Metal Gear Solid – 1998 Developer Interview
This Metal Gear Solid interview with director Hideo Kojima and designer Yoji Shinkawa originally appeared in The Playstation magazine in 1998. The candid conversation largely focuses on Shinkawa’s work, including how he was hired at Konami and the designs for the mechs and characters of Metal Gear Solid. Meanwhile, Kojima offers his own thoughts on how his approach to character design changed from Policenauts to Metal Gear.
Yoji Shinkawa – Designer / Artist
Hideo Kojima – Director / Producer / Writer
—Tell us how you and Shinkawa began working together.
Kojima: Shinkawa joined Konami in 1994, so fairly recently, but he was a rare find, the kind you only come across once every 10 years. Before our hiring interviews, we make a point of reviewing the potential candidates’ portfolios. We’re looking through about 100 people’s work, and in the process you do see things that really jump out at you as amazing.
We also grade each portfolio with a rating of S, A, B, C etc. I’ve probably looked at 10,000 candidates myself at this point, and I’ve never seen anyone who I immediately wanted to give an S until Shinkawa. He’s the only one, and it was an instant hanamaru (the Japanese equivalent of a “gold star”). He had 4 different styles on display then. He may actually have more. (laughs) When I first saw his work he had drawings in an American comic style, a French comic style… and these didn’t at all seem like they’d been drawn by the same person. One folder, four distinct styles.
Part of our hiring process involves giving the candidate certain problems to solve. At the time dinosaurs were all the rage (laughs), so we asked them to produce several different drawings using dinosaur as a motif—an anthropomorphized dinosaur, a gigantic dinosaur, etc. When we gave him this task he replied back to us, “May I create a model instead?” We said, “What? But you only have two weeks!” and he was like, “That’s fine.”
No one believed he would actually do it. (laughs) Is he even going to send us anything? But he really did. (laughs)
—Shinkawa, did you go to college?
Shinkawa: I did, to art school.
Kojima: What was your major?
Shinkawa: Western painting. Oil paints and the like.
Kojima: I’ve never seen any of your work like that. (laughs)
—What kind of stuff do you find fun to draw?
Shinkawa: Well, the stuff I’m doing here at Konami, as you might have guessed. I like oil painting too, but it takes a lot of time, and unfortunately it can’t be used in this line of work.
—It sounds like you enjoy experimenting with different styles too.
Shinkawa: Yeah. Finished, perfect drawings… I mean, they have their place and all, but I don’t find much enjoyment in them. I actually like things that look a little rougher, unfinished, or flawed in some way. (laughs) To be perfectly honest I can’t say my drawings on the table here are really “good”, there’s an unskilled, rough quality to them.
Kojima: See? I told you he was weird. (laughs)
He joined Konami right as we were wrapping up the development of the original PC-9821 version of Policenauts. I asked him to do a quick bug-check playthrough and give me his opinion generally. There’s this robot in Policenauts called EMPS, and Shinkawa was really critical about its design. “This doesn’t look right, this is wrong here…” he just kept going on. (laughs)
—What was the problem?
Kojima: There was a proper setting and world created by Hajime Katoki, and the pixel art was drawn in accordance with that, but Shinkawa didn’t like it. He complained about it up to the day before it went on sale. (laughs) Even though I was saying we can’t fix it now! (laughs) When he was reviewing the final version Shinkawa also mentioned additional scenes he would have liked to see. He actually sketched them out on the bug-checking forms. (laughs)
Anyway, that all being the case, later, when we made the 3DO version, the two of us made some revisions, with additional movies and the like. The mecha scene, in particular, was something we concentrated our efforts on. (laughs) And after that we continued to make various revisions for the Playstation and Saturn releases too.
I had already done some of the planning for Metal Gear Solid when Shinkawa joined Konami. I had not, however, decided on any of the finer details. One of the symbols of this game is the “Metal Gear” mecha, and I asked Shinkawa to design it for me. And once again he took forever (laughs)… I didn’t think he’d ever finish it. (laughs) So once he had some of the underlying design drawn out, we started talking about creating a real model. That is one of his specialties, after all. He worked on it at home, for about a month, I believe.
Shinkawa: A month and a half, in the end.
Kojima: That’s what happens when you start from scratch and even knead the clay yourself. (laughs) He was pretty locked up in his house there for awhile, so I’d call him occasionally, and dropped by a few times as a show of support. The floor of his room was littered with junk and scrap, it covered everything, there was nowhere to step!
Shinkawa: And it smelled like paint thinner. (laughs)
—Was this modeling a lot more difficult than the dinosaurs?
Shinkawa: Yeah, mechas are hard for sure.
—Was there anything you found especially challenging?
Shinkawa: Your typical “robot” design follows, to a certain extent, the human form—and this means it’s possible to create some really cool, stylish designs—but in this case, a bipedal robot without hands or anything, finding that balance of “cool” proved quite difficult.
—Kojima, what kind of requests did you have for Shinkawa for the mech design?
Kojima: “Rex”. The dinosaur, that is—Tyrannosaurus Rex. The code name for this mecha is “Metal Gear Rex.” In terms of my own image, I mean, basically it’s a weapon of war, so I told him “Don’t make it look like some robot from outer space.” (laughs) I had a huge number of specific requests. For instance, I said I wanted it to feel like, when the human pilot gets in, that life is being breathed into the mech for the first time. Like, even though it’s a weapon, when it moves it feels like a living creature. But when the pilot exits and it’s left alone, it looks just like a jeep or tank or some regular vehicle, and once the pilot gets in and is driving it, it looks like a dinosaur. And the aesthetic, the feeling it evokes when you see it, should not be “outer spacey”.
—There must be no way to design a mech without imagining how it moves.
Shinkawa: That’s right. (laugh) Another thing was the way the mouth opens. It’s a cockpit, but it looks like a dinosaur’s jaws.
—In the world of the game, is there only one Metal Gear Rex in existence?
Kojima: Well, I probably shouldn’t tell you that… (laughs) But yeah, there’s just one. It’s very important… you can’t tell from it’s appearance, but uncovering why it’s so important (to the political situation and the American economy too) is the most important foundation of the story. Why is this weapon the key? What will happen to the world if its deployed?… ultimately you’ll discover the answer to those questions as the game unfolds.
—Tell us about these photos here of Shinkawa’s Metal Gear Rex model.
Kojima: These are photos of Shinkawa’s finished Metal Gear model. We shot them in a studio, but it was quite an ordeal. We were working there till midnight. We went to go buy dry ice but they didn’t have any, so with no other options, even though I don’t smoke I lit some cigarettes and blew smoke everywhere. (laughs) I was like, “Shin-chan, help me out here!” and he said no thanks, I hate tobacco smoke. (laughs)
After taking those photos I said we could probably do this in CG too, so we tried that and they turned out almost the same. The bottom photo here is the CG version. (laughs)
As Shinkawa was making this model we were firming up the details of the Metal Gear Rex’s design, and towards the end of that process the CG guys came in and created the CG modeling using our work as a reference. So it was all done at roughly the same time, including the CG. That being the case, and with the same basic layout and composition, I figured it would look the same in CG… and sure enough it did. (laughs) In the end we didn’t use those studio photos at all. (laughs)
The pictures on the right here are from the CG design process, which we created while looking at the reference model.
—How much time did this take?
Kojima: A huge amount.
Shinkawa: Yeah, it took a long time.
Kojima: These here were done by the same girl who did the modeling for the Policenauts EMPS.1 She’s also amazing. (laughs) She does this stuff 24 hours a day. (laughs) Even the pipes, she models them individually one by one. In the actual game, we use lighter (less data-intensive) models though. We use these higher-res ones for movies and other things.
—Did Shinkawa have any other input into the design of Metal Gear Solid?
Kojima: Yes, from the very first plans I drafted, Shinkawa was in there changing things on his own. (laughs) This was my first time doing a development like this too. He’d come to me asking, “what the heck is this?”, and then later I’d find that he’d added something on his own. (laughs)
Up to now—in Policenauts, for example, I used to give the designers very specific instructions: here’s this character Dave, he’s such-and-such kind of person, he wears this kind of a vest, these kind of goggles, etc etc… but this game was different. Shin-chan possesses a very active imagination, and as soon as I hand him a task, before long he’s off making his own changes and modifications. If he changed things too much, we’d sometimes have to re-adjust other aspects of the planning too. There was some push-and-pull over stuff like that, it was actually a lot of fun.
—Can you give an example?
Kojima: This ninja would be one. I originally had no plans to add a character like that. (laughs)
—Why did you draw him?
Shinkawa: Because it’s cool. (laughs)
Kojima: There were a lot of things added like that. “Hell yeah, a ninja cyborg!” (laughs) But now, of course, he’s actually become a central character for the plot.
—Take us through how this character got designed, then.
Shinkawa: I thought he would just be a normal soldier enemy. I had a number of different patterns in mind, and I thought I’d try drawing something cyborg-ish and this ninja-looking guy is what came out. Once I gave him a katana, the character really came to life for me. (laughs) I thought, hey, this could actually work as a main character. (laughs)
Kojima: This Otacon character had silly beginnings too. He’s the developer of this Metal Gear REX weapon, and I like Japanese animation so I wanted to include a character who goes to anime conventions like Otakon in America. The image in my head was of a heavier guy, someone who’s always eating a chocolate bar, but somewhere along the way he turned out as you see here. (laughs)
This guy here, Psycho Mantis, he has psychic powers, but at some point Shinkawa gave him that gas mask. (laughs) Why a gas mask? I don’t know. (laughs) And then Shinkawa was saying how underneath the mask he has no face. Why no face? Beats me. (laughs)
Shinkawa: Again, it was part of expanding and developing the story.
Kojima: For my part, I wasn’t against adding them. Unexpected things like this are part of the fun.
—You sound like a very adaptable director. (laughs)
Kojima: I mean, it could be problem sometimes too. (laughs) The maps too, were actually something where I would draw them out first on graph paper, then Shinkawa would draw storyboards based on them. So I’d hand them over to him and some time would pass, then I’d drop by his desk to see how it was going, only to find that the maps were completely different now. (laughs) When I asked him what he’d changed everything, he just replied “It’s cool though, right?” (laughs) So it can be a terrible thing too. (laughs) Doing things this way was very different from the way my previous developments ran. But by the same token it really expanded our imagination to a whole new level.
I am a game designer, however, and if push comes to shove, ultimately gameplay wins out for me in terms of what I prioritize. So there are some things I won’t compromise on. For example, this being an action game, I said the characters have to move quickly. To make that happen we had to reduce the textures somewhat, and lower the color count.
—The designs are all unified by your brushwork, Shinkawa.
Shinkawa: The thing about brushwork is, the lines aren’t ever really “perfect”. It’s different from pencil and pen in that way. When you paint with brushes, you always get some degree of unexpected lines from what you wanted to draw. But that’s also part of what makes it cool. (laughs)
From the start when I designed these characters, I wasn’t really thinking about “game character design” in that stereotypical way.
Kojima: Yes, and if you’re wondering where that burden fell, it fell on the polygon artists. (laughs)
Shinkawa: When you think of “game characters”, you think of ridiculously huge, outlandish proportions, characters holding huge cannons, stuff like that. But if you have to work details like that into a story, it’s going to make for one bizarre world. That’s why, if I had to say, my approach to character building was closer to anime and film. I designed them in such a way that, if they were to be used in a movie, it would feel completely natural.
In terms of the graphics, too, up to now things have been mostly front-lit, and the action takes place in brightly-lit spaces. Being video games there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, of course, but I’d like to have a game where you can’t tell exactly what’s in front of you—not total darkness or anything—but using the lighting in a creative way to evoke a certain level of ambiguity.
I don’t think that’s dependent on the hardware either. Of course I’d like hardware that could do all that, but if it doesn’t exist, let’s try doing it ourselves, is my feeling.
—Kojima, what kind of requests did you have for the character development?
Kojima: Hardboiled. It’s a serious, heavy story, and I wanted characters who could handle that world. Also, designs that are “dishonest”, weird, or that are just meant to be visually stimulating—like female characters with huge busts (laughs)—I don’t like those. I wanted characters who, just from looking at their clothing you’d be able to tell what kind of person they were, and what their motivations were.
Shinkawa: That’s one reason why I struggled a bit with Snake’s design.
Kojima: I remember. You struggled a lot. (laughs) The first design looked like Captain Future, and he was orange-colored.
Shinkawa: Now he’s black, pitch black. (laughs)
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Probably Kumi Sato.↩