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The ‘Metal Gear’ Universe Is Worthy of Exploration

A book of essays examines Hideo Kojima’s sprawling and bewildering video game franchise  

Getty Images/Konami/Ringer illustration

Hideo Kojima, the creator of Metal Gear, the popular stealth-action shooter video games, makes for a strange celebrity. In the franchise, which spans 32 years and consists of eight mainline titles plus several spinoffs, Kojima authors a rich and bewildering saga featuring the world-renowned mercenary Solid Snake and his character’s many clone brothers. Four years ago, following the release of the final title, The Phantom Pain, Kojima, the medium’s rebel genius, left Metal Gear’s longtime publisher, Konami, following a long and infamous dispute. He went on to form his own studio, Kojima Productions, where he developed his latest project, Death Stranding—an open-world game set amid a landscape of blackened wasteland, with survivalist gameplay and environmentalist themes—which will be released in November.

There are many great video games, but there are few creators whom fans and critics celebrate as auteurs, much less celebrities. Nintendo’s mastermind Shigeru Miyamoto is beloved, but Kojima is a rock star. His games are, alternatively, bombastic and prophetic; he’s cultivated a stardom which eclipses the popularity of his Metal Gear games and transcends his medium altogether. Since The Phantom Pain, Kojima has recruited Hollywood talent, including Kiefer Sutherland, Norman Reedus, Mads Mikkelsen, Guillermo del Toro, and Nicolas Winding Refn, to star in his games and, more importantly, to star in his creative orbit. It’s rarefied air, buzzing with influences and collaborators in constant conversation, memorialized by the photos Kojima shares all day, every day, on social media. Last December, as Kojima tweeted photos from the subway during a visit to New York City, Kanye West tweeted a request to meet with him. You can easily imagine West and Kojima posing for a photo together while smiling, as celebrities are wont to do, and reveling in the intersection of their respective fan bases; in West, Kojima might have made his most famous friend. But no photo of West and Kojima emerged; Kojima seemed oblivious to West’s existence, though the development of Death Stranding has, for the past couple of years, resembled the star-studded, stunt-casted recording sessions of two of West’s albums, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and The Life of Pablo.

For decades, Kojima has dared fans and critics to make sense of his games. On Wednesday, three video game journalists, Reid McCarter, Ed Smith, and Astrid Rose, published a collection of essays about the franchise titled Okay, Hero. The three authors also cohost a podcast, Bullet Points, about video games in the shooter genre, and McCarter previously edited an essay collection, Shooter, with a contribution from Smith, that was released four years ago. Okay, Hero picks up the franchise with the release of the first of five mainline Metal Gear Solid titles, released for PlayStation in September 1998, through the 2015 release of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain for PlayStation 4. (Okay, Hero omits the original, two-dimensional Metal Gear games developed for the old MSX computer system, the first of which was released in 1987.) Metal Gear Solid punctuates sneaky, survivalist gameplay with 40-minute narration sequences in which zany, but nonetheless stern, characters outline conspiracy theories about genetics, mass media, and modern warfare. In 1998, Metal Gear Solid was the thinking man’s shooter. “That game, Snake’s first adventure into the third physical dimension, possesses enough story and character to justify an entire book,” McCarter and Smith write in their preface for Okay, Hero. The book’s title derives from a sad scene in the first game, when the mercenary named Sniper Wolf, whom the player has defeated in a sniper duel, devotes her last gasps to an elegy for her fellow Kurds. The heroes and the villains are monuments to real conflicts, real history, and real fears about the future.

But books about video games rarely amount to arts criticism. There are books about video game culture, and there are books about video game commerce, including Michael Clune’s great memoir, Gamelife, and Ernest Cline’s nostalgic supercut novel, Ready Player One. There is very little commentary dedicated to characters in the games themselves, or their developers, in particular. The great, definitive essays on Metal Gear Solid include Tim Rogers’s “Dreaming in an Empty Room,” and James Clinton Howell’s “Driving Off the Map,” both about Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, both published as personal blogs, on websites so dated and obscure that the essays might simply disappear without notice.

Great video game criticism exists primarily within niche channels like industry websites, independent blogs, and YouTube. It’s rarely found in traditional print publications and, McCarter tells me, there are few book publishers who claim to “get” video games. Hence, McCarter, Smith, and Rose self-published Okay, Hero. The book is divided into six sections, with two essays dedicated to each. The style and scope varies from one essay to the next: McCarter begins Okay, Hero with an essay about the first Metal Gear Solid game that reads as a conventional review, but Smith’s subsequent essay about the same title reads as a much larger meditation on the game’s environment, Shadow Moses Island; its enemies, the Genome Army and the elite combat unit FOXHOUND; and the many peculiarities which form the intelligence, politics, and morality in the franchise.

In Metal Gear Solid, Kojima fashioned an unruly war saga about personal identity, legacies, and self-determination in the Information Age. Snake, the franchise’s protagonist, survives the Cold War through cloning and supersoldier permutations, the most famous of which was Solid Snake. These characters fight a surreal and formless cabal known as the Patriots, who seek world domination through endless global warfare and (I shit you not) the proliferation of memes. “In this world,” Smith writes about the debut title, “it becomes the people with knowledge, the ones who have access to and the means to interpret it, who also have the power.” From one console to the next, Kojima gradually complicates his conspiracies and his characters—as the gameplay evolves, and the graphics improve, the lore expands, and the queries compound. Wisely, the authors spend little time obsessing (as a fan might) over the game’s lore and loose ends. McCarter and Smith unwaveringly promote criticism over fandom. They are, in a sense, struggling against appealing to their own fandom, and that of their intended audience—these critics clearly enjoy the games. McCarter dedicates the collection’s harshest criticism to Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, which he suggests marks Kojima’s descent into pure fan service and tedious plot management. “For a certain segment of pop culture audiences, ‘plot holes’ are the worst possible creative sin,” McCarter writes. “Fought over on message boards and social media, used as a tactic to dismiss art or entertainment wholesale, the humble plot hole, for some, is capable of completely overwhelming any other aspect of a given work, sucking all conversation into its dead-end, go-nowhere void with the power of, well, a black hole.”

In 12 essays, Okay, Hero doesn’t cover every key element in the Metal Gear Solid games—for instance, the authors largely disregard the voice performances, as well as the musical scores, and they overlook gameplay in the later chapters once they take a harsher stance against the storytelling, the character development, and Kojima’s regressive quirks. Okay, Hero is short enough for a reader to wish for more, but still ambitious enough to make one wonder why there isn’t more similarly rigorous video game criticism published. There’s no shortage of popular titles whose appeal goes underexamined outside of the gaming press. The Super Mario games are old, brilliant, and varied enough to inspire volumes of commentary about their mythology, design, and music, not to mention their commercial success; but even the most famous video game mascot on the planet is largely resigned to release-day reviews, academic study, and profiles of its publisher, Nintendo. The Metal Gear Solid games aren’t just great and popular—they’re provocative, and they’re pretentious, too. They aspire toward cinematic comparisons and literary significance while prioritizing the fundamental playfulness which, of course, distinguishes video games from other art forms. Kojima’s games are as thoughtful as they are tasteless. They’re profoundly goofy, and the extremely long cutscenes end up trivializing the cinematic aspiration: The cutscenes are, after all, only one component, and often the weakest, in the larger, interactive experience. Kojima may aspire toward filmmaking, but his confidence in video games is distinct in contrast with other prestige video game titles. The Last of Us—among this decade’s most acclaimed video games—is a good movie masquerading as a great cover shooter. Metal Gear Solid is a great video game series which, despite its aspirations, could hardly be mistaken for anything else.

In the book’s final essay about The Phantom Pain, Kojima’s last game in the franchise, Smith considers the pressure for a critic to live up to a creator’s genius. “For me, great art is Godly, in the Old Testament sense,” Smith writes. “By loving it, spending a lot of time with it, and endorsing it among friends, I think what I’m essentially trying to do to great artwork is appease it. Extremely paranoid that I’m not good enough to produce anything like it myself, by both understanding and publicly, socially demonstrating that I understand it, I aim to strip the artwork of some of its mysterious power, while also proving to myself I’m on its level, and could hypothetically be accepted onto whatever higher plane from which it originates.” Here, Smith could be describing a theater critic, but the question of critics, artists, and deference seems the most urgent and unresolved in a medium otherwise dominated by fandoms, and neglected by critics until a particular game, such as Fortnite, becomes too big of a commercial success to ignore.

In the final essay, Smith describes his urge to pan The Phantom Pain upon its release in 2015, if only to counter Kojima’s phenomenal hype: “‘Everyone’s just going to talk about how great it is,’ I remember saying. ‘It’s going to get all these “game of the year,” “pushing the medium forward,” “showing why games matter” kinds of plaudits. So what I’m going to do is, I’m going to take a month out of my usual work, I think, and take notes on it scene by scene, and then I’m going to really give it both barrels. I’m really going to take it to task.’” Smith spends the rest of the essay illuminating this contrarian urge. But the last couple of chapters of Okay, Hero do, in fact, reveal the authors’ impatience with the later games. There’s less cautious examination of the gameplay and environments. The authors rush to summarize Kojima’s shortcomings—trivializing female characters, overloading the plot—which they elided while addressing Kojima’s earlier and, in their estimation, better games. The last few essays are as much about Kojima’s faults throughout the series as they are about the particular faults of Peace Walker and The Phantom Pain.

But Okay, Hero offers rare rigor in assessing a video game franchise’s merits. There should be more books like Okay, Hero about more games and more creators. In November, Kojima will release Death Stranding, starring Reedus, Mikkelsen, and Léa Seydoux in lead performances using motion-capture technology. The game’s trailers largely obscure the gameplay in favor of cultivating hype and intrigue for the performances and the story. Seeking “real” acclaim among Hollywood types, Kojima may well be making a movie; perhaps he’s gone the way of The Last of Us. If Kojima must aspire toward cinematic significance, the humble games critic can only hope to aspire alongside him.