We've been here before, of course. In 2004, Hideo Kojima announced plans to step away from Metal Gear Solid. The plan was to hand control to Shuyo Murata, co-writer of MGS3, and Producer Kenichiro Imaizumi. Less than a year later, Kojima announced his 'return' as director of MGS4, following – if not influenced by – fan uproar and a death threat. In typically knowing fashion, the E3 2005 teaser trailer made reference to 'Director: Alan Smithee', the Hollywood pseudonym for projects disowned by their creators. So, the obvious reaction to Kojima's latest claim that he'll walk away from MGS, is 'Yeah, right'. However, I'm not so sure he's bluffing and, counter-intuitive as it feels, this might be a blessing in disguise.
There's an argument that 2008's Metal Gear Solid 4 is a meta-commentary on Kojima's disaffection with the games market (the rise of military shooters, fanboy culture, rampant commercialisation and lust for sequels) and how he directed the whole project under corporate duress. In that respect, Kojima is Old Snake, the veteran warrior with 'no more wet work', dragged back for one last gig. It's better explained in a wonderful series of articles on metalgearsolid.org which depicts MGS4 as far more nuanced than many gave it credit. Even today, the endless twitter war between philosophically opposed 'enemies' within the games industry has echoes of MGS4's AI-controlled 'proxy wars', played out infinitely by its brainwashed protagonists (clue: us).
I asked Kojima what he'd like to cut from his life, during an interview for Edge magazine in 2013, who spoke openly of his plans beyond games. "Tough question. Maybe Konami (laughs). I'm 50 this year, and while I love game development, it's a time in my life where I'd like to explore other things. I love games, but I don't necessarily like the management of the business aspect of working for a company. There are many things I'd like to do: for example, maybe take a year off and write a novel. I've also had offers to work on various movies and make movies, so those are things I'd like to explore at some point. If I could, I think that would be a great change in my life."
I mean, it's not as if Kojima will be reduced to frequenting Shibuya's tachi-nomi bars and mumbling about the good old days of the 'La-Li-Lu-Le-Lo' between thimblefuls of snake-liquid Schochu, should he leave Liquid Snake behind. Kojima is already committed to producing horror sequel Silent Hills, has oversight on the impending Metal Gear Solid movie produced by Hollywood mogul Avi Arad and has flirted with plans to become an astronaut.
Don't forget, MGS5 is a perfect stepping-off point in the MGS canon, chronicling the 'lost' period of the 1970s (post-MGS3) to mid 1990s (pre-Metal Gear, the original MSX game). Its during this time period that Big Boss goes 'bad', setting up soldier's state, Outer Heaven, which is where Metal Gear begins. What better way to end your involvement in a franchise than where it all began? MGS5 might ostensibly be about Big Boss, but during the same time period, Solid Snake is a child. What if the final scenes skip forward a few years – and see you playing as rookie Solid Snake on his first mission trying to infiltrate the base you've spent all game building?
A bigger plot rumour (potential spoilers ahead), is that you don't really play as Big Boss during MGS5, but as a famous series' character who takes his identity (click here if you want to follow the wormhole). You can argue the evidence, but it's pretty clear that MGS5 is playing with themes of identity, as shown by the whole Joakim Mogren saga and the bandage mask. In MGS2, we see how Raiden is part of the S3 plan (which itself is a cover for another plan), and how anyone can be shaped to play a role: "Given the right situation, the right story, anybody can be shaped into Solid Snake". Thinking out loud, does Kojima hope the same for MGS? That any director can be moulded to embody its sprit and carry the legend forward? Kojima, like Snake, is a symbol; an icon that is carried onto the battlefield – in this case, as a brand stamp of quality in the 'war' for AAA dollars and gamers' attention.
Here's an interesting snippet from my chat with Kojima in 2013.
You once said that as long as there was a Snake, he would always reflect a facet of your personality. How does MGS5 / Ground Zeroes reflect what you're thinking now?
"Ground Zeroes focuses on my present and my future. Of course, with what's happening in my life, I have various problems and burdens on my mind, and I think these things go into my own game whenever I develop a new game… what's most pressing is I'm turning 50 years old this year. What's really on my mind is life, and life expectancy. What does life mean and what can be accomplished in life? I think for a lot of creative individuals there comes a point when that is a major concern for them."
The MGS series, with its explorations of GENE, MEME and SCENE, of genetics, philosophy and societal constructs, has always been about how message and identities translate across time and generations – so what kind of legacy might Kojima want to leave in MGS5? If the Solid Snake theory is right, it'll be a game about generational crossover, about how icons may not be all you think you are – and why people are sometimes forced to make decisions that aren't popular, but for the right reasons. It wouldn't be hard to transplant that analogue to Kojima having to walk away, disappointing fans worldwide, but hopefully leaving the series in good shape, and safe hands.
Kojima has dealt with transition – and a final, father to son, conversation – once already, in the final scenes of MGS4 (spoilers ahead). Big Boss reappears to stop his son, Old Snake, from ending his life. Big Boss relives his version of history, and reconciled with his (cloned) 'son', succumbs to the FOXDIE virus. "This is good, isn't it?" says Big Boss, chewing on a final cigar, in his final words. What is good? The cigar? The game – which at the time we thought might be Kojima's last? The final moments with his son? It hardly matters, but in the fading of an icon, Kojima brings us away from the pompous complexity of the series', and into a beautiful human moment – and in walking away from MGS5, we could expect a very human reaction to his departure. A point of reflection, allowing us to consider all that we have lost.
That's why things matter. They end.
Oh, and if you haven't played that scene, or thought it trite, reconsider it in the context that Kojima having lost his own father at the age of 13. What, indeed, would any of us say, given a second chance to say goodbye? Sometimes, conversation is secondary to the privilege of spending one more, imperfect, moment together.
How would Kojima spend his time if he only had one year left? "Right now I'm making MGS5. I would do just about anything to keep on making the project, I'd sell body parts, whatever I had to do. But if I only had one year left, I think my answer would be different. I think I'd like to stop exploring games and maybe make a movie, or write a book. I would also like to go into space. You know, things like that."
I don't think Kojima is leaving games just yet, but I do think the sun is setting on his involvement with MGS. Will Kojima's new dawn bring more lo-fi oddities, like Boktai: The Sun is in Your Hand – the solar powered GameBoy Advance title that encouraged players to literally harness the power of the sun? Will he restore the darkness to Silent Hills? Or quite literally reach for the stars? I don't know, dammit – but, for once, thrillingly, we haven't been here before.