Hey guys, guess what? Yeah, it’s my turn to talk about this thing.
After playing Death Stranding on the PlayStation 4, I’m convinced that the gulf between American and Japanese cultures, as well as that between video games and movies, are still vast, and might not be crossed for several generations. I’m not sure if Hideo Kojima was trying to bridge those gaps in writing and designing this game, but if he was, I’m sorry to say that he failed.
The reason I’m sorry about that is because Death Stranding is an uncompromised venture. I can see that it was made with a sincere and unquestioned enthusiasm, but I think that a little questioning might have done it some good. I find its gameplay engrossing, but it’s not for everyone, and its cinematics and backstory — impressive though they are — are certainly not for most gaming audiences.
Death Stranding is a game about delivering things, not just hiking or walking as some folks like to complain. It’s about plotting routes, packing materials, and maintaining equipment (artificial and natural). It’s about setting up signs and services to facilitate trips for oneself as well as for others. It’s about making a plan and watching it come together. It’s also highly physical: balance and momentum are always at odds in this game, so one must consider each step carefully to avoid damaging tumbles.
What I’m saying is that Death Stranding is the sequel to Solar Jetman that I’ve been waiting for.
I’ve always loved games like Solar Jetman and The Oregon Trail, in which the details and decisions of travel actually matter. It bugs me when the challenges of roughing it are abstracted down to random monster encounters. I don’t want to just slide my characters around a world map; I want to experience it. I want to decide how to deal with a fallen tree, how to cross a rocky gorge, or how to scale a cliff. I want to see my characters heft themselves over logs, trudge through muddy fields, and fall over in the dirt. We’ve recently seen some rugged, outdoorsy adventures like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild or Red Dead Redemption II, and I think Death Stranding took a lot of inspiration from them. Still, Stranding, with its harsh, ghost-ridden world, leaves them far behind.
Death Stranding asks me to do all those things I talked about, from finding ways up mountains to finding ways around pirate camps. It gives me a big map, some basic tools, and a whole mountain of deliveries, and says, “Get to it.” It lets me explore, it lets me experiment. It lets me fall over, and then figure out the best way to avoid falling again. Some players jeer at this, saying that the protagonist’s flailing and flopping makes him look pathetic. I say, as I make Sam trundle across a barren, seemingly endless plain, bowed under hundreds of pounds of cargo, that feeling pathetic is part of the point. This game is as much about isolation as it is about delivering. It’s about trying to make a difference in an indifferent world.
Unfortunately, this sort of thing just isn’t all that popular. People don’t want to pretend that they’re small, or that they’re part of something greater than themselves. They want to feel powerful, important, better than what they already are. Of course, “better” is a subjective term, and only indicates what a person values, not the value of that person.
I admit that Death Stranding is simply not the sort of game that most gamers want to play, and I can’t say I blame them for their sniggering. This is a AAA, big-budget release, brought to us by the guy who made Metal Gear Solid, so expectations for the next big thing in action games were high. A ponderous meditation on loneliness and logistics was not what these people were looking for. I’d like to say that this was an intentional, large-scale joke committed by one of gaming’s best-known pranksters, but I’ve given up on analyzing Kojima’s motivations.
What I do know is that Hideo Kojima loves to spin stories. Big stories. Big, anime, sci-fi stories about world-ending catastrophes, the dangers of technology, and all manner of other social issues. He tends to be a little overzealous about it, though. I wouldn’t go so far as to say he’s the Ed Wood of video games, as he’s actually pretty damn talented, but I do fear that he shares some of Wood’s delusional verve.
You see, Kojima tries really, really hard to ape his favorite Hollywood movies, but oftentimes his efforts are misplaced. In Snatcher, one of his first games, there’s an early scene in which a character separates from his wife in a flying car. As the car ascends, the character says something, but the engine roar drowns it out. The wife says that she can’t hear him, but then he flies off, and we never know what was said. I take it that this was meant to be some sort of tearful parting, not unlike the Train-Station Goodbye of Since You Went Away, but this is not the last time the two characters ever see each other. In fact, since this scene occurs right at the beginning of the game, the two are bound to interact quite often. The mystery of the drowned-out line is never brought up again. It feels like Kojima just put it there to put it there. Without a fitting subtext, the drama falls on its face.
In Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, a game Kojima made many years into his career, there’s a love scene between two awkward scientists. The man’s an anime nerd who’s falls in love with any pretty girl he sees, and the woman’s a treacherous reptile who injects people with grey goo. There’s so little to like about these characters that the tender, heartfelt music that plays as they surrender to ardor only made me shake my head. Later, the woman commits suicide, while her new lover, witnessing the act through a computer screen, bawls likes a baby. I’m not even a fan of Shakespeare, and I was embarrassed at this overblown attempt to emulate him.
To put it simply, Kojima is very much in love with being a director, although I don’t think he knows what being a director really means.
Sadly, this lesson continues to elude him in Death Stranding, whose delightful kernel of gameplay is surrounded by an absurd, Lynchian melodrama. Although I just spoke about the profound melancholy that I feel when playing this game, I can’t say that’s what was intended, because the tone is all over the place.
The apocalyptic setting for the game is lovingly crafted, but its explanation is so complicated that it employs a whole glossary of jargon. There’s some dark symbolism with frightening implications, but there’s also a whole lot of ham-fisted silliness about ropes, knots, and strands that gets tiresome quickly. There’s also that unique preoccupation with marine life that could only have sprung from a culture of islanders. It’s striking, but it feels out of place in a story that won’t stop reminding us of how American it is.
I’d say the biggest problem, though, is in the game’s characters. They’re all modeled after real actors (and comedians and film directors), and they look amazing. Seriously, Death Stranding in action makes even non-gamers turn their heads with its up-to-the-minute cast and presentation. But then these fabulously rendered beings start talking, and we find that they’re given names that sound like Mega Man villains, and dialogue worse than anything Anakin Skywalker ever said.
They say these things with tremendous gravity, and I’m left wondering how I’m supposed to react. I suppose this is the fault of poor translation. For all I know, the original Japanese script could have sounded downright poetic. National differences, however, can’t explain the indulgent visuals. When you play this game, expect lots of long, lingering shots on Lea Seydoux’s pouty face and panty-model’s butt.
I’m sure there are a lot of apologists who’ll say that I’m not supposed to take Kojima’s games very seriously. In fact, the first song that plays in Death Stranding — and there are a lot of songs — is titled “Don’t Be So Serious.” That would fall in line with the idea that Kojima is really a master troll, but I suspect it’s more of a copout, and a coverup for the man’s wanting skill as a storyteller.
I can get past this, though, because I love playing the game so much. It’s gotten to the point where I’m even thinking about it when I’m at work, or getting out of bed in the morning. I keep thinking about how I want to thread my route so as to complete the most deliveries in one swoop. I keep thinking about how I need to truck some metals from the distro center so I can finally finish that highway I’ve been working on. I keep thinking about the new bola gun I just got, and which MULE outpost I should try it out at. I keep thinking about BB, and how difficult being a parent really must be. In these manifold regards, the game really has its hooks in me.
My concern is that most others won’t agree with me, and as a result, we may never see another Death Stranding again. It was too much risk for too many eye-rolls. The thing is: I respect the risks that Kojima took with this game. I like that he left his fingerprints all over it. Any creative person should look to this game and be inspired by it. To the end of my days, I will gladly argue that big-budget entertainment is in sore need of that wondrous, childlike love of creation that Kojima is in touch with, cringeworthy or not.