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The genius blind spot

He achieved what no other known man has achieved. To watch his work is like being witness to the beginning of melody, or the first conscious use of the lever or the wheel; the emergence, coordination and first eloquence of language; the birth of an art: and to realize that this is all the work of one man. --James Agee on D.W. Griffith

Hideo Kojima is a genius and will always be so. He is the epitome of videogame creativity and a revolutionary of the art.  --comment post by grilledcheese345 on 1UP user blog.

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Few critics or scholars would question D.W. Griffith's stature as a genuine artist of the cinema. His profound impact on the history and evolution of motion pictures is well documented, and filmmakers from Eisenstein to Spielberg have sung his praises as a true genius of the art. That James Agee quote lays it on a bit thick, though. :-)

Despite "grilledcheese345's" proclamation, the jury may still be out on Hideo Kojima. Nevertheless, it's not hard to find all sorts of game writers, enthusiasts, and fans of the Metal Gear series who believe Kojima represents the best of what video games can do. The requisite-but-utterly-unscientific Google search of "Hideo Kojima genius" turns up a whopping 175,000 citations, which proves nothing but suggests plenty of people are interested in the question. Few game designers have been so thoroughly and publicly vetted, with no shortage of opinions on either side of the "genius" question.

I'm not terribly interested in proving Kojima a genius, but I believe we can accurately call him an auteur, and it's this aspect of his nature as an artist that has me thinking about D.W. Griffith and some interesting parallels between the two. My focus here is on process and the ways an artist's approach and sensibilities can shape and define the work they produce. In the case of both Griffith and Kojima, I believe they both possess a certain blind spot that prohibits them from fully achieving their artistic ambitions.

Drawing parallels between Griffith and Kojima is fairly easy because they're both Type-A artist personalities. They're both legendary perfectionists, demanding the highest quality work from their collaborators and famously willing to discard weeks or even months of work if it is deemed inferior. Beyond personality, both men are attached to the epic, attracted to big, sprawling stories spanning decades of time. Both see storytelling and empathetic engagement to characters as the central focus of their work, and both are drawn to multi-character narratives with numerous subplots.

Both artists harness the very latest cutting-edge technologies - often requiring specialized innovation - to serve their needs. Despite the achievements these technologies enable, both lament their limits, wishing for tools that would enable them to realize the full scope of their ideas.

Finally, both Griffith and Kojima see themselves as singular authors of their work, creating films and video games as forms of personal expression, exploring their own ideas and beliefs - social, political, theological - through the language of their respective media. They are evangelical pioneers pushing their young industries forward, beyond novelties and amusements, to be acknowledged and respected as art.

But I'm most interested in another connecting point between Griffith and Kojima. I believe both artists suffer from a particular aesthetic blind spot - one that emanates from their inabilities or unwillingness to shed the limiting conventions of a pre-existing dominant art form that clouds their visions and restricts their power. For Griffith it's the Theater; for Kojima it's Film.

Though he didn't invent any new techniques, Griffith did more than anyone before him to establish a unified language for film based on the unique power of continuity editing. He understood how to use closeups, cross-cutting, and a variety of focal lengths to communicate meaning to an audience. He was a true filmmaker in ways his predecessors were not.

But Griffith was a product of the theater. He began as a playwright (mostly unsuccessful) and continued as an actor. Griffith's concepts of performance and characterization were derived from theater, and this fact is painfully apparent in his films. His actors are frequently overblown and highly gestural. Their performances, drawn from 19th-century melodrama conventions, are out of place and incongruent on film. Throughout his work we find theater actors giving stage performances on screen. Griffith clearly didn't yet understand - or simply wasn't equipped to know - that this new form of presentational art would require a new style of performance. As a former actor, he relied on what he knew, and what he knew was theater.

Of course, many early silent films contain such stilted performances. It was a transitional period. But it would be a mistake to assume these were unavoidable conventions of the era. Other filmmakers of the same period - most notably Abel Gance and Ernst Lubitsch - made films that look much more "modern" by comparison. They somehow understood better than Griffith that film acting required an entirely different approach than theater acting. It's telling that Sergei Eisenstein - the one filmmaker more influential than Griffith - borrowed, refined, and evolved everything he saw from Griffith...except the acting style, which was apparently of no use to him whatsoever.

As I've made my way this week through Metal Gear Solid 4 - which I consider a brilliant and inspired game - I keep coming back to this notion of a blind spot. In my view, Kojima's design for the game is marred by his inability or refusal to break free of a cinematic paradigm that both defines and ultimately limits his work. Despite all the terrific gameplay, compelling storytelling, and plain old great ideas that MGS4 contains, Kojima's decision to deliver significant portions of the experience as passive movie-viewing undermines the player's interactive engagement. It's a jarring aesthetic collision, not unlike the acting in Griffith's films.

Interestingly, both Kojima and Griffith nearly overcome these issues by their savvy in other areas. His theater training may have impaired him in some ways, but Griffith always hired interesting, talented people. Lillian Gish almost single-handedly rescues several of Griffith's films from the ham-fisted performances of most of the other actors.

Similarly, Kojima's reliance on cutscenes can be tiresome, but he is a fine and gifted filmmaker. One can easily track his maturation from the original MGS. Unlike other so-called cinematic games like Mass Effect, the filmmaking in MGS4 is visually creative, high-caliber stuff. As with Lillian Gish, it's almost enough to make you forget the blind spots.

So how to account for it? Arrogance? Stubbornness? Or is it really just a blind spot? A certain inability to see the strangling grip of an old mode on a new one. An infatuation with the pretty girl who won't love you back. If the very thing that limits the artist is also the artist's primary mechanism for delivering content - as it is for both Griffith and Kojima - that blind spot is a very pernicious thing.

Griffith and Kojima can't be ignored. They both do so many things so very well. And the sheer ambition and personal commitment to excellence they demonstrate is beyond laudable. But I think it's possible to see Griffith as a necessary artistic forerunner to the filmmaker who finally turned on the light. If Eisenstein was that filmmaker, I wonder who that game designer will be.