Keeping It Unreal
Metal Gear Solid 4 reveals the genius of the world's greatest, weirdest video game designer.
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.
Chris Baker is a writer and editor in San Francisco.
Game still courtesy Konami © 1987-2008 KDE-J.