Two and a half years ago, at a gaming industry conference in San Francisco, the mercurial Japanese developer Hideo Kojima took the stage for a keynote presentation with his entire face wrapped in white bandages. To particularly devoted fans of Kojima's Metal Gear series, this made sense. The bandages were a reference to Joakim Mogren, a fictional Dutch game developer at the center of an elaborate ruse Kojima had concocted to sow confusion about the newest installment in the series. (Joakim Mogren is an anagram for Hideo Kojima.) Shortly after the presentation began, Kojima removed the bandages and introduced Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain.
To many in the crowd, it was a bizarre move. This wasn't E3, an annual gaming hypefest targeted at consumers. It was the relatively staid, often technical Game Developers Conference. Metal Gear is a legendary title in gaming, but Kojima had invited an odd crowd to its debut: grown-ups in the games business, people with jobs, people who could hardly be expected to know or care about Joakim Mogren or any of the strange feints of a man who can come across as a kook. The reaction in the room was one of tolerant amusement, like you might extend to an eccentric uncle at a wedding. I hadn't paid attention to Kojima's bafflingly complex games — or his hijinks — since I was a teenager, and I remember sitting there thinking, What the hell is the deal with the bandages?
Earlier this month, I sat down to play The Phantom Pain based on the good word of mouth the game was getting. It had me laughing almost immediately. The opening scene of the game takes place in a hospital, where players are immediately confronted with not one, but two characters whose faces are totally covered in white bandages. It was the punch line to a two-and-a-half-year-long joke that no one outside of Konami had even realized was happening.
"So this was his plan all along," I whispered aloud, to no one.
It was the perfect introduction to Metal Gear Solid V, which is the most surprising and delightful video game I have played in years, and a complete vindication of one of gaming's most notorious eccentrics.
Eccentric! Metal Gear Solid V is a game in which you attach high-powered balloons to your unconscious enemies in order to whisk them back to your secret base in the Seychelles. It's a game in which you can ship yourself around that secret base in a cardboard box to save time. It's a game that revolves around an anticolonial plot to eradicate the English language. It's a game set in a 1984 in which you get perfect internet service in the wadis of Afghanistan.
It's also a game with a special button combination to make your horse poop.
In other words, this game is not Modern Warfare — safe, focus-tested, and massaged within an inch of its life. Though MGSV bears a passing resemblance to the military shooters that corporate behemoths like Activision and Electronic Arts churn out, its spirit is impish and possibly radical.
Like all the games in the series since 1998's Metal Gear Solid, The Phantom Pain requires players to sneak into military bases to grab something secret or kill someone bad. Most games with guns are generic power fantasies. Metal Gear games often feel more like prank simulators. Players are encouraged to play tricks on enemies, to fool them with decoys, to be clever. Violence, when it happens, feels not gratuitous but witty. When you play MGSV, you are more Anansi than Arnold.
There are other so-called "stealth" games — Metal Gear Solid basically created the genre — but none with MGSV's absurd streak, with its Inspector Gadget–like complement of zany spy tools, with its wild open world. The game is a joy.
It is what I thought video games would be like in the future when I was 13, in 1998.
The most depressing paradox in game development is that companies with the most powerful technology are often the most risk-averse. That means the games that have the most impressive graphical fidelity and production values can be, strangely, the least interesting. To play a big-budget game in 2015 that so clearly expresses an individual sensibility feels like a gift.
It's common to refer to Kojima as an auteur, in the sense of the pretentious and wonderful film directors of the 1970s: Kubrick, Herzog, Tarkovsky. That's not totally wrong. Kojima is a control freak with a literary bent who makes large-budget experimental entertainment. And he signs his name all over this game; there are opening and closing credits for every mission. And there are at least 50 missions.
But the technology behind games moves so much faster than the technology behind films. Asking Kojima to keep making Metal Gear Solid on bigger and better hardware — which he has done five times now — is kind of like asking Francis Ford Coppola to keep making Apocalypse Now on a bigger scale. It's insane. And it may take an unbalanced person to do.
Whether Kojima is crazy like a fox or just crazy is a matter of an intense and unnecessary debate. Once I interviewed him in a tiny hotel room Sony had holed him up in to promote the PlayStation 4. He must have felt like the target of a Metal Gear Solid mission. I can't remember what we talked about, through his translator, but I can remember the look on his face. He was grinning slightly, and though he didn't make much eye contact, when he did it was intensely mischievous and somehow benevolent. I felt that I was in the presence of someone with an open channel to another dimension. Maybe that just makes him an artist? I remember, as I left the room, feeling glad that such a person exists.
In the lead-up to the release of MGSV, reports from Japan emerged that Kojima Productions, the studio within Konami that built the game, would be shut down after its release. The game was wildly over budget; Kojima may have clashed with Konami brass over things like the number of original songs to be recorded and the density of the in-game foliage. This week, Konami said it would continue the series without the man who conceived it. It's possible games this size are now just too expensive to let someone as weird and whimsical as Kojima make them, though perhaps this too is one of Kojima's master plans.