New Game 'Death Stranding' Is A Compelling Mess

Nov 1, 2019
Originally published on November 9, 2019 5:02 pm

In the world of cinema, we're led to believe that a given film lives or dies by the creative decisions of a single, all-powerful hand: the director. In the world of video games, things are (usually) different.

Instead, game players and critics tend to celebrate (or condemn) the work of studios and development teams. This focus on a collective group of individuals as opposed to a monolithic auteur feels more honest. After all, video games are made by hundreds — sometimes thousands — of hardworking creatives.

The games of Hideo Kojima have proven an exception. Kojima is one of big-budget gaming's few legitimate auteurs — someone with the power and influence to slap the words "A Hideo Kojima Game" on a product and have it signify something.

Known mostly for overseeing the Metal Gear series, Kojima has auteur-ed some of the most inventive, polarizing, provocative and distinctive titles in video games. These games tend to borrow Hollywood conventions: They include long cinematic sequences and star-studded voice casts, they feature outsized narratives where B-movie-level dialogue sits alongside insightful social and political commentary.

But Kojima also strives to ensure his games are something more, something wholly different, than interactive movies — he stuffs them with self-aware jokes, meta-commentary, and clever mechanics that force players to think about the very act of playing a game. To many, Kojima is a pioneer in the medium: a visionary creator who strives for games to be recognized as a distinct medium as narratively captivating as any other.

Kojima also has his critics — those who find his writing and accompanying auteur persona pretentious. Recently, Kojima stirred up controversy with a series of tweets some found self-aggrandizing and disingenuous:

This, Twitter was quick to point out, was a hammed-up version of his actual predicament. When Kojima started his studio, he was already a highly successful and presumably wealthy game designer. In an era where abusive labor practices and unionization are central conversations in the gaming space, there was something peculiar about one of its biggest names basking in his own idolatry.

Death Stranding is the first game released by Kojima and his new studio, and with it comes all the over-the-top Kojima flavor that has made him a star.

Make no mistake: This is thoroughly a Hideo Kojima game. Though made by many individuals, it bears the unmistakable marks of its supreme creator. In fact, it is maybe the most Hideo Kojima of all Hideo Kojima games.

Its familiar excesses are unchecked, including loads of celebrity appearances — Guillermo Del Toro, Nicolas Winding Refn, Edgar Wright — and a music soundtrack that features the likes of CHVRCHES and Khalid.

In the past, Kojima's over-the-top dialogue seemed aware of it's own absurdity. Now, it's painfully overwrought and melodramatic. The game's dialogue and premise are corny as hell. Sometimes, it's a blast to play, with enthralling, terrifying, overwhelming set pieces. But it's often a chore, with dull gameplay that consists of the player traversing the same empty stretch of environment over and over again. This isn't an issue early on, but it often feels like what would be a solid 20-hour story is being stretched out to a repetitive 40 hour experience.

In Death Stranding, you play as Sam Porter Bridges (voiced by Norman Reedus), a "courier" in charge of delivering cargo to those strewn about a geographically divided America. After a catastrophic explosion called The Death Stranding has left America on the verge of extinction, Sam is in charge of "bridging" America back together again. He does this by walking the length of the now-disparate nation, joining together its regions onto what is known as the "chiral network." Those on the network are able to share useful data, cargo, and information with one another so they can collaborate on the monumental task of piecing the country back together again.

The game throws several impediments to that goal at the player. Ever since The Death Stranding event, deadly acid rain that burns human flesh falls to the ground. There are "BTs", souls stuck in-between the afterlife and the world of the living, that stalk the landscape. There are also a group of domestic terrorists called the "Homo Demens" who are "not bound by a single ideology" but remain steadfast on stopping America's reunification by any means necessary.

There is also an incubated baby strapped to our protagonist's chest...called a BB. It's a government-issued tool that helps Sam see the BTs that now stalk the landscape. BB seems engineered to be memed about: The way the game treats him as a vessel for both humor and sentimentality is peak Kojima.

At certain times in the past, Kojima's games felt like vessels for long cutscenes that tell a story. But in Death Stranding, it's the gameplay itself that contains the most compelling thematic moments. Most of this revolves around Sam delivering a package, or "cargo" as the game calls it, across a stretch of the game's environment. This simple premise hides a deep set of systems that force the player to make intelligent choices about how to approach every scenario. For example, there is a limit to how much cargo Sam can take with him, so figuring out whether you need a ladder to cross a river, or a rope to scale the side of a cliff, becomes important. Do you want to take the route where the cargo-stealing bandits impede your path, or where the BTs threaten your progress? Both are hazards of equal difficulty, but they each require a different skill-set. These systems and decision trees keep building on one another, adding an unexpected complexity to what many on the internet have (somewhat justifiably) dubbed a "walking simulator."

I will admit that I often prioritized convenience and sure-fire decision making over potentially more creative solutions. I can't tell whether this is a fault of my own, or a fault of the game's design. It certainly seems like the game rewarded hard-headed decisions.

In one early mission, for example, I was asked to retrieve lost cargo from an area infested with cargo-stealing bandits called "MULEs." If you are detected, the MULEs will gather around you, knock you unconscious, and steal your cargo. My first few tries, I attempted to sneak my way through the camp, but kept getting caught. This proved tedious and not worth the trouble. Eventually, I just sprinted straight into the camp. I was detected, and despite taking a considerable amount of damage, the game nonetheless awarded me a perfect "S" rating.

In another instance of what I've chalked up to poor game design, a late-game boss encounter took me an incredibly long time to defeat, while also depriving me of the necessary resources to do so. If there was an easier way to finish the mission, it wasn't obvious.

I'm sure other players will find more creative ways to solve the problems I couldn't. Death Stranding seems like the kind of game for which players will still be discovering inventive strategies a year from now. It is conducive to a long life on Twitch, and I could see myself enjoying watching others play this game more than I enjoyed playing it myself.

The most interesting bit of Death Stranding's gameplay design is how effortlessly it weaves in multiplayer components. When you build a structure in Death Stranding -- be it a ladder, a sign warning players of danger, a rope, a zipline, a shelter, what have you — it is also visible to other players in the world. Players can share equipment and put up signs warning players of upcoming hazards. You can also award other players with "likes" for structures that are considered useful. These "likes" function essentially like the game's experience point system. The more likes you get, the higher Sam's "porter grade" is.

It's wild how much I cringed at all the heady, overwrought dialogue about "rebuilding America," but how readily I was impressed by this simple multiplayer gameplay conceit. Death Stranding's play connectivity represents a brilliant inversion of how we normally play video games together online. Rarely do multiplayer games altogether forgo competitive play and actively encourage players to solely help one another. Death Stranding does that, and in this simple idea lies a better distillation of its core themes than a single moment of its overwritten script.

Oh boy, this script.

Let's start with what works, which are the many over-the-top and compelling characters Kojima has written here. There is Die-Hard Man, voiced by Tommie Earl Jenkins, an ominous mask-wearing bureaucrat who loves to give orders. There is Heartman, who enters cardiac arrest and dies 60 times a day. There is Mama, who parents the soul of a dead baby stuck in the realm of the living. There is Deadman, whose character model is built from a 3D scan of Guillermo Del Toro. And there is a Mads Mikkelsen character of dubious motivations who appears in mysterious dream sequences and calls you "BB." Our protagonist Sam is a gruff, anti-social action hero with a fear of being touched.

These characters are emblematic of Kojima's willingness to take outlandish ideas and concepts and treat them with a sense of playful self-awareness. It's this brand of humor that have always made his games great. Which is why it's so unfortunate that, for the most part, the dialogue given to these characters is so abysmal. Characters are constantly engaged in endless bouts of exposition, explaining every bit of Death Stranding's needlessly complicated lore. When they're not explaining, they are engaged in a melodramatic speeches involving lots of uncanny close-ups and flowing tears. I often yearned for these characters to talk with one another about something...pedestrian. That's kind of what the Metal Gear Solid games were known for, and these kinds of funny, less serious moments make the heady stuff more palatable.

There's a lot less of that funny minutiae which has so characterized Kojima's work, but it is here. Take the scene where you shower with Guillermo Del Toro while he reveals to you organizational secrets. Your character can urinate anywhere in the environment, leaving a glowing mushroom in his wake. To refill your stamina, you drink Monster energy drinks from a canteen. And of course, the incubated BB that stays strapped to your chest is the game's most endearing oddity. In the heat of battle, you might be asked to soothe your BB to stop him from crying, which consists of rocking your controller back and forth while a lullaby plays from your controller speaker.

Turns out that when it comes to the serious stuff, Death Stranding is most effective when it operates as a kind of tone poem. In an interview leading up to the game's release, director George Miller said of Kojima's work: "The skill I see in great filmmakers, I now see in Kojima-san's work. All the visual languages, the syntax, the compelling imagery — it's all there."

Here, that imagery does most of the thematic heavy lifting. America, reduced to a landscape devoid of human life, feels haunting. Decaying whales are sprawled along beaches. A previously giant lake is now a huge mass of black tar. However rough the particulars of Kojima's script may be, he has always been good at painting in broad strokes that force us to think about the existential threats haunting us. In Metal Gear Solid, it was the fear of annihilation brought about by advanced military weaponry. In Death Stranding, it's the threat of environmental devastation.

It's a shame that these broader ideas never get reconciled into something deliberate and cohesive. If you're paying attention to anything happening in American politics, Death Stranding's bold-faced metaphors about "isolation," "walls," and a "divided America" aren't exactly ... subtle. But they're also so vague they could mean any number of things to any number of people. The result is a game that, if it was meant to say something grand about the state of American politics, comes off as inessential.

In the end, that might not matter. With Death Stranding, I believe that Hideo Kojima has made exactly the game he set out to, blemishes and all. In a 49 minute demo shown off at the Tokyo Game Show earlier this year, Kojima talks about the most mundane pleasures — offloading 5 kg of cargo from Sam's back, or placing a ladder across a river — with such fervent enthusiasm you can't help but smile in utter bewilderment. This game is unadulterated Kojima, for better and for worse.

Death Stranding will be divisive. There will be the Kojima-stans who defend its every design decision, claiming that anybody who dares criticize the game is incapable of understanding the unparalleled brilliance of its creator. There will also be those who condemn this game, calling it a work of pretentious fraudulence.

The reality is that Death Stranding is neither a masterpiece nor a failure. It's a fairly average but ambitious experience, elevated by the enthusiasm and eccentricity of its creator. As frustrating a creative work as it often is, there's no doubting that it's an earnest one.

Death Stranding will be released on November 8th.

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It's become something of an article of faith to say we live in divided times, especially politically. But we're going to spend the next part of the program focusing on efforts to bridge divides. A new video game by visionary game designer Hideo Kojima was released yesterday for the PlayStation 4. It's called Death Stranding. And it tasks players with reconnecting a divided America. NPR's Vincent Acovino says the game is frustrating but compelling.

VINCENT ACOVINO, BYLINE: The opening images are of extinction - whales washed up on a beach, birds struck down by acid rain, former bustling cities reduced to rubble, all thanks to a not-so-far-off environmental disaster called the death stranding.


NORMAN REEDUS: (As Sam Porter Bridges) Once there was an explosion, a bang which gave rise to life as we know it. And then came the next explosion.

ACOVINO: That's Sam Porter Bridges, played by "The Walking Dead" actor Norman Reedus. By trade, Sam is a courier or a delivery man. He's also part of an organization trying to reconnect an America torn apart by natural disaster and domestic terrorism. He does so with the help of a baby strapped to his chest that helps him fight interdimensional spirits.


ACOVINO: Death Stranding is outlandish. The games of Hideo Kojima are obtuse, cinematic, eccentric. His Metal Gear Solid series is famous for having hourlong cut scenes, B-movie dialogue and postmodern gameplay mechanics. Death Stranding bears all the marks of a Hideo Kojima title, for better and for worse. It has over-the-top characters like Heartman, who dies every 21 minutes.


WINDING REFN: (As Heartman) Defecation, pollution, nutrition - most of life's basic functions fit rather easily into a 21-minute time slot.

ACOVINO: And as a game, Death Stranding is intentionally mundane. The simple act of moving around, which is a breeze in most video games, is treated like a puzzle in Death Stranding. You travel across jagged terrain while tending to various logistical details like balancing the weight of the cargo on your back or scanning a stretch of terrain to see if a cliff is too steep to scale or water too deep to walk across.

Death Stranding is far from perfect. It has overwritten dialogue and serious pacing issues, but it's an earnest creative expression from a talented game designer. In an interview with the BBC, Kojima said that during a time when, quote, "Trump is building a wall and the U.K. is leaving the EU," he wanted to make a game about using bridges to connect things. Games often pit us against one another. And just weeks after yet another Call Of Duty release, there's something to admire about Death Stranding's refusal to do so. Vincent Acovino, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.