By Michael Mendis
At E3 2016 (a major gaming event held every summer in Los Angeles), a new game called Death Stranding was announced. It is an entirely new franchise, and the trailer that day showed no gameplay and revealed very little concrete information about the game’s narrative or characters. And yet gamers were thrilled, and instantly it became one of the most highly anticipated titles. What was it about that game that got everyone excited? Was it the incredible CGI? Sure, it looked nice, but so do a lot of game trailers. Was it the appearance of famed actor Norman Reedus? A recognizable face doesn’t hurt, but that’s no guarantee of quality. Was it the weird, stark imagery and atmosphere? Hardcore gamers are always looking for something fresh and unique, after all. But even that doesn’t explain the wild cheers from the audience or the sustained excitement among gamers worldwide.
The reason that the mysterious, cryptic, and weird Death Stranding trailer made huge waves amongst gamers ultimately had to do with one line of text toward the end of the trailer:
“A Hideo Kojima Game.”
It’s this one man, one auteur, one person in a whole team of game developers, who inspires so much confidence among many gamers. When Hideo Kojima announces a new game, the whole gaming world takes notice, even when he doesn’t tell you that much about the game itself. So who is this man, and how has he come to wield such influence and dedication amongst his fans?
Kojima was born in 1963 in Tokyo, Japan. Growing up he spent a lot of time alone; his family would not have gotten home yet by the time he returned from school, so he would watch television to mitigate his loneliness. He loved watching just about any TV show or movie, and from a young age he had a creative streak that he desperately wanted to explore, whether it was in the form of writing, illustrating, or filmmaking. He would even write short stories to see if Japanese magazines would publish them, but his stories ended up being four times longer than what the magazines were looking for.
Kojima’s friends and family disapproved of his creative endeavors, encouraging him to find a career that would be better paying. When he joined video game publisher Konami, his loved ones told him that he was wasting his talent; only his mother supported him. In an interview published in 2004, Kojima recounted:
“My family never understood my ambitions. I knew this deep in my soul, so I didn’t share my creative hopes and dreams. My friends concentrated on their education and spent most of their time studying…[they] never shared my dream of being able to support myself within the framework of a creative work, neither in music nor on film.”
Konami was making games for the MSX home computer when Kojima started working there, and Kojima’s early work included a platformer called Penguin Adventure and a text-heavy adventure game called Snatchers. But the series that made Kojima the legend that he has since become is Metal Gear.
The original Metal Gear (released all the way back in 1987 for the MSX2) was a stealth-action game in which you play as special operative Solid Snake, on a mission to destroy a giant robot (called Metal Gear) capable of firing nuclear weapons. The game’s tactical action and poignant political themes helped make it a success, and it spawned a couple other followups on the MSX2. The series hit it big in 1998 when Kojima and his team released Metal Gear Solid for the PlayStation, attracting a much wider audience and stunning them not only with refined stealth gameplay, but with a remarkably complex plot, long cutscenes and dialogue, and fourth-wall breaking gameplay mechanics that gamers had never before seen (one boss battle in the game required the player to physically unplug his controller from one port on the PlayStation console and insert it into the other one).
Over almost two more decades, Kojima continued to expand the complex history and mythos of the Metal Gear world with numerous sequels and prequels. All throughout, gamers loved the series’ quirky storytelling, endearing characters, and heavy themes of morality, politics, and patriotism. Fans could always count on twists and surprises to keep them engaged, and Kojima’s flair for the unusual made him stand apart from other game developers who tended to play by the book.
While gamers grew to adore Kojima, the higher ups at Konami ultimately did not. Corporate restructuring at the company in early 2015 resulted in a heavier emphasis on mobile games, and the importance of traditional console/PC games (which are Kojima’s specialty) waned. Kojima’s relationship with Konami's upper management became more and more strained, and as the latest entry in the Metal Gear series (Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain) approached its completion, Kojima’s name started disappearing from promotional materials. Reports came out that Konami was mistreating its employees at Kojima Productions, restricting access to important resources, closely monitoring lunch breaks, and publicly shaming those that failed to meet their standards. After the game was released and nominated for several awards at the 2015 Game Awards, Konami would not even let Kojima attend the show.
All of this ended up in Kojima’s departure from the company at the end of 2015, a company he had been a part of for 30 years. His time with the Metal Gear franchise he had pioneered was over. But his career in gaming was not.
Prior to his departure from Konami, Kojima had been working on another project: Silent Hills, a new entry in Konami’s classic horror franchise. The demo released on the PlayStation store scared the pants off of those who played it, and fans were excited to see the famed developer working with Norman Reedus and Guillermo del Toro on the game. When Kojima left his long-time employer, this game was shut down, and gamers lamented the loss of this promising title. But Sony quickly announced that they were working with Kojima on a new game for the PlayStation 4. When Kojima walked onto the stage at Sony’s 2016 E3 Press Conference, the audience cheered wildly, and as trailers for his new game Death Stranding were released that day and then later in the year, gamers around the world knew that his collaboration with both Reedus and del Toro was still happening. Kojima was back, making the games that he loved to make and that his fans couldn’t wait to play.
And that is what makes Kojima such a beloved icon in the gaming industry, one of its most important personalities. Everything that he brings to the table - refined gameplay, deep storytelling and characters, and crazy, out-of-left-field surprises - make him one of the most unique video game developers in the young history of the medium. Gamers know that Kojima creates games that are different, and he’s proven that he knows how to make them well.