Should Hideo Kojima Just Go Make a Movie, Already?

Metal Gear Solid V: the Phantom Pain, Konami, (2015)

In Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, Kojima uses the language of cinema in ways that are only possible in a virtual game.

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain

Publisher: Konami
Developer: Kojima Productions
Rated: Mature
Players: 1 player
Release date: 2015-09-01

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is a departure for the series in a lot of ways. It’s the first open world Metal Gear Solid game, it’s the first to prioritize action as much as stealth, and it’s the first without David Hayter voicing the main character. Yet the change that sticks out to me the most is how the cut scenes have changed.

This is the first change that you’ll see in the game, even if you don’t notice it, since the game opens with a long cut scene showcasing your escape from a hospital. Hideo Kojima, the creator, writer, and director of all the Metal Gear Solid games, has always been known for his long cut scenes. It’s an old joke at this point that he should just go make a movie, since that’s clearly what he’s always wanted (which, it should be pointed out, does a disservice to all the fascinating and clever and unique gameplay tricks that are also present in the Metal Gear games, but I digress), but in The Phantom Pain, Kojima’s worst tendencies as a director are tempered by a single stylistic decision. Every cut scene is shot in a single take.

In fact, I think the single take, as used by Kojima, represents a great combination of movie and game cinematics. It’s a technical trick that uses the language of cinema, but in a way that would be impossible in cinema. In other words, he uses the language of cinema in a way that only a game can.

Metal Gear Solid 4

First, it’s important to look at previous games and take stock of his style. Let’s look at the below scene from Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots.

In the scene, the villain, Revolver Ocelot, has just one-upped the hero, Snake, and prepares to escape by boat. As he’s leaving, he’s ambushed by the US military, which surrounds him on land, sea, and air. It’s a long, drawn-out, repetitive sequence that stands out (to me at least) as Kojima at his worst. There’s a good three minute and 30 seconds of the same shot repeated over and over again. Helicopters circling overhead, boats speeding in, cars driving up, soldiers getting into position, more soldiers getting into position, and soldiers loading their guns and getting into position.

To make it even worse, that repetitive action is interspersed with even more repetitive reaction shots from Revolver Ocelot and his gang. For example, at the beginning of the scene, Ocelot’s boat emerges from under a bridge, and a spotlight flashes on. Cut to a shot of him blocking his eyes from the light, then cut to a shot of everyone else on the boat doing the same thing. Then, the camera jumps to the other boat so that we can see who’s controlling the light.

There are several issues with this scene. The shots are presented to us in a linear sequence, but that sequence does not represent the actual progression of events in real-time. Listen to the sound effects when the light turns on. You can hear the light flash twice, once for each reaction shot. Time is rewound a half second between the shots in order to show us everyone’s reaction in that single moment. In reality, these reactions happen simultaneously, but cutting gives the illusion of parallelism while also allowing Kojima to move the camera around.

This by itself is not a bad thing. It’s a common editing technique, and it’s a great way to emphasize certain moments that might otherwise go by too fast. Combine it with Kojima’s desire to “show” and “tell” everything, and it becomes a recipe for repetition, as we can see with the many, many shots of helicopters, boats, jeeps, and soldiers doing the same thing over and over again. Kojima wants to emphasize all the activity going on at once, so he continually rewinds time between shots in order to show us everything that’s happening at once. But he doesn’t need to. That’s not how film works. We don’t need to see every soldier getting into position, we just need to see it once or twice, and we can then just assume the rest.

This extends even to shots that aren’t repetitive in nature. When the light flashes on, the camera jumps to the other boat to shows us who’s on it. It’s important that we see Meryl on the boat, but we don’t need to see her teammates manning the light, then a machine gun, then... her just sitting down. We don’t need to see what everyone is doing, but the camera lingers on them as if they’re important.

Cutting allows Kojima to move his camera through space and time to show us as much as possible, and in doing so, he bogs down his cut scenes with excessive, unimportant information.

Thankfully, The Phantom Pain is nothing like its predecessor.

Metal Gear Solid V

In contrast, let’s look at the below scene from the opening level, since it, too, revolves around regular soldiers confronting a central antagonist. (Again, if the link doesn’t work, the scene starts at 45m27s.).

What’s most impressive about this scene, even after just 20 or 30 seconds, is the range of shot types it incorporates, and that it doesn’t do so haphazardly but with a purpose. Not only is the camera more expressionistic in The Phantom Pain, but the limitation of a “single camera” forces Kojima to get more creative with how he frames the action.

As the scene begins, debris from outside is being magically lifted and used to block the entrance to the building. We then cut (one of the very few) to see this from the inside with the camera focused on the door. Big Boss suddenly sneaks into frame, and the camera zooms out a bit to focus on him: Framing and zoom are used to shift our attention from the action outside to the character inside.

The camera then tracks to the right, as if the cameraman himself were moving, while panning to the left, as if turning our head. This movement is important because it emphasizes that Big Boss is hidden -- the camera has to literally move out from behind the pillar to show us the action. This is further emphasized when it whips around to a close up of Big Boss with half the frame blocked by the pillar. Framing and camera movement are used to reinforce the character’s location and state of mind, not just express plot information.

Later in this scene, a monstrous Man on Fire comes down the stairs towards a group of soldiers, and they turn to face the flaming enemy. Instead of showing the frightening enemy and then the soldiers’ reactions, Kojima does it all in one shot. We get a group shot of the soldiers turning around in surprise, but instead of turning or cutting to show us the enemy, Kojima zooms into the visor of a soldier, focusing on the reflection of the Man on Fire. It’s a wonderfully concise shot, combining multiple subjects, points of view, and expresses a lot of information quickly.

That “quickly” part is also important. The shot of the visor’s reflection is great, but it isn’t lingered over because things are moving in real-time. Kojima can’t use a cut to manipulate time, so he’s forced to move the camera with the natural pace of the action. Shots don’t linger. They’re used creatively but also efficiently.

This all shows off Kojima’s improved direction, but the most impressive and fun part of that improved direction is that Kojima never forgets this is a game, not a movie. He may have a greater understanding of cinematic language, but he also knows that he’s not bound by the normal conventions of movie making, conventions that normally have to consider pesky things like reality and physics. His camera is unbound by gravity, even as it shakes like a camcorder when Big Boss makes a mad dash somewhere. It’s like a handheld camera controlled by Superman: intimate, yet physically impossible.

Take for example, the below scene in which Big Boss and Quiet take out a jet plane while in a helicopter.

The camera moves around this small space effortlessly, never having to worry about bumping into a wall, chair, or person, and then it becomes magical, floating outside the vehicle in order to capture both characters in a single shot. Then, it ends with one of my favorite images from the game: the camera looking through the doors of the helicopter, between Big Boss and Quiet, as the jet crashes into sea. The heroes literally frame the action -- their handiwork.

The other aspect of all this that proves Kojima better understands cinematic language is that it’s not all random. He’s not shooting the cut scenes as a single shot just because it looks cool (though that probably did factor in somewhat), he’s doing it in order keep the game grounded and focused on what matters: Big Boss.

Metal Gear Solid V is easily the most character-focused Metal Gear game. Whereas the others were all about a man on a mission with a plot driven by a specific goal, The Phantom Pain is more open ended. We play as a man looking for a mission, driven by the vague goal of rebuilding his mercenary force, and possibly getting revenge on the organization that tried to destroy him. This isn’t a story about vast conspiracies and how to best control society. It's a story about how an individual relates to those global issues, finding his place on the global stage.

Even the antagonist, Skull Face, eventually reveals that his grand evil plan is driven by personal revenge. He wants to destroy a language, a plan that gives the game opportunity to ponder the role of language in shaping a global society, but that global perspective is just an aside in Skull Face’s monologue. He’s not killing a language in order to change the world. He’s doing it for the sake of his own personal enrichment and, of course, for the sake of revenge. In Metal Gear Solid V, global consequences only matter in as much as they impact the individual.

This is what the handheld, single shot direction emphasizes: the individual. We see the world as Big Boss does, from his point of view, moving with him, looking with him, running with him, fighting with him. The camera wants us to understand this man, this one man, and how he relates to the world around him.

Kojima has finally figured out how to best utilize the freedom of a virtual camera. Before, he used it to show as much as possible. Now, he uses it to express one idea in as many ways as possible. It results in cut scenes that combine the language of cinema with the techniques of gaming and creates something distinctly amazing.

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