later with Dragon Quest, giving birth to the JRPG genre as we know it.
In the mid- to late-1990s, video games shifted from pixelated sprites, giving a stylized, artistic impressions of characters and environments in 2D; to polygons, rendering those same characters and environments in a 3D space. Video games were moving towards realism. In 1996 Nintendo showed how to create fun 3D games with Super Mario 64. In 1997 Squaresoft wowed its audience with Final Fantasy VII and its grand coming-of-age story. Metal Gear Solid, however, was another thing entirely. The protagonist wasn’t some plucky plumber or an angsty teenager — it was a chain-smoking, disillusioned special forces agent, codenamed Solid Snake. The game opens on a submarine in the Alaskan sea. Alarms are blaring. A military colonel informs us that terrorists have hijacked a nuclear weapon. What’s worse, there are hostages involved. He orders Snake to infiltrate the enemy complex, alone, to rescue the hostages and disarm the nuke. Credits for the game appeared over shots of Snake entering the building, the same way a film would begin. All of these sights, voices, and sounds were simply never put together in a video game before.
Sony realized that Kojima was onto something big, and together with Konami, they pushed for Metal Gear Solid to be at the forefront of the PlayStation’s Fall 1998 schedule. A flashy trailer was shown off at E3, and dozens of demo discs were passed out to eager PlayStation fans.
Metal Gear Solid was a runaway success. The game sold 6 million copies worldwide, topping the charts and quickly becoming one of the PlayStation’s best-selling games. To put its sales into context, Super Mario 64 sold 5.9 million units. The plumber who inspired Kojima in the first place had now been inched out by Kojima’s own creation. Among Konami’s other beloved series, Metal Gear Solid dwarfed them all. The original Castlevania on NES sold 1.5 million units, and the PlayStation’s own classic Symphony of the Night only sold 1.3 million units. Metal Gear Solid made Konami an unprecedented amount of money. The rest of their IPs — Contra, Gradius, Bomberman — all made pocket change compared to what Solid Snake brought in.
Now, imagine you were a Konami executive. You were probably giddy with excitement as you finished your December 1998 shareholders meeting. You had just published your most popular game ever, and your company is suddenly pushed into the mainstream. Obviously you need to make a sequel. That’s a no-brainer. Whatever that Kojima guy did, he must have done something right. He deserves a promotion and needs to be the leader for the inevitable Metal Gear Solid 2, and however many sequels that come after.
Kojima, too, was a bit excited and very overwhelmed by the sudden popularity of his game. The problem Kojima had is with the last part, “however many sequels that come after.”
The team that coalesced around Kojima during the development of Metal Gear Solid was simply given the name Konami Computer Entertainment Japan, or KCEJ. The team was, more or less, an evolution of the MSX team in the ’80s, and the group was still rather small. Kojima gets promoted to Vice President of KCEJ. Suddenly he has to manage not only his own projects, but also every other game run by the group, making sure their prototypes get funding and their games get pushed out the door. For the immediate future, they just focus on porting Metal Gear Solid to PC, creating a version for the Game Boy Color, and releasing the European version. They release an “director’s cut” with some cut content, called Metal Gear Solid Integral, which has a bonus set of VR missions, or isolated sneaking challenges, conducted in a “VR simulator” for Snake. These VR missions get released in their own standalone game as well. KCEJ buys themselves some more time to put together their next set of games.
By this time, it’s 1999, and Sony is starting to hype up their new home console, the PlayStation 2. KCEJ starts working on prototypes and Kojima has already begun conceptualizing for the sequel to Metal Gear Solid (abbreviated as MGS). He is expecting that this will be the last one he directs, that he can pass the torch to another member of KCEJ while he works on something else and only takes care of Metal Gear from afar, as a producer. Once again he takes out the Legos to conceptualize levels and hires military consultants to help simulate infiltration, bomb disposal, and espionage for the development team to understand the “feel” of the game. He and Shinkawa fly to New York City, the setting of their sequel, in order to get a proper lay of the land.
Kojima spent a bit more money than last time, but it was to be expected with the jump to a new console. Metal Gear Solid 2 was revealed in Sony’s E3 2000 showcase, releasing exclusively for their upcoming PlayStation 2. It was during this season that Kojima begins to acquire a taste for misleading audiences. In the studio he knew that the game will be divided into two episodes — one led by Solid Snake, the second led by a new recruit, Raiden — but Kojima only showed footage of the beginning episode. He wanted to deliberately surprise players with the second playable character, and hopefully draw in more female players into enjoying the series. In the end, Kojima aimed to question the nature of sequels and deconstruct the very idea of what a video game should be. He wanted to make a bold statement that would push every critic, and every player, to reconsider the way they consume video games. It would be his Postmodern opus magnum.
The audience at E3 2000, however, wasn’t so much wondering what it means to make endless sequels as they were obsessing over the game’s more realistic systems. Ice would melt. Glass bottles broke if you shot them. Guards would hold up their hands if you held a gun to their back. Enemies would look inside lockers if they were trying to find you. It was everything they wanted, and more.
Metal Gear Solid 2 was released in November 2001 to millions of ravenous players, eager to step into the shoes of Solid Snake once again. To say there was a backlash when the game suddenly shifts to Raiden would be an understatement. Fans were livid. Some people recognized the genius behind it, but for most players, the Postmodern musings went right over their heads.
Kojima understood that the inevitable Metal Gear Solid 3 would have to dial things back.
The plan for getting a new leader for the MGS series didn’t quite work out. And at the time, that was okay. Kojima had an idea for a sequel, anyway, this time moving away from the familiar industrial settings of the first two games into sneaking around a lush jungle. Harry Gregson-Williams, a Hollywood composer that Kojima had flattered into writing the music for Metal Gear Solid 2 (Kojima literally mailed Gregson-Williams a CD of clips from favorite films he scored, pleading for him to compose for MGS2), was actually looking to compose for a more natural-sounding score. The two struck a deal again, and Gregson-Williams would end up as the main composer for the remainder of the MGS series.
In Metal Gear Solid 3, Kojima decided to tell the prequel story of Big Boss, the legendary antagonist of the original 1987 Metal Gear, but for all intents and purposes, the player character still looked and sounded like Snake, with that familiar, chain-smoking voice performed by David Hayter. The setting would be the Russian wilderness in 1964. The player would have to manage their camouflage in order to remain hidden, and they would have to manage Snake’s hunger and health in order to survive. Metal Gear Solid 3 was released on the PlayStation 2 in November 2004.
In 2005, Konami restructured and consolidated some of their studios, merging KCEJ with other developers under one large umbrella. This helped Kojima focus less on management duties and focus more on game development itself. They named the new team Kojima Productions. Kojima had acquired enough renown to become one of the few game developers that people could identify by name, and Konami clued in that if they put Kojima’s name on a product, people would pay attention to it and buy it, even if he wasn’t directly involved. To Kojima, it was officially becoming one of the Steven Spielbergs of the video game industry.
And that’s where the real trouble began.
The Great Unraveling
The first cracks in Kojima’s relationship with Konami go all the way back to the production of Metal Gear Solid 4. This was one of the first instances where Kojima’s goals and Konami’s goals were out of sync. Kojima intended to leave MGS4 to a new lead: Shuyo Murata, the co-writer for MGS3 and director for another KCEJ game, Zone of the Enders: The 2nd Runner. Perhaps intended as a joke, or perhaps intended more seriously, MGS4 was originally revealed to be directed by “Alan Smithee,” a pseudonym historically used by film directors for when they didn’t want their names to be associated with a movie they made.
Whatever the reason, the proverbial passing of the torch didn’t work out as intended.
For starters, the team had to develop for the PlayStation 3, a console that was leaps and bounds more powerful than the PlayStation 2, but also with a processor that was notoriously abstruse to program for. Not only did they need to develop even more detailed graphics, but also do it on more stubborn hardware. It also didn’t help that Hideo Kojima had, by this point, written an encyclopedia’s worth of lore about the series, with loose ends he never intended to answer or connect. There were Shadow Government conspiracies, futuristic supercomputers, double-agents from the Cold War, and interpersonal drama between characters. Fans demanded answers to their questions, and the supposed new director was the straw that broke their camels’ backs. Kojima started receiving death threats. Paired with pressure from Konami to take up the reins again, Kojima began trying to piece together loose ends from a series of distinct plotlines.
In Metal Gear Solid 4, the Kojima Productions team decided this time to put Snake in a futuristic warzone, where he would have to navigate his usual sneaking in the middle of several different armed conflicts. Then Kojima made a series of very bold decisions. For starters, he would rapidly age Snake into an old man. That’s right, players would control a 70-year-old Solid Snake. Raiden’s happy ending in MGS2 would be undone. Characters beloved in MGS3 would end up as villains in MGS4. It was as if Kojima not only prematurely aged Solid Snake, but the entire series as well. The convoluted plot points and retconning of previous events was something that one would expect for the 10th entry in a game series, not the 4th. Kojima simultaneously tried to genuinely tie his games together while at the same time stamping a finality to it all. Some questions are best left unanswered.
Still, Metal Gear Solid 4 was released in 2008 on the PlayStation 3 to critical acclaim and massive sales. There was some fan backlash, of course, but nothing seemed to stop the series’ momentum, not even the rantings of its own creator and what appeared to be a deliberate attempt to turn people off to the series.
I guess if you can’t beat them, join them.
Kojima resigned himself to more games in the Metal Gear Solid series. In 2010 he helped Kojima Productions complete the PSP entry Metal Gear Solid: Peacewalker; and in 2011, he was promoted to Vice President of Konami Digital Entertainment. He had risen to the top of the company. He continued working as a producer for Kojima Productions’ projects, such as a Castlevania reboot in collaboration with MercurySteam (a Spanish studio that would eventually work with Nintendo on Metroid Dread) and an action spinoff with PlatinumGames called Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance. Oddly enough, the project that Kojima appeared the most proud of was developing the Fox Engine, a development tool that was supposed to help reduce costs for Konami’s future multiplatform games. It took a lot of time and money to develop. On top of that, Metal Gear Solid 4 already had one of the biggest video game budgets ever. If there’s one way to annoy your fellow AAA executives, it’s by wasting the company’s money.
Around the same time, a key relationship began developing between Kojima and the avant-garde Hollywood director, Guillermo del Toro. Del Toro was actually a fan of the Metal Gear Solid series. Key moments like the Psycho Mantis fight from the first Metal Gear Solid stood out as a “scary moment” for him. In his mind, Kojima was more than just a video game director. Kojima was also, in fact, a fan of del Toro’s work, especially Pan’s Labyrinth and Hellboy. Eventually when del Toro visited Japan, he started inviting Kojima out to dinner and karaoke. The two bonded over their shared interests in movies and TV shows.
Let that image sink in: Kojima chumming with Guillermo del Toro over a few beers, sharing a microphone as they bellow ’80s pop songs together. They were an unlikely duo: a lanky Japanese game developer and a portly Mexican filmmaker. The buddy comedy script writes itself.
Eventually, this friendship blossomed into an artistic collaboration. Guillermo del Toro would work with Kojima in creating a horror video game. Using the Fox Engine as a base, Kojima put out a demo for their game, entitled P.T., in August 2014. Kojima was back to his old pre-release antics, posing as a different studio and letting players figure out what the demo was actually for. What he anticipated to be weeks of gamers collaborating online to piece together the demo actually ended up only taking days. The secret was out: Kojima and del Toro were making Silent Hills.
That same year, Kojima announced another pre-release on the Fox Engine called Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes. This game would serve as the prologue for Kojima’s next major release, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. Kojima was serious, this time, in saying that it would be the last Metal Gear game he would work on. It seemed, though, that Kojima would remain at Konami for the release of Silent Hills and push video games even more into the movie sphere.
Between 2014 and 2015, however, things took a very different turn for Kojima and Konami.
While Kojima was busy pursuing these artistic endeavors, Konami was beginning to move in a different direction. Konami began looking at the mobile videogame market, with their low development costs and ridiculously high profit margins. Traditional games brought in a flood of money near their launch window, which would dry up to a trickle after a few years. But mobile games brought in a steady river of money. The day before Ground Zeroes released worldwide, Tomohiro Uesugi was promoted to Konami’s President. Uesugi began restructuring Konami and pursuing these high profit margins in earnest. What was before something Konami only occasionally experimented with and flirted with became their main mantra.
While Kojima had his rough patches with Konami beforehand, he was now at an impasse with them. Konami had no more room for pricey artistic productions like Silent Hills and Metal Gear Solid V. Shortly thereafter, Hideki Hayakawa was made CEO of Konami and the company began their restructuring even more aggressively.
Like a landslide that builds up over centuries on the mountainside and collapses in a moment, Kojima finally fell out with Konami.
The result was Silent Hills getting cancelled, and P.T. getting taken off all digital storefronts. Kojima and other managers were sidelined to contract workers to finish production of Metal Gear Solid V. Kojima Productions was re-named to Konami Productions. Rubbing salt into the wound, the company removed the Kojima Productions logo on all MGSV promotional material, and even on the final product itself.
Metal Gear Solid V was released in September 2015. In October, Kojima had a farewell party and was never seen at the company again. Bizarrely, Konami tried to keep up the façade that Kojima was still their employee, to the point that they barred him from accepting an award for working on Metal Gear Solid V during The Game Awards 2015, perhaps worried that he would use the opportunity to expose the truth.
Just like that, after nearly 30 years at Konami, Kojima was kicked out.
A New Strand
Kojima didn’t waste any time. In December 2015, just two months after getting fired, Kojima announced that Kojima Productions lived on as an independent studio, thanks to the financial backing of Sony Computer Entertainment. They would create a new IP exclusive to the PlayStation 4. Yoji Shinkawa would join him, as well as a few other friends from Konami. In 2016 he toured the UK, where he met up with fellow PlayStation exclusive studio Media Molecule. He admired Media Molecule’s smaller development teams with more diverse employees. This led Kojima to pattern his own studio after Media Molecule. By E3 2016, Kojima once again puzzled the world with the teaser trailer for his newest game, Death Stranding.
With Death Stranding, Hideo Kojima sought to replicate the kinds of innovations he had created back in 1998. Kojima sought to connect players across the internet not through competitive lobbies or leaderboards, but by players leaving behind helpful objects for each other. You would never truly see another player, just the artefacts they left behind. Kojima claimed it was a “new genre of games.” Guillermo del Toro came back to help Kojima with the project, bringing with him some Hollywood connections such as The Walking Dead actor Norman Reedus, who would appear as this game’s main protagonist. Other film actors such as Mads Mikkelsen and Lea Seydoux lent their likeness to the game as well — literally appearing in the game as themselves acting as a character.
Over the next several years, Kojima Productions continued to work on the game, all the while Kojima continually bewildered audiences with his trailers. No one even knew about what the game was even about. By the time the game released at the end of 2019, it seemed like audiences still struggled grasping the core of the game. On the surface it appeared like a bloated walking simulator. Its multiplayer mechanics were certainly unique, but they didn’t exactly resonate with every critic or player. In the end, Death Stranding ended up with highly divisive reviews. Following its 2019 release, Death Stranding was ported to PC in 2020, and an enhanced Director’s Cut was announced for the PlayStation 5 this year.
After that, we don’t know the rest of Kojima’s plans. He’s 57 years old now. He’s in his prime, and hopefully we will see some of his best works in the next few years. He might actually fulfill his childhood dream and make a movie. He might accept a deal with Microsoft and Xbox, as has been rumored. We don’t know. If you asked me, Death Stranding was his best game yet. I am happily anticipating whatever the studio works on next.
Well, if you made it this far, thank you! This was a novel of a blog post, but this guy has had one complicated life. Next week we will be talking about Hideo Kojima’s film inspirations and how they directly connect to his games.
Sources / Further Reading
- Lazich, Robert (July 28, 2003). Market Share Reporter 2004. Cengage Gale. p. 283. ISBN 978-0-7876-7219-5. Best-Selling Video Games, 1995-2002