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Interview: Hideo Kojima on darker themes and phantom cigars

By Mike Jackson on Thursday 12th Jun 2014 at 10:30 AM UTC

Very few games are able to punch through the cacophonous noise of E3 the way Metal Gear Solid 5 has. Of course, it helps that the very impressive Hideo Kojima directed and edited trailer slipped onto the internet a day early.

Nevertheless, the dark tone, sensitive themes and a few outright outrageous action scenes have ensured the trailer stays on the minds and tongues of gamers, even as Sony, Microsoft, EA and Ubisoft have announced blockbuster new titles.

We caught up with Metal Gear creator Hideo Kojima to discuss how he's approaching a new open-world gameplay, touching on sensitive topics and bringing integrating multiplayer into the experience.

How has fan feedback for Ground Zeroes helped shape Phantom Pain?

I'm happy because I was pretty sure that the overall direction of the game was on the right track, and it hasn't changed at all. We've seen that people are happy with the direction it is taking. And especially when it comes down to controls, we received a lot of feedback, and we're adjusting the controls, and small features such as the cardboard box and knocking on walls - that's all based on the feedback we have been fortunate to receive from players. The controls are one of the main things to have changed from Ground Zeroes to Phantom Pain.

Zoom

Your games blur the lines between comedy and serious content. How do you go about balancing those two together?

Particularly for this game, the topic is really dark. So, at first [with MGS] I tried not to put too many humorous story elements or gimmicks in the game. But now that it's an open world game and the player spends a long time playing, it might get too heavy, too tense or too stressful for the player and could cause them to stop playing. I didn't want that to happen so I will try to add more humorous elements and gimmicks. Such as the cardboard boxes for example.

The new game seems very expansive open-world game by its design and people can ignore the story for a long time while they explore. Has that changed your approach to storytelling?

This is a game that is not necessarily what you would call sandbox where you can go wherever you want and do whatever you want, like in GTA. This is not the way this game works. For our game, you get in, you accomplish a mission and you get out. These missions are very simple; destroying something, arresting someone, killing someone, recovering something... it is really simple in that regard.

Now, players have all the freedom in the world to think about what method, or what route, what time of the day will they choose to get in and accomplish their mission. During these missions there's a story that's developing. But certainly there's a limit to what the player can do when away from this mission because it is clear when there's a mission to complete.

In that regard it's completely different to GTA in which you can do whatever you want. In MGS V, you have missions and I try to provide players with as much fun as possible in the freedom they have for how to complete their mission.

"What Rockstar has created and the world they have created is super impressive, when I saw the PS4 version I got depressed again"

So if you saw the presentation there are different gameplay elements, for example; you can collect the diamonds or the animals, you can even make a zoo [on Motherbase]. But in the end what you have to accomplish throughout the game is completing the missions, then to understand why you had to do the mission and what happened as a result of your actions. In this regard it's a little bit like a TV series where you watch an episode and something happens and when you see all the events of a season you put the complete story together.

We didn't want to reveal the whole idea in the presentation, but at the beginning of the mission the game might tell you that you have a time limit - such as three in-game days - or some other form of limitation. And if you breech this limitation you fail the mission.

Zoom

You hinted in the E3 demo that there will be new online features?

People who want to create a mother base in a very detailed way will be able to design it through the interface, or using their smart device. I cannot talk too much - I'm being watched, but for people who saw the presentation, it ends with your mother base being attacked. People can infiltrate you, and you can infiltrate other people's mother base.

As you've unveiled more of the game you've uncovered numerous sci-fi elements. How to you decide which sci-fi elements will work in the 1970s era setting?

This is something that I have been doing for a long time. For example, in MGS1 we had nuclear missiles and other fictitious weapons. I want to make it somewhat realistic with weapons that exist within the context of that era, but also doing weapons that will have been researched but not necessarily completed - somewhat realistic futuristic weapons of that era, I try to put those in the game.

One example of this are the flying platforms of Metal Gear Solid 3. They were never completed, however they were being researched at that point in history. Only putting in those elements doesn't necessarily make a fun game, and there's a point where we have to consider whether including certain items will make the game much more fun.

Another example of this is the Phantom Cigar. This is something that didn't exist back then and doesn't exist these days - a cigar that makes time go faster - but in the game the time of the day is a very important element of gameplay as people choose to infiltrate at a specific time like night or dawn. So this element was added just to make for a more enjoyable game.

You said last year that the theme of Phantom Pain is revenge. How do you plan to represent this theme within gameplay?

The feelings that Snake and his allies have are probably very different from what the player has coming into the game. So that's the reason Ground Zeroes was created - to close the gap between the player and what Snake is feeling. That's what Ground Zeroes was.

Especially for people who played Peace Walker, those players spent several hundreds of hours growing their own mother base and then you into Ground Zeroes and this base is instantly destroyed, or you've lost all your allies. This gives players the motivation to get revenge with Snake.

I guess I tried to use what we did in Peace Walker to bring this motivation to Ground Zeroes. Then you might ask, will the people who didn't play Peace Walker be able to understand what is going on in the game. Well because there are 9 years between Ground Zeroes and the beginning of Phantom Pain.

Zoom

So when the Phantom Pain starts, Snake is in a similar position to the player that is playing Metal Gear Solid for the first time - there is a huge blank that he need to fill in, and he has to figure out what happened during those 9 years as he completes missions. I'm trying to make the game in way that people who are playing MGS for the first time will at some point have a similar understanding and level of motivation to those who have played Peace Walker.

You said you were feeling depressed after seeing what Rockstar has done with GTA V and the sandbox. Now that your game is further in development, are you any happier?

It's a bit different because Rockstar is going in a very different direction to what I'm trying to create. When we say we're an open-world game it makes it sound like it's trying to be the same as what those guys are creating. But this is very different - I'm trying to do a free infiltration game, so me being happy or depressed is a little bit unrelated. What Rockstar has created and the world they have created is super impressive, and actually when I saw the PS4 version a few days ago I got depressed again. And this is not game design-related it's just me. The quality that they showed in the PS4 trailer was really impressive.