November 8th marks the release of Death Stranding — the new game written, directed and produced by Hideo Kojima. While there has been no shortage of acclaim for Kojima’s work over the past three decades, the majority of it focuses on narrative and misses something essential about his approach. A persistent feature of Kojima games, especially in the Metal Gear series, is that they develop a sense of unreal or hyperreal abstraction through realist design methods and attitudes towards form that emphasize materiality and intimacy.
In other words, while his games have pioneered techniques and practices in game design that have come to define video game realism, these techniques are employed in a manner that defamiliarizes them, paradoxically through drawing attention to the literal concreteness of both formal structures and in-game objects. The result is an unusual sense of intimacy that feels specific to the medium, despite the common narrative comparing Kojima to film directors. Without having played Death Stranding yet, I suspect that this way of thinking about his work will become newly relevant upon its release.
Character, World, Style
Character offers a convenient entry point into themes of materiality and abstraction in Kojima games. Metal Gear series protagonist Snake isn’t just named after Kurt Russell as Snake Plisskin in John Carpenter’s Escape From New York — he practically is an action figure of that actor in that role, reimagined and repurposed in a new context. Snake gradually gains his own individual characterization over the course of the series and simultaneously becomes a similarly mythical “fictional” figure in the cultural imaginary of the in-game universe. National and geopolitical history have received an analogous treatment in Kojima games since at least the 1990s, part Hollywood-mythological fictionalization and part hyperliteral transplant.
This tendency appears to continue with Kojima’s embrace of motion capture and the use of Hollywood actors in Death Stranding as well. His insistence that the player will “be” Norman Reedus, rather than simply controlling the protagonist character he portrays, Sam, continues Kojima’s literalistic approach to the bodies of star actors in specific roles reimagined as characters themselves, which both extends beyond and complicates ordinary player-protagonist identification.
Kojima’s literalism in character and narrative ultimately serves to heighten the feeling of materiality in his games, which is most immediately expressed in visual style. The heavily stylized, overexposed lighting in Metal Gear Solid 1 and 2, which reemerges in Metal Gear Solid V, gives the immaterial images onscreen a luminescent tactility distinct from the dominant style of photorealism in video games, echoing the French painter Paul Cézanne’s desire “to make out of Impressionism something solid and lasting.” In fact, in these three “realistic” games, there are fleeting glimpses of visual abstraction not so far from Cézanne’s proto-cubist diffraction of light, space and matter. This extends to their vivid sonics; London producer Burial, whose desolate, skin-prickling music is famously suffused with the environmental DNA of these games, cites “bullet casings hitting concrete in Metal Gear Solid on the PlayStation” as one of his favorite sounds.
Kojima’s similarly fetishistic enthusiasm for branded merchandise that reproduces in-game objects (and the reciprocal reproduction of branded merchandise in his games) lives very much in this tradition of literalism. Kojima loves things, and in the Metal Gear games this zeal for the materiality — the solidity — of virtual objects, and their functional application in mechanics — in the gears of a game — paradoxically births an uncanny but sensuous abstract quality that corresponds to explicit narrative elements of sci-fi magical realism.
Mechanics, Design, Form
The stealth genre, as defined in the Metal Gear games, demands a hyper-alert, patient, embodied projection of the player into the game environment which both aligns with and alienates her from the protagonist character. She identifies strategically as much with the space itself as with the character she controls to traverse it, close to but outside of him. The relationship between player and protagonist is both unusually external and unusually intimate.
This intimacy is also integrated on the level of mechanics. James Howell, in his exhaustive methodical walkthrough of the highest rank and hardest difficulty in Metal Gear Solid 3, remarks that the game “is curiously liberal with its distribution of medical items,” adding that “It wants you to involve yourself with Snake’s physical maintenance more than it wants you to feel the tension of dealing with a slow-healing injury.” Prioritizing care for the protagonist’s body over action game drama succinctly summarizes Kojima’s design ethos, which could be described as “erotic formalism.” It also engenders a caring intimacy between the anonymous player and the male protagonist that parallels the deeply intimate, barely-subtextually homoerotic “romantic friendships” (and enemyships) that increasingly mark the narrative of the Metal Gear Solid series as it progresses.
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Kojima’s long quest for intimate involvement between the player and the protagonist’s body and world paradoxically leads to several forms of mechanical abstraction. Attempts to design more involved mechanical systems for navigating these spaces through a character inevitably result in further abstraction alongside a sense of “realistic” player participation. Take for example the anti-immersive tactical reload system in Metal Gear Solid 2, which Howell describes in his critical playthrough as “consciously making abstraction in design part of how this world actually physically works.”
The “abstract realism” of Kojima’s approach to setting, character and narrative also applies to the technical and technological means by which both the player and the fictional protagonist traverse through the imaginary space of the game — the two often blur. Innumerable examples include the famous fourth wall-breaking Psycho Mantis boss fight in Metal Gear Solid which requires manual manipulation of the game console, or the detail-oriented technical infodumps on the architectural theory behind building demolition and the technique of disarming plastic explosives which pepper the bomb disposal sequence in Metal Gear Solid 2, which itself requires precise spatial and environmental awareness.
Kojima also produces abstraction through large-scale manipulation of serial form. His key skill since his earliest games is that of a level designer, someone who models structures in Lego or draws them out on graph paper. His virtuosity lies is in designing how a player might experience those structures and the mechanical means of their traversal in the game environment on both a thematic and an embodied level, both moment to moment in an individual work and through successive iterations and reconfigurations in sequels. Howell, in his 2007 essay on how the latter practice operates in Metal Gear Solid 2, argues that this sequel, which he later describes in his critical playthrough as “a video game about being a video game,” is a formal reconstruction of the first Metal Gear Solid, put back together area by area and action by action so as to invert the previous game’s tone and generate a thematically coherent sense of player alienation.
While many technical developments from game to game are cutting edge upon release, Kojima’s level design and approach to overall structure develops gradually and almost conservatively, as he reworks and refines the same formal schemas, compositional elements and approaches to space for years. The focus on continuity and unity in design both within and across titles also means that each new step — which sometimes radically undermines player expectations — carries real, visceral weight in each game. The development in the Metal Gear series from strictly geometrical, linear, room-based modular levels into various degrees of open world and base-and-mission structure complicates this practice, but it remains essential to what Kojima does and why it is interesting, even more so now with the development of an entirely new game.
The upshot is that form and materiality are inseparable and identical in Kojima’s game design at its best. He is not a wannabe movie director, a storyteller of political epics or a technical visionary, at least not first and foremost. Above all, Hideo Kojima is an erotic formalist. I use the word “erotic” primarily in line with Susan Sontag’s modernist definition, in “Against Interpretation,” as the mode of critical experience of an artwork that seeks “to recover our senses[. . .] to see more, to hear more, to feel more.” Heightened spatial awareness through stealth mechanics and level design, a tactile, concrete but subtly unreal sense of materiality, and a feeling of external closeness with both the protagonist’s body and the game environment are the key experiential erotics in the Metal Gear series.
All of this comes with the caveat, however, that in the Metal Gear series as a whole, this ethic of meticulous, intimate, embodied design operates in tension with a mainstream video game industry mandate that prioritizes smooth, seamless, unencumbered “player freedom,” with all of its ideological baggage. In order to retain formal coherence, these games require a play style that emphasizes the former, but this often conflicts with the normative aesthetic, formal, mechanical and ideological ideals of war-fetishizing, misogynistic straight male power fantasy in line with the latter which they simultaneously court despite their anti-war message.
This contradiction comes to a head in Metal Gear Solid 4, and it’s no coincidence that Kojima wanted Snake and Otacon to be executed as war criminals at the end of that game. The tendency, in some sense encouraged by the games themselves, for players to approach them as if they were Call of Duty-style shooters is also why Kojima games are often accused of being poorly designed, frustrating, or only interesting for their cool cutscenes and wacky, complicated lore.
A New Approach?
Provisionally, Death Stranding appears to mark a step in the right direction in this regard. Its basic mechanical flow, at least as recently demonstrated, fundamentally integrates elements of design whose analogues in previous Kojima games, such as bodily care and equipment maintenance, were essential to tonal, thematic and narrative character but often peripheral to core gameplay. Likewise, the trailers’ and gameplay demonstrations’ intensely intimate focus on protagonist Sam’s manual working life (piss breaks and all) and the toll this physically involved labor takes on his (often vulnerable and exposed) body suggests a more explicit integration of the mechanical erotics of gameplay and the visual erotics of the screen gaze.
In Norman Reedus’ words, “[t]he idea of touch is something [Sam] can’t deal with, and as the game proceeds [. . .] the idea of touch comes back to [him].” Kojima is taking a major step in explicitly placing this haptic theme at the center of the narrative in Death Stranding, but touch has always been the subterranean thread running through his design practice. I hope that its emergence prompts a renewed approach to his past work, new strands in tow.