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Watching Kojima

While most of you people were eating turkey, stuffing, and pumpkin pie last week, I was dining on snakes, frogs, rats, and bats. Once I was given a fork in prison, I was able to skip having to store all of this “field meat” in my inventory and just eat it right there off the bone to replenish stamina. Ramen noodles and Russian rations just didn’t sate hunger like a vulture, my Thanksgiving bird of choice.

Of course, all of this means that Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater was on my gaming menu over the holiday. I was playing through it courtesy the recently released HD remaster collection of Kojima-san’s finest. I missed the game when it originally released (both times) so I was very excited to check it out, thinking that maybe some of the madness of MGS4 would be clarified. After nearly breaking my spirit with the almost unbelievably clunky, cranky controls, the game slowly seduced me into its particular brand of military fetishism, wartorn solemnity, absurdist humour, idiosyncratic video game syntax, and occasional mind-blowing awesomeness. Any game where a boss fight involves wading through a river haunted by the ghosts of whoever you killed throughout the game, culminating with the revelation that your adversary died two years ago, is alright by me.

And oh, those cutscenes. Excessive, over-elaborate, and indulgent. Yet also somehow indispensible, imminently compelling in their overheated melodrama, and absolutely essential to Hideo Kojima’s vision of the Metal Gear Solid franchise.

We’ve seen a lot of talk over the past decade about games becoming more filmic and both hardware and software technology have enabled games to become closer to movies. The Metal Gear Solid games have, since 1998, been at the forefront of this conversation. Better writing, a stronger impetus to develop characters and settings, and gameplay concepts have blurred the lines between going to the movies and sitting down to play a game to the chagrin of some hardline, old-school video gamers that believe in a strict segregation of mediums. I’ve gone to the battlements myself over games such as Heavy Rain that devolve player choice to near-Dragon’s Lair levels while plying a Z-grade thriller script that’s “really good for a video game”. And I think that game makers should never take away the player’s ability to do the most awesome thing in the game by showing it in a cutscene or cinematic. And don’t get me started on QTEs.

There’s always a lot of watching and not doing in any Metal Gear Solid game. There are also subtle and not-so-subtle references to everything from James Bond to Spaghetti Westerns. Extensive codec conversations with Para-Medic about 1950s and 1960s science fiction and horror pictures betray a Tarantino-like obsession with discussing cinema. Most strikingly (and most obscurely), the common narrative structure between all four central MGS titles that moves Snake through a series of boss battles with each enemy representing a different aspect of conflict closely recalls the Alejandro Jodorowsky film El Topo (1970), in which a mysterious black-clad gunfighter must encounter four metaphysical gun masters in a spiritual quest. Each gunfighter presents with a different ideology, weakness, and concept. Kojima’s love for the movies sometimes threatens to overwhelm the game, prompting many critics and gamers to decry his reliance on non-interactive sequences to tell their outrageously complex stories.

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Criticisms are not entirely unfounded, although I believe they tend to ignore the fact that these games are intended to be specifically directorial experiences. Characters spiral off into labyrinthine exposition. Vast sections of the game can be “played” with the controller out of your hands. Everybody seems to have a speech at some point, including one hilarious moment in Snake Eater when the main adversary literally says “I’m going to explain everything to you before I kill you”. It’s a wonder that nobody in the game breaks out a Powerpoint presentation to explain who the Philosophers, Patriots, PMCs, or whoever are. If these games were movies, they absolutely wouldn’t work.

Yet in the Metal Gear Solid games I’ve always been completely OK with watching and not doing and I’ve never so much as cringed at the sometimes nonsensical dialogue and sometimes bizarre body language of its CGI marionettes. I’d critically crucify a movie written, directed, framed, and acted like a Metal Gear Solid game. But in the games medium, it becomes something highly stylized, idiosyncratic, and postmodern. The games are also proof positive that Bazin’s auteur theory of directorial authorship can be applied to video games.

I think Kojima has succeeded more than any other auteur working in the games medium in bridging the gap between film and game. He brings an extensive and very studied appreciation of movies to his games but he also exhibits a very old fashioned adherence to “gamey-ness”. Despite all of the big-budget CGI work, there’s a goofy and absolutely alluring sense that Metal Gear circa 1998, 2002, 2005, or 2008 really isn’t that different than the original MSX/NES game from 1986. It’s always been Kojima’s show, but the key is that I don’t believe that he is under any illusion that he’s making a Hollywood action picture. He knows he’s a game maker, and the games remain firmly rooted in the syntax and grammar of the video games medium.

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There’s the floating, spinning items scattered throughout the levels- yes, it’s very much a traditional level-based design and always has been. There are quirky details like having to eat random animals to regain strength or having tend to wounds right there in the heat of battle. Impossibilities such as carrying and switching between every weapon in a tremendous arsenal never seems to be a burden for Snake. There is the ability to “game” the stealth, CQC and camouflage systems foreclosing on any concept of simulation in these rather detailed mechanics. And then there’s Peace Walker, where you’re building a mercenary army by “recruiting” knocked-out enemy soldiers and spiriting them away with balloons to be retrieved via a Fulton skyhook. Aside from the exquisite detail of the firearms and authentic military hardware, references to real-world historical and political events, and the guest appearance of Lyndon Johnson the amount of realism in these games is practically zero. There is an almost irreverent self-awareness that it’s all just a video game, and if you don’t get the memo then there’s usually some kind of fourth-wall shattering conversation or game element to remind you that it is. Remember that fight with Psycho Mantis?

Participation, the key component that separates the video game and film mediums, is never neglected in these games. Despite popular outcry against 45 minute cut scenes every five minutes (the kind of gross exaggeration that characterizes armchair, amateur criticism in the Internet age), Kojima never fails to supply ample gameplay that is both emergent and carefully confined within the bounds of the story he wants to tell. Every area has any number of possible approaches and every enemy can be dispatched or avoided using a variety of tools. There are secrets galore, like how the ancient sniper The End can be killed by turning off the game and waiting to play it again for a week, during which time he apparently dies of old age. There are items, weapons, and hidden areas that you may not find in two playthroughs. Unlockable items, ratings, and other incentives encourage exploration and experimentation.

So it turns out that Kojima manages to strike a balance between showing you what he as the director of the experience wants you to see and what you as the experiencer want to do. There are variable outcomes in certain situations and failure is always a possibility. This is a franchise that believes in the “Game Over” screen and a hard fail state that may require you to replay sections to get it right. There’s also a compelling fluidity in the gameplay, a willingness to let the whole stealth concept go pear-shaped and turn into a running battle or a tense game of hide-and-go-seek. Complain all you want about watching those cutscenes, but for all of their gamey-ness and strict direction these games often feel more alive than most corridor-bound shooters or “golden ledge” third-person platformers.

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The takeway from all of this is that yes, game makers need to quit trying to make movies. I agree with that. But the model for crossing the streams, so to speak, should be closer to what Kojima is proposing in his games. This means understanding, accepting, embracing, and even subverting the traditional mechanics or modes of depiction present in the video games medium and bringing in these cinematic influences while also meeting participatory and gameplay expectations. That takes a strong directorial hand, and Kojima’s is arguably stronger than anyone else’s in the business. The inverse of this example would be, to beat a dead horse, Heavy Rain- a game almost contemptuous of occurring as a video game and having to deign to offer the player something to do. It’s like the bitter screenwriter working as a fry cook at an In-and-Out Burger.

Kojima’s appreciation of the movies informs his efforts and it’s clear that influences run deep, but it seems that the goal is ultimately to craft a game that works and affects like a movie would moreso than how a game does. This is not an undesirable thing, despite the fact that too many game designers seem to get it wrong and skew too far into the “aspiring filmmaker”, substituting button-press prompts for actual interaction and narrative engagement. It’s a lazy criticism to condemn the Metal Gear Solid games for their intensively directed cutscenes when they are balanced out with deep, intricate and sometimes obsessive gameplay. You’ve got to remember that it’s Kojima’s vision and even though he’s generous enough to let you play with it he retains the rights of authorship, control, and direction.

Bill Abner

Bill has been writing about games for the past 16 years for such outlets as Computer Games Magazine, GameSpy, The Escapist, GameShark, and Crispy Gamer. He will continue to do so until his wife tells him to get a real job.

6 thoughts to “Watching Kojima”

  1. Very interesting read, Michael. I must admit, I find the MGS games strangely compelling, despite the fact that I purposefully paused the game before the final boss fight in MGS4 because I wanted make sure I had a stopwatch handy to actually time how long the ending cutscene was so I could tell my friends. From final punch thrown to the absolute end of the credits was 75 cunt-gargling minutes, to borrow a Yahtzee-ism. It’s almost as long as a feature-length film!

    That having been said, I freaking loved the final boss fight in that game. I thought it was brilliant. And you’re totally right, it’s so “gamey” as to be utterly ridiculous. The gameplay actually really works, and it’s often ridiculously detailed and complex. Sure, you can power through things without thinking twice, but it really rewards experimentation in different ways to approach each area and enemy. You often want to keep playing just to see what it throws at you next. What a weird series… Kojima is either an utter genius or completely insane. Probably both.

  2. I think it’s really kind of understated (if that’s possible) how freaking weird these games are. And it’s not just the usual Japanese quirk or incomprehensibility. It’s very, very specific to these games. Undoubtedly they’re influenced by Japanese pop culture, sci-fi,and anime, but it still comes out…different.

    There’s a real sense of willful absurdity in all of the games that I just absolutely cherish. But it’s tossed in with that really intense kind of Japanese fetishism. Like in Snake Eater where Snake is all breaking down Ocelot over his choice of guns, firing technique, and whatnot. It’s _ridiculous_. But it’s MGS, and that’s how it rolls.

    The funny thing about these games is that I played MGS back when it came out, and immediately declared it the best console game I had ever played. I remember getting friends over just to watch certain parts of it (“look, you have to take diazepam to hold the rifle steady!”) and I’ve actually probably played through it more than any other single title. But I skipped two and three when they came out, and didn’t catch up with 4 until last year. But when I played 4, it just completely blew me away at how meta-over-the-top-balls-out-crazy it was. But we’re talking about a huge, AAA franchise that millions of people have played. And it’s just about as avant garde as mainstream games have ever been.

    As for the cutscenes…when I beat Snake Eater early sunday morning, I started fighting the Boss (what an _amazing_, emotional battle) around 2am, finally beat her, and then wound up sitting there for another 30 minutes or so to watch everything including the credits to make sure there wasn’t something after…by the time it wrapped, it was like 5:30am. Exhausting!

  3. During the ending, when Snake stands over the Boss’s grave you can hit L1(or R1) to look through Snake’s tear soaked eyes. But on the outside you can’t really tell he’s crying…. This game channels gameplay into raw emotion. There are no other games that do this.

  4. Yeah, that’s something else that’s really kind of glossed over by the hoopla over the length of the cut scenes and so forth…that these games have a very deep, very resonant emotional core and there’s a lot of material about conflict, war, and the social effects of it all on the people who fight in the name of countries, personal beliefs, destiny, for money, or whatever.

    I love the Beauty and the Beast Corps in 4…what an amazing concept. Tragic and sad.

  5. Thanks for this piece, now I want to play MGS series again. Also, thanks for making me order US version of HD Collection (gotta do it these days!), since EU version is delayed until spring for… who knows which reasons. And not to mention that Limited Edition with that cool 200+ pages artbook is nowhere to be seen/bought (for reasonable money that is)

  6. This was a great read. Thanks for continuing to point out how “linear” games are not necessarily examples of bad design.
    I think a lot of the ideas that you bring up here are also shared by JRPGs. The genre traditionally offers very long cutscenes where you can do nothing at all, but at the same time the series usually allows a large degree of freedom once your button presses start to actually matter again.

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