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A Study of Game Developer Hideo Kojima’s Cinematic Influences—His Latest Title “Death Stranding” Draws Closer

Kubricked is a professional Japanese-English translator/interpreter and MGN community member and friend was kind enough to translate this for fans. Be sure to give him a follow on twitter: https://twitter.com/kubrickedyaku

Japanese source: https://realsound.jp/movie/2019/07/post-390400.html

By Hotaka Sugimoto
July 20, 2019

 “Narrative starts with the very history of mankind”1 writes the French philosopher Roland Barthes in the introductory passage of his An Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narrative. Barthes elaborates that narrative has been present at all times, in all places, and in all societies—“there is not, here has never been anywhere, any people without narrative; all classes, all human groups, have their stories, and very often those stories are enjoyed by men of different and even opposite cultural backgrounds.”2

Narrative arrives in a wide variety of forms and has been articulated among a mixture of substances. “Myth, legend, fables, tales, short stories, epics, history, tragedy, drame [suspense drama], comedy, pantomime, paintings (in Santa Ursula by Carpaccio, for instance), stained-glass windows, movies, local news, conversation.”3

It was 1966 when Roland Barthes penned these lines in the introduction to his seminal work on structuralism. However, if we were to revisit his exhaustive list and update it to better reflect the current state of affairs in 2019, we ought to also add video games. It is a disservice that we do not consider video games, a medium on the cutting-edge of storytelling, in the development of modern narrative. The key element that distinctly separates video games from Barthes’ interpretation is that the consumer, I sense, actively drives story progression. Even games that progress in a linear fashion still offer players a selection of choices that ultimately shape and impact their relationship with the story.

This then begs the question of how the game story should be communicated. Many game creators have tried their hand at game storytelling, but perhaps none carry the same level of flair as frontrunner Hideo Kojima, known for his long-standing franchise Metal Gear. Although his official title may be “game designer” this author believes that at heart Kojima is a genuine storyteller. The director’s words lead one to believe that he ended up in the gaming industry after having his dreams in film shattered, but Kojima seems to have been destined to become a pioneer in this untamed wilderness of video games. But his vision is not shortsighted—his gaze extends outward beyond games. Kojima strives to capture the cultural heritage sown into the stories as well as the relational interplay between narrative and people.

Kojima departed Konami and would go on to set up his independent studio Kojima Productions. Since then the world has been eagerly waiting in anticipation to find out how the story he spun in Death Stranding will unravel in autumn of this year [2019]. Known for letting films play a considerable role in his creative decisions, we will attempt to explore what audiences can expect from Kojima’s latest undertaking by first understanding where he stands as a storyteller.

Seventy Percent of My Body is Composed of Movies: The Films that Shaped Hideo Kojima, published by Sony Magazines

The narrative genes inherited from the world of cinema

Hideo Kojima’s love for film is well-known and vividly captured in Seventy Percent of My Body is Composed of Movies: The Films that Shaped Hideo Kojima. The director has publicly self-described himself with the statement “My body is 70% made of movies.” A figure of speech nonetheless, it contains a kernel of truth once we realize the extent to which cinema has influenced his body of work. Kojima’s own words expound on the significance of film with respect to the series that has defined his career—Metal Gear.

The premise underlying the Metal Gear franchise has always been to finish a game by avoiding shootouts with enemies as much as possible. It was initially inspired by the Steve McQueen protagonist in the 1963 epic war film The Great Escape. Additionally, the enemy’s movement in the series received inspiration from the zombies in George A. Romero’s 1978 Dawn of the Dead. One may also remember that the name Solid Snake has its roots in Snake Plissken, the leading character in John Carpenter’s 1981 dystopian sci-fi action film Escape from New York. Other homages referenced in the book include but are not limited to: the James Bond series, Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, and the Planet of the Apes franchise.

With the self-imposed label of “My body is 70% made of movies,” one can begin to see how movies were not simply a leisurely pastime for Kojima. Instead, they were a learning tool in helping to carve and sculpt meaning out of life, and ultimately comprehend society and the world at large. Kojima explains that he started going to the movies by himself when he was in the fifth grade of elementary school. At that time, his parents would prompt young Kojima to make the trek to the local theater and made it customary for him to bring back a movie pamphlet as proof. Films taught him a lot in those two hours and transported him to places scattered across the globe. For Kojima, the movie theater may have been a deeper source of learning and education than school itself.

The defining characteristics of Hideo Kojima games are that they play like a movie, allowing the player to set the controller aside and enjoy the on-screen visuals. Even the talents of Japanese filmmaker Ryuhei Kitamura were employed. At one point the cutscenes seem to nearly reach the thirty-minute mark in terms of length.4 This very reason along with his directorial touch have rightfully earned Hideo Kojima’s games the reputation of feeling cinematic.

That said, this author believes that the storytelling aspects of Kojima cannot be boiled down to the gravity and length of his cinematic cutscenes. In a recent interview published in the Weekly Toyo Keizai, a weekly Japanese business and finance magazine, Kojima discussed the following five elements as prerequisites for entertainment.

(1) Help you forget about the things bothering you in your daily life, (2) Acquire new knowledge and be able to put it into practice through experiences, (3) Encouragement, (4) Be sociable, and (5) Stir up the player’s emotions… and push them think, ‘I too want to try my hand at creating video games.’

http://metal-gear.net/?p=1575

Among these five elements, “sociability” in particular is paramount when discussing the works of Hideo Kojima. Metal Gear Solid was perhaps most remembered for its staunch antiwar and antinuclear themes, but it was also a game that let players experience the real threat of nuclear proliferation set in a post-Cold War era. Continuing along this thread, Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty delved into material that seemingly foreshadowed the events of September 11, which necessitated story elements to be revised. But maybe more poignant was that the sequel, now a masterpiece in retrospect, touched upon topics ranging from information control by fake news to artificial intelligence, and control society, which have recently crept to the forefront in public discourse. Moreover, Kojima decided to let the player experience a narrative set in a not too distant possible future of a fictionalized version of our society. The expressed intent was to let players dive into a world without any preconceived knowledge and become immersed in this extraordinary space through the medium of video games.

The Memes I Loved, published by Media Factory

Hideo Kojima and Memes

The works of Hideo Kojima raise numerous themes to the forefront of discussion, such as antiwar messages, genetic information, and the manipulation of information to highlight a few, but this author personally believes that the theme concerning “memes” stands at the tip of the spear.

The idea behind memes is proposed to represent units of information that shape culture analogous in the manner that genes biologically store genetic information. As the evolution of the human body is encoded in our genetic information, the idea behind memes, or cultural genes, is that they forge links between cultures and facilitate development. Although Metal Gear Solid 2 initially tackled the notion of memes, the entire series would go on to tell the entire history of Snake, structuring the entire narrative as if it were a single, interwoven memetic thread. Naturally, the concept of memes is ubiquitous throughout the works of Kojima and can be even felt in older titles like Snatcher and Policenauts that predate Metal Gear. One particular individual that professed to have been influenced by Kojima was Satoshi Ito, a Japanese science fiction writer and essayist, who wrote under the nom de plume of Project Itoh. His essay The MGS series as the Successor to Policenauts5 published in Project Itoh Archives: I made it abundantly clear that Kojima affirmed Ito as one of the only people who understood his vision.

Hideo Kojima compiled an anthology of book reviews in The Memes I Loved featuring the predecessors and their literature that left an indelible impression, hoping perhaps to pass on the baton of the knowledge he inherited to someone else. But Kojima is not relegating himself within the confines of literature to pass on his cultural genes (memes) for posterity—he is fighting on the front lines to realize his vision for a new type of game. Kojima pushes onward not only for the players but also with the strong desire to nudge young artists to pass on their core spirit to future generations. An exaggeration of this endeavor could be likened to a battle whose goal is to advance the history of humanity to the next stage.

In a style reminiscent of Roland Barthes, narrative starts with the very history of mankind. Thus, it may be the mission of the creators to advance this very history forward. The works of Kojima have always communicated this message from a “broader perspective.” In The Memes I Loved, Kojima writes,“Humanity will not be extinguished. For we are like the rivers that keep flowing inside the people uttering these words. The entire existence of humanity is a narrative that is simultaneously passed down orally and physically experienced.”6

The story elements of Death Stranding still remained shrouded in mystery but Kojima offers us a hint, stating that connection is a vital element.

“The player will have to reconnect the world in the game. You’re very alone, there’s solitude, but you’re trying to connect. The story and the gameplay, the key word is ‘connection.’ There are so many things in-between,7 of course, but the key is connection.”8

What does it mean to reconnect the world once again? Does it refer to the flow of history that has served as a link to humanity’s memes? It is at least certain that Kojima, who has proven to possess an awareness that is one step ahead of his time, is developing something unique in Death Stranding that will have a ripple effect on modern society. The future that lies up ahead will be triggered by the choices we make—and that involvement in turn will initiate the construction of the narrative’s genes. Akin to how movies once introduced the outside world to Hideo Kojima, it will now be the director’s turn to initiate us via his video games to the world lying in wait.

Hotaka Sugimoto
Former manager of “Amu Atsugi Eiga.com Cinema,” a mini-theater in Atsugi City, Kanagawa Prefecture. Currently, he is the proprietor of the blog “Film Goes With Net.” Has also written film reviews for the Huffington Post.


   

  1. Roland Barthes; Lionel Duisit. An Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narrative. New Literary History, Vol. 6, No. 2, On Narrative and Narratives. (Winter, 1975), pp. 237-272. https://www.uv.es/fores/Barthes_Structural_Narrative.pdf
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Translator’s note: This refers to Twin Snakes, a remake of MGS, which included a graphical overhaul and added new cutscenes written and directed by film director Ryuhei Kitamura.
  5. An alternative, less literal translation could be “Policenauts hands over the baton to the MGS series” or “The MGS series inherits the essence of Policenauts.”
  6. Media Factory, p. 139
  7. Personally, I see 遮る物はたくさんある more as “there are many obstructions” or “there are many things attempting to impede or obstruct.” “In-between” gives the impression that there is stuff to do besides reconnecting, but I believe the image being conveyed here is that Death Stranding will not be limited merely to making connections,
  8. https://www.ign.com/articles/2019/04/26/even-more-confusing-death-stranding-details-revealed
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