Hideo Kojima is in love with tragedy. In The Creative Gene, he explores his life through the pieces of media that mean the most to him, and throughout he waxes philosophical about the novels, manga, films, and television shows that made him who he is as a creator. This kind of book can go a few different ways, and when I sat down with it I assumed that it would be a series of disconnected reflections about things that Kojima enjoyed, a kind of popcorn book that demonstrated influences. Instead, the essays kept returning to some of Kojima’s darkest fixations: loneliness, mass death, the dissolution of culture, and mourning.
How shocked you are by this might come down to how you read the vast body of Kojima’s work. Best known for the Metal Gear Solid franchise and the more recent Death Stranding, Kojima returns quite often to a familiar set of questions: What do we receive from our forebears? Do our actions matter in the face of death? Are the stories we live out of our own making, or can we break from them and create something new? Kojima’s games return to these basic conceptions over and over again, which is sort of shocking when you reconcile that with how he has had to bring entire development teams around to these visions again and again. And yet in this book he is constantly reflective on how his own fascinations with the human and its social elements, mediated through sadness and tragedy, appear in his creative work.
This, too, is a surprising thing to see in The Creative Gene; it is rare to see a videogame developer who is so often thought of in terms of being a singular name to speak so openly about how he interfaces with a creative team. Kojima dedicates more than a few words to what it has felt like to be a videogame creator over the past few decades, particularly when it comes to selecting and directing large teams of people. He discusses his critical edge, and in an interview with Gen Hoshino that closes the book, he notes that his real power has emerged in his role as a producer, as someone who can make bigger, broader calls about the shape of a project. He extols the virtues of being a director who can walk through an office and make off-the-cuff decisions, and he attributes that to his having developed a strong sense of critical aesthetic reflections. In other words, he talks about his teams and their makeup in the same way he does about how he chooses to read a novel or watch a film, as a kind of decision he made based on gut instinct. In fact, these brunt facts about the business of being a game developer makes it clear that Kojima is reflective of his own position as a controlling figure in game development; it is fascinating to read him slip in and out of talking about his teams and how they operate while simultaneously discussing things “he” created.
Maybe it all goes back to that tragic focus that extends through the book. It is clear that Kojima’s fixations on bleak science fiction like The Drifting Classroom and Virus: The Day of Resurrection center on his interest in the relationship between people, their societies, and how they deal with massive environmental changes. Throughout the essays here, which were written at various times between 2007 and 2013, Kojima is constantly reflecting his own experiences with media through what was happening in both his personal life and the broader context of Japanese culture. It is clear that the 3.11 T?hoku earthquake and disaster weighed heavily on Kojima, and that much of his understanding of media (or at least the way he decided to write about it) was altered both by the extent of the tragedy and the capacity for human beings to come together in the wake of it.
What emerges from these readings, sketched against the cultural backdrop that Kojima is constantly reminding us of, is a picture of a creator who wrestles with both inheritance and projection. He does not let us forget his beloved Dawkinsian memes, the transmitted cultural knowledge that lives on beyond a creator, and regularly suggests that themes or concepts from technothrillers like Shadow 81 have been as impactful memetically on him as more famous work such as Taxi Driver. This philosophy of creation, in which the individual person is always a kind of cultural nexus who mixes influences and produces new things, is a hopeful one if you are someone who wants to read this book as a guidebook on how to process your influences. It is difficult to make your way through The Creative Gene without stopping regularly and thinking “oh, so this is how he repurposed X idea from Y novel in Metal Gear.” In that way, it is extremely informative.
On the other hand, it is also easy to read the book as a kind of machine of elisions, where influences and creative control are both everywhere and nowhere all at once. The word is never used, but an image of the production of Kojima as an auteur absolutely emerges here, which is to say that it is very easy to read behind the lines for a theory of individual genius and creation. Kojima holds onto cultural context, but is very quick to credit Martin Scorsese or Kobo Abe as singular geniuses who provided particular memes for him to absorb into his own mind, body, and work.
Perhaps the most revealing essay of the entire collection is his discussion of Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot. In it, he talks about the power of the obi, which is a band placed around books in Japan that contains additional information about the book. It is basically another opportunity for “back cover” content. In the piece, Kojima talks about the obi as much as he does King, particularly the power that King has on him to make him purchase a book with an obi blurb. “When I see those words—Stephen King Raves!—I’ll buy that foreign novel without any further thought,” he writes. Kojima lays out the power of a name, the power of a name-as-brand. It is clear through the essay that that is as interesting as the novel itself.
In the last paragraphs of that essay, which was written in 2012, he becomes reflective of his own work blurbing obi. “If my obi can stare at you with a vampire’s gaze and lure you toward a book, isn’t that itself another fine way to pass along memes?” he asks. This, I think, might be a critical way of thinking about how Kojima understands himself, and his name. He is not just an individual, but the product of a social condition, and one that is often imperiled (he writes in several essays about both historical and fictional ways that Japanese cultural identity has been altered or existentially threatened, and there’s a tinge of a particular strain of nationalism here.) Kojima clearly sees himself as fascinated with horror, as someone who is concerned with the worst things that can happen, but also constantly looks at that through the ways that these horrors are passed down and what he can do as a creator to remedy that. It seems that his name, the “Kojima brand” that so often washes away collaborators in press coverage of his teams’ work, is a byproduct of that philosophy of combination.
For Kojima, it seems that one cannot have the memes without the individuals that pass the memes beyond themselves, and the complexity of human creation is flattened into singular figures as the memes crystallize culturally. From this perspective, within the highly idiosyncratic critical apparatus of Hideo Kojima, it is clear that we should simply accept this as the way of things. Reading these ideas today, in the age of the celebrated auteur, it seems to me that it is a warning more than anything else. Like the science fiction disasters that Kojima so clearly loves, The Creative Gene gives us a glimpse into a particular kind of human machine, and it seems to me that embracing it wholly would put us down the wrong path. Or, to put it in Kojima’s terms, it might pass down the wrong memes.
Cameron Kunzelman tweets at @ckunzelman.