or The Martyrdom of the Big Budget Auteur

There it was, gracing the front of the newspaper billet, folded and stained, born by my manservant; “Noted Game Director Found Dead, No Suspects.” I felt myself sink into my lounger, a leaden sweat erupting from my brow.

“Rutger, my laudanum— my medicine,” I said.

“Of course, sir,” he said, and turned sharply on his heel.

I could not bring myself to unfurl the news bill, but I knew its contents by heart. I pulled myself up, taking my cane, and strode to the edge of the deck’s bannister. In the moorland mists, the greyhounds were whooping and hunting hares, their joys evident as they danced in the long grasses. I felt no such joy, as I leaned into the polished wood.

“Hideo Kojima is dead,” I said. Even in the cool, thin air, no God answered.

~

In the summer of 2013, Hideo Kojima was quoted as being “depressed” by the quality, scope, and reach of Rockstar Game’s Grand Theft Auto V. He was subsequently quoted as being “depressed again” by the trailer for the game’s next-gen rerelease the following year. Had he not been killed by Konami in the summer of 2015, perhaps he would have eventually been found “suicidal” in the wake of the game’s 2026 remaster.

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is Kojima’s posthumously released, final entry; a send-off to Metal Gear Solid at large. It was meant as Kojima’s response to the open-world reach of games like Grand Theft Auto V, a game that was accomplished at the hands of a massive development team with bushels of unmarked dinero and a multitude of years. Unfortunately, Kojima was not afforded the same luxuries, and The Phantom Pain, ultimately, was left unfinished.

Kojima as he appears in Ground Zeroes

The last known picture of Hideo Kojima // Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes, Konami

I’ve felt, at times, that a measure of an artist’s worth is the obsessive inability to relinquish editing work they care for. Kojima’s budgeting for The Phantom Pain, in an attempt to create a longer, fuller game, exceeded pachinko-pushing with Konami’s wallet. The funds and time poured into creating a product with the scope of Grand Theft Auto V could not be similarly spared by the ailing company who, following the abrupt cancellation of Kojima’s Silent Hills in April 2015, delisted themselves from the New York Stock Exchange.

There is a point, roughly 50 hours and 32 missions into The Phantom Pain where a major plot thread is concluded, and credits for the game scroll. Then, a preview reel is played, and Chapter 2 commences. It’s a brilliant, exciting thing, until the player realizes that Chapter 2 is roughly a dozen more missions, many of which retread similar set-ups just with added difficulty. And then the game ends, again, for the last time. Cue credits. Examination of The Phantom Pain’s design documents, discovered in a lacquered lockbox to be buried with Kojima’s body, revealed an unfinished, but intended, Chapter 3. This isn’t the first time a Metal Gear Solid game has suffered from cut content. Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty was a similar yarn of butchered campaign and an overabundance of side-ops. But at least it told a whole story.

There’s a wealth of music industry legends that say that in 1967, following the release of Sgt. Peppers’ Lonely Hearts Club Band, Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys was so distraught by losing his cultural battle with The Beatles that he fell into a depression. It’s apocryphal, but it supports a parallel reading with Kojima’s relationship to Rockstar. To be a great producer of art, sometimes you must be a loving consumer of others’, such to the point of madness. In his drive to make The Phantom Pain a network of interconnecting systems, mechanics, narratives, and gameplay unlike any other, Kojima discovered the limits of modern triple-A game authorship.

“Lying in bed, just like Hideo Kojima did.”

Games are often, uniquely, dual beasts; one is fun, while one is a story. Sometimes, games support themselves on a mechanical, subjective “enjoyment factor.” Other times they are supported by their themes, ideas, and narratives (again, subjective). It’s my intent to argue that Kojima achieved in the Metal Gear Solid series a melding of the two. As such, neither Metal Gear Solid, nor Kojima, can be discussed without turning an eye to the absurdity of his dedication to those themes. His unwillingness (or inability) to be edited rendered that unavoidable.

~

Fighting Psycho Mantis // Metal Gear Solid, Konami

Fighting Psycho Mantis // Metal Gear Solid, Konami

The first Metal Gear Solid, released in 1998, was a game obsessed with genes and legacy, and was relatively straightforward in being such. It would seem strange to frame the first story in a franchise around legacy, had it really been the first. Metal Gear Solid was a polygonal remake of many of the beats and set-pieces that Kojima first utilized in 1990’s Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake, itself a sequel to 1987’s Metal Gear. The returning protagonist, Solid Snake, is reintroduced to the player with a voice (David Hayter), a concrete face, and a foil character—his genetic twin Liquid Snake. Liquid and Solid are, in turn, genetic clones of Big Boss, the villain of the original Metal Gear games and the protagonist of Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. Metal Gear Solid also introduces Revolver Ocelot, a Russian gunslinger and quintuple agent. The titular Metal Gear, a bipedal nuclear launch platform, is named REX.

With Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty Kojima presented a deconstruction of digital entertainment writ large. In a twist hidden until the game’s release, Solid Snake (who dons the game’s box art) exists only as a playable character for the game’s prologue, before being replaced by the effeminate Raiden. Raiden is an ex child soldier who has been educated for warfare through virtual reality simulations, and spends a majority of the game’s CODEC radio calls arguing with his girlfriend. Suddenly, Kojima had tasked his players with considering the applied skills they drew from action games, both in the parallel of Raiden’s virtual reality training, and in the removal of Solid Snake, the cushiony power fantasy. Raiden is no less capable as a character, but infinitely less accessible as a fantastical cipher because of his emotions and functional inexperience.

Solid Snake photographing an incapacitated Raiden in Metal Gear Solid 2 // Konami

Solid Snake photographing an incapacitated Raiden // Metal Gear Solid 2, Konami

Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater is another beast entirely. A prequel set in the Cold War era, Snake Eater stars Big Boss before he received his moniker, instead under the codename of Naked Snake. A young Revolver Ocelot also appears, and throughout the game both falls in love with, and shares a rivalry with, Naked Snake. Kojima thematically positioned Snake Eater to critique both spy-fiction tropes and the questionable desires of those who control the world—shadowy organizations, Soviet and American governments, as well as the game’s primary antagonist: The Boss.

The Boss, Naked Snake’s mentor, is a martyr tasked by the United States to sacrifice her life for the sake of geopolitical peace, and is the woman responsible for effectively galvanizing the rest of the series’ plot. This was a result from her desire to see the world unified as a global nation, without borders; a dream effectively misinterpreted or misapplied by every other villain in the series, including Big Boss. The Boss serves as Naked’s Oedipal mother and father figures simultaneously, wherein Naked seeks to supplant, kill, receive recognition from, and love her all at once. It’s then to say that at the crux of Metal Gear Solid—of Kojima’s story—is a woman.

Ocelot kisses Snake mid-fight // Metal Gear Solid IV, Konami

Ocelot kisses Snake mid-fight // Metal Gear Solid IV, Konami

Finally, seven years before his death, Kojima released Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, set in a near-future where the global economy has been succeeded by a war economy. Ocelot, now calling himself Liquid Ocelot, has marshalled a private military and has stolen control of The Patriots’ (a secret society at odds with Big Boss) nanomachine network, which controls the world’s firearms and soldiers. The game serves as the denouement of the returning Solid Snake, who is now suffering from advanced age as his clone body degenerates. Raiden also returns in Guns of the Patriots. Contrasting his more effeminate portrayal from Sons of Liberty, the Raiden of Guns of the Patriots has had the majority of his body (from his lower jaw to the tips of his toes) replaced with cybernetics, and effectively aids Snake through the story as a robot ninja. Most interestingly, the lengthy, franchised storytelling of Metal Gear Solid allowed Kojima to reclaim perception of Raiden from earlier detractors.

Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots served to fully express Kojima’s love for narrative. In a demonstration of excess that had only been hinted at in all previous installments, the total length of cut-scenes in Guns of the Patriots clocks in at just over 8 hours, supplying several feature films’ worth of content between scenes of gameplay. It had been long clear that Hideo Kojima wanted to create a fusion of gaming and filmic narrative, and the Playstation 3 technology behind Guns of the Patriots finally facilitated his desire.

Stealth games have always existed, but never in the form and breadth of Kojima’s design. The genre has always been an outlier in the games industry, and Kojima an outlier in the genre; where games like Thief or Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell define themselves by their mechanical complexity or military grit, Metal Gear Solid defines itself by its baffling fusion of absurdity and self-seriousness.

~

In the late 90s, and even during the early 21st century, celebrity game directors were a massive part of the industry and its self-image. Jon Romero was “about to make you his bitch,” and Peter Molyneux could claim each successive Fable was spun from ever richer threads of honeyed mana.

But who is Sid Meier, in 2015? Molyneux has been shuffled away from the public eye, and Cliff Bleszinski departed Epic to escape a predatory system. Keiji Inafune and Koji Igarashi have both turned to crowd-funding to finance their dream games. Was Tom Clancy ever a human being in the first place, or merely a complex, oily algorithm, caught in the clanking framework of Ubisoft? Who’s to say the man even played games. Somewhere in the scramble to industrialize gaming, the big-budget auteur was slain.

Beneath all the proselytizing and thematic indulgence, the Metal Gear Solid games are undeniably fun, and Kojima pushed them to be something greater than the sum of their parts, particularly in their narrative. Hideo Kojima was the last to duel with corporate interest in the way he truly did; his dogged pursuit of a grander game, in both story and mechanics, and his unwillingness to deliver a purely soulless product—the Metal Gear Solid franchise so replete as it is in spirited silliness. The Phantom Pain exists as a memorial to what tragedies can occur when vision combats finance. The age of the big-budget auteur is over. Kojima was the last of his kind and now he’s dead.

Woman accepting award for Metal Gear Solid V at Playstation Awards 2015

Konami representative accepting Kojima’s posthumous award on his behalf, while his coworkers mourn // Kotaku

~

I attended the funeral, replete in my finest black vestments. It was a rainy day, and many arrived to well-wish. The plot was dug even and deep, with a monumental headstone. There was a tremble in my hands.

As the ceremony reached its end, I took a walk through the longer grasses to collect myself. The day had taken its tolls upon me, and I longed for respite.

My weary feet carried me to the chapel clearing, and all the way to its lowest step, before a chill ran up my spine. Across the moor, through the teeming fogs, I saw a figure wreathed in a black cloak, with a face chalk-white. Its shape, beneath the billowing robe, was one of famished angles. As I watched the spectre, it lifted its arm, and pointed past my head.

I followed the gesture, and looked upon the sycamore tree atop Fox Hill.

From the branches hung Konami Games, limp.