A Dead Whale of a Tale

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.

“It’s all the truth, except for the lies.”
“We run together…like Mario and Princess ‘Beach.'”
“Take the first step, Sam, and deliver the president’s body to the incinerator.”

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.

Game Review: Grand Theft Auto V

**

Developed by Rockstar Games. Published by Take-Two Interactive. Available on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. Reviewed on Xbox One.

Guess what? Grand Theft Auto is back…again. Like other hits released at the tail end of the last console generation, the gaming event that was Grand Theft Auto V has received the “Definitive Edition” treatment: a next-gen coat of paint, some added features, and a re-release at full price. Should you shell out for it a second time? Well, a year ago I would have said “Hell yeah” simply because of the hype, but now I’d give a careful “Yes, so long as you tweak your expectations.” GTA has changed a lot over the past thirteen years, and its current focus might not be where you want it to be.

By now, you already know what GTA V is about: three criminals with very different backgrounds unite and perform a series of heists around the fictional city of Los Santos. You have Michael, a former bank robber who’s having a mid-life crisis. You’ve got Franklin, a repo man who’s trying to break free from his gang ties. Then there’s Trevor, a manic meth-head who dreams of a life of chaos. When these three get together, you get shooting, you get driving, you get carjacking, you get a whole hell of a lot of missions. You know the drill by now: steal cars, drive here, shoot that, lose the cops, torture this guy, blow up that guy, watch that woman get sucked into a jet engine. Typical GTA stuff. In fact, it feels a little tiresome by now. What puts the missions a cut above other games is the story. There’s a constant stream of social commentary flowing through this game, and you’ll love it if you can get on its cynical wavelength. I don’t usually care about story in games, but I care about this one. Of course, the plot isn’t sensical or plausible, and Michael and Trevor are such strong characters that they overshadow the rest of the cast, but there’s some heady, heavy stuff in here. The cutscenes are well-acted, dramatic, shocking, and they’re even laugh-out-loud funny. If you play GTA V just to screw around in the open world, you’re missing the best parts.

It helps that they look breathtaking. GTA V looked incredible even on consoles past, but now it’s even better. The characters have convincing faces and movements. Car interiors, the only aspect of the previous version that looked bad, now have full ridges and contours. The California sun bathes the world in beautiful, natural-looking color, and the northern deserts look like photographs. Never before has a game inspired me to stop what I was doing just so I could watch a freaking sunrise. Those bleeding pinks and grays…they really just nailed it. Los Santos isn’t just a place to make trouble, it’s a place to sightsee (an activity that works especially well with the new first-person viewpoint). If you look around long enough, you’ll find some cool surprises to look at, though that’s pretty much all you can do with them.

I have to say, GTA V is a strange product overall. Within the framework of its missions, it’s an excellent, story-based video game, but between those missions, it’s like visiting an amusement park, complete with the walks and the waiting and the expensive food. It is the latest step on a path that Rockstar started on in 2002 with Vice City. That was the point when they steered away from the development of groundbreaking gameplay, and focused on the construction of incredibly detailed worlds. I don’t just mean that their games have great graphics, either. While other game makers concentrate on stretching their environments to enormous sizes and packing them with slightly varied side quests, Rockstar pours its efforts into that less-tangible quality of atmosphere. Their mantra seems to be “deeper characters, smarter dialogue, more texture in the corners.” You can trace the rise of this design dogma as it threads through games like GTA IV, Red Dead Redemption, and Max Payne 3, with GTA V sitting at the pinnacle. No one else does world-building of this caliber. Even role-playing games, with their volumes of backstory and lore, don’t capture the sensation of BEING THERE as well as GTA V does, but that doesn’t mean it’s always exciting.

I’m just going to say it: there are a lot of parts of GTA V that are pointless, or just plain dull. Driving from one place to another can take a good long while, and it actually made me sleepy at times. The game has ATM machines that display your cash balance, when your HUD already does a perfectly good job of that. You can take a star tour, get a lap dance, hunt animals, run marathons, do yoga, play tennis and golf, and even go skydiving, and all these activities are surprisingly rich little mini-games, but, really, just…why? Isn’t this supposed to be a game about crime? Oh, and get a rubber band out of the junk drawer if you want to complete the cult storyline, because one of its missions requires Michael to WALK FIVE MILES IN A CIRCLE. I’m not joking. I know it’s supposed to be satirical of cult practices, but five miles? Wouldn’t one mile get the point across? No video game should ask such a thing. It’s like something Andy Warhol would come up with if he made games. If it’s a joke, then the joke’s on us.

What’s even more frustrating is that GTA V introduces some neat gameplay ideas to balance out the boredom, but then it leaves them half-baked. Michael can saunter around his mansion and say hi to his wife and kids, but he can only have conversations with them over the phone. You can take pictures with your phone, but you can’t record video. Franklin has a Rottweiler named Chop who can sniff out collectibles or run down bad guys, but he only features in one or two missions. Hand-to-hand combat is much more responsive than it was in GTA IV, but strangely enough, most of the people you fight will hit the floor after a single punch. You can swap characters at will during some missions, but it’s only useful at certain scripted moments. The famous heists appear full of emergent possibilities from the surface, as they allow players to pick their plans and allies, but all these choices affect are the branches in pre-determined events. You don’t get to post shooters, choose vehicles, draw escape routes, or anything like that.

Then there are the controls. Like the game’s design, they’re not exactly bad — they’re greatly improved over GTA IV’s — they’re just unconventional. Most games assign context-sensitive actions to a single button, but GTA V uses three. The buttons used for reloading weapons and taking cover also stubbornly differ from gaming standards. The game’s generous auto-aim makes most firefights too easy, but if you turn it off, they get too hard. There’s no cruise control option, in a game whose long freeways demand it. And you still have to hold a button to make your character jog at a reasonable speed…but not in multiplayer or first-person mode. It makes no sense. Just ditch the run button already!

These oversights aren’t deadly to GTA V, as they’re from the same vein of niggling problems common to most Rockstar games. It’s just that I think a lot of this stuff should be ironed out by now, especially in a second release. I also think this game would be better if it was structured like Max Payne 3, and if the game world felt, well, more like a game. The truth is, though, that this is a story-based game whose story is so good it makes everything surrounding it look lame and unnecessary, and sadly, most of it is.

The good news is that you have a lot of good options for open-world games now. GTA isn’t your sole choice. Get Far Cry 4 if you want a variety of activities with emergence and freedom of play. Get Sunset Overdrive if you want constant engaging action. Get GTA V, though, if you want to take part in a beautiful, well-produced, action-adventure story that’s on par with AMC’s best dramas. Just expect a little ennui dashed in there as well. Sorry, but you can’t have it all.

Kifflom!