One of the biggest things to come out of this year’s Game Awards show was a brand new trailer for the recently recognized industry icon Hideo Kojima’s Death Stranding. Like the first trailer shown at E3 2016, the footage was clearly rendered in a game engine but was entirely a cutscene, featuring some surreal and outright disturbing imagery. Many have speculated on the elements about the trailer, everything from what genre the game will be – survival horror, third person action, RPG, etc. – to what themes the game may explore. Personally, judging from his past work, I posit that Hideo Kojima making something autobiographical with his art.
First, current events have to be taken into account. The last major video game Kojima and his studio worked on was Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain under the publisher Konami. He has worked on the franchise for almost twenty years, his first major mainstream masterpiece being 1998’s Metal Gear Solid on the original PlayStation. It was a legendarily troubled production. Communication between the studio’s multiple branches were strained, working conditions were (allegedly) horrendous, and publisher oversight was stifling. If a recent interview with one of Kojima’s closest friends, host of the Game Awards’ Geoff Keighley, is to be believed, the final six months of MGS V’s development was with the game’s director locked in a separate office on a different floor away from his team with all of his direction having to come from intermediaries.
The very fact MGS V came out at all was impressive but it was its universal critical acclaim that was herculean. But even then Kojima was robbed of credit. Where every single project proudly boasted “A Hideo Kojima Game,” the fifth and final Metal Gear game had the Japanese auteur’s name struck from marketing. He wasn’t allowed to conduct interviews with any of the game’s press – his name wasn’t even allowed to be said in association with the game. To add insult to injury when the game won the most recognized mainstream trophy at last year’s Game Awards, the hosts were told mere hours before the show by Konami’s lawyers that Hideo Kojima, the director who dedicated so many years of horrible working conditions and psychological torture by the publisher yet persevered and made one of the best games of 2015, was not allowed to accept the award on its behalf.
Let’s not forget the entire kerfuffle with the P.T. In roughly the same time frame, Kojima had pitched to Konami a full reboot of the critically beloved survival horror series, Silent Hill, with his studio at the helm. They released a small demo on the PlayStation Store in the form of P.T., a short but truly disturbing and horrifying first-person experience set in a haunted house, all of which contained a trailer for Hideo Kojima’s Silent Hills in collaboration with monster movie icon Guillermo del Toro and star of AMC’s The Walking Dead television series, Norman Reedus. But, for no officially stated reason despite overwhelmingly positive press at the demo’s reception, Konami canceled the project, fired Kojima from the company, and had P.T. removed from the digital storefront – effectively erasing all of that hard work from existence. Even Kojima Productions under Konami was rebranded to a more generic numbered studio under the publisher’s name.
Of course game directors have been subject to horrible working conditions before and it hasn’t affected their work, so what makes Kojima so different? One of Kojima’s signature quirks when it comes to every single game he has worked on is that in addition to being expertly crafted they always have a statement or commentary, either about the game industry or the gaming community itself. When Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty was announced, footage was shown of franchise hero Solid Snake, a no-nonsense trained soldier and master infiltrator, only for the full game to replace him with a completely different character specifically trained through VR programs to be similar in skill to him; a young upstart named Raiden. Many have read this entire game as a post-modern meta commentary by Kojima about his extremely fervent fanbase alongside espionage and military operations. Yeah, you may have played a simulation of the real thing and think you’re amazing, but it’s not the real thing and it’s not something heroic. Be something better. Almost to bookend this commentary, the character of Raiden went on to star in an action heavy spin-off game where he was a cyborg ninja fighting against entire armies single-handedly, a far cry from Metal Gear’s stealth spy thriller roots.
As for industry commentary look no further than Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. When the game launched in 2008, it was a time where the common trend was imitating the stark gritty military realism of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare in an attempt to hopefully imitate its great financial success. In actual practice it lead to a lot of homogenous and forgettable experiences that made the entire genre stagnate. What was the overall plot of MGS4? The hero attempting to assassinate a terrorist that was waging pointless shell game wars across the entire planet and profiting off of the product sold by his PMCs. Real subtle.
So with all of that historical context dealing with a creative mind that isn’t afraid to inject his two cents into all of his work, the two trailers for Death Stranding can be seen in a more depressing light. The opening trailer’s first moments of a naked and crying Norman Reedus holding a baby that appears to be tethered to him through an umbilical cord, only for that child to melt away into nothing can be seen as a direct parallel to Kojima’s loss of self after losing his original studio of near two decades and the Metal Gear franchise–his baby if you will. The post-apocalyptic atmosphere showing hundreds of dead sea animals, old war tanks covered in corpses and organs with skeletal soldiers marching in locked step all with an out of place rainbow overhead? A projection of a talented director that had a perfect vision but was struck down when he only had the bare bones in place in the face of an uncaring oppressive authority. The very presence of Norman Reedus and Guillermo del Toro in distinctly sympathetic and human lights? Like-minded creatives that helped him through the dark days when he rebuilt Kojima Productions as an independent studio away from the abuse of Konami. The fact both characters are always seen wearing broken handcuffs only reinforces that comparison.
Even the lyrics used in the first trailer by Low Roar hint at this theme of enduring dark times.
Faintly I’ll go,
To take this head on,
Soon I’ll come around,
Lost and never found,
Waiting for my words,
Seen but never heard,
But I’ll keep coming,
This is not meant to be a psych evaluation of Hideo Kojima. I am nowhere near qualified or crazy enough to undertake that. This is merely another observation as to what is going on visually in what we have seen of Death Stranding thus far under the surface given the director’s history and style. Hopefully it leads to something disturbingly beautiful and poignant.