Keeping It Unreal

Metal Gear Solid 4 reveals the genius of the world’s greatest, weirdest video game designer.

Metal Gear Solid 4

The brilliant, idiosyncratic Hideo Kojima is one of the few game designers whose name alone can sell a title. He’s the producer of Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, the latest entry in the long-running Metal Gear franchise. MGS4 is widely regarded as the best hope to spur sales of the PS3, a $400 disappointment that’s currently languishing behind Nintendo’s Wii and Microsoft’s Xbox 360 in the console wars. That’s not a terrible bet: Metal Gear Solid games set new bench marks for visuals on the last two PlayStation consoles, along with introducing major innovations and hundreds of little flourishes that made games seem more real than ever before.

Kojima and his team of 200 designers in Tokyo have worked to make sure their new game comes as close as possible to photorealism. The visuals are matched by multiplex-quality surround sound, with equal attention paid to huge explosions and subtle footfalls. The game doesn’t simply justify the purchase of a PS3; it justifies the purchase of a high-def television and 5.1 speaker array. Still, it’s hard to recommend the game to people who aren’t already familiar with Kojima’s work, and it’s not quite right to call the game “realistic.” I’m loving MGS4, but it might be the most bizarre game I’ve ever played.

Metal Gear Solid 4 is fundamentally a stealth game—you can usually sneak past enemies instead of fighting them, and the best players can finish the game without killing anyone. (You’re outfitted with a space-age camouflage suit that can take on the color and texture of your surroundings.) There is a wealth of lethal and nonlethal weapons—all presented in Tom Clancy-esque lascivious detail—that you can use to dispatch, incapacitate, or simply distract your foes. You can even drop a copy of Playboy and tiptoe past an enemy while he’s absorbed in that John Updike short story. After playing for several days, I got the sense that there are endless ways to reach the game’s objectives, and I wanted to try them all just to see what happens.

But along with all the sneaking around, MGS4 also includes interminable monologues on the evils of war and private military contractors. These play out in “cut scenes,” cinematic sequences that unfold with minimal input from the player. These scenes sometimes spool out for 45 minutes or more. Seriously. Despite (or because of) those huge dollops of plot, I still find the story utterly incomprehensible. There are double-crosses and triple-crosses and quadruple-crosses. There are satirical live-action TV commercials and news clips shot specifically for the game. There are subliminal flashbacks to events in previous games that will flummox neophytes (and, frequently, me). There are murderous robots that look like shapely women, nanotech mind-control injections, and a monkey in diapers.

How could one of the biggest blockbusters of the year in video games be more surreal than the most obscure art-house film? It’s all about Kojima. More than any other game designer, he is an auteur in the hoity-toity cinephile sense, an artist with a distinctive sensibility who plays with the medium and with the expectations of the audience. That doesn’t play well with everyone, though. Many dismiss his games as pretentious, slow-paced, and confusing. Meanwhile, pathetic fanboys treat him with reverence, congregating at gamer events to discuss the term papers they’ve written on his work, gathering on message boards to dissect the meaning of the plot and explain away all the bizarre twists and logical leaps and self-indulgent in-jokes.

I am one of those pathetic fanboys. I don’t care how strange Kojima’s games are—they’re all worthwhile because they remind you of the untapped potential of the medium. My favorite Kojima game? Probably Boktai, the Sun Is in Your Hand, a vampire-hunting game for the Gameboy Advance portable device. Kojima’s innovation was to equip the game cartridge with a photometric light sensor, which needs direct sunlight in order to recharge the solar gun you use to zap bloodsuckers. As I played it in the park on a typically foggy San Francisco day, I got so wrapped up in the game that I stood on a bench with my arms skyward to catch as many rays as I could—a grown man in public holding a Gameboy aloft like John Cusack with his boombox in Say Anything. (Only I was having the opposite effect on the ladies.) That’s what Kojima can do. I felt utterly ridiculous, even as I was reminded why I love to play games.

Kojima is a known cinephile who writes obsessively about movies on his blog and even does reviews for newspapers in Japan. That may explain the game’s never-ending narrative cut scenes. Still, he gets the difference between games and movies in a way that many designers never will.

Games offer moments of incredibly deep immersion—the sick feeling in the pit of your stomach when you’re not sure if you’ve nailed a jump, a sense of real anguish when your on-screen self dies—that movies aren’t capable of. The nature of the medium, though, means that something is always threatening to pull you out of the world and remind you that you’re just playing a game.

There are imperfections in the environment: the fact that only certain objects in the world behave the way their real-life counterparts would, that characters don’t behave the way intelligent humans would, that the most “realistic” CG person still doesn’t look human. There are also the conventions of gaming: the overlay of information on top of the image, the pop-up messages prompting you to press a button, the need to toggle in and out of menu screens to grab something from your inventory. A game’s smooth progression is also continually threatened by your own mistakes—a clumsy button press or a bad decision—or your impulse to try and do something counterintuitive or absurd just to see what happens when you do.

Some game designers expend enormous amounts of energy trying to eliminate anything that might pull you out of a game … effort that’s ultimately futile. I love Kojima because he goes in the exact opposite direction, focusing on how to amplify the medium’s strengths rather than fixating on how to cover up its weaknesses. Kojima continually elbows you in the ribs and reminds you that you’re playing a game, as well as rewards you for doing something ridiculous. He breaks the fourth wall more frequently than the Kool-Aid Man. For instance, there’s a motion sensor in the PS3 controller. During one of the interminable cut scenes, you might discover that shaking the controller makes a female character’s breasts jiggle. It’s puerile, sexist, and ludicrous, but it makes it hard to take anything about the game for granted.

Another example: MGS4 has a stirring orchestral musical score. But it also gives you an in-game iPod, and you can pre-empt the score by queuing up a song on it, using the joystick the same way you’d use an iPod’s scroll wheel. Among the tunes available are tracks from the original 1987 installment of the game, and the tinny 8-bit audio is a hilarious contrast to the hi-def environments you creep through. You can also find podcasts by the people who designed the game and listen to them describe the development process as you play.

Kojima gets that some of the tiny details need to be spot-on to keep you immersed in the game play—like how your hands shake a little when you’re zoomed in on someone with a scope sight and the way dust and grime seem to collect on the inside of your TV screen when you’re creeping through a parched war zone in the Middle East. He also understands that gaming is exhilarating precisely because it’s not a documentary medium—that you can build your own universe rather than simply reanimate somebody else’s, and that you can make up your own rules and then go ahead and break them.

Play Metal Gear Solid 4 for just a few minutes, and you’ll have no doubt that Kojima is an original. Consider one of the game’s tamer bosses, a buxom lady robot called Laughing Octopus. She’ll whip you with her giant metallic tentacles, disguise herself as one of your allies in an attempt to lure you in, then laugh hysterically if you die. If you defeat her, her tentacles fall off, and she gives an insane little speech about how she really does believe that she’s a cephalopod before vomiting several gallons of octopus ink and morphing into Laughing Beauty, a gorgeous human-looking siren who tries to get close enough to wrap you in a crushing bear hug. Then things start to get weird …

It’s in these boss battles, a gaming convention lifted from the colorful villains in James Bond movies, that all of Kojima’s strengths come into play: his love of cinematic technique and action movie conventions, his unbridled creativity and penchant for the absurd, his knack for tense game-play mechanics, and his eye for detail. Everything combines to create an experience that is completely unreal, in the best sense of the term.