Hideo Kojima, Part 2: The Surreal Art of the Visual Metaphor

In 2012, Kojima said in an interview with The Guardian that he has a highly active imagination, and that even in adulthood he has to keep his mind from wandering off and making its own stories. He even paused during the interview to discreetly share what was going through his head at that very moment with the interviewer.

“‘Even now, while we are talking, I find my mind wandering if I’m not careful,’ he says, with a warm smile. He motions to the untouched cappuccino on the table in front of him: ‘take this coffee cup, for example.’

‘OK. What’s the story of the coffee cup?,’ I ask.

‘I am imagining a story in which there’s a massive coffee cup that we’re all sitting inside now. It’s not really a story, I guess, so much as a vivid picture. But this! This is how my mind works.'”

“Hideo Kojima: video game drop-out – Interview Part 1,” by Simon Parkin, May 23, 2012

I would argue, though, that that’s exactly how Kojima tells a story. He gives a series of vivid pictures. While parts of the plot are certainly elaborated through audio conversations, the majority of what he has to say is expressed visually through the in-game camera.

There are two key pillars of what I would say are a part of Kojima’s visual-based storytelling: 1) the uncanny mixture of real and supernatural elements, and 2) the visual metaphor.

Kojima’s Magical Realism

Hideo Kojima is the kind of artist who deliberately breaks the rules of game design and storytelling. He will immerse the player in realistic details, only to jostle them out of the chair with bizarre supernatural events or characters. At first it’s jarring, but eventually this ebb and flow makes his games all the more immersive, a universe all of its own, where you can’t quite predict what will happen next.

At first this dichotomy is subtle. Metal Gear Solid opens as you, the player, begin to infiltrate the enemy compound from an underwater cave. The color palette is full of white, green, blue, and gray, giving off an eerie, cold atmosphere. Puffs of breath escape from Snake’s mouth, cueing the player into how frigid the Alaskan air is. If you step on a puddle, the splash will lure a guard over to your location. As you step out of the elevator and onto the snow field, Snake leaves footprints in the snow, and if you’re not careful, a guard will notice them and follow them right to you.

And then Colonel Campbell tells you over codec conversation to press the Triangle button whenever you need to climb a ladder.

It’s not just the 4th Wall breaking shenanigans, though. Let’s look at a later scene in the game, the fight with Gray Fox. The encounter begins as Snake passes through a hallway filled with Gray Fox’s victims. It’s a grisly scene that immediately sets a horrific tone. After passing through the passage filled with corpses, Snake arrives at the lab where Otacon, a nerd with massive round glasses, cowers in the corner, whimpering, “It’s like one of my Japanese animes!”, and proceeds to wet himself. The player, set on edge from the previous room, is disarmed by this sudden crude joke.

Then the tonal see-saw moves once again. The cyborg ninja towers over Ocaton, the camera angled in just a way to decapitate the scientist with Gray Fox’s unsheathed katana. By the cinematography alone, the player is brought back into the urgency of the scene. Snake confronts Gray Fox and the two begin a fight. The office is meticulously detailed, with a poster of Policenauts present as an Easter Egg and as character building for Otacon. If a desk is damaged, papers will scatter across the room. There is even a TV and what I believe is a PlayStation sitting on a shelf. And yet, among all of this realism, one cannot help but consider how ridiculous it is to be fighting a camouflaged robot ninja in an office.

Almost all of the boss fights in the Metal Gear Solid series feels like this — you’re simultaneously pulled in and pushed away by the magical realism of each set piece. In Metal Gear Solid 2, Raiden fights a vampire in a damp water disposal facility. In Metal Gear Solid 3, Snake beats an astronaut with flamethrowers in a rat-infested sewer. In Metal Gear Solid V, Snake avoids from a man literally on fire as he tries to escape a hospital under siege by terrorists. It both defies common sense and feels perfectly normal as Kojima establishes his own nonsense logic.

By doing this, Kojima can sometimes make his convoluted plots work. Sometimes. It doesn’t give him a free pass for not building up a reveal or not actually developing his characters. Kojima sometimes chases his ideas like butterflies and looses track of telling a focused story. Like I said before, he’s indulgent.

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain tells a lot of its story through mirrors, windows, and other “frames.” Kojima struggled at writing a coherent plot in this game. However, he showed his mastery of condensing his ideas into a succinct image.

Visual Metaphors and “Ludometaphors”

The one part of Kojima’s stories that I always enjoy are his way of expressing relationships and ideas just from a handful of images. While Metal Gear Solid V may contain Kojima’s weakest plot, it has some of his best visual metaphors. The title screen depicts Snake in a hospital bed, with our view of him blurred and broken up by the ceiling fan blades passing over him. It’s a stark image. Kojima loves to slow down and linger on images like these. MGSV’s story sets up and subsequently reveals its major plot twist by using mirrors. If only it was actually alluded to somewhere in the middle of the story, the reveal would’ve had a stronger emotional impact.

Death Stranding is an even better case study of Kojima’s metaphors, both visual and gameplay. While mirrors and “frames” were the running theme of MGSV, rope and thread is the running theme of Death Stranding. Kojima is very on-the-nose here. You are connecting the United States one city at a time, each location becoming a knot in a connected rope. The ghosts that haunt the countryside can be seen from a distance by their dark, eerie strands falling from the sky. Similarly, the connections you make with others form strands of light. As relentless as Kojima is in showing off all the rope analogies he came up with, there’s something powerful about the images they present. It’s enchanting to imagine physical strands forming to represent the feelings we have for each other, the bonds we share that strengthen or loosen as time goes by.

Thankfully, Kojima provides a good foil to the rope to keep the player from getting sick of all the connection metaphors. While the rope brings us closer, sticks push us apart. Sticks are used to keep a distance, to strike, and in Death Stranding‘s case, the stick is represented by a gun. Due to story reasons, it’s a very bad idea to kill a person in this world. So instead, the player has to make do with nonviolent means of incapacitating enemies. One such weapon is the bola gun; another is a literal rope that Sam uses K.O. enemies. Ghosts, on the other hand, get the full brunt of weapons lethal to spectral entities.

BB provides another frame for Kojima to build these themes around. Obviously, there’s the umbilical cord that literally attaches a fetus to its mother. In a way, it’s a bit creepy that Sam carries around an unborn human that can detect ghosts. On the other hand, I like the idea of the player connecting with BB. It is a blank slate — no nationality, no assigned gender, no religion, nothing to separate us. It’s just a human connecting with another human.

Yep, zipline is yet another rope metaphor. I’m telling ya, you can’t escape it.

But I think there’s an even better analogy, and that’s the stranding mechanic itself. This is what I call a “Ludometaphor.” In other words, gameplay and action itself becomes symbolic. It’s the same way that religious rituals take actions and add a layer of meaning to it. For me, this added an almost spiritual level to the gameplay. In Death Stranding, I cannot tell who the other players are. Everyone is anonymous. I never see them. I have no clue who they are, what they believe, what gender they identify as, who they love, what color their skin is, what language they speak… nothing. All I can see is the items they leave behind, and all they can see are my items.

As a young adult that experienced a faith transition, I’ve felt rather adrift with some of the cosmically big questions. As I’m growing older, I’m especially anxious about the kind of legacy I might leave behind. If I can’t leave behind some grand work or gesture, was my life worth it? Will anything I do ever matter?

Death Stranding taught me that everything deteriorates. Timefall will eventually ruin everything you build. However, during the time that we are alive, it is still massively helpful to interact with others. Together we can build great things, like a highway or a bridge. And even as one person, I may leave behind a single ladder. I never know who that ladder will help. I may never know for certain, but my work may matter, someday, to someone. If I don’t put myself out there, I’ll never find out.

So to those who may criticize Death Stranding as a video game — yeah, I agree, the game has some flaws. But Death Stranding also gave me an epiphany that I can use for the rest of my life. That kind of experience is priceless. I am grateful for the metaphors I got to experience with Kojima’s games. It’s more than just a game at that point — it’s a symbolic, healing, almost spiritual experience.

Next week, we will deconstruct video games as we dive headfirst into the Postmodernist rabbithole I talked about last post. We’re almost there!

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