An Audience With...
Life after Metal Gear: the Japanese auteur on games versus films, and new beginnings
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
“I TEND NOT TO BE A PERSON WHO HAS REGRETS. EVERYTHING HAPPENS FOR A REASON. THAT’S ALL I’VE GOT”
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.
“WITH THIS NEW COMPANY I’M NOT MAKING IT WITH THE IDEA OF GROWING IT INTO A HUGE OPERATION”