On Death Stranding: One Must Imagine Hideo Kojima Happy

This isn’t really a review. It’s more of a meditation. 

A lot of ink has been spilled about Death Stranding, Hideo Kojima’s often baffling debut as an independent video game auteur following his split with long-time employer Konami. It’s been an almost inescapable force of curiosity since the initial trailer (which frankly made the game somehow even more mysterious than when there was nothing about it out there to read/see) and now that it’s finally been released, the reviews have been positive if not murky and confused.

If you’ve avoided the hype – Death Stranding is set in an apocalyptic near-future where the worlds of the living and the dead have intersected. Human society has collapsed, and the world is scarred by the effects of “timefall,” rain that decays and ages anything it touches. Humanity is collected in tiny, seclusionist enclaves. Ghosts collect in fields, hunt the living and – well, kill them, but it’s a lot more than that. You play Sam, a courier of sorts who for !PLOT REASONS! can traverse the wide open world delivering and reconnecting the scattered remnants of humanity.

If you’ve played the game, I hope you can see how careful I am about not revealing too much. It’s not like it’d be easy to explain, anyway. 

There’s a lot going on in Death Stranding and it could be deeply dissected and disassembled, but an image early in the game caught my interest and made me think more about what was happening around me.

The world is littered with afterlife imagery and symbolism (and often outright size-72-bold-italic-underline-declarations) from a variety of mythologies, but climbing a mountain with 100kg of badly-balanced cargo on my back never felt like one of the images until I fell. Stumbling and careening down the mountain I’d just pushed myself to scale my cargo broke away from my back and scattered across the field below, accompanied by my dignity. Collecting it again was an extremely manual task (especially as some had fallen in a river and started to float away), but once I’d recollected my deliveries I began to scale the mountain again, determined I could make it over and to the next settlement.

When I got to the top of the ridge, I realized just how far away I was and how difficult the path was going to be.

In a way, Sam is a Sisyphean character – a person existing in an afterlife and forced to carry cargo a hill only to carry it down again, then repeating this action for eternity (or 80ish hours of gameplay, whichever comes first). The primary difference between Sam’s narrative and that of Sisyphus is one of connection.

While Sam is essentially alone in his journey, the narrative of the game is about making connections between people. There’s a sort of play on social media and the gig economy within Kojima’s vision – you are basically a grim Postmates courier, and you are awarded for your work with “likes” that serve as the games currency.

That said, it wouldn’t be Kojima if the game wasn’t breaking the fourth wall or some fifth wall we didn’t really consider until now. Not only are you the one reconnecting people to society and one another you’re also connected to other players playing the game, albeit indirectly. As you leave boot-prints across the vast wilderness, so do players in their own instances of the game. As more players follow certain paths, roads form. Furthermore the ladders, ropes, bridges and other structures players create in their instances of the world echo across the other instances – there’s no better feeling that approaching a rough climb only to see some kind soul left a rope tied to a stake at the top. I gave that rope many likes.

Interestingly enough, the gameplay isn’t actually fun in the strictest sense – I am enjoying it, it is often exciting, but it’s almost gamified chores in the manner of Minecraft or a Harvest Moon title (with less turnips). I’ve heard reviewers say things along the lines of “this is a game that might actually be more enjoyable to stream someone else playing” but I don’t actually know if that’s true. I feel like watching someone else slog cargo across the wilderness would be the equivalent of watching video of someone sneezing in hyper-slow motion; it might be enjoyable, if you’re into that kinda thing.

That brings me around to the idea of social media and the connection/disconnection paradox. The game itself is almost FOMO personified – an auteur game developer going indie to produce a game that takes our notions of gameplay and narrative and shreds them to pieces, then throws in some scatological humor and a baby in a jar for good measure. Kojima’s debut as an indie developer is something the video game world has anticipated for years, and yet the reviews on Metacritic look like a review of a “blood-sausage-only” themed restaurant: People who love it, love it. People who don’t hated at first bite. If you’re on the fence, what option do you have but to take the plunge or walk away – and who in the era of social media wants to walk away from the living meme factory of this game? Who doesn’t want to feel connected to the people around them through a shared language of symbolism and knowledge? 

Death Stranding says something we’ve all heard from a boomer facebook meme or a stoned friend who won’t leave my house after three days: It’s ironic technology has made us more connected than ever but also more disconnected. That said, Kojima appears to not just be addressing this obvious truth but inverting it, playing with its artistic truths and showing us just how normalized it is. 

That was another surprise – after about two hours of play, the patented Kojima weirdness ceased feeling surreal and was almost banal. I barely flinched when my baby-in-a-jar “liked” something I built. I nodded when a man with a skull mask casually mentioned he was named after the “particle of god” (I DIDN’T EVEN ASK, HIGGS). It actually made sense when I found a spot that appeared to be in silent consensus across multiple instances of the world to be a good place to pee. 

Do I think you should play Death Stranding? Sure, go for it, you might hate it. You might not – you may find haunted pizza delivery to be a delight, or at least tolerable enough to make it to the next 10 minute cinematic. Either way, Kojima has begun to explore the medium of video games in a way that is exciting from an artistic standpoint, now unleashed from his bonds and free to make whatever crazy-go-nuts thing he wants to make. Seeing a director approach a game with such gravitas and purpose is a refreshing tincture for some of us that have been pounding the “video games are art!” drum the last 20+ years (but have had 50 permutations of the same first person shooting gallery AAA game, then a thing with a goose.)

The goose thing looks good though, too. I haven’t played it yet.

 

Very Delayed Album, and Some Thoughts

This collection of Cult of the Yellow Sign gospels actually came out last year – I delay releasing these things on my personal website so that there’s less of a chance of people seeing us play for the first time tracking me down with a quick google search. It’s better if you believe.

I wrote No Longer Sleeping, Wormz, and The Summoning as a sort of triptych envisioned as a break-up album from an antediluvian entity to mankind upon our successful enacting of the unholy rite that would summon it. That rite was destroying the earth’s oceans, fields, and forests, and it was an accidental swipe-right.

I wrote those songs at a particularly weird time – a year and change ago it seemed like there was absolutely no hope that people would take action regarding climate change. I wrote the three songs in a much more mature way than, say “A VAMPIRE SKULL” from the first COTYS record. At the time of the early COTYS material, it still seemed funny to me to be a fake doomsday cult preaching mankind’s self destruction. At the beginning of 2018, it began to feel less funny to me, on stage, screaming about the end of the world. It all felt too real.

That’s not to say that it doesn’t still feel real now- the end of the world as we know it looms before us in the form of top-heavy corporations desperate for another golden (pre-labor law industrial) age of limitless profits, all too willing to scourge the earth and its peoples to choke another golden egg out of that goose.

Despite that, the motivation of young people today to take action and ignore naysayers and bullies, to attempt to bring attention to how we teeter on the caldera of doom makes me feel less hopeless.

Maybe I’ll make more Cult music, maybe I won’t. I’m really getting into Dungeon Synth.

 

An Open Letter to My Future Self, Who I Suspect Will Have Amnesia

Dear Kevin,

If you are reading this letter, it is very likely that you do not remember me. In fact, if you do remember me you can put this letter down now, because you already know what it says. If you have no idea what I am talking about, that’s a good sign – A good sign you have amnesia and I haven’t wasted the limited time I have before I am stricken with amnesia.

 

You are not so different today then you were at the time you wrote this letter to yourself. For example, neither of us has any idea how ended up an amnesiac. This letter is an opportunity for us to fill in the blanks that our episode has left in our memory.

 

Your name is Kevin, and therefore you can continue reading this letter addressed to you. If your name is not Kevin, there’s a good chance that it actually is and that you have amnesia. After all, I can think of no reason why you would read a letter addressed “To My Future Self, Who I Suspect Will Have Amnesia” unless you suspect that at some point you might have planned for this apparent inevitability. If you can think of a reason why you might be reading this that isn’t that you have amnesia, you can stop – you remembering reasons for your behavior strongly suggests you do not, in fact, have amnesia. Leave this somewhere you won’t forget it for when you do.

The first big thing you should know about yourself is that at some point you probably did this to yourself. It doesn’t matter if it was years of drug abuse, near-lethal head injuries or stress-induced fugues culminating in total disassociation, the new reality of your life is that your best catalog of memories now exist within the confines of this letter. 

I know this will come as a shock but we did plan for this possibility, but I suppose that won’t matter much when you read this. In a way, I envy you; every experience will be new, and you can experience the beauty of things in their newness for the first time. All of the garbage movies and music you’ve consumed over the years is washed away and you are pure, able to enjoy things as long as you don’t remember the internet exists.

That said, it’s critical that we hammer down the most important truths and facts so that you can live your new life assured of certain things. Firstly, do not listen to the Strokes, no matter how much someone tells you that they were part of a rock music renaissance in the early 2000’s. Everything else at the time was just objectively bad and so without that context you’ll be forced to listen to something that’s a recycled version of previous, better artists. Then again, you won’t have that context either, so maybe it’ll even out as just a waste of time.

Second, and more importantly, you never drunkenly climbed up a ladder in the side yard at a friends place during a house party to impress a girl you had been seeing for a few weeks, falling like an idiot and wetting yourself after striking your head on the fence. If anyone tells you that did happen, close the car door and drive away because it certainly didn’t. You were never so mortified you fled and wrote a letter to yourself, praying for the obliteration of all memory. You wrote this way before that. 

Finally, we need to remember to feed the cat. He eats twice a day, just a half a bowl at dawn and dusk. Don’t listen to him if he acts like you haven’t fed him, because I fed him this evening before the party.

You have a cat, by the way. His name is Aladdin. Don’t forget to feed him.

Best regards,

Kevin

Of First Drafts

I’ve been writing a novel since February- it’s a fantasy novel, relatively harmless. I’m about 80k words in, which is honestoy the best I’ve ever done at writing a full length piece.

It’s strange to not be struggling or pulling my hair out writig a novel. My previous two attempts lay neatly stacked in the masoleum of my walk-in closet, printed and incomplete, unborn. It is refreshing to be bringing something to term. It is hardly the great american novel, but I feel good about where it is- other than a scene or two that needs some rewriting, the rough draft is coming along swimmingly.

Its also focused my efforts- I write less flash and short work and stay nose to the grindstone on the novel. It means less posts, less submissions, but it feels more challenging and less thwarting.

Anyway, that’s where I am at. If anyone was interested in notes and thoughts from me as I write my first novel, don’t hesitate to ask. I’ll likely be posting the first teasers in the coming months as I reach first draft.

Back into Submissions

The thing I’m the worst at as a writer is maintaining a productive write-now-submit schedule.  I write and write and never think to send out pieces that have received rejection notices.

I’m trying out a spreadsheet for tracking everything, including when and where I submitted it and if it received a rejection, etc. That way, I don’t accidentally re-submit a story to a lit mag (been there) or forget where I actually submitted to (been there).

Hopefully, it will help. It’s less fun than writing, but it’s probably the only way I can stay productive with getting my work out there.

What sort of techniques or tools do you use to keep your work circulating?

Einherjer

Einherjer, a short story I wrote for the Exposition Review, was published this week as a result of me placing second in their Flash 405 contests, “Magic and Myths.” Take a moment and check it out!

The editor called it “Powerful and poignant,” said that my use of the limited word count was “surprising yet seamless, transforming an epic, high-fantasy tale into a gentle, wistful lullaby.”

If you’re visiting my site from Exposition Review, thanks for reading!

 

Tiny Update

I just learned about 30 minutes ago that a very short story I recently wrote (a bit of mythic realism) won second place in a contest. It’ll be published on the website soon and I’m even getting some money. Who says you can’t make a living writing about Valkyries?

I’ll announce the contest and the website once they do. Thanks for reading.