Kojima's Night Gallery: Horror in the work of Hideo Kojima
A very strong argument could be made for Hideo Kojima being the most significant auteur in the history of video games. In case you aren’t familiar with what it means in this context, an auteur is a creator or director of a piece of media produced by a team of people that nonetheless carries the definitive stamp of the artist in charge. A Kojima game has a very distinct and recognizable feel to it. You can feel his goofy sense of humor, how weirdly sexual he is, and, most of all, you get a face full of his favorite films.
The closest film director analogue to him would be Quentin Tarantino, but even that comes up a bit short. They are both brilliant and obsessive. Both of their sexual hang-ups leak (well, pour) into their work. They both appropriate all of their favorite things from all of their favorite films. However, Tarantino just takes from cinema and makes more cinema. Kojima takes from cinema and shoehorns it into gaming, which is more interesting in a lot of ways (especially when you take into account the changes/advancement in gaming over the course of his career, as opposed to the changes in cinema over the course of Tarantino’s).
There is an element of Stanley Kubrick to Kojima as well. They are both at the top of the game for their respective mediums, sure, but, like Kubrick, you can read as deeply as you want to into Kojima’s stuff. Everything means something, no matter how dumb/insignificant it may seem.
Anyone who follows Kojima’s career (and, lately, his prolific Twitter feed) knows that while games are his life, movies are his blood. He watches (at least) one film a day, every day, at lunchtime. The fact that he posts, almost daily, his Blu-ray purchases has given us a definitive timeline of what is going into his brain. While playing his last release, Metal Gear Solid 5, I was able to go back and search through his archive of posts and find out that, yes, he did in fact watch the recent remake of The Crazies during the game’s production. It was always immediately apparent that he appropriated and made use of filmic moments in his work, but being able to have a direct timeline of it is fascinating.
Kojima’s work is a direct pastiche of his favorite moments in the history of film, filtered through his own fastidious, dark, and hilarious aesthetic. Seeing as we have found ourselves once again at that time of year for everything scary, lets take a look at a couple of moments where his games intersected with horror cinema.
Snatcher was the first real Hideo Kojima experience we got over here in the US (the Nintendo release of the first Metal Gear game is so stripped down and gunked up that I’d say it doesn’t really count). It is, on the surface, his homage to Bladerunner. Presented as a visual novel (menu-based navigation through a series of static scenes), you play a specialized detective (with amnesia!) tasked with hunting down murderous cyborgs of unknown origin in the future city of Neo Kobe. Still sounds essentially like Bladerunner, right?
Here is where the horror comes in: Unlike Bladerunner’s replicants, the snatchers (this world’s term for the murderous robots) “snatch” people, kill them gruesomely, hide their rotting bodies in a secret underground lab, and assume their identities. The game marries the macho swagger of Bladerunner’s noir detective with the ticking, violent paranoia of something like Invasion of the Body Snatchers or Carpenter’s The Thing. It also has to be said that this was the most violent video game any of us had seen at the time. Unlike Mortal Kombat’s goofball executions, Snatcher lingered on the violence, forcing the player to spend time with a decapitated man, among other victims.
Metal Gear Solid
This is the title that permanently cemented Kojima’s status as a legend. A reboot/continuation of his first series of games for the Japanese computer MSX, this 2-disc PlayStation game melted everyone’s faces off. The look, sound, and scope of it was head and shoulders above everything else that came out that console generation.
The basic story should be familiar to anyone who considers him or herself a gamer. You play as the clone of a legendary soldier that lost his mind and started a terrorist organization. You are sent to kill another, inferior, clone of the same man that has stolen a walking nuclear launch platform/robot along with his team of mutants and assholes.
While dark, the tone of the game is stoic, macho-spy fiction. One boss encounter, though, shifts the tone directly into the horror sphere. The hero is on his way through the enemy base when your partner, a colonel’s daughter, begins acting strangely. Music starts playing from nowhere. You suddenly find yourself able to see through her eyes. The gameplay rules that have been established are completely broken. The hero enters an executive’s office and is confronted by a horribly burned, rail thin man in a gas mask who introduces himself as Psycho Mantis (one of the best names in gaming).
Mantis is a psychic, able to do standard psychic things like control others and telekinetically move objects with his mind, but he also has extranormal abilities that are very specific to video games themselves as a medium, brilliantly employed by Kojima. Mantis reaches out beyond the game itself, breaking the fourth wall in a way that hadn’t really been done before and hasn’t been done as well since.
Mantis makes the controller vibrate across your table. He knows which games you have been playing (by reading the memory card). He is doing things he shouldn’t be able to do, as a character in a game. The hero, though, proves to be psychic as well, at least in the game’s context. You defeat the mind control by physically getting up out of your chair and switching the port that your PlayStation controller was connected to. By your actions outside of the game world you grant the hero his own extranormal abilities. You defeat the Psychic handily.
This confrontation is a mirror of the final, horrific battle from one of Kojima’s favorite films, David Cronenberg’s frigid comic book nightmare Scanners. Two psychics–one a monster, one a doofus–have a brain-off in a similarly fancy executive office (much less marble, though). In Metal Gear Solid the hero’s eyes don’t end up exploding out of his head and Mantis’s blood doesn’t boil inside of his veins (they just shoot each other and throw things), but otherwise it is strikingly similar. There isn’t a title in the series that doesn’t have the stamp of horror cinema on it (Metal Gear Solid 5 is extremely reminiscent of Videodrome) but the Psycho Mantis fight remains a pinnacle to this day.
P.T. scared the hell out of everybody. It showed up one day on the PlayStation 4’s storefront for free, unannounced and uncredited. It was what would later turn out to be a "playable teaser" for the Kublai Khan Xanadu of gaming–something beautiful that would never exist. A game in the Silent Hill horror franchise, developed through collaboration between Hideo Kojima and film director Guillermo Del Toro, it is an abstracted first-person experience of being trapped in a nightmare.
You find yourself in a dark room with only one way out. You are in a house. Something terrible has happened there. You try to leave, but find yourself right back where you started. You find out that you are not alone in there. Piecing things together, it seems that a father lost his job and his mind, and then brutally murdered his family. You have become trapped in the echoes of it. The vomit-streaked ghost of the insane wife attacks you and rips the head from your body. You wake up back in the room where you started, with your own severed head in a bag telling you that there is no way out. The proposed title of the game that this was supposed to be a teaser for, Silent Hills, implies that you, the nameless character, have become trapped in someone else’s “silent hill”–the unending and surreal nightmare land–and that there would be multiple other “silent hills” to visit.
There are numerous films from which P.T. borrowed, but the most frightening moment of it, at least to me, came straight out of the still-amazing 1968 haunted house film, The Haunting. You see very little in The Haunting, but it is still quite scary. It is what you don’t see that does it. There is a moment in P.T. when you are trapped in a pitch-dark bathroom with a small flashlight and something is outside of the door. It wants to get in. You can see it working the handle; hear it pressing itself against the door. It is a brilliant moment of pure anxiety that is directly out of The Haunting.
Hopefully with his next title, the bizarre and vague Death Stranding, Kojima digs back into the disturbing. Judging by what we have seen of it thus far, it looks like a good bet he will.
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