Hideo Kojima is one of few game developers who is close to being a household name. He’s responsible for critically acclaimed titles, such as the Metal Gear Solid series, and games with good reviews and strong cult followings, including Death Stranding and Zone of the Enders. His games are known for their incredibly innovative and unique gameplay experiences, well-fleshed-out characters, and high quality cinematic storytelling.
This last trait has attracted as much disdain as it has acclaim. Beginning with Metal Gear Solid 4, some criticized Kojima’s game for including too many cinematics in place of gameplay. In fact, the game holds the current world record for the longest cutscene in a video game at 71 minutes long—for one cutscene.
To Kojima’s fans, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Those who love his work often play his games for their idiosyncratic stories and wild, mind-bending worlds as much as for their gameplay. To Kojima himself, criticisms of these long cutscenes are probably complimentary.
After all, Kojima initially wanted to become a filmmaker.
Kojima the Filmmaker
When Kojima first entered the gaming industry, his goal was to become a filmmaker. He wanted to make “film-like experiences.” In a 2012 interview with The Guardian, he said:
“I wrote novels in my spare time while studying. Even this pursuit was related to film as I wanted to win awards for my novels and thought that if that happened perhaps I would get the chance to make a movie…. It was around that time that I saw Nintendo’s Famicom for the first time. Immediately it struck me that this might be another route into making film-like experiences … right away I thought games could become something important in the future.”
While he claimed to pursue gaming because he lacked the connections to get into movies, he also noted that he “soon fell in love with the art of making games.” It’s an art at which Kojima has excelled. His games have inspired other artists, with the director Guillermo Del Toro among his biggest fans and David Hayter, screenwriter/voice-actor-of-Kojima’s-most-recognizable-character, noting that working with Kojima influenced his screenwriting.
Although Kojima has stated that his new production company intends to make films in the future, his love for cinema has already significantly impacted his games. In fact, Kojima’s cinematic influences may well be the core reason for the idiosyncratic nature and high quality of his portfolio. To a certain extent, these influences are his signature, and they help to make him a unique developer.
When you’re in a high-level role like designer or writer, every part of your life has an influence on your work. While the famous writer and adventurer Jack London wrote about adventuring in the wilderness, political themes underlay much of the well-known anarchist Alan Moore’s comics.
On a deeper level, these influences affect the things artists focus on and the finer qualities of their work. London had a firm appreciation for how hard it is to survive in the wild, and Moore is uniquely capable of exploring the complexity of politics and society.
The same is true for Kojima. His love for film can be seen as the cause for some of the most notable qualities in his work. The consequences are subtle but important. Moreover, they’re part of what makes Kojima’s games so strong.
No matter what the activity, emotional investment adds intensity, stakes, and immersion. While games that lack story can still create emotional investment through the player’s own ability to “fill in” the story, this cannot replace the strength of a respectably-told story or well-crafted characters.
The problem is that many game developers have historically viewed story as something to tack on to the end of the development process rather than as an element that is intrinsically linked to the quality of the game. This is doubly true in action and adventure games. Even when they do contain a story, these stories can lack the quality or strength to keep players invested.
Kojima’s original goal was to become a film writer. As a result, he pursued video game development, hoping to not only create fun gaming experiences, but to find new and interesting ways of telling stories.
Kojima’s mind for storytelling is obvious to anyone who’s played his games. The characters are unique and complex, the plotlines are engaging (if sometimes confusing), and one can always feel the underlying tension that is so desperately sought for in the film industry. Contrast this tension with novels and comics, which can sometimes trade this quality for subtlety or intellectual interest.
The result of Kojima’s focus on narrative is that players become emotionally interested and invested in his stories. When the player cares, deep down, about the story and characters, any other element in the gameplay, including every challenge, will matter that much more to them. Kojima’s games don’t just appeal to gamers’ fun-loving natures; they tug at their heartstrings.
A Grounded Attention to Detail
Video games can sometimes feel “weightless.” By that I mean they can feel like they’ve flown far away from the realms of reality to explore the heights of imagination. This is partly because the all-digital nature of gaming has kept games from being subject to the same limitations as, say, film. As great as this lack of restriction is, it can create an emotional distance between the player and the game. Removing all the nuance and difficulty of our real world puts us on unfamiliar ground, detracting from our ability to relate to the world and work.
Kojima’s love for film may have changed this disconnection. As someone who wanted to be a filmmaker, he created his projects from a filmmaker’s perspective. Put differently, he thought about the elements required to bring his scenes to life in reality. He wasn’t off in the clouds; he was grounded.
There’s weight to what Kojima’s characters do and a clear consideration for the reality of what it’s like to embody their roles. This results in an intricate attention to detail. Whether it’s small bits, such as the way Snake slows down when he walks up the stairs or the pain-in-the-ass of balancing packages in Death Stranding, Kojima’s games bring snippets of reality to life and add layers of challenge to them.
The end result is that the game suddenly feels real and grounded.
Binding the Real with the Wild
It’s this last quality of Kojima’s work that I think is most important to his legacy. As Kojima’s career has progressed, his stories have become more unique and mind-blowing. While this has turned some of his fans away, the truth is that Kojima has begun to build more creative worlds and stories than even the wildest fantasy novels—especially in Death Stranding.
The problem is that the further one strays from reality, the harder it becomes for the audience to relate emotionally to the work. Good writers usually have messages and ideas behind their work that they want their readers to consider. This puts them in a tough position: on the one hand, they want to broaden their readers’ minds with new and innovative ideas; on the other, they want to make sure their readers feel connected and engaged so that they care about those ideas.
By combining the immersive nature of video games with the grounded reality of film and the storytelling lessons of film and fiction writing, Kojima has found the solution to this paradox. He brings the weight and reality of a film-focused mindset right into the player’s hands, making use of gaming’s power of immersion to connect them to the story and pull them in.
Once the player’s feet and mind are firmly planted in Kojima’s worlds, he swings at them with these incredibly wild stories about life, death, reality, conspiracy, and loyalty. Where seeing these ideas in film or fiction might push someone away or cause them to put up walls, Kojima takes advantage of the player’s immersion to pull them in closer and force them to look at them. No longer does a world where death is coming to life feel impossible. The player is already there and considering what these concepts mean.