An Au­di­ence With...

Life af­ter Metal Gear: the Ja­panese au­teur on games ver­sus films, and new be­gin­nings

EDGE - - SECTIONS - BY SI­MON PARKIN Pho­tog­ra­phy Richard Ec­cle­stone

Hideo Ko­ji­maKo­jim on games ver­sus films, slap­stick­slapst ver­sus se­ri­ous, us, and his old ways ver­sus the e new

Such is the level of para­noia sur­round­ing the ven­ture that, seven months af­ter the found­ing of Kojima Pro­duc­tions, the in­de­pen­dent stu­dio won’t con­firm, even off the record, how many staff it cur­rently em­ploys. The team is wor­ried. It’s clearly been a bad breakup as far as Kon­ami, Hideo Kojima’s em­ployer of more than two decades, is con­cerned. There are con­cerns about lit­i­ga­tion. Some team mem­bers refuse to be pho­tographed; they don’t want peo­ple know­ing where they work.

Kojima, mean­while, has never looked bet­ter. Even while labour­ing un­der 12-hour jet­lag he looks bright and far more youth­ful than his 52 years. The el­bowy ti­tle of his new game, Death Strand­ing, has been an­nounced and, while the di­rec­tor is un­will­ing to dis­cuss pre­cise de­tails, it’s clear he’s as­sem­bled the team he wants to work on the project he wants. “No ques­tions about his pre­vi­ous games please,” his faith­ful PA – who fled Kon­ami with her boss last year – says at the start of the in­ter­view. Kojima, it seems, has moved on. But to where?

The past year has been a time of great change and, pre­sum­ably, drama in your life. How have you man­aged to re­main so calm and fo­cused through­out all of the turmoil, es­pe­cially while try­ing to set up a new com­pany?

Well, when I was still work­ing on Metal Gear Solid V there was a great deal of pres­sure to fin­ish the game. So I was com­pletely caught up in that act of cre­ation. Then I im­me­di­ately moved on to set­ting up a new com­pany and think­ing about what would be next. I had to come up with a new idea. So there was no break. I guess that ac­tiv­ity is what has kept me go­ing – a con­stant fo­cus on cre­at­ing. With­out that, it would have been a lot tougher for me, I think. I had to keep look­ing for­ward. I couldn’t look back. That’s what has brought me to where I am to­day. On re­flec­tion, I think it was wise that I didn’t take any time off.

What have you learned through all of this that you wish you’d known at the start?

I tend not to be a per­son who has re­grets, or who wants to go back and change things. Every­thing hap­pens for a rea­son. That’s all I’ve got.

Was there ever a point in the mid­dle of all this when you con­sid­ered sim­ply leav­ing videogames to do some­thing else en­tirely? Was there space enough for the thought to cross your mind?

I would def­i­nitely like to make films one day. But mak­ing games is en­joy­able. I want to keep do­ing it. I never re­ally con­sid­ered mak­ing a smaller-scale game be­cause, in truth, I want to make block­buster games where I put every­thing in. Now, had I only had the op­tion to make a very small game then, in all prob­a­bil­ity, I would have left the in­dus­try al­to­gether – I would have gone to make a film in­stead.

You’ve started off with a small team that you’re now grow­ing. How did you pick those first team mem­bers? What were the traits you were look­ing for?

Usu­ally, when I fin­ish a large project, the team mem­bers all take long va­ca­tions. Dur­ing that va­ca­tion pe­riod I’d typ­i­cally take time to con­sider what I was go­ing to do next. I need to work alone dur­ing this plan­ning phase, so it’s al­ways worked well in the past. That process was com­pressed with this project. Even be­fore the stu­dio had any com­put­ers or equip­ment, I started go­ing back and forth with [long­time col­lab­o­ra­tor] Yoji Shinkawa to go through the de­sign ideas that I had.

We ran some tests and ex­per­i­ments. I hired peo­ple who I knew would be suit­able for those spe­cific tests. One thing that is very dif­fer­ent from how I did things be­fore is that I can do things at my own pace and rhythm. Be­fore, I had the pres­sure of hav­ing to as­sign 200-odd peo­ple work the mo­ment they came back from their hol­i­days. That was al­ways dif­fi­cult. Now I can work at my own sched­ule. I can in­ter­view peo­ple one by one for very spe­cific roles, and ex­pand the team in this way. It works a lot bet­ter for me. For ex­am­ple, when it comes to the sound in games and film, you only need to hire peo­ple to­ward the sec­ond half of the project. At Kon­ami I would have to find the sound team work be­fore we were ready for their in­volve­ment. Right now I am only get­ting peo­ple in for these kind of tasks when I need them. It’s much more flex­i­ble.

It’s ob­vi­ous from look­ing at your pre­vi­ous projects that you be­lieve in the power of games to say some­thing mean­ing­ful about the world to play­ers, per­haps even to ed­u­cate them. What is the mes­sage of your next game?

I can’t an­swer that quite yet. But what I can say is that I want to ex­plore the con­nec­tions be­tween peo­ple. I want to re­turn to the idea that the road is one of the first


tools that hu­mankind in­vented. I want to ex­plore more about this idea of con­nec­tion, and the var­i­ous ways in which we are brought to­gether.

The world as a whole is ex­pe­ri­enc­ing chaos and up­heaval right now, not least in terms of the po­lit­i­cal cli­mate, which is a theme you’ve re­turned to many times in your games. What role do you be­lieve a game di­rec­tor can have in speak­ing to real-world is­sues, or help­ing us to re­flect on the world’s prob­lems?

That will de­pend on each per­son who makes a game. In my case, movies and books have en­riched me so much, and given me things that I’ve been able to take and use in my daily life. That’s why I want my games to carry a mes­sage. It’s im­por­tant to me that my games aren’t only ‘fun’. I want them to carry a mes­sage or ker­nel of some­thing that play­ers can take and use. That said, I don’t think all games need to be this way. That’s what I mean when I say that it’s go­ing to come down to the in­di­vid­ual cre­ator.

As well as these se­ri­ous themes – in­clud­ing, re­cently, hu­man rights abuses – your games have a slap­stick sense of hu­mour and, at times, anime-style over­state­ment and ir­rev­er­ence. It’s been ar­gued that the lat­ter el­e­ments un­der­mine the for­mer in your work – how do you re­spond to that?

When it comes to the mes­sages that I put in my games and the hu­mour I put in my games, I think about them as ex­ist­ing on sep­a­rate lev­els and in dif­fer­ent ways. When peo­ple play games, it can be al­most like work. There is toil and ef­fort in­volved. If the work is too dark or stress­ful or if you put too much pres­sure on the player, they will just stop play­ing. Films don’t have this prob­lem. A di­rec­tor just needs the viewer to sit down for two hours and al­low the work to wash over them. Games are dif­fer­ent. Peo­ple come back from school and their jobs and they have to be mo­ti­vated to keep play­ing.

It seems like a small con­sid­er­a­tion but it’s im­por­tant; it fac­tors a lot in the de­sign. For ex­am­ple, if you have play­ers shoot­ing one an­other for a long time, they’ll start dis­tanc­ing them­selves from the world. When you add in hu­mour and change the heavy at­mo­sphere, it cre­ates waves of dif­fer­ent feel­ing and emo­tion, so that the player can keep play­ing and com­ing back. But in the end, when the player fi­nally steps away, I want them to re­alise that there were lessons in there.

You’re clearly a David Bowie fan; his work runs through yours. What were you do­ing when you heard that he died? How did it af­fect you?

A new song, Lazarus, had just come out. It was the week­end. I had time off with my son. There was a lim­ited-edi­tion T-shirt re­leased that I didn’t buy at the time, some­thing I re­gret now as I can’t find one any­where. I was read­ing Twit­ter. I started see­ing ru­mours that maybe Bowie had passed away. I didn’t want to be­lieve them, so I didn’t. That kind of false in­for­ma­tion about a celebrity dy­ing hap­pens of­ten these days. Then I saw Dun­can Jones tweet that his fa­ther had passed away. That’s when I knew that it was real. It was shock­ing. I didn’t want to be­lieve the news. Had it been a week­day I would have been sur­rounded by peo­ple in the of­fice and I would have been sur­rounded by peo­ple to process what had hap­pened. But it was the week­end and I was with my son. I couldn’t have a dis­cus­sion with him about what had hap­pened. It was dif­fi­cult.

Like Bowie, your name tran­scends your work, or is at the very least as well-known as your work. It’s also in the ti­tle of your stu­dio. How much pres­sure does that celebrity sta­tus put on you, es­pe­cially now?

I don’t think of my­self as a celebrity, so I don’t feel pres­sure in that sense. I’m just a reg­u­lar per­son. David Bowie was a star. I’m a per­son who makes things, some­times with stars. It’s a dif­fer­ent sit­u­a­tion. I think of my­self as some­thing closer to an au­thor. With books, the nov­els are the stars much more than the nov­el­ist is a star. But yes, there are mo­ments when I’m treated that way. It’s al­ways trou­bling, for ex­am­ple, when I go into bath­rooms and wash my hands and then some­one comes up to me to go to shake my hand. That’s al­ways awk­ward.

With the Metal Gear Solid se­ries you had a core de­sign which over the years you’ve been able to evolve from that rel­a­tively small set of rules. What has your process been for find­ing that kind of core for your next game?

I don’t think I’ve ever gone look­ing for a core, as you de­scribe it. Some ideas just keep pop­ping. Some are in­stinc­tive. I test the­o­ries in my head. Then I break them down and re­build them. This doesn’t quite an­swer the ques­tion, but it’s an ac­cu­rate re­flec­tion of my process.

Death Strand­ing is a new ti­tle, so when I’m plan­ning, or imag­in­ing, the game, there are as­pects that make it

freer be­cause it’s not a se­quel. But the process it­self is very sim­i­lar to how I’ve al­ways worked.

Fu­mito Ueda said re­cently that start­ing GenDe­sign al­lowed him to fo­cus on the cre­ative side of gamemak­ing again. Have you ex­pe­ri­enced sim­i­lar ben­e­fits since go­ing in­de­pen­dent with Kojima Pro­duc­tions?

Well, I’m set­ting up a new com­pany, so there are in­evitably some ad­min­is­tra­tive as­pects to my day. But the key dif­fer­ence is that I only have to look at what I’m mak­ing, or my own or­gan­i­sa­tion. Be­fore, I had to also con­sider the over­all di­rec­tion of the com­pany. I don’t have to do that any more. I don’t have to at­tend meet­ings that have noth­ing to do with what I’m mak­ing. That def­i­nitely feels bet­ter. With this new com­pany I’m not mak­ing it with the idea of grow­ing it into a huge op­er­a­tion that grows and grows over the years. At this dif­fi­cult time I just want to make a great game. I want to set up a place for peo­ple who join me to make one good game. I’m not sure if that’s ex­actly the same as Fu­mito’s ex­pe­ri­ence right now, but that’s where I’m com­ing from. If this is suc­cess­ful then we’ll start think­ing about what’s next. I don’t have a long-term plan be­yond that.

The model you’re pur­su­ing seems closer to a film pro­duc­tion com­pany. For ex­am­ple, JJ Abrams has Bad Ro­bot as a kind of cre­ative lab that comes up with ideas and then shops them around to stu­dios.

Yes, it’s some­thing very sim­i­lar to that. Bad Ro­bot Pro­duc­tions specif­i­cally has been a big in­flu­ence.

In games there are fewer au­teurs than in film. You are one of the few. Do you think the game in­dus­try would ben­e­fit from hav­ing more in­di­vid­u­als bring­ing a sin­gu­lar vi­sion to their games, even if, ul­ti­mately, teams of hun­dreds then ex­e­cute those games?

I’m not that sure if it would nec­es­sar­ily have a pos­i­tive im­pact. Even in film, au­teurs are rare now. In my day we had Hitch­cock and Car­pen­ter, and when­ever you saw the as­so­ci­ated name you knew it was go­ing to be some­thing spe­cial. I don’t think that’s the stance of the cur­rent gen­er­a­tion, how­ever. The model is chang­ing.

It’s been a pe­riod of great re­flec­tion for many cre­ators in games, film and TV about rep­re­sen­ta­tions of women and gen­der. How has your own un­der­stand­ing and ap­proach to this is­sue evolved over the years?

In the case of JJ Abrams, he’s ex­tremely sen­si­tive to this topic, so we now have, for ex­am­ple, gay peo­ple ap­pear­ing as cen­tral char­ac­ters in Star Trek. In my case, I don’t want to put things in my games just be­cause they’re ‘trend­ing’ is­sues; I want to only put them in be­cause I judge they’re nec­es­sary for the story I want to tell. That’s not to say I’m not lis­ten­ing. It just means I’m not go­ing to put them in the game to be to­kenis­tic. The risk, oth­er­wise, is these de­ci­sions be­come a mar­ket­ing ex­er­cise. I don’t want to be led by mar­ket­ing with re­gard to hav­ing to make ev­ery char­ac­ter a cer­tain gen­der or race. I want to be led by what I want to make, by what is right for the story. I’m happy to be open-minded dur­ing that process. That’s the way this should be ap­proached, I think.

Poké­mon Go be­came an un­ex­pected phe­nom­e­non re­cently, and you have some ex­pe­ri­ence of ‘out­doorsy’ videogames with your 2003 game, Bok­tai. How do you feel about AR right now?

Yes, that’s true. The con­cept of tak­ing el­e­ments from your sur­round­ings and re­flect­ing them in the game is some­thing in which I’ve al­ways been in­ter­ested. Not only Bok­tai, in fact, but also MGS: Por­ta­ble Ops and Peace Walker had sim­i­lar fea­tures. It’s all com­ing to­gether for AR right now: the tech­nol­ogy, the mar­ket. It’s not some­thing that is nec­es­sar­ily new, but it’s some­thing that, thanks to a con­ver­gence of tech­nol­ogy and ac­cess, is hav­ing its mo­ment. I think ev­ery­one ex­pected VR would come first and then AR would ar­rive much later. But it seems as though, against all those ex­pec­ta­tions and with the help of cell­phones, AR will come to dom­i­nate be­fore VR even has a chance.


The Kojima-pro­duced Bok­tai, re­leased on GBA in 2003, in­cor­po­rated a sen­sor that en­cour­aged play­ers to go out­side and feed it with light

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