As far as I can tell, legendary game designer Hideo Kojima spent all of his childhood, and then most of his following early adulthood, in Japan. He was born in Tokyo, but his father moved the family around for work and so he grew up first in Osaka and then in the smaller city of Kawanishi. When he broke into games, as a young employee at Konami, they were still headquartered in Osaka, a marker of the extent to which Japanese gamemaking remained at that time a provincial sport.
But when at 24 he was asked to take over the design of Metal Gear, he consciously refashioned a bumbling project for the MSX computer into an homage to classic American films like The Great Escape. Thus protagonist Solid Snake begins the mission as a soldier of the nebulous Western governments that want to thwart the activities in Outer Heaven. America and its cities, its ethos, its myths, and its governments, both their outward projection and their shadowier cabals, would go on to pervade the games for which he would become the most famous – the Metal Gear Solid series, and, as well, last year’s genre-defying Death Stranding.
Indeed, Death Stranding is so peculiar in its fixation on America as to attract curious observation. The game’s bizarre setting pre-requires a model of American political-cultural economy as hegemonic and insuperable.
Trappings of American imperial myth – the absolute indispensability of the American presidency, of even the Oval Office, of the flag and its icons – are critical story elements. A kind of repeat Western expansion and integration, the hallmark political project of the 19th century American state, provides the main narrative thrust of the game. Its protagonist, Sam, is archetypically an American hero – brooding, individualistic, possessed of an unweening sense of duty.
It even manages to fold in something of the fringe millenarianism and doomsday cult that is so important towards understanding and reifying contemporary and past American culture – the preppers, descendants of vindicated survivalists, the types to buy hollowed out missile siloes in the Montanan plains, are key characters in the game’s third chapter.
What does this focus impart to the game, and our attempts to understand it? Among its offspring, I find it tickling curious to be treated by a non-American author in a way many American authors have treated foreign cultures – at heart, Death Stranding takes an essentializing, Occidentalizing approach to painting its American setting. In the same way that Rockstar Studio’s open world games (like Red Dead Redemption or Grand Theft Auto) compactify and heighten the appearance of the territories they simulate, Kojima heightens the variation within America – its geography, its people, and its state – to tell his story of overcoming an apocalypse not through technological ingenuity, but instead by the dogged, human insistence to keep putting one foot ahead of the other.
In working to tell a universal story of human connection, it is natural that he had to remove himself as capably as possible from the confines of the setting in which it takes place – put differently, I doubt he could have set Death Stranding in Japan. His coat would have caught on too many hooks.
Structurally, the interplay between mechanics and setting in Death Stranding represents a serious break from a previous model Kojima had adhered to in developing the Metal Gear games, all the way up through The Phantom Pain.
When we consider not merely the statics of the relationship between mechanics and setting – how at any one point in the game one informs the other and vice versa – but also the dynamics of that relationship, how the relative importance of each waxes and wanes over the course of the game, we remark firstly that the previous model, exemplified by the core Metal Gear games, begins by dropping the player-character into relatively banal circumstances.
As Solid Snake in Metal Gear Solid, you arrive at a snow covered military base to investigate terrorist kidnappings – as Raiden in Metal Gear Solid 2, you SCUBA up to an oil derrick to kick out some terrorists holed up there – as Naked Snake in Metal Gear Solid 3, you parachute into Russia to pick up a defecting scientist.
Only after an hour or so’s gameplay passing, and then all at once, does Kojima pull back the curtain and usher the player-character into the labyrinth of his kooky larger story. So once firmly ensconced in the Shadow Moses facility, Solid Snake sees the head of the terrorists revealed to be his twin. Likewise, after becoming firmly acquainted with the main stage of the game, the Big Shell, Raiden encounters a deathless guerrilla and a vampire (of course, things really go off the rails, narratively speaking, much later in the game – I wish I had written this entire thing about Metal Gear Solid 2 – but let the attached video suffice). Naked Snake likewise loses the defector to his mentor, The Boss, who is working in conjunction with the (literally cloaked) Patriots, and a nuclear attack on the lab he’s just escaped from sparks an international incident.
While the story unfolds, little in the way of mechanical progression is on offer. You start the game with essentially the full repertoire of verbs, equipment, and abilities that you will end the game with; the most common exception is the sniper rifle you get in the mid-game to fight a particular boss of MGS, MGS2, and MGS3.
This dynamic relationship offers an easy way to understand the statics of those games at any later point in the course of those games – the experience is basically a constant function of the mechanics, since there is little progression, and varies directly as the setting, namely the story, changes. (To caveat that point, there may remain a kind of virtual progression as the player acclimates to the complexity of the mechanics and attains a mastery in controlling the player-character in the setting, but this is to be distinguished from a pattern of true mechanical progression wherein new verbs are appended to the stack of possible actions.)
Death Stranding reverses this scheme. Within twenty minutes, Sam and the player are submerged in the full wackiness of Kojima’s post-apocalyptic world; before the first mission, a “void-out” has occurred, Sam has died, and the player must return to the world through the Seam, the game’s “afterlife”. By the start of the second mission, it’s revealed that the president of America (“the first and last woman president,” expositive informant Die-Hardman says, at which you have to chuckle) is Sam’s mother, that Sam’s sister is trapped by terrorists somewhere in San Diego, and that in order to prevent another void-out, Sam must incinerate his mother-president’s corpse at a mountaintop a kilometer away or so.
Mechanically, however, you start with the rudiments. I’m still in awe of the opening to Assassin’s Creed 2, where the player witnesses the birth of protagonist Ezio and then learns the control scheme by moving the baby Ezio’s arms and legs.
The opening to Death Stranding isn’t far off from that scale of adroitness. You can move Sam, squeeze the triggers to hold his pack as you take hard turns, and pick some stuff up, but that’s about it. But really rapidly, the game starts to open new avenues of interaction – the “PCC,” the device that lets you build permanent structures, comes next, as does, in time, the first use of a vehicle, the trike. Then you get some exoskeletons, the ability to make more structures, road-building. Soon enough, even the game’s terrifying enemies, the “BTs,” can be dispatched. Then guns show up, non-lethal and lethal, and you can get bigger vehicles – trucks and long-range versions of trikes. Ziplines, floating carriers, fast travel; the scale of mechanical interaction is massive.
But Kojima massages that massive scale into the game’s firmament with the grace of a pastry chef, and so the entrance of a new verb is exciting, a gratifying rush in the player’s experience. Few games I’ve played achieve the exact feeling of mechanical progression Death Stranding pulls off.
The magic, then, comes as the progression of Sam’s expanding mechanical powers matches the setting’s drive to persuade the player of the stakes of Sam’s larger narrative mission. As you get the ability to hurtle a truckload of cargo over dangerous terrain at high speed, safe on roads you built, you get the sense for the gains to society from having capable people like Sam around. In a funny way, the detective story component of the narrative is the junior partner in the larger setting – I want to know what’s “really” going on in the world, sure, but I also just want to make sure that next big city gets connected to the network. I want Sam to make the terrifying world of post-apocalyptic America safer for the Americans who still have to inhabit it.
Without reservation, I can say already, near the game’s mid-point, that playing Death Stranding has been one of my favorite experiences in gaming. The gamble Kojima took to make that structural inversion detailed above pays off in a rich sense of progression, which comes around in the midgame to offer truly serendipitous, emergent gameplay, the likes of which have been only pipe dreams in some of the industry’s most soaring minds.
That critical ingredient in creating that emergent gameplay occurs along a mechanical avenue distinct from the player-movement/verb system elaborated above. That avenue is the game’s multiplayer/social system, which consists largely of tools and structures other players leave behind, purposefully and otherwise, that appear in your world. I should say that this system has surprised me in how core it has been to the gameplay.
Without the other cohort of players involved in your world (and bracketing out several cohorts does appear to be how the game works in a netcode sense – the entire past and present player base of Death Stranding does not cointeract), there would be no feasible way to build the road network which makes such hay of getting between the game’s farflung locations. There would likewise be no way of spanning unleapable ravines or of descending steep canyonfaces, which the game so often asks you to do. And while the player cherishes those purposeful interactions, rewarding your thoughtful forebears with hundreds of likes, there’s something to the accidental crossings – where one player’s dropped item ends up being just what you need in a tight spot – that transcends.
As a case in point: late in the third chapter, Sam is tasked with disposing of a nuke under a strict (real world) time limit. Thoughtfully, the game has primed the player for missions done under time limits, so the new restriction does not jar oddly. Also by this point, the game has offered to the player a range of movement options – sturdy, spacious cargo trucks, floating carriers which relieve the burden on Sam’s back, agile trikes – and so the player sets off for the disposal site, a tar pit, at a quick clip.
In my game, I had recently extended the road network south of the departure point, which made the first few minutes of the mission trivial; but in a rush to get through the chapter’s story, I had stopped the network there, and so ran into some rocky terrain and impassable rivers after too long. The truck performed admirably, to a point; and when a misjudged fall off some rocks took Sam and the truck to the bottom of a cliff, I thought I’d have to restart. The timer was running below ten minutes at that point – Sam had actually died in the fall and I’d had to do the “afterlife” gameplay to get back to where I was in the world – and the truck was wedged in a cacophony of rockfaces, like a Dodge Hemi beached at the Giant’s Causeway.
Sam rose to his feet, and we got down to the remains of the truck and recovered the cargo. I deployed both of Sam’s trusty floating carriers, a true “delighter,” and set off to hit the objective point by mere pedal power. It was still far to go, and the game offered no immediate recovery, so I figured there would be some clambering struggle before an ignominious (read: a mission restart) end. Cresting a cliff in my course, nearly having lost both the carriers, I – and Sam – panned the camera around. Miraculously, another player’s abandoned trike came into view, perched pleasantly, as if in anticipation of my coming by. Relief rolled over me like a wave. Kojima’s grand social plan came true, and I set my cargo on the heaven-sent trike and hit the objective easily.
It’s never been easier for me to comment on the scope of a creative’s work than with Kojima, as, after following his twenty-one years of work since the publication of Metal Gear Solid, the recurrences are clear. Popular press publications had a field day of his social-system-based push in Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain to present a message of nuclear disarmament; take it then as unsurprising that a story current in Death Stranding offers a way to experience the horrors of nuclear armament that far exceeds Phantom Pain‘s efforts. He may moreover be the game designer most conscious of the thematic role pregnancy can play in a game’s story; Death Stranding makes sexuality, and its changes relative to the world before and during the apocalypse which sets the game in motion, an acknowledged, if not necessarily core, element of its presentation (Mama’s pregnancy is an acute storytelling device, like the nuke in the third chapter, which serves Kojima’s aims precisely).
These themes, which, aside from Kojima’s presentation, can be observed all over modern Japan, shine through more acutely in Death Stranding than in his previous works. This I attribute to the way Death Stranding disposes of the action-movie conceit which motivated the narratives of Metal Gear Solid. With this present game, as before, we are met as viewers with an expansive, creative, and challenging world-view; but as players, we must face up to the burden the game lays on Sam’s all-too-human shoulders.