Hideo Kojima, Japan's pre-eminent auteur game designer, wasn't widely known in the West until the explosive success of Metal Gear Solid. By 2002, the mainstream American magazine Newsweek had named him among their top 10 people of the year.
Recently the 53-year-old has driven constant conversation for his cryptic first looks at new game Death Stranding, for his high-profile friendships with other creators like Guillermo Del Toro and, unfortunately, for his very public, surprisingly venomous breakup with Konami, the corporation that owns Metal Gear Solid and that had employed Kojima since 1986, which appeared to do its very best to bury the creator as he left the company in late 2015.
The auteurist approach
Speaking to Fairfax Media, Kojima first makes it clear that, although his games stand out for seeming to carry his own singular politics and vision, "auteur" is not a label he chooses to attach to himself.
"Video games are interactive entertainment, created through the fusion of technology and art, and I create and deliver that experience for each user to enjoy", he says.
"From that perspective my job is that of providing games as a service. So, rather than an "auteur", I believe 'a creator with an auteurist approach' is a more apt description of myself".
Since the late 80s, Kojima games like Snatcher and Policenauts enjoyed a cult following for their Hollywood-inspired storytelling, off-beat narratives and polished gameplay. The creator's love of film-makers including David Lynch, Stanley Kubrick and Quentin Tarantino was clear, but in Metal Gear Solid — a stylish thriller that vacillated between campy, convoluted espionage and earnest, incredibly long discussions of nuclear proliferation — Kojima provided something brand new: a playable video game that really felt like a movie.
"I often look to movies for effective methods that can be applied to my games", Kojima says, noting that improvements in game technology and hardware had only recently made it possible to have movie-like directed story sequences using in-game graphics.
"[In video games], how well the world and characters are conveyed really depends on how effectively the visual presentation is leveraged. This is an area where my experiences and knowledge gained from viewing movies has helped".
Of course the impressive visual presentation (and fully voice-acted script, something else relatively new for a game then) was only part of the equation. The game also featured a groundbreaking narrative, a cast of cartoonishly evil antagonists and it innovated a system of 3D stealth gameplay that's still used today. It's considered by many to be one of the most important games of all time, and it sold like hot-cakes.
With the benefit of hindsight one can spot a rift between Kojima and Konami growing. The creator declared he was done with Metal Gear and moving on to stretch his creative wings so many times it became a running joke, and yet the sequels continued (albeit with vastly differing themes and settings).
By the early 2010s Metal Gear was practically the only active, well-respected game franchise Konami had, at least in the West, with names like Castlevania and Silent Hill having fallen by the wayside while the Kojima-directed espionage series continued to grow.
The creator seemed primed to finally break away from the series when, while Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain was still in production, it was revealed that Kojima was collaborating with del Toro on a new Silent Hill game called Silent Hills. But, soon, the public saw the first signs of a falling out.
Konami removed Kojima's name — and that of his internal studios, Kojima Productions — from all of its official Metal Gear websites and promotional material, following a reorganisation that reportedly saw the game publisher increasing its focus on mobile games rather than console.
Gamespot reported that the company had stripped Kojima and team of their company phone and internet privileges, and rumours were rife about the difficult working conditions the staff were facing.
While The Phantom Pain was completed and released to wide acclaim, winning several awards (which Kojima was apparently barred by his employer from accepting), all trace of Silent Hills was erased with what del Toro described as "a scorched earth" approach.
By the end of 2015 it was clear Kojima would no longer continue making games for Konami, but the proceeding year was one of hope as he indicated his intention to rebuild an independent Kojima Productions, and struck a deal almost instantly to direct the studio's first game exclusively for PlayStation.
At E3 2016, Kojima surprised fans with a first look at the new game, titled Death Stranding, which seems to continue the tradition of Hollywood-inspired productions as it stars Norman Reedus and Mads Mikkelsen.
While reluctant to talk about the situation with Konami (beyond a brief statement), Kojima is keen to point out that the structure of a big company, with several teams of hundreds of people each, was not conducive to the kinds of experiences he likes to make.
"At that scale it's impossible to keep tabs on everything, so each team is assigned a manager as a go between to communicate with the team", Kojima says.
"Of course this is far from the ideal environment for solving problems and keeping everyone focused on the same goal. In the end many 'auteur elements' take a back seat".
To solve this issue without sacrificing the complexity and polish of the games themselves, Kojima says he set up the new Kojima Productions with a flat, rather than vertical, organisational structure.
"This way my ideas quickly pass throughout the team, and it allows the team to quickly solve issues on the spot. Their main focus is the game itself, but the flat structure also allows everyone to be involved at each process along the way, from promotion to packaging", he says.
"We aren't like a factory dividing up tasks on a production line, but a select group of multi-talented creators".
A fresh start
Over the years Kojima has developed a reputation for being a master of misdirection, not only within his games' narratives but also in his communication with his audience, which has only added to his auteur image.
Metal Gear Solid 2, which dealt primarily with themes of censorship, manipulation, simulation and subversion of democracy in a digital world (pretty prophetic for a 2001 game), was proceeded by a promotional campaign that intentionally obscured a key aspect of the game, which proved to be a highly divisive approach.
Likewise the first look the public got of Metal Gear Solid V came in the form of a trailer for what appeared to be an unrelated game from an unknown Swedish studio, but which contained several clues to its true identity.
The most recent example was P.T., a horror game from an unknown developer that simply appeared on game platforms in 2014. The terrifying game went viral as players realised it contained clues that needed to be put together, and it was eventually found to be a convoluted announcement for Silent Hills.
"For me, the game with the audience starts as soon as the first teaser trailer is released", Kojima says.
And this seems to remain true with Death Stranding, the trailers for which "introduces the game's world and underlying themes, with a variety of hints sprinkled about. From there the audience uses their imagination to try and figure it out".
With a second trailer (featuring del Toro) being released late last year, fans have been poring through the abstract footage to try to grasp anything about the plot or gameplay of the experience. True to form, Kojima isn't giving many hints away.
"[It] isn't a game in the middle of long-running series, but a fresh start from zero", he says.
"You'll notice that the character in the first teaser is naked, because he is also starting from zero. I expect the gameplay to also be a completely new experience".
As someone whose works have often held some measure of truth or warning about the future of technology, we were keen to know what's next for Kojima. As he has in the past, he pledged that he would push the creative bar as much as he could for the rest of his life, but he doesn't expect it to always be making experiences we refer to as "games".
"In the future, integration of VR, AI and robotics will elevate games into a new type of genre. As games merge with movies, education and services, they will become a new form of entertainment to which the term 'game' no longer applies", he says.
"My career is really then just taking off, and will continue to accelerate from here on out".
This story originally appeared on the Sydney Morning Herald