I recently started reading Hideo Kojima’s The Creative Gene, a collection of essays by the designer on a wide range of pop culture topics: re-releases of anime he loved to watch as a child, reviews of new science fiction novels, retrospectives on great films. As anyone interested in Kojima’s work might expect, this is a book that oscillates between searing insight and boring navel-gazing. You are engrossed in some pages and your eye skips to the next paragraph on others.
Although the book is a purse of essays with no real common thread, it has a theme: loneliness. When Kojima writes about a given topic, he tends to relate it to periods of his life, some of which are described in detail. The book is full of ghosts, Kojima’s father in particular, and the way Kojima thinks about certain works is tied to his early experiences in the context of his own life. While the general tone of things always returns to triumphant – Kojima never hesitates to add a reference to his own hugely successful work – this is a book riddled with feelings of isolation and, in some cases, futile regrets.
It was a good starting point to once again embark on Death Stranding’s journey through a near and devastated landscape. Death Stranding: The Director’s Cut adds a whole bunch of new stuff to the game (read about it here), though it all feels mostly backloaded and the first 12 or so hours feel familiar from my first playthrough at launch.
Except… the world is a little different. Death Stranding was released in November 2019. A month later, a new virus outbreak was detected in Wuhan, China, and within months almost the entire world had entered some form of coronavirus-related lockdown.
Let’s not exaggerate here but, like everyone else, I went through two and a half years which were spent mostly at home, the first year almost entirely. I now live in a world where I no longer even notice plastic screens at supermarket checkouts, let alone find it unusual to come across dozens of masked individuals on a walk around town, and where my children sometimes come home from school and I have to jam a cotton swab up my nose.
Everyone has gone through some version of that. And so the things that Kojima was noticing about our society, and which were central to Death Stranding, became extremely magnified through that lens. The most obvious point to make is that you’re playing a delivery person, and we’ve just gone through a period where delivery people could be the only face-to-face human contact of the week: as Larkin wrote in Aubade, “postmen, like doctors, going from house to house.”
Certain parts of Death Stranding now land differently. The world has been designed in such a way that Sam almost never sees another human being in the flesh outside of the cutscenes: the vast majority of deliveries are made in working industrial-style bunkers, where you are thanked by a projection of hologram and sent on your way with new deliveries. There are the CODEC calls but Sam is almost always, with the exception of BB, which we will come back to, alone in a vast landscape.
Thanks to having played it before, I’m much better at Death Stranding now: one of its most enjoyable elements is that it’s not really a game where the difficulty is skill-based, but rather thinking-based. . I approach deliveries with patience, planning, the right equipment and a bit of knowledge. I’m planning routes now (I know, I know, I should have done this the first time).
And as I walked slowly, my back loaded like a forklift, I thought about the interactions set up by Kojima Productions. I had first forgotten that Sam could shout for the hills, until a ‘like’ activated it: now, just like when I walk myself, I talk to myself from time to time at myself.
This world is, to begin with, almost all of nature. The human structures that exist are disparate and brutal spots on the landscape, nibbled at their edges by the flora. You start the long trek up a mountain knowing for sure that you won’t meet anyone else on the way. Half the time you forget BB is even there: until you start having fun with the “calmed” interactions, and now I feel guilty if I see a spectacular view and don’t treat BB with a picture mode.
I guess you could describe the Death Stranding arc as Sam, the outcast, becoming the common thread that ultimately binds various groups together. But the power of the game does not come from this rather clumsy conclusion. It’s because Sam is that solitary outer figure for the most important parts of your experience. Thematically at least, Death Stranding is at its weakest when it later adds more traditional elements, such as shooting sections and more regular “combat” encounters, as its strongest theme is loneliness.
Kojima created a game about how the way of life in developed societies leads us to isolated groups, and how that leads to a collective inability to act on an existential threat like global warming. What happened in the real world with the pandemic, however, seems to me to have made Death Stranding’s underlying atmosphere of loneliness the most important part of the experience.
A funny thing happened the other day. I live in a semi-rural location and have to climb a muddy hill to the nearest stores. I carry everything in a backpack and, on the way down, I readjusted the weight on my shoulder straps. Just for a moment, I felt like Sam and smiled at the thought, returning to base with the deliveries in S-rank condition.
It made me think of something else too. In Kojima’s book The Creative Gene, he has an essay on Taxi Driver where he writes about how he identified with Travis Bickle: to the extent that he started dressing like him.
“But what moved me to tears wasn’t the story, the direction, or the acting techniques. It was because by experiencing Travis’ loneliness, I learned that other people, somewhere in the world, were like me.
“I’m not the only one who thinks he’s lonely! A man with the same sense of isolation as me is driving a taxi. That thought eased my loneliness.
“Once the movie was over, I bought the same military jacket that De Niro wore for his performance, put on some leather boots and went out into town. To complete the imitation, I put my hands in my pockets and walked with a slouch. As I walked the streets as Travis, something seemed to have changed. It wasn’t that the movie had taught me how to fight my loneliness; Travis learned to keep him company.
That moment of imaginative empathy, big or small, seems like a good thing for a game to leave behind. While I’m a fan of Kojima’s work, you have to accept that his games sometimes bludgeon you with “narrative meaning”: but what sticks with me the most about Death Stranding is a feeling. It hits even deeper years after launch than it did then: that moment of loneliness in the world, and whatever it is that we’re stubbornly marching towards.