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Snake charmer – an interview with Hideo Kojima

The legendary game designer talks about Metal Gear and his future plans for the series

Hideo Kojima isn’t quite ready to withdraw from the game series that made him a star.
It’s something the 49-year-old designer has been threatening to do for a while now. Metal Gear has been so successful, it looms over his career.

He’s taken the first steps away from his creation by handing creative control of the forthcoming Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance over to Platinum Games, responsible for MadWorld on the Wii and Bayonetta on the PS3 and Xbox360.

The Rising series is a spin-off, and he’s still deeply involved with Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes, currently in development. Nevertheless, he is planning his exit strategy, though he obviously finds it difficult.

Speaking through an interpreter at a press conference last Thursday, he told me he’s preparing the next generation of Metal Gear developers.

“I’d like to continue making the original games of Metal Gear, but in terms of Metal Gear Rising, as you know I transferred it to Platinum Games. But, as you know, Ground Zeroes is awaiting.

“As well as developing that game, Ground Zeroes, I would like to prepare my young staff to take over to do the Metal Gear production. There is an LA studio of Kojima Productions and they’re going to produce their own Metal Gear. When they’re fully ready to depart on their own, I’ll start making something completely different.”

Metal Gear dominates gamers’ perceptions of Kojima. It couldn’t really be any other way. Revengeance is merely the latest in a long-running series that has spawned actions figures, comic books, novels, soundtrack albums and a documentary.
The series’ main character, Solid Snake is – depending on which poll you pick – sometimes cited as the greatest video game character ever.

It overshadows Kojima’s other output, though the anime-influenced Zone of the Enders and its sequel, recently re-released for HD systems, enjoy some cult success.

For a long time, Metal Gear itself remained fairly obscure. It was one of Kojima’s first games as a designer, released in 1987for the MSX2 console, which barely made an impact in the US or UK, though it sold fairly well in Japan.

It was Metal Gear Solid, released for the first PlayStation in 1998, that launched Kojima into superstardom. The new platform allowed him to exercise his skills as a storyteller.

His parents were film buffs, and passed their love of movies on to the young Kojima, who decided in high school that he wanted to direct films. He’d made some home movies with an 8mm film camera, and wrote novels, hoping to get them published so someone would make a film of them.

“In the area I lived in, there weren’t any film schools like in Hollywood. There were art schools, fine art schools, but in terms of finding a job it was very challenging. Also, my father died around then, so I had to be very realistic and so I gave up on this dream of becoming a film director and then went to a normal university and studied economics.
“But I wanted to become a creator, to create works. So while I was in university, there was the invention of the [Nintendo] Famicom computer, and it was an inspiration for the game-maker.”

Hoping video games would scratch his creative itch, he joined game developer Konami after university – not because he liked their games, he told the Guardian newspaper last year, but because after the success of games like Frogger (1981) and Time Pilot (1983), they were the only Japanese video game company listed on the stock market. Video games were frowned on at the time; he hoped Konami’s stock listing would provide some respectability.

The first game he was assigned to work on was canned. He was assigned to Metal Gear, which was intended to be a wargame. Kojima had other ideas. He created a game based around a prisoner of war, Solid Snake, trying to escape captivity.
The game was released for the MSX, which had a smaller market share than the Famicom, but was more advanced – though far from today’s standards.

“The MSX was very limited. You couldn’t make the characters speak, for instance, and also there was no audio, like music. It was 2D, so the movements, or whatever you can realise with what’s allowed, was so limited,” Kojima said.

Nevertheless, Metal Gear sold well enough that is spawned a sequel and a spin-off, Snake’s Revenge, that Kojima wasn’t involved with.

After the launch of the PlayStation in 1994, Kojima had the chance to revisit Metal Gear.

“The PS1 allowed a lot. It changed the environment - 3D was realised, linear music, the characters speak. The camera work was 3D as well. Also the PlayStation was already present globally, not only in Japan, but in the EU. That was very different from the MSX. It was almost like a mania level of popularity back then, so the potential was very different.

“Then there was the language. Japanese, English, French, German, Italian, Spanish… of course, there had been a bit of a delay for localising the language, but the fact that we had all the series of languages for the game was almost unprecedented back then, especially in Spain.

“Before then there were no games where the characters spoke Spanish. The Mario Brothers didn’t speak Spanish. It was a game with Spanish speaking, which was big news for them, for the market. That helped.”

The new game, Metal Gear Solid, launched in 1998 to critical and commercial success. While the PlayStation’s technology gave Kojima the chance to stretch his directorial wings, and its market share created opportunity, there were other many other games competing for attention.

What was it, I asked, that made Metal Gear Solid so compelling?

“To be honest, I don’t know, because I just made what I really wanted to create, and that appealed to them [gamers].

“What I mean is, I didn’t create it to appeal, but what I wanted to create was really… you know, having thoughts that I wanted to become a film director, I wanted to be a novelist.
“Before that time, Metal Gear didn’t really have a story. It wasn’t really storytelling. You just had characters – a protagonist and antagonist. Why do they fight against each other? There was no reasoning behind it before then, but from here there was a complete story, the universe of Metal Gear and the reasoning behind all the characters and movements I could incorporate.
“That’s my interpretation of what appealed to the fans.”

That one game launched Kojima into stardom. Its sequels and spin-offs remain hotly anticipated releases. Metal Gear has gone multi-platform, and the sales keep racking up on PS3, Xbox and handhelds.

Kojima himself is ranked as number 6 on IGN’s top 100 game creators, and Solid Snake frequently tops polls for the best video game character. Solid is also one of video gaming’s notable smokers – somewhat ironic, since Kojima himself is a non-smoker.

Kojima retired the prematurely ageing Solid in Metal Gear 4, leaving his protégé Raiden to carry the story forward – and Solid’s own mentors to fill in the early story in sequels – the forthcoming Ground Zeroes, like its predecessor Peace Walker, will focus on Solid’s old boss Naked Snake’s earlier life.

The success of the series brought its creator position as well as fame. As well as heading his own company, Kojima Productions, Kojima is vice-president of Konami Digital Entertainment.

He still makes time to watch films frequently. “Not quite every day, but almost,” he said.

And it seems, at last, that his ambition to create a story someone would make into a movie will be realised. Konami announced last year that the long-awaited Metal Gear Solid movie was in pre-production with Columbia Pictures, with Marvel Studios founder Avi Arad, whose previous credits include Spider-Man, X-Men and Iron Man, as producer.

Metal Gear games

  • Console
  • Metal Gear (1987)
  • Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake (1990, Japan only)
  • Metal Gear Solid (1998)
  • Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty (2001)
  • Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (2004)
  • Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots (2008)
  • Metal Gear Online (2008-2012)
  • Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance (February 2013)
  • Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes (upcoming)
  • Handheld & mobile
  • Metal Gear Acid (2004)
  • Metal Gear Acid 2 (2005)
  • Metal Gear: Portable Ops (2006)
  • Metal Gear Solid Touch (2009)
  • Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker (2010)
  • Metal Gear Solid: Social Ops (upcoming)