Should more developers follow his example?
The human ego is a powerful stimulant – it can lead people to do great things. Then again, it can also lead people to do very stupid things. With the Metal Gear series, Hideo Kojima has done both, on a consistent basis, for the past 27 years. He has a creative ego that rivals that of Francis Coppola and George Lucas – he is the truest example of an auteur within the video game industry.
To be clear, having a large ego does not make Hideo Kojima a bad person, nor does it make him a bad game designer. On the contrary, he is a fantastic game designer with a wonderful mind for game mechanics. What he is not is a good writer, philosopher and editor, yet throughout the Metal Gear Solid franchise’s quarter century lifespan he has played a significant part – scratch that – the most significant part in all of these roles. No – Hideo Kojima’s ego doesn’t make him a bad guy, it makes him an auteur. He is completely unable to surrender any aspect of creative control – it’s an obsession, a passion and a master to him, and he knows it.
Metal Gear Solid was never meant to be a lifelong project, but somehow it has become Kojima’s life work – and to be honest, it’s worked out for him, hasn’t it? He is one of, if not the most well-known game designer of all time and is hailed by many as one of the best. He’s not bulletproof, but he’s about as close to it as possible – how else would he get away with Metal Gear’s increasingly ludicrous plot?
The question is could the games industry benefit from having more creators like Hideo Kojima? A question that I fear has no clear cut answer, but let’s not let that stop us shall we.
With the MGS series as an example there is a lot to drawn upon in examining the pros and cons of a creative project lead predominately by an individual – but since I’ve already poked fun at it, let’s focus on the weakest aspect of Kojima’s opus; the writing. As polarizing as this might be to some, although I doubt many, I’ll just say it – the plot, pacing and characterisation in the Metal Gear series is terrible. It always has been and it always will be as long as Kojima continues to be the main creative force behind the narrative. Others have talked about this at greater length, but to sum up – the story of Metal Gear is silly, convoluted and unbearably simplistic beneath the surface detail. It’s tonally inconsistent, frequently dancing between serious, though banal, discussions regarding the military complex and infantile poop jokes. And in the case of MGS4 there is a fairly unsubtle and disturbing undertone of violence and ridicule directed at women. It’s the work of someone with very clear ideals but no aptitude for storytelling. It’s just…bad.
So, why is this critique of Kojima’s storytelling relevant? It’s relevant because it’s a critique of one man’s work – this is Kojima’s story. As an auteur he tells the story that he wants to tell, how he wants to tell it, regardless of his own ability. If the story had been crafted by committee, somebody would have called bullshit a long time ago – and that’s the point. When an individual is so focused on their vision they see it through a tunnel, becoming blind to certain flaws and negligent in cleaning them up (it’s why writers have editors). The obsessive nature of Kojima’s relationship with MGS makes him incapable of letting anyone else take the lead in the writing. There is no one to challenge his decisions on a creative level or to offer a different perspective and channel his ambition into a palatable narrative.
This is the most obvious fault with an individual having total creative control over an idea – nobody is great at everything. People have different skillsets, that’s why games, at least big budget games are usually made by big teams. It is a collaborative process. Even Kojima has a team to make his games – the only difference is that at the end of the day everything has to be done his way. This is by no means an argument limited to Hideo Kojima, this is a governing fact. If you look at the indie scene over the last five years there has been a string of games that excel within a narrow focus but also suffer in some way from having been crafted by an individual. For instance, Kan Gao’s To the Moon is a beautiful, contemplative interactive story showcasing his ability to weave a yarn. However, it lacks any chops in regards to actual gameplay, because that isn’t his strength. On the other hand Dust: An Elysian Tail by Dean Dodrill is a remarkably fun game to play, boasting some of the smoothest animation for an indie title. Even so, the art style was publically derided, but he made a creative decision to stick with it because it was what he wanted. There are of course, many more examples of creators making harsh concessions in order to pursue ‘their vision’, Phil Fish and Jonathan Blow numbering among the individuals who have done so but, you get the idea.
The notable problem with this comparison is that these were all far smaller labours of love. While the egos of all these creators certainly played a part in their creative decisions, so too did limitation. Whether it was budgetary concerns or simply time constraints, limitation existed for these individuals in a way that it does not for Hideo Kojima. It is fully within his power to work with people who are better writers, better conceptualisers – but he chooses not to – because it is his vision.
Now that sounds pretty negative, right? Well, let’s look at Kojima’s role more positively. As I’ve already said, Hideo Kojima has a great mind for game mechanics. There have been so many cool and innovative quirks to Kojima’s games that you could write a piece about just that. Take the battle with ‘The End’ from MGS3 for instance. The fact that you could simply wait him out, or set your system clock forward a week and he would die of old age is such an original idea. In fact all of the boss battles throughout the MGS series have some kind of identity, some interesting mechanic or idea that makes them unique. To go even further, if you look at how the stealth mechanics have changed in each of the numbered MGS games it’s clear to see how Kojima’s obsession keeps pushing him to innovate on his previous ideas. He’s never happy, always tweaking, refining or building something anew – from Soliton radar to motion detector, from hiding in boxes to OctoCamo – there have been so many different approaches to one concept. This is Kojima’s strength and the strength of an auteur – just as the weaker aspects of his work become more apparent overtime, so too does his genius. It would be easy at this point of MGS’s life cycle to churn out formulaic sequels like Ubisoft do with Assassin’s Creed, but the obsessive hands on approach he adopts won’t allow it. He attacks each project with conviction, striving for unattainable perfection – that makes for interesting games, and isn’t that what we want?
So would the industry benefit from having more auteurs like Hideo Kojima making games? I think it would. While he makes the same mistakes over and over again narratively, MGS continues to break ground in terms of game design, and has done for almost 30 years. This is without a doubt due to the tenacity, drive and ego of one man. I’m not sure I want a slew of new IPs that will stick around for three decades, but if even a few mainstream developers attacked new ideas with the same single minded focus of Hideo Kojima then perhaps I would have something to play on my PS4. It would surely be a jumbled chimera beast of interesting mechanics and the creator’s personal dysfunction but hey, it sounds infinitely more appealing than Watch Dogs 2.
Images; Konami, Cinedigm Entertainment Group