Hideo Kojima was born 1969. We ask him of his earliest memories, looking for clues that led him to create some of the most ambitious videogames of all time. "The most intense memories from my childhood deal with death," he says, smiling brightly nonetheless. "I almost drowned in a river once, I was attacked by a savage dog, and I nearly got run over by a train when I crossed a track. I dealt with several life-threatening experiences growing up."
At a very young age Kojima moved with his family from Tokyo to the small city of Shiraski, where he enjoyed the ocean and the nature surrounding his home. Then his life took a different turn when his family moved to Kansai. Missing nature, he became withdrawn, and began playing on his own. The he turned to television, "My parents forced me to watch television since they didn't have time for me," Kojima explains. "I watched everything obsessively: entertainment, cooking shows, nature and wildlife, anime - the subject didn't matter."
Being left home alone had a significant effect on the young Kojima. "There are keys in Japan called kagi-ko, home keys, which are placed in a string round the neck," he explains. "I used to get these, since no one was home when I finished school. It was tough, I came home first, and had to spend the time alone - which I hated; the house was silent and empty. I still remember those feelings of solitude. I still feel strange coming home to my own family and finding out there's someone already at home. Each time I travel and stay at a hotel I put the TV on as soon as I enter the room, just to deal with the feeling of loneliness."
As a child, like many children Kojima dreamed of becoming an astronaut. As he got older his interests changed from science-fiction to thrillers, and rather then an astronaut he thought about becoming a policeman or a detective. All the while, though, he really wanted to make things.
"As a child, I wanted to be an artist or illustrator, but I was held back by a relative who was an artist. He had financial problems, and that discouraged me. The common belief in Japan, at the time, was the fine schools and proper education led to safe and well paid jobs. This was the Japanese ideal - a regimentation which had consequences for everyone who tried not to follow the mainstream. My dreams of becoming a movie director or book author came into conflict with this unwritten rule of society. It made life harder for me, and made me feel alone and rejected."
Nevertheless, Kojima began writing his own short stories, maintaining an ambition to become an author until high school. "My own novels, if you can call them novels, were my hobby, “he says, explaining that he sent many of his efforts to Japanese magazines in the hope of getting them printed. "Alas, I was never published. The magazines wanted 100-page stories, but mine used to be around 400 pages long."
Kojima moved his attention to movies, diligently working with a friend who owned an 8mm camera to produce short children's films. Sill his parents discouraged his creative urges. "It made me feel even more desperate," he explains. "My family never understood my ambitions. I knew this deep in my soul, so I didn't share my creative hopes and dreams. My friends concentrated on their education and spent most of the time studying. We had a pop band, but it was only a simple hobby project. My friends never shared my dream of being able to support myself within the framework of a creative work, neither in music nor on film."
On leaving college, Kojima's friends went to work in bands or insurance companies. At the time, the videogame industry wasn't an especially fashionable pursuit in Japan, and it didn't sit well with a man who focused on economics for his degree.
"I remember it very well," says Kojima.”Everyone said: 'don’t do it, don't do it'. Shortly after I joined Konami I went to a wedding where I was asked to make the celebration speech. In Japan the speaker is always thoroughly introduced, and the master of ceremonies told the audience: 'This is Hideo Kojima, a man of great talent, which he's throwing away at Konami'. I also met a former friend from college on a train who simply asked me: 'Why?' while shaking his head. But people have changed their opinions since then. Nowadays they greet me with great admiration. I don't think my mother has ever told anyone that I work in the videogame industry, though."
Kojima’s first job at Konami was as an assistant on the follow-up to the company's massively successful Antarctic Adventure on the MSX. "I presented tons of ideas!" he recalls. "My desk was crowed with papers and drafts. I was so stressed and wanted to perform so badly that I hardly ever went to the toilet. I was working hard as bone, from early morning to late at night. My colleagues worried themselves with my obsessive workforce, by I never paid attention. After a session, I could feel empty, but during the night I dreamed about the project, and in the dreams came new ideas, and the day after I was full of powerful new visions. Eventually one of the bosses stepped forward and said to me: "Ok, Kojima, take it east, we have a new project for you'."
The budding project leader worked on a clutch of other 8bit titles throughout the remainder of the '80s, including, of course, the first two Metal Gear games, both successful for Konami but not as big a deal as the likes of, say, its Castlevania or Contra series, which accounted for many millions of sales during their peaks. He went on to produce work on the PCE and the 3DO, but it would be a while until he really arrived on the scene from an international perspective, with Metal Gear Solid on the PSone.
Hideo Kojima’s most recent games focus energy on dealing with the threat of nuclear weapons... Despite the violence which surrounds such themes, however, there's always an ongoing strive for peace. This can be traced directly back to his childhood. "My parents were born in the 1930s and experienced the war," Kojima explains. "My father used to tell me stories about the bombing of Tokyo, how he was running the streets searching for shelter from the bombs and fires. He told me he carried wounded children to safe places. His stories had a tremendous impact on me.
"I believe my father inspired me to more than I can imagine, despite the fact that we never shared similar interests. He was too young to join the army, but he had wanted to join the navy and fight for his country - he even carried the navy's uniform occasionally. At the same time he was opposed to the war. He lost a lot of friends and could see all the terror and suffering the war brought down on Japan. It was like walking a tightrope. He hated the Americans for the war, but when he got older he made contact with the United States and accepted, and finally fell in love with, American culture. I believe that I share this tightrope ambiguity with my father."
Kojima believes that his father's age at the time of conflict was the catalyst for embracing America, if he had been born a few years earlier he would have hated the Americans even after the war, goes his reasoning. We talk about how Japanese people felt about having American troops stationed in the country for several years after the conflict. "The Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC made an exhibition a few years ago about the atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki," Kojima begins. "The exhibition focused on the consequences for the Japanese people, and it stirred up a lot of emotions in the US, since most Americans believe that the bombs alone ended the war. Most Japanese don't share this opinion. But public opinions change over time. The tragic and undisputed fact is that the bombs killed allot of innocent people.
Metal Gear Solid 3 continues to demonstrate Kojima’s obsession with nuclear weaponry, but from the perspective of the cold war: "During the cold war, USA and USSR developed more and more fierce nuclear weapons. The two superpowers stood against each other and the whole world feared for human existence. This has changed today, of course, and Russia and USA have improved their relations. But it felt so awfully stupid that the future for all mankind rested in the hands of only those two countries. With MGS3 I want to show this duality, and tell a story about a short time in history where tow superpowers almost destroyed our world."
Thus the game has a distinctly yesteryear feel. Could the Metal Gear Solid franchise be adapted to the political landscape of the '00s? "If I will continue working with the series in the future, and if no new and young powers takes over, I want it to be more at pace with contemporary life, but I don’t think this line of thought would be appreciated by a younger game management."
It's a well-known fact that Kojima likes to have total control when developing his games, getting involved in every part of the process, from scripting to cut-scene direction. By having such a hands-on role he believes, understandably, that his personality is more accurately reflected in the finished article. He has written most of MGS3's script on his own, and explains where his ideas come from: "I read allot of contemporary history and socio-economical literature in the job, and in my spare time I read a lot of fiction. I really read a lot, I used to team up with Fukushima-San who creates the scenarios for the games when I write the scripts, and we push each other forward. I often have trouble finding enough good material from the cold war to get me going and am creatively inspired. But I read allot of fiction from the time period, and try to imagine how the agents lived. It's impossible to get it 100% accurate, but it gives me a good picture of the 1960s.
"When I work with the Metal Gear Solid games I have to become a tight unit with Snake and put myself into his position. At those times I keep away from influences that can be distracting. It's hard screening off, but necessary if I want to keep the original ideas."
It looks like the third MGS will feature at least as much dialogue as the series' previous outing, which is only going to fuel the fires of those who claim that Kojima should be making movies rather than interactive work. "It's exactly as the critics say!!"" Kojima blurts. "The games include both aspects. I could remove the story and create a pure hide-and-seek game, but I am convinced that the audience wouldn't enjoy it. You need to keep the player's attention and create a sense of responsibility towards the characters and the storyline; much of this magic would be lost. If the player gets a mission there simply has to be a story to motivate the player to act in certain ways."
What about a proper Metal Gear Solid film, then, with Snake up there on the big screen? Kojima considers this for a moment. "It's not that I don't want to see a blockbuster based on the game," he says, "but I must admit that I have trouble imagining a film dealing wit the storyline of Metal Gear Solid. A film would have to be about a gigantic robot and a great number of bosses..."
And what about the general trend for turning game properties into movies? "I have seen 'Resident Evil' and both of the 'Tomb Raider' films - the latest one, by the way, truly suck," grimaces Kojima. "I guess Hollywood lack good ideas and want to capitalize on famous brands. That's the simple reason why we have all those films based on games. Unfortunately the game industry seems to have the same problem finding new ideas. The game and film industries are cynical - everything's supposed to be made for the masses, often without any trace of deeper meaning added from the creators."
Isn't that just a reflection of modern society in general? Kojima agrees: "Every artifact produced nowadays is much more commercialized. The soul has really vanished; there are only empty boxes, shaped after dull blueprints. Let's blame greed, because it's poisoning the soul. Greed can kill anything. The urge to create or tell stories is the best for the soul, the core, and without the core there is nothing.
"I don't mind seeing games becoming films, but I don't like licensed games. Take Enter The Matrix, for example, where the game developers picked something here, and something there, from the film, in order to make a poor game.
While we have him in a combative mood, we decide to ask Kojima about a story we've heard about a rift between him and one of Japan's big videogames magazines.
"Japanese game media is shit," he says, plainly. "Most Japanese reporters who come here for an interview on Metal Gear Solid haven't done their homework; they haven't done their research, and you can hardly consider them being intelligent creatures at all. You can print that."
We're tempted not to delve further, but do so anyway. "I am certain that most game reporters in Japan are not really journalists, they are useless idiots," Kojima continues. "It's easy for us to compare the quality of reporters from Japan and other parts of the world when we visit E3 or ECTS, and this fact makes me mad."
Time to change tack, perhaps. What about the notion of a single-platform videogame industry, where technology stabilizes and we have a level playing field? "The game industry is dependent on technique - and I like it that way," says Kojima. "Personally, I enjoy the concept of games as fresh goods, I don't want to play my old games - I actually don't want to see them. There will never be the perfect hardware. There will always be new machines and new platforms - these evolutions push the business forward."
How about motivation - after 18 years at Konami, is it still there to the same degree? "Yes, the motivation's still the same as before," says Kojima , "but I don't think my fellow colleagues share my passion, they probably consider themselves as ordinary white-collar workforce in a international corporation. That's a logical result in a business which constantly grows and becomes more and more mainstream."
And so we prepare to leave Kojima, having enjoyed a few refreshing hours in his company. It's rare for such a significant player to talk so openly and honestly, but perhaps he feels like he deserves to be able to, thanks to his accomplishments.
Before we go, we ask what he thinks will happen with his legacy. "The DNA I created in Metal Gear Solid will continue to live on in other games," he says. "You can already see it in Splinter Cell and Syphon Filter - they're parts of my legacy." We wonder if their creators are quite so outspoken.
-- Article by Edge Magazine, 22.04.2004