By Marshall Garvey
For decades, the name Konami has been synonymous with more than just great video games. Originally founded as a jukebox rental and repair business in 1969, the company’s name is intertwined with gaming from its infancy as a medium to its current status as the most profitable entertainment industry in the world. When arcades began to emerge in the late 70’s and early 80’s, Konami set standards for stateside competitors with the likes of Frogger, Scramble and Super Cobra. Later on, genre-shaping franchises such as Contra, Castlevania, Silent Hill and Metal Gear Solid (to name just a few) were released under the Konami banner, making them arguably responsible for more advancements in gaming artistry and complexity than any company not named Nintendo. From Frogger to Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain’s forthcoming release, it’s a trajectory of commercial success and creative vision that’s continuously soared upward.
Sadly, that trajectory has suddenly aimed downward in the past year. If anything, The Phantom Pain’s release on September 1 will likely mark the end of Konami’s reign as a company dedicated to high-grade AAA blockbusters, as well as its commitment to working with auteurs like Hideo Kojima. In my opinion, it’s not hyperbolic to consider them even worse than the gold (bronze? turd colored?) standard for corporate gaming malice themselves, EA. For within just the past year, Konami has left a trail of destruction, greed and neglect that makes them the veritable Goldman Sachs or BP of the gaming industry. OK, perhaps not that evil. But given the company’s once elite pedigree, it’s a loss of integrity that ought to make any gamer’s stomach churn with anger and disappointment.
The first salvo of the company’s demise was arguably its decision to cancel Silent Hills. While some accurately noted that the cancellation in and of itself isn’t necessarily scandalous (many anticipated games have been cancelled, after all), it’s still a tremendous loss to the gaming world we may never fully grasp. After all, it not only negated the work of Hideo Kojima, but also two other elite talents, Guillermo Del Toro and Norman Reedus. (And of course, the dozens upon hundreds of names involved with the creation of a game that won’t get top billing, but still deserve to have their work recognized.) What do we get instead? A Silent Hill slot machine. You could make a direct-to-video sequel to Lawrence of Arabia, and that wouldn’t be as offensive a desecration of great art as this. The most cerebral, complex saga in survival horror…now reduced to what looks like something you’d play at a Reno casino. And while the rumors of the company removing P.T. from PS4s turned out to be untrue, the game’s removal from the PlayStation Store is still an appalling waste of a well-crafted piece of gaming. (God, it seems so long ago that Terry and I were gushing over it in our reviews almost exactly a year ago.)
But while Konami didn’t wholly eradicate P.T. like many (including myself) had been led and led others to believe, that doesn’t mean it’s innocent of artistic erasure. Perhaps even more offensively, they removed Hideo Kojima’s name from the box art for Metal Gear Solid V. It’s here that we arrive at the heart of the matter: the company’s very public, very messy falling out with its leading creative genius. Simply put, Konami’s attitude toward Kojima, such as demanding he not be mentioned by name during an interview, has been absolutely puerile. Whatever the source of their discord, be it money, artistic differences or both, the extent to which Konami is going to distance themselves from their wonderboy is outrageous. Removing Kojima’s name from the cover of the presumed final installment of his signature franchise is worse than a public tantrum: it’s an utter dismissal of his invaluable contributions to the company’s success.
And this is all before getting to the latest, and by far the most repulsive, indictment of Konami’s declining standards. That would be a recent report on the working conditions for their employees. Just how bad are they? Workers are monitored constantly by security cameras, and if they spend so much as a minute or two over their allotted lunch break time, they’re publicly shamed in corporate emails. Developers who don’t fit specified roles are humiliatingly demoted to menial tasks such as janitor and security guard. Workers aren’t even given a permanent company email address, as it’s constantly changed to make them harder to contact. You can read the rest for yourself in the report, as it brings my blood to a boil to recount anymore of it right here.
You’ll notice I put an RIP at the beginning of this article’s title, and given all the transgressions detailed above, it would be fitting to surmise it’s all amounted to a swift institutional suicide for Konami. Yet amidst all this bad publicity, the company isn’t suffering financially. Au contraire, their profits are up 159%. But that only furthers their new image as a soulless corporation when juxtaposed with their treatment of workers, their cancellation of an anticipated blockbuster, and their falling out of one of the industry’s supreme creative talents.
Rather, this piece is an eulogy for Konami’s lifespan as an even remotely credible game company. Many great creative enterprises reach a nadir of some kind, sometimes out of sheer greed, and Konami certainly isn’t the first company to follow this route. But it’s one of the most disheartening examples I can think of, considering how superior their craft has been in such a wide variety of genres. And for such a long period of time, with games that not only sold tremendously, but pushed the envelope in the evolution of gaming as both great entertainment and immersive artwork. I certainly can’t imagine myself being as dedicated to gaming without the impact Silent Hill and Metal Gear Solid had on me personally.
But that all appears to be over, and like any evil corporation that mistreats workers and stifles creativity, it all comes down to the bottom line of money. With their profits soaring, partly due to their shift to mobile games, Konami’s top executives will indeed be more than well off for the foreseeable future, and the company will likely continue to thrive financially, albeit not artistically. But for the millions of gamers who trusted them throughout the years and invested in their top franchises, it’s the end of an era in the worst kind of way. Kojima, Del Toro, Reedus, Konami’s workers, and fans around the world deserve so much better. Konami itself, meanwhile, only deserves to implode the more it’s revealed to be a cruel, greedy organization that makes Pyramid Head seem human.
About Marshall Garvey
Marshall Garvey is a graduate of UC Davis in history, and a gamer since third grade. He has many favorite games, among them “Batman: Arkham City,” “Zelda: Majora’s Mask,” “Resident Evil 4,” “All-Star Baseball 2001,” “Banjo Kazooie,” “Silent Hill 2,” “The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion,” and “Fallout: New Vegas,” among many others. His other interests include baseball, football, boxing, politics, music, movies, jogging, playing trombone, and writing, and he is a devoted fan of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Sacramento Kings, Minnesota Twins, and Oakland Athletics. He recently finished two tenures at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, CA, the first being as an intern at the National Archives wing and the second as a staff writer for the Nixon Foundation. Right now, he’s working on two books for the Sacramento Historical Society, one about the history of baseball in the city and the other about the Governor’s Mansion. He is also the creator of his own trading cards franchise, the United States Presidents Baseball Club, which can be visited at: www.presidentsbaseball.com. You can also see his writing about baseball at: www.brushbackpitch.com