'A Hideo Kojima Game': A Brief Overview of Stylistic Traits

Curator's Note

Following the success of Metal Gear Solid (1998), Hideo Kojima became an auteur-like celebrity with a divisive reputation. What is perhaps most distinctive about the designer's oeuvre is his embrace of video games as a composite medium. His games combine rule-based systems, non-linear elements and elements adapted from linear narrative media. Because the adapted elements hereby retain many of their original characteristics, this results in a playing experience shaped by frequent changes between different forms of player engagement and linear narrative elements. This puts Kojima at odds with audiences who might find both his linear style of narration and apparent disinterest in a more seamless presentation to disregard video games' unique possibilities.

Almost Kojima's entire oeuvre presents diegetic scenarios in which real and fictional events are intertwined. Thematically, the games frequently deal with the effect of technological developments on society. In this, the themes do not only reflect the designer's interest in technology but also his upbringing in post-World War II Japan. While the scenarios themselves appear modeled after Western popular film, they also include elements like cyborg ninjas or abrupt changes in the narrative tone, which are more strongly associated with Japanese popular culture.

Beginning with Metal Gear (1987), Kojima's design of ludic rule-based systems can be described as procedural adaptations (Weise 239) of popular film. This stretches from the simple shooting segments of his early visual novels to the complex stealth-based gameplay of later Metal Gear titles. The Metal Gear series' development further suggests Kojima to be neither particularly interested in the iterative design process typical for video game sequels, nor in the balance of their rule-based systems. Rather, rule-based elements were frequently discarded rather than refined, and the games often allowed degenerate strategies (Salen/Zimmerman 241).

It remains to be seen how Death Stranding (2019) will fit into this. After Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots (2008) there was a marked shift in Kojima's games towards a greater focus on rule-based systems and away from cinematic bombast. Trailers for the upcoming title have so far centered on highlighting the recruited Hollywood talent.



Salen, Katie & Zimmerman, Eric. Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals. MIT Press, 2004.

Weise, Matthew: “The Rules of Horror: Procedural Adaptation in Clock Tower, Resident Evil, and Dead Rising.” Horror Video Games. Essays on the Fusion of Fear and Play, edited by Bernard Perron, McFarland, 2009, pp. 238-266.



Hi! Great read! I was very captivated by your reference to degenerate strategies from Salen and Zimmerman. I quickly looked into that text and I understand that degenerate strategy is a mode of playing a game that exploits the game architecture (especially if very complex) so that players avoid losing, and always win (in a broad sense).

It had me thinking because while it makes sense from the standpoint of game design to call these strategies degenerate, from a more vulgar perspective I always thought of them as possibilities offered by a complex game, rather than as forms of exploitation, and as a testament of players' inventive, skills, and knack for improvisation, rather than to that seemingly snarky thing that is implied by the word degenerate.

Impressions prompted by language aside, however, I wonder if Kojima's opening (desired? Or not?) to degenerate strategies (I am thinking of The Phantom Pain here for example) is in fact the sign that playing his games is about more than "traditional" game design can suggest: is the experience of playing with more complex games by Kojima something that in a way - not completely, but at least in an important sense - transcends the usual expectations we have toward playing video games? Because if so, then maybe this could add/enrich our reference to him in romantic/authorial terms.

Hi, thanks for reading. I agree that the comparatively frequent potential for degenerate strategies suggests Kojima to intentionally move beyond the template of typical good game design. On a very basic level, I think Kojima should be seen as someone really indebted to the basic properties of linear narrative media, his intent in game design, it seems to me, is the player being able to experience and take part in the narrative. For this, it is accepted that a lack of skill should not hinder the player at being able to get the full experience. Sometimes his games therefore offer quite easy accessible, almost degenerate strategies.
I find this particularly pronounced in Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. Here, compared to earlier entries', the avatar's set of options to engage with enemies grew quite a lot. However, I found myself frequently using the tranquilizer gun which sufficiently allowed to solve most challenges. In this game and some of its sequels the player is presented with a basic tool so powerful that many of the more complex options offered by the game are almost optional regarding completing a playthrough.
I also agree with your assessment of The Phantom Pain. Here, the player is really rewarded for engaging with the complex set of systems. In that way, I consider it very much different from its predecessors (with Peace Walker as a kind of transition inside the series) because it does not offer any kind of basic, almost degenerate strategy but rather forces players to repeatedly engage anew with the system thanks to its adaptive difficulty, Returning, again, to my own experience of playing it, I first relied heavily on tranquilized guns as it was so highly efficient in the game's predecessors but then struggled more and more as the enemies adapted.
In conclusion, I think the (often easy) access to degenerate strategies highlights Kojima's priorities in game design and indeed as you wrote"could add/enrich our reference to him in romantic/authorial terms".
Thank you for taking the time to comment.

Hi Claudius, 

I appreciate the concise look at Kojima's over-all style you've provided here. I have often wondered at the ways Metal Gear Solid games, either moment-to-moment or between whole sequels, can indulge in both cinematic bombast and mechanics rich gameplay as well. I remember this being especially jarring in Metal Gear Solid 4, where cutscenes nearing an hour in length would end and the time to inch along the desert floor while managing camo and a hurt-back would begin again, lol. 

Metal Gear Solid V interests me in how the hours of storytelling through cutscenes or scripted segments comprise a significantly smaller portion of your time spent with the game, especially when considered as the follow up to Metal Gear Solid 4 and Peace Walker. I put something nearing 100 hours into that game, and youtube videos compiling all the cutscenes and dialogue in the game tell me that only around 5 hours of that was spent watching and not playing. MGSV is just a gigantic game, and the most mechanics focused in the series, so it seems to me a sort of anomaly. If MGSV was meant to be the biggest in the series yet, I would have guessed Kojima would like that to be across story and gameplay. But I think it's commonly believed that MGSV is conspicuously minimal in the story department. Remember those MGS4 in-game commercials, haha 

I so wonder what Death Stranding will be in regards to Kojima's major stylistic traits, as you have laid out here. I kind of miss the long story segments of MGS4 and Peace Walker, but I don't think I would want them at the expense of gameplay either. I guess it is a question of Kojima's developing style, was MGSV's minimal story a real sign of his shifting interests, or was it something else. What's most interesting about Kojima's style to you, Claudius? What's the balance you hope Death Stranding will strike? 

Thanks for writing this up! Was real cool to read :) 

Thanks for reading and the great comment. Personally, I would love Death Stranding (or any following Kojima game) to be balanced similar to MGS3 which I felt was able present fully fledged thematic treatments while not frequently interrupting the player's engagement with the mechanics. I found both Peace Walker and MGSV's outsourcing of its narrative to the optional tapes while theoretically a good idea, made both feel a empty in their narration. Admittedly, this feeling was maybe heightened because while the potential to engage with the game's mechanics was improved the barrage of grinding mechanics stashed away in the base management sections felt like a poor replacement for what was lost elsewhere. So, I would like if Death Stranding puts more focus on its narration and that engagement with the mechanics might not be enforced through stopping the narrative's progress. I very much enjoy the template of MGS1-4, it just sometimes (2,4) felt that nobody bothered with reconsidering what should be an obligatory part of the narration and what might be better served only to players actively wanting more. Based on the trailers, I imagine Death Stranding will feature more linear storytelling than MGSV not just because of the hired talent but also because Kojima is finally away from MGS and free to present ideas and concepts unshakled from the burden of an established diegetic world.
I'm not even sure what I find most interesting about Kojima's style. There are several elements which I would consider. For starters, his ambition in presenting serious thematic issues. In many video games, if the designers have to choose between pushing a thematic issue up front or concentrating on the "game" they choose the second. Here, Kojima is relentless, this might be excessive (the ending of MGS2) but it also suggests someone really invested in the specific issues and how they can be presented in a video game. I find his emotional honesty, the sincerity in which he engages with them touching. This is someone who, for me, did not merely flesh out the story of MGS to motivate the nuclear weapons as a McGuffin but someone who really cares about the question of nuclear disarmament. At different times, Kojima's games can be engaging in terms of intellect (replaying MGS2 is almost eery these days) and emotion (the ending of MGS3 is a personal highlight). That's a rare feat although often helped by his reliance on established forms. Besides all this, they are also really enjoyable games often with a silly sense of humor to balance the otherwise serious nature of the presentation.
One particular aspect I also find very interesting is Kojima's ambivalent stance to US culture. He very much mirrors myself and other 'foreign' audiences from a US viewpoint that it really appeals to him on one level but he also is partly at odds with it and some of its values. He almost always (if it were not for Boktai) models his games after US film but puts a spin on them based on his own cultural background. I also felt that this very much motivated MGSV's treatment of language which was less US-centric and instead concentrated on how the English language and the anglophone world influences us that are frequently engaged with it but nonetheless not part of it.
Thanks for your comment and its not that long until we all see what Kojima's post-Metal Gear vision will be.

I am with you, Claudius. I really appreciate the extent to which Kojima goes so that his themes are foregrounded in the story and gameplay. I think from that work we get to experience those cool diegetic moments that effect the story and the player. My favorite example of this is maybe in MGSV, where the player is inserted into the legend of Big Boss by operating through the avatar of Medic. Those are some magical video game moments! 

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