Kojima v. Warhol – Interrogating Death Stranding
A camera pans over dark sand covered in dead crabs, which are replaced with large, deep handprints spectrally crawling towards a naked man bound by futuristic handcuffs. He picks up a baby laying feet from him as more handprints encircle them. The man is Sam (Norman Reedus), and he cries as he cradles the infant. Suddenly the baby is gone and now he is covered in light handprints while his own palms are now black. Baby handprints appear, leading out towards a dried ocean of dead fish. Naked Sam stands up, revealing the large scar on his belly. He looks out upon the moor of dead sea life as five figures appear suspended above him. The figures vanish. This is a Hideo Kojima Game. It’s called Death Stranding.
That was the first trailer we were shown for Kojima Productions’ Death Stranding at E3 in 2016. It was weird, it told us approximately nothing, and it successfully got everyone talking. Subsequent trailers were similar – they raised more questions than they answered. We’ve seen a baby down Norman Reedus’ throat give us a thumbs up, people drowned in inky depths, and rain that apparently… changes… time?
All spawned more questions and theories about what, exactly Death Stranding is all about. Theories often centered on ideas about parallel universes colliding, and/or ghostly figures from other planes of existence. They can interact with us, but we can’t with them, and whatever they do with us isn’t good. The general consensus (from both fans and Kojima himself) seems to be that it’s going to be revolutionary, something we’ve never seen before – except, based on what we’ve seen of it so far… it’s not.
To be frank, I’m not sure why we’re expecting Death Stranding to be completely new and weird. While I do love Kojima’s works and the stories he’s most famous for, they’re often actually fairly grounded experiences. His characters can be crazy in fantastically wonderful (and sometimes silly) ways and there may be some unique concepts in the mix but they’re still wrapped in fairly traditional video game trappings. The Metal Gear series contains a lot of heady discussion about a litany of topics, but from a gameplay perspective it’s mostly “sneak here, kill boss with weak point here”.
This isn’t to say Kojima hasn’t had a monumental impact on the video game industry. While he didn’t completely invent the stealth genre, he was instrumental in evolving and popularising it. His love of film helped elevate in-game cutscenes and writing, and set new bars for world interaction and enemy AI. He’s undeniably seen as an auteur within the gaming industry, one who leaves his fingerprints on almost every aspect of his games. Whether or not those influences are as deep as his audience often likes to believe they are, however, is another matter entirely.
Because of this, Hideo Kojima has always reminded me of Andy Warhol. Sure there’s the shaggy hair and glasses, but there’s something deeply reminiscent of Warhol in the way Kojima makes his art.
For the unfamiliar, Warhol made some of the most famous pieces of art in the modern age. He was part of a countercultural movement in the ‘60s, where his pieces of pop art, like the Campbell’s Soup Cans and the bright squares of Marilyn Monroe, challenged audiences’ assumptions of what constitutes ‘art’.
Where I first started connecting Warhol and Kojima was their love of celebrity. Not necessarily specific celebrities, that is — the concept of celebrity itself. Warhol was big on celebrities in his day, and especially intrigued by the idea of fame. Even when he was young he was fascinated by famous people. He collected autographs and memorabilia, created art about his favourites, and in some ways, collected the people as well.
Kojima shares this trait, in that he finds celebrities he admires and enjoys, then tries to incorporate them into his own art. His trailers are often centered on a big reveal of the latest famous person he’s brought into the fold, and this has been especially prominent with Death Stranding. Even the trailer at Gamescom dedicated what felt like an unusual amount of time to the reveal of Geoff Keighley’s likeness, and then at Tokyo Game Show he showed off a cameo from Japanese singer Daichi Miura. It’s shown to be as important as any other facet of his games but also extends beyond them.
His Twitter is regularly full of photos of his favourites. Norman Reedus and Mads Mikkelsen in particular make regular appearances in his feed. Be it pictures of them actually hanging out together, or just admiration posts. You can tell he truly cares about who he puts into his art.
There’s something that feels almost hollow in all this celebrity representation and obsession, though. Both Kojima and Warhol grew up with this fascination, each having at one time or another admitted to being unabashed fans of Hollywood, and it’s easy to understand why they’d want to incorporate it into their works. However, when it comes to the end artwork, all the final product really offers is a fleeting moment of recognition for the audience — and this feels especially true in video games.
Over the course of dozens of hours of play time, these recognisable celebrities will fade into their roles as video game characters despite their grandiose fanfare and introduction. I won’t remember that time Norman Reedus fell down the cliff but survived, it’ll be me; my Sam. It could have been anyone, or no one, and nothing feels truly gained by the addition of a familiar face other than the artist’s desire to see it. Creating something you want to see is part of the point and joy of making your own art, but implying it’s anything more than that feels like unnecessary justification..
Both Kojima and Warhol also try make things that subvert our expectations of the medium they are working within, but which are still very grounded by the confines of it.. He famously made films such as Sleep, which was just hours of his partner’s face as he took a nap. Sleep was credited as Warhol’s attempt to make something of an “anti-film,” but it was still a film in the traditional sense, even if it was just a guy sleeping for five hours and 20 minutes. I think the verdict is still out on how successful this was.
Kojima claims Death Stranding is a “… totally brand new genre called action game/strand game (social strand system).” though that too very much remains to be seen. Both in terms of its story and mechanics, everything we’ve seen indicates a fairly traditional – if off-beat – video game experience. Just like how Warhol’s art may be beautiful, fun, and a bit weird, it was still very recognisable and traditional in most tangible ways.
Take Death Stranding’s concept of universes colliding. That’s hardly a new concept in fiction, and especially not in video games. Games in the Bioshock, Final Fantasy (or one of a hundred other JRPGs), and Legend of Zelda series all commonly pull from some inter-dimensional pool or another. If anything, parallel universes are often used as a simple excuse for general weirdness (or to facilitate popular characters crossovers), to the point where our willingness to buy into the multiverse has become a self-referential plot point across pop culture.
Of course, there are other theories outside of the multiverse one. Instead of a totally foreign universe invading our own, perhaps Death Stranding’s world is the world of the dead, or the undying. An “other side” of sorts, which would make sense with the inclusion of characters like Heartman, who dies every 21 minutes and is able to exist on this other plane.
While Kojima’s story may yet surprise us, ghost in games are well-explored territory, from Luigi’s Mansion to Kojima’s own attempts at horror, as is how we interact with them. In Pokemon you have the Silph Scope, in some Elder Scrolls games you need a special weapon, or in Pacman you have to eat special pills.
The recent Tokyo Game Show presentation even showed us a gun which restrains them (okay, maybe we will get a Proton Pack), and then unlocked the ability to cross over and fight a spirit monster with special grenades. In both instances, the weapons used appeared to contain bodily fluids like blood and waste. It’s like a gross version of enchanted weapons for ghosts in Elder Scrolls or cursed ones in Dark Souls.
Despite the insistence from Kojima that Death Stranding will be a completely new genre of game, it isn’t given much weight from a mechanical level. Everything shown so far, has very solid footing in familiar video game territory. We’ve seen a tonne of stealth very similar to other games — including Kojima’s own Metal Gear series. Third person shooting, radial item menus, environmental puzzles, riding vehicles, boss battles, hand to hand combat, and even a first person scene have also all been shown. Not that any of this is bad, it’s just nothing new.
Most of what we’ve seen of actual game play looks like so many other action adventure games with stealth elements. You appear to simply be traversing a hostile environment to connect points (like unlocking fast travel towers in Assassin’s Creed or Breath of the Wild), and deliver packages, which is the premise of almost every side quest in a video game ever. Instead of a whole new genre, everything we’ve seen so far about Death Stranding points to a regular game with an intriguing, weird skin.
Even its arguably weirdest element, the ‘Bridge Baby,’ reminds me of other game mechanics like Pokemon’s Silph scope, Splinter Cell’s infrared goggles or Alan Wake’s torch to reveal enemies. Yes, it is super weird that a baby can somehow detect inter dimensional creatures — but it’s another way in which the concept is more interesting than the mechanic. . If you exchanged the BBs for a more conventional tool I don’t think anyone would bat an eye.
Perhaps this is where Kojima and Warhol are most like one another. Despite their fascination with celebrity and bucking convention, it’s more about how we, the audience, perceive them. Both artists excel at engaging their viewers — speculation and confusion is probably the strongest marketing tool of Death Stranding at the moment, and much of Warhol’s art was successful for similar reasons.
That’s by no means to say their work isn’t art or doesn’t have value. There’s so much depth and meaning that can be derived regardless of intention. For Warhol, his work is regularly interpreted as a statement of mass production, a commentary that art is for everyone, or intrigue around the beauty of the everyday. However, it’s been noted by many close to Warhol that he simply painted what he liked, Andy himself was even quoted describing pop art as simply “liking things,” and boy was he a fan of celebrities, his lovers, and a good ol’ can of Campbell’s soup.
At TGS we learned that, alongside Kojima’s favourite celebrities, branded content like Monster Energy drinks, J.F.Rey sunglasses, and other merch will be featured in the game. Kojima has featured energy drinks, in particular, in his games quite regularly; one of Warhol’s earliest pop art paintings was homage to a bottle of coke. They both seem to love the iconography, the familiarity, and the effect it has on people who view their art.
“You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too.” – Andy Warhol from The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: (From A to B and Back Again), 1975
Both Kojima and Warhol make these things which seem so full of meaning and, in a way, they are — but that’s because we, as their audience, ascribe meaning to it. Kojima and Warhol may just be they type of artist who makes things they like, with people and things they admire and want to work with. In this way, the audience is left to do so much of the heavy lifting. The ability to just present things that are obscure yet normal in actuality and allow viewers to ascribe the meaning they choose. That’s pretty cool art in itself.
“If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface; of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There’s nothing behind it.” – Andy Warhol
On the other hand, it also means that it’s potentially a bit foolish to expect something entirely new or revolutionary from Death Stranding. We can look at its weird trailers and get caught up in the seemingly insane plot and promise of ground-breaking newness. However, there’s likely always going to one foot solidly grounded in video games and the other in the whatever Kojima loves most at the time. That’s not a bad thing, but it’s important to set our expectations accordingly.