Death Stranding Digital Cover
Words by Lana Polansky
Amid the current climate change crisis, the uncertain future of the world fosters fears that technology will be weaponized against us. With much-anticipated new release Death Stranding, the Japanese videogame mastermind brings us a post-apocalyptic scenario, with mankind struggling to reconnect a fragmented society.
Were you to ask most who are looking forward to Death Stranding, the upcoming videogame by auteur game designer Hideo Kojima, few would have a clear answer as to what the game is actually about, or could even give you a description of its basic gameplay. We’ve only been getting a slow-drip feed of information, tightly controlled by the artist himself, as to what Death Stranding will look like when it’s released this November. Plot leaks reveal it will be a completely new type of action game, where the goal of the player is to reconnect isolated cities and a fragmented society in a dystopian near-future setting. Recently, he discussed his new design approach to gaming personality Geoff Keighley during an onstage interview at this year’s Comic-Con, also featuring the director Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive, the Pusher series), who appears as a character in the game. Somewhat cryptically, Kojima explained, “The concept is simple, actually: four years ago, when I started my new company, I had nothing to work with, but I had a connection with people. So I thought of bringing that element into my creation process—that’s why this game is based on how you connect.” Kojima is widely considered to be the father of “stealth games,” a genre of videogame in which the player tries to avoid conflict as much as possible, perhaps by hiding behind barriers, plotting alternate paths, or in the case of Kojima’s Metal Gear series, by hiding underneath cardboard boxes. With Death Stranding, he promises to have once again invented a genre. The concept of the “strand game,” as he calls his latest innovation, is hard to visualize without some other gaming convention to compare it to, but it seems to be centered on the concept of “connection.” Kojima describes being a lonely otaku (a Japanese term for a kind of reclusive, obsessive consumer that closely resembles a Western nerd) as a kid, and finding others who were like him online and feeling less alone. This idea of forming bonds with other like-minded humans across physical boundaries seems to be the main thrust of the game, crossing not just into technological realms, but into metaphysical ones as well. The length to which Kojima extends this metaphor becomes clear when he describes Refn’s character, Heartman: “His heart stops every twenty-one minutes, so sixty times over the course of one day. Even if he’s talking or eating, after twenty-one minutes, his heart stops. He dies and he looks for his family in the world on the other side for three minutes, and then he resurrects.”
“When I started my new company, I had nothing to work with, but I had a connection with people. So I thought of bringing that element into my creation process—that’s why this game is based on how you connect.”
Kojima first announced that the game was in development in 2016, during the Sony conference at E3, the industry’s biggest gaming expo. For a project of its apparent scope and ambition, this is a relatively short development schedule. (For context, Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was in development for five years.) Subsequent press about the project, including Kojima’s presentation at E3, baffled and enticed audiences further, generating curiosity about the game, but also bewilderment at its contents. Excitement only grew as Kojima announced the involvement of actors such as Norman Reedus and Mads Mikkelson alongside Refn, with word spreading that the game relied heavily on motion capture and CGI.
At Comic-Con, Kojima and Refn discussed the similarities and differences of videogame production versus film. Kojima is a notorious movie buff, as evinced by the Metal Gear series, which is explicitly inspired by Escape from New York (1981) and features numerous other references to movies he admires; he admits in the interview that he only sought Refn for Death Stranding after watching his film Valhalla Rising (2009), though Refn admits to knowing little to nothing about games.
About halfway through the conversation, Keighley prompts Kojima to discuss the changes in technology that have transformed the way that audiences and artists engage with art, and the market forces that have historically driven their mutation. Using the history of cinema to ground his argument, Kojima says, “130 years ago, movies were invented, and at first it was like you had to go to the theatre to watch a two-hour movie: everyone paid tickets, and the movie industry got richer and richer. Then came the TV, which was sponsored by commercials—like, every fifteen minutes, there was a commercial, and the TV companies made money with it. But now it’s streaming, and gaming will be streaming too, so I think the server will calculate each frame and will feed to the people who have certain platforms. […] I think we’re going into an era where there will be lots of possibilities: it won’t be just interactive or not-interactive, there will be something in-between as well. The difference is if you create something of this kind, you could actually distribute directly. You don’t need anyone to find you or back you up; you could directly feed to everyone. In the next five years, everything will change: movies, music, games, how we distribute, how we share. After that, in the next five years, the AI will come in. AI will create remakes or the sequels automatically.
Nicolas always says, ‘We’re gonna win!’” Refn, for his part, is clearly more optimistic than Kojima in terms of how he feels this technology will be used in the coming years, noting that these tools reveal that art, fundamentally, is not that profitable: “We can all create, because we are all human beings. What the Internet has allowed us to do is to share it, because that’s basically what all the big companies are doing—they just happen to spend a lot of money on it, but essentially it’s the same thing my kids do with their TikToks. So there’s a whole area of opportunity that no one had ever imagined, and in the industry of Hollywood, which is all about money, the confusing bit is how you’re going to control the future. When everything is accessible, and everyone is creating, what is the financial upside?”
The enthusiasm is palpable in Refn’s voice as he discusses the democratization of art through the Internet, and the convergence of every conceivable technology and medium into one another. He’s undeniably more utopian than Kojima, but perhaps a little bit of hope isn’t such a bad counterbalance for sober realism. Both men seem drawn to each other, not just for their creative sensibilities (Refn also walks the line between ambitious and schlocky), but also for their desire to realize their vision of “connectivity,” which upends traditional notions of what an artist looks like.
Kojima has always been concerned with the ways technology has shaped how we think, create and relate to one another. The original premise of Metal Gear refers to a kind of superweapon—the Metal Gear itself, a kind of giant robot that is roughly analogous to the atomic bomb. Solid Snake is the codename of a special forces operative tasked with infiltrating the enemy territory of Outer Heaven and destroying Metal Gear. These games are known for being somewhat convoluted and silly, but they are nonetheless prescient and engaged social commentaries. Notably, in a scene from Metal Gear Solid 2, two central characters expound on a theory regarding how information technology might be weaponized in the future. In the clip, they predict with the clarity of an oracle that information technology would evolve in such a way that, rather than states effectively suppressing information, people would be so inundated with information so instantaneously that it would be impossible for the average person to separate truth from fiction, let alone know how to prioritize that information. It is important to state here that this game came out in 2001, well before the saturation of social media. It came out during a time when the Internet was only starting to become a popular phenomenon, and numerous contemporary artists were suddenly preoccupied with the question of what this technology would mean for the creation, distribution and ownership of art. (Laurie Anderson’s album and CD-ROM game Puppet Motel, released in 1998—the same year as MGS 1—focuses on similar themes). The Metal Gear series has also historically sought to do one better than merely use new technologies, deliberately manipulating them in order to test their expressive potential. A famous example of this is the encounter with Psycho Mantis, an early-game boss from Metal Gear Solid. The telekinetic Psycho Mantis “reads” the actual memory card that would have been inserted into the PlayStation. During this exchange, Mantis peruses the card for evidence that you have played other games from the same publisher (Konami); he causes your controller to physically rumble, taking advantage of its “DualShock” technology. Since he can “read” the mind of player one, the only way to defeat him is by removing the controller from the “player one” port and replugging it into the “player two” port. Experimental design like the type deployed for the Psycho Mantis battle, which demands player interaction not just with software and systems, but with the actual material needed to run the game, is not all that different conceptually from the work of fine artists in “participatory art” movements like Fluxus. More recently, Kojima has expressed interest in the potential aesthetic uses of VR, saying during the Tribeca Film Festival in 2017: “Media so far has always been about what kind of information you can put inside a frame. When it comes to VR/AR, you lose that frame. It becomes something totally different. It’s about how you can put this information in a completely different canvas.”
“In the next five years, everything will change: movies, music, games, how we distribute, how we share. After that, in the next five years, the AI will come in. AI will create remakes or the sequels automatically.”
From an artistic standpoint, there isn’t really a contradiction between videogame designers using these technologies for their art and “new media artists” using it for theirs. In his 2015 book Works of Game: On the Aesthetics of Games and Art, Associate Professor John Sharp describes new media artists like Cory Arcangel, for whom “games are just another piece of technology-based culture to play with.” Arcangel, Lu Yang, Ed Atkins and other artists “appropriate” videogame tech, and specifically VR, toward different formal ends than Kojima, but their preoccupations with the technology and its place in art and culture are hardly at odds. Refn, for his part, describes the experience of working with motion capture. He says there was a certain sternness to the atmosphere that was different from the “flamboyant” culture of a film set, but he learned that the creative process behind it was similar to his own: “Mechanically, it was just very functional,” he says. “You had to be pragmatic, like a film. Once you talk about the character, everything is that process—but when you get in front of the camera, it becomes very practical. So it’s the same concept here. They were just capturing all the different movements of my face, of my eyes and how to make me look thinner, younger, stuff like that.”
Refn believes full-throatedly in the potential of things like motion capture, CGI, artificial intelligence and social media to upend the gatekeeping hierarchies that currently dominate art and entertainment. Only, however, in human hands. After all, as Refn notes, “[…] The one thing the AI still cannot do is create. It can duplicate, it can make all these sequels, but the AI doesn’t have a soul yet, and the soul is human.” If one is paying attention to the state of the planet, it’s hard to imagine that we have much of a future at all, let alone a techno-utopian one. To add to the frustration, neither Kojima nor Refn specifically identify the forces against which “we” are going to win, or to whom “we” even really refers. Perhaps the two directors could not be specific onstage, but the implication is that this technology is upon us whether we like it or not. If left in the hands of the powerful and unscrupulous, it can and will easily be weaponized against us. It already is—not just for all the disinformation, but for the fact that most of the content online is being made for free by regular people, while rentier platform owners and other media gatekeepers profit immensely from it. Death Stranding may not be able to resolve that conflict, but perhaps it will show us how to give these tools a soul. If any contemporary artist can do that, it might just be Hideo Kojima.