Now that all of the shine and sparkle of PAX East has given way to the stateliness of the Game Developers Conference, the gaming world’s next big announcement will likely occur on March 27, 2013, the date of Metal Gear creator Hideo Kojima’s GDC keynote address. GDC isn’t typically the go-to event for big game announcements (and neither is PAX, for that matter), but the last few years have seen the conference slowly evolving into a mini-E3, largely thanks to the fact that up-to-the-minute reporting has become so fastidious that even a relatively low-key, peer-to-peer event like GDC gets tons of media scrutiny. Some devs have chosen to take advantage of GDC’s growing exposure to do some promotion that borders on the level of E3 overtures, and it appears that Kojima, Fox Engine in hand, is the latest to pick up on this trend.
When the teaser trailer for Moby Dick Studios’ The Phantom Pain was revealed at the Spike VGAs, I was initially apathetic. The protagonist was silent and almost completely obscured by bandages, preventing any kind of immediate human connection with the viewer. The major action of the trailer involved said protagonist crawling around a hospital while faceless soldiers gunned down the rest of the patients, a scene that I’m sure was intended to be brutal but just came across as heavy-handed. The dramatic text that interrupted the FMV every few seconds seemed to indicate that the game’s writer was in dire need of either an editor or a translator. And then the final few seconds of the trailer promptly nosedived into weird horror/psychological thriller territory. The game was off my radar just as quickly as it had appeared.
However, within hours of the game’s announcement, those intrepid Internet sleuths over at NeoGAF had cracked the code: The Phantom Pain could very likely be a facade for a new Metal Gear Solid game. There was a mountain of evidence: a fiery silhouette appeared to be MGS3‘s Colonel Volgin, while a shadowy silhouette appeared to be MGS1‘s Psycho Mantis; the badly bandaged protagonist possessed the trademark beard of series mainstays Big Boss and Solid Snake; the soldiers wore identical garb to the XOF troops of the upcoming Ground Zeroes; the doctor who awakens the protagonist from his coma is a dead-ringer for Metal Gear 2‘s Dr. Kio Marv; the game’s logo appeared to be hiding the words “METAL GEAR SOLID V” in its negative space. On the business side of things, there was absolutely no record of Swedish Moby Dick CEO “Joakim Mogren” before the Phantom Pain reveal (“Joakim,” of course, is an anagram for “Kojima”), despite his claim that he had worked for a large American developer before starting up Moby Dick. The game’s website didn’t list a publisher either; how likely could it be that a Swedish start-up with no established pedigree and no publisher managed to snag an expensive promotional slot during the VGAs, an event that showcased trailers from heavyweight publishers like Epic, Namco Bandai, 2K Games, and THQ (God rest their souls)? If The Phantom Pain was truly a Metal Gear Solid game, it would be published by Konami, and sure enough, Konami personnel were caught wearing The Phantom Pain t-shirts at a VGAs afterparty. Given Kojima’s history of being something of a bizarre marketer, it all seemed just crazy enough to make sense.
Now that we’ve finally met the amusingly bandaged “Joakim Mogren” via interview with Geoff Keighley (who is, apparently, the only member of the media in on the joke), and now that Mogren has promised that “all your questions will be answered” at GDC (after he “accidentally” revealed that The Phantom Pain runs on Kojima’s Fox Engine), all we can do is wait until tomorrow. While we’re waiting, let’s reflect on how great Kojima is at promoting his games. Whether you love Metal Gear Solid or hate it, the reality is that the series has a rabid fanbase, sells by the truckload, and is a darling of the critics. Kojima has surely realized that he can actually do whatever the hell he wants when promoting a new MGS game, since Konami appears to have given him full creative control of the series (likely due to all of the Kojima-directed MGS titles being bestsellers), and no matter what he says or does, the game’s gonna sell like naked hotcakes anyway. He can play with the fans’ emotions; he can be whimsically cryptic; he can outright lie to his audience and they’ll gobble it up wholesale, and they’ll even thank him for the ride when he finally drops the curtain.
Kojima is, of course, no stranger to sly marketing methods. His original plan for MGS2 was to name it MGS3 and have it consist of the “Plant” portion; as the player proceeded through the game as Raiden, he would undoubtedly be wondering what the hell happened to MGS2 and, by extension, Snake. Then boom, you beat Solidus, the credits roll, and all of a sudden the Tanker portion (starring Snake, titled “MGS2,” and chronologically a prequel to the Plant segment) is unlocked. Ultimately, the Tanker portion was unlocked first so as not to confuse the slower gamers among us, and both segments were collectively titled “MGS2,” but vestiges of Kojima’s original plan can be seen in the awkward placement of the game’s tutorial (Tanker, which comes first in the final build but was planned to be second, has no tutorial; several hours of gameplay later, players are finally treated to a long-past-overdue tutorial at the beginning of Plant, since it was originally supposed to be the game’s first segment). However, all of MGS2‘s promotional material indicated that Snake would be the game’s main character, and fans naturally assumed that MGS2 was a continuation of Snake’s story; upon learning that Snake was permanently replaced with sissy-boy Raiden about 1/5th of the way through the game, the fans were furious. Thank God the Internet circa 2001 wasn’t the acidic fanboy-filled cesspool that it is today. The MGS2 bait-and-switch remains of the greatest non-malicious, developer-controlled deceptions in video game history.
Then there’s MGS4‘s infamous gameplay trailer which strongly suggested that the game was a military-style first-person shooter, a genre that was just entering the height of its popularity when the trailer was released in 2005. I can only imagine how many faces paled upon seeing two minutes of yawn-worthy stop-and-cover action from behind the stock of an assault rifle. Of course, the twist was that the FPS camera was simply a random grunt’s point of view, which we realize when Snake suddenly appears within the soldier’s field of vision and stealthily kills him. The rest of the gameplay shown is standard MGS “tactical espionage action” in third-person, and its seven long minutes likely gave attendees ample opportunity to breathe several sighs of relief. Kojima had harmlessly screwed with everyone once again. He correctly guessed it was okay to mislead everyone and make them mad at first, because he knew that he would quickly win them back after the twist was revealed.
I’ve watched the reactions to The Phantom Pain over the past few months and found them increasingly intriguing. First nobody cared about the game, because it quite honestly looked boring as hell. Then when people discovered the MGS connection, everyone smiled knowingly and proclaimed Kojima to be a clever, crazy sonofagun. Of course, there were plenty of contrarian coolsters who said that The Phantom Pain looked cool until it turned out to be an MGS game, that Kojima’s schtick is getting old, that misleading your audience is a cardinal sin, that whole thing was dumb, and so on. Fun police, indeed. People continued to talk passionately about the game for a few weeks, then interest died down when it became clear Kojima wasn’t ready to pull back the curtain just yet (even though the whole Internet now knows that The Phantom Pain is somehow related to MGS). The game has only recently started to receive an enormous amount of attention again in the wake of Mogren’s interview and his promises of a full reveal at GDC (and a cryptic tweet from Kojima that revealed he was working on a GDC trailer with the filename “TPP”). Again, Kojima’s marketing at its finest. The game’s hype level is at a fever pitch as we enter GDC.
Kojima’s marketing is a breath of fresh air in this industry. Although it’s currently more transparent than it’s ever been (you can thank Kickstarter rewards and the vast majority of publisher-less indie devs for that), the game development process is still a relative black box to the consumer. We get an announcement and a trailer at a large trade show, then nothing for months, then a new trailer, then nothing for a few more months, then a flurry of screens, trailers, and previews/reviews just before the game’s launched. Total elapsed time, from announcement to launch: usually about six to eight months. That’s a long, boring time to go with only piecemeal scraps of information to build hype, but there’s little that can be done about the length of the development process. To fill those gaps, Kojima has done something substantially more fun than a trailer and a few screens: he’s got everyone spinning crazy conspiracy theories about whether The Phantom Pain, a seemingly run-of-the-mill action-thriller with a confirmed developer in Moby Dick and a lead designer in Mogren, is in fact not what it seems. His experiment was undoubtedly a huge success; everyone’s talking about this damn game, and it seems like everyone’s got some crackpot theory about how The Phantom Pain ties into the MGS canon or who Joakim Mogren is (Cliff Bleszinski? A CG creation of the apparently photorealistic Fox Engine? God, people are funny sometimes). I appreciate the engaging way Kojima has toyed with the community during this whole ordeal, but that being said, I’m not sure if anyone else could pull this off without the industry boiling over in rage. Shigeru Miyamoto is certainly charming enough to put forth a believable effort, but Nintendo subscribes to the industry standard of opting for silence and secrecy over lies and red herrings, and Shiggy’s just too damned sincere to play devil’s advocate the way Kojima does. In a staid, cagey industry like ours, thank God for Hideo Kojima’s particular brand of delightful chaos.