Inside the mind of the man behind Metal Gear.
The date: December 1, 2005; the place: the Roppongi district of Tokyo, whre foreigners mingle with natives shuttling to and fro amidst the tumult and chaos of restaurants, bars, electronics shops, hostess clubs, and upscale boutiques that define the area. The setting on this brisk and sunny day was Hideo Kojima's residence in the Mori Building, ensconced within the greater Roppongi Hills complex, which houses - among other things - Kojima's worldwide headquarters. The reason for our meeting: to learn more about the man who made Metal Gear solid (his reference to bringing the series to 3D), to find out what makes him tick, where he got his eye for detail, and what inspires him to get out of bed every morning and make video games.
Hideo Kojima has been at the forefront of modern videogame design for nearly 20 years now, from the ripe old days of the MSX system to his recent eye-popping Metal Gear Solid 4 demonstration for the Playstation 3. He's continually pushed the boundaries of Japanese game designs further than any other developer, save for perhaps Shigeru Miyamoto, and he is without equal in his cinematic approach. He has influenced legions of would-be stealth-survivors, from Tenchu to Rogue Ops to Splinter Cell, has nurtured a small handful of potential successors to the Metal Gear throne in Shinta Nojiri (Metal Gear Ac!d) and Shuyo Murata (Zone of the Enders). Kojima is, without question, one of the most important figures in the videogame industry, bringing in heavy hitters like Harry Gregson-Williams to score the soundtracks to his games and cinematic title wizards like Kyle Cooper to set the tone.
While the gritty nature of most of his games suggests a no-nonsense director at the helm, a sharper eye will spot the sly sense of humor continually at work underneath the surface. So in order to discern how games like MGS3: Subsistance happen into existance, we arranged a meeting with Kojima's visionary, kicked traditional game-related questions to the curb and had ourselves a real conversation with him to find out what makes Hideo Kojima Hideo Kojima.
OPM You've been making some of the most groundbreaking videogames for nearly 20 years now. What makes you get up and keep making games every day?
Hideo Kojima [Sipping his coffee] You know, videogames being interactive, it's kind of a service industry. The key to being a videogame creator is to provide different kinds of service. And in order to provide all kinds of service, you have to know people, and in doing so, I obviously have my own personality, and then I have my friends, family, relatives, and all of that. And then I assume virtual personalities through what I've seen in the past, and then using all these different personalities, real and virtual, I try out my own game in order to adjust it for all those people out there who would be playing my game.
The thing is, yes, I do have these different personalities, but there are millions of people out there, so what I have, all these personalities within myself, are not enough for me to tweak the game and create games. So I have focus groups and gather people to see how they play the game. Since it's a service industry, there's really no end. I can keep on offering things, and as I grow older, I can even provide a better service through what I've learned and experienced in the years of my life. The thing is, there really is no end, and that's what makes me go on. It's like a restaurant in the food industry, where you can provide a service to people. With films and games, it's fun to write the script and the story and then also do the directing, but with videogames, because it's interactive, there's this element of providing service, and in doing so, I basically have to know more about humans, about people, and it's this process of learning about people, knowing more about people, that makes me a bigger person, a broader person. And that's why it's something I can't really stop doing. It's something I enjoy doing.
OPM Where do you get most of your stimuli from? Do you get it from music, from movies, from books you read?
HK If you check out my blog, you'll probably know what stimulates me, but the thing is, I'm working all day long. It's not like I can go on around-the-world travel; it's not like I go on risky, dangerous adventures or anything. I basically go to work like anyone else to get paid. Even while I spend most of my time in the office working, I get to meet different people, I get to listen to different music, I get to see different movies. Basically, It's doing my thing everyday, living and going into the office. If I have my sensors on, I just run into things and absorb what I run into. It's not like I have to do anything special to get stimulated.
It might be a little hard to understand, but when I walk down the street, if I see a stone in the middle of the street, that's a stimulus. People probably walk by, but I'll say, "Why is this thing sitting in the middle of the road?" Or even like your slipper [Motions to the interviewer] "Why is that guy wearing one slipper and not the other?" These things might not be stimuli to other people, but these things to me are seeds of stimuli.
OPM In your blog, it's easy to tell that you're very observant of the little details. So I can see why you'd notice that I'm only wearing one slipper. In the past you've mentioned how your parents moved when you were a child, causing you to lose all your friends, and that this made you somewhat introverted. Did this lead you to focus on the details more?
HK It's just my personality, I think. My wife says she doesn't like people with my personality. [Laughs] It's very exhausting, because when we go out to dinner together, for a meal, I always complain about the food, and she doesn't enjoy that. I really don't know why these things stimulate me. I catch these things; things concern me. Maybe in that sense I'm still a child that hasn't grown up but has aged -- I'm like a big child. It's not like I really question everything. It's not like, "Why is this like that?" It's not a bunch of whys. More like every time I run into something I start thinking about it, thinking about the background story that sits behind that thing or person or whatever. And when I meet someone, I start thinking about what kind of family he or she has, or what kind of life he has been living so far, and it's these things that I start thinking about.
OPM What would you say have been the most influential things in your life? I know you like Joy Division, so maybe it was their album Closer that moved you. Or maybe it was having a child or your own.
HK You know, people ask me that, like what was the first movie that impacted you the most, and I really can't answer because I've been impacted everyday by a lot of things. So it's just a lot of things that have influenced me big time, but you mentioned my child. That obviously was a big influence in my life. That really divides the B.C. and A.D within my life. That was a big impact.
The thing is, when I was a child myself I was one of these - first of all I'm going to give you the Japanese term kagi-ko, which literally means "key child" - what it means is both of your parents are working, so the kid basically has the key to the house. After school you go home and your parents aren't there, so you open the door with the key yourself and go in and no one's in the house. Kagi-ko isn't even really used anymore in Japan; it's a very old sort of idea.
Kids basically have the keys hanging on straps; moms give them the key, but the straps end up being too long, so when they go up on the horizontal bar, they end up wrapping around [Laughs] But as a kagi-ko, no one's there, so I'd go home and watch TV and I felt very lonely. Sometimes I'd look at my mom's big mirror and would start crying. That probably has a big impact on me right now. I'm still a lonely guy; I feel solitude all the time, even when I'm with people. While I do feel lonely, I do sort of enjoy solitude as well. I like to hang out with eople, but when I hang out with people I end up noticing that people are different from me, and I feel more solitude. But then when my son was born, I guess that really changed things. I don't feel that absolute solitude anymore.
For example, you mentioned Joy Division; they have a song called "Isolation." Like punk music, in that kind of music, while they feel frustrated, they direct their frustration outside. In their songs they basically want to destroy society and rules; it's like an exploding force. But then came alternative rock, alternative music, where the energy sort of implodes. Everything goes internally. When I bumped into that kind of music, I really felt happy in the sense that, "Oh, there are people like me in England as well."
Like Tears for Fears: The guys were going to shrinks, and the shrinks said, "Why don't you make music?" and that's how they sort of came about. So people like them. Their music had a big impact on me.
OPM It's interesting you mention that. Tears for Fears' first couple albums, The Hurting and Songs from the Big Chair, were exercises originating from their Janovian Primal-scream therapy sessions. The song "Shout" specifically was the purest example of that.
HK OK, we should go to karaoke next time. We'll sing the song. I haven't been singing lately. [Laughs]
OPM If you had to pick a song to sing right now, what would it be?
HK The first song would be "Don't Cry" by Asia. The problem is, even when I sing the song, the people who go with me aren't familiar with it, so it's pretty sad. There's a lot of stimuli out there, though. Putting music aside -- movies, books, I love all kinds of books and movies. I have diverse tastes.
OPM What would we see on your DVD shelf and bookshelf right now?
HK That's a tough question. That choice I'd be making would change every day.
OPM What would you be in the mood for right now?
HK Today not necessarily the best answer, but I just bought the DVD of The Butterly Effect, and I haven't watched it yet, so I'll probably go watch it.
OPM And a book?
HK There's this Japanese writer called Masaki Yamada, and his latest book, called Mystery Opera is a book I'm reading. And I've bought the latest book by Paul Wilson, but I haven't read it yet. I go to the book store and CD store every day. I commute using the train, and there's a big bookstore on the way where I change trains. That's what I enjoy doing every day. I'm not of the generation where people surf the net to see what's coming out soon. I just go to the store. I have these feelings; I sort of know that something's coming out, so I go to the store.
It's like meeting people when I go to the bookstore. There are like 10,000 books there, and I end up picking one; the chances are miraculous. Even when buying music, this is something I do: It's called "jacket buying" or "cover buying." I basically have no idea what the music is, but I just like the cover of the record, and buy it. Most of the time, or more than half the time, the music ends up being bad. But I just cherish this actual physical meeting of people and products.
OPM Would you lament the day software publishers dispense with packaging and design altogether, as companies like Valve move toward a download-only generation? Obviously, the tons of special editions and limited packaging you release for your games (at least in Japan) reveals how much you appreciate good design.
HK You know, downloading stuff is like meeting the internal organs of a person. That's not what I want. You sort of want to wonder what this person is about, what kind of person he or she is. Same with books: You pick it up and try to figure out what it's about; maybe you're eager to read it. Or even if it's music and you have no idea what it's going to sound like, but you pick it up and imagine and expect things. And I think that's what adds to the whole experience, instead of just getting the internal organs like you see in these pictures [points to framed pictures of X-rays of skulls hanging on his wall], the inside.
The packaging part of the product as well, and the service. Another thing I don't like about things with the internet in addition to downloading is, there are people out there who read people's reviews before going to a movie. You read someone's review and say, "Hey it sounds good; I'm going to go and see the movie." I don't like that. I'd rather see the movie myself first and then try to see what people thought about it. I think that if this kind of culture prevails, people will end up not making their own decisions, or people will basically depend on [other] people's tastes. By doing that you won't be able to brush up or improve you own senses and tastes. It is a dangerous trend where people will not go out for themselves or feel or decide instinctively what is good or bad if they depend on other people's tastes.
OPM Do you think people would be doing themselves a disservice if they read my review on MGS4 before goign to buy the game?
HK Well, if more people are going to buy the game after reading your review, please. [Laughs] I know I'm contradicting myself. The thing is, on the internet, there's so much data, like rankings. For example, you see the top-10 box-office movies or top-10 best-selling CDs. It's just information like numbers and data, and people say, "Oh, this is popular; I'm going to go buy it." It definetly is a way to chose things, you know, seeing the best-selling CDs and saying, "I'm going to buy this because it's selling well." That definetly is a way. People really should depend on their own senses, on their own abilities, to try and sense what's good and bad.
OPM Since you obviously do a lot of interviews, what is the most annoying interview question that keeps coming up?
HK OK, this is like a Japan-only question, but I'm called Kojima-kantoku. Kantoku means "director", but director in Japan usually means a movie director. The title comes after the name, like Kurosawa-kantoku or Kojima-kantoku. "Why do people call you Kojima-kantoku?" That question I hate.
OPM Do they ask that a lot?
HK I was asked that yesterday. The Japanese media, that's like the first question they ask me.
OPM Is that supposed to be a sign of respect? Maybe they're trying to brown-nose you before the interview?
HK I think it's the opposite. The thing is, the word kantoku is usually associated with film directors, and in Japan I think people view film directors as superior to videogame directors. The word in English is the same, a film director or videogame director. I guess in Japan, videogame directors aren't refered to as kantoku, so I guess they think "The film directors are way up there; why are you called kantoku along with them?" It's a way of disrespect, sort of.
OPM It's funny you should say that. With the exception of some highly respected film directors, like Kurosawa, among others, the Japanese film industry isn't generally considered top tier, usually because of films' miniscule budgets compared to what Hollywood can produce. The Japanese videogame industry, on the other hand, is generally considered top-notch, with high-quality CG, game graphics, innovation, etc., and with most of the big franchises coming out of Japan. The Japanese film industry doesn't usually grab too much attention outside of Japan, while the Japanese game industry certainly does.
HK Please write that! Keep writing about that to change things. Don't use me on the cover; put that on the cover! That message there.
OPM Have you heard of [film critic] Roger Ebert's assessment that videogames can never be viewed as art? How do you feel about that?
HK I don't think they're art either, videogames. The thing is, art is something that radiates the artist, the person who creates that piece of art. If 100 people walk by and a single person is captivated by whatever that piece radiates, then it's art. But videogames aren't trying to capture one person. A videogame should make all 100 people that play that game should enjoy the service provided by that videogame. It' something of a service. It's not art. But I guess the way of providing service with that videogame is an artistic style, a form of art.
For example, look at a concept car. You don't have to be able to drive a car, but if it's called a car and it has artistic elements in the visuals, then it's art. But an actual car, like a videogame, is interactive, it's something used by people, so it's like a car where you have to drive it. There are 100 people driving a car; they have 100 ways of driving and using it. It could be families driving the car. It could be a couple driving a car. The owner of the car could be driving along the coastline of they could go up into the mountains, so this car has to be able to be driven by all 100 of these people, so in that sense, it's totally not art.
OPM By that same token, if you had a Picasso on the wall, you may totally enjoy his work. I imagine you would if you had one hanging up. But I may hate Picasso; I may perfer the Bauhaus movement. So if we have different opinions, maybe we're not physically "using" it for anything specific; we're still using our minds to evaluate it, just like the performance of a car or videogame. That's not going to stop art from being art, but videogames can still be artistic.
HK Let me say this in a different way, so I can better explain the nuance in what I'm trying to say. That building there [points to one of the adjacent Roppongi Hills towers] has an art museum called Mori Museum, but any museum will do. Art is the stuff you find in the museum, whether it be a painting or a statue. What I'm doing, what videogame creators are doing, is running the museum -- how do we light up things, where do we place things, how do we sell tickets? It's basically running the museum for those who come to the museum to look at the art. For better or worse, what I do, Hideo Kojima, myself, is run the museum and also create art that's displayed in the museum.
OPM So do you think the user's involvement in affecting the outcome of a game affects the game's artistic credibility, because it's left to the user to "finish" the painting?
HK Not necessarily. Online games maybe, because what you're doing is basically providing them with the arena, the play tools, and leaving everything up to the player, so for online games, maybe yes. What I do with my videogames, specifically Metal Gear Solid, is provide a canvas and paint and the paintbrushes to everyone who buys the game. Obviously, some people can draw well or paint well, while some people cannot. I basically provide them with the tools and make sure these people are satisfied with their painting. They're like, "Man, I'm a marvelous artist. I can paint! I can draw!" I make sure they get the satisfaction when they play my games, that they're able to draw something that they're very satisfied with in the end.
OPM Games like Shadow of the Colossus and ICO are the games most oftened referred to as art in videogame form, due to their distinct visual quality. Many people point to those games as art. Do you think these are exceptions, such as these games, where you could look at them and say, "OK, those are art."? Or do you think all games fall under the blanket assessment?
HK I think they're good games, but I think they're just another game. In [Shadow of the Colossus], you ride a horse. It's a horse; it looks like a horse. But in art, I can paint this cup [lifts up his coffee cup] and call the painting Horse. That's art. The music and graphics used in a game -- they have artistic elements, I agree. But everything else is very intuitive. It's easy to play in the sense that a horse looks like a horse and you obviously know that you ride the horse, so what I think it does is provide a service.
Maybe let's say there's a game out there where there's a boss that you cannot defeat. It's made that way. Normally when you beat the boss in a game, there's a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment, but if you can't beat the boss at all, if what you're left with is a sense of loss, then maybe that could be defined as art. You know Taro Okamoto -- he's dead but a very famous Japanese artist. I don't know the official English translation of it, but one of his pieces called The Refusing Chair. It's something that sort of looks like a chair, but it's got bumps on it, so you can't sit on it, but if you do, it's going to hurt your butt. With videogames you have to make sure you can sit on the chair. That's why you want to think about art and videogames. I think the lousiest videogames can be considered art. Because bad games with no fun aren't really games, by definition.
OPM Speaking of the Mori Museum, there's an exhibit going on there right now on Hiroshi Sugimoto. One of the placards on the photograph of the mathemetically inspired sculpture has a quote of Sugimoto's that says, "Art resides even in the things with no artistic intentions." So, it's reasonable to suggest that a game has just as much opporunity to be art as an apple on a plate.
HK You know, with videogames becoming something that anyone can play at any time becaues they've become so popular and mainsteam in our lives, I think contemporary artists out there could use videogames and create art -- like The Refusing Chair, the unplayable videogame. It's there, it looks playable, but you just can't control it.
OPM Recently you had a chance to meet up with Frank Miller when he was in Japan to promote Sin City, the movie. Do you like Frank Miller's work?
HK My favorite one is Hard Boiled, for which he only wrote the script and story. I love this stuff because although it is an American comic, it's got a French flavor.
OPM What was it like meeting him?
HK He was a very nice guy. He's a big fan of Japanese manga and comics, realy, and his style is very different from typical American comics; you can see it in his cuts and the layout. And since he likes Japanese comics, he sort of does not use a lot of colors...
OPM ...or backgrounds.
HK Right. And with Japanese manga, the person who writes the story and does the art is usually the same. So it's really that person's piece of work. But most American comics, until Frank Miller, were more like a production line, where you have the storyteller, the scriptwriter, the artist, and if you need, another artist to finish it up. But with Frank Miller, he wanted to do it Japanese style, where he did everything. He's like the first person who did it in American comics.
When he started doing that, doing everything himself, he was really bashed in the industry for not doing it the American way. But with his success, he really opened this new path where one person could do everything and make it that person's work, instead of putting it on a production line. Like the main character of his comics, many of them end up dying. That's not American. In American Hollywood films, they never die, the main protagonists. He basically opened this new path in the American comics industry.
OPM Are you familiar with Frank Miller's graphic novel Ronin.
HK [Laughs] I know it, but I haven't read it yet.
OPM It's sort of a parallel to Miller himself, since he started out working for the major companies, like Marvel and DC, and then struck out on his own.
HK Frank Miller is a fan of a Japanese samurai series...what's it called in the States?
OPM Lone Wolf and Cub? He helped bring that series into the United States. Like how Quentin Tarantino might executive-produce a Robert Rodriguez film, Frank Miller got Dark Horse Comics to translate and publish Lone Wolf and Cub for the States.
HK He did? That's interesting.
OPM Back to your earlier years -- were you an only child?
HK I have an older brother. He's two years older.
OPM So you and your brother are very different then?
HK I think so, and I always thought so, but I really don't know.
OPM Did he have a key around his neck, too?
HK [Laughs] He must have, but I remember I was always the one using my key to get in the house, so he was probably still at school. He is only two years older, but when he was my age, [the age] when I felt very lonely, my mom was not working. My parents' generation, many years ago in Japan, the husband, the father, went out and worked, like America in the 1950's. Like now, even in Japan, women work. There are equal-employment rights, and people can take maternity leave, etc. But 30 years ago when Japan was going through a major economic boom, that's when women started to work, maybe not full time, but that's when kids started wearing their straps and became kagi-ko.
Now, most kids' parents both work, but back then, it was only a small portion, only a few kids in each class had both parents working. That's why I felt even more lonely, like the kagi-kos formed a "kagi-ko alliance" like, "We're very lonely; we have our keys around our necks." When I was small, in elementary school, if it was sunny in the morning but ended up raining in the afternoon, most kids' moms came to school with another umbrella to pick them up, but my mom was working so she never came. So I ended up having small umbrellas in my bag. But then if I took it out and used it, it looked like, "Oh, Hideo, your mom's not coming." I didn't like that; it was embarassing, so I ended up walking home in the rain without using my umbrella.
OPM So you'd go home soaking wet to prove a point?
HK [Laughs] Yeah, a little bit. I guess. You could say that. Being the second child in the family, I just hated being the oppressed one. I always wanted to fight back. When my mom said, "Do as your big brother does, follow the rules." No way. [Laughs]
Our interview came to an end and our photographer began to situate Kojima in his appartment. It is a modestly and spaciously appointed affair, with a couple of red leather chairs set against a mostly stark-white backdrop. Lots of Kojima memorabilia accents the room, with Zone of the Enders statues bookending the huge Hitachi widescreen TV resting in his livingroom and Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater promotional materials making up the build of the rest of the display.
But it's the little things that really offer a peek into Kojima's life: A 12-inch single of New Order's "Fine Time" and a signed and numbered certificate commemorating a Joy Division cover designed by Factory Records' influential Peter Saville. As the photo session wrapped up, we shook hands with Kojima and thanked him for inviting us into his home for this special meeting, a meeting that brought us closer to him not only as a creative force in the game industry, but as a human being, as a man. While he threatens with each and every installment of the Metal Gear series to move on and let someone else take the reins of gaming's favorite stealthy son, it will always be Kojima looking out from behind Solid Snake's eyes. How could it be otherwise? He's gaming's original one-man army.
[Official U.S. PlayStation Magazine - Issue 101.]
Appologies again for any typos.