The Refusing Chair
We turn our attention to an interview with Official Playstation Magazine that Kojima did in January 2006, just a few months after his lengthy blog post about the kid with no jacket.
Around that time, Roger Ebert was making waves by saying that videogames could never be art, so OPM decided to interview Kojima to find a counter-argument. The laws of journalism state that whenever a respected authority in one field attacks the credibility of a different field, an equal and opposite authority must give a rebuttal; OPM knew that Kojima would obviously defend games as an art form, use his own as examples, and give Ebert something to chew on.
But Kojima was not so predictable. He added fuel to the fire by actually agreeing with Ebert, saying that, at best, games can be like a ‘museum’ in which art is displayed. Of course, the interview was quickly swept under the rug by the gaming media, which means there’s hardly a trace of it left on the internet, but it’s definitely worth reading. The most interesting excerpt is this…
OPM: “Games like Shadow of the Colossus and Ico are the games most often referred to as art in videogame form, due to their distinct visual quality. Many people point to those games as art. Do you think there are exceptions, such as these games, where you could look at them and say, “OK, those are art”? Or do you think all games fall under a blanket assessment?”
Hideo Kojima: “I think they’re good games, but I think they’re just another game. In [Shadow of the Colossus], you ride a horse. It’s a horse; it looks like a horse. But in art, I can paint this cup and call the painting Horse. That’s art. The music and the graphics used in a game–they have artistic elements, I agree. But everything else is very intuitive. It’s easy to play in the sense that the horse looks like a horse and you obviously know that you have to ride the horse, so what I think it does is provide a service.
“Maybe let’s say there’s a game out there where there’s a boss that you cannot defeat. It’s made that way. Normallly, when you beat the boss in a game, there’s a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment, but if you can’t beat the boss at all, if what you’re left with is a sense of loss, then maybe that could be defined as art.
“You know Taro Okamoto—he’s dead but a very famous Japanese artist. I don’t know the official English translation of it, but one of his pieces is called The Refusing Chair. It’s something that sort of looks like a chair, but it’s got bumps on it, so you can’t sit on it, but if you do, it’s going to hurt your butt. With videogames you have to make sure you can sit on the chair. That’s why you want to think about art and videogames. I think the lousiest videogames can be considered art. Because bad games with no fun aren’t really games, by definition.”
A boss you can’t defeat? That’s Fortune. Being left with a sense of loss? By the end of the game, all of your accomplishments are meaningless; you’ve only perpetuated the Patriots’ plan to control the world! Metal Gear Solid 2 is the videogame equivalent of Okamoto’s “Refusing Chair” if ever there was one. Almost everything about the game was designed to create false expectations, then betray them–something that looks like a chair, but hurts when you sit on it. All the things he ruined about the original game’s experience was part of his attempt to make art.
However, Kojima description of art isn’t quite accurate; what he’s actually describing is the definition of postmodern art. Postmodern art could be defined as “art which targets a specific audience, but which actively subverts, disrupts or rejects the audience’s preferences.” Postmodern art is meant to be counter-intuitive, and deliberately ruin your experience. That’s the feeling of loss Kojima mentioned. MGS2 has been labelled as “postmodern” plenty of times, but few people who say that actually understand what it means. It’s not just about breaking the fourth wall and winking at the camera. It’s about knowing what people want, proving that you could give it them if you wanted to, and then taking it away. (The reason why postmodern art is associated with breaking the fourth wall is because there are very few times when an audience expects and enjoys it.) Really it’s just about betrayal.
Kojima’s ability to create expectations is masterful. In March of 2001, Zone of the Enders was released along with a demo for Metal Gear Solid 2 which featured the first half of the Tanker Chapter, and gave rise to massive speculation. Then later, at E3 of the same year, he showed a spectacular trailer which revealed more of the Tanker mission, but also bits of the Plant Chapter, except without the real main character…
According to the now-infamous trailer, Snake is the one who fights Fortune, not Raiden, and Snake is the one who walks through the bloody corridor next to the transformer room; he fights a harrier jet too, but this time it’s on the Verrazano Bridge! He even meets Cyborg Ninja. It was all lies, of course.
These lengthy, exciting clips got massive attention at the time, crashing the Konami servers due to the enormous traffic, and cementing the idea that it would be everybody’s favourite smoker who would do the sneaking and shooting throughout the entire game. Cheekily, the trailer ends with the mysterious words “MGS2 Submerges”, which meant that nothing more would be revealed until the game was released. It was a press blackout. Altogether, the trailer poured gasoline on the already huge fire of hype.
Remember that these were more innocent times, before game sites and publishers learned how to engineer cynical multi-million dollar marketing campaigns using the Net, and before audiences ever knew that Kojima could be so audacious. They believed what they saw, and what they saw made everyone want to try out Kojima’s diabolical Refusing Chair.
After seeing the trailer, Electronic Gaming Monthly spoke to Kojima:
EGM: “Are there any more hints or clues you can give our readers about any part of the story in MGS2?”
Hideo Kojima: “I created the E3 trailer to give everyone an opportunity to imagine what the final game will be like. All rumors could be correct. All rumors could be wrong. One thing is for sure: I think I’ll be able to fool and betray all of you in a pleasant way.”
So we officially know that Kojima was trying to fool and betray everybody who played Metal Gear Solid 2, and created the trailers to mislead them. We know that this fits his definition of art, and we know that this goes against his overly simplistic answer about Sherlock Holmes and Terminator 2 — those stories weren’t postmodern, and they certainly didn’t create a sense of betrayal when you experience them. And creating art, even if it’s postmodern, doesn’t warrant such grand deception. I believe there is something something personal and pointed about the motivations behind Metal Gear Solid 2, and it requires us to revisit the past yet again.