Hideo Kojima, the creative force behind the Metal Gear Solid series and, most recently, Death Stranding, is one the gaming industry's great auteurs. With each entry in the MGS series, he pushed the envelope with regards to how a video game can tell a story. In this blog post I'm going to talk about some strategies writers can learn from Kojima and MGS.
There's a lot to say about MGS and the many themes and ideas Kojima manages to touch on. Stuff like post-humanism, censorship, war, individualism, and gaming itself, which barely scratching the surface. What I want to discuss in this post is the series' tone. Kojima manages to cast a wide net with his storytelling because he's a master of layering concepts.
When Metal Gear Solid starts, it feels like you're playing a Tom Clancy-style techno thriller, which was very popular at the time. (However, MGS is more stealth-focused than, say, Rainbow Six, etc.) There's a high emphasis on verisimilitude. Playing as Solid Snake, the game's protagonist, you must sneak around enemies and use various tools and weapons. As the story develops, you learn about a conspiracy to develop nuclear weapons, post-Cold War tensions. Yadda yadda yadda. So far, pretty conventional.
Then things start to get weird. You encounter a cyborg ninja who may be a long dead former comrade. And then you battle Psycho Mantis, a master of telekinesis and telepathy. The boss fight is pretty legendary in gaming. In a fourth wall-breaking maneuver, you have to change your controller's ports so Mantis can't anticipate your moves. I, and most others, had never seen such a post-modern design in a video game before.
It gets wackier from there. There's a conspiracy about cloning, a sniper battle involving wolves, a Gatling gun-wielding shaman. It's pretty awesome. I highly recommend playing it or at least watching a playthrough.
What sets MGS apart from its peers is how Kojima manages to bring in melodramatic anime influences couched in a realist setting. This is what I mean by layering. MGS probably would've been modestly successful by just being a military stealth game. What elevates it into becoming a classic is how Kojima brings in these other influences. What amazes me is how seamlessly Kojima transitions from one style to another. Then, by opening up the story to these different influences, Kojima is able to explore more ideas and themes.
I first learned about the concept of layering from Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert (yes, I know). He talks about when he first created the cartoon he recognized that he was a good, but not great, artist; he knew a fair bit about business, having worked in an office; and he had a pretty good sense of humour. He wasn't great at any one of these things in particular, but when he layered them he was able to achieve great success.
Layering can therefore be a powerful tool for writers, especially for those who don't want to write purely in one genre or style. It's also a great way to combine genres in new and unexpected ways. In his Stanford commencement speech, Steve Jobs famously said "You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future." That's why I find Kojima so inspiring. He shows that you can connect the dots, no matter how disparate they seem.