In an exclusive in-depth interview with Glixel, the newly liberated game-maker opens up about his new studio and outlook
In an exclusive in-depth interview with Glixel, the newly liberated game-maker opens up about his new studio and outlook
In turns visionary, absurd, political, surreal, playful, perfectionist – and just as often groundbreaking – Hideo Kojima is one of gaming’s true auteurs. As a Japanese game-making pioneer with dozens of credits to his name over the past 30 years – most notably the best-selling Metal Gear Solid series – his games have never failed to express his unique tastes, his views on the world, and his quirky sense of humor. Whether expressing his concerns about the manipulation of information in the digital age, or simply poking fun at the conventions of video games, he's always been a champion of the interactive medium and its possibilities.
When you think of his games, you think specifically of him. You think of his clever fourth wall-busting gimmicks in the Metal Gear games like your nemesis reading your save games (and commenting on the other games it discovers you've been playing) or using your controller's rumble to move it across the table, or one of the most crazy-making of all: expecting you know to unplug your controller and plug it into another slot in order to beat a boss. More recently, though, thoughts of Kojima might understandably shift to his controversial divorce from Konami, the company he spent his entire career at, following the release of the blockbuster Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain in 2015.
From the ashes of Kojima Productions, the internal team he founded within Konami in 2005, rose the new Kojima Productions in late-2015 – reformed as an independent development studio in exclusive partnership with Sony Interactive Entertainment. The following year he unveiled Death Stranding, a bleak and surreal near or alt-future action adventure with ecological overtones starring The Walking Dead's Norman Reedus, Hannibal star Mads Mikkelsen and a cameo appearance from longtime fan Guillermo Del Toro. The game, which has no due date as yet, is his first major non-Metal Gear game since Zone Of The Enders: The 2nd Runner in 2003 and already looks to be just as cinematic – and baffling – as any of the self-confessed film buff's earlier efforts.
Kojima is reluctant to discuss his final year at Konami and is particularly secretive about his work on Death Stranding (given it's in such an early stage of development), but was happy to give us a peek into his new life as an independent game developer and his thoughts on everything from Mad Max to VR and why humor is so important in his games.
How would you say your day to day life has changed now that you’re independent?
In general, creating the game and creating the world-setting for the game hasn’t changed. At my previous employer I was an executive of the company, and I was the captain of my ship, but at the same time I had to make sure the ships didn’t run into each other and could navigate the waters successfully.
The process of creating a game and the world remains the same, but basically I was in charge of a fleet before, but now we’re a single ship. So I have the freedom to look more deeply into the process inside of the ship to make sure it’s running smoothly, and the freedom to take it wherever I want. Before I had to make sure everyone was in line, but now we can go wherever we need to when we need to.
Were you a prisoner of your own success? Did you ever consider just taking a break, travel the world, learn to play an instrument or something?
I want to continue to work and create games until I die. I don’t want to leave work and spend the rest of my life fishing. I want to be there on the front lines with the young blood until I die. However, as you stated, I’ve been working very hard for 30 years, so in the back of my mind I had an inkling to take a break. Actually, my family was telling me I should take a break, but when I talked to my friends around the world, they said “You don’t have time! People are waiting to know what your next game will be,” so I decided to continue along that road of making a triple-A experience for all the people who are waiting for it. I did think about taking a break, and maybe make a short movie, but ultimately I decided to make a game.
My friends were telling me that “Your life from here on is your life, but it’s also belongs to the fans around the world, so you need to live that life.” More than the feeling of taking a rest, I was more drawn to working in another field. For example, create a movie or direct a commercial or write a novel. These are some of the options I had.
I believe you should make something that matches the times, because the world changes every day
Through the years you’ve talked about taking a break from Metal Gear to make something different. Is Death Stranding something you’ve been thinking about for years, or was it a brand-new idea inspired by your recent collaborations with people like Guillermo Del Toro?
Of course after leaving my former employer and starting up a new company, the first question was about what we should make. Naturally we have to make something, but I have so many ideas all the time. I come up with new ideas every day and they all override each other. I had several at the front of my mind, and we ended up choosing the game that – first of all – would be best for the market, and the one we were most enthusiastic about making. That was Death Stranding. It wasn’t an idea that we'd had for a long time, it was really a new idea.
I believe you should make something that matches the times, because the world changes every day. There’s new news every day, the people in the world change all the time. Sometimes film directors come up with an idea when they’re a child, and then they make the film when they’re an adult. I don’t think that’s something you should do, because it’s no longer topical.
In the past you’ve been very topical. With the first two Metal Gear Solid games 20 years ago, you forecast a post-truth future, and basically predicted a version of 21st-century politics. Does the current political climate trouble you at all?
Of course I’m interested in what is happening in the world right now. Talking about the present is a way of talking about the past and the future. It’s important to talk about the world we’re in now, so you can show your children what kind of world awaits you, or what kind of world we should make. I'm definitely interested in what’s happening in politics now, especially in America. With politics moving to the right, I’m afraid of this kind of movement in America.
Between the work you did on the P.T. horror demo with Norman Reedus and Guillermo Del Toro, and now with Death Stranding, you seem to be going to darker places. Is this a reflection of the toll the past few years have taken on you, or a catharsis of sorts?
I don’t have a dark mindset in particular. Death Stranding is not a horror game. I just wanted to make something that looks very unique, something you haven’t seen before, something with a more artistic slant to it. I’m not pursuing a dark aspect to the game.
You mentioned that one of the things you were thinking about before you began development on Death Stranding was to make a short film. In the past you’ve said that you preferred the medium of video games because you want to express things only a video game can achieve. Do you still feel that way?
I love movies, so at some point in time I would love to make a movie. But I still believe the largest difference between games and movies is that games are interactive. So when creating a game I will focus on creating an experience that you can only have in a game. If I were to film a movie, it would focus on the things a movie can do best, and it would be very different from my games. I had many offers and conversations of that sort with Hollywood, but right now we’re creating Death Stranding so it’s right to focus solely on that.
You're working with Guerrilla Games' DECIMA graphics engine for Death Stranding. Does that allow you to work faster than you have in the past? Do the new tools or tech allow you to work in new ways?
Of course having an engine helps in that regard. The best situation is to create your own engine – then you have full control over it – but that would take us another five years. As you may know, I toured the world, and then landed on the DECIMA engine. And now we have that now, and we don’t have to waste time creating one, so the overall length of time needed to create the game will be much shorter.
We’re using Guerilla’s engine, but we’re not creating the same type of game as them, so we need to add to and modify it. We’ll take those modifications that we’ve made and give them back to Guerrilla, and together we'll create an even more powerful engine. The original plan was to use just use what they'd built, but Guerrilla said "no, let’s work on it together. Let’s make the engine itself a collaborative effort." So we’re working on it with them, and because it’s two companies working on the same exact engine, we believe we’re building it at twice the speed.
How do you create such convincing, natural 3D likenesses of Mads Mikkelsen, Norman Reedus, and Guillermo Del Toro without falling into the "uncanny valley" problem that movies like Kingsglaive and even Star Wars: Rogue One suffer from?
The basic, underlying technology powering the movies you mentioned and what we’re doing here is fundamentally the same, but in one word the difference is "love." What I mean by that is once we have the actors scanned in as data, it's passed along to the creators, and it's about how much feeling they put into the actual work to make it look as cool as possible or as realistic as possible. We really love these people and the characters they play.
Your games are known for breaking the fourth wall, and acknowledging the player directly. Where did that trait come from?
When you play a game you're sitting in a living room holding the controller, but the game is inside the monitor. I really want the player's own surroundings to be part of the game. This is why I might include a rumble feature, or the memory card gimmick from Metal Gear Solid. In a way it’s like AR [augmented reality] – it’s a culmination of the game that's in the monitor and the environment you're in, and melded together. In Metal Gear Solid you had to look at the back of the package to get the codec frequency, things like that. I don't want to use the same tricks again in the future but I would like to continue to break the fourth wall. I always want to be the first guy to do things no one has ever done before.
From what we've seen of Death Stranding, it seems kind of serious, deep even – like a European art film. Will we still see that sense of humor your games are known for?
Humor is a very important aspect for games. You play a game for a very long time – Death Stranding is a big game, too – and you put stress on the player and you lead them through peaks and valleys. Humor is an important aspect to make sure the player can enjoy playing across these peaks and valleys. So we’ll have humor in this game too, but to a degree that it doesn't ruin the world setting. It will be at an appropriate level.
Throughout your career we've seen the actors that have inspired you, from Kurt Russell to Mel Gibson, to Mads Mikkelsen and Norman Reedus, but what actresses do you admire?
Right now I’m really into Emma Stone. [Laughs] There are many actresses I like, like Alicia Vikander from Ex Machina.
Have you seen The Man From U.N.C.L.E.?
Yes. I like Guy Ritchie. Alicia Vikander is my favorite actress, but right now I’m really into Emma Stone because of La La Land. I’ve seen it three times already.
Is there any film in particular that really changed your way of thinking? Between your past games and what the trailers of Death Stranding have shown, it feels like there's been a change – a shift in perspective.
Actually, even though you might have that impression, I actually like all movies – mainstream movies, art films, all kinds of movies – so there isn't anything in particular that changed my way of thinking. I'm just really into all movies. So Nicolas Winding Refn and Guillermo Del Toro, I like these directors because they work on major movies and independent films. They take their own ideas and write their own stories and apply their own artistic sensibilities. As a director, these are the kinds of directors I like.
And you like Mad Max: Fury Road a lot, too.
I’ve seen it 18 times! I saw a special preview showing of the Black & Chrome version.
What did you think of it?
I really enjoy that even though it doesn’t have any color, for some reason you feel colors, and even smells and sounds that aren’t there. Maybe it’s because I’ve seen it so many times it sort of puts itself back together in my mind.
Do you think you could make a game in black and white?
I don’t think a totally black and white game would be very good. Maybe you could do part of a game?
For years you created virtual reality missions for your characters – now that VR is actually here, how do you feel about the possibilities it presents?
I feel it’s a powerful medium that has the ability to change not only games, but our lives. The Lumière brothers originally created the projected movie, black and white without sound. Then we got sound, then color, then 3D, but all within the frame of the screen. Our culture is basically attuned to accepting movies within a frame. TVs, flyers, billboards, your smartphone – all of these things are within a frame.
VR is the first time we've broken out of that frame, and I think it'll have a huge influence on things like education, and maybe even at a restaurant and how you’ll order your food. It'll have a large impact on our culture at large.
What do you think it’ll take to cross VR over to the mainstream?
The first step is getting rid of this big thing that's mounted on you. Actually – not focusing totally on the thing mounted on your face – setting that aside, it's more the idea of seeing things without a frame. Find a way around that and it'll find it's way into our lives very naturally. Right now VR equates to games, but the way I see it is in the future it'll have an impact on so many different levels. Games will only be one of the things under the umbrella of VR.
The next time we have an interview it won’t be on Skype, it’ll be through VR!
I believe that in the very near future, games and movies will meld together
In the past, I’ve asked you if you considered video games art, and you said you did not because films are passive and artistic whereas video games are interactive. But now as the medium has evolved, becoming more film-like, has your position changed?
I believe that in the very near future, games and movies will meld together. Also the way games and movies are created now are basically interchangeable; you can interchange assets. The main difference is that a movie is not interactive, whereas a game is. It’s almost like industrial design, where you need to think about the way many people will interact with a product, and design it around that. That's a big difference between movies and games.
But if we move to what we were just talking about – VR and breaking out of the frame – that’ll happen with movies. So now with movies people will be able to look anywhere, so you’ll need to design assets, you'll need to design the movie with the same mentality as designing a game to service the viewer, to cover all those bases. So in that respect they’ll become the same type of entertainment.
Most movies don’t last much longer than two, maybe three hours in length. Do you think it’s possible to make a two-to-three-hour game that’s just as satisfying and memorable?
Yes, I believe that's possible. Movies are generally two hours, and they’re part of the cinematic system where you go to a theater where they want you to sit there for two hours and eat popcorn and buy drinks. But as you know we're moving out of the theater space into things like Netflix and Hulu and all these streaming services, so I see a trend of moving away from the longer format for a single viewing item into something shorter, but in a series. So each episode is shorter, but overall it's a much longer experience.
Games right now, the main way of creating a large-scale game has been to spend three or more years that takes 100 hours to play or something like that. But I think games will also move in the same way toward an episodic nature, meaning smaller but released in a steady stream.
High quality TV and ever more popular movie franchises are taking the episodic approach to story telling. Do you see an advantage – beyond a shorter production schedule – to release a long game episodically?
It’s the kind of culture we've come into, where someone only watches something on the internet for five minutes. This is the maximum time they'll watch before moving on to something else. We need to adapt to a new style of storytelling method that is designed for this kind of viewer. You might be familiar with HideoTube, my show on YouTube? The people who run YouTube have all the analytics and stuff, and they said to me "You should make it three minutes, and you should do it every day." I said "I don’t want to do that," so I just do a 50-minute show. But seeing the data, they can show you that people watch something for three minutes before the number of people that stay engaged drops off a cliff.
As someone who designed solar-reactive GBA cartridges for your game Boktai, you often look at game machines for ways you might use them creatively. With that in mind, what is your take on the Nintendo Switch?
You might be familiar with a thing we created called "Transfarring" which let you transfer data between a PS Vita game and a PS3 game. I see the Switch as an evolution of that idea, where you can play something at home and play it to go. This is the main attraction of this system. For example, movies and TV, you can watch them on basically any device. You can watch them at home, you can watch them on the go. Games will become the same way. The cloud technology is behind the curve in that regard, but that’s the correct line of thought, and this is where Nintendo’s taking it.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.