Reviews

Death Stranding – Jesus Is Kojima?

Death Stranding – Jesus Is Kojima?

Does Death Stranding deliver on its promise of a brand new action game/strand game(social strand system) genre? Or is it beached as?

I know this is (was) naivety, but for a long time I didn’t realise Kanye West’s best stuff was ghostwritten. Ghost-produced. That there is a long list of uncredited effort in any Kanye West beat, line, song or album. He’s the face of a music creation army. The stern visage representing ‘the party’. A CEO running Kanye Incorporated. That liking Kanye West’s music was by no means the same as liking Kanye West. Now that Jesus is King marks, for me, the second swing and a miss in a row (and a contemptuous one at that), it’s starting to become clear that Kanye West might not even be the best captain at the helm on the good ship Kanye West.

It is common in video games to hold up a single creator as responsible for everything, even if that isn’t remotely true — and hasn’t been for a long time. While there are absolutely games made by small teams or even solo creators, the games you see at E3 or on The Game Awards or hiding under red sale signs at EB Games are by and large created by their own armies. And games have a real problem with crediting those who work on them, too.

I think my own deification of Kojima bears a lot in common with my lionisation of Kanye. I think about their best work — My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Metal Gear Solid 3 Snake Eater — and what I love about both is their unashamed self-reflection. They’re endearingly immature in the same ways, making jokes at both their own and the consumer’s expense using meta, looping concepts that cause a sense of belonging through reference humour about the art and artist themselves. It’s onanistic, maybe, but also intensely clever.

That’s not the case with Jesus is King. It’s certainly not the case with Death Stranding. I think you can point to bits here and there in both that remind you of what once was — like going to my grandma’s house, where the scent of garlic and olive oil overwhelms me long after she is gone from it — but by and large these are desperately insecure works showcasing, if anything, the flaws in the creators themselves.

This isn’t a Jesus is King review, so I won’t dwell on it too much. But the problem I have with it is its utter lack of sincerity. Kanye dabbled in gospel sound and talked about a relationship with Jesus before, and what we get in Jesus is King is utterly divorced from that. It’s tepid, one-note, the efforts of a man who lied on his resume about being a Christian and has suddenly decided to patch up the holes in his story. And so he wrested control away from the many who previously helped keep things steady. Anyone who followed production of the album can attest to this, it’s right there in the difference between Jesus is King and Yandhi. Deep insecurity lead to an album many don’t want.

In Security

Death Stranding falls into the same trap.

Kojima’s split with Konami — the company he worked at for some 30 years — was very public. For most, the response was ‘Fuck Konami’ — and it’s not like Konami hadn’t earned it. They’ve all but given up on publishing video games, and have instead taken to creating slot machines out of beloved franchises.

But it seems Konami was doing something right because, given the keys to the machine, Hideo Kojima was unable to create something worth the effort it requires of the player.

Insecurity permeates this game at every level. It’s repeatedly giving you the same tips, terrified that you won’t understand its fairly basic systems. Every concept in the narrative is explained to death — and then illustrated, again and again, be it in cutscenes or in endless codec calls that feature nothing but exposition. The story itself bears a remarkable similarity to the ideas pitched in Metal Gear Solid 2 — the power of connection, the threat inherent to that power, and so on — because retreading your best work is what you do when you desperately need a win out of the gate.

Every single way it communicates with you is wracked with the fear that you won’t ‘get it’. And because it twists itself in circles trying to make rope-related puns, there’s a genuine chance that you might not get it anyway.

If you do get it, you’ll realise Kojima might have lied on his resume. That Kojima might  have recognised a little later than he would have liked that he had presented himself as a cinematic auteur to members of the film industry, and then desperately tried to keep up the lie. So what we get are some pretty bloody good performances of some utterly terrible dialogue.

Death Stranding completely lacks in sub-text. It’s all super-text. There’s never a clever shot left to linger that isn’t immediately followed by some poor actor having to explain precisely what it means. 

‘Hi Sam, I’m called Deadman because I hang out with dead people a lot,’ says Academy Award winner Guillermo del Toro with a great deal of sincerity.

‘Sam, you need to go see the President,’ says the codec from your boss, Diehardman. ‘She’s your mother, by the way. It’s an order, and you have to obey it because she’s your mother and also the President. Of America.’

Over and over they’ll explain to you what Timefall is — rain that makes things age quicker — even though children could work it out for themselves based on the very first cutscene in the game. The same goes for every concept, every character, every area, enemy, item and objective.

Like for like

None of this compares to the vulnerability at the core of Death Stranding, however. Death Stranding just wants to be liked.

Likes — the Facebook-style thumbs-up now synonymous with memes you saw on reddit or twitter months ago and acknowledging when you’ve been tagged in something — are not just a resource here. They’re its primary currency. Life as we know it effectively ended with the Death Stranding — an apocalyptic event which merged the world of the living with a purgatorial plane of existence known as a beach (because it looks and acts like a beach), an undercooked metaphor for life’s evolutionary momentum.

As a result of this apocalypse, everyone lives indoors, 3D printing anything they need to continue to exist. And that’s where you come in. Certain things can’t be 3D printed, and these people need you to fetch those things for them. And if you do it, they’ll reward you with Likes.

This isn’t me uncharitably mischaracterising the game’s internal economy, by the way. This is a world which functions entirely on Likes. The preppers — people who live outside of major civilised hubs — make several references to how you do things for them for free.

For Sam Porter Bridges, the player character, Likes translate into upgraded abilities. Get enough likes for ‘delivery time’ and you might upgrade your stamina. Deliver packages in a pristine state and you could enhance your carry limit. Earn enough in Miscellaneous and you will be able to… earn more likes.

But this rudimentary experience system barely makes a difference at the end of the day. Five extra kilograms on your max weight limit means nothing to a man who can equip an exoskeleton and carry 300kg. Earning more likes to earn more meaningless likes is similarly pointless.

Sam’s situation is all too familiar for those of us working in the creative field in 2019. He works to make just enough to justify his room and board, he eats the exact same thing at every meal, he drinks non-stop energy drinks lest he fall asleep and fail to deliver on time. And if he does a good job he’s rewarded with Likes. His name is spread further. He earns the right to do more work, but never enough work to remain comfortable — just the right amount to gain more employment later. Sam’s primary remuneration package is exposure bucks.

Structures built by players — everything from ladders up to safe-houses — are made to earn likes by those who use them. As you connect new hubs, these structures are revealed and become available for use. Aping the helpful chalk messages of Dark Souls, holographic signs blanket commonly trafficked areas, boosting your stamina or making your BB happy.

Cloying signs promising “Like for Likes” earn thumbs-ups just from your proximity to them. As the game progresses and more people attempt to obtain these Likes doing as little as possible, the world becomes littered with nonsense. Arrows point to nothing, a half-dozen signs warn of nearby BTs that you can sense yourself because it’s hammering down rain and the baby strapped to your chest is wailing, and three to four ladders cluster across the same 100m stretch of river.

Nobody is 100% sure how it works, so everyone is trying whatever they can. Should I like people’s buildings? What happens if I don’t? What earns me likes by proximity, so I don’t need to rely on others smacking that like button for success?

If it’s a metaphor for content creation, it’s a confused one. As with any game where progress is tied to a message, the mirror it holds up is warped. “Look what you’ve done to succeed,” is generally the message, without the self-awareness to realise how the act of playing relieves us of a great deal of responsibility for our actions when we’re not left with any other choices.

If I am given binary options and one of them is to not play, then I am not left with any option at all. Success and failure don’t lie at the feet of the player, but at those of the creator, because the opportunity to not engage (by not playing at all) doesn’t functionally exist to a player. The mirror, in this case, shows us the truth at the heart of Kojima Productions instead.

If the metaphor is more banal — if it is merely trying to showcase the complexity of content creation and the painstaking need to deliver — then Likes aren’t a necessary part of the equation. The act of endlessly delivering for people who can’t do it themselves and don’t appreciate your efforts is a closed-loop itself.

The existence of Likes in this game feels detached from the rest of it — part one-note joke, part plea for attention. At the end of the day, however, it’s really just a half-baked progression system. And games in 2019 can’t not have progression.

Violent Delights

The first hour or so of Death Stranding — once you’re actually allowed to play it, anyway, and expository dialogue has finished — is actually fairly serene. As you clamber your way across plateaus of volcanic sediment and rocky hills, the contrast between the black rock of the ground, the green of patchy grass and the grey-blue of a perpetually weeping sky lulls you into an almost meditative state. And then the ambient folk-rock soundtrack boots in, replete with artist details, like a music video lower third. I gotta get into this.

Vertical Intergortion

I actually enjoyed the music of Death Stranding. But if ever there was a game that needed a Hans Zimmer or Max Richter soundtrack, it was this one. And there’s only one reason why it never happened. It’s called Vertical Integration. Sony Music sees Death Stranding as merely the first step in a new “One Sony” attempt to maximise synergy.

Integrated marketing is so much more prevalent than you might think. Have you ever wondered why everyone uses the same phone or laptop in a TV show? Why that transformer is a specific brand of muscle car instead of a beetle? Good integrated marketing sees Subway become a character on Community. Bad integration is six cans of Mother sitting, label facing camera-front, in the clinically bare private room area of the player character. Or the J.F.Rey glasses that show up again. In the Metal Gear games, these plugs were at most a little cheesy.

In Death Stranding, where millions have died and the world is doomed, they’re distasteful. They’re grotesque, immersion-breaking spectacles unto themselves. They’re Kanye West whining about paying more tax because he sells $200 shirts.

And that doesn’t even touch on the narrative implications of a water bottle that fills itself with Monster Energy Drink whenever you’re in the rain that ages anything it touches. How did they explain what Timefall is so many times that I could repeat it in my sleep, but never elaborate on why I don’t go all “he chose poorly” anytime I rehydrate? And who the fuck is drinking half a litre of Monster energy drink after rucking more than their body weight a couple of kilometres? Is it what plants crave?

Violent Ends

So the first hour or so is pretty serene. There are nice hills. There’s rain. There’s a sense of momentum about the movement which makes things feel dangerous, and there’s an assist system in place which makes it functionally safe. It’s smart design, gorgeous world construction and a brilliant way to set the tone. You won’t participate in combat for another seven hours from this point, and honestly, the game would have been better if you never did.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not anti-violence in games. My most played game for 2019 is either Apex Legends or PUBG. I am down for violent direct competition in video games. But just as I don’t need every song to be battle rap, or every film to extend the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I don’t need every game to feature violence. And damn if I wish this one didn’t.

The BTs — the primary enemy you will encounter in Death Stranding — are terrifying at first. Unseen beasts heralded only by the piercing beeps of your Odradek detector; they slow you to a crawl whenever you enter areas they inhabit. The beeping grows in pace as you near them, your heartbeat doing the same as you try to work out the safe route ahead.

A button prompt tells you to press R1 to hold your breath, but it’s too late. The beeping reaches a steady flatline pitch, and giant, thumping black handprints walk their way towards you. If they reach you, the ground turns to black soup, hands reach from within the liquid and drag you away. And then a Lovecraftian monster the size of a bus leaps from the tar and tries to eat you.

They’re scary as hell, and for the longest time I thought Death Stranding was equal parts survival horror and just plain survival game (in the ‘Minecraft’ survival sense). I was enamoured with the idea of it, if not necessarily the execution. I’ve experienced horror in survival games before — The Forest and Subnautica both brilliant examples of it — but this so starkly transitioned from one and into the other, and it was staggering. It seemed in my mind that Kojima had taken the stealth from a game like MGS and melded it with horror — in an open-world game about package delivery, but still.

Unfortunately, familiarity breeds contempt, and over enough time I became intensely familiar with the nature of BTs. How dull they are as in-game enemies. How static they are in their placement, how simple they are to avoid. And then I learned how to exploit them for my own purposes.

At one point in the game you need to build a safe house for the primary narrative to move forward. It requires Chiral Crystals to erect, a resource you only find out in the game world — something you can’t acquire by recycling junked items, which was my primary method of resource acquisition to that point. Chiral Crystals are few and far between, except in one instance. If you kill a BT, you get a stack of them. The solution to my safe house problem, then, was to run into a BT area, get caught and to kill the BT.

The same goes for the other enemy — hostile humans. A handful of hostile humans harangue homebound haulers (sorry, I couldn’t help myself), and they’re called MULEs. These MULEs (who later become the lethally violent Terrorists) start off terrifying and are soon relegated to a momentary annoyance guarding a plethora of valuable items.

The problem is that the difference between Predator and Prey in Death Stranding is the smallest amount of perspective. Once you realise how simplistic the AI for both is, they’re a farmable resource for you to exploit at your leisure. And once that happened, I longed instead for what I had before. What might have been. Kojima’s Icelandic Hiking Simulator.

Walk Hard

I’d soon grow to hate the hiking too. The problem is that there are not enough animations to make 50 hours of walking over mostly similar volcanic landscapes interesting. You can only watch Norman Reedus’ mocap actor double stutter-step over rocks for so long before you begin to hate it. It’s like a relationship you were never meant to be in, the cliched sort where all the little things you used to love become precisely what you hate.

It’s especially exacerbated because anything but robotically perfect running is time wasted — and it’s also not your fault. Imagine playing Crazy Taxi and your car slows down for no reason. It’s not slowing down because you took a corner poorly, or because you failed to yell “Ya ya ya ya ya” when the Offspring song started, it’s just slowing down. It’s an aesthetic thing. And over time, you will learn to hate it.

That hate doesn’t come close to what I feel for the mountaineering in this game, however. Context-sensitive, climb and jump are bound to the same button, which means you’ll often jump when you supposed to climb because the context wasn’t present to complete the action you were after. This is an egregious mistake because for large sections of the game climbing is the primary interaction element. And jumping haphazardly face-first into a mountainside is an aggravating way to fall far enough to trigger the stability mechanism on the anti-matter bomb you’re carrying.

It’s like it’s built to make you hate it. My primary method for being caught by BTs when I didn’t want to be was to make noise while sneaking because Sam had fallen a half-step. The game isn’t’ able to adjust for minor terrain alterations that aren’t directly connected. I think back to that moment every player had in Grand Theft Auto IV where they realised they could stand in the gutters on the side of the street and Niko would rest one foot up on the kerb. It was a massive moment for me. It was nothing at all, and yet it was next-level stuff. But Sam will rebuke you — aloud — for making too much noise if he happens to drop less than a Liberty City kerb’s distance near some BTs.

And then you get a vehicle, and everything gets worse.

Drive Slow

There are developers whose entire jobs it is to make sure a vehicle feels enjoyable to drive. Obviously those in racing games or simulator games, but elsewhere too. They ache over it. They lose sleep over it. They make it the primary focus of preview events, pointing it out to game journalists because they’re desperate that everyone knows what went into it. Those developers did not work on Death Stranding.

There are two vehicle types (three if you count the hover dolly, which you can hoverboard on), a bike and a truck, and they both seem — like so much in Death Stranding — half-baked. They’re actually an excellent example of the overall sloppiness of the world-building in Death Stranding. And world-building is everything in a post-apocalyptic game.

The vehicles are both front-wheel drive only, which is a crotch-punch in a world where roads fall to bits faster than my analogies. Neither of these vehicles was designed for off-road use, and it’s staggering to imagine a world where engineers can cram a baby into a mason jar to detect invisible monsters but think the solution to off-road driving is either a low-profile anime tricycle or a Nissan Cube on stilts.

The balance system that dictates so much of the game post-exo-skeleton, where you must painstakingly hold the L2 and R2 buttons and manage your stamina if you hope to carry more than double your body weight anywhere, doesn’t exist on the trike. Sam builds precarious towers of gear on his back, waddles over to the three-wheeled vehicle, straddles the saddle and then leans forward to adopt a rider’s position. Moments later the cargo spears forward into the world, tilting and rearing with every turn and bump as Sam rides to his next location. After he arrives, he steps off the bike and then stumbles as if drunk from adrenaline, his consignment teetering from one side to the other as he struggles to finish the delivery.

The smallest rocks become obstacles. Wheel and rock wage an impossible war, locked in an eternal stalemate, neither willing to give the other any quarter. The vehicles can’t reverse if their wheels aren’t aligned forward, so each dead stop on a stone you otherwise save to skip across a lake becomes a momentum killer as you straighten up, reverse and try again. In those moments, you have the opportunity to weigh up your priorities. Do you stick with the vehicle, or would it be better for your sanity to abandon it and walk? Choosing to ride it out, you have the opportunity to reconsider your choices just moments later when you hit another black rock sitting on black dirt on an overcast grey mountain.

Speaking of Ride, don’t forget to watch Ride with Norman Reedus, weekdays on AMC.

The truck is only marginally better than the bike because it is explicitly difficult for BTs to dismount you from it. If there are no rocks around, you can be sure there are BTs instead (and often both occupy the same spaces), but in a truck you can belt through the area and simply boost away if the tar appears below your vehicle.

The truck fritters away any goodwill it built by exacerbating the already terrible inventory management system.

Taking Inventory

I worked as nightfill at Coles for the first year after I moved out of home. It was a pretty sweet gig and I did it poorly, but everyone did it poorly so it didn’t matter all that much. The job was pretty easy. You’d go into the shop a few hours before it opened, there’d be a pallet of something sitting at the end of an aisle, and you’d take those goods and put them on the shelves. It didn’t have me firing on all cylinders, but I rarely am at 3 AM anyway. It is a job which will be done by robots before I die, but so will most of them. They’re already making a robot that can write reviews, I can feel it in my bones. I only wish that robot had been around to review this game.

Anyway, Inventory Management in games is a lot like stocking shelves in the sense that they are both literally managing inventory. There’s a reason the act of packing a car to the brim with items is described as Tetris and not ‘adjusting a loadout’ or ‘resorting my bags’ or any reference to the actual act of item distribution in games — because it’s not a concept associated with a good time.

It is at least 30% of Death Stranding.

I had a minor existential crisis when I found joy in successfully adjusting my load to a number just below my maximum limit. My elation at having maximised my encumbrance was immediately replaced with two types of horror: the dread in knowing I now had to spend the next 30 minutes balancing all this junk on my back, and the crushing realisation that I had become so desperate for anything resembling happiness that I had started to sink into a form of Stockholm Syndrome.

Death Stranding is a working week’s worth of menial labour, completed for Likes and in pursuit of answers to questions you never would have asked in the first place. If I wanted to spend 40+ hours doing mind-numbing work, there’s a Coles up the road that will pay me slightly more an hour than I make as a games journalist.

Poetic Irony

I realise on a fundamental level that spending 4000 words justifying an opinion on a game is itself a form of insecurity. Since the codes for this game went out, conversations I’ve had with others have hinged on one key thing — surely I must like it, because I love Kojima, right?

Self-confidence would be issuing my opinion in a thousand words. It would be a single tweet declaring my resolve, all justifications left to the wayside. There is an irony in lambasting a game for over-explaining itself amidst a review with more words in it than some comic book arcs.

Maybe the insecurity stems from my fears that I won’t be taken seriously — that for a dozen different reasons this will be read as sour grapes. Or maybe I’m worried (as I almost always am these days) that a negative review of a highly anticipated game in a year where those were few and far between will earn me unwarranted hate. There’s a chance I am just a wordy shitheel, enamoured with the internal sound of my own voice. But it rings true in its own way. Shouldn’t I get naked to tell these Emperors they’re wearing no clothes? We’re all self-conscious, I’m just the last to admit it.

I want my BB back

The only bright spark in Death Stranding is the BB — and everything related to it. BB, or Bridge Baby, is the infant you strap to your chest to help you tell when BTs are nearby, and I love it. I love the act of soothing it when it cries, rocking my PlayStation controller gently to get it to go back to sleep.

I love when it giggles because I do a big jump or something else it finds exciting. How those giggles are emitted through the speaker built into the PS4 controller itself, so the sound it emits actually comes from my torso area, as if it is attached to my chest. It blows love heart bubbles which you might think pissed me off — like every other cheesy goofball element of this game — but I instead found eternally endearing.

And the storyline surrounding it — which features Mads Mikkelsen at every turn — is basically the only portion of the game I enjoyed. Except for a single line — a truly onerous pun which makes me physically cringe just thinking of it — Mads’ storyline is the best in the game.

There’s a game here. One without the chores. A walking simulator and a tech demo for what Kojima Productions is capable of doing to the Decima engine, because they’ve crafted a world unparalleled in its beauty. One with a proper cinematic soundtrack to match the aspirations of its cinephile auteur creator. Devoid of conspicuous progression systems, half-baked movement mechanics and pun-riddled storytelling. It’s a six-hour-long game where you carry a baby in a jar from one side of America to the other. There’s no resource farming or meaningless structure building. Time is not a factor, and neither are enemies, so vehicles and weapons don’t exist. And as you travel, you learn more about BB, about Mads Mikkelsen’s character and his relationship with this empty world.

Many expect things of Hideo Kojima, but it takes a degree of self-confidence to deliver something else instead. He left Konami because he wasn’t allowed to take the time and spend the money to make the game he wanted, so it is depressing to see Death Stranding make so many mistakes that appear on some level to be dictated by what people expect.

Death Stranding was reviewed on the PS4 with code kindly supplied by Playstation Australia