This interview was originally published in Japanese by Famitsu. It has been translated into English.
Within moments of the conclusion of the Tokyo Game Show (TGS) on September 15, 2019, media outlets from all over the world descended on Hideo Kojima, making it all the more special that Famitsu got to sit down for an interview with the man himself. As many of the questions concern gameplay shown off at TGS, we strongly recommend readers watch the two videos embedded below before reading the interview.
Hideo Kojima is a game creator best known for creating megahit titles such as the Metal Gear series while at Konami. In 2015 he went independent and founded Kojima Productions, whose first title, DEATH STRANDING, releases on November 8, 2019.
Connecting the Dots and Forging Paths
Kojima: I've got a lot to talk about today.
Famitsu: And I want to hear every word of it, but it looks like you've got a lot of international media outlets waiting for you, too.
Kojima: So, what I'm hearing is I should waste all our time talking about something else? (laughs)
Famitsu: On the one hand, that would be kind of hilarious. (laughs) But I'd much prefer talking about DEATH STRANDING.
K: What did you think?
F: It was incredible.
K: For a while people have told me they're not sure what kind of game DEATH STRANDING is supposed to be, and that made me hesitant to show the game off at a big event like this. Take the big moment [where you're walking alone toward the crest of a hill and the city you're headed to reveals itself as the music swells up] from the gameplay video we showed. I've seen people tear up when they experience it for the first time. Of course, you won't necessarily get that same effect when I'm narrating it to you over a gameplay video on the show floor.
F: Right, and you can't necessarily put everything that makes the game special into a roughly 10-minute demo. You've got time for maybe one big scene.
K: Yeah, it's hard to get your mind around an open world game like this in a 15-minute demo. That's why I've been hesitant to show it, but of course everyone wants me to show it. So, we play a trailer and then everyone comes out of it obsessed with the parts where he's relieving himself, when that's just one of many parts of the game.
F: That's very much your comedic sensibility, though.
K: But you got a feel for the game progression, right? You're climbing a mountain; you really want to know what's on the other side. Then you get to the top and see that the path continues off into the distance. That can be really powerful, but it's something you have to play. It doesn't come across as well in a video.
F: Oh, I'm super excited to play it!
K: It won't be easy! (laughs) DEATH STRANDING asks a lot of the player.
F: From the very beginning?
K: No, we start you off gradually by building the world, showing you how the game works, and easing you into the story and gameplay. A lot of the reports from our play testers say things really kick into high gear from the midpoint of the game onward.
F: To put it another way, is there a lot to learn at first?
K: I liken DEATH STRANDING to a new racing game. The actual act of driving the car functions like every other racing game you've ever played, so that will likely make sense immediately. As you get further into the game, though, you start to realize that the fun of this particular racing game doesn't come from attacking the corners and competing for the best time, and that realization can be quite liberating.
F: So the way you approach the game changes as you get a feel for how the game plays.
K: When you give players the freedom to make connections however they choose, you inevitably get a range of play styles. Some people build bridges for others, some take the time to return lost items to their owners, some players like fighting enemies, and some will even go out of their way to avoid combat altogether. Me, I just find the items other players have left behind and use them, so the graph that measures my connection to others is admittedly pretty low. (laughs)
F: I imagine there are also players who ignore the story to go off and do their own thing.
K: There's a large snow-capped mountain, and it amazes me how many people become obsessed with it. They'll hang around it for ages while the story just sits there. It's a harsh environment, so the more equipment you have, the more options you'll have there.
F: What do you mean by more options? Can you just climb up this mountain? (laughs)
K: Yeah, you can. And the winds are so strong that it can create whiteout conditions. Your next step might be off a cliff, but you have to keep going.
F: Talk about a life-threatening detour.
K: We also have characters called MULES who will go after the cargo that Sam and the others carry. We've seen people leave cargo in tricky places just to mess with them.
F: That's pretty cruel! (laughs) Are these MULES human characters?
K: They are. They're former couriers who have contracted drone syndrome. MULES won't kill other humans, but the terrorists that exist apart from the MULES are no joke. If you see one, it's best to try and go around them.
F: So attacking them head on would be a bad idea?
K: If you play a lot of shooting games you can probably take them.
F: But there's a big overarching story, too. Can you influence the way that unfolds?
K: The point of the game is to reconnect all these places throughout the world, but the open world nature of the game means how you do that is up to you. Whatever path you take becomes your story. There's always more to see. The paths available to us in real life define how we live our lives. They become our lives; our histories. DEATH STRANDING gives you the freedom to build your own paths and stories.
F: You mentioned that players will be able to create new paths throughout the map.
K: When you follow in someone's footsteps, you create a trail and, with use trails become roads. You just go back and forth, and eventually it becomes a well-trod path. That's how the Silk Road came about, for instance. Connecting places together allows people to travel and experience other cultures and people of different backgrounds, and that brings us together. On the other hand it can also start battles, and that's something you'll experience as well.
F: That's something you didn't mention at TGS.
K: People have said the first part of the game feels like a parcel delivery game or walking simulator, but in order to fully understand it I think you'll just have to play it for yourself. (laughs)
Distance Makes the Heart Grow Fonder?
F: One thing that really struck me about the gameplay video is how the game's online components seem structured to encourage positivity and cooperation among players.
K: The internet can directly connect players, certainly. But some people use the anonymity that affords to do and say hurtful things to people without a second thought. Even in games we get online to pick up guns and shoot at each other. Technology can connect the entire world in real-time, and that's all we can think to do with it. I think a lot of people could be pretty sick of the internet.
F: This is a problem that all chat forums, social media companies, and online games are grappling with.
K: Yet 200 or so years ago we didn't even have phones, and writing a letter was the only form of long-distance communication. Soldiers in foreign countries wrote letters to their wives. "Are you well? I am aware I may die here, but I'm fighting tooth and nail." And they're thinking of their wives as they write these letters, you know? Then that letter gets put on a boat and makes the trip to another country, and maybe the wife gets it in three months. There's a huge gap there. Her husband could be dead by the time she gets that letter. It's not an instant two-way connection, so you have to try and put yourself in the shoes of the writer or else it'll fall flat. I think enforcing that kind of indirect communication forces people to have a little more empathy for others.
F: Using indirect communication to create empathy is an interesting approach.
K: In games we default to doing things that benefit us: If I do this, I'll power up; if I do that, I'll make money. Even building bridges is motivated by personal gain--I want to get across this gap, so I'll build a bridge. But the bridges you build in DEATH STRANDING are shared with other players in the world, and they'll give your bridge a "like" when they use it. Once that happens you start thinking things like, "Huh, maybe that was a good spot for a bridge," and then you build your next bridge in a spot that helps others as well as yourself. Maybe instead of throwing away items you don't need you put them in a shared locker. My hope is that it creates a chain reaction of positivity. Though I will say the staff hated the idea of including just "likes" in the game. They kept saying, "Who would bother giving something a ‘like' if it doesn't do anything for them?"
F: So there's no reward for liking things in the game?
K: "Likes" are just free love. They can't be traded for money or weapons.
F: It's more of a social benefit, then?
K: You can see how many "likes" any given structure or object in the world has, so for instance if you build a shelter and a lot of people stop by, it might become a popular spot. Just as in real life, rest stops on the side of the road have a better chance of seeing heavy use, so someone might start by making a road. You can also make highway-esque routes, so maybe you lead people there that way. Some people build in secluded spots they think no one else will find. If you see a "like" in a really remote region, there could be a hot spring or something up there. That sets DEATH STRANDING apart.
F: And there's no "dislike" function, I take it?
K: Expression is limited to the "like" function to keep things as a positive intent. I'm sure there will be someone who thinks a particular bridge is just getting in the way, but we're going for indirect communication here. We want to get you thinking. Why do these footprints lead where they do? Why did this person rest in this spot? Why did someone pee right here? Maybe I should try peeing here? Things like that. We want to take people out of their high-tech, 21st century lives and put them in a place where communication is a bit less instant.
F: How do "likes" work? As far as I could tell in the video, you were able to "like" things twice. What's the reasoning behind that?
K: Any time you use something someone else left behind, you automatically "like" it, whether you wanted to or not. Incidentally, that's something a lot of our North American play testers pushed back on. "Quit automatically liking stuff," they told us. Their reasoning was rooted in a culture where tipping is prevalent. In America services cost a little extra on top, whereas in Japan they're just considered part of being hospitable. So we ended up blending a bit of this East and West together in DEATH STRANDING. Once the automatic "like" has been sent, you can opt to send an additional "like" if the placement of a particular item really helped you out.
F: Why did you go through the trouble of including this system despite comments like that?
K: Mainly because games haven't changed in a long time. If you log into an online game, you get dropped onto an uninhabited island to fight each other, or you team up to defeat your enemies. That's plenty of fun, but there's not much more to it than that. Now, whether something more in-depth hasn't been made because the audience has tried it and said they don't want it, or if it's just never been done before and therefore people don't know if they'd like it or not, I can't say. I think my role is to show the audience a world they've never seen before, as I did when I made the Metal Gear series of stealth games. Incidentally, I've taken to calling DEATH STRANDING a "Strand Game" as opposed to a stealth game, but I don't like assigning terms to my games. I'd feel much more comfortable if you guys coined a term for it. (laughs)
F: That's a tall order.
K: I keep saying this is a brand-new game, but just like many other games, DEATH STRANDING has weapons in it. Just remember that nobody is going to give you "likes" if you use these weapons to attack other humans. If you do, BB [Bridge Baby, the child Sam carries with him] will get stressed and begin to cry. Only things that benefit other people will earn you praise in the game world. So in hindsight, you'll see that the actions you took for your own gain helped others, as well.
F: Being made aware of the presence of other Sams controlled by other players somewhere out there while you play the game seems like a pretty novel idea.
K: It really highlights the fact that you're playing the same game. But you're not there to shoot at each other, just make your presence felt in their game. It really does bring joy and a sense of security to the game. You're reminded that you're alone in the moment, but there are other people like you out there in the world. I got a similar feeling going to Comic-Con in America. I'm typically not surrounded by otaku, but here they were all in the same room and it was no big deal. It showed me there are so many others out there. (laughs) But there's always a bit of distance. The closer you get to someone, right? Things might be great while you're dating someone, but then you marry them and all bets are off. (laughs)
F: That sounds like another problem entirely. (laughs)
K: The point is it's generally a good idea to maintain some distance. That said, while we can't return to a pre-internet time, I created the Strand System in the hopes of introducing a different kind of communication into the internet age.
Making Connections Matter in a Symbolic America
F: In Nana Mizuki's video message, which played at TGS, she said the game holds a mirror up to society. The more we dig into it, that certainly seems to be the case.
K: Since this is an interview for Famitsu, I'll share this: DEATH STRANDING is a game that examines connections. Those between parents and children, the living and the dead, one city and another, you and someone on the internet, Norman Reedus fans and Mads Mikkelsen fans, Gen Hoshino fans and Daichi Miura fans. What does it mean to be connected? It means taking some measure of responsibility, which can be a very dangerous thing. If you see a friend often enough you'll start to fight a bit; the same happens in marriage. There's no unwritten rule about taking responsibility for online communication, so we all end up attacking one another. In DEATH STRANDING, while there is some distance between you and these people, the game puts you in situations where you end up making connections you have to take responsibility for. These aren't just people you meet and form a brief bond with only to deny you ever knew them later, and that exposes you to a bit of risk. You're not just reconnecting America--we all have connections, don't we? We're connected to our teachers, our classmates or colleagues, girlfriends, parents, what have you. In Japan we don't always divide the connections up as finely, but I think the theme of personal connections will resonate with a lot of people.
F: It's a pretty heavy theme.
K: I don't think you'll feel it all at the start. It will dawn on you gradually, as you start building these relationships. In DEATH STRANDING there are otherworldly presences known as BT [Beached Things] that are invisible to ordinary people. Should you encounter and be devoured by one, the area you were standing in becomes a crater. As a result, humans have been forced to live in isolated underground bunkers. They won't even greet couriers like Sam in-person or let him into their bunkers once the cargo is safely delivered. Nevertheless, they congratulate him and form a bond with him. Despite the hardships, deliveries get made. This is the future for these people. They believe in it, and there's always someone waiting for that delivery, unsure of whether or not their cargo will arrive. I think even people in this highly connected internet age will be able to sympathize with that.
F: Why did you choose America as the setting for an exploration of this theme of connection?
K: It may look like America, but it's designed such that it could be anywhere. Specific American cities or landmarks are not referred to in the game.
F: So it's purely for presentation?
K: Exactly. It looks like Earth, but it's not a ruined, post-apocalyptic Earth. It's a primordial Earth, where rain known as Timefall has cleared everything away. So you're traveling alone through an unfamiliar world, making the sight of footprints cause for celebration. But you might follow those footsteps straight off a cliff and destroy all your cargo. (laughs)
F: In the game your mission is to journey across the country, from the east coast to the west coast. Will you then have to go back and forth between the two?
K: Players will journey from east to west connecting cities as they go, but how they make those connections will be up to them. They could make a stop at a spot outside chiral transmission range, form a road and use a vehicle to make mass deliveries, or pay a visit to the Preppers who live their lives in solitude. Preppers are scattered all over the place, so you'll eventually find little gaps between their connections on the map, but that won't matter so much. People who want to 100% the map are of course welcome to find every single Prepper.
F: A lot of people are wondering how other players' dropped cargo and footprints will show up in their own instance of the game.
K: Traces of other players will only be visible once an area has been connected to the chiral network, so your first objective will be to get to your destination and get the area connected. Naturally, you won't see any trace of the other players the first time you enter a new area.
F: How many people will each game world be shared with?
K: That's all controlled by the game's programming; people who communicate with other players a lot will appear quite frequently, while those who don't communicate a lot will appear less often.
F: So, say, 100 players wouldn't be enough to cover the map in items and bridges, for instance?
K: Not to the degree people fear. The common worry seems to be that six months or so out from release the map will already be covered in player structures, but we're controlling that by tying it to your progress in the game and various triggers in the programming. It's all asynchronous, so we have that kind of control. The Timefall also breaks structures down, so anything left alone for long enough will eventually disappear. You'll have to maintain anything you want to keep around. I don't really like building things, so I just keep using the things other people have built and give them all the "likes" I can. That's its own form of connection, even if it means I don't often receive "likes" from other players.
F: So it's also possible that something you built and planned to leave behind for others to use might just disappear before you know it?
K: Mission-critical items won't disappear. Other equipment, if you move far enough away from it and spend enough time away from it, might. Anything you want to hang onto should be put in a locker. Lockers have two compartments: a shared compartment anyone can access in order to store or remove items, and a private compartment only you can access in order to store and remove items.
F: In the gameplay demo shown at TGS, there was a moment where different Sams in white, presumably controlled by other players, came to Sam's aid while he fought an enemy known as a Catcher.
K: Yeah, when you push the communication button during battles, anyone you're connected to who is currently online will show up and provide assistance.
F: But the player who comes to your aid has no control over that Sam, right?
K: No. They don't join you in the fight or anything.
F: How will the players who are called upon know they've been contacted?
K: When you call out to one of the white Sams, they'll respond and toss you an item. Once you pick up their item, they'll get a "like" from you. You can also send an additional "like," but that's pretty tough to do with a Catcher bearing down on you. (laughs)
F: This is a pretty basic question, but what happens if you're not connected to the internet?
K: You completely lose the support of other players, and it becomes an entirely standalone, single-player experience. We imagine lots of people have their PlayStation 4 systems connected to the internet, so my vision for the game has always been to make it feel like a single-player experience while naturally connecting you to other players. You won't magically reveal a new or interesting wrinkle in the game by not connecting to the internet. People who don't have an internet connection or people who don't like playing online can still play the game, but I really wouldn't recommend it.
F: So the online features are key to the game, but you won't feel like you're playing an online game. Is that correct?
K: We did a lot of play testing, and it ends up feeling pretty different from most other games. If people found a motorcycle during their playthrough, every single one of them would cling to it pretty fiercely at first. They'd customize it and get it looking really nice, too. If they came to a spot they couldn't get through on a motorcycle, they'd keep charging it up and try anyway. But the motorcycles are meant to be shared, as they would be in a real-life bike share. Other games have taught us to hang on to these sorts of vehicles, so it's hard to break that habit at first. As you press on in the game though, you might start to change your mind. You've customized it really nicely, and now it's time to share it with the world. Everyone wants to ride a nicely customized motorcycle, after all. Each motorcycle will be marked with the name of its previous owner, and you'll get a "like" when someone rides it.
F: It's cool that motorcycles and such will have that little bit of history. I hope I find a motorcycle that you've left behind! (laughs)
K: My footprints might turn up in the game, actually. Weird footprints. I also want to note we have an option that allows you to remove the footprints of anyone who is intentionally causing you trouble.
Game Overs and Very Easy Mode
F: So what happens when you're devoured by a Catcher and trigger a Void Out?
K: That area turns into a sizeable crater, but it's not a game over. Other games give you a game over and take you back in time. When you're devoured by a Catcher it creates a giant hole, altering the landscape. It alters your route and you can't undo it.
F: So the landscape might be full of holes after a while?
K: It's certainly possible. Eventually, the Timefall restores the land to its original state and craters will only ever appear on your map; they're not shared. And as I said, there aren't any game overs in DEATH STRANDING. If you fall off a cliff or are shot dead by a terrorist, Sam's spirit is taken to an underwater realm known as the Seam where it must find its way back to his body. If it finds and re-enters his body, he'll be able to leave the Seam and come back to the land of the living. In the first trailer for the game, the spot where Sam stood, naked, is the Beach. That lies on the other side of the Seam, and beyond the Beach lies the other side.
F: But if you make it back to the world of the living, the crater is still there.
K: That's right. You can't go back in time. When you get a game over, you usually get the option to continue, as well. We turn death into a rule and treat it as a dividing line. The concept of a game over came from arcade games, when we had to ensure one play lasted around three minutes. A version of that idea is still there; we've just taken it and put a DEATH STRANDING spin on the idea. Separate from all that, though, you can of course fail a mission. If you lose or break the items you're meant to deliver, we'll take you back in time a little bit.
F: I thought this game was going to be pretty difficult, but I hear you've added a Very Easy mode.
K: In Very Easy mode it will take two or three hits to the Catchers to kill them, and Sam's balance will be much better, meaning he'll fall less often. Very Easy mode won't play for you or reduce the number of buttons you have to use, however. So I'm afraid people who don't play very many games will just have to play until they get the hang of it. We could make this more like a movie if we so chose, but then it would lose what makes games so special. You have to control Sam and move the camera around yourself in order to experience that.
How Real Can Games Get?
F: The private room where you can communicate with Sam was an ingenious inclusion.
K: In the Metal Gear Solid series, we always wanted to balance out the considerable stress of the stealth segments with a bit of levity. In DEATH STRANDING you're traveling alone through a harsh and unforgiving landscape, making camp when and wherever you can. So we wanted to make the private room a lighter, more relaxing space. You're usually the one controlling Sam, but the private rooms give you a break from that so you can thank Sam yourself. The private rooms don't have any direct connection to the story; it's more or less there for the player's enjoyment. You can play around a bit and then head back out into the world whenever you're ready.
F: Seeing characters relieve themselves or have their toenails come off told me that yep, this is a Kojima game.
K: Is it really that bad? In French films, you can almost count on poop showing up in one scene or another. Everybody poops. And there certainly aren't a lot of sex scenes in Japanese anime, let alone scenes where people eat, right?
F: But is it a conscious choice on your part?
K: Not at all. It would actually be more unnatural to depict Sam carrying all of that cargo and not depict the times he sleeps, or eats, or relieves himself. Though I'll grant you that movies don't depict the entire process of actors relieving themselves. (laughs)
F: So you're trying to put the player in Sam's shoes, as it were.
K: Games are virtual experiences at the end of the day, as is virtual reality. Even if the images you're seeing are graphic and visceral, you're not necessarily feeling all of that. But DEATH STRANDING is a little more real. You'll get pretty tired. When we met with North American play testers, a former firefighter told us it felt like he was back at work, because he had to watch his every step. There aren't any game protagonists who will trip over a rock and fall. They're generally able to run fast, jump super high, or even fly. DEATH STRANDING isn't a game that will thrill you by letting you do things you can't do in real life. You're just a blue-collar guy carrying cargo, carefully putting one foot in front of the other. As you guide him through the world, re-connecting all the cities, you'll gain a new appreciation for how things work. It's tough going at first, but eventually you'll wonder how the act of walking feels so good.
F: And when you see your destination below, you'll be overcome with emotion.
K: Just don't get too complacent, or you'll fall and destroy your cargo. Then you'll want to cry for entirely different reasons. (laughs)
A Connection Through Time: 30 Years at Konami
K: This is a pretty large game, but we still consider ourselves indie developers. People always wonder how we can possibly call ourselves indie developers when we have Norman Reedus in the game, but I was personally involved in negotiations to get Norman involved in the game.
F: So that was your connection.
K: It's been three years and nine months since I went independent at the age of 53. That's basically retirement age. My family objected to the whole idea of a 53-year-old guy with no money, no anything really, wanting to bring an open world game to life all by himself. The media and others in the game industry were being less than friendly. Those are horrible odds. The reasoning went, though, that a famous game designer had just gone independent with no track record of personal success outside a company.
F: So you were looking for an office, hiring staff, and selecting a game engine all at the same time.
K: I went to the bank and couldn't even get a loan. "We understand you're well-known, but we don't have any record with you as an individual," they told me. That's just how things are in Japan. Then, as it turns out, one of my biggest fans works at the largest bank in Japan, so I ended up getting the financing.
F: What an unexpected connection!
K: And I knew the office had to be in a nice building so the families of any staff I hired would feel comfortable sending people to work for me. Here, too, I'd find a nice place and then they'd run a check and be like, "What exactly is Kojima Productions?" Here again I found a building managed by a huge fan of mine and was able to secure some office space. These are the connections that made the game possible, and by the same token I wouldn't be who I am today without those 30 years at Konami. I can't deny that, and I'm very grateful to them.
F: The essence of past Kojima games is alive and well in DEATH STRANDING; you've got stealth, shooting, and survival mechanics in here.
K: That's right. I haven't shoehorned them all in there, though. As for the actors, I worked with Norman on P.T. Mads and Lea [Seydoux] didn't know me personally but their kids and other family members were fans of mine, and it's thanks to those connections that they're in the game. They'd never acted in a game before, and obviously Kojima Productions hasn't released a single title to date. That's typically when actors decline.
F: You're also connected to Akio Otsuka and Kikuko Inoue, who lent their voices to the Japanese voice track.
K: Yes, absolutely.
F: I imagine the Decima engine, which you tailored for DEATH STRANDING alongside Guerrilla Games, also played a big part in the game's evolution.
K: Game engines are tools, and Decima was best suited to our game design. We went to great lengths to make tweaks to the lighting and cutscene tools in order to ensure that DEATH STRANDING wouldn't feel too similar to Horizon Zero Dawn, for which the Decima engine was built. Guerrilla Games themselves continue to evolve the engine as well, periodically integrating new features and such. I think you'll see it take two or three more steps forward in the near future. So yes, I wasn't alone in this part of the endeavor, either.
F: Finally, do you have anything to say to the fans who have been eagerly awaiting the moment the words A HIDEO KOJIMA GAME would again grace their screens?
K: I know I've kept you waiting for my first game since going independent--though it hasn't actually been that long, has it? (laughs) Anyway, state-of-the-art technology allows us to connect to people all over the world in real time, but that's led to arguments, fights, and sickness. DEATH STRANDING is for anyone who is way of the internet and wants a simulation of pre-internet human communication, when we had to be considerate of each other's feelings. It might make you think deeply about what it means to be connected to someone else. Your response to it will vary, I'm sure, whether you decide to visit family you haven't seen in some time or are just a little nicer to the delivery person the next time they drop off a package. Oh, and you'll probably come across an article on the internet where I'm quoted as saying not even I understand what DEATH STRANDING is about. That's not true! (laughs) I was just joking around.
F: Well if nothing else, the crowds and enthusiasm here at TGS have been incredible.
K: Seeing that crowd made me glad we kept going.