Thursday, August 27, 2015

Deniable Artistry

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is almost upon us.

This is Hideo Kojima's last MGS game. Of course, every previous game was also his "last MGS game"; he famously claimed that he was going to quit after MGS2, and then again after MGS3.

But now he can't "quit". Because he's been fired. So the only way he would be able to continue making MGS games is if he goes out of his way to make them.

In commemoration of this, the death of a franchise, I think it's important to talk about what Kojima represents to gaming.

Hideo Kojima Represents The Fear Of Commitment In Games

Let's set down some facts.

Firstly, Hideo Kojima tries to make "serious games", insomuch as he (a) puts "serious topics" into his games, and (b) is praised by fans and reviewers for his inclusion of these topics. For example, both Shane Bettenhausen (formerly of 1up) and Dan Ryckert (currently of GiantBomb) have stated that they only know about PMCs because of MGS4. Both of them view this as a positive for the game itself, rather than a negative for their own education.

Bettenhausen's statements led into one of my favorite pieces of games writing - Shawn Elliott's "What I Like Least About MGS4 Isn't MGS4". Elliott's article illustrates one of the big problems with bad or lazy writing in games: the fact that audiences often can't tell it's bad, and usually don't care. Kojima writes about "serious topics", and his fans say that he's a genius, and that's sort of the end of it. They don't fact-check, they don't examine it critically, they don't care. They just sort of absorb whatever information he gives them, true or false.

And that leads into a second problem: he's not held accountable for anything, because he has an escape clause no matter what. I illustrated this concept with a flowchart:

This is the issue: there's always an excuse.

If you look at Kojima's career, if you look at the protagonists he's written, there's a lot of trends that people really don't want to acknowledge. Gillian Seed, Jonathan Ingram, and the various incarnations of Snake are all fundamentally based on one character: Ryo Saeba from City Hunter. Ryo is a tough, cool, brown-haired bounty hunter who is also a "wacky pervert". By that I mean that he peeps on women, gropes women, and generally violates women's personal space, but it's played for laughs. We're supposed to see him as a normal, red-blooded man who's "good at heart", by which I mean he shoots bad guys.

Seed, Ingram, and even Snake are basically that model poured into different scenarios. Seed and Ingram are the most obvious; Seed hits on every woman he encounters, including a 14-year-old girl whose father was just murdered, and seems to have little respect for their autonomy or agency. Ingram goes further, unstoppably groping every woman he encounters without their consent and without consequence. This reaches its zenith when he starts groping his partner's 16-year-old daughter right in front of him, as his partner demands that he stops. The game, of course, never makes you stop.

But what about Snake? Solid Snake is a traumatized loner, a genetic freak bred for war who retires to a life of solitude in Alaska because he can't stand being around other people. And yet despite this, he ogles Meryl voyeristically, then angrily rebuffs her when she shows actual interest. In MGS2 he kisses posters for reasons that only Kojima will ever truly understand. In MGS4 he ogles Naomi's breasts and pretends to drop his cigarette while she's talking so he'll have an opportunity to look at her panties. 

And that's not even getting into Big Boss. Pay attention to how this mission ends and remember: he thinks this girl is 15. And then in the next  game, that girl is raped, tortured, and murdered.

What am I getting at with all of this? It's the "Underestimating His Genius" column in the flowchart. Kojima isn't radically subverting standards with his treatment of sexuality - he's adhering to a classical model. Every time Kojima does something gross or weird in his games, he's just continuing what he's always done, because he's never really gotten punished for it. Even the people who think that stuff is objectionable end up making excuses for him. Why? Because if they admitted those flaws, then it might bring up problems with the rest of the game, and it might just turn out that the game itself is bad.

Kojima could have made Snake a rapist and people would still make excuses for him. Even people who consider themselves progressive would be hemming and hawing about "cultural imperialism" and "irony" and everything else. Even though Kojima has a history of fetishizing non-consensual interactions (voyeurism, ogling, groping), people would still go "well, Kojima can't REALLY be saying that rape is good, obviously it's ironic".

Because it's not about what Kojima wants, or what Kojima thinks. It's about what his audience wants to believe he is: a serious artist, but also a wacky funster. They want to enjoy his games without feeling bad about it. They want "fun". People hate thinking about where "fun" comes from.

I'll close out with my favorite anecdote about Hideo Kojima.

There's one MGS game that Kojima didn't really work on - Portable Ops.

Then Kojima released Peace Walker, an obvious successor to the Portable Ops model. In that game, Kojima dismisses Portable Ops with a single line (the only mention of PO in another MGS game):

Miller: Finally, we can leave all that crap in San Hieronymo behind…

This, to me, is the real Kojima. The real Kojima is a guy who gets jealous about his son liking a game he didn't make and responds by one-upping it (because he has a larger staff and budget). And then that's not enough, so he makes sure everyone knows that it "doesn't count", and denounces it whenever it comes up.

That's your "artist". A petty, ignorant creep who's somehow convinced everyone that he's untouchable. An "ideas guy" who gets praise because he's got millions of dollars and hundreds of employees, both of which were supplied by a company that everyone now knows was abusive as hell.

And people are going to keep giving him money because, hey, why not?


  1. I had my suspicions after the whole "grope doll" thing, but thanks for providing some good hard arguments on it. Ugh.

    1. The context of his early games says a lot about Kojima as a person, so I think it's important that people realize how much awful shit is in them.

  2. The cretinous drivel is coming from inside the house.

    1. Another brilliant comment. Truly Kojima's fans have been taught well by his artistic works.

  3. I want to feel sorry for Kojima when I read about how he was locked into the MGS franchise and just wanted the thing to end. But as you have pointed out, he's a massive fucking creep and his games make no goddamn sense, even before you try to relate them to real life. But gaming culture accepting that would mean that a 20-year-old cornerstone of Serious Gaming is actually made out of shit and cumrags.

  4. I have you in my feed reader and just have to come out of lurking to say I look forward to your posts quite a bit. Always a good read - and this convinced me to avoid purchasing this game.

    1. That's all I can ask. Thanks for your support.

  5. This'll be fun. A full take down of MGS V will be, depressing for one; that video games and 1st world media in general; is still so damn awful, but it'll be interesting to see you just tackle Kojima's increasing misogyny

    I was never going to purchase the game but now I can show others why it'll be awful, them's the rocks yo.

    1. I'm not going to play MGS V. I already know the parts I wanted to know ("Why does Quiet dress like that, and why did Kojima believe it was justified" - the answers are "a dumb reason" and "he's an idiot" respectively).

      There's no real need to criticize MGS V on a detailed level. It's all the same problems Kojima's always had. He's a tone-deaf idiot who switches from SERIOUS to COMEDY at the drop of a hat, and isn't particularly good at either.

    2. Ah, I see. Well I'll look forward to thine critique. Especially since most of Holiwell's stuff has disappeared.

  6. This is addressed not just to you Shea but also to other critics of Kojima's work:

    I would try to separate criticisms of his tonal shifts from the problematic elements of the individual parts. The preference for tonal consistency across a work just seems like a personal preference: there's no reason why you couldn't flit between serious drama and comedy so long as the audience could adjust to the tonal shifts. The issue is not the combination of comedy and drama it's what specifically the comedy and drama is made of in Kojima's work. If the jokes weren't simply whacky molestation, and the "serious political commentary" was well researched I think it would make for an interesting mix, even if it was a little disorienting to Western players.

    Saying that something is bad because it contains self parodic asides is what leaves you open to accusations of cultural imperialism. Saying the jokes are evil and the story is poorly researched rubbish with no relevance to the real world does not leave you open in the same way.

    Tonal consistency is overrated; knowledge, empathy, and compassion are what we need more of even if they come in the form of black comedies that hit all sorts of different notes.

    1. You know, I'm gonna let you know right out of the bat: I'm going to be rude about this. Because it's frustrating, the fact that you're essentially wasting my time. This is a bad argument. I don't like this argument. You have presented it to me like a piece of rotting flesh and now I have to get rid of it.

      "I would try to separate criticisms of his tonal shifts from the problematic elements of the individual parts."

      You're just trying to skip right by the chart, aren't you? Man. You really are. "Tonal consistency is just a preference". ALL THINGS IN FICTION are preference. Some people prefer not to make light of rape. That's "just a preference". Some people like laughing at people dying IRL. That's "just a preference". It's a useless statement trying to appeal to the "audience value" of a work but skipping entirely by its "statement value". Which is to say, if you are trying to prove a point using MGS about the nature of war, you are going to be constantly undercut by the game itself - which means that it's impossible to make a point "using the game" and you have to rely entirely on the fact that the cutscenes tell you war is bad.

      Of course some people will be "okay" with a work that jumps back and forth. There's "tone shifts" in real life, of a sort - people will laugh at real life tragedies as a form of stress relief. We all know that. But that's not what Kojima does, and it's not what the vast majority of video games do. What they do is "jokes" and "fun". MGS is a game about the grimness of war but it will never ever try to make you feel bad or uncomfortable or vulnerable during the gameplay because that would make it Not Fun and thus a Bad Game. And this is NOT EVEN REMOTELY a rare or unusual thing, Kojima's voyeurism and misogyny aside. It is in all likelihood the MOST COMMON CONCEPT IN GAMING.

      "Saying that something is bad because it contains self parodic asides is what leaves you open to accusations of cultural imperialism." This is a moronic statement. I have been accused of "cultural imperialism" and I know people who have been accused of "cultural imperialism" and it has never, EVERRRRRRRRRRR been because of "self-parodic asides". Are you trying to imply that a mix of tragedy and comedy is (a) part of Japanese culture and (b) NOT a part of Western culture because if so What The Fuck Are You Talking About


      THIS is what Kojima is. This is what his fans are. Constant excuses and justifications that he doesn't believe, and that his fans don't believe. Kojima makes games for idiots and then throws in some "higher element" to try to pretend he doesn't. It's the same fucking thing with Quiet - "oh, there's TOTALLY an explanation for her outfit, WINK WINK" but there isn't. He couldn't admit he just wanted a sexy lady so he came up with the stupidest possible explanation for it so he could PRETEND he was a valuable auteur and not on the level of Cliffy B or Hideki Kamiya.

      Fuck you for wasting my time,

  7. Thanks for your reply Shea. I'm a bit of a moron with a low IQ and it's really helpful when people try to help me see where I've fucked up when I'm trying to figure stuff out.

    The point that I was trying to make is that a lot of the criticism I've heard of Kojima's work seems to emphasise his inconsistencies rather than his (for lack of a better word) indifference to to suffering in the real world.

    I did not skip over the chart. I think the chart was the strongest thing in the whole essay because it gets the important parts across quickly.

    Yes all fiction is a preference but some preferences hurt people in the real the world (or encourage others not to care and so on) whereas tonal consistency doesn't seem to have those qualities. I think Kojima could hit many of the same notes without encouraging the audience to think of female characters as things to ogle. I don't think that the silly poop jokes (which is what some people feel most embarrassed by judging the reaction to MGS4) are what makes his work so shitty. By emphasising how awkward some of the incongruous silly moments are they've given him an escape he shouldn't otherwise have.

    So yeah, that's all. People focus on silliness in his work when it's the misogyny and other mechanical elements that count. While mixing tragedy and comedy is not unique to any culture (The Onion has given it a stab in various web shorts) different cultures have different established gags and so those are the bits that leave people feeling uncomfortable in their super serious war dramas rather than what matters. It does everybody a disservice to bring that shit up. The embarrassing silliness causes people to sometimes miss the mark, I think, but what do I know?

    I am human garbage though, I'll take myself out. I'd like to keep reading your work if that's okay but I won't bother you any more. Sorry for wasting your time.

    1. IQ has nothing to do with this, don't give me that shit. I'm insulted because you understand the concepts well enough that I think you know better and you're LOOKING for excuses, not because I don't think you understand them. If it was ignorance I'd be forgiving, but I don't think it is, which is why I'm frustrated.

      From the top.

      Here's what you have to understand: Kojima's misogyny IS PART of the "goofiness". That's the thing. He doesn't take suffering seriously, and "women's suffering" is part of that. It's funny and arousing, to him, to see a sexy woman writhing in a cage. It's part of his wackiness.

      Look, watch a movie like REVENGE OF THE NERDS. Done? Okay. Notice how that COMEDY MOVIE had sexual assault and voyeurism in it, and it's played AS PART OF THE COMEDY? That is what Kojima is working with. In ROTN they expect people to laugh along when the sorority girls get spied on by the nerds. They expect people to sympathize with the nerd when he has sex under false pretenses. Those are things they expect people to LIKE, and LAUGH AT.

      Kojima is the same way. He expects his audience to ogle tits and get aroused by voyeurism. That's part of "the fun" for him. Quiet exists for the same reason the guards do - "to make the audience feel powerful". You can ogle Quiet in a cage for the same reason you can hold up a guard and shoot him in the leg. Kojima thinks this shit is a laugh riot. All of it is the same to him.

      None of this has anything to do with Kojima's culture. He's the same as someone like Quentin Tarantino - a detached quasi-sociopath who sees the world as fodder for jokes and references.

    2. i think you need to relax j. shea your points are all good but it gets tiring reading you write everything like such an aggressive male. this person wasn't even trying to defend kojima's misogyny

    3. They weren't trying to, but they were. It's a thing we call "subtext".

      Which is to say, he was trying to tell me *how* I was *allowed* to criticize Kojima:

      >I would try to separate criticisms of his tonal shifts from the problematic elements of the individual parts.

      >Saying that something is bad because it contains self parodic asides is what leaves you open to accusations of cultural imperialism.

      >Tonal consistency is overrated

      These are all the exact sorts of beats that Kojima's defenders use. And by that I don't mean "he's wrong because he's doing something similar to what Kojma's fans do", I'm saying "he's wrong because those EXACT LOOPHOLES are what open up defenses for Kojima".

      He's wrong. He's "helping" in a harmful way. And he's doing it for a specific reason - he's trying to defend the things he likes. At that point he might as well be defending Kojima.

  8. So how bad are Snatcher and Policenauts compared to the MGS series? I admit I never played or watched much of them, but they seem like some sort of light adventure game that's closer to visual novels today than adventure games. So there would be some differences in how the storytelling is done considering that they have a different format.

    1. That depends on your definition of "bad". They're both boring standard adventure games, but in terms of sexism and that kind of stuff Policenauts is BY FAR the worst thing Kojima's made. SNATCHER is also pretty shitty. They're both garbage sci-fi written to emulate a specific type of Manga hero ("smooth badass who's also a voyeuristic pervert") and they really don't have any value on their own.


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