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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Simon Parkin

‘I want to keep being the first’: Hideo Kojima on seven years as an independent game developer

‘In truth, I think creators should not say anything at all’ … video game designer, Hideo Kojima.
‘In truth, I think creators should not say anything at all’ … video game designer, Hideo Kojima. Photograph: Simon Parkin

On 8 July 2022, former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was delivering a political campaign speech outside the Yamato-Saidaiji Station in Nara City, Japan, when a man approached and shot him in the back using a homemade firearm. Even before Abe died from his injuries, footage of the assassination had been posted online. Social media users began to speculate as to the identity and motive of the killer. On the internet forum 4chan, a site notorious for its anarchic, often hateful trolling, an anonymous user posted a photograph of the video game director Hideo Kojima, claiming this “left-wing extremist” was the perpetrator.

If the post was intended to bait the gullible, it worked. The far-right French politician Damien Rieu shared the images on Twitter, where Kojima – who has more than three million followers, and obviously had nothing to do with what happened to Shinzo Abe – began to receive dozens of accusatory messages. Rieu eventually deleted the tweet and published an apology, but not before Kojima had been identified as Abe’s killer on Greek and Iranian news channels.

During his 36-year career as a game designer, Kojima has proven unusually prescient about the ways in which emerging technologies might influence and harm us. 2001’s Metal Gear Solid 2, for example, explored how digital manipulation could be used to target individuals via weaponised memes; Raiden, the game’s protagonist, becomes the victim of a misinformation campaign. It’s one thing to explore reputational damage in the consequence-free crucible of a video game. It is quite another to be falsely identified as an assassin on international news channels. “This story is digital, so it could remain online for millions of years,” he says. “People post without considering that. It’s almost a new kind of sin for mankind. No, I’m not happy about having predicted these things.”

I meet Kojima on a wet September afternoon, on one of the top floors of the Shinagawa Season Terrace in central Tokyo – a state-of-the-art skyscraper that boasts its own emergency heliport and internal water reservoir. In the lobby, behind the chopping entrance doors, stands a security robot. It wears a train conductor’s cap on its head, and its face is a TV screen on which animations express synthetic emotions. A trio of spider’s eyes stare unblinkingly from the centre of its gleaming white chest plate, primed to capture footage. It is a fitting receptionist for Kojima Productions, exactly the sort of appealing yet gently threatening anthropomorphic surveillance robot that is often found in Kojima’s science-fiction infused games.

Mercenary Snake from Kojima’s 2010 game Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker
Mercenary Snake from Kojima’s 2010 game Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker Photograph: Konami

Kojima Productions moved into the skyscraper shortly after the director left Konami in 2015 – the company he joined in the mid-eighties, and where he created the multi-million-selling Metal Gear Solid series. During his lengthy career at Konami, Kojima ascended to the role of VP. “Then, all of a sudden I couldn’t get a credit card,” he recalls, after his split from the company. “The bank wouldn’t lend me any money. And when I tried to lease a floor in this building, they told me that now I was independent. It was as if I was yet to create anything. That’s when I thought, ‘Oh, I really am indie.’” Only when one of the building’s owners, a fan of Kojima’s games, intervened, was he offered a rental agreement for this prime patch of Tokyo real estate.

Meeting Kojima is unlike meeting most video game directors, indie or otherwise. A member of his staff requests that I take a Covid test before I am allowed to meet the director, an obligation not even the Japanese government still requires. While Kojima insists that he is not a star (“I’ll show pieces of my daily life, but I don’t do glamorous photos like other celebrities on Instagram,” he says), he is an energetic self-publicist. Kojima regularly tweets selfies taken with Hollywood mavens. In his new Spotify podcast series, Brain Structure, he discusses his work with high-profile film directors such as Jordan Peele and Mamoru Oshii.

While most directors are as determined to stay on-topic in interviews as a harangued politician, Kojima is a generous conversationalist who hops excitedly between topics and enjoys wide-arcing diversions (even while, in the corner of the room, his assistant concernedly takes notes).

As someone who draws energy from interacting with others, lockdown was especially hard, Kojima admits. “After a few months at home I started coming into the office by myself,” he says. “At home I struggled with the lack of distinction between work and my private life. Whether I was eating, or with my family, or in the bath, I was always thinking about games. I needed the office.” Now that the rest of the team has started joining their boss at work, the office is undergoing a renovation. Piles of boxes and pieces of brightly coloured gym equipment lean against the walls. The previous entranceway to the studio, a Kubrick-esque pristinely bright white corridor, is currently being dismantled. To memorialise the space, staff 3D-scanned it and made it available as a virtual reality space at last month’s Tokyo Game Show exhibition. It’s all part of Kojima’s newfound eagerness to invite the public into his world.

This figure welcomes visitors to Kojima Productions’ Tokyo studio
This figure welcomes visitors to Kojima Productions’ Tokyo studio Photograph: Simon Parkin

This work of preservation and reflection is relatively new to Kojima. Since he left Konami (in circumstances yet to be discussed in public by either party; I was once told that Konami sent employees to wait outside Kojima’s office to see who was working for him), he has often refused to discuss the games he made there. That has, in recent months, begun to change. “In the past I would groan whenever someone on social media reminded me that it was the anniversary of this or that game,” he says. “And when I saw people playing these titles, which were made with rudimentary technology, I would feel embarrassed.”

Kojima admits to watching YouTube videos of his old games. He recently tweeted that, when he saw a popular Japanese streamer play through 1998’s Metal Gear Solid, he experienced a sense of mortification he might have felt if his private diary had been read out in public. “But now I see these young kids playing Metal Gear Solid, a game made 30 years ago, and they are having fun … My feelings have started to change.”

Kojima’s early work remains interesting because he was one of the only directors at that time to attempt to explore the human motivations behind on-screen conflict. In Metal Gear, first released in 1987, players are cast as a special forces operative hunting a bipedal walking robot with the ability to launch nuclear weapons. At a time when video games had little memory to spare on story, Kojima contextualised the unsophisticated shooting with relatively complex narrative.

“My parents both lived through the second world war,” he explains. “They suffered. My mum would tell me about how she would have to step over dead bodies in the street, and eat pieces of tatami mat when there was no food.” Before his father died, when Kojima was thirteen, he showed his son documentaries about the holocaust, to demonstrate war’s human cost. “Because of that I didn’t want to create a war-themed shooting game. I was always interested in the context behind the on-screen conflict. It’s greatly affected my process.”

That urge to understand people has often combined favourably with his talent for prophesy. Death Stranding, Kojima Productions’ debut game, cast players as Sam, a deliveryman (played by Norman Reedus) carrying parcels on his back across a post-apocalyptic landscape. A few months after the game’s release, in November 2019, the pandemic made millions of sheltering individuals dependent on delivery drivers for food and supplies.

“When I was a student I had a part-time job as a postal worker, so I had always felt grateful toward the people who do this kind of work. But the pandemic made this work more crucial. I wouldn’t have survived without Uber Eats,” he says. In Death Stranding, Sam is a reluctant worker who eventually comes to see the value in his work. “[And] in Japan ordinary, untrained people signed up to do deliveries like Uber Eats. It became a way for us to help one another.”

Kojima’s Death Stranding game from 2019.
Kojima’s Death Stranding game from 2019. Photograph: Kojima Productions

Despite being the subject of pranks and regular harassment online, Kojima remains an avid user of social media, often tweeting clues as to what he is working on, or endorsements of other pieces of media and entertainment he has enjoyed. “In truth, I think creators should not say anything at all,” he says, laughing. “You should represent your thoughts only in what you create.” Kojima says he often baulks at his weekly iPhone report, which reveals how many hours he has spent on social media. A person has finite creative energy, and when that energy is spent on social media, he says, there is less to spend on truly creative endeavours. “But I can’t afford to not use this technology. I have met musicians, writers, directors, and actors all through social media, something that could not have happened before. Plus, of course, as an independent studio we don’t have anyone to back us up with promotion. It has become a part of my job.”

Another part of the job is teasing new projects in ways that will generate excitement and anticipation for projects that are incomplete and unproven. Knowing that he will be photographed, Kojima arrives to our interview wearing a t-shirt with the slogan “Who Am I?”, a slogan used to trail the involvement of the actor Elle Fanning, who has worked with a slew of film auteurs including Sofia Coppola and Woody Allen, in his next project. The studio has confirmed it has several projects in development, one of which is understood to be a sequel to Death Stranding, after Norman Reedus let slip in May that he had started work on “a second one.”

All Kojima will say about the other project is that it’s something he has wanted to make for years, but that the technology has never been sufficient until now. “It’s almost like a new medium,” he says. “If this succeeds, it will turn things around – not just in the game industry, but in the movie industry as well.” The challenge, Kojima says, is building the infrastructure: “you can have successful experiments, but there’s a long distance between an experiment and a place where it’s something that becomes a part of everyday usage.” From a business perspective, he says, the second or third person to attempt something new is more likely to succeed commercially. “For the first person, everything is hard. But I want to be the first. I want to keep being the first.”

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