Here I am more than two years after the release of Death Stranding, facing a new article. After the release of a Director’s Cut that I’m currently playing, what can we still say about this game? It’s while rereading my first article that I felt the need to go deeper into the subject.
And then, during a discussion with my friend Flying_Fox, he made me understand that the game is essentially a scoring game, that making it more unpredictable would make some deliveries impossible. I had never taken this obvious step. How could I play a game and only see the thematic dimension of it? What would it imply to play the game again and observe it in its game form? The « version + » as Hideo Kojima prefers to call it, arrived at the right time and I decided to start again from scratch, starting from the actual game, to see where it leads. Cross-referencing interviews and even thinking about previous games.
All of Kojima’s games are autobiographical of course, and I hope one day to see the immense work of Flying_Fox come to fruition. Although my knowledge is much more limited and narrowed, I will try to present the way I approach Death Stranding from now on, between intentions and themes, game systems and narration. Already noticeable at the borders of my first article, l’éveil de l’Homo Ludens (the awakening of Homo Ludens), this vision, I had only scratched the surface.
Thank you to all the people I could exchange with. Flying_Fox, without whom this article might never have been born, but also all those who contributed to build the French Stranding community with whom we shared moments of pure sympathy and more difficult moments. Almost five years later, this community, which was formed around the game, is still very much in line with what Death Stranding is trying to provoke: the connection and the act of creation through music, writing, technology,…
I invite you to start together this new dive, a new milestone in our journey…
English is not my native language so feel free to contact me if you see anything ^^
This article will necessarily contain spoilers and I strongly advise you to have finished the adventure before reading it.
DOOMS: awareness of death
It is very easy to identify the general intention of Death Stranding from a thematic point of view. In a very graphic way, the game talks about our relationship with death through the concepts and imagery created. For example, Sam is a hero marked by the accident that made an entire city and his own family disappear. These marks, he carries them directly on his body in the form of permanent imprints. He lives with death inside him and this constant memory of powerlessness but, probably, also the regret of being the only one to have survived.
In fact, this character cannot die. He is what we call a repatriate. A man who has crossed the borders of life and death, has returned and will always return: I’ll keep coming! A fate that is based on the nature of videogames. In other words, he is like all those characters unable to die, who come back from our game over to allow us to finish the game. His curse is to feel the dead stranded in his world through the DOOMS. In short, a « super power » that is accompanied by an allergic reaction and tears.
The ghosts in the game, maybe my parents are one of them, seeing me in this world. I wanted to have that kind of metaphor, that within you, you’re connected to the people that passed away.H. Kojima – Interview for Vulture
If at first sight we are dealing here with uncommon capacities, by lowering these metaphors to more down-to-earth considerations, we can easily draw a parallel with the phenomenon of consciousness. The consciousness of death (of oneself or of loved ones) which provokes tears when emotions and memories storm us. Deaths that we carry within us, each of us, in our memories and our daily life.
It seems clear that Sam is the portrayal of a man who feels these things and resonates inevitably with his author, his story and his sensibility.
It must be said that Hideo Kojima himself linked some of these themes to his childhood, which, according to him, he lived in solitude, a form of rejection and misunderstanding. He also talks about his thalassophobia, connected to his father, and sadly about the death of his parents at different times.
Feelings that still live with him today and permeate his creations.
If Death Stranding happened, it is probably because Kojima feels the need to defeat death through creation. But I also think that the theme of connection is born in the fact that his moral support came from overseas, through movies and especially Taxi Driver. More precisely, his connection to Travis Brickle (Robert De Niro in the film) allowed him to understand that his feelings were shared around the world, that he is not alone nor is he sick. So the connection in Death Stranding tends, according to him, to relay that feeling to the player.
To reconsider this fight of Man against death and oblivion, the Japanese creator believes that he must review the structure of the Video Game and propose new standards against the immutable codes inherited from arcade games.
Reimagining Mario to redesign Video Games
The Open World trend has never really waned over the years and, finally, the formula is starting to feel a bit outdated. For example, have you ever wondered, while walking through those big open spaces, when do you really play? All games require you to get from point A to point B, whether it’s an imposed goal or not. You move your character to that point and then you play with the combat system or any other game system.
However, beyond these points of interest where you actually play, what do you do in between? Can looking at the scenery, the art direction, or pressing a stick forward be considered as playing? Of course, all games need to be built on an alternation between tension and relief to reach a targeted experience. Open worlds favor moments of relaxation.
In the end, regardless of the answer, the game tension in these traversals is often very low. And the lower the gameplay tension is, the more the game will feel like a succession of character deliveries at key points of the experience. From this perspective, it’s an interesting choice on Kojima’s part to put the player in the shoes of a delivery man.
This is probably one of the reasons why the studio decided to reinstate Mario as a game principle, starting again from the fundamental idea of a single-screen (flip-screen) to overcome. Thus, the open world created by Kojima Productions (KJP) is made up of very pronounced landforms from which emerge the notion of « Crossing » or » Passing through » (proper to Mario) through the landscape. The level design is no longer just a tool for immersion, a technological showcase to discover, but a component of the game systems.
The map becomes fully interactive and Sam’s Odradek will reveal the values that are directly linked to the game rules.
This system implies a permanent game of risk management and trajectory choice for the player who must protect his cargo. Just like Mario, which, in order to cross a single-screen, requires to evaluate jumps and paths in order to avoid falling into a hole, missing a platform or being hit by an enemy. The game is therefore permanent as it consists in crossing the screen and not just existing at each end of it.
In a somewhat mischievous way, the game is put back at the heart of the pizza delivery simulator experience.
To support his design, Hideo Kojima will consciously break the playability of his own Mario. And even if the animation of Sam’s jump remains a wink to Nintendo’s plumber, there are no more huge jumps over cliffs. Sam Porter is designed to look like a credible human worker. To overcome holes you will now need tools… or you can try the double jump which remains there for the tribute to arcade platformers.
By restricting Sam’s maneuverability, Kojima makes him more capable of conveying a feeling of immensity in the settings and spaces. It is through this lever that the game design imposes a feeling of freedom but also of constraints to its player. Every river resist you, every mountain becomes impassable but everything remains surmountable with the right tools. The problems that the player will have to solve will therefore be connected to the game field.
One of the major breaks with « classic » or even » historical » video games is that it focuses on the packages and less on the avatar. As mentioned above, Sam is immortal and the only way to fail a mission is to destroy the goods you are carrying. Ultimately the failure in the game shifts from dying as an avatar to not completing your delivery. We will see later that this is very important in terms of the general philosophy of the project.
Thus, Kojima aims to reshape some of the almost timeless codes in the triple A sphere. Death Stranding defines itself according to the history of video games by embracing its origins but also by cutting with these most ancient inherited codes. The idea of abolishing game-over is therefore logical. The latter being a legacy from arcade terminals which had the objective of making us insert coins into the machine, breaking the experience was justified by an economic model.
Since then, few games have risked, or even simply been interested in revamping these codes, even if we can observe an emergence of recent games that work around this notion of death of the avatar. Of course, the indie scene has been developing innovative concepts for a long time. But Death Stranding plays in the AAA category where risk-taking is much more sporadic.
That’s why, instead of a GAME OVER screen segmenting the experience, Death Stranding transfers its player to a place that acts as a waiting room: The Abyss. You can take your time here, perform a few actions to connect with other players, and once you’re ready, leave where you left off. There is no interruption of the game’s thread. There is a continuity where the death of the avatar is not a disconnection but rather a state shift with a reduced game tension, to breathe.
Even better, the game accepts failure diegetically. The packages will be damaged and therefore your score will be lower. Goodbye to the maximum reward! Another example, if Death (through the BTs) defeats you, a crater is created. The map changes and adds this unbridgeable space. One more obstacle on your path complicating access to high scores but also leading to the removal of a playground for you. Failing in the face of Death means depriving yourself of Play.
So let’s explore the routine that is created to understand what we really lose.
It all starts by introducing the character of Sam and the cinematics that present him as an isolated, tired and rather cynical character. Sam’s concept is rooted in Kojima’s observation of Europe and America where everyone is connected through internet but no one is really connected in the sense of an attachment or a form of fraternity. A world where many people are isolated at home and build walls between themselves and their neighbors while contributing to the constant division present on social networks. A vicious cycle of segmentation of society.
Sam is built from a mix between this observation and that of the consciousness of death mentioned above. In the end, he is a somewhat nihilistic character who lives from day to day, haunted by the vanished, waiting for his turn. The starting point of his adventure will be his meeting with BB, his mother Bridget and his sister Amelie. It is therefore the family bond that will motivate Sam to take the first step with Bridges. Then his connection to Life, by choosing to save BB, will make him take the second.
This is how the player discovers Sam, gets to know how to control him. In the manner of Metal Gear Solid V, there is a sense of getting in touch with the avatar that echoes the fact of learning to walk. The player, unaccustomed to having to be active during the action of walking in video games, will quickly make a mistake that leads to losing balance and thus learning how to deal with it. Like a child, the player learns (again) to walk, to control his avatar. The first step in the open world is marked by the beauty of the environment that embellishes the learning process while building a feeling of solitude in a vastly empty and cold universe.
The few ladders and ropes belonging to Igor, who died in the introduction, will bring us back to his memory. In other words, the first likes that we will dispense will go to a man who helps us beyond death. Immediately a feeling of transcendence emerges from this action. Igor’s work outlives him to assist our first steps in this Icelandic-like America.
However, the encounter with the BTs immediately contrasts with the beauty of the area. The universe is broken and Death is an obstacle that must be dealt with. This implies to find one’s way through a materialization of the memory of the dead that are the BTs, which can very well trap us if we are not attentive enough.
The first step
Sam intends to find his sister, this link is the only thing he still cares about, the only thing capable of moving him out of his day-to-day life. This is another echo to Mario (Sam) in search of Princess Peach (Amelie) kidnapped by Bowser (Higgs). The first step is thus motivated by a very common and historic quest in video games.
While this is an easy plot device, it will later be discussed and overtaken by the « princess » liberation scene after an utterly clichéd and codified Boss fight. A mastered and extremely meta overkill under this lecture that inspires a huge disconnection with the general atmosphere of the game. The very realistic aspect of the graphics creates even more awkwardness for the player who has to question what he is looking at or else remain stuck in this unease about the scene where Sam and Amelie are running on the beach.
To begin with, the first connection with a prepper always requires the player to leave the marked terrain. This way the player is always put in the position of a pioneer. Making contact is done in an empirical way and involves planning the route blindly. The key word is « discovery ».
This first step is therefore a form of leap of faith motivated and guided by Bridges. An allegory for Kojima taking his (new) first steps with Sony in 2015 and, in the same way as he does, Sam wants to stay out of Bridges in the end, to remain independent and freely build Louise’s future.
To build my demonstration, I will now imagine Bridges’s quest as a project. To complete this project, let’s say we need to create music. As the project manager I will aim to extend my area of interest to music and encounter various difficulties: experience in this field, knowledge, hardware, costs… My best option to succeed is to establish a link with a musician so that he brings me all this. So we can see that the first step is complicated since I am venturing alone in a new field, without knowing where I am going.
This uncertainty is reflected by questions in Death Stranding: How many rivers will I find on my way? What kind of soil? What topography? So I’ll assess my risks blindly during the preparation phase by bringing several ladders, ropes or boots. Then, the terrain reveals its difficulties through direct experience and the delivery is more or less a success. Once this Musician is found I establish a connection with him. A connection that I will have to nurture regularly so that he can work properly and provide quality work for my project. To establish a relationship of trust.
As said above, the metaphor I use is not random as it represents a situation comparable to Kojima searching the world for a game engine in 2015, making a connection with Guerrilla and then working collaboratively with them. But the same could be said of creating and implementing the various components of the game.
So, over this past year, we’ve been working on Decima. There are things we don’t know, we ask them, we make some requests. On our end, of course, we use the Decima engine very differently from the way they use it, especially when it comes to the cutscenes. So we make our own things there, and send it to them, show it to them, get their feedback.H. Kojima – Interview for IGN
Optimization and expansion
If at the time of our first steps we were beginners, we have now acquired experience and especially established a network. This link reveals the map of the connected area, we now know its topography. A map that we can consider like having a better vision of the requirements or difficulties of our project in the field we had targeted. The field of music is now well connected to our project and we only have to optimize our exchanges with the musician.
Moreover, this musician (in game) even provided us with a Harmonica that will help my BB in my next trips to keep on making my trips to him but also to the others more reliable. The game indeed materializes the appreciation preppers have for Sam with unique items.
This is where scoring has its roots because, ultimately, if we accept deliveries and want to improve the relationship between the preppers and Sam, we will have to ensure and guarantee a certain quality of service. This leads to a work of optimization of our paths. For example, crossing those rivers that used to be a problem has been solved by a durable and reliable bridge. I lose less time for my future trips and I can focus on a camp of Mules to make my work more efficient and improve my link with the preppers. A link that depends on my score measured in Likes.
We can even add bonus constraints (premium deliveries) to improve this score. To confirm the value of our optimizations and get a « medal » as a testimony of an outstanding work.
A process that also mirrors that of the game’s creator.
For the new game elements I want to try, you always want to make it and then evaluate and iterate – and those we are doing on the other game engine candidate. We are getting to a very good point about how we are feeling about the visuals so we are very close to making a decision on the game engine. And once that is decided we will be in full production.
With Sony I have a relationship that goes back over 20 years, there is already this connection.
I was fortunate enough that I got many offers from many different people but for me for my first project it was very important to have trust where I was working. In those terms, there was already a relationship of trust with Sony.H. Kojima – Interview for Eurogamer
Doing a good job means optimizing solutions to problems in our comfort zone (aka the chiral network). And since we are building a digital network, KJP has provided an asynchronous multiplayer that will allow me to share builds or paths with other players. Optimizing these solutions by cooperating with other people in the chiral network always improves my score. And my score now also depends on the work of other players.
On the contrary, my work is shared with others. It also influences their paths and therefore the score of these players. This mutual relationship generates appreciations that will be materialized by Likes. Building a bridge at a strategic place guarantees you a lot of Likes because this bridge is useful to everyone. Similarly, a rain shelter well positioned by another player will encourage you to thank him for his initiative with these same Likes.
Ultimately, multiplayer creates a notion of common good that values relevant work through Likes. If a construction is not really useful it is less likely to receive those thumbs up and thus generate a feeling of usefulness in the community. This feeling becomes the driving force of the chiral network where interaction is only positive and creates a virtuous circle. Strand contracts enhance this feeling by allowing you to strengthen your connection to players you identify as relevant to your journeys.
Interactivity of the map takes on an even greater dimension since walking in the footsteps of other players will slowly transform the landscape, shaping assets and textures to form paths. Real veins shared by cells that will feed the organs of the system, reinforcing the feeling that one belongs to a super organism. A common project. This interactive and shared open world is, to me, definitely one of the most interesting from a ludic point of view, as it redefines its core concepts.
Concerning negative interactions, if a construction bothers you, you are free to ignore it by deleting it. You can recognize the Mute, or Hide, function of social networks in order to focus on what is relevant. To avoid wasting too much time. So negative interaction can’t really outweigh the experience except to spoil the scenery a bit.
So, in a joint effort, the project will continuously grow by combining different areas of expertise and each new prepper to be connected will first demand to go back to zero, to the pioneer state, to leave the chiral networ
If you have been following up to this point, you have understood the parallel between Death Stranding and project management. The delivery induces some preparation and discoveries that will lead, through repetition, to optimization and therefore to maximize your score. And this is where the problem of randomness arises. What place should be left to randomness in a game design that talks about optimization?
It is clear that the map is very static. Mules are placed in fixed areas, rocks always fall in the same places, BTs are also in fixed locations, the wind always blows on the same heights and the rain…
Rain, although restricted to fixed areas, is defined in time. You can indeed wait for the rain to end under a shelter. It’s a little bit of randomness that slips into a well-regulated environment. On the other hand, you will have access to weather forecasts that will regulate the rains again. Under this observation is born a common criticism made to the game (and that I also made) which lies in this idea of a frozen universe. Would it have been better with BTs who can surface from everywhere at any time? To have unpredictable rain, wind or rockslides? Mules that roam the universe smartly? A world, say, more organic and less arcade-like?
The main problem with a map full of random events is that it necessarily becomes more complicated for the player to think ahead. If it is good to note that the randomness would reinforce the visceral aspect of survival, of the unpredictable moment and thus of the immersion in the universe, in the character and in the story. If it is good to recall that randomness would allow the present moment to reach a peak in all the surprise that it generates and the discomfort of being caught off guard. It is also good to see that by doing this we would sacrifice a lot of what is mentioned above concerning problem solving and especially the search for optimization that results from it. The whole scoring system would become flawed and would have to be redesigned.
In the end, I think it is important to understand that procedural rhetoric does not really emerge in survival aspects of the game, but rather in optimization ones. This observation slightly distances Death Stranding from the word « Walking simulator » since the emphasis is less on actual walking than in the idea of Path and its perpetual improvement.
After all, according to the game, to anticipate is to reclaim time, to forecast and plan. To go beyond the present moment and transition from animals to human beings.
Predicting the weather is akin to predicting the future. Some animals have a kind of sixth sense that helps them to avoid danger, but we have something far better: the ability to gather data and act accordingly. Only Humans possess this power to plan ahead. We have the capacity to live each day imagining what tomorrow will be like. And our imagination once gave rise to a rich, vibrant culture. But somewhere along the line we lost sight of tomorrow. We reduced ourselves to animals, focused only on the here and now.Heartman during the first delivery to the Timefall farm.
One of the highlights of planning comes once the roads are built. Mules are beaten by our optimizations, the roads weave through the BTs, the route is safe for a very large part and we can move larger volumes of cargo. This is where tours are born: accepting many deliveries at once and organizing them in a logical sequence using menus.
But why this optimization-oriented design? Why would Kojima make a game about planning for the future?
From Sapiens to Ludens
One of the first answers for me is that Sam, who has a strong awareness of death, is carrying a BB. Everything you do in the game will make this baby react. BTs will scare him, falling will make him cry, and running fast will amuse him to the point that he will be giving you Likes. Many interactions will be rated by BB who will also form a bond based on Sam’s actions. He is a symbol for future generations. This generation that judges and will judge the future you are building for them. A theme Kojima has always cherished and which also keeps him in the creative process.
Last year I had some difficult circumstances and my family was telling me: you’re old, you should retire now and take it easy. Fortunately a lot of fans around the world are waiting for my games so I decided I wanted to keep making games. I established my own company and within two-and-a-half months we were able to make a teaser and deliver something to the people, finally. And seeing the reaction of the people – most people seemed to like it – made me feel really good that I made the right choice. My decision was correct.Hideo Kojima – interview for Eurogamer
And maybe this act of creation, this link that occurs through the game and its construction, is a way for him to transmit this desire. Just like the independent porters who appear once you have established a network. Porters that walk in your footsteps, you who are already walking in Kojima’s footsteps by playing Death Stranding.
When you think about it, it’s a rope to creativity and connection. An attempt to lead the way and offer everyone the opportunity to experience being the lead of a project. Leading the way, creating connections, feeling useful through shared construction, solving problems and optimizing solutions,…
Kojima Productions wrote a note of intent when they opened their website (see right). A text that connects to the mascot of the studio: Ludens. This character is inspired by the work of Johan Huizinga, author of the book Homo Ludens in which he seeks to demonstrate game’s social function.
According to Huizinga, play predates culture. The latter is learned and then played in the same way that one learns monopoly to play it. One must learn the rules of the game and not break them, because whoever breaks them, breaks the game and therefore the culture.
To illustrate this, let’s take the example of our culture, which anchors first contacts in a handshake. It is a code, an unspoken rule that governs meetings between individuals and that everyone agrees to reproduce in order to maintain a relationship. Thus we will play this handshake to remain in a common game. However, this is not just a « repetition of culture ».
If a « classic » handshake is learned and reproducible, Homo Ludens is able to create other forms of this handshake (like Check or High Five) and thus build new codes from previous ones, infusing other meanings and branching out culture. Innovation is constitutive of the playful attitude and thus culture unfolds both through play and as a game.
Homo Ludens, the man who plays is therefore the foundation of our societies.
In play there is something “at play” which transcends the immediate needs of life and imparts meaning to the action. All play means something. If we call the active principle that makes up the essence of play, “instinct”, we explain nothing; if we call it “mind” or “will” we say too much. However we may regard it, the very fact that play has a meaning implies a non-materialistic quality in the nature of the thing itself.Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens
Huizinga, and later Roger Caillois, will define several properties of Play. The latter is thus, according to Caillois:
- Free, not obligatory.
- Distinct from the routine of life, in a space of its own, outside reality.
- Uncertain, indeterminate in its outcome in order to integrate the player’s action.
- Unproductive, with no gain or loss in value.
- Framed by rules followed by the players as an absolute dogma.
- Imaginary, implies the illusion of an alternative reality.
Several properties are debatable and have since been discussed, but it seems clear that play is a space separated from reality, from which one can enter and leave without constraint, thus implying a total acceptance of the rules that govern it. It is a space over which the player is able to influence and create uncertain outcomes, thus implying the notion of choices and consequences. A game is a form of simulator that confronts rules and player choices. It is a vector for experience in decision making and creativity that underlies them.
This is why, although Kojima is known to be a pioneer for integrating movie codes into video games, he remains lucid on the specificity of the video game medium, which lies in its interactivity.
First off, games are not movies. The player controls the character, that has to be very clear or else it leads to failure. A game is about the player controlling, going where they want to go, looking at what they want to, and from there, getting to catharsis.Hideo Kojima – Interview for Heat Vision
If we observe today a growing influence of cinema on video games, confusion can sometimes arise when the latter takes over the ludic experience. A marker of such a takeover can sometimes be found in the « ludo-narrative dissonance ». The phenomenon that arises when the spectrum of possible action by the player does not resonate with the story, the character construction or the narrative. Similarly, a misalignment of avatar and player goals can arise from a misfit between game codes and narrative codes inherited from movies or literature.
Death Stranding presses on this particular point where movie codes integrate videogames without overtaking the experience.
As shown earlier, Hideo Kojima goes back to the fundamentals of his medium by reinserting Mario’s essence into the heart of his open world, while cutting through other conventions, such as the death of the avatar that cuts off the experience. A recalibration that brings the experience closer to a more cinematic flow that connects with its staging and performance capture techniques. An approach to continuity already noticed in the sequence shots in Metal Gear Solid V.
It is a coherent whole that favors catharsis through playful and cinematographic codes working together.
Earth may not be forever, but we still have the responsibility to leave what traces of life we can. Building the future and keeping the past alive are one and the same thing.Solid Snake – Metal Gear Solid 2
We can therefore understand differently the themes of Creativity and Connection that run through the game. We can even dare to read, out of context, Snake’s quote in MGS2 under another angle: Building the art of Video Games is mixing it with other arts that precede it, or succeed it, without denaturing the essence of each of them.
Because in the end, as the studio’s note of intent underlines, Homo Ludens is also Homo Faber, the Man who creates. And maybe Death Stranding is an invitation to create and feel this connection, this common work, the pleasure of a job well done. A simulator that allows you to optimize everything. Whether it is in deliveries, the shooting range, the circuit races,… To finally allow you to confront others in ranked competitive versions.
A simulator that also allows you to create digital photography. Of course this is not specific to this game, but maybe it makes a little more sense in this game?
From another point of view, maybe it is also an invitation to make Homo Ludens and Homo Faber converge within the player? To become the master of his own work, to connect the useful with the pleasant? Open your horizon, take the first step, get out of your « chiral network »… Sam will reconnect the world and overcome his aphenphosmophobia. To put it plainly, accepting death and overcoming it through work, through interaction with others and especially with Louise, who becomes a part of his future.
The eternal gulf between being and idea can only be bridged by the rainbow of imagination.Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens
From Sapiens to Ludens! If the play generates Culture, then the future belongs to the one who imagines and creates it.