As Kotaku UK reported a few days ago, an Italian doctor called Sergio Canavero is currently at the centre of an insane internet-generated conspiracy involving Metal Gear Solid V, head transplants, and a whole host of other mad ideas. To cut a long story short, because of his strong resemblance to a doctor who appears briefly in a trailer for Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, Dr Canavero has found himself the centre of attention in some sectors of the gaming world over the past week. He’s been contacted by several internet strangers trying to link him to Kojima, and has stated that he intends to seek damages from Konami for using his likeness without permission.
During my conversation with Dr.Canavero earlier this week I found a lot of the answers that I was looking for about this whole mess, but I wasn't fully satisfied. Today, I spent some time on the phone with Dr Canavero’s lawyer Stefano Ponte, and things took a slightly different turn.
“It's all a bit strange,” said Ponte, in what possibly counts as the understatement of the year so far. “I mean, the way in which they supposedly used his image is not very clear. While on the one hand it seems that he does indeed appear in this game, it's all a bit unclear to me. He was first emailed by some English [or English-speaking] person as far as I understand, who alerted him to this trailer. Subsequently many more emails started coming into his inbox – random people asking him if he was involved in this game or if he was part of the development. The issue is delicate: he's a real doctor, and he's already seen as a controversial figure by some...”
The Grand Theft Auto imagery that led to a lawsuit from Lindsay Lohan.
I pointed out to Mr Ponte that while the whole context in which the trailer character is presented definitely lends itself to a lot of debate, the character's image was scanned from the actor Ian Moore. Not to mention that, aside from those brief snippets in the trailer, we still know absolutely nothing about the character and how much he is really like Dr.Canavero in terms of personality. I also mentioned the whole Lindsay Lohan/Rockstar affair; based on that, I’m not terribly sure that legal action would have legs. But then, I'm no lawyer.
“Yes, exactly… we need to investigate a lot and really understand what's going on and if there really is a connection,” said Stefano. “I'm certainly not an expert on video games, so I might actually need that kind of knowledge to assess exactly what the situation is and how likely it is that there's some actual foul-play.”
I felt it was worth telling Mr Ponte that for the Metal Gear fanbase especially, it's pretty normal that for every trailer, image or tweet released, there's a new conspiracy or speculation going on in a matter of seconds. As it happens, I’m a YongYea level of MGS nut, maybe even bigger (big fan by the way, Yong), so I’m hardly unfamiliar with the kind of trolling and teasing that Kojima is so fond of. Often, the links and speculation generated by the fanbase bear little relation to what’s in the product itself. This time, it just got a little out of hand.
"It's all a bit strange," said Dr Canavero's lawyer, in what possibly counts as the understatement of the year so far
“As a non-expert in video games, all I can do for now is look at an image and say 'yes...it looks quite a bit like him and the context seem to fit.' But that's different from having an actual solid [I SWEAR, guys, that’s a direct translation, there's no hidden message here!] ground for legal action. They've been surely working on the game for a long time, and maybe they were just inspired by the figure or work of Dr. Canavero and that's it. There's a lot of aspects still to evaluate. Legally speaking this kind of situation is never easy to handle when it comes to proof. We will, however, surely send a pre-emptive letter to Konami – but for the time being it's more a form of protection than anything else.”
Mr Ponte was kind enough to send me a copy of all the legal documentation, and the complaint filed to the Polizia Postale [the Italian police in charge of this kind of thing]. There has also been a fake Twitter account established in Canavero’s name, which features in the police report. (“If the person managing the Twitter writes something stupid or bad and people don't realise it's a fake one, it's not good for someone in his field and with that visibility,” he explained.) They do not plan to file anything more than a pre-emptive letter against Konami for some time – probably not until the game actually comes out. (When they do, Ponte said he would provide it to me.)
Here’s a summary of what it says: Canavero claims that on the 19th of April he was contacted via email by an unknown British person (this doesn't appear to be a media outlet, just a random personal address). The email contained a link to a trailer for an upcoming game in which he recognised himself in a digitalised format, presumably from a video of one of his TED conferences. He seems, based on his testimony on the papers, to be concerned about the fact that the subsequent images in the trailer are very violent, and about how this might be linked to his image. After specifying once again that he didn't know the person who sent the email, he says that right after that he started receiving dozens of phone calls from one individual (he mentions only one phone number with a 0044 prefix) asking him if he knew about Phantom Pain, while laughing. Then there's the part about him contacting his lawyer and another part in which he talks about the Twitter account. The doctor specifies that he's never had any social media account of any kind.
Just to put the brakes on any crazy internet rage reaction and to put it in layman's terms: this kind of document is usually what starts an investigation and protects the person who files it. That's all. Only after the investigation has been conducted will the results of said investigation determine whether something's going on or not. To put it simply, this police report is not such a huge deal – not yet at least. It's a very standard practice.
"I'll be honest, I don't think Dr Canavero is too worried about funding the HEAVEN project off the back of this incident… he was probably just being funny"
Overall Mr Ponte seems way more cautious than Dr Canavero himself in his approach to the whole situation. I mentioned how excitable Canavero sounded during my conversation with him and how passionate he was – I also told Ponte that he asked me about the cost of the game and how many copies it would sell.
“Yes, he's definitely a very passionate man and despite being a very good, even brilliant neurosurgeon, he also struggles a lot in the medical community regarding the HEAVEN project,” said Stefano. “So he's both excited about people listening to him and giving him more visibility, and being worried about being labeled crazy or being linked to something violent. Regarding the money, I'll be honest, I don't think he's too worried about funding the project off the back of this incident… he was probably just being funny. He has people willing to fund the project already, and he will also be in the United States in the near future to discuss exactly this, so that's not likely to be a real concern of his. Also, don't forget that he's been studying in his field obsessively for decades. You know how these scientists are, they're so obsessed and invested in what they do that they almost lose a bit of connection to the real world. Part of my job is also to... help my clients in that aspect.”
It sounded like Mr Ponte has his work cut out trying to prevent his clients from losing their heads (so to speak). If you think about it, any big innovator was labelled as a crazy person at least once in their life.
In the last four days reporting this story, I’ve called various hospitals, asked for help from some friends at the biggest news agencies in Europe to cross reference documents and statements, and juggled legal issues. But there are some things that make it difficult to pass accurate judgement on what’s going on here. On one hand, Occam's razor tells me that the simpler explanation (and all the evidence I've gathered) points towards Dr Canavero being both genuinely concerned about his image being linked to what he considers a very violent video game and, at the same time, happy about the publicity that all of this is bringing to his cause. His lawyer, meanwhile, is very professional and cautious.
It’s possible that Kojima really was fascinated by the Doctor's persona (remember that Canavero has been around for a long, long time and Kojima does a lot of research), and drew inspiration from some of his traits or his work before hiring an actor that reminded him of Canavero. It could really be as simple as that, art imitating life in the oldest of ways.
I'll be honest with you: what really got me interested in this whole ordeal, and what ended up sending the whole fanbase crazy, is that if you take the two subjects of this story (Kojima and Dr.Canavero) and really look at them… don’t they seem like a match made in heaven? If you ask me, instead of pursuing legal proceedings, Cavanero should be trying to find a way to actually work together with Kojima instead. Imagine how crazy the fanbase would go.