Hideo Kojima, Part 1: How a Film Geek Makes Video Games

Hideo Kojima’s Instagram bio states, “Game Creator: 70% of my body is made of movies.”

As we’ve recently learned, Kojima’s love for movies runs deep into his childhood. It has stayed with him through difficult times like when his father passed away, or when he was striving to make it as a game designer. They have been a source of escapism as well as inspiration. Whenever I see him talking about movies, I don’t think I’ve ever seen him say a bad thing about a film, ever. He always finds something he admires about it.

Not surprisingly, Kojima loves to borrow from these films and mix their elements into his own works. Obviously there are the countless superficial inspirations and Easter Eggs that he takes, like stealing the codename Solid Snake from Snake Plissken, the hardboiled protagonist of the 1981 action flick Escape From New York. Other elements run deeper than a character’s appearance, such as The Great Escape inspiring the entire premise, setting, and basic game design of Metal Gear (and the Stealth subgenre) in the first place.

Escape from New York (Dir. John Carpenter, 1981)

And then there are movies where Kojima borrows their entire philosophy or visual language. They are ideas as big as landscapes — they’re so big, we barely notice them.

We will talk about Kojima’s unique visual surrealism and how they relate to his storytelling in another blog post. That also has been influenced by his favorite movies, but that rabbit hole dives very, very deep. Instead, and hopefully I can say this without sounding too pretentious, we’ll talk about the “medium-sized” inspirations; in other words, the basic story themes of each game. As he translated cinema’s visual storytelling into video games, Kojima acted a bit like a Game Designer Prometheus, borrowing the fire from the film industry and lighting up video game stories with their complex themes. It led to remarkable leaps and bounds for the industry, but it also led to some problems.

Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2: The Quintessential Military / Spy Thriller

Within Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2 is a long lineage of two family trees of movies: on one side, there’s DNA every classic military-themed movie of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. Snake is a one-man army, an action hero, and Kojima treats him as someone descended from that long line — The Great Escape, The Guns of Navarrone, The Longest Day, even ’80s action mascots such as Rambo and Terminator. On the other side, Snake is a spy, and the comparisons to the plethora of Cold War spy movies don’t get lost on Kojima. From the obvious James Bond to the more subtle North by Northwest, and even the parody movies such as Pink Panther have all blended into Kojima’s work. Metal Gear has a tiny bit of everything.

The result is a balance of goofiness and seriousness that pervades throughout the entire Metal Gear saga. One minute you encounter a revolver-spinning Russian cowboy, and the next you are questioning the loyalty of a key scientist to their country. One minute your superior officer Big Boss “forgets” to tell you about land mines, the next he turns out to actually be the mastermind behind the eponymous, nuclear-powered, bipedal robot in the first place. A saga full of campy car chases and personal betrayals begins here. And for the most part, Kojima manages to get all of it to work.

That being said, there’s also a major problem with this lineage. Along with these movies comes the elephant of machismo and sexism that, at best, lingers awkwardly in the corner of Kojima’s games; and at worst, sits front and center. Kojima creates plenty of room for nuance for his male characters like Snake. In fact, you could say that Snake actively undermines the action hero power fantasy, being such a lonely man that constantly gets taken advantage of.

However, Kojima doesn’t have the same track record when it comes to his women characters. This is the biggest problem I have with Kojima, actually. Throughout Kojima’s entire library of games I’ve found one female character — one — that I don’t have any problems with, that isn’t undermined by a moment of sexism. If there’s one thing I would tell Kojima to change, is to give up writing romance and please, please, PLEASE hire a woman writer to write for his female characters. And don’t get me started on Quiet from Metal Gear Solid V.

Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s move on!

Snatcher and Policenauts: Is Technology a Blessing or a Curse?

Following the themes of his two favorite moves — 2001: A Space Odyssey and Bladerunner, Kojima loves to discuss the double-edged sword that is technological advances. You could say the original Metal Gear began touching on this theme, but it really comes to the forefront in Snatcher and Policenauts. The robotic look-alikes in Snatcher are a blatant rip-off of Bladerunner’s Replicants mixed with some visual elements from Terminator. Kojima takes this opportunity to briefly comment on racial profiling, as the real culprits turn out to be affluent white people.

In Policenauts, Kojima’s tone becomes melancholic. At the center of Policenauts lies the question: will we ever actually get to explore space? Kojima doesn’t think so. As the mystery unravels, all of the harrowing realities of the toll that space travel takes on the human body are laid bare. It’s a video game that poses the possibility: maybe humans can’t overcome every hurdle presented to them. Maybe they should take better care of their own planet rather than leave it like a trash heap.

After Snatcher and Policenauts, Kojima includes a scientist in every game he directs, and every time, the scientist exists in a morally gray zone, at the intersection of necessity, cruelty, optimism, and curiosity.

Metal Gear Solid: The Tyranny of Genetics

In 1986, Forensic DNA testing was first used in court to prove a person’s innocence. In 1990, the international scientific community embarked on the Human Genome Project (HGP), a huge endeavor to map out the entire DNA sequence of the human genome. In 1996, Dolly the Sheep was successfully cloned. Greenpeace and several other organizations began protesting the use of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) as food in the early ’90s.

It’s safe to say that DNA was in the zeitgeist of the 1990s, and it featured in several movies of the time. Age-old debates such as nature vs. nurture or fate vs. free will suddenly returned to the mainstream forum of ideas. If the kind of person you are is encoded in your DNA — then are your actions really your choice, or is it all predetermined in your genes?

Several films also touch on the matter, such as Bladerunner (again) and 1993’s Jurassic Park. But perhaps the most astute was 1997’s dystopian thriller Gattaca. The way the film pits its protagonist with a birth defect against his brother with better, engineered genes feels rather similar to the fraternal rivalry present in Metal Gear Solid. Near the end of the game, Solid Snake discovers he is actually the clone of Big Boss, a product of a shadow government project called “Les Enfants Terribles.” According to the main villain, Liquid Snake, Solid received all of the dominant genes while Liquid received all of the recessive ones. Even though genetics doesn’t exactly work that way, it still raises the question: is Snake really a skilled soldier, or is he just a pawn, his achievements all artificially constructed? And what does that say about the cultural phenomena of the Mediocre Straight White Man in the first place? Considering that Snake is in reality a video game character, artificially constructed in a narrative and digital sense, you can add even more layers of meaning onto the game’s themes. Metal Gear Solid is Kojima’s first game where all aspects of the narrative and gameplay, both text and subtext, can be interpreted many, many times over.

Metal Gear Solid 2: Postmodernism, Social Media, and the Misinformation Age

Postmodernism is, in essence, the movement following the Modernist era of art. It was all about creating collages, cutting and pasting aspects of disparate genres and works and synthesizing them into a new creation. Postmodern works were all about deconstruction, questioning the nature of reality itself, and challenging what “true art” even is. Postmodern art loves to show their hand, acknowledging that they are, at the end of the day, just works of fiction. Postmodernism is, in essence, art about making art.

In every decade since the 1970s, movies have begun a rigorous Postmodern conversation, beginning with Monte Python and the Holy Grail (1975) and Taxi Driver (1976), to Bladerunner (1982) and Blue Velvet (1986), to a large wave in the ’90s with Pulp Fiction (1994), The Truman Show (1998), Fight Club (1999), and The Matrix (1999).

Metal Gear Solid 2 is Hideo Kojima’s Postmodern magnum opus. It is without equal in the video game industry. We will actually dedicate an entire blog post to Kojima’s Postmodernism, but suffice it to say that, in my opinion, he pulled it off best in MGS2.

Metal Gear Solid 3: The Existential Dread of Mutual Annihilation

On the surface, Kojima played it safe with Metal Gear Solid 3. It’s easy to write off its story as a typical Cold War spy movie. It’s a well-executed story, but it nevertheless sits in the genre rather comfortably.

However, dig a bit deeper beneath the surface, and the game’s subtext is simmering with darker tones. For a video game series that always threatens world peace with a nuclear-equipped robot, this was the only one to actually show a nuclear explosion on screen. You see its immediate danger, and underneath that, the existential dilemma you feel when you realize our species could easily destroy itself and bring down the entire planet with it, all because of, in the grand scheme of things, petty arguments between nations.

If you’ve ever seen the 1963 dark comedy Dr. Strangelove, you’ll see a vague reflection in this game as well as all of Kojima’s future games. Starting with Metal Gear Solid 3 (excluding MGS4), Kojima begins exploring historical settings, his games taking place within real nations and surrounding real historical events; and by doing so, opens up commentary about the ethics of how those events played out.

Metal Gear Solid, Peace Walker: The Ethics of Being The World Policeman

The first of Kojima’s “Historical Commentary” games, Peace Walker sets in Costa Rica in the 1970s. Kojima dives head-first into the U.S.’s involvement in Latin American countries.

For those who don’t know, the United States planted CIA agents into Latin America not just to keep tabs on Soviet spies, but to actively interfere in internal affairs if a country didn’t go “capitalist enough,” even if the country did so completely fairly and democratically.

As someone who lived in Chile and saw the effects of this myself, it’s a lot more sinister than it initially sounds. The CIA supported a dictator named Pinochet to stage a military coup and plunged Chile into two decades of terror and oppression. Thousands of people were kidnapped and killed all because Chile had the gall to run some social programs, and therefore, wasn’t capitalist enough for the U.S.. It makes me sick thinking about it.

Anyway, Peace Walker talks about the unrest in Central America at around the same time, becoming a testing ground for the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.’s ideologies. Each country would back a faction, thus devolving the whole situation into a proxy war. In the game Snake encounters the Sandinistas, one such group from Nicaragua, and enlists their aid. He creates a military without a nation – Militaires Sans Frontieres.

I’m not a big fan of the actual plot of Peace Walker, but the overarching historical drama is very interesting, and it continues the nuclear arms race discussion begun with MGS3. In the U.S. you’d think Che Guevara was the most dangerous criminal in South America, but other people would more quickly slap that label onto Uncle Sam himself.

Metal Gear Solid V: The Consequences of Colonialism

In an interesting twist, Kojima appears to have taken more inspiration from novels than from movies when creating MGSV. Moby Dick and 1984 references are everywhere in this game.

The tone of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is best described as a blend of MGS2, MGS3, and Peace Walker, embellishing on the movie inspirations from those games. Like Peace Walker, I did not care much for this game’s the plot in the end. However, I was entranced by the environmental storytelling, exploring the war-torn battlefields of the 1980s, including Afghanistan and Central Africa. Did you think that the dictator of the DRC got there all on his own? Nope! It was the American government. Thanks, CIA! (Sorry I’ll stop this time I promise).

In a way MGSV and Peace Walker feel more like historical documentaries, just with nuclear bipedal robots.

Death Stranding: The Optimistic Metal Gear Solid 2

Death Stranding takes Post-Apocalyptic films such as Mad Max, The Road, and Planet of the Apes and blends them with horror, likely a by-product of his collaboration with Guillermo del Toro for making P.T.; in fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if del Toro’s films also impacted Kojima.

In Death Stranding, the world has been besieged by ghosts, who now roam the landscape. Rain is polluted with a substance called Timefall, which rapidly ages anything it touches. The result is this rather moody game with a fascinating open world.

The more relaxed pace of the moment-to-moment gameplay, hiking across the United States carrying packages, feels a lot like the films of Japanese filmmakers Akira Kurosawa, Hayao Miyazaki, and Isao Takahata, the latter two being the major directors for almost all of Studio Ghibli’s films. However, while Ghibli used quiet moments to let the viewer connect with the characters in a charming, child-like world, Kojima makes you feel almost oppressively alone. It’s relaxing, but also isolating.

And that is where Kojima reveals what is, in my opinion, his best game mechanic yet: connecting with other players by using and “liking” the tools they leave behind. Whether it’s a ladder, or a climbing rope, or a motorcycle, it’s so helpful and such a relief to see the objects that other players leave behind. Conversely, it feels really good to help other people out, too. I feel genuinely altruistic in Death Stranding, a trait that I’ve never acquired to such an extent in a video game.

Movies Never Question Their Artistry

When you really think about it, movies and video games have a lot in common with each other. Both art forms involve the intersection of technology with human expression. Both industries try to balance business growth with creativity and innovation. Both are experiences heavily emphasized in their visual and audio components. And yet the The North American public views one as an art form and the other as a toy. I mean, the history and development of both of them has something to do with that. Nintendo took over the video game industry in the ’80s by marketing them as toys, while the American public survived The Great Depression by escaping into movie theaters. Movies carry with them the self-confidence that they do not need to be questioned as a valid experience. No one tells someone they need to grow up if they watch a movie. No one frowns and says, “Oh, you still watch movies?” No matter how derivative or campy the movie is, it still carries on as if to say, “sit down, I gotta finish my story.”

Hideo Kojima conveys that same sense of self-assuredness into his games. No matter how dumb Metal Gear Solid may get (and trust me, it can get pretty dumb), Kojima carries on as if it’s the most natural thing ever, and you the player are just expected to roll with it. Kojima has something to say, and as indulgent as his stories get, he says them such raw earnestness that I feel compelled to listen, even if not everything works well.

And that is a good segway into our topic for next week: Kojima and the visual language of his stories. Until next time!

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