LOS ANGELES — Hideo Kojima has been making Metal Gear video games for decades (some more movie-like than others), but now he wants to give players more choice. In his latest Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, his team at Kojima Productions has created a kind of limited open world.
The player goes on missions and makes choices. But they can also complete those missions in any way. For instance, in a demo at the giant Electronic Entertainment Expo tradeshow, we saw that you could approach a village from any direction, day or night, and figure out how to rescue a hostage without drawing too many enemies. You can enlist the support of a lot of tech gear, but the outcome of the mission is linear.
I saw a demo of a level of Metal Gear Solid: The Phantom Pain and interviewed Kojima afterward in a media roundtable. Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.
Question: In the demo we just watched, they talked a lot about revenge, recovery, pain, things like that. And then, obviously, the demo begins with Snake’s return as Big Boss. I was wondering if you can speak to where Snake is on his personal journey where Phantom Pain begins? And perhaps if the design mirrors the idea of Snake becoming something new, in the open-world nature of the game?
Kojima: The game starts in 1984. The end of the game everyone knows – it’s Big Boss creating Outer Heaven. For this game, I want to go along with the player to see how Big Boss gets there. Everyone knows that Big Boss becomes Solid Snake’s enemy, the villain of the story. This is something very difficult. I’m trying to make the player become the bad guy, the villain, but at the same time balance it so that the player understands why this happening. They see where all this is coming from.
Gameplay-wise, I don’t want people to say, “I don’t want to become the bad guy. I’m done with this.” I have to keep some heroism in this character. Maybe it’s like what happens with Walter in Breaking Bad. You watch how this character becomes a bad guy, but you understand where he’s coming from. By watching that process and playing through this process, we want people to understand what’s going on. There’s this double balance, where you don’t want the character to go all the way in one direction, but at the same time, you want them to get their revenge. This is something I’m putting a lot of emphasis on – how to strike this balance and make this in the right way.
Question: You’ve been working in the industry for more than 20 years. I’m curious to know how your approach to development has evolved over the years.
Kojima: More than the approach, I’m working now on high-end triple-A games. It’s somewhat like the equivalent of a Hollywood blockbuster movie, where there’s a huge risk involved, a huge budget, and a high return if it pans out. I want to use a lot of technology, but when you use more technology you need more of a budget, and when you need more budget, it’s more difficult to put more authorship of your own into it, to use a unique approach. The relationship with the marketing department is more difficult. As a creator, it’s become more difficult. This is my challenge right now, to keep creating great things with my own authorship while still creating a triple-A game.
Question: The games in the series have always made some kind of social commentary on what’s happening in the real world. I wonder, when you approach a new story in the Metal Gear franchise, do you try to identify something that’s happening in the real world and put your characters in that situation? Or do you develop these characters and see where they progress throughout this entire story that’s been going for so long?
Kojima: This is a question I get asked a lot. It ties into the question of, what is authorship. When an author has a very unique or specific input, whether it’s intentional or unintentional, the era that person lives in, their environment where they live, is reflected there. It can be a movie about aliens, a game about zombies, whatever it is. If there’s an authorship in there, the time and place of the author will be reflected there.
Sometimes you have these blockbuster titles where anyone could direct it and it’d still taste the same. The product, the feeling will be the same. I believe there has to be some authorship, though, something that reflects my feelings. As far as how I create games, I’m just reflecting what I feel, the things I have in my mind. I put those out there. Some of the things that I’m going through, the things that surround me, might be reflected there. But for me, it’s a natural process. I just reflect what I feel into the game.
For example, Batman movies have been out there forever. There’s a lot of Batman movies. This element that is Batman that remains unchanged. However, the theme around him is constantly changing. Dark Knight came out after 9/11. You can understand that when you watch the movie, because there’s some authorship in there. You understand what era the people who created this were going through. You can say, “OK, this touches on this topic, so it must be from this time and place.”
When people ask me about this, it seems very natural. Actually, I’m worried, because if this doesn’t happen in many games, it could be because they’re being created systematically. Whether you want it or not, people are creative. If many triple-A titles don’t have this, it means there’s a lack of authorship in games. I don’t think that’s positive.
Getting a little bit off-topic here, I just watched the new Godzilla movie. In order to watch that, I’ve been watching the best Godzilla movies from the past 60 years. There was this movie where Godzilla fights Hedorah, Godzilla versus the Smog Monster. Hedorah is this monster that was born from trash and pollution. Just by watching that, I can remember the time in Japan when we had huge environmental problems. It reflects and depicts the era where it was created.
Of course, not all games can be like this or even should be like this. But if there aren’t any games that reflect their times, that’s not a good thing. A creative element should go into this.
Question: After more than 20 years making games, you’re making a first step into open-world design. I’d like to hear your reflections on the place of this new Metal Gear in the advancement of the video game media as a whole.
Kojima: I think of two things. First, Metal Gear was originally a very simple game. You infiltrate somewhere, you accomplish a mission, and you get out. I’ve tried to put this in my games over these 20-plus years. Originally, a huge part of the fun is just looking at the map and thinking, “How do I get in here? Would daytime be better, or nighttime? What route should I take?” That was a huge part of the fun of the game, and it’s something I’ve been using in all my games so far. It’s an element I’m definitely trying to put in this game.
Also, more than 20 years ago, action games didn’t have stories. I tried to relate a story through cutscenes and other elements. Nowadays, we have a lot of linear games that relate stories that way, so I’m trying to do something different. I’m trying to focus on keeping the player’s freedom, and at the same time being able to relate a story. This is my biggest focus right now – how to tell a story without taking away the freedom the player should have.
Question: Did you visit Afghanistan at all in pre-production to get a feel for the environment? How does recent history there, over the last 50 years, tie into the themes of the game?
Kojima: To your first question, I was actually planning to go to Afghanistan and research the area and the special forces there and so on. Everyone kept telling me it was too dangerous. I got yelled at a lot and told I shouldn’t go. In the end, I went to a few places. I’m not saying where, because that would just kill the fun of it. But I went to several places that are similar to Afghanistan.
As far as the second question, the game is set in the ‘80s. It’s way before the events of 9/11. It’s at a time when the USSR was a huge part of what was going on in the world. You remember Rambo III, where he went to Afghanistan? It’s something like the opposite of what’s happening nowadays. The positions were reversed. In a way, I want to relate to people now what was going on at the time, which was an opposite situation to what we have now.
It’s similar to what I tried to do in MGS3. People nowadays don’t know about the Cold War and the U.S.’s old rivalry with the U.S.S.R. Through my games, I’m just hoping that I can give people a message and remind them of what’s happened before. They can learn a bit about how things were different once.
GamesBeat: I’d like to know more about how you work on this balance of the open world and the story. I think of Grand Theft Auto V, which I believe had a weaker story and a weaker ending than something like The Last of Us, which was very powerful. It seems like it can be done, but I haven’t seen it done very well yet. I’d like to know more about how you can have a very strong, powerful, emotional story in an open world game.
Kojima: First off, the term “open world” might not be quite right. It’s a sandbox, but it’s not a sandbox where you can do whatever you want whenever you want and go wherever you want to go. That’s not the concept here.
There’s a big map. You can go wherever you want to go within this map. The time of day and the weather changes. But the missions are very clear. You have to go somewhere, rescue someone, kill someone, get something back. How you achieve that mission, what time of day you do it, what method you choose, that’s where the freedom lies. Also, it’s a war zone. There are no pedestrians. It’s mostly just animals and armed soldiers.
In most games — and I think this is what linear games like The Last of Us do – let’s say you have to rescue someone who’s at this point. In that linear game, you go from point A to point B. You discover story elements, get information, whatever, and then you end where you’re going. In our game, the player can just skip all of this, whatever might be in place. They could accidentally stumble right over here and then call the helicopter and clear the mission.
The focus here is more on, when you clear the mission, something happens. You learn something about the story. There are different elements that the player can discover. They don’t necessarily have to play through all the missions, through everything. But in the same way that a TV series works, when you get through a chapter, you learn certain things. You don’t learn everything, but you learn certain things about the story.
I’m not trying to relate all of this through the cutscenes. There are lots of codecs, a lot of tapes, a lot of text. The player can choose how to find them. They don’t need to all come in order. They don’t need to all appear together. But the player will start picking up these elements and putting the story together, understanding what’s happening. Fitting all this into the timeline, the story will start making sense and develop from there.
Question: There was a really strong reaction to the way Paz’s torture was characterized in Ground Zeroes. Did that surprise you? Do you expect to see a similar reaction to events that transpire in Phantom Pain?
Kojima: Of course, I expected people to react to this. But then again, the theme of the game I’m trying to create here—these are very dark themes, themes like race and revenge. These are things I don’t want to look away from. I did see it coming, that people would react to this. But that doesn’t change the message I want to relate. There are things that I think we can’t look away from. What I’m trying to do is different from just shooting a zombie in the brain. We’re trying to depict something with a very specific message, things that have happened throughout history. Because I have very that very specific message I want to relate, there are things I can’t look away from, that I have to depict.
For example, in Ground Zeroes, I wanted the player to understand what happened to Snake, to be able to empathize and understand and share his feelings. Why does Snake have these feelings of revenge? Why does he feel he needs to go after someone? In order to communicate that to the player, we had these elements inside the story. Regarding the torture, the torture isn’t a cutscene. I put it in such a way that people who want to dig deeper into the story will collect the tapes and understand that this happened, but not everyone has to see it. We specifically did that for people who wanted to learn more and understand a deeper aspect of the story.
As far as Phantom Pain goes, the story is built a little bit differently. If your question is, “Will there be torture tapes?” there won’t be as many. There are barely any tapes with that kind of content.
Konami Digital Entertainment, Inc. (KDEI), a wholly owned subsidiary of Konami Corporation (NYSE: KNM), is a leading, global developer, publisher and manufacturer of electronic entertainment properties, specializing in the home video g... read more »
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