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.