How Hideo Kojima Became a Legendary Video-Game Designer

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."

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

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