E3 2018 Quick Asides: Death Stranding
What’s With All This Walking?
Those who follow the video game industry know that it has more than its fair share of drama, corporate buffoonery and political power moves all in the name of vying for control of what’s to be done next with the company’s assets moving forward. One of the most prominent examples in recent history of industry idiocy was the ghastly dismissal of legendary video game creator Hideo Kojima from the services of Konami Holdings Corporation. Hot off the heels of the highly anticipated release of Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain in 2015 the gaming community would learn more about the ever building tension between the board of directors and Kojima Productions/Kojima himself. This resulted in a very ugly breakup defined by Konami’s petty, bush league attempts to further embarrass, harass and otherwise impede former employees from moving on properly to new development jobs and projects. It will forever be known as a black eye in the history of video games so much so that it has cemented the derogatory taunt of “F… Konami” as vernacular in the video game community.
We are a few years removed from all that ugliness, Kojima and his studio have moved on with a current partnership with Sony Computer Entertainment and the production they’ve been working on was further exposed at 2018’s E3. “What is Death Stranding?” This is a question everyone continues to ask since its 2016 reveal. Kojima excels at the obscure and abstract and the teaser trailers he has released in an attempt to spoon feed information (and hype) have only left us all with more questions. Beyond big bangs, philosophies about sticks and ropes and redefining what it means to “die” in a video game, what we do know about Death Stranding is that it is some amalgam of sci-fi, horror, supernatural, fantasy that stars a number of Hollywood actors: Norman Reedus, Mads Mikkelsen, Lea Seydoux and Lindsay Wagner.
This year’s footage gave the viewing public even more cinematic cut scenes that introduced new characters, raised even more eyebrows and displayed gameplay footage featuring a whole lot of Norman Reedus’ character walking around, cross country, carrying all manner of baggage that seemed to increase at a comical rate to the point I was expecting a car to be strapped to his back. Taking a couple steps back, I must say that the game looks beautiful. The way player-character animations spontaneously occur while traversing the environment is reminiscent of MGS5, but even smoother. Of course, there’s also the ever growing mystique surrounding the other worldly nature of the entire scenario, how the characters we continue to be introduced to fit in and what exactly the overall conflict means. All of these things are compelling tidbits to keep the interest factor for this production at a high level.
However, gameplay footage showing only sequences of walking around empty landscapes while carrying a variety of luggage plus the confirmation of Reedus’ character Sam Porter saying he just “makes deliveries” makes me concerned about the core action. My initial reaction to the entire footage reveal was “Lord of the Rings walking simulator.” I do not believe this will be the only activity for the player in this game as the footage reveals Sam uncasing a retractable combat rifle of sorts without firing a round. It also shows Sam approaching a small community so we know there is still civilization for the player to interact with. However, all of the exclusive walking combined with one of the final shots showing Sam being accosted by black smoke spirits while trying to avoid them does not project player empowerment, active gameplay or compelling action.
Every sliver of information that has been released about Death Stranding since its reveal has been thought provoking and confidence building, but what I saw at E3 2018 is the first disappointment I’ve experienced with this production. Whether or not walking around is or is not the majority of action in this game, the manner in which it was featured suggests that it will account for a significant percentage of overall gameplay which translates to fetch quests, retreading familiar paths and time consuming monotony. These represent some of the poorest elements of game design that players cannot help but roll their eyes in response to, but when conceptual design regarding content is limited, we know these get implemented as filler in a half-hearted attempt at expanding gameplay.
How much combat will there be and will it be fun? Is there any element of stealth outside of player-characters covering their mouths to suppress the sound of breathing? If walking around carrying crates of stuff to and from places is indicative of overall gameplay, what happens during that process to make it interesting? These are the types of questions that really need to be addressed whenever a new teaser showing gameplay gets released, but there’s no evidence to suggest that Kojima will tip his hand regarding the meat and potatoes of Death Stranding. There’s also no timeline for when this game will actually hit the market, so who really knows where its progress stands and how much of what we’ve seen can be considered “complete?”
The only thing Kojima has promised amidst the confusing concepts brought about by Death Stranding is that “these are all elements that play into the game design, and they do come together and they’re in line. Everything makes sense. Everything will come together.” An auteur of Kojima’s caliber and experience evokes confidence, so I am compelled to trust his ideas for the game and the method he chooses to market it; at least for now. Yet, the gaming community needs to see something concrete in terms of narrative or gameplay before we continue to make something more of something that may turn out to be much less. Have we been making a mountain out of a molehill this whole time?
Time will tell, but I have one more cautionary concern that may define the truth of what Death Stranding will actually become and ultimately judged for. Kojima’s affinity for Hollywood filmmaking is well known and he has been incorporating elements of that style of storytelling in his games for years. High production value for the likeness capturing of big name actors attached to Death Stranding suggests an increased dedication to creating a Hollywood video game the likes of which we have never seen.
My concern is that in the pursuit of simulating Hollywood drama via enhanced realism, graphics and fidelity with a story that can best be described as “experimental” that Kojima’s desire to redefine the video game experience will result in a beautiful, audio-visual masterpiece devoid of any satisfaction from a gameplay perspective. Wouldn’t it be tragically poetic for Kojima, free from the corporate shackles imposed upon him by the taskmasters at Konami, to let loose with a production that completely gives in to the seduction of cinematic style without the discipline of substance in the same manner Hollywood continues to be criticized for being all show and no go? This is a legitimate fear especially when considering Metal Gear Solid 5 which delivered gorgeous environments, refined mechanics, Kiefer Sutherland and a story that whiffed on cohesion, barely fit into its own mythology and offered the biggest non-ending to a franchise known for melodrama, larger than life characters, significant themes and stunning twists.
Please Mr. Kojima, do not give in to the allure of the interactive drama. For the unending possibilities it offers the player to fuse into a cinematic adventure, it completely neuters the potential for enthralling gameplay which energizes and empowers. Substantive and diverse gameplay was the saving grace for MGS5, but remains a nonfactor in Death Stranding.