Award-winning movie maker talks about his passion for games and how he's interviewing 'Metal Gear' screenwriters
Jordan Vogt-Roberts, the 32-year-old director of Kong: Skull Island is a deeply passionate and vocal proponent of video games, frequently referencing them in interviews, much to the confusion of a large part of the movie press. Growing up with classic games and citing influences as diverse as Treasure's frenetic shooters like Radiant Silvergun along with the majority of the Dreamcast back-catalog, he's part of a new generation of creatives for which games are deeply significant. He once noted that that famous Nintendo composer Koji Kondo was an influence on his critically-acclaimed 2013 film The Kings Of Summer, and has since expressed his passion for the Metal Gear series by fighting tooth-and-nail for the opportunity to turn it into a movie.
One the phone with Glixel, a few days after hanging out with his hero Hideo Kojima in Los Angeles, he spoke about his formative years playing Atari 2600 and Gameboy games, reading Kojima's review of Kong: Skull Island, and how he's training writers for the Metal Gear movie.
So you spent some time with Hideo Kojima recently?
It's been one of the more surreal things in my life getting to know him, befriending him and working with him as a colleague, in addition to constantly having to sit across from someone who essentially I identify as a hero and an icon. He's everything you want him to be when you talk to him. The way his brain works and the way he approaches his projects and, I think, all of media – you understand why he's such a seminal figure in the game world and, in my mind, far beyond that.
I don't know if you've seen it, but he writes a column for us on movies and he actually wrote about Kong: Skull Island.
He knows movies better than most cinephiles I know. He will go deeper than most. It just oozes out of him. He has that love of the language of cinema, and it's funny because when you sit down with him, if you start trying to talk to him about games and Metal Gear and things like that, sometimes he'll talk about it and he'll talk about it super intelligently and in-depth, but then you start talking to him about movies and you just see him come alive.
The thing that he wrote on Kong, I didn't even know that he had seen the movie yet. I was trying to orchestrate a screening for him to see it and he ended up going early, and so when his review dropped, I was dumbfounded. That was maybe one of the single greatest moments of the release of this film for me – seeing someone whose work I admire so much and has had an intense influence on me write about my work in such a positive way. I was just so taken aback and honored. He's got a great voice. Honestly, it's rare to meet someone who has such an intellectual capacity mixed with an encyclopedic knowledge of film and just media in general. Believe me, when I saw he was writing about Kong on Glixel, it really blew my mind.
You're known in the press as the director who's a huge fan of games. When did they first became part of your life?
One of the more fun things in this process has been going on a press circuit and intentionally making the decision to tie my film to games and tie my influences to games. You can see it in the faces of the press when I'm talking to them – some people get it, but generally, if they start asking about my influences, or things that inspired me, or tone, and I'm just talking about video games – you can see a lot of confusion. There's generally sort of a stigma associating films with games and it's generally not positive. I just really want to be a part of the wave of guys who completely flip that notion on its head and say, "Hey, these things are linked together and it's a positive thing."
Anyway, to your other question, my dad had an Atari, and it was kept in my parents' room, so we were only allowed to play at certain times. Obviously, arcades were still relevant when I was a kid, and it was such a dream to get taken to an arcade, but the Atari was the first home console that I had. Honestly, my mom wasn't a big fan of me playing video games as a kid. I wasn't allowed to have a regular Nintendo, but I was able to have a Gameboy. Somehow, that was acceptable, but the idea of a Nintendo was not. Once you're introduced to a Nintendo, you look back at the Atari, and you think "This is trash now!"
I was of the generation of kids that was brought up when video games were first entering the world. We couldn't go and buy a game ourselves because we were too young, so we were at the mercy of our family to decide not only if we could play these things, but when we could play them and what we could play. That actually had a profound impact because it allowed games to be this larger-than-life thing.
Getting a game had so much weight because it was completely based on someone else's decision, and so that then led me to go get jobs. I would mow lawns and rake leaves and dig up weeds or whatever in order to buy my own games. So I got a Gameboy and I just carried it everywhere with me.
I just imagine a kid picking up Call of Duty right now and not understanding how important Doom was or Wolfenstein or GoldenEye were
Are you nostalgic about the old stuff? Or are you more interested in the new?
Well, I'm a little bit of both. With new stuff, it really has to feel new to me. It really has to feel like something I haven't played before. Games are now such a time commitment in my life that I need to feel like I am being given something new.
I used to read interviews with game developers back in the day – you'd see a quote from someone like Shigeru Miyamoto or someone in EGM or GamePro or something like that, and they talk about how they wanted to make these five hour experiences, and as a kid you're like, "Fuck that, I want to play this game for 80 hours!" And then, as an adult, that's really why I truly fall in love with games like Firewatch or Inside or Journey, because they're able to show you something new and then take you on this contained experience.
But one of the things that I'm really obsessed with are these defined mechanisms by which you can watch old movies and go and track down foreign cinema and art house cinema and things like that. When I have a kid, it's going to be really important to me to take my kid on a journey and introducing them to games via the things that I was introduced through, so they understand the history of it.
I just imagine a kid picking up Call of Duty right now and not understanding how important Doom was or Wolfenstein or GoldenEye were – what the evolution of the genre was. I am obsessed with the tracking down those old games and the history of games as a whole. The history of the industry is really important to me. I don't want to sound like an old man, but the games kids are playing these days are literally things I could have never imagined when I was a kid.
I went through a big phase a while ago where I became obsessed with twitch games – Treasure Shooters, just fucking brutal games, like Ikaruga and Radiant Silvergun. Every time I go to Japan, I'll go to Akihabara and I'll go to Super Potato and buy a bunch of old Famicom games. I just love walking through that store. There's something about the aesthetics of game consoles and cartridges and systems and the peripherals that I just love – I have a Power Glove in my house. It's amazing that people have Virtual Console now, people have the PlayStation Store, but there's something very different about sitting down and playing those things with the original controller.
I really hope the game industry really figures out a way for younger kids and people coming into games now to really experience the lineage of these games, in the same way that anyone who falls in love with film is able to go back and watch Sunset Boulevard or watch The Maltese Falcon or watch The Searchers, and go back and understand the evolution of the language of film. I really hope that the game industry is able to find some way to make that experience accessible because I do think that some of it gets a little bit lost when you start to play the original Metal Gear just as an emulator as opposed to sitting down with that original controller. I don't quite know how that thing solves itself, but for me, it's important.
There are people out there actively working to preserve old games and hardware.
I'll tell you something really interesting. In the process of hiring a writer for Metal Gear Solid – that's such a dense property. That's a property that's incredibly important to me in so many ways, and as I brought in writers, I basically took them on this weird journey where I brought them over to my house and I designed this weird course where I would load up the original Metal Gear and I would have the writer play that for a while, and just teach them this idea of stealth gameplay. I would let them play that, and generally, anyone was able to play that because anyone can pick up a game of that era and understand the mechanics of it.
They'd play that for an hour or so, and then I would jump forward and then I'd load up Metal Gear Solid V and say, "This is where it jumps to. You just saw the beginnings of this, and over the course of 30-odd years, this is where it took us," so you see both ends of the spectrum. Then we would jump back to Metal Gear Solid on a PlayStation. Your camera's more locked, it doesn't have as many complexities of a Phantom Pain and people were able to pick that up pretty easily. It's still working off of those basic regular Nintendo mechanics, but I would take them through it because the first hour of that game pretty clearly makes a thesis statement for why this franchise is so important. You get into some pretty powerful cutscenes right away, you're thrust right into the gameplay right away, and people were able to get into that. Then I would jump to Metal Gear Solid 2.
I designed this weird course where I would load up the original Metal Gear and I would have the writer play that for a while.
I actually found that was almost the sweet spot for a lot of people. You weren't fully in control of the camera, you didn't have to independently move it around, and so it was just really interesting watching non-gamers, and seeing where modern games became difficult for them. I think people ignore the fact that gaming is a language. If you pick up a Zelda game now I'll know, "OK, I'm in the dungeon, so I'll probably have to move these boxes around to solve this or this or this," and I'm literally taking 30 years of a language and the rules of a specific game into account for how the world works.
I don't know how someone who just picks up a Zelda game for the first time now, how easy or not it is for them to understand, "Okay, I'm in a dungeon now, and the rules of the dungeon are X, Y, and Z, and I can move these things around." I think that can be very daunting to a lot of people.
I can't imagine having to look for people to work with and be like, "OK, I'm going to teach you Metal Gear." Is that daunting, or is it good to have someone that maybe doesn't have so deep a history with it?
Obviously, it would be amazing to find a writer who very intimately knows Metal Gear. Metal Gear is something that is so beloved by so many people and yet, even if you Google the plot of Metal Gear, it's almost impossible to find a self-contained video or summation of that storyline that isn't 30 minutes long.
It's such a sprawling, incredible thing, and the thing that I always talk about is, unlike a comic book or Batman or something that's had writers upon writers and different people taking different stabs at it, Metal Gear fundamentally has come from a single voice, and that is Kojima. We're talking about an auteur and someone who was able to excel at the highest level in terms of both gameplay and creating something with a cinematic quality.
He was able to push forward this wave of cinema within games and fuse those things together, and for me, that's why I chased the movie. I mean, I chased it.
I had just gotten done with Kings of Summer and people were offering me big movies. I was sending the message that I wanted to do a big movie because I grew up on big movies. I was sitting in an executive's room at Sony, and there was a Metal Gear Solid book on the table and I said, "Oh my God, you have Metal Gear?" And they said, "Yeah but that's not for you," more or less. I went to my agents and I was like, "You guys don't understand how important this is for me, how much I love it, how much I love the tone, the characters, the idiosyncratic nature of what these games were and what they mean to me, and there's no greater project that I would rather embark upon." I told my agents and managers that I want to do this movie. I still give them shit about it to this day – and they said, "Dude there's a lot of stuff that you can get right now. There's a lot of projects you can chase."
They were like, "You can't get this project because the way Hollywood works" – it was in development and there was really no point. It's very rare sometimes, in that case, to put a director on a piece of development right then, especially a director who at the time was untested in that world, and I said, "You know what? This thing is so important to me I at least need to feel like I tried, that I did everything I could to try and make my version of the movie."
I was even at a place where I was like, "I don't care if they steal all of my ideas." If I can at least have impacted this process in a positive way, I'm going to go for it, and so I spent three months of my life putting together this massive book that basically broke down what Metal Gear is, why it's important, the problem with video game movies and why they haven't worked – getting into the active experience versus the passive experience, what these games represent, what Kojima's voice is, and also distilling what I thought was the essential part of the story.
I spent three months of my life putting together this massive book to say, "This is how important this property is to me, and I don't care if you don't hire me. I need to do this for myself, because if you give this to someone else, I just need to be able to say I did everything I could." So I made that book and it just started going up the ladder, meeting after meeting after meeting after meeting, and eventually, I got the job.
I remember the day I got it, I was so overwhelmed – just because I've now been through the process of making a giant movie like this and it's incredibly hard and there are so many things that can go wrong. There are so many reasons that movies like this end up bad. You really have to have the right team and you have to shepherd it in the right way and you need to understand the core of what you're really talking about, the core of why these games work – why they resonate, what people take away from them, and to me, there was just nothing greater that I would rather try and fall on the sword for and protect than Metal Gear. It's funny, when that first got announced, I think a lot of people were like, "Who the fuck is this guy?" Straight up, "We don't know this guy. Who's this guy who's going to touch our favorite property ever?"
Hopefully people have seen a lot of positive stuff online about the tone of Kong – at times serious and stylized, but goofy and plastic and absurd at other times. It almost has a Metal Gear tone at times, and I've seen a lot of positive stuff lately where people are much more excited that I'm part of that project.
I was talking to Ben Wheatley who has just released the action-comedy Free Fire and he's a big Counter-Strike player. He was saying how it was the feel of Counter-Strike that influenced his movie.
I think it's super smart. Kong is not a video game movie by any stretch of the imagination, but the aesthetic feeling of so many game-related things bled into that. I was a big LAN person for a while. We had LAN parties all the time. We were super deep into Star Wars Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II and into a game called Starsiege Tribes, and ultimately, Counter-Strike and things like that. I think people underestimate the emotion, the camaraderie and the bond that you form with your community of people that understand why you love this stuff so much.
We could speed run Majora's Mask before there was a community in place for that, before there was Twitch, before you could make your living off of just playing games with people watching you. People underestimate what an incredible bond was formed and I think that makes people extra-protective of these properties.
What are you playing right now? You mentioned Journey and Firewatch, but I guess you haven't had a lot of time recently for new stuff?
I've not had a lot of time recently. I'm just now coming out the other end. I was able to play Firewatch and loved it. I would say Inside is amazing. I probably replay Journey once every couple of months. Honestly, I'm into weirder, experimental stuff these days. Also, Gone Home – what an evocative experience. What an incredible, strange game that makes you feel so many things and tricks your imagination into going so many places, and then it's just this very normal story, and yet your brain is able to go on all these insane genre tangents of occult, and kidnapping, zombies, or whatever, and you're just like, "What a normal story."
When people even raise the idea of whether games are art, I just want to look at them and be like, 'Fuck you. Fuck yourself for even questioning.'
I'm really fascinated by things like that these days – anything that I feel is pushing the language of games forward and showing me things that I haven't seen before, that's the stuff that I find myself most interested in. Obviously, I look at stuff like Phantom Pain and the way Kojima is constantly challenging himself, or the way he moved away from what people perceived as those old, cinematic cutscenes, and then is able to "tell" cutscenes without making cuts. The camera just constantly floats around – it's just these long, steady camera takes.
I just want to see things that do something new. It's really hard for me to just pick up a Call of Duty or something like that and just play it. I love Arkham Asylum, but it's hard for me to pick up a sequel to something unless I feel like it's really doing something new. Granted, I will always pick up a new Zelda and a new Metroid. I haven't played Breath of the Wild yet because I am still getting my bearings and I need to get a Switch, but there are certain things that are so seminal in my life, and a lot of that old Nintendo stuff falls in that category – Zelda and Metroid in particular. I will always pick those up, but it's hard for me to really give that much time to something if I don't feel like it's evolving the art form in some way.
If you like Gone Home you should play What Remains of Edith Finch.
I've heard really good things about it. I'm so excited about the fact that people are making games like that, that there's a market for them, and that you can go to something like The Game Awards and they're talking about games like Firewatch.
From Ico to Shadow of the Colossus to The Last Guardian, the fact that games like that are able to be event games now, it's amazing to me. I hope those games are able to make a profit and I'd like to think that those companies see the value in flagship entertainment that is pushing their artform forward, but for every success story, you hear a bunch of horror stories about an indie company that got shuttered before their game was released. The fact that it's even a question anymore, when people even raise the idea of whether games are art, I just want to look at them and be like, "Fuck you. Fuck yourself for even questioning."
This interview has been edited and condensed.