Hideo Kojima – 1999 Developer Interview
In this 1999 interview from Nice Games, director Hideo Kojima offers some broad insight into the circumstances behind his biggest creations, from the original stealth-action game Metal Gear to the adventure games Snatcher and Policenauts, coming full circle with the 3D “tactical espionage action” game Metal Gear Solid, as well as his affections for cinema and how they co-exist with the “artisanal” nature of video game creation.
—To start things off, tell us how you came to be employed at Konami.
Kojima: Ever since middle school or thereabouts, for the longest time, I had wanted to make movies. But the film industry in Japan is very closed off, and no one will give you money to finance a movie. Even if you get hired by a studio like Toho, you won’t be permitted to direct anything for awhile. I guess that’s to be expected, but I’m not the kind of person who can be content in a servile role like that. (laughs)
For awhile I was writing fiction, but it wasn’t a very realistic option. So it was looking like I was going to have to get a normal job, but just then the Famicom came out. I hated math so I never got into computers, but I did play the Famicom a lot.
As I became familiar with the different games, I started to become more interested. It was like, ah hah, there’s a whole world here to explore too. What made up my mind to get into this industry myself was Super Mario Bros and The Portopia Serial Murder Case. They weren’t the “bleep bloop” games of old; these games had their own worlds and stories. I felt a certain authorial quality in them.
I don’t know if I’d call it a moment of enlightenment or anything, but I was surprised at these new genres which were popping up. And they sold like crazy too. So I went around to different game companies, and partly because I was living in Hyogo prefecture at the time, but I thought I’d check out Konami.
—Interesting, that makes sense. And then your debut work was Metal Gear. Do you have any “secret stories” to tell us about the making of that game?
Kojima: I can’t talk about this without crying. (laughs) Konami said they wanted a game made around the theme of “war”. But the development had a troubled history.
Several of Konami’s veteran developers, who had released many hit games before I joined the company, had been working on this war game for 2 years now. But it wasn’t going anywhere: they’d create something, then scrap it, create something, and scrap it again. There was a sort of legend at Konami, that if you got involved in this project, you’d up demoted or transferred. (laughs) I have no idea why they kept continuing it, but I think as a company, Konami just really wanted to have a war game.
So that was how the project came to me. That was where it started from. What I was fixated on making, in the scope of a “war” game, was an escape game. You know that old movie, The Great Escape? I thought it would be awesome to make a game built around a concept like that, of trying to escape from somewhere. But when I told the senior devs on the team about my idea, they were very dismissive: “There’s no games like that.” I was still a new planner at Konami, so I guess no one was inclined to listen to what I had to say… there was just zero motivation from the start. It was like, what do I have to do here, do I have to start beating people up? (laughs)
By and by, the situation only degraded further into passive-aggressive resistance. It got to the point where I was so fed up with working at a corporation like this that I was ready to quit Konami altogether. But then I talked with another older employee, and from that conversation, a pathway opened up. Taking the lead, he called everyone in the office for a presentation about the game, and after that, the people around me started to change their attitude. (laughs) It wasn’t exactly a “rebirth” of the Metal Gear project, but it was finally able to start moving in a positive direction.
Of course everyone still had their doubts about the basic premise. They were all asking, “will an escape game really be fun…?” But once we got a working build running, and they saw that exclamation mark pop up when the enemy gets surprised, that sold them on the concept. They all changed their tune then: “This is gonna work!”
—Your next games were Snatcher and Policenauts, point-and-click style adventures. What made you want to work in that genre?
Kojima: There were two reasons. Part of it was the impression that The Portopia Serial Murder Case had left on me. And of course my desire to make movies was part of it too, so I wanted to create a game with cinematic nuances, something with a more developed world, story, and dialogue.
The other reason was that, not being able to program, I had a very hard time making Metal Gear. As a planner you write what you want in the planning documents, and convey your image as best you can, but ultimately it comes down to the programmers’ sensibilities. There were things that, try as I might, I just couldn’t get across. Because it all comes down to whether a given programmer has the right intuitive feeling for it. That was very frustrating for me, and I felt helpless. There are certainly fun things about working as a team, but that aspect was a real challenge.
So I wanted to make gameplay system where, as a planner, I could have complete control over every facet of it. When I asked myself what kind of games planners love, and what kind of games are praised primarily for their stories and worlds, the answer seemed clear: adventure games. That was a big part of why I made Snatcher then.
For Snatcher, I didn’t leave everything up to the programmers; I had them create a simplified scripting language, sort of like a compiler, and I used that to control and oversee everything. That’s how I created Snatcher entirely by myself. I could control the timing of sound effects, where fade-outs occurred, and pretty much everything. It meant that I was the only person on the development who fully understood how it all fit together.
—Policenauts was originally released for the PC-9821 computer. I understand it had a very long development cycle.
Kojima: Yeah, that was crazy. It was progressing pretty well at first, and by 1990 I had all the storyboarding done—I did it all myself, you see. (laughs) But thanks to a department transfer at Konami, and the PC Engine port of Snatcher, for awhile I didn’t have much time to work on it. So then when we were working on the PC-9821 version, by that point there was already talk about the next-gen hardware, and that’s how it ended up getting ported to the 3DO, Playstation, and Saturn.
—The Metal Gear Solid development took a lot of time too. You’re not a very prolific creator, are you?
Kojima: That’s right. While I was working on the first Policenauts, Konami started talking about the Playstation. I liked games like Metal Gear, and secretly I was hoping that some other company would release a spiritual sequel. (laughs) There were a lot of similar games but most were garbage, and there was never a true successor. Once the Playstation’s specs were made public, my head started swimming with possibilities—now I could finally make the Metal Gear game I really wanted to! I wanted to get to work on it right away, but there was a lot of stuff going on and I ended up doing nothing but ports of Policenauts. (laughs) When the 3DO port finally wrapped I thought, OK, now I can do Metal Gear Solid, but then I got put on the Saturn port. (laughs) When you consider those delays, it really did take a long time.
—Can we say Metal Gear Solid was the “ideal” Metal Gear game you’d always wanted to make?
Kojima: Well, no, I wouldn’t call it ideal. I do feel that overall I accomplished what I wanted to, but there’s many things I’m still unsatisfied with. Snatcher and Policenauts were adventure games. With Policenauts I had the programmers make some improvements to the scripting language / compiler they’d written for me, and I was able to do even more by myself.
But ultimately, after Policenauts I came to the conclusion that controlling everything myself wasn’t necessarily a good thing. Because if everything has to ultimately pass through me, then my abilities—and limitations—become a bottleneck. (laughs) If I wanted to keep pursuing new, more expansive possibilities in gameplay, I would need to be able to skillfully utilize the talents of programmers.
Of all genres, action games probably evoke the strongest sense of immediacy and identity with the on-screen characters. With adventure games there’s always a time lag, which, as it happens, is exactly what allowed me to present difficult dialogue and a complex story for players, because they have time to think about it. But the sense of identity a player has with their avatar in an action game is something amazing. It’s really what video games are all about.
Anyway, for all those reasons I decided to return to action games again. Programming had become even more important to action games since the first Metal Gear, and since there were naturally many things that would be beyond my abilities, I would need to leave much of the development to other talented individuals. In that sense, it was a return to the basics of game development for me.
—Metal Gear Solid was a hit in Japan, but I understand there was a great response overseas, too.
Kojima: That was something I was very happy about, on a personal level. From the beginning, I’ve always been very influenced by foreign films, books, and music. Having consumed all that media, and believing I’ve grown as a person myself, to see Metal Gear Solid praised by people overseas, it felt like I’d repaid that debt. (laughs) I’m very happy about it.
—Your personal love of film is famously known, but have movies played a big inspiration in your games as well?
Kojima: More than imitating movies directly, I would say it’s that I try to recreate scenes in a cinematic way. For example, imagine the player has snuck into the enemy base and is hiding there, and an enemy starts approaching, and you’re starting to panic thinking you might get discovered, trying to be as still as possible, but suddenly—THUNK!—you inadvertently make a large sound. I like to include situations like that, things you might see in a movie, but it’s just a kind of hazy notion I have. But that’s where it starts from.
—So it’s not a question of specific movies, then, but specific scenes that have left their impression on you?
Kojima: Yeah. Though in Snatcher and Policenauts, I did intentionally reference specific movies. I don’t do this now so much, but at the time I wanted it be easily recognizable for players, I guess, or just for it to quickly bring to mind a specific movie. Like, “oh, I get it, this game is like Alien” or “this game is like Blade Runner”. It helped get across what the game was all about. The graphics back then weren’t very great, after all. (laughs) So yeah, I leaned into the film references then, though it wasn’t the initial reason I wanted to make those games.
—By the way, you previously stated that while you are the director, you considered yourself a craftsman or artisan. What parts of your games do you feel justify that term?
Kojima: Games are something you use, and your impression and evaluation of them comes from your using them. So we game creators are not “artists”. I mean, we are creators in a certain sense. And naturally I want to move people, but the interactive experience of the user comes first. Games are also tools—something to be used. They don’t gain acceptance until they are used; artistic self-indulgence won’t do. In our business, it’s no good to make a game that hardly anyone can play. It would be like tea no one can drink. An attractive aesthetic alone isn’t enough either. So in that sense, we are craftsmen.
It’s completely possible to do both of course: to have a playable, “usable” game and within those boundaries also infuse it with your individuality and artistic spirit. If the player gets your game and finds the controls pleasing, and on top of that thinks it’s artistic, I’ve no problem with that, but it’s important to realize that a game isn’t a painting. No one wants a knife that won’t cut, right? Imagine you’re ready to filet your fish and you take your knife out. If that knife has a speaker in it and can play music or some gimmick, that’s all good and well, but who will buy a knife that won’t cut…? Who buys a knife on looks alone? No one.
—Finally, could you tell us about your future prospects, or what your next project is shaping up to be?
Kojima: My next project… yes. (laughs) I’m going to try to make something that I think everyone will want, a crowd-pleaser, if you will.
—Could this be a sequel, perhaps?
Kojima: Could it, indeed… (laughs) I’d also like to do another adventure game. But it probably wouldn’t sell well. An adventure with photorealistic graphics, that would be great.
—Is that a call back to your original desire to make movies?
Kojima: No, it’s different. As game developers it’s a 100% digital process, created from scratch by us alone. Our work is similar to anime in that regard. But live action filmmaking is, well, live, so there’s an element of unpredictability. On the day of the shoot, there could be rain, or maybe the lighting is wonderful that day. Things outside of our control and outside of the scope of our abilities, those play an extremely important part in that kind of work.
And in that sense, I’m very jealous of those working in film, or rather to say, I admire them. If you tried to bring that mentality to a game, I feel like it would end up being something very different. That’s why I have no interest in photorealistic CG graphics. It doesn’t hold any appeal for me.1
—Please give a final word for the readers of Nice Games.
Kojima: There’s players who have been there all along the way with me, from the MSX games. So long as they’re here, I will never stop making games. That’s all from me. (laughs)
—Thank you for your time today!
If you've enjoyed reading this interview and would like to be able to vote each month on what I translate, please consider supporting me on Patreon! I can't do it without your help!
As contradictory as this sounds with the line above about making another adventure game with photorealistic graphics, this is what he says here.↩