Death Stranding is undeniably one of the most anticipated games of the decade, despite the many question marks and concerns hovering over its production.
Having made his name with the iconic Metal Gear Solid franchise, Kojima’s departure from a world and story he has expanded for 20 years is a significant step for him as a creator. Understandably, gamers are concerned about what the eventual outcome will be. Kojima is working with a different team, a different environment and even a different game engine. Konami did not permit Kojima to take the Fox engine with him when he left despite his significant contributions to its development, hence, he is now working with the Decima engine, gifted to him by the team at Guerrilla (Horizon Zero Dawn).
But people, I think, are underestimating Kojima. Because while he has made his name through his storytelling as much as his game design – often using cinematic cutscenes and extended dialogue to convey his complex sociological, political and spiritual ideas within the framework of an equally complex narrative – he is a phenomenal game designer. Metal Gear Solid 4 marked a pinnacle of emergent ever-changing gameplay, introducing new mechanics throughout, never allowing the player to settle into dull routine, and re-inventing the face of sophisticated military gameplay yet again. War has changed, indeed. And just when we thought he had reached his limit, The Phantom Pain, completed under duress and in some of the most horrendous working conditions imaginable, still managed to push the envelope yet further, reinvigorating the open world genre.
If anything, I imagine his work will improve now the shackles have come off. When true creatives are let loose, and given opportunities to create in environments where innovation is not constantly being hampered by plutocratic executives, the result is often flabbergasting. One only has to think of David Lynch’s genuinely mind-blowing return to Twin Peaks 20 years on, utterly re-writing the rulebook of television, to see what I mean. But, whether or not it will be what we hope it will remains to be seen. Instead, let’s talk about some of the key influences on Death Stranding, based on content in the trailers and its relationship to Japanese mythology.
Japanese ghost lore
First, let’s talk about 幽霊 (Yūrei). Yūrei means ‘ghost’, and the Japanese lore on ghosts is actually markedly similar to our own Western ideas and traditions. Every person possesses a 霊魂 (Reikon), or a ‘soul’, that leaves our body after death. If that body does not receive a proper funeral and burial, then the soul will remain in a kind of purgatorial state, especially if it is possessed of strong emotions or has an uncompleted task to fulfil. The word Yūrei is actually made up of two kanji: 幽 yū (“faint/dim”) and 霊 rei (“soul”). The first kanji implies they are not easy to see, or perhaps that they have faded partially from this world. The second implies their former humanity. In addition, it is often the case that Yūrei cannot detect the living if they hold their breath. Breathing, in one sense, is the only thing that separates us from the dead, and so if we hold our breath, they cannot ‘see’ us. There are several examples of this technique for avoiding the dead in Asian folklore. You might even remember it from the early scene on the bridge in Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away. This technique has even appeared in videogames before, most recently in the indie title Detention, in which the only way you can circumvent the malevolent spirits haunting a high school is by holding your breath.
Death Stranding's first trailer
If we examine the first and third trailer for Death Stranding, we can see there is some kind of entity that moves invisibly, leaving only blackened handprints in its wake. In the third trailer, the intrepid survivors, led by Sam (Norman Reedus), cover their hands with their mouths in order to avoid being caught by the entity. To me, this indicates that there is a connection between the adversaries of Death Stranding and Yūrei. If further evidence were needed, Kojima stated in an interview that Death Stranding would be themed around ‘life and death’.
Death Stranding's third trailer
Despite many accusations that the trailers are ‘all over the place’, we in fact see these two themes consistently developed throughout the trailers. This duality is encapsulated in the voiceover narration – ‘Once, there was an explosion, a bang that gave rise to life as we know it. And then came the next explosion, an explosion that will be our last’ – as well as in the imagery: skulls (on armour and vehicles everywhere), the cetacean stranding, the babies and the bleak apocalyptic landscape. All of it points to a kind of purgatorial state for mankind, between life and death, whether literal (a situation explicable through science and resulting from the detonation of a next-level bomb, as hinted in the trailer’s voice-over) or spiritual (we are in another plane of existence/dimension).
I think it could also be the case that players are pitted against Death itself. The downed survivor, with his legs trapped beneath the overturned vehicle, eerily begins to age as the invisible entities draw closer. However, Sam and the other survivor do not age. Is this because they have babies within them, and therefore, a link to youth and new life? I should note we have now seen at least two of these lab-tanks containing newborns: the first worn by Guillermo Del Toro’s character in the second cinematic trailer, and now one worn by the other survivor in the third trailer. We now know these can be transferred between people and that they confer some kind of protective quality. When Sam picks up the baby, he is no longer affected by the gravity reversal.
Death Stranding's second trailer
Looking deeper, the body of the deceased survivor which Sam is mourning at the start of the third trailer disintegrates when the entity arrives, suggesting that its Reikon (soul) has left its body – perhaps to become one of the Yūrei. It would be too early to make such a bold interpretative claim, but it is intriguing the trailer lingers on this detail. Similarly, why is the downed survivor dragged away by the invisible entity, and why does the invisible entity seem to disappear (the other survivor’s shoulder-mounted detector stops moving) when its victim is shot dead? Is it possible that the invisible entities are tied in some spiritual or symbiotic way with the survivors? Perhaps each survivor has its own invisible counterpart. Again, it’s too early to tell.
The importance of water
Water seems to be another theme. In the second trailer, inky liquid begins to rise around Guillermo Del Toro’s feet at the approach of the dark soldiers and their Captain (Mads Mikkelsen). It should be noted the Captain makes a curious hand gesture which at once directs the soldiers (who seem to be connected to him by black wires) and also causes the water levels to rise. In the third trailer, a mysterious cloaked figure descends, landing on top of the overturned vehicle. He makes the same hand gesture as the Captain in the second trailer (though we cannot tell whether they are the same person as the figure in the third trailer is masked), and the water levels begin to rise again. In addition, the universe’s gravity is reversed. The other survivor is seized by terrifying inky spectres, and detaches his baby – offering it to Sam. As the other survivor is hoisted into the air, he stabs himself, wishing to die rather than be taken (and explaining partly why he shot his comrade earlier rather than allow him to be dragged away).
But as if this wasn’t enough, things go even further. Sam sees a tremendous giant, taller than a skyscraper, with chains in its hands and some kind of illuminated power reactor on its head. The energy of this reactor draws in and then detonates, plunging Sam into a weird psychotropic ocean. In this ocean, Sam sees living fish and whales – perhaps the very creatures whose bones are now washed up on the bleak shores of this world? It could also be possible that he is seeing their spirits.
巨人 (Kyojin, or giants) is another core trope of Japanese mythology – just think of Attack on Titan. Another is that spirits and demons partly, or in some cases entirely, control the landscape into which their victims stray, able to manipulate the environment at will. This is what makes them so terrifying to Western sensibilities. In Detention, the spirits turn a local river from water to blood; in our traditions, it’s only really God who can pull off such staggering feats.
In Death Stranding, at least, good is able to ‘fight’ back. Sam’s vision in the water does not last forever. Reaching within himself, Sam finds a baby, who makes a thumbs up gesture. This seems to return the world to some degree of normality. To dispel any illusion that what we’ve just witnessed is a dream sequence, Sam vomits dark water (and bugs) and gasps for air. The insects also continue to float upwards, suggesting the gravity reversal is still partly in play.
There is more to unpack here. 産女 (Ubume) are ghosts of women who die in childbirth. The attachment of the dead mother to their unborn children manifests as an Ubume. These ghosts appear often as old crones, seeking to pass on what appear to be their children to any who will receive them. Once they have passed on their child, they will disappear, unburdened of their attachment. These children get heavier and heavier, until eventually it is revealed they become nothing more than stone or a graven image. Kojima appears to be reversing this twisted spirit, however, in that the babies in his narrative appear to counteract the malevolent forces, rather than play a part in their deception. Still, the motif of a child being passed on, and then accepting death, is undeniably cohesive with the myth. It’s been hinted more than once that Death Stranding might feature cooperative elements, and perhaps this will be a key factor? Perhaps players will need to pass protective talismans between them to ensure survival?
Kojima’s roots are in stealth gameplay, and he has spoke many times about how he wishes to subvert the repetitive narrative of attacking things to destroy them. This philosophy is rooted in the work of Kobo Abe, who wrote the short novel The Rope: ‘The rope and the stick are two of humankind's oldest tools. The stick to keep evil at a bay, the rope to bring that which is good closer, both were the first friends conceived by humankind. The rope and stick were wherever humankind was to be found.’ In an article he wrote for Rolling Stone in September last year, Kojima discusses this philosophy and how he sees its importance in creating videogames: ‘video games are still primarily players with sticks fighting each other. They cannot break the curse of using sticks to keep evil away, or defeating enemies. I want to change this.’
Poetry as a focal point
But Death Stranding’s influences also step beyond merely one culture’s influence. Kojima has always studied widely and worn his influences on his sleeve. At the start of the first trailer, we are treated to a quote from William Blake’s ‘Auguries of Innocence’ from the collection Songs of Innocence & Experience:
‘To see a world in a grain of sand
and heaven in a wild flower
hold infinity in the palm of your hand
and eternity in an hour’
This beautiful opening quatrain is a meditation on appreciating beauty in the smallest moments and things, particularly natural things, something that immediately has connection with Japanese poetic sensibility, given that haikus are traditionally meant to focus on the natural world. Intriguingly an augury is a sign of something to come and Death Stranding’s third trailer delivers an ominous warning about our future through its voiceover: ‘Once, there was an explosion, a bang that gave rise to life as we know it. And then came the next explosion, an explosion that will be our last’. Throughout Blake’s poem, life and death, innocence and corruption, and light and dark, are held in perfect counterpoint, just as we see Kojima balancing these two polarities in what we’ve seen of Death Stranding.
In choosing William Blake’s poetry as a focal point – or to use the technical term, ‘epithet’ – Kojima is making a statement. William Blake was a visionary English poet living in a time of great poverty and social upheaval. He was known to frequently have transcendental religious experiences, and had a deep connection to the spiritual dimension of life whilst never losing his grip on the reality of everyday existence for himself and others around him, perceiving his world from a unique and insightful vantage point. Kojima has never shied away from exploring supernatural and spiritual elements in his work despite the more real-world stage of advanced nuclear weapons development, special operations, and military espionage. Hence, Blake is no accident. I believe it indicates a move by Kojima away from external political drama to philosophical and spiritual interiors. Death Stranding, in other words, will be a different kind of story, one that perhaps concentrates more on his spiritual, philosophical leanings – a move farther towards The Sorrow and away from Revolver Ocelot.
While I cannot predict with any certainty what Death Stranding will be like or whether it will please everyone, I can certainly attest that it’s going to be interesting if any of its multitude of influences are explored in any depth. I, for one, am overjoyed to see a major AAA title emerge with such ambitious philosophical depth, scope and meaning. In a way, it’s irrelevant whether Death Stranding succeeds or not, because it has set a precedent nonetheless.