The Trials and Tribulations of Hideo Kojima
A haggard, aging Solid Snake opens Metal Gear Solid 4 with a sombre soliloquy about how war has become routine. He’s tired of it all, and just wants to finish his mission so he can fade away. But is it Snake speaking, or the director of the series, Hideo Kojima?
War has changed.
Kojima’s relationship with his flagship series has been complicated since the runaway success of Metal Gear Solid in 1998, but to understand why, it’s important to understand the man himself. To many he’s a self-indulgent, melodramatic hack of a writer, to others, a misunderstood genius ahead of his time. As for the truth? Honestly, I think it’s a little bit of both. Kojima is an artist, at heart. He doesn’t think video games should necessarily be fun, he thinks they should be an experience, a memorable experience with a message that sticks with you. His desire to convey his philosophy is both his guiding force and his greatest flaw.
Back at the start of his career, he was an unknown quantity. But he immediately proved his worth with Metal Gear, the first entry in the series that would evolve into what we know today as Metal Gear Solid. Single-handedly inventing the stealth genre, the game shot to fame and Kojima was utterly submerged in success. He released a sequel, Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake to equal praise. He next went on to create Snatcher and Policenauts, both adventure games which would go on to critical acclaim and be heavily referenced in future Metal Gear titles. He wouldn’t have to wait long to reference them either, as three short years after Policenauts, Metal Gear Solid was born.
Metal Gear Solid was, at its core, much like it’s predecessors. A game about sneaking around enemies, fighting outlandish bosses, and enjoying a dramatic story. But this time it had a message. A message about not letting yourself be shackled to your past, to not let your fate control you, and to simply live. A lot of players weren’t entirely bothered about the message the story tried to convey, and instead simply asked for more. What few criticisms there were focused on the length of the cutscenes and the short playtime. People asked for less cutscenes, less preachiness, and more fun. This worried Kojima. People weren’t listening to his message. They just wanted another chance to play another action packed Solid Snake adventure. How could he get through to them? Intending for the second MGS to be his last, he devised an experiment.
Metal Gear Solid 2 stars Raiden, a whiny Solid Snake wannabe who has been trained in virtual reality, specifically in the very missions that Snake himself undertook. Sound familiar? Raiden was intended to embody the people who wanted more of what the first game provided. He wants to be a hero and save the world, but that’s not what he would get, in the end. He is deceived by his superiors at every turn, every victory is hollow, nearly every task degrading and infuriating. Kojima was taking what the players wanted and throwing it back in their faces. Towards the end of the game even Raiden’s very reality comes in to question, and he starts to doubt everything in his life. The story becomes convoluted and hard to follow. Pieces of the plot seem missing, and as Raiden himself becomes more frustrated, the players themselves did the same. What possible message could be gleaned from all of this?
The message was pretty simple, in the end. What’s real or not isn’t the point. The point is, you get to choose what to believe, choose what MEMES you want to pass on to future generations. Don’t take things at face value, form your own conclusions and carry them with you. In my and many others opinion, the game was a postmodern masterpiece.
Predictably, most fans didn’t see it that way. They loved the game but derided its messy story and plot dumps. They wanted Snake back. They wanted answers. Basically, they missed the point entirely. Kojima was disappointed. The majority of the players had failed his test. They failed to see his deeper meanings, and just wanted to play as Snake on a heroic mission to save the world again, just as misguided and annoying as Raiden was at the very beginning of the game.
Around the time of MGS2 being released Kojima created Zone of the Enders, another sci-fi game focusing on mech combat, which was again warmly received. His original plans were to leave Metal Gear behind him and focus on new IP’s such as ZOE, and although he did manage to make a sequel and GBA spin-off, the relentless baying by the fans of his most beloved series wouldn’t stop following him. They demanded more Metal Gear, and nobody could answer the questions they had but the man himself.
Kojima caved. He gave in to fan backlash and sat back down in the directors chair to create Metal Gear Solid 3, which was essentially a reimagining of the first game in a cold war setting with Solid Snake’s legendary father, Big Boss. Much like the first game it had a message too but hey, who cares! We get to play as Big Boss! He’s cool, he has a beard and a motherfucking eyepatch. Let’s get to sneaking! People loved it, people again demanded more from Kojima. If he could make something this good again, imagine what a fourth MGS would be like!
By this stage, Kojima had completely lost his will to work on the series. The state of the industry seemed to sicken him, and by the time he agreed to work on a fourth installment, he released trailers poking fun at the FPS generation raised on war games. Metal Gear Solid 4 was publicised as the last entry to feature Solid Snake, his final mission, and the end of his story. Kojima intended it to be the same for his role in the series.
When playing the game you can tell his expectations of his fanbase dropped dramatically. A system has been implemented where you can accumulate “points” to spend on more guns. A new robotic enemy type was introduced which mindlessly swarm you, paving the way for explosive, mindless battles which rack up your meaningless score. Every plot inconsistency or vague supernatural suggestion is explained away with nanomachines, and the credits roll. Kojima finally gave the fans what they wanted. Well done.
In MGS4, Solid Snake is called “Old” Snake. Old is what you get what you take the letters I and S out of Solid. Snake, like Kojima, lost what he IS. He lost his sense of self, his ideologies and his philosophies, and just wanted to get this series the hell over with, already. As Snake himself puts it; “War has changed. Our time has ended. Our war is over. But there’s one more thing I must do… One last punishment I must endure. Erase my genes… Wipe this meme from the face of the earth. This… Is my final mission.”
There is a happy ending to this story, however. Kojima was re-invigorated while developing the 2010 PSP spin-off Peace Walker, and seems to have carried this newfound enthusiasm into the development of MGS5: The Phantom Pain, the trailer for which you can see here. It seems that now Snake’s mission is over, Big Boss is taking center stage as the main protagonist of the series, and frankly I couldn’t be happier. I’m sure that by the end of MGS4 all of us, not just Snake and Kojima, were happy to see the poor guy get some rest. That and Big Boss himself is a relatively blank slate, his story so far having not been backed into a corner from which he was never supposed to sneak his way out of, à la MGS2. I really can’t overstate how hyped I am for The Phantom Pain, as it seems to be shaping up as the most emotional, character-driven entry in the series to date.
Overall, I think Hideo Kojima is a brilliant man with deep meaningful messages to convey, and one hell of a developer. I do think he let MGS4 suffer for his beliefs, and it could have been a very different game, but his games are always an immense joy to play (whether or not that’s his focus) and the stories themselves are full of passion. I even love MGS4 to pieces (In a certain “I wish you weren’t canonical” kind of way.)
Thanks in no small part to Hideo Kojima’s devious handling of the medium to pass on messages, and for the gameplay which never ceases to be tense and exciting, Metal Gear Solid will always have a special place in my heart as one of the greatest video game series of all time.
Article by Joe Edmonds
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