Hideo Kojima on the mysteries of ‘Death Stranding’
The Metal Gear Solid designer discusses his powerful new post-human fantasy.
Hideo Kojima is the celebrated creator of the Metal Gear Solid series – legendarily theatrical sci-fi soap operas, in which genetically engineered soldiers vie for control of rampaging nuclear mechs.
Death Stranding, his first game since taking his studio independent in 2015, shares Metal Gear’s taste for gruff comms banter, crouch-walking and bouts of long-winded philosophising. But in most respects, it’s a different kind of game entirely. Set on an Earth ruined by a supernatural cataclysm, Death Stranding is a vivid, timely yet curiously grounded odyssey about shoring up the pieces of a shattered America.
Players star as Sam Porter Bridges, one of a handful of couriers who brave a surface world roamed by bandits and hungry phantoms, hauling vital supplies between isolated underground communities. Making these deliveries also entails linking each outpost to a continent-wide communications network, which allows you to erect structures nearby such as shelters, roads and generators. The premise of building a network carries over to the game’s own online elements, with structures you’ve built ported into other players’ games according to a Like system comparable to Twitter. All this forms part of a 50 hour story about unborn children, the dangers of isolation and the boundary between life and death – represented, here, as a beach of black sand, strewn with ruined sea creatures.
Kojima’s games can be an acquired taste, and many of his classic foibles appear in Death Stranding: meal-length cutscenes, mountains of exposition dumped without warning, and some very on-the-nose symbolism. Not everybody will warm to the new game’s emphasis on getting from A to B, particularly if they don’t know how to balance a backpack effectively. But those who persevere will discover an atypically melancholy and methodical open world game, plus some intriguing, if heavy-footed, reimaginings of today’s social and ecological catastrophes.
Games of Death Stranding’s scale are seldom this experimental, or as wide-ranging in their style. They don’t usually have casts this star-studded, either: Sam is portrayed by Norman Reedus, with Guillermo del Toro offering tips over comms and Mads Mikkelsen appearing as a mysterious figure of vengeance. After finishing the game this week, I was eager to hear about its inner workings.
In the interview below, Kojima discusses the links between his new game and his celebrated Metal Gear projects, Death Stranding’s interpretations of social media and ecological crisis, working with the cast, and the story’s preoccupation with fatherhood and family.
The game is very strongly about parenting and nurturing a child. How much of that comes out of your personal feelings about parenting?
All of my games, I’m not conscious of it, but they’re stories of fathers and sons. My background is that my father passed away when I was 13, and I didn’t have any father figure to talk to when I needed to. Now I’m a father and have children, I still really don’t know the real meaning of father and son relationships. So maybe that thinking naturally goes into the game, I’m not conscious of it. In Death Stranding, it’s not just about that relationship. It’s more about life and death, family, husband and wife, partners, things like that. It’s a typical storyline structure in a way!
Given that so much of the game is about carrying and tending to a baby, did you think about writing the main character as a woman?
I want to cast a woman as a main character. Before I went independent, I was working with Norman Reedus and Guillermo del Toro on PT, but that didn’t see sunlight, and I always had in mind that I wanted to work with them. So when I went independent, the first title I wanted to make, I always had Norman in mind. So maybe next time, I’ll have a female character as my lead character.
How much did the actors get to shape their parts? I hear Mads Mikkelsen is quite an imposing personality on set! Did he have much say over his role?
I kind of explained the role – this is the character, this is the movement, and I think about how they perform. I have this image before shooting, I’ll do cameras here or there. With animation work, I can work on the characters as much as I want, but I think that’s not fun. I want to bring in feelings that I don’t have. That’s why I have these actors that work together, so we have a scenario, Mads do this or that movement. But Mads will have his ideas too, I want to do this, or this movement is more natural. So during shooting we did change things because I wanted to make it better. Norman and Mads gave us lots of ideas, lots of feedback. It’s more of a collaboration during the shooting, and I think they like that style too.
When did you become interested in ecological catastrophe and reforging human connections as core concepts for a game? Was it something you were thinking about while making the Metal Gear Solid games?
So I’m always thinking about a lot of stuff – it kind of goes into my brain and flashes back every now and then, all these ideas that I have. And America and Europe are in a pretty fragmented state right now, everybody’s divided into individuals. I’m not saying that’s good or bad, it’s just the situation.
So I thought of you being a person whose job is try connect and reconnect. Again, I’m not saying connection is good or bad. But to connect means you have a responsibility [to someone], and I want people to feel that responsibility, or think about the meaning of making a connection, and when they leave the game’s world, I want people to think about connections in the same way. I know there’s a lot of people who get depressed on social media and the internet – myself, I get attacked a lot! But look at the technology. It’s great, we have a direct connection to everyone. Some people might not like this technology, but I want everybody to kind of feel connected and represent that in the game.
What are the origins of the game’s “Like” system, and did you ever think about representing some of the antagonism we see on social media – perhaps adding a downvote or dislike function?
Well, yes, the staff actually said that to me, that we should put that in there. Likes aren’t money, right? You can count them up, but you don’t get new items or anything. My staff said: why would anyone offer a Like when there’s no reward or money involved? All other games [have some kind of system like that]. I said: I’m not going to do that – I know you’re worried, but let’s try this out. So they said: how about we add a Dislike then? And I said: no that won’t have any meaning. A lot of people were not happy at first, but after we had spent a year on the systems, experimented with the game, the staff began to understand, and development went much smoother.
Especially the Asian staff in our group – they said: oh we’d never do that, we’d never give people Likes if there’s no money involved. In restaurants in Japan, we don’t get any tips as service, whether it’s a cheap place or a rich place. The Japanese have this concept, “omotenashi”, meaning service as free to others, care for others. I think Europe has something similar. But in America they have a tipping system. So there’s a big difference there in terms of culture. Part of Death Stranding’s soul comes from this Japanese way of thinking, but then of course, there’s a kind of tipping culture in Death Stranding, too. For instance, you put this ladder down in the game, and when somebody crosses, in America, if you like it, you’ll get a Like. In Japan, just by crossing it, you automatically Like it. So we did a few [regional] tests, and the Americans said: I don’t want people to get a Like just by crossing over. There’s a real balance there, with the eastern and the western culture in Death Stranding.
What has surprised you about how players have used structures in Death Stranding’s world to communicate with each other?
Yes, there are so many people. For instance, there’s one guy who just builds roads, on and on. Me, I don’t want to build things, I just want to use things and give lots of Likes. I think there are many different playstyles. When you play the game first of all you just want to do things that benefit you. So for instance, you put down a ladder to cross a river. That’s because you wanted to cross the river. It’s almost a basic instinct. But when everybody around the world uses that ladder, you get Likes, and you’re surprised – you look back and say: I just put that down for myself. And when this guy creates a new ladder, he thinks: how will I benefit, but also maybe I should put it down here, so others can follow. This process of learning to care about others is important, and I want people to feel that in Death Stranding.
To what extent is Death Stranding a portrayal of real-life couriers, like Deliveroo or Amazon workers?
When I was little, when I bought something from the shop or department store, you could only buy as much as you could carry back. But now you can click on Amazon, and somebody will deliver it, or maybe there’s a drone in between. If you play this game it’ll make you more conscious of this – the next time somebody delivers something from Amazon, you’ll be thankful.
To sidetrack a little bit, in Metal Gear Solid 3, the theme was survival, and you could eat fruits or fish to raise your stamina. The reason I did that, was that in Japan at that time, there were so many convenience stores, 24 hours a day, there’s abundant food. You could buy food and drinks anytime you want. Long ago it wasn’t like that – the young guys back then, they couldn’t find places to eat casually 24 hours a day. So what I wanted to express in Metal Gear Solid 3 was thankfulness that we have an abundant amount of food.
The America of Death Stranding is an alien place, closer to Iceland perhaps than America today. What kinds of landscape did you take inspiration from for the game?
What I wanted to do was an end of the world setting, but every end of the world setting I saw was like crumbled buildings, grass growing over them. I didn’t want to do that as a setting – I wanted a kind of newborn Earth, and as you’re walking on this newborn Earth, you’re given a mission: connect! But in some ways, that mission becomes difficult, because players say: should I really make connections? Because the culture is not there, the civilisation is not there. And people might think they should leave the place alone, because the newborn Earth is much more beautiful. It’s almost a kind of a sarcastic element: maybe humans are the only ones who are trying to connect. [The old] planet Earth might not be as beautiful as a newborn planet.
And what was your inspiration for the Beach?
Japanese thinking holds that when you die, you cross a river, and it’s split between heaven or hell. In Death Stranding, I wanted to combine eastern thinking with western ideas. I wanted to mix ideas of the afterlife, and make it something anybody from any culture could understand. That kind of structure of death, the strand – [on one level] it’s about someone or something that is stranded, but also, every animal is born from the ocean. So it’s iconic of that. I wanted to draw the border between life and death along the beach, and when you die, you go back into the ocean.
Death Stranding is released 8th November.