Hideo Kojima: how Konami’s mercurial maestro played us all this year

Examining the shock and awe of P.T. and Ground Zeroes

Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes and P.T. are two of the most talked-about games of 2014, and strictly speaking they’re not full games. Some would argue that the former is a glorified demo; we’d argue it’s a little too generous for that, but it is just a playable prologue to a game due for release next year. Meanwhile, P.T. is a piece of viral marketing that happens to be the scariest thing we’ve played in ages, an interactive horror teaser that confirms its maker’s status as the games industry’s master of manipulation. Both have generated a level of hype and excitement entirely at odds with their diminutive size; both have had forums excitedly chattering about hidden meanings and squirrelled-away secrets; both have been talked up for Game of the Year gongs. Hideo Kojima might not have technically released a full game this year, but once again he’s been one of the medium’s most influential figures.

It started in March with Ground Zeroes, a playable (and enormously replayable) opening act, designed to whet players’ appetites for the forthcoming Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. Taking place in a military prison complex, it’s a sandbox game that’s all about density rather than sheer size. It’s crammed with things to do and to discover; filled with numerous different potential routes with which to infiltrate the complex and complete your mission, and a wealth of distractions besides. It’s a playground where you’re simply given all the toys you need to make the most of it, and invited to experiment with them all, with little by way of explanation and hand-holding, an approach anathema to most big-budget fare these days.

Completing Ground Zeroes’ story mission won’t take players very long, but there are several additional missions, and the layout is revamped for each.

In an industry where less is never seen as more, there’s something thrilling about playing a game that’s so pared back, so streamlined. Kojima’s traditionally indulgent cutscenes have been significantly trimmed, and his other idiosyncrasies reined in. This isn’t a game full of lengthy conversations, set-pieces and boss fights, but one that holds true – perhaps truer than any previous entry, in fact - to the series’ promise of tactical espionage action.

Moreover, it’s a game that’s not afraid to buck established conventions. The radar has essentially been replaced by a pair of binoculars that invite you to scout the environment from distance, listening into enemy chatter and marking their positions so they remain visible thereafter. This doesn’t reduce the threat level any, as they’re a more reactive foe than before, responding realistically to your actions, rather than simply following prescribed routes. While you’re still punished for your mistakes, being spotted isn’t necessarily the end: you’ve got a brief window where time slows and you’ve got the chance to incapacitate or kill the soldier who discovered you. It shifts the emphasis onto improvisation, forcing you to react and adapt to unexpected changes in your best laid plans, and it’s more exciting and less predictable as a result.

“Few creators would take such liberties with a popular series, but that’s part of what makes Kojima such a maverick – he takes chances few others would dare to.”

Few creators would take such liberties with a popular series, but that’s partly what marks Kojima out as such a maverick. He takes the kind of chances that few others would dare to. The GamesCom reveal of P.T. is a perfect case in point. What we now know is a teaser for forthcoming Guillermo del Toro collaboration Silent Hills would ordinarily have been a huge deal, announced with plenty of fanfare at Sony’s conference. Instead, we were simply told we could download this unusual demo from the PlayStation Store instantly, and the intrigue steadily built as word of mouth spread about this terrifying piece of interactive horror.

P.T. is scary in a very different way from most horror games. You’re never armed with anything more than a torch, and you’re never really under any serious threat (though in one memorable moment, it appears very much that you are). And the whole game takes place not within a haunted mansion, but a single, looping corridor, with a door at each end. Pass through the latter, and you return to the start. It relies instead on immaculately choreographed – and intelligently restrained – use of jump-shocks, some truly unsettling sound and environment design, and almost photorealistic graphics that help generate an atmosphere of almost constant dread.

The seeming banality of the setting is expertly contrasted with the otherworldliness of the guttural moans, the shrieks and the radio static you hear as you explore this claustrophobic place, with changes both subtle and glaring on each loop adding to the player’s sense of unease. It never explains itself, but it never needs to: the often obtuse puzzles you’re invited to solve fray your nerves because you know that each time you solve a conundrum, you’re only likely to introduce fresh horrors. For the most part, it’s a masterful piece of design; it’s a game that plays you as much as you play it. A classic Kojima trick.

Neither game is without its missteps, though in each case, they’re borne from a desire to do something daring, something different. Ground Zeroes in particular is thematically problematic. It dares to address the real-world horrors of Guantanamo Bay, and while that’s a laudable idea, its attempts to tackle darker themes are often ham-fisted. Scenes of horrific sexual violence against women designed solely to establish a character’s evil nature are particularly offensive. Kojima might want to deal with taboo subjects, but while there’s no malice in these moments, they’re a clumsy misjudgement.

PT’s final secret was stumbled upon by Twitch broadcaster Soapywarpig, who was the first player to finish it - in front of a live audience.

P.T. has issues of a different nature. It was designed essentially as a viral puzzle, so no wonder the solution to its final riddle is obscure (indeed, Kojima reckoned it would take players weeks, not days, to figure out). Yet while discussing the game’s ending brought many players together, following a rabbit hole of offered solutions, often quite different depending on your source, detracted from the scares. After a truly frightening opening hour, P.T. ended up leaving many players either confused or bored.

“Both games come from a designer who consistently relishes keeping players on their toes.”

Still, that shouldn’t detract from Kojima’s achievements. Here are two games that have more moments of invention and surprise, more design ingenuity than almost anything else released in 2014. Crucially, they’re both equally playful, though that’s no surprise given that they come from a game designer who consistently relishes keeping players on their toes, as he twists traditional ideas into new forms and stirs in unexpected, innovative new ideas. If these are the teasers, how good are the finished games going to be? Both Phantom Pain and Silent Hills have much to live up to, but few would bet against Hideo Kojima confounding our expectations and surprising us all once more.