The whole world is abuzz about the new game, Death Stranding. It features an A-List celebrity cast of Norman Reedus, Mads Mikkelson, Guillermo Del Toro, and many more silver-screen names. The game’s mysterious setting and oblique marketing consist of faces you may recognize, but in an uncanny, yet familiar world that does not look like any other video game you’ve seen. Have no fear, gamers don’t know what to make of it either. Weirdness is what the creator, Hideo Kojima, is known best for.
The gaming equivalent of a rockstar explained during an interview, “I always want to be the first guy to do things no one has ever done before,”
Kojima lived up to this mantra the moment he broke into mainstream gaming with 1998’s Metal Gear Solid for the Sony PlayStation. It is one of the earliest games to succeed in creating a cinematic experience as convincing as viewing a film on the big screen. You play as Solid Snake, an elite soldier tasked with infiltrating a nuclear weapons facility taken over by a terrorist group known as FOXHOUND. It features engaging stealth action gameplay and consists of a presentation that echoes classic action films and thrillers, from which its design drew inspiration. Metal Gear Solid deals with serious subjects such as nuclear proliferation and disarmament, genetic engineering, and existing in a post-Cold War era world, topics far beyond the scope of concurrently released games. It is considered a pioneer of stealth action gaming whose legacy is seen in most action-oriented games, even today.
Considered one of the greatest auteur game designers, Kojima’s later games were also critically acclaimed and are still considered incredibly innovative in the way they push the boundaries of game design. His 2001 sequel, Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, improved its gameplay from that of its predecessor by leaps and bounds, but is primarily remembered for its incredibly complex story, which effectively predicted 21st century geopolitics and the post-truth world. It explores topics such as mass manipulation, memes, censorship, sexuality, simulation theory, and more. Later games in the series would expand on such concepts while introducing new gameplay mechanics and features that revolutionized the game industry.
Kojima has stated, in regard to cinematic universes and video games, “[T]he entertainment medium of video games has already exceeded the storytelling capabilities of movies. Games can give birth to as many stories as there are players. Games don’t seek to create endless stories – they can already deliver stories that don’t need to end. Games are also more addictive than movies. And let’s face it, endless addictive entertainment is just what the market – and players – ask for.”
A veteran of the game industry, Kojima started working with the popular video game developer Konami in the late 1980s, and has many popular games under his belt. One of the most popular, which fans still lament, is the 2014 demo for P.T. (Playable Teaser). The teaser was for a sequel to the popular horror video game series, Silent Hill, which he co-directed with acclaimed horror director, Guillermo Del Toro. Fully utilizing the interactivity of games, players play in the first person perspective as they roam around a haunted suburban house, which consistently plays tricks through clever design and expert audio and visual presentation. One infamous example of this trickery is the incorporation of a corridor which repeats endlessly as players open the door at the end, with the corridor changing in minor or drastic ways in each iteration. (Popular gaming Youtuber, NakeyJakey, included a section solely for P.T. for his “Horror in Video Games” video, saying it is the, “Most terrifying piece of media I have ever experienced.”) Although it was Kojima’s first take at a horror game, the demo is still infamous for its innovation and the corporate fallout that led to its removal from the PlayStation Store.
Despite rising to the level of executive within the Konami Digital Entertainment division and head of the studio of talented and forward thinking designers in Kojima Production, Konami cut ties with Kojima. While the story is not completely clear, a pervasive assumption by fans is that this was caused by Kojima’s attempted departure from the Metal Gear Solid series. Whatever happened, it led to Kojima leaving the company, P.T. being pulled, and quite infamously, them barring him from appearing to receive his award for Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain. After the debacle, Sony Interactive Entertainment approached Kojima and his team at Kojima production to fund a new game, which went on to become Death Stranding.
Kojima’s knack for making friends with talented actors and creators is gaining him notoriety outside of the gaming industry. This is because, as his games show, he is a certifiable cinephile. He wrote a series of short essays for Rolling Stone, in which he discussed films, games, and the future of storytelling. Now that Death Stranding has been released, Kojima has announced that he and his production team want to focus on making films. In an interview two years before this announcement, he said:
“I love movies, so at some point in time I would love to make a movie. But I still believe the largest difference between games and movies is that games are interactive. So when creating a game I will focus on creating an experience that you can only have in a game. If I were to film a movie, it would focus on the things a movie can do best, and it would be very different from my games.”
So now that you have the rundown of Hideo Kojima, you are wondering when I’ll answer the question, “WTF is Death Stranding?” Well, the basic plot synopsis is as follows: In the United States, after an apocalyptic event known as Death Stranding has occurred, the barriers between life and death are gone, and the dead roam the earth as ghosts and visions. You play a courier named Sam Bridges (Norman Reedus), and your task is to deliver supplies to the remanent communities and colonies and reconnect them to each other.
While the premise is not hard to wrap your head around, (you are the post apocalyptic version of an Amazon delivery person,) the game itself has had a highly contentious release. Unlike his previous work, Kojima is pushing the boundaries of game design to fit his vision. Despite this design mentality, the themes and motivations of the narrative are still derived from his prime directive with his games. He explained in an interview, “Talking about the present is a way of talking about the past and the future.” The auteur game designer has created a game that tells the story of this moment that we live in. While divisive, Death Stranding serves its purpose as a game meant to be played and experienced in the Kojima style. In a tweet, he explained what makes a game uniquely his:
“33 years ago in Game Industry, the game dev team was formed only 5-6 ppl. Creating the concept ideas, writing the story & specs, drawing the map on the graph paper, helping dot draw, inputting the data directly, managing the flag, constructing simplified language by logic, compressing binary number image, conducting all the directions and even writing the manual script. And then I had to do business management, producing, & promoting. Even when the team got bigger and the task was subdivided my way of making game didn’t change, an indie style. I get involved with the game creation from upstream to downstream. That’s A HIDEO KOJIMA GAME”
Deviating from the mainstream, Death Stranding is a game that is from a unique visionary who is a veteran in game design and storytelling. It is a Hideo Kojima game through and through.
Based in New Jersey, Vickram Singh is a staff editor for Honeysuckle Magazine, where he runs his column: Raised by the Internet. He is also the Managing Editor and staff writer for The Medium, the satirical newspaper at Rutgers University, where he currently studies.