Connect The Dots

Hideo Kojima has made it clear that Death Stranding is about himself as much as its about anything else. But I have to wonder:
how deep will this metanarrative go?

Roping Us Along

Anyone who’s paid attention to Kojima’s musings on Death Stranding knows that it’s supposed to emphasize the importance of creating “bonds” and relationships. He told a story about how “sticks” and “ropes” were the first two tools created by mankind: one for keeping bad things away, and the other for keeping good things close. This isn’t historical fact, just some poetic food for thought; when we’re emotionally attached, we want to be physically attached. The metaphor of a rope represents emotional attachment, protective instincts, and a desire to not lose what we care about. I consider this to be Level 1 of what Kojima is trying to communicate.

Level 2 is the obvious correlation with his unusual career choices, before and after leaving Konami. Retaining key staff members, making new friends in other companies, and adding as many celebrities as possible to the game is how he intends to build himself back up as a game developer. You’ll be doing similar things in Death Stranding, as you meet new people and visit new places. You’ll have to make yourself useful, offer to help them, and in exchange gain their future support. I’m sure that characters you frequently help will eventually help you when you need it, and your reputation as somebody who can “deliver on their promises” is surely a key factor. PlayStation, Guillermo Del Toro, and others signed on to Death Stranding without knowing what the hell they were getting into, as their own testimony has confirmed over and over. Kojima either refused to explain the big picture, or he tried to and ultimately needed to let his reputation do the talking: he’s a man who delivers.

Level 3 might be the fact that we, as players, are also supposed to trust Kojima once again, despite MGSV: The Phantom Pain. Despite the cancelled Silent Hills. Despite him being fired/quitting from Konami. Despite being controversial and crazy. There’s no doubt that Kojima wants to be known as a guy whose games millions of people will buy without really knowing anything. Trust comes from a long history of doing the work and pulling through on your promises. Will you pre-order the game?

Which brings us to Level 4: popular support from strangers. Aside from dedicated fans and followers, Kojima tries to widen his audience constantly. He has gone further than pretty much anyone in the industry to try to connect with hardcore fans but also the wider public. He can’t rest on his reputation and following alone. His social media epitomizes this effort to reach out to various brands, promoters, and communities. His press tours, interviews, and player’s guides with plenty of insight have served the same purpose since the 1990’s. In Death Stranding the “thumbs up” system clearly has a social media vibe, but there’s a disconnect here that I think opens up a better interpretation.

In the game, people automatically approve of your work by using the ropes, ladders, and other things you’ve placed in the world and left for others. The running tally of usage is tracked with your name displayed so that people can remember you and be thankful. Obviously creating a blog or a tweet is different than creating a bridge or rope for people to use for their own practical reasons, right? That’s why I don’t think social media itself is the analogy here, just a familiar metric that represents approval from strangers.

The actual analogy is about the experiences Kojima has created for us, and how we have remembered and appreciated them. What we’re doing in the game may be extremely utilitarian, and therefore not artistic, intellectual, or social, right? But since it’s just a video game and nobody is actually starving or being beaten down by the weather and terrain, it’s actually more like social media than the diagetic explanations would suggest. It’s ultimately an online shared experience where people are sharing their ideas. It’s a statement about Kojima’s own player-centric philosophy. The whole “strand genre” concept revolves around players considering each other’s needs, and that’s what Kojima has been doing since forever.

Kojima knows that ideas are cheap. He’s successful not because he has wacky ideas, but because he delivers them in a way that people care about. Most games flop because they don’t truly consider the player’s feelings and needs from moment to moment. “User experience” (UX) design is a fairly recent science, but it has exploded with the need for mobile app versions of billion-dollar companies like Facebook, YouTube, and everything else. It’s now a highly-valued field of study, where every glance and tap is counted and tracked. Old grumpy men and attention-deficit little girls alike are supposed to get hooked on the experience. The truth is, Kojima was one of the few people trying to focus on UX design decades ago. Please try not to laugh when I say that, as we remember the clunky, frustrating controls of earlier games. At the end of the day Kojima is still human, and went too far in favor of his own eccentric vision for a long time, hoping players would get sucked into his peculiar notions of what felt cool. At least he tried.

And let’s give him credit where it’s due: Kojima was very aware that everything contributed to the experience, which is why he always pushed for better audio-visuals and a strong balance of humor and tension. He despised the infamous NES port of the first Metal Gear, and subsequent Snake’s Revenge, specifically because they were blind to player psychology. In order to feel what players would be feeling in any given moment, Kojima would play the games himself and get a sense of what worked and what didn’t. We know from his Twitter account that Kojima literally did this in Death Stranding, playing the game and adjusting the difficulty in the world personally in order to anticipate what players would be experiencing so he could tweak it. Deadlines have always made it hard for him to put his own signature balance into the games, but he is the kind of designer who would obsess over the exact details of how something was implemented, because he knew that good ideas are wasted if they aren’t considerate of what a player is feeling at that moment.

In Kojima’s view, creating things that random strangers truly value is a much more involved, thoughtful process. The drudgery and agony of walking for miles is deliberately meant to cause players to appreciate every little gift or kindness left by others. The experience of loneliness, fear, and deprivation is supposed to be broken up psychologically by the contributions of others, so that next time you put something down that helps you a lot, you’ll be tempted to leave it there out of compassion for others, knowing how precious every little boost is.

Theoretically, some clever player will end up with millions of “likes” or whatever because they found a perfect spot to place a bridge or ladder that nobody else thought of, but everybody ends up using. Trolls will be ignored, because people won’t use their stuff. Why? Because getting around will be painful enough that we won’t want to waste time on indulging nonsense. I think it’s fair to say that Kojima wants to give us the tools and circumstances that reproduce a feeling he’s had before: the struggle and satisfaction of trying to be appreciated by people you’ll never meet. In this sense we become co-level designers, and our ideas are judged pragmatically. The fact that it involves sacrifice of resources (and time) makes it even less trivial, and even more analogous to Kojima spending years at a time painstakingly deliberating on design choices that we ultimately experience — for better or worse.

Let’s look at the Bridge Babies and go even deeper on the next page.

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