Why Is “Death Stranding” The Video Game People Took Seriously This Year?

Hideo Kojima’s latest release is strange, celebrated by critics, and highlights how hard it is for any video game to achieve mainstream legitimacy without a vast budget.

Death Stranding is a video game that belongs to the eminently fashionable “open-world” genre, where you freely roam a large environment, except it doesn’t focus much on traditional combat. Instead, you play as a postapocalyptic deliveryman, Kevin Costner–in–The Postman–ing your way across a ravaged US with hundreds of pounds of cargo strapped to your back. It’s a game for people who simply like wandering around in a huge digital space or people who love managing equipment weight limits down to the most granular detail. It’s for fans of things like ghost-detecting babies urinating on a character who shares the likeness of Oscar-winning director Guillermo del Toro, Monster Energy drink (which enjoys some of the most shameless product placement I have ever encountered), and actor Mads Mikkelsen staring right into the camera while assuring you that he’s your daddy.

Most (though certainly not all) of these things are of what we might deem questionable commercial value. Yet here they all are, mashed together into a single work that has not just a considerable budget but a hefty advertising commitment. The game, released in November, has been the subject of a behind-the-scenes BBC documentary, an art exhibit, a Conan segment, and a (pretty good, actually) soundtrack album with new music from artists like Chvrches, to say nothing of the world tour, the multitude of reviews, and the intense scrutiny of its development process. Death Stranding is indisputably An Event, fueled by something that has grown increasingly rare in our franchise-minded, IP-driven age: the power of the name-brand creator, the auteur. In the same way 2019 movies like The Irishman or Once Upon a Time in Hollywood are tagged as A Martin Scorsese Picture or The Ninth Film From Quentin Tarantino, publisher Sony has placed its chips on A Hideo Kojima Game.

As a result, we get the kind of bold risk-taking that only a singular creative vision can provide. Or at least, that’s how we talk about auteur-driven works — how they’re marketed and how we are meant to perceive them. The reality is more complicated, especially in video games, where coverage outside enthusiast circles can be spotty at best for all but the most high-profile releases. Lionizing singular creators to such a degree risks marginalizing other works, as we allow our preconceived notions of what counts as “significant” to ultimately shape the way we talk about the medium. Disney-stamped blockbusters dominate the conversation around film, but imagine if they were the only movies we considered to have real merit.

Disney-stamped blockbusters dominate the conversation around film, but imagine if they were the only movies we considered to have real merit.

That isn’t to say Death Stranding is unworthy of attention, and it’s not hard to understand why it’s gotten so much. As the creator of the hugely popular Metal Gear franchise, Kojima was one of the few video game developers with significant name recognition even before his mysterious exit from longtime employer Konami in 2015, which appeared far from amicable. His hotly anticipated next project, a new Silent Hill horror game in collaboration with del Toro, was abruptly canned. His name and company were removed from the cover of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, and if you’ve ever played a Hideo Kojima game developed by Kojima Productions, then you know how much the man loves to put his name on things. As Konami became, as the Polygon explainer puts it, “an Orwellian nightmare,” Kojima was even apparently barred from attending an awards show that eventually honored Metal Gear Solid V; that game’s star, actor Kiefer Sutherland, had to accept in Kojima’s place.

Everybody loves a comeback story, and Kojima, seemingly under the boot of his former employer, became gaming’s most famous underdog (though whether the most famous developer on the planet can truly be considered an underdog is a matter of some debate). His mix of design idiosyncrasies and unabashed self-promotion gave him an individual level of celebrity entirely separate from his former employer’s that’s rare in the world of video games — it is hard, for example, to think of even Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda creator Shigeru Miyamoto without Nintendo. Death Stranding is the result of cashing in that considerable cachet, a strange passion project that’s one of the most go-for-broke, big-budget titles in years.

Kojima’s Metal Gear games were grounded in military action and stealth, using apparent realism as a jumping-off point for mad mech-suited presidents, vampires, possession via hand transplant, and a guy who proves his psychic powers by reading the contents of your PlayStation memory card. All of it was conveyed in what soon became one of Kojima’s trademarks: cutscenes and dialogue exchanges of considerable length, where you surely wouldn’t be alone in setting the controller down to watch, eat a snack, do some tidying up around the house, and/or clip your toenails. A lot of it is silly, and a lot of it, like Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, is shockingly prescient; where Kojima is concerned, players learn to take the poignant alongside the overwrought.

But even on those terms, Death Stranding feels comparatively unconstrained. The game careens through a whole lot of jargon over its formidable 40+ hours, but the basics go like this: Everyone lives in bunkers, cut off from one another out of fear because near-unseeable ghosts (“beached things,” or “BTs”) roam the planet, causing some equivalent of a nuke to go off when they subsume a living person. The same thing happens if a corpse isn’t incinerated within a matter of hours.

People like the player’s avatar, Sam Porter Bridges (played by Norman Reedus, intended star of Kojima’s canceled Silent Hills), make deliveries. He braves the dangers of BTs and an environmental anomaly (“timefall”) that causes the rain to age whatever it touches, wrinkling skin and rusting metal at the slightest exposure. The baby (“bridge baby” or “BB”) plugged into Sam’s chest helps detect BTs, which show up under a downpour of blackened timefall and an eerie inverted rainbow.

We are quick to applaud huge, handsome efforts like Kojima’s over and over again as the one, as something with themes. Someone has gone and made art.

Death Stranding is a blank check of a game, as startlingly evocative as it is laughably in-your-face about its themes of human connection. Characters have names like Fragile, Mama, Die-Hardman, and, yes, Sam Porter Bridges. Lengthy diatribes insist on spelling out the same themes in slightly different ways. With a record nine nominations at the Game Awards, whose voting jury encompasses a sizable chunk of the gaming press, it has been (controversially) showered in accolades for a decidedly uncommercial willingness to maroon you for hours in solitude rather than stick to the familiar treadmill of constant engagement, of enemies killed and experience points gained and skills learned. (Death Stranding did not make the sweep it seemed primed for at the awards last night, but did, predictably, take home Best Game Direction for Kojima). In Death Stranding, you walk. And walking takes a while.

Though the game may be perceived as weird and revolutionary (and in some ways it is), it’s also part of a cycle where we enshrine predominantly blockbuster games as some fount of legitimacy for the medium. We are quick to applaud huge, handsome efforts like Kojima’s over and over again as the one, as something with themes. Someone has gone and made art. The lucky few get covered in mainstream publications like this one, where someone like me insists it’s evidence that video games have grown up and hit the big time. There are articles about Death Stranding in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Time (“Death Stranding Is the Weirdest Game I've Ever Played”), Indiewire (“Death Stranding Is the Best Video Game Movie Ever Made”), Entertainment Weekly (“How Death Stranding with Norman Reedus bridges the gap between videogames and cinema”), and others. We all use the word “auteur.”

These types of games all look the part too. Projects from developers like Kojima and studios like Naughty Dog (The Last of Us, Uncharted), Rockstar (Grand Theft Auto, Red Dead Redemption), and others are praised for intricate cutscenes and extensively motion-captured performances, as though the primary concern of the medium is, as the Entertainment Weekly article notes, to close some perceived gap between game and film. Being “cinematic” is a frequent, coveted form of praise.

It all becomes a little recursive: We laud mega-budget efforts, because only with extravagant tech can talented developers hope to replicate all the microexpressions of our favorite actors. And in most loudly praising these games, we reinforce that An Important Video Game must look a certain way, must resemble a movie or a prestige TV show, because what else could it look like? What else should it even aspire to? But the thing about looking the part is that it’s expensive; this is, frankly, an unhealthy way to perceive art because it ties our idea of the quality and capability of emotional expression primarily to the expense.

In the BBC behind-the-scenes video about Death Stranding, Kojima proudly notes that he edits his games’ trailers himself, and they certainly make a great show of above-the-title actors brought on board to be intricately, digitally replicated: Norman Reedus, Mads Mikkelsen, Léa Seydoux, Margaret Qualley. Directors Guillermo del Toro and Nicolas Winding Refn provide the likenesses (though not the voices) for major characters Deadman and Heartman, respectively. Kojima is the ideal poster child for the auteur game designer not just because of his own fame but because of his consciously cinematic aspirations — in the same documentary, he notes that Kojima Productions will begin producing films.

With the label of “auteur” comes the characterization as a revolutionary, an uncompromising innovator, the only one who can cut through the focus-tested chaff. And to be fair, there’s some truth to this. It’s impossible to imagine a game as simultaneously strange and extravagant as Death Stranding being given the go-ahead without a name like Kojima at the forefront, and this sets him alongside the likes of, again, a Scorsese or a Tarantino. In an era where huge movie studios tend to hire lower-profile directors who may be comfortably bossed around, they don’t give just anyone nearly $100 million to make something as idiosyncratic as Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. And they definitely don’t give the director, rather than the studio, power over whether it’s edited to play in China.

Yet even Martin Scorsese had to compromise to some degree. Although certainly no one but the great director would be trusted with a 3.5-hour mob epic whose leads are all over 70 years old and whose digital de-aging set the budget in the vicinity of a Marvel movie, Netflix was the only studio that would fund The Irishman. And despite how vocal Scorsese is about the theatrical experience, the streaming giant was again unable to reach an agreement with theater chains to get the thing a wide release.

Which is a long way of saying that it’s no small thing for Death Stranding to emerge in the seemingly uncompromised form it does. As the game goes on, it develops some hallmarks of the typical open-world game, where you ultimately start accomplishing things to get numbers to go up and unlock upgrades. But you have to watch a lot of cutscenes and spend hours making on-foot treks before you start building roads, driving vehicles, and erecting ziplines that catapult you from one part of the world to another, and the power of those moments directly stems from the monotony you must trudge through to get to them. This is a game that outright simulates boredom and drudgery, where so many comparable works are focused on streamlining the experience as much as possible.

Like the best subversive games, it forces us to really consider the things we’ve probably been conditioned to ignore. 

What Kojima has made deconstructs a typical big-budget, open-world game, which makes you feel good through perceived freedom. In Death Stranding, that freedom is a challenge because it leaves you to find the best route to your destination, to think about the terrain and how to navigate it. Do you try to cross the river here, or do you keep walking and spend more time drenched by timefall in hopes of finding a safer crossing? Like the best subversive games, it forces us to really consider the things we’ve probably been conditioned to ignore. Other games disguise the fact that you’re essentially doing glorified delivery runs, but in Death Stranding that is quite transparently your entire purpose, simulated in painstaking detail.

For this, the game has been jokingly labeled a “walking simulator.” The term began as something of a pejorative for games whose primary interaction is walking around to experience a story, whether by reading notes or listening to dialogue. The label has been more or less embraced by the people who develop games within these loose confines, and it has led to some of the medium’s most affecting works: Firewatch, Gone Home, Proteus, and Devotion, to name a few of the more prominent examples. Many of them are short and modestly, independently produced compared to something like Death Stranding.

With its number of different systems and interactions, Death Stranding is only a walking simulator in the teasingly literal sense, of course. And that speaks to the complication of portraying this or any game as something “more” than its peers, by the amount of coverage we give it and the way we install Kojima as the medium’s chief visionary. Though the game is lauded for daring to risk boredom in pursuit of its themes, of prioritizing The Experience over something traditionally gratifying and “fun,” it is far from alone in this pursuit. This year, the Russian game Pathologic 2 puts players through an intentionally grueling experience as it simulates the hardship of a town infested by a plague. The uncompromising street vendor sim Cart Life came out in 2010, and the original Pathologic is from 2005. Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor, The Stillness of the Wind — the examples are numerous, and many of them are quite recent. Not all have the benefit of a publisher, either.

Many games circumvent the expected gloss by opting for alternative styles. Pathologic anchors itself in theater, Cart Life is pixelated, and a growing number of games (particularly in the horror genre) use lo-fi polygons. Armagad (formerly Tetrageddon) evokes an early internet, and Telling Lies mixes a simulated desktop with video clips of live-action actors. But even the breakout indie titles tend not to be ascribed the same level of importance. Untitled Goose Game is a crossover smash hit that’s been memed across every corner of the internet and covered quite extensively as a result, but it isn’t greeted with nearly the degree of serious appraisal as Death Stranding, which is almost as goofy (there are anti-BT grenades synthesized not only from Sam’s blood but his bathwater and urine). With occasional exceptions, the Game Awards has a separate category for most of the smaller indie stuff. This year's big indie winner, the open-world role-playing game Disco Elysium, was nevertheless still shut out of main categories for Best Game Direction and Game of the Year.

The thing someone like Kojima brings to the table is often less innovation than a level of glitz and polish and publicity. And if that sounds reductive, it’s only compared to the way we’ve so mythologized the idea of the lone (and predominantly male) creative; it’s still a pretty big deal to see these ideas about simulating hardship and labor embraced on such a grand scale. The effect of time, money, and general development resources is significant when so many facets of a video game must be built from scratch. Death Stranding is a huge, sprawling experience not just because it’s extremely long (arguably too long) but because of all the minute details, the things that make it seem realistic and expensive and thus worthy of our attention.

As a result, people seem willing to ascribe Death Stranding a higher level of intentionality; if a big-budget game has been polished to such a degree, we assume any bumpier aspects must be part of the overall vision (or at least, in the case of the perpetually klutzy Bethesda RPGs like Fallout and The Elder Scrolls, the “problems” are something we’re willing to grit our teeth through in favor of the whole sprawling experience). Smaller games tend not to receive this benefit of the doubt, with the more obtuse mechanics of something like Pathologic inevitably written off in mixed reviews as some janky technical problem or failure of game design.

The potential for broad appeal that Kojima brings with him is significant, since it can encourage people to think about video games differently, while requiring us to hop relatively few technological and retail hurdles to do so. The problem is that the way we talk about him and something like Death Stranding situates this as an anomaly rather than part of a longer tradition of game design, a potential “way in” to other works. When the articles mentioned here do specify that Death Stranding is a big deal for experimenting within the bounds of a big-budget game, there’s scant mention of those smaller alternatives and predecessors.

Much is made of the game’s political context as though that’s something novel, when in practice, the story of Death Stranding is so garbled and long-winded that its parts most overtly inspired by Trump and Brexit come across as limp at best and hopelessly naive at worst. It’s refreshing to hear Kojima be up-front with these ideas where other publishers hem and haw about the political content of their clearly political games, but we deem these things relevant less because they’re particularly revolutionary than because of the package they come in: the cutscenes, the performances, the declarations into the camera of how this is Important. This Kojima guy is closing the gap, we insist.

And yet the most affecting moments of Death Stranding are its least rigidly authored. Beyond the cinematics that have drawn acclaim and attention, the times Kojima really gets to you are in those quiet moments, walking over the crest of the next hill and seeing how far off your destination is. You feel the weight of the journey to come in the mechanics, in the way you have to hold down buttons to maintain balance if your comically huge cargo stack sways too far in one direction.

A developer known for his bombast and his bloviating locates a quiet beauty in solitude and work, and the response has been both divisive and heartening. That so many people celebrate something like Death Stranding demonstrates a willingness to embrace games that accomplish something other than instant gratification, that reach for some emotional truth the way a lot of great art does. But we’re still too limited in what games we’re willing to recognize for it. ●

Steven Nguyen Scaife is a freelance writer whose work has appeared at the Awl, Slant Magazine, the Hollywood Reporter, the Verge, Polygon, and others. He is based somewhere in Ohio.

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