In the modern gaming industry, Hideo Kojima needs zero introduction. He is the personification of a film director in gaming. He wanted to be the former, making his dream come true in the latter.
Yet despite all of the incredible, weird and twisted storytelling, a full horror title has yet to be devised. He states himself regularly that he scares easily and recently announced he wished to return back to horror. So why would he make a good horror game you ask?
Those that played P.T. would say the proof is in the pudding. But very few now have that luxury – unless it still happens to be saved to your console, it’s lost forever after the ensuing Konami v Kojima debacle. But I believe there’s no need for P.T. to be the focus of the argument; the Metal Gear series already proved that Kojima can be a master of horror.
The horror genre draws on our fear of the unknown or uncertain, particularly metaphors of societal fears. If you have ever stopped to take in the philosophies of the Metal Gear games, this is where some real fear lies. In the 1990s with the original Metal Gear Solid, those fears were built around sustainability, nuclear disarmament and the fear of the genetic revolution, spurred by the Human Genome Project.
By the turn of the century, it was terrorism, digital information and humanity’s move towards online connectivity. Kojima is really good at postmodern deconstruction. Very similar to filmmakers Tarantino or Lynch, his narratives are often vast and difficult to follow.
What you have in Metal Gear Solid 2, besides a heavily self-aware game, is a protagonist tricked by an AI organisation that has no physical self. Self-doubt, technological paranoia and media manipulation all add to Raiden’s existential crisis of identity and truth. This is made all the more sweet by the AI personalities claiming to be on his side. Kojima himself mentioned how evil in film is something that changes with time and is formless – “classic evil”.
Other dark projections, including the digitisation of daily life, data collection and social ironies aimed at digital society, may have seemed abstract to many in 2001. But think of them now as 2020 idealisms, where personal data and public information are the keys to behavioural manipulation. The system of control is the horror – and how close to right Kojima was about our future is the terror.
Digital money, data mining, and personal data hold more power today than ever. There’s nothing scarier than a villain who’s right, and Kojima knows this well. While other games from that era get less and less relevant, Metal Gear Solid 2 gets more horrifyingly real by the day. We are, as a species, trying to find our place in a technological world that is constantly evolving. The sheer volume of information created daily, the guiding of morality and ethics, results in an anxious state of being made real by the terror of control.
Starting to feel like Raiden yet?
What about the scenes?
It is not just the disturbing and provoking themes that are horrific about Metal Gear. It is the way the game is shown to you. Kojima has a taste in creating horror in-game that could be argued both as weird and disturbing. But anyone that spends enough time playing or watching his games will notice a deeper genius to most of his work. Supernatural elements are woven into the realism of his creations, a lot like the way El Topo depicts its character narratives.
In a similar way, Kojima uses basic film techniques to his advantage to create horror. In MGS1, Kojima uses exposure to magnify the impact of a scene. The tone changes and the music stops right as Meryl heads up the elevator. The scene becomes underexposed and Mantis floats in the middle of the air. This helps to give the scene a mysterious feeling and produce a sense of dread. To compare; in Ocelots post-boss scene, the focus is on his hand and an overexposed frame is used to simulate the quick intensity of the slice.
This is seen again as we enter the famed bloody corridor. H.G.Lewis’ thesis aside, the camera switches to close ups. This simulates the horror of Snake’s discovery. The sudden change in the music creates an otherworldly feel along with the visceral nature of the scene’s delivery. The cloaked figure holding up a guard is the cherry on top of the terror cake.
Sudden shifting is one way to describe Kojima’s delivery of his game’s scenes. The Psycho Mantis encounter has all the same tropes of the above scenes but adds more layers to it. The creeping cult music triggers a reaction you have never felt before; so twisted and unique that it sticks with you long after the encounter. The jarring editing techniques give the feel of mind control over Meryl, by her seeing visions from another’s view. The focus behind her shoulders to show Mantis afterwards is truly unnerving stuff. Of course, there is the Meta-hardware surprise too.
Hideo Kojima is at his best when turning player comfort upside down. With his infamous use of the second controller port in MGS1, he removed their safety and confidence in themselves. Like a true master of horror, he subverted the tropes, creating a helpless feeling through extreme circumstances. The same can be said of the brutal torture scene in Metal Gear Solid 3, or the introduction to Metal Gear Solid V’s story, where camera switches underscore emotions and incite horror. MGSV also hits this home again with your encounters with the Burning Man, who cannot be harmed by conventional weapons.
Another example of player comfort being removed can also be found within a boss fight of Metal Gear Solid 3, The Sorrow. As if the similarities between the game and Apocalypse Now were not enough, Snake must do battle with a literal apparition when he nearly drowns. He awakens in his own river of judgement, made nightmarish by the burning forest turning to a dark downpour.
What sets this section apart from many others in the series is not the afterlife setting or the ghosts of your enemies/meals; it is that, yet again, Kojima has thrown a curve ball at the player. Spend most of the game killing and the river will very much be one of judgement for you too.
This is a strong indicator of the depth of Kojima’s artistry; using the theme of the afterlife to break player expectations with game play. The fourth wall hardly needs to be broken as much as it was with Mantis all the time. This is because great horror induces a feeling of weakness towards an unrelenting foe. Couple that up with a setting to fit the horror and you are onto a winner.
So why is Hideo Kojima the right man for horror?
Kojima already has all the experience, success and failure he needs to ensure a good horror game can be made. He combines real world fears, like free will and PTSD. He touches on sensitive topics such as female nudity and has strange homoerotic views of his characters. This itself would lend well to horror – and he even argues himself (2:30) that freedom of expression is important in games. If it is shied away from, then the limits will not be pushed.
By the same respect he has been pushing the medium for over 30 years. Trying out varied film techniques within his creations, even in Snatcher he was pushing how scary things can be, mirroring films like The Thing. By the time MGSV came along, he had perfected such direction and storytelling to the point of critics arguing that it is a horror game.
Horror is mastered by those who make us prisoners in their moment, giving awareness of the unexpected but leaving us unprepared for it. The Metal Gear Solid legacy is vast, yet the subtle horrifying factors of the series have left gamers totally unprepared time and time again. It is essentially a baseline for a Kojima title at this point: using the medium to ensure we are never quite ready for what he has in store next. Metal Gear Solid politely reminds us that the things we expect the least are the things that create the strongest impressions and memories.
Still not convinced? To put it in words of the man himself:
“I’m easily frightened myself, so I have confidence that I could create something more terrifying than perhaps others could.” – Hideo Kojima, 2020