A chat with a friend last week evoked an interesting way to look at Hideo Kojima ‘s most recent game.
We were debating the Coronavirus. Native to China, he commented on how America didn’t take the threat of the outbreak gravely enough. He indicated at their country’s reaction to previous pandemics; in what manner the government and its voters were exceptionally smart to get aboard with the safety measures.
But I stated just how distributed Americans are, which can also be a kind of safeguard. Although there are huge population densities on the coasts, most of them tend to live much more disconnected in our wide-reaching countryside’s. There’s American isolationism, and then there’s American intra-isolationism. Laughably, she understood my reasoning from her business experiences, when she worked with folks of our more mountainous and wooded areas. Places distant from large populations where the dialect is much more… regional.
But I suppose that just furthers Hideo Kojima’s point, and the underlying nature of Death Stranding.
Solitude and Desolation
Death Stranding‘s marketing is deliberately odd. Consider this an early on spoiler alert should someone wish to see this background by their own choice.
America is done and dusted. Rain and snow are contaminated with “chiral matter,” a material which swiftly ages anything it comes into contact with. Vehicles and infrastructures decay and rusted, plants grow and die inside a moment, while creatures age decades from the shortest of showers.
Accompanying these awful weather conditions are near ghostly beings known as BTs. The spectres of people who have not been incinerated; they indiscriminately seek to reconnect with the warmth of life. Unfortunately, their existence creates anti-matter, which reacts with us to cause nuclear explosions.
These risks have led almost all of the humankind underground to outlast the Stranding. But a new project to connect America is proceeding. Protagonist Sam (Norman Reedus) is a porter hesitantly recruited by Bridges, a corporation established to reunite the isolated and segregated cities of United States underneath one flag. But more than the BTs and timefall, Sam has to restore trust in society and take on opposing groups who want to keep America in a divided state.
Kojima Productions may have gained from being more candid about Death Stranding ‘s background and the isolationist cultures its desolate and depressing setting casually promotes. Gratifying these questions severely diminished the first few chapters. There’s something rather unseemly about random folks greeting Sam as “a legend” and talk about his feats, before explaining what common knowledge about the world must be.
A New Genre?
Although some mock Death Stranding as a “walking simulator,” Kojima seems to draw inspiration from other beloved titles. The Elder Scrolls, particularly Skyrim, often consist of long hikes to discover the world. The beautiful, haunting music and gorgeous scenery have long been a part of the series, creating memorable but personal journeys. Red Dead Redemption and its sequel also crafted large, open worlds to traverse. To the characters of Rockstar’s game, hunting and fishing are mundane activities for making a living. To us, as players, they are the adventures we covet.
One theory could be that Kojima saw his new genre in these games. That the adventure lies in the journey itself, that there is more to variety than combat. If this is truly his vision, then proof exists that he is correct. Game series like Dead Space, and aspects of Mass Effect* lost sight of their beloved nature, leaning more into visceral, easily expansive violence. While combat is enjoyable, adventures are exceedingly more difficult to make quantifiable, and thus are more valuable.
And despite its faults and frustrations, there are moments of pure magic in Death Stranding. Pausing to take in the majestic mountain tops after a tough climb. The apprehension of storm clouds rolling in, when one can see the black tendrils of BT umbilical cords descending from the heavens. Or that wondrous moment when Sam takes a rest and breaks out the harmonica for an excited BB. These instances of beauty make sense of Kojima’s vision that someday games, and cinema will become one.
“That American intra-isolationism is constantly at work…”
The stick of alienation and carrot of social interaction does make sense. Yet when a guiding principle of a game revolves around its aesthetic themes, there will always carry some risk of friction between the story and the gameplay, and that cost Kojima other, proven avenues of storytelling. Despite the availability of vehicles to Sam, mid-drive conversations akin to the Grand Theft Auto series were rarely applied. And the time fall and outdoors denied use of visual cues like the desecration of Bioshock’s Rapture. Hints that washed away long ago, like tears in the rain.
Hideo Kojima is a living product of cinema, a walking library of narrative design. Hence applause must be given for his disciplined thematic consistency. But the appeal of Death Stranding is readily more subjective than his other works. Many people already spend a great deal of their time alone, choosing texts and social media over direct conversations. We order online more often, eschewing crowded transportation and retail outlets. Automation has replaced a great deal of human interaction.
That American intra-isolationism is constantly at work. And a game about confronting our solitude maybe a line most people are not ready to cross.
A unique approach
Quite possibly the most intriguing idea in Death Stranding is its unusual approach to multiplayer. Naturally, the game’s nature lends itself almost entirely to the single-player experience. But that’s not to say there isn’t room to let other people impact your adventure positively. And to show some love back.
Rather than direct interactions, players create structures in their own worlds and share some of them with others, a sandbox with borrowed toys. These shared structures do not take from the limited bandwidth but are “freebies” that are excellent to take advantage of. On occasion, their presence can be annoying, but they are easy enough to dismiss and remove. Very often, complete coverage of useful structures, such as ziplines, requires assistance from other players.
But more than just connections with people, it creates user-created variety. What if this idea could be taken for other games if experiences could be shared between worlds somehow? What if the effects of players culminate into greater challenges? Perhaps something akin to Castlevania’s Legion, only created by dead players? That’s certainly something one could see happening in the Dark Souls series, which may be the genesis of the idea through its message and ghost’s system.
If there was one improvement to suggest however, it would be more colour contrast between the blue (player-created) and green (created via multiplayer) icons. In fact, the light text colours and small button icons are the weakness of the UI design, being difficult to see against the bright sky or snow.
Dying doesn’t mean the end
There are many other themes to discuss Death Stranding. The idea of the afterlife and what it means to the world. The importance of time and temporal connections to death. There is also the unusual character designs, each of whom is broken, and with startlingly different views on the matter of death. But this article’s theme has primarily been on the subject of connection, and such thoughts should wait.
Rumours abound, with some credibility to them, that downloadable content may be released this summer. Some of which may even have further story matters to discuss and may further expand upon the background of Death Stranding’s unusual cast of characters. If it’s true, then it may be best to reserve further thoughts until then.
Once in a lifetime experience?
While it has been hailed as a mesmerising experience by the fans because of all well-justified reasons in their eyes, critics have been quick to point out the monotonous nature of the game, sloppy and slow game mechanics. Not to mention it big labelled as an indie art project with a bunch of big-name actors.
Although the game was first released as a PS4 console exclusive, now it’s available on PC to, so it is advised to have the best setups, including a PC racing gaming chair, gaming mouse and a gaming keyboard to make the most out of your experience. Plus if you have amassed a large collection of games over the years, consider storing them in a proper CD and DVD storage box, or live in fear of them decaying away as if timefall hit them.