The lights are on
This interview was originally published on February 21, 2014.
Game Informer traveled to Kojima Productions' headquarters in Tokyo, Japan in preparation for our Metal Gear Solid V cover story. In addition to playing through MGS V: Ground Zeroes’ main story mode and chatting with key Kojima Productions developers like lead artist Yoji Shinkawa, we also sat down for an extended interview with the series’ mastermind. In this full interview, Hideo Kojima discusses his career aspirations, development limitations, and The Phantom Pain’s plot.
Note: Parts of this interview were used in our Metal Gear Solid V cover story and our month-long exclusive coverage.
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain takes place in 1984. What were you doing that year?I was probably around 20 years old. I was in college back then, in my second semester I believe. I think that’s when I started playing the Famicom. I was at rock bottom in my life. It was a bad time. The thing is, I originally wanted to make movies and I wasn’t in an environment that I was able to do that, so I had kind of given up hope. I was going to regular college. I had a lot of mixed feelings inside me.
I think that year I was playing Urban Champion. I’m not sure if it was that exact year but it was around that time. I didn’t have too much contact with arcade centers at the place I was living. All there was were a couple arcade cabinets at the tops of shopping malls, but not too much. During this span of time, about 1982 to 1984, I eventually started going to more arcade centers. Before that I hadn’t had too much contact with video games. So I started going to the arcades more, and the whole reason that the Famicom came out is that all these games you were playing at the arcades were supposed to be able to play at home. It was around that time I believe I bought my Famicom and I started playing. Around those years I started going to arcades around the same time I was playing Famicom at home. I didn’t have a PC, but I did go to a friend’s place to play PC games.
What are off hours like for you?Whenever I have time I watch movies, whether that’s at the theater or at home on DVD or Blu-ray. Other than that I try to read a lot of books, too. I also try to go to the gym as much as possible, and I also try to dedicate a lot of time to play with my kids.
What are some movies or TV shows that have sparked your imagination recently?Well I try to watch stuff every day, but I’m coming into Breaking Bad a bit late. I just got done with season two of Breaking Bad and that was pretty depressing. I got depressed for like a week. I was very pissed off, because I wasn’t the one to think of that story. That depressed me. The kind of topics they’re handling in Breaking Bad, the way they express them and put them on screen, let’s say I tried to create a game with similar topics and similar expressions, it would be hard to get approval in the company. The way these guys are putting the planning for this project and making it a commercial success – that’s somewhere I feel very jealous as a creator.
Other than that Gravity is another movie. It’s a movie about space. There’s no sound, there’s no light. There are only two actors. They have full-face helmets for a big part of the movie. The other part of the movie is they just get lost. That’s something that would be really, really tough to pass here in our company. I’m sure it was a similar situation in Hollywood. Despite that, Alfonso Cuarón got into that project, convinced everyone to move along with it, wrote the story with his son, and made a huge commercial success out of it. That’s something as a creator really impacted me. Making something out of the ordinary, that you wouldn’t think of or be able to do, and making that happen while making it a success. That’s something that I can empathize with and I’m also very jealous of it as a creator. It stirred something in me.
Tell me about your writing process.In principle, I think in parallel between the gameplay elements I put in a game along with what kind of story will be there. I put those together in parallel. Once that is done I try to think of the setting, put together the plot of the story, and what kind of environment the game world will have. From there I start discussing with the team. Back then I used to write all the story myself. Right now it’s kind of impossible for me to do that. For example, the codec conversations: I think of the topics the codecs will have and I hand that to the team of writer that we have. They write it and then I check it after. Ordinarily I try to write as much as possible myself.
The story of the Metal Gear series is infamously complicated. Is this a byproduct of having such a long-running series, or does complexity excite you?Having a complex story is not my intention at all. It’s nothing I ever shoot for or try to do. Ideally what I want to do is, for example, make a story that’s seems very simple, it’s very easy to understand on the surface, and once you zoom in there’s a lot of details and a lot of things that you can see there. But overall, ideally I try to stay within a story that once you zoom out the main story is rather simple. After each game I begin to think of the story for the next. I didn’t have the whole story put together at once when I created the first game. When you do that sometimes the veins [of stories] get lost, change, or get stuck. From there I need to create new bloodlines so the story can keep going. One thing that I try not to do is sacrifice certain things just so I can keep the original story intact. Sometimes I need to accept these inconsistencies in order to be able to achieve what I want for the story.
Does Kojima Productions keep a lore bible handy in order to keep everything straight?We don’t have anything like that, but there are core members that have been here for a long time at Kojima studios. Core members that know how things work. We don’t have anything as a text, but the core members that have been here for a while know how we try to create things in our studio. What we need to keep consistent for the users and what things we always want to try to offer. I’ve been creating games in a way that I try to keep staff that knows the things that we’re trying to create. I’ve been trying to hand that down from person to person. In the past we’ve tried to create a bible like the one you mentioned, but no one reads it. So I decided it was better to just pass it on from person to person. The one thing is that when you’re creating a game, in that end what you do every time is pass notes like book reports that say you have clear notes that the player will be doing this or that.
You’ve unsuccessfully tried to hand over the reins of the Metal Gear series, but despite this the franchise has been headed by you for over 25 years. While this comes with its advantages, do you think having one man guiding the entire Metal Gear franchise has disadvantages? For example, if Ridley Scott never left Alien, we would have never gotten James Cameron’s Aliens.Well, then after James Cameron the series kind of went… [laughs] I understand what you’re saying. At Kojima Productions, if our studio were a kitchen and the head chef changes, then it changes the flavor and it changes. The world franchise usually becomes more open, as in Alien. To be honest, I’ve actually wanted to do something similar just to change it. I don’t know if the Metal Gear brand sometimes is a bit heavy to carry. The franchise is difficult to handle. But so far I’ve had no success [passing the torch]. Metal Gear Rising [Revengeance], fortunately that was a spin-off so that went well. Ideally I would like to step out from the Metal Gear franchise as a producer and dedicate myself to other games. So far that has proven to be a bit difficult. Alien is a very successful example [of a new director coming in]. Unfortunately in our case it’s more like Terminator, that once Cameron steps out of it there was kind of a mess. [laughs]
What personal pursuits do you have beyond games?First of all I want to create games. Within the game industry I would like to make more games that have that indie game taste or some completely different type of game with a big budget. Something in a completely different direction. If I wasn’t doing games, well of course I’d like to get involved in movies or write novels. I’m almost 50-years-old so I don’t have that much time left. If I were to write a list of things that I want to do before I die, it would be a very stuffed list. Because of my age I’m starting to think of the other things I have to do before I die.
James Cameron has said previously that his Avatar universe is flexible enough for him to tell any story he’d ever like to tell. Do you feel similarly about the Metal Gear series? I’m not exactly sure what James Cameron’s intention was, but one thing is whatever you create you will always find boundaries. There will always be more things that you want to say. I’ve been working in the Metal Gear franchise for over 25 years. This world has allowed me to tell a lot of the things that I wanted to say. That said, it has a very specific worldview and a very specific set of game elements. I’ll probably be saying this until I die, but there are still more things I want to tell, more things I want to communicate, and more things I want to experiment with.
The Metal Gear Solid series is incredibly important to Konami and they allocate you the appropriate resources to make it a hit, but do you still butt up against development limitations?One thing is that within Kojima Productions I’d love to put all my efforts and time into creating a Metal Gear Solid that’s kind of what [Rockstar] does with GTA. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. It’s still a business. In parallel we have to work on other projects and make things balanced towards Konami as a whole. Finding that balance with how to work on all our projects proves to be a little difficult.
Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty
The Metal Gear Solid franchise is one of the most consistently successful, widely praised Japanese-developed video games. Do you ever feel like you’re carrying the torch for quality Japanese games?I try not to think like I’m a Japanese game developer. I try to not think about that. Because in Japan Metal Gear only has so much success, in terms that people don’t like that much Metal Gear here. The kind of things you mention as carrying the torch and all that passion, that’s not something you hear often in Japan, so I try not to think of myself as doing that. It’s a similar case for Japanese movies. If you make a Japanese movie that is only intended for a Japanese market, then it has a very specific size, so you will have a very limited budget. Also, if you write a novel intended for a Japanese audience then you can only expect so much reach and distribution. But if you write a novel in English for other markets, then you can focus on one novel. Writers in Japan usually write four or five novels in parallel and release sequentially by chapter in a magazine and whatnot. Oftentimes they can’t think of the ending. That’s a huge problem we face in the Japanese market. Back in the day games didn’t have spoken dialogue, nowadays there’s a lot of talking and a lot of expression. So within that we have to think of how to impact the whole international market. How to make a game towards that market. So for example, let’s say in a Japanese movie you use a very famous Japanese character. You cannot expect to relate to a global market, so we’re trying to think day by day how to address this. How to make something that relates to the whole world.
What do other Japanese developers need to do to succeed this generation?In the past video games didn’t have spoken dialogue. Like a Charlie Chaplin movie or a silent movie there was no words. You don’t need to put any cultural background related to the whole world as it was. It’s the same case with Mario. Now you can put in all this language, slang, facial expressions – even the color of the skin and eyes. Cultural elements and even racial elements. From there a character that’s famous in Japan might not relate to an American market. It comes down to a choice. If you want to have a successful game only in Japan, then you have Japan as the only place the story takes place. Then Japan will be the only place that gets it. Or there is another option that it could go somewhat like what Hollywood does, with aliens attacking the world which is something that relates to the world.
Do you have a circle of Japanese game developer friends?Just recently many of the Japanese developers are looking towards different directions from where I’m looking, so I’m not close to anyone. I haven’t really been close to anyone in Japanese game development. It’s kind of hard to talk about our dreams together because they’re different. Honestly, within the Japanese game industry I mean Platinum Games. I’m close with them. I have good friends there. Other than that I guess people that make indie games. Actually for these days, it’s easier for me to talk about my dreams with movie directors. I feel a little bit more comfortable talking about my dreams and personal goals with them.
What are some movie directors that you’ve become friends with?The guy I feel really comfortable talking to, and which is very exciting, is Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, Pacific Rim). I had a fantastic time talking with him. Last time I was with Guillermo we went to karaoke, and next time I’m looking forward to doing karaoke again. Del Toro wanted to adhere to all those Japanese anime songs. That’s what we were singing.
Would you ever like to collaborate with del Toro?Yeah, that would be great
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