This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
Most sports teams only part company with celebrated talents when money comes between them. It's a rare day that a Premier League chairman, for example, offloads his star player just because of a tabloid indiscretion—something ultimately trivial from a business perspective. The big offers come in and, sure, your head's turned. But otherwise it makes no sense to jettison someone who continually makes the club—the company—skip-loads of money.
If Hideo Kojima does leave Konami, as he's strongly rumored to once work has finished on the September-released Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, the space he leaves behind will be akin to Manchester United tearing up Wayne Rooney's contract: entirely unbelievable until it happens, and no less shocking months after the event.
And yet, that's what we're looking at—this writer, developer, and director of spectacular acclaim, an industry face so famous that he can grace covers in the games press ahead of his creations (see also: Nintendo's Shigeru Miyamoto, but that's about it), is being shown the door by a company so reliant on his efforts in the past that, soccer games aside (Konami makes Pro Evolution Soccer), half of its top ten best-selling titles of all time are Kojima productions.
Kojima has not been fired, according to mid-April reports, and he's still at the company at the time of writing, finishing up The Phantom Pain. But after that, adios, apparently, Konami's last statement on the matter (released at the end of March) doing a fine job of saying not much beyond: The fellow's here until we ship The Phantom Pain, now please stop bothering us.
Kojima is one of their own, too. It's not like he was shipped in just to do a job when Konami needed him, a deadline-day transfer from a rival studio—they gave him his break, brought him through their ranks, and he's been forever loyal. Taking inspiration from the movie The Great Escape, he steered 1987's Metal Gear away from its original action-orientated focus into a stealth masterpiece. Metal Gear wasn't his first game—that was cutesy platformer Penguin Adventure—but it's the one that made his name, and set a precedent for everything that followed.
Much of Kojima's output in the 1980s and 90s showcased both uncommon maturity for video games of the time and consistently delivered on quality. 1988's Snatcher was a cyberpunk triumph that's well overdue an HD revival, and the first Metal Gear Solid of a decade later is a certified classic of the first PlayStation's catalogue, selling 7 million copies. It's regularly cited as one of the greatest video games of any era.
Kojima games are identifiable even before the credits are scanned. His penchant for prolonged cutscenes is well known, as perhaps befits someone whose first career aim was to be a film director. 2008's Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots features one scene where the player can park their controller for almost half an hour, with four separate but consecutive sequences totaling an astonishing 71 minutes. But while they can tackle heavy topics and illustrate affecting human suffering, Kojima's games regularly feature a wicked sense of humor, too, including surprising gameplay quirks.
Need cover from patrolling guards? A common solution in MGS games is to hide under a cardboard box and presto: Enemies are now oblivious to any danger. In the first Solid, an encounter with the boss Psycho Mantis sees said mind-controlling villain read your memory card before requesting that you put your pad down. Pick it up again, and Mantis will dodge all attacks you throw at him, as he's able to "read your thoughts." The way to beat him is to unplug from the first controller port—the one he's tapped into—and reconnect to the second. It's little moments of ingenuity like this that separate Kojima from his peers.
'Metal Gear V: The Phantom Pain,' Quiet But Not Silent trailer
He's said that video games are not art, but Kojima works are true originals, impossible to imagine with someone else heading them up. He is as much of an artist as the frontman in a world-touring band, or the director behind a summer blockbuster movie. Except, while his games are massively successful, they're also unconventional, unique, and endearing in a way that most titles to come from triple-A publishers never manage. They feel tailored by an individual's touch—most big-selling series, from Far Cry to Assassin's Creed right up to Grand Theft Auto, are more production line-like by comparison, products of a collective vision rather than singular inspiration. He's long been an independently spirited soul operating inside the corporate machine. And, finally, it seems his time is up.
Konami's removal of Kojima's name from The Phantom Pain publicity assets at the beginning of March was a low move, and one that suggests that the divorce isn't going to be pretty—likewise the more recent reveal that the game's box art won't feature the director's name, either. But it might just be a good time for Kojima to break away, with today's indie games market enjoying both mainstream exposure and an expanding collection of commercial successes. Going it "alone" won't affect Kojima's ability to turn out innovative interactive experiences—but it could well jeopardize the future of Silent Hills, the horror game he's working on with film director Guillermo del Toro.
Konami started advertising for new Metal Gear developers almost immediately after the news of Kojima's departure, but at the time of writing has been formally pretty quiet on Silent Hills. Konami asked Kojima to revitalize their Silent Hill franchise with an auteur-like take on the long-stale survival horror series, but with their relationship evidently compromised—the company's allegedly frozen Kojima from contributing to the promotion of The Phantom Pain, and there are reports of them restricting his email and telephone access—it could be that the game's scrapped in favor of another predictable experience that takes Silent Hill further away from the disquieting majesty of the first two games.
Which would be a disaster, really, as Silent Hills' free-to-download "teaser," P.T., was a demo good enough to be widely considered one of 2014's most outstanding games. Oh, and it was scary as fuck, too, so more of that, please. (Why not read a VICE article on it, since you're here already?)
Whatever Konami's reason for booting Kojima out, it's a ballsy move which could easily come back to bite them on the backside. This is a man who cares passionately about his games and their players, who love him back, whereas a largely faceless corporation will never have a comparable relationship. And this is a story, an inquest, that's likely to last several seasons before it's seen through to any satisfying conclusion.
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain will be released for console formats on September 1 and for PC on September 15.
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