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The Fellowship – Hideo Kojima

1 April 2020

Read our interview with Hideo Kojima, recipient of the BAFTA Fellowship.

BAFTA: What are your earliest memories of games? Was there any particular game that lit the creative spark in your imagination?

Hideo Kojima: Video games weren’t a thing back when I was a kid. During my childhood, before arcades, I used to play game machines found on the top floors of department stores or in amusement parks – analogue shooting games or racing games that felt like toy cars running on a conveyor belt. Thus, when Nintendo released the home shooting game Kôsenjû SP [light guns with various targets – ed.], I was hooked.

At that time, games didn’t have narratives, or inspiring themes, or characters; they were simply ‘toys’ for the sole purpose of providing play. Afterwards, Space Invaders (1978) – what could be called the first authentic video game – created a huge boom, but I didn’t experience this boom in real time as I was in elementary school and was forbidden by my school and the PTA from visiting arcades, which had a reputation as delinquent hangouts.

I started to visit them when I was out waiting for friends after entering university, and it was then that I encountered the games. Of these, Namco’s Xevious (1983) featured a singular ‘worldview’ (environment, characters, naming, sound) lacking in other games of the time. I was addicted.

In that moment, I remember realising that games were capable of the same worldview or narrative expression as film or novels.

Films have been a huge part of your life from a young age. Have they always informed how you approach making games?

Not only films; novels and music were also a big part of my life. When I was a child, the digital medium of ‘games’ did not exist. However, I do think I learned from films all the base elements I needed for game creation – worldview, storytelling, directing, visuals, sounds, the boundary between entertainment and art, casting, actor direction, SFX/VFX effects and so on.

Yet, what I have been creating in my career are very much games. That is an important distinction. Incorporating such methods and techniques learned from film is one method to make these games stand out.

I took the deep impact that films, novels, plays, and music had on my life, explored the possibilities of a new game, then worked to create and define unique games that only I could make. Now, young game creators draw their influence from past games, and thus create new games as an extension of that. I think that is the difference between game creators of the younger generation and me.

Your mother was very supportive of you going into the games industry. What do you think you’d be doing now if it hadn’t been for her?

Initially, she was not very supportive of my choice. In those days, becoming a stable salaryman, bank worker, stockbroker, or civil servant was the general ideal career for Japanese children, or, should I say, for their parents. It was very conservative.

Telling my mother that I was going to enter the still-budding games industry was like saying I was going to become an independent or a free agent entertainer or something. It was a career path with no security or safety net. Back then, there were few young professionals taking risks or starting their own businesses. Japan still had the concept of lifetime employment, so it was considered proper to enter a company as a salaried employee. Therefore, it was best to either join a very large firm with little risk of collapse or become a civil servant. I think my mother, too, hoped that I would do the same if I could.

However, my father passed away when I was in junior high and I was forced to give up art school due to the resulting financial hardship. I guess she felt that she had to support me, her son, who she had watched suffer from the sidelines.

She began supporting me wholeheartedly once the games I made started gaining worldwide popularity. Yet, when I look back now, I think I would have joined the industry even if she was against it. That said, if my strict father were still alive, I don’t think I would have been able to go against him.

Metal Gear (1987) was one of the first examples of stealth-action games at a time when most games encouraged direct combat. What made you decide to take it in that direction?

At the time, my company’s instruction was to, “Make a war game like that popular arcade game Rambo!” But I was against that. Both my parents had experienced wartime, and I grew up hearing so many stories about war, from air raid experiences to stories about Auschwitz, countless times. At the same time, I also thought that one muscular guy taking down an entire enemy army as a concept was rather optimistic.

But Rambo, a clear example of this character archetype, and the series’ first film, First Blood (1982), were actually anti-war.

With that notion, I then thought of a new idea of a ‘war game’ that avoids combat. The first thing that came to mind was The Great Escape (1963). This is one of my favourite movies, where the way to fight is escaping. However, in the hero-dominated game market of that time, I thought no one would enjoy playing a game where they have to run away. I understood that much.

Then, I thought of 007 – one man, alone, infiltrating enemy territory. This way, spontaneous fighting could be avoided. If The Great Escape is about escaping, James Bond is about infiltration. It’s also heroic. But at the same time, one tuxedo-clad spy with only a handgun crossing over into enemy lines is, of course, unrealistic.

From there, I added in the flavour of the present day to create a slightly futuristic, yet still realistic setting – this is Metal Gear. If I simply followed the direct intention of my company and transplanted the idea of a Rambo-like war game into the MSX platform, perhaps the stealth game would not have been born. There was also the fact that technical limitations of the MSX hardware made it impossible to produce a simultaneous display of the player with multiple enemies and add further shooting elements on top of that.

You were already well-established before Metal Gear Solid (1998), but that was the game that turned you into a global name. How did that change things for you? When did you notice it most?

Metal Gear (1987) for the MSX2 was the first main title in which I was involved significantly in the development. However, it was for an extremely small market and was not sold in North America. After that, I continued to make games in the minor domestic PC market. Even in Japan, Metal Gear was only developed for a very niche audience. I do think there was a bit of a cult following, but I don’t think it was known at all to the general public, either in Japan or overseas. At that time, the Famicon (NES) and Super Famicon (SNES) were the mainstream consoles.

The turning point came with MGS in 1998 when it was released for the PlayStation, localised worldwide, and made its mark as a big hit. After that, everything changed immensely. But the internet and social media were not as they are today; I had no idea about the enthusiasm surrounding the game overseas at all from inside Japan. I probably first realised it at E3 in 2000. It wasn’t until I made an in-person visit that I witnessed the game’s incredible popularity. It was like being treated like a rock star. While in Japan, I had no recognition of my own overseas popularity. I was very surprised by this, every time I experienced it abroad.

Yet, once I got on the plane and went back home to Japan, I returned to a normal life and I had to turn off that switch in my head. Creator or not, I was still an everyday salaryman. Even if I had a big hit, my lifestyle hadn’t changed from before.

That said, my mindset for creation changed drastically. There were fans of mine all over the world, people to whom I was of service... I was able to experience these feelings and a side of myself that I hadn’t recognised. Since then, to me, creating meant continuing to provide for worldwide fans more than for myself. I decided to devote my life to that. That’s the real reason I continue making games, even at this age.

Did you have a sense that you were creating something that would go on to become such a hugely successful franchise?

Both the first Metal Gear and its sequel Solid Snake (1990) were developed for the MSX market, so I didn’t really think about it. Even for MGS1, for the PlayStation, I was only focused on the passion of creating a world that I liked that also satisfied the narrative storyline requirement for a game. Because of this, I hadn’t predicted or expected that the game would sell so well all over the world. As a salaryman-creator, I figured it was fine as long as I did the things I wanted within the company’s budget and put games out into the world. That’s all I thought about at the time.

After all, making a successful hit doesn’t equal an increase in salary. I just wanted to find and secure an environment, as well as the authority, in which to create what I wanted within the corporate structure. However, with MGS1 being the success that it was, I inevitably had to start paying attention to world markets and sales numbers.

In order to keep a close eye on quality control and promotions, I actually began participating in production and studio management, in addition to development, from MGS1 onwards: management to help create a good product; and promotion to release that good product into the world with good timing. As a result, my work consisted of not only the passion of creation, but also the excitement of the overall games business. That was connected as well to my desire to push the games industry even just a little further, to leave a footprint behind for future generations.

Metal Gear Solid 2 (2001) defied expectations in many ways. How important is it to not always give players what they want – or what they think they want?

As the industry evolves, a certain format naturally becomes the standard. It’s easy to miss this fact and end up continuing business as usual without pushing boundaries or going farther.

When you establish a new franchise, you will only be able to move the IP [intellectual property] as far as that framework tether allows. Alternatively, it can become more inflexible, more resistant to movement. This tends to happen to creators who take on an existing IP by themselves, insisting that a certain title needs to be a certain way, or that marketing needs to follow a certain method. They end up making comparisons only to these older, now outdated standards.

For me, entertainment that leaves a mark on history needs a surprise surpassing its generation, whether it’s a sequel, one part of a series, a remake or a work based on something else. However, at the same time, straying too far from the original series is not tolerated. In the end, no matter how long it takes, you need to create new stimulation that both exceeds user expectations yet still falls within the range of what they are willing to support.

Within that range of user expectation, the ideal landing point is much farther out. You are left with a very small margin, but without hitting this key spot, you cannot bring players stuck in the past with you into a new world. MGS2 is a prime example of this. There were both positive and negative reviews, but perhaps it was able to succeed as social media (ie negative campaigning from social media) was not around yet.

Eventually, self-learning AIs will become able to create average remakes or sequels by studying marketing data. Us creators, as humans, should be freed from that kind of work.

You’re responsible for some of the most creatively designed boss battles in games. What are the secrets to creating an unforgettable encounter?

Now, just as it was back then, the vast majority of boss battles all stem from the same general construct. In the game, the user needs to defeat the boss with their own skill, so many of these battle sequences follow set stereotypes. Introduce something too strange and the player won’t figure out how to fight back and won’t defeat the boss.

Boss battles are all like this: when a player reaches a certain area, a big, strong-looking enemy suddenly appears, sans introduction, and the exit is blocked. The user is trapped and begins focusing on dodging attacks, finding a critical point and aiming for opportunities to attack the enemy’s weakness for a few moments – all without any motivation or understanding of why they’re being shot at.

Even now in the 21st century, most bosses are like this. No one complains. If anything, they welcome it, because it is the boss battle-esque boss battle standard of today. But if that’s the case, then bosses are no different from a simple signal.

However, boss enemies are also human (or an existence equivalent to humans), and as such should have an identity reflecting that. Similar to what is depicted in Jodorowsky’s El Topo (1970), enemies have their own thoughts, lifestyles and reasons for fighting. In other words, including elements previously neglected in games – character development, personality, visuals, dialogue, preferences, attack method, weaknesses – and incorporating them into an action game. That is my method.

During the battle, you understand the enemy. Through the battle, you come to forgive the enemy. By doing so, the winner can absorb the life of the defeated. That’s how games come alive. This is something that is difficult to do in film.

Death Stranding (2019) was another change in direction. Do you think this genre could end up having the same influence as ‘tactical espionage action’? Is the theme of connecting people something you’d like to explore in future games?

I think the new term I came up with – ‘social strand system’ – will not last for long. I did not create it to do so. For MGS, I continued to use ‘tactical espionage action’ for promotional purposes, but another term, ‘stealth’, came out naturally from the market, which I think is more correct.

I’m not sure whether another delivery game will be made, but I anticipate that the ‘asynchronous connection elements’ of Death Stranding’s online elements will influence a lot of creators and marketing-led titles.  

That is the current age we live in, an age that neglects connection. I still have an interest in this modern theme of connection, and I would like to dive deeper into it, whether through games or other visual media.

Tell us about working with the likes of Norman Reedus, Léa Seydoux, Mads Mikkelsen and Lindsay Wagner and the rest of the cast. Even as an experienced creative, was it daunting to find yourself directing such well-known stars as that?

Event: BAFTA Showcase of Hideo Kojima's Death StrandingDate: Friday 1 November 2019Venue: The May Fair, Stratton St, Mayfair, London Host: Stefan Powell-Area: PortraitsBAFTA/Charlie CliftI have worked with a number of voice actors, stage actors, television actors, models, stuntmen and motion capture actors throughout my career as a video game creator. For MGS5, I was able to work with Kiefer Sutherland, so working with celebrities is not a new experience for me.

But for this project, working with such talented actors, who brought their own ideas and performances, was very inspiring and actually made my job easier at times. I was able to spend time with them, which was the approach I wanted to take, creating trusting relationships that I had not made before. That is the difference between then and now. Naturally, I’m not sure if this is something that can be done with any person, but I am incredibly grateful to them for coming to understand [the story] the way I did.

Since all of them are such sought-after actors, it was extremely difficult to make time for shooting while adjusting to everyone’s schedule. When they could not come to us, we would then head out to various countries and cities to meet them when possible to continue shooting. The most difficult part was actually, in the middle of all the shootings, there was a Screen Actors Guild strike, which had a long blackout period.

Do you think their star presence in Death Stranding helps legitimise games more in the eyes of other creative industries? When big names are involved, does that help push the medium forward?

Going forward, I don’t know if other games will work with celebrities. It’s quite a big burden on the creator.

However, this time, as we featured actors connected to the film industry, it’s become clearer that the distinction between games and films is starting to dissolve. I’ve heard stories from a variety of people – from active film workers, producers, directors, screenwriters, actors, artists, composers – who all say that their respect for games is very high. In particular, those in the film industry in their 40s or younger grew up in the age of video games. They remarked, “[We] were raised with games. From them, we learned storytelling, art and music. I’m doing work in film now, but my respect for games is special.”

In photorealistic games, most characters are created from 3D scan materials taken from real people, from their face, skin, bone structure. Movement, expressions, and voices are the same. With modern resolutions and using only tools, it’s very difficult to create a person from scratch that feels natural and human. Most studios already follow this process as a general technological base, whether in movies or games. With this in mind, the natural next step would be working with elements from professional actors, utilising their unique ages, charms, acting styles, expressions, movements and voices.

What shortcuts can you take to push in-game character creation even further? I’m sure a smart person would know the answer.

If Death Stranding was a player’s first Hideo Kojima game, which titles from your back catalogue would you invite them to play next and why?

That’s a hard question. I want to say MGS1, but the camera is top-down and it doesn’t have a modern feeling when you play it nowadays, so I would say that my recommendation would be MGS3: Snake Eater (2004). There’s – just barely – third-person shooter elements, as well as universal topics or themes (although these have not lost their meaning with time) and very unique boss battles.

I’d be flattered if you played anything really – I’m too embarrassed to go back and play them myself anymore.

A word on the remarkable P.T. (2014) – did you anticipate such a strong reaction? Would you like to return to a horror project like that, and are there any other games or series you have worked on that you would like to revisit one day?

P.T. is special. Human fear ultimately stems from the unknown. P.T. was an experiment in producing an effect in response to that nature. So, the reaction was as expected – if anything we could say that it was a great success as a teaser. P.T. was a mysterious game, created by a mysterious studio, with no previous announcement or information, so it used forbidden techniques to increase fear. It was a one-off thing, so we cannot reuse that method again.

I’m easily frightened myself, so I have confidence that I could create something more terrifying than perhaps others could. I get frightened of things like darkness and imagine shadows of ghosts in the dark. Just like Hitchcock or Spielberg did.

P.T. ended as just an experiment, but I would like to make another horror game someday. Something that uses a revolutionary method to create terror, that doesn’t just make you pee your pants, but crap them. I already have ideas in mind.

What’s your favourite part of your job? Do you enjoy the writing stage more or directing?

Planning something in a situation where you have nothing is incredibly fun – there is no budget, schedule or technical difficulties, no one to tell you no. On the other hand, this work is decidedly lonely. You plan alone, get excited alone, get depressed alone, then get inspired alone, and the cycle continues.

Next, as the other staff join in, each thing you envisioned, one-by-one, slowly gets transformed into something tangible. At that stage, when the staff manifest them into real things, the ideas in my head can, for the first time, be shared with them. This stage is also very exciting. Debating together with staff, getting excited together, getting depressed together and then resolving together, the cycle continues.

Through these phases, game development continues towards its completion. Exciting times and difficult times ebb and flow like alternating waves, never flat, the tension surging back and forth for a long time. That said, even someone as fickle as me has continued to work this way for more than 34 years, so I can’t help but think that it is mostly fun for me.

What are the most important lessons you’ve learned during your career? Is there any advice you would give to your younger self, or to creators just starting out in the games industry?

For game creating, filmmaking and writing novels alike, day-in and day-out, there is obstructive and distracting noise from all directions, internally and externally. Any mistake can lead to misjudgement. Confrontations happen frequently, not only with internal staff but also externally, as people from marketing, sales and promotion become involved and the more the business grows. This is because creation is not a visible process.

When something is completed, some people with a keen eye might be able to understand it, but when things have yet to be completed, it is very difficult to share the same image with other people, unless they were your identical twin. Creative endeavours require constant direction every second of every minute of every day. Any mistake in direction may lead to something different to what was originally intended or even to the loss of orientation. Because of that, you have to believe in yourself. That’s it.

Listen to other people, but in the end, judge on your own where to direct things. Believe in yourself and go forward.

That comes with a lot of responsibility, but it is the only way to complete what you want to create.

Finally, what does it mean to you to be given the BAFTA Fellowship?

The BAFTA Fellowship is something that many of my predecessors, who have shaped my life and whom I respect from the bottom of my heart, have received, so it’s a particularly special honour for me. There is no greater honour. I feel glad to have been born, to be alive and to have continued making games.

Thirty-four years ago, I gave up my dream of films and instead dedicated myself to the games industry,

but to receive such an award in this era where films and games are becoming one and the same, is deeply moving.

Thank you so much. So long as I’m alive, I will endeavour to continue to create with everything I have.

Event: BAFTA Showcase of Hideo Kojima's Death StrandingDate: Friday 1 November 2019Venue: The May Fair, Stratton St, Mayfair, London Host: Stefan Powell-Area: PortraitsBAFTA/Charlie CliftThe legendary creator of the Metal Gear Solid series and recent Death Stranding, which was nominated in 10 categories at this year’s British Academy Games Awards, is the recipient of BAFTA’s highest honour, the Fellowship. For the Awards’ brochure, Hideo Kojima agreed to be interviewed about his incredible career – from first joining the industry to his inspirations for creating some of the best boss battles in games history. While the resulting brochure feature provides an excellent overview of his career to date, the full interview offers unique insights into his creative process and is here printed in its entirety. Interview by Chris Schilling