Metal Gear: How Kojima vs. Konami Shaped the Games – Wisecrack Edition
Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on Metal Gear and Kojima!
Written by: George Weidman
Directed by: Michael Luxemburg
Narrated by: Jared Bauer
Edited by: Andrew Nishimura
Motion Graphics by: Dean Bottino
Produced by: Emily Dunbar
Metal Gear: How Kojima vs. Konami Shaped the Games – Wisecrack Edition
Hey Wisecrack, Jared here. Today, we’re diving deep in to the world of Metal Gear Solid. Now, because doing a full-scale “Philosophy of” would be an ARSENAL GEAR-scale undertaking, we decided to focus on something else today – the enigmatic nature of it’s creator, Hideo Kojima. Not only will we be talking about the underlying themes of the games, but also how Kojima has inserted himself in these games in an unprecedented way. Nowadays, it’s not uncommon to have a small, indie game tell a personal story from its creator, but it is uncommon to see that happen with a big-budget cinematic thriller like Metal Gear Solid. These games aren’t just a collection of stories about Solid Snake and Big Boss they’re also about Kojima and his place in video gaming at the time. In a funny way, life imitates art here. You have a narrative arc going from upbeat, poppy spy adventures to nihilistic, anti-American cynicism as Kojima’s relationship with Konami soured. But now with those shackles freed, he’s off to make whatever weird thing this is. But before Kojima’s games became gut-punching self-critical studies, they started off as a Kurt Russell ripoff!
Welcome to the Wisecrack Edition on Kojima and Metal Gear Solid… Oh, and watch out! Major spoilers ahead. The 70s were a decade when visionary American directors were making masterpiece after masterpiece. With directors getting top billing to create artistically mature works, a whole generation of kids grew up wanting to make their mark on the world through movies. And Hideo Kojima was right there among them. But as fate would have it, gaming would be the outlet for Kojima to express his cinematic ambitions. The first two Metal Gear games are full of references to Kojima’s favorite action movies. The concept of stealth gameplay was inspired by the sneaking scenes of The Great Escape. One of the bosses, a duo of unstoppable cyborgs, were straight-up Terminators originally called “Arnolds.” And Snake’s code-name was ripped directly from Russell’s character in Escape from New York. “I’m not a fool Plissken.” “Call me Snake” Kojima’s earlier works, Policenauts and Snatcher, were, respectively, anime’d-up Japanese takes on Lethal Weapon and Blade Runner. But it was the advent of 3D gaming in the late 90s that gave Kojima a truly cinematic canvas to work with. Suddenly, video games needed cinematography and performances. So, Kojima made Snake even more of a Kurt Russell ripoff. “My name is… Plissken.”
The Solid Snake of Metal Gear Solid was so close to Snake Plissken that years later, the film’s rights holders actually wanted to sue, until John Carpenter stopped them. But beyond his obvious love for movies, you can also see a kind of optimism in Metal Gear Solid 1. “I understand, but why metal gear? The nuclear age ended with the turn of the millennium.” Writing a spy adventure in the late 90s, shortly after the Cold War has Snake saying things like this: “Russia today has nothing.” “They’re struggling between freedom and order, and with that struggle a new spirit of nationalism has been born.”
Given the enormous economic decline Russia faced after the Cold War, Snake’s words might sound naive today. But they fit right into an upbeat feeling of peace and prosperity for the West, complete with a villain frustrated over a “world gone soft.” “After I launch this weapon and get our billion dollars, we’ll be able to bring chaos and honor back to this world gone soft.” This is Metal Gear Solid at its most optimistic. But it’s all downhill from here. In December of 1999, the RIAA filed a lawsuit against Napster. Kojima thought the idea of the US government controlling how people shared music was great fodder for his paranoid cyberpunk spy fiction. So in Metal Gear Solid 2, our villains are “The Patriots,” a secret network of conspirators who have a chokehold on the US government, the media, and the minds of the people. “This country is shaped and controlled as the patriots see fit. The people are shown what they want to believe. What you call government is actually a well-staged production aimed at satisfying the public.” Which includes you, the player, “Colonel, I just remembered something.” “What?” “That I’ve never met you in person. Not once.” if you fell for all the bait-and-switch tricks packed in the game’s writing. Now, yes, in the sequel games, it’s revealed that the Patriots are actually robot AI satellites made for comic relief sidekicks from the prequel games but, importantly, they’re based on something much more real. “We are formless. We are the very discipline and morality that Americans invoke so often.” The Patriots are the concept of “memes” personified. “We started with genetic engineering, and in the end, we succeeded in digitizing life itself. But there are things not covered by genetic information.” “What do you mean?” “Human memories, ideas. Culture. History.”
Metal Gear Solid 1 references Richard Dawkins’s book “The Selfish Gene,” in which he coins the term “memes.” Memes are cultural ideas that replicate and spread from people to people similar to genes. Tunes, catch phrases, and ideas are all memes. Also, memes are memes. So is the language you are thinking in right now– which means the perspective that you understand reality with is all made out of memes. The Patriots are the psychological homogenization of culture. They are globalization, they are why other countries are wearing America’s blue jeans and listening to their pop music. For Kojima, they are why a Japanese game developer can succeed at making very Japanese games for Americans based on American action movies. All the movie references that Kojima included in these games are memes, as are the games themselves. The end of Metal Gear Solid 2 has all the characters reflecting on the meaning of life, “Who am I really?” and it’s said to reflect Kojima’s anxieties about his own work as well. “Life isn’t just about passing on your genes… We can leave behind much more than just DNA. Through speech, music, literature, and movies. What we’ve seen, heard, felt… anger, joy, and sorrow… These are the things I will pass on.” Countless interviews at the time revealed that Metal Gear Solid 2 was supposed to be Kojima’s last Metal Gear game before handing it off to a new team. In a sense, Kojima was trying to pass on his meme, “Because it’s games I’m making, there’s a limit as to how far I can go with a product.“
But was so unsatisfied with what they were cooking up for Metal Gear Solid 3 that he decided to step back in and direct it himself. So, in true Kojima fashion, Metal Gear Solid 3 is full of even more Kojima memes. The game takes place on Kojima’s first birthday, August 24th, 1964 and includes multiple movie references, especially early 60s James Bond and Hitchcock flicks. Kojima’s personal philosophies are once again present, but this time, there’s a decidedly more nihilistic slant from a character called “The Boss.” “Light is but a farewell gift from darkness to those on their way to die.” The Boss’s message of breaking down the world’s political barriers — “Is there such a thing as an absolute, timeless enemy? There is no such thing and never has been. And the reason is that our enemies are human beings just like us. They can only be our enemies in relative terms. The world must be made whole again.” — is gradually warped and perverted until it turns our hero into a villain, the Big Boss of the earlier 2D games, who was warmongering for the sake of giving mercenaries a purpose in life. It’s a bleak view of the world that comes to fruition in Metal Gear Solid 4. “Will you ever respect the face in your mirror?”
The first world becomes obsessed with war, and the third world is their battlefield. In the game’s universe, wars had become cold, financial strategies. In real life, so had Metal Gear Solid games under Konami. This was the second time Kojima was roped into continuing Metal Gear Solid after wanting to back out with attempts at franchises like Zone of the Enders and Boktai failing to capture mainstream attention in the same way. So, Metal Gear Solid 4 was explicitly designed to end it all for real this time. The gameplay acquiesced to the first-person shooter modes and fully-controllable cameras demanded by reviewers, and the story gave into the fan’s most burning questions, while the cut scenes fulfilled Kojima’s lifelong desire to make films. No other Metal Gear, maybe even no other game, has cutscenes that go on as long as these. And the grand irony of it all is that this is both the closest and the furthest Kojima came to making actual movies. Metal Gear Solid 4 had plenty of live action video, but Kojima didn’t direct, write or produce it. These intro commercials were outsourced to an American studio. Meanwhile, questions from Metal Gear Solid 2 that were never meant to be answered are answered to bewildering results. “Once I destroy JD with a nuclear strike the Patriots’ network will be mine, and then I’ll build my haven.”
A melodramatic costume party story ends with the hero and villain beating the dead horse of their conflict for twenty minutes and Solid Snake is now… Old Snake. There’s definitely an undercurrent of self-hatred running through this game, especially with the knowledge that Kojima wanted to run away from its development, and originally planned an ending where we’re arrested and executed, and which came from the fact that fans sent him death threats if it wasn’t made. But despite Kojima’s protests and Metal Gear Solid 4’s conclusive narrative, he still couldn’t get out. Konami was demanding more and more of these games, and they were to be made by no one else. A rocky relationship between Kojima and his employer started boiling up in 2009 — with him joking in an interview that if fans were to “write to the CEO of Konami and tell him Kojima doesn’t have to make Metal Gear any more, it might be easier to stop.” Kojima’s only non-Metal Gear project after 4 was a minor production role in Castlevania: Lords of Shadow but then it was right back to Snake. And now Metal Gear’s plot had to become MORE convoluted and provocative to keep up with its own standard. “Lies obviously. They’re bringing in state-of-the-art weaponry and equipment by the shipload.” “Where’d they get that kind of cash?” “I fear La Cia may be involved.” “The CIA?”
Peace Walker’s fiction tested the idea of nuclear deterrence, — “Wait. He’s launching a nuke to prove that his perfect deterrent works?” “In his words ‘to prove that if someone attack us, we will strike back.’”— a situation that mirrored the mutually assured destruction of Kojima’s creative work against Konami’s tight control of it. This T-rated portable entry still had to explore the gritty heel turn of Big Boss, and the route Kojima took was for Boss to idolize Che Guevara. “Che never managed to numb himself to other people’s pain. That’s why people loved him, and why he died.” A figure whose popularity towards his Western audience is… polarizing, to say the least. Four years later, the anti-American sentiments of the series’ new protagonist are taken to the extreme. Ground Zeroes takes place in a very thinly-veiled Guantanamo Bay, where supporting characters are subjected to horrific sexual humiliation and torture. A year after that, Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain paints the US intelligence community as an out of control evil, conducting experiments on 3rd world refugees, while also rubbing the US’s nose hard in their real-life support for the Afghan mujahedeen, “Four years ago the soviets invaded Afghanistan. The Muslims are fighting back, with western support,” and the Zaire president, Mobotu Sese Seko. “Unita’s been rapidly modernizing its arsenal. Rumor has it someone’s been selling them U.S. military hardware.”
Kojima read about Napster in 1999 to make The Patriots, and it’s just as likely that news breaking about Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and Edward Snowden inspired this new version of an American illuminati: Cipher. These stories were being told in spite of, and perhaps in response to, Kojima not exactly having a great working relationship with neoliberal corporate capitalism. When rumors of a rivalry between Kojima and Konami came to light, so did stories of his bosses actively sabotaging his projects — eventually shipping Metal Gear Solid 5 in two parts with an incomplete ending. Believe it or not, the first edition of Moby Dick, a novel frequently referenced in Metal Gear Solid 5, was also released without its ending chapter. The parallels between Moby Dick and Metal Gear Solid 5 are rampant — “Call me Ishmael.” “You can call me Ishmael.” Venom, code named Ahab, is a amputee naval captain hellbent on revenge who commands a vessel called the pequod, just like the Ahab in the book. “This is Pequod. On station at LZ.” But this connection to the Melville classic is also reflected by the player’s response to the game. Like Ahab, the player is relentlessly chasing after a white whale they’ll never best: a feeling of “completeness” at the end of finishing this game. It’s a feeling so pervasive that entire fan communities have sprung up over refusing to believe that the game is over. Similarly, In Herman Melville’s book, the eponymous white whale is seen as a representation of the innate hollowness of the universe — “the thought of annihilation,” the meaningless prize of a life spent seeking meaning. In Metal Gear Solid 5, players can seek meaning by completing a story arc that ends halfway through, with the second half of the story asking, but never answering, the question of what happens after a hero defeats the villain. Players can instead seek meaning in the game’s multiplayer missions, which developed a kind of whaling economy of their own.
Or they can find meaning by going for a completion score that, of course, has them fruitlessly chasing after rare animals. But no matter how you play, no matter which ending you go for, the game’s tone remains melancholy, lonely, and anticlimactic. There’s no epic final boss fight– each ending is intended to leave the player feeling unfulfilled and wanting. The player feels a literal Phantom Pain. Which leads us, in our own opinion at least, to believe that Kojima was his own captain Ahab with his own obsession: to defy the typically cold, corporate tradition of game design and create his own art on his own terms. If he’s been wanting to get crazy and make something different, then at least his story can have a happy ending for now. Because Norman Reedus waking up naked on the beach after giving birth to a magic ghost baby is a premise of a story where we truly don’t know what to expect, and also something that couldn’t have been done under the thumb of Konami. So, is this life imitating art? Or were these just insightful predictions bound to come true. Either way, color us stoked to check out Death Stranding. Kojima truly is one of the most interesting auteurs in gaming. And as always, thanks for watching, guys. Peace.