Fighting words
Games, Learning, and Society

Kojima and the theory of everything

Snakesalute Playing MGS4 is like being on a boat at sea tossed around by a storm. It's by turns exhilarating, disorienting, awe-inspiring, and overwhelming. Occasionally you're tempted to jump off the boat. And more than once you wish the captain would just stop talking and steer the vessel to shore. Or let me steer it.

I finally finished Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots yesterday, and I've been sorting through my thoughts about it ever since. Never in my gaming life have I felt so thoroughly confounded by a game. In these situations my training kicks in, and I begin to think about design and structure and dramaturgy - handy ways to analyze how narrative stuff is built. These tools aren't perfect, especially when narrative video games veer off the lit-crit path, but they can be helpful when you're trying to grab hold of a beast the size of MGS4.

So I put on my goofy professor hat, and it hit me: Kojima wants everything. MGS4 is the game that contains everything Hideo Kojima knows about game design and storytelling - and that is precisely what's so thrillingly right and so damnably wrong with it. Faced with a myriad of choices in storytelling, gameplay, style, and theme - Kojima chose not to choose. Or, put another way, he chose everything.

Consider the many ways games tell stories:

  • Experienced in real-time first-person mode
  • Experienced in real-time third-person mode
  • Revealed via dialogue between the hero and other characters
  • Delivered by a character (often as monologue) with information unknown to hero
  • Voiceovers
  • Flashbacks
  • Briefings
  • Recaps
  • Dreamed or imagined events
  • Simultaneous parallel action
  • Multiple plotlines, subplots, and sub-subplots
  • MacGuffins - plot devices that turn out to be meaningless
  • Reliance on lore and familiar characters to inform story
  • Database (rare, but useful for complex backstories, e.g. Lord of the Rings)

Good writers tend to employ more than one method, weaving together various techniques for variety and narrative texture. Kojima uses all of them (and probably a few I've neglected to mention).

Consider the many ways to do action combat gameplay:

  • 1st-person
  • 3rd-person
  • Top-down
  • Close hand-to-hand combat
  • Intermediate-range
  • Long-range sniping
  • Shooting behind cover
  • Shooting on the run
  • Surface to air
  • Vehicular combat
  • Chase
  • Stealth
  • Trickery and deception
  • Camouflage
  • Remote surveillance
  • Codec

And weapons:

  • Pistols
  • Submachine guns
  • Assault rifles
  • Sniper rifles
  • Machine guns
  • Grenade launchers
  • Rocket launchers
  • Thrown explosives
  • Mines
  • Specialty weapons, e.g. Psycho Mantis Doll

Again, MGS4 has them all, and I'm not including the multiple customization options for nearly every weapon.

Consider the question of style or tone:

  • Tragedy
  • Melodrama
  • Romantic comedy
  • Low comedy, e.g. farting, diarrhea, etc.
  • Satire
  • Self-reflexive awareness of game as game, e.g. references to PS3 hardware, fake game reboot, etc.

The old saying "Tragedy ends in death; comedy in marriage" applies here as MGS4 has both, and then some. Tonally, the game is all over the map with Kojima intentionally colliding high and low, serious and comedic in ways that have become signature to him.

Finally, consider theme. What is Kojima trying to say? I usually resist this question because it limits interpretation to "authorial intent." But MGS4 is so self-consciously designed as a vehicle for Kojima's views of the world -  and he has freely presented it as such - that I think it's worthwhile to examine it this way. In keeping with my rough thesis, Kojima again seems to want everything, and he communicates this through a system of binaries: 

Thematically MGS4 could be described as:

  • Hopeful / Bleak
  • Forward-looking / Backward-looking
  • Celebration of the individual / Celebration of community
  • Embrace of technology / Fear of technology
  • Virtues of patriotism / Excesses of patriotism
  • Virtues of honor and duty / Excesses of honor and duty
  • Machines are evil / Machines are our friends
  • Choose life / Choose death
  • Kojima is god / Kojima is a relic

...and I'm just scratching the surface.

I completed Metal Gear Solid 4, and my head is still spinning. How many games can stimulate such intellectual engagement? How many can genuinely move us with real compassion and empathy for its characters? These were meaningful experiences to me, and I'm grateful for them.

But throughout these 20+ hours I frequently felt frustrated and overburdened. Too often I laughed for the wrong reasons or simply felt uncomfortable by the awkwardness of the game groaning under the weight of its own ambitions. Kojima is a gifted auteur, but he needs an editor or a dramaturg - someone to tell him Drebin is a cumbersome narrative crutch; someone to tell him Sunny is a cipher; someone to tell him that Christopher Randolph is a serviceable Otacon, but he should never be asked to fake crying into a microphone; someone to challenge the function of a bloated epilogue with an interminable death scene.

The game simply tries to be/say/do too many things. This kitchen-sink approach diminishes an otherwise extraordinary achievement. I can't hate the game, but I can't fully embrace it either. I admire what Kojima has done, and I can only marvel at his profound commitment and ambition. Sometimes, however, everything is too much.