How Hideo Kojima Became a Legendary Video-Game Designer

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The creator of the renowned 'Metal Gear' franchise discusses his influences in a Smithsonian talk.

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Game designer Hideo Kojima and his creation, special forces agent Solid Snake Konami/Reuters

The next time you hear someone complain that kids these days have become video-game zombies, glued for roughly ten hours a day to a spot several feet from their parents' 42-inch plasma-screen, take a deep breath. Then consider for a moment that those kids are actually part of something very special. Video games sit at the confluence of history, technology, and art in such a way that's found in no other medium, a place where influences from every creative field meet, mix, and recombine.

Few have benefitted more from this environment than Metal Gear creator Hideo Kojima. He was 24 years old when his 8-bit action-adventure game was released on the Japanese home computer system, the MSX2, in 1987. Eschewing the trigger-happy, arcade-style gameplay of other action titles, Metal Gear instead favored the use of stealth and ingenuity, with violence as a last resort, as tools for infiltrating the game's fortress and disarming a nuclear threat. Kojima also used his love of American action films and TV shows to give Metal Gear a cinematic narrative largely unseen in games outside the fantasy/role-playing genres. It quickly became an underground hit.

Since then, Kojima has developed and released seven more sequels and various spin offs in the Metal Gear series, building a rigorous mythology around its lead character, the special forces agent Solid Snake, and perfecting the stealth-action genre he spawned two decades ago. Collectively, the franchise has sold close to thirty million games.

Kojima appeared on Saturday at the Smithsonian American Art Museum's exhibition showcase for The Art of Video Games, where he talked about how his love of Western film has influenced his game design, the future of his franchise, and whether video games can really be considered art.

Here are some of the highlights.


On whether video games can be considered art:

There are many museums dedicated to technology, artistic endeavors, music, and that sort of thing. From that perspective, I think games really do have a place as a kind of collaborative art or a synthesis of all these various aspects into a whole and that in itself can be perceived as art.

One contradiction that I would like to point out is that in traditional art painters can do a portrait and push their views on the viewer. Say you painted something that looks like a banana but said, "Hey, no this is an apple." As a viewer you have no control over that. The painter has total control over what they're showing to the viewer. I think that's what art has been up to this point. For games you can't really do that because they're interactive. Take the example of the car. People are used to driving a car with a round steering wheel but if you were to suddenly change that to a triangular steering wheel, people would have a really hard time driving. I think as someone who's creating a game, you have to keep that interactivity in mind. You can't completely push your vision on the player.

How he almost became a movie director:

To be honest, what I really wanted to become was a movie director. But of course back then it wasn't as easy as filming a movie and editing it digitally like you can do now or distributing it online, so it wasn't very easy for me to film my own works. I remember stressing over this: How can I become successful in the movie industry?

"In 'The Great Escape,' there's that scene where [Steve] McQueen is trying to escape from the Nazi camp. I wondered, 'What if I could simulate this in a game?'"

What I decided to do was do what I could do by myself, which was write books. I thought that the best way to do this would be to write a novel of my own and then maybe have it picked up, like with Sylvester Stallone when he wrote Rocky himself and it became very successful. While I was doing this, trying to write my novel, the Famicom (as in, family computer), known here as the Nintendo Entertainment System, was released.

When the Famicom came out, I became addicted to it right away. I started playing all these games and became obsessed with it. It's at that time that I really felt the potential that was hidden in this new medium and I felt that maybe if I can't go to the movies, I can look into this new medium and find success there.

His early experiences with games in Japan:

When I was a child, there really weren't very many video games, but I do have memories of Pong. Maybe it was Pong. It was a home system in Japan, so maybe it wasn't the real Pong. It was just sort of a Japanese game that was similar to Pong. But I think the game that first pulled me in, that I played a lot, was probably Space Invaders. I remember seeing it first on the news, on TV, and being very impressed by it and thinking "Wow, this kind of thing actually exists."

If you go back a little bit further, maybe even before video games, I remember as a kid when my parents would go shopping there was a department store that on the top floor had a bunch of mechatronic arcade games. Things like race cars that would run on a conveyor belt or these games where you would shoot down these ships in a kind of shadow play. We used to go there a lot, and my parents would just give us some money, and me and my brother would go there while they'd shop.

On the way The Great Escape shaped the original Metal Gear:

In the movie The Great Escape, there's that scene where [Steve] McQueen is trying to escape from the Nazi camp. You're wondering if he's going to get spotted and there's a lot of tension there and you're just watching it on screen, watching the action unfold. Your just feeling that tension as an observer so I wondered, "What would it be like if you were actually there? What if I could simulate this somehow in a game and have it be interactive?" That's where I start my game designs from, looking at an experience and trying to re-create that experience and create my game designs from there.

On the origin of the anti-war themes in his often violent games:

As for the anti-nuclear messages found in my games, this actually goes back to my parents. My parents were born in the 1930s and they experienced the air raids on Tokyo. I got a lot of influence from them and I think inherited a little of that anti-war sentiment from them. When I went into the industry and started making my own games I really wanted to carry over this message of anti-war, anti-nuclear proliferation into my games.

On the origins of his fascination with Western culture:

Honestly, when I was a child, I was raised under the influence of Western culture. Whenever you turned on the TV, there'd be an American TV show or Western drama or maybe a cooking show or a variety show. So even though I was living in Japan I was constantly exposed to Western culture.

Of course I was also influenced by Japanese culture, but I would say that more of half the influences that I got were from outside of Japan and things like movies or music I got from outside of Japan were processed within my mind. I think that because of that, my sense is not so much that of someone Japanese but maybe something that doesn't belong to any particular nationality.

As far as why I set my games in America or other countries, the reason for that is that I wanted to tell a grand story, something really big. I think if I set it in a small country like Japan that would be harder to do. I didn't want to limit myself to certain settings so that's why I looked abroad to a place like America where I could tell a really grand, epic story.

There are three things, I think, that really interested me. There were detective shows, sci-fi shows. All those things had a great impact on me. There was a detective murder mystery that was very influential. I wanted to actually become a part of the murder investigation units in the LAPD when I was a kid. If you look at most Japanese kids, they want to become a Japanese police officer. I wanted to become a part of the American highway patrol and be part of CHiPs.

Why the Japanese have been great game designers:

What's really important is what we call in Japan, the spirit of Omotenashi which is a spirit of hospitality or wanting to give something to someone, or to share an experience with someone. I think it's that spirit of hospitality and wanting to share an experience and give that experience to someone else, that's very important.

On making a Metal Gear Solid movie:

Honestly, I'm a movie fan and that's very special to me. I honestly would love to make a movie someday, but that said, I think it has to be a certain special game that has to provide that right setting. But I don't think that game will be Metal Gear Solid. Metal Gear Solid was developed specifically to become a game. It has a specific world view and story that's well-suited and optimized for a game and in my mind, Metal Gear Solid is a game and nothing else. So I think if I were going to create something that were going to become a movie I'd have to come up with a new type of story, new characters, something that's better suited to the medium of movies.

I'm sure maybe a lot of people here were hoping that I was going to say "Yes, I'm going to make a Metal Gear Solid movie," but even if that were to happen I just want to make it clear that it if it were to be made into a movie it would have to be something completely new. I wouldn't use my current scripts. I think I'd have to get somebody to get a new script and somebody else to direct it as a movie.

This is a question I get asked a lot: "Are you going to make a movie?" This is always something in the back of my mind, so I'm always thinking about it. I can't really say too much right now, but I'm working on something and I hope in the near future I'll have something to announce.

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Daniel D. Snyder is a writer based in New Mexico.

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