Guillermo del Toro, Mads Mikkelsen, Margaret Qualley, and Norman Reedus star in a video game that doubles as one of the year’s best cinematic experiences.
Hideo Kojima’s “Death Stranding” is massive, moody, and — as usual for the video game auteur — weird as hell. The open-world experience has enough contemplative moments to make it feel like a “Grand Theft Auto” sequel directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, and it’s the greatest achievement yet from the most eccentric and forward-thinking designer of a medium in which virtually every large-scale project is created by committee.
“Death Stranding” could be described as the best “video game movie” ever made, but that doesn’t quite capture what makes it feel special. Is it a film that you play? A game that you watch? Does it invite all of the same criticisms that have been leveled at Kojima’s work since last century? Yes, yes, and yes. At a time when video games can finally look like movies as much as movies have started to look like video games — when people like Kojima and James Cameron are working towards similar ends with many of the same techniques — Kojima has created a bizarre masterpiece that doesn’t just blur the line between these mediums, but also illustrates the power of knotting them together.
“Death Stranding” begins with a quote that distills the ethos of his entire career. It’s a key excerpt from a Kōbō Abe novel called “The Rope,” and the words dangle in front of you for just a moment before they’re replaced by some cryptic narration about the Big Bang:
“The rope and the stick are two of humankind’s oldest tools. The stick to keep evil at bay, and 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.”
Most video games think of a controller as the stick. Kojima, an obsessive cinephile who abandoned his filmmaking dreams in order to pursue a form of storytelling that can reach beyond the confines of a screen, has always thought of a controller as the rope. “We don’t need a game about dividing players between winners and losers,” he once wrote in his now-defunct Rolling Stone column devoted to the intersections and overlaps between digital media, “but about creating connections at a different level.”
Kojima has been trying to make that game for at least 21 years. It’s a journey that can be traced back to September 1998, and one of the most famous moments in the history of interactive entertainment. Anyone who’s played “Metal Gear Solid” already knows what I’m talking about: Psycho Mantis, the telepathically enhanced fourth boss that you encounter in Kojima’s landmark tactical espionage game, begins to read the player’s mind. He starts with some parlor tricks, as the leather-clad bad guy makes the player’s controller rumble as evidence of his power. Even back then, that part was kind of a yawn. Psycho Mantis gets a bit more personal from there, scanning the player’s memory card and citing some of their favorite recent Konami games; a fun and clever gambit, but more of an advertisement for the developer’s other products than anything else.
Then Psycho Mantis breaks your television.
The screen cuts to black, the music stops, and the controller becomes a worthless hunk of plastic in your hand. The word “HIDEO” appears in the upper-right corner of the screen, written in the blocky lime green letters the television industry once adopted as a universal symbol for “Input.” When the image eventually winks back to life, Psycho Mantis is invincible, essentially predicting the player’s every move. But, as with many of the bosses strewn across the “Metal Gear” saga, there’s a hidden secret that makes beating him a breeze: Players have to get off their butts, go over to their Playstations, and plug their controller into a different console port.
People complained that the cut-scene-heavy “Metal Gear Solid” was more of a movie than a game, but one moment was all it took for series mastermind Kojima to shatter the fourth wall that had sealed off the art form since its inception. Since then, Kojima has only grown more obsessed with bridging the gaps between fiction and reality; cinema and gaming; ropes and sticks.
Kojima’s latest is set in a post-apocalyptic world a few generations since a mysterious event known as the Death Stranding ripped civilization apart at the seams. The precise details of what happened are portioned out across the epic adventure (which this critic finished along with a decent number of sidequests in about 60 hours), but the gist of it is that something awful caused the world of the dead to be transposed over the world of the living.
When two distinct planes of existence merged together, in the blink of an eye, America — and maybe the rest of the Earth along with it — was overrun with invisible monsters called BTs. The sky began to rain a water-like substance known as “Timefall,” which rapidly ages any skin or metal that it touches. Human corpses started to melt into black pools of chiral crystals, and many of the bodies caused “voidout” explosions. The survivors, meanwhile, retreated into small underground shelters across the country where they isolated themselves out of fear and preservation. The country had been growing distrustful and remote from itself for some time, and the Death Stranding just hastened the inevitable.
You play as Sam Porter Bridges, an immortal delivery man who schleps cargo around the Eastern seaboard so that he doesn’t have to dwell on his tragic backstory (Sam is embodied by a 3D photogrammed Norman Reedus, whose moving performance never steps foot in the uncanny valley). Eventually, he’s tasked by his adopted mother — the dying President of the United States — to embark on a coast-to-coast trek to reconnect people to the chiral network and “Make America Whole Again.” In a game that grapples with how America’s failed potential curdled into an extinction-level event, this early quote will not be the most explicit reference to Donald Trump.
But the internet is not an inherently benevolent force, and the story of “Death Stranding” is framed against our current darkness, an age defined by real walls along imaginary borders, industries that are burning up the planet they were invented to power, and social networks that bring people together in order to tear them apart. There’s no telling if rebuilding the country’s bridges will be for the best; no telling if Sam is bringing people the rope or arming strangers with the stick.
So far, so relatively normal for this kind of thing. Built on the engine used for “Horizon Zero Dawn,” the gameplay itself is par for the course as well, with fun but clumsy combat sequences interjected between long and contemplative sequences of walking between distant outposts and sneaking around whatever monsters you might find along the way. It’s a testament to the ingenious cargo mechanics and the staggering world-building that you never really stop to consider that you’re role-playing as a glorified Amazon courier.
But Kojima hasn’t gone straight. This is someone whose Brechtian instincts and John Carpenter-inspired sensibilities have combined for many of the most daring and peculiar experiments in video game history. (Just ask anyone who beat “Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty.”) He’s used his acrimonious split from Konami to follow his muse like never before: “Death Stranding” soon reveals itself to be the strangest thing Kojima has ever made.
The pre-title sequence alone contains some of the most arresting, unusual imagery that games have ever seen: Sam meets a Léa Seydoux character named Fragile, fends off a BT, has an Oval Office encounter with a death mask-wearing cabinet member who refers to himself as Die-Hardman (Tommie Earl Jenkins), re-enacts “The Ballad of Narayama” with his mother’s body, and finds himself outfitted with an adorable fetus “Bridge Baby” who can sense BTs when connected to Sam via a synthetic umbilical cord.
Players carry BB in a chest pod and have to soothe him when he cries out at you through the speaker embedded in the Playstation controller; maybe these are just the sentiments of an expectant father, but the emotional bond you eventually form with the little guy is deeper and more primal than anything a game has manufactured this side of “The Last of Us.” The connection between them even resonates with enough power to survive the “Irishman”-length expository monologues that suck the life out of the game’s “End of Evangelion”-inspired final chapters.
But if Kojima’s storytelling can be so convoluted and grandiose that it makes the finale of “Metal Gear Solid 4” feel like Chekhov, his vision has never been clearer. The prologue ends with Sam being roped into a rescue mission that devolves into the most spectacular and terrifying set piece I’ve seen in any medium this year. By then, there’s no doubt that Kojima has followed his own strange path to become the director he once dreamed of being.
And just when it’s starting to feel like “Death Stranding” is the greatest movie that Guillermo del Toro never made, the iconic “Pacific Rim” creator shows up in the game as a BB-obsessed NPC called Deadman. Del Toro, who previously collaborated with Kojima on the aborted “Silent Hills” and the Escher-like “P.T.” that it left behind, only lends his likeness to the character (voiced by Jesse Corti), which leads to some major cognitive dissonance for anyone who’s ever heard him talk before.
But his appearance, and the perceptual clash that it causes, speaks to the heart of a game that’s about the schisms between and inside us; a game that treats ancient Egyptian ideas about the body and soul with peer-reviewed seriousness, uses a non-proprietary system of Facebook-esque “likes” as its currency, and leaves you with an entire language worth of Kojima’s pseudo-scientific philosophies about our own conflicting states of being (drink every time someone says the word “Beach” and you’ll be necrotizing before you know it).
Del Toro’s disembodied role indicates how giddy “Death Stranding” is about its own cinephilia, even by the standards of an auteur whose “Dune”-level dense “Metal Gear” franchise extrapolated some “Escape from New York” references into an entire alternate history of the Cold War. Nicolas Winding Refn lends his likeness to a very amusing major character named Heartman who goes into cardiac arrest every 21 minutes, two other very recognizable directors play bit parts, and the world is strewn with pre-Stranding relics such as the score to Dario Argento’s formative giallo masterpiece, “Deep Red.”
But the filmic nature of “Death Stranding” goes much deeper than nods and detritus and the presumption that the game’s primordial landscape more closely resembles contemporary Iceland than post-apocalyptic Baltimore due to Kojima’s affinity for “Prometheus” and its sequel (a fitting backdrop for a soundtrack powered by the American-Icelandic band Low Roar, whose lovely electronic post-rock ballads sound like a ray of sunlight breaking through the clouds). The most movie-like thing about it stems from the famous actors (no spoilers here) who reconcile the “ha” and “ka” of it all by voicing their own digital avatars. Kojima directed them in much the same way that Rupert Wyatt and Matt Reeves directed Andy Serkis in the recent “Planet of the Apes” trilogy, and the results are spectacular.
Not only does Sam Bridges so closely resemble Norman Reedus that you lose sight of the distance between them, but the fact that he’s played by such an obviously real and recognizable person makes it so much easier to believe in the porter’s humanity. “The ability to control real actors is unique to the fiction of games,” Kojima wrote while developing “Death Stranding,” “and it leads to a more realistic experience; and that is the shared aim of gains and movies alike.” In its own demented way, the verisimilitude of “Death Stranding” is off the charts.
Margaret Qualley helps prove that point. The “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” star is so expressive that she leaps off the screen even as a hologram, but her layered performance as a tech-head named Mama becomes truly devastating once the character shows up in the flesh. The palpable weight and emotionality that Qualley brings to the role allows Mama to veer off in some wild directions that would feel silly if they weren’t so raw. Mads Mikkelsen is scary and poignant in a role that I couldn’t explain if I tried, but Kojima keeps this strand of the story from fraying apart by using a series of classic film tropes as footholds. And the Bionic Woman herself, Lindsay Wagner, carries the weight of the world as both President Strand and her twentysomething daughter Amelie, as Kojima more seamlessly de-ages the 70-year-old actress than “Gemini Man” could ever dream of doing. The strained bond between the past and the present is crucial to a story in which time causes far more wounds than it heals, and Wagner’s double-sided turn is able to trace a powerful line between them.
Some of these scenes are so drunk on their own nonsense that they leave you scratching your head. Others are so tender and well-composed that they take your breath away. All of them are so rapturously expressive that Kojima no longer has to rely on his old meta-textual trickery. And yet, in characteristic fashion, the most indelible moments of all manage to tie filmic and gaming devices into an inextricable knot that use the conventions of one medium to subvert the expectations of another.
I wouldn’t dare spoil a demented, exasperating stretch in the penultimate chapter, but suffice it to say that cinematic traditions crash into the game’s longest cut-scene with such destabilizing force that it’s hard to make sense of what you’re watching. You forget that you’re playing a mega-budget product that’s sure to sell millions of copies the world over — that you’re not the only person alive who’s bearing witness to it. Kojima uses game language to remind you how isolating a screen can be, and then in the subsequent climactic sequence (which hardly requires you to hit a single button), uses film grammar to expand the kind of stories that video games have been able to tell.
It’s BB who makes this effect most obvious, as the dramatic cut-scenes involving the big-eyed fetus make you more reactive to it during gameplay, and its various coos and cries during gameplay render you more invested in it as a character. As Deadman repeatedly observes, BB evolves from one kind of tool to another over the course of “Death Stranding.” Its nature and abilities never change, but the way that we and Sam think about it does.
As a whole, “Death Stranding” itself is the same way. The game starts by putting a stick in your hand, only for the controller to slowly become a rope as players guide Sam to unify a broken world over the course of the 60 hours that follow. Players are elated when they finally receive guns that work against the BTs, only to find that the bullets draw from your own blood — fire too many and you’ll die. Ladders, climbing lines, and 3D-printed postal boxes are some of the most rudimentary tools you’re given, but they only grow more powerful as other players on the Playstation Network begin to use them on their own quests (a brilliant riff on how the “Dark Souls” franchise twists the hostility of online gaming towards the better angels of our nature).
“Death Stranding” bends a wide array of modern tech back towards the most basic aspirations of art: It affirms that we’re alive, that we’re connected, and that humanity will always have reason to hope because our extinction and salvation are made possible by the same tools. The stick can prod us into action, and the rope can be fashioned into a noose; a movie can alienate, and a game can unify. What something does is only defined by how we use it. If we’re not careful, every new means of bringing us closer together can become a method for pulling us apart.
Like global warming and the spread of the internet, the singularity between film and video games has become inevitable; at this point, we only have the power to manage it. But “Death Stranding” finds that every cataclysm is its own opportunity, and that the end of one thing is the beginning of another. Kojima believes that the future will only destroy us if we don’t allow it to bring us together, and he’s never found a better way of delivering that message.
“Death Stranding” is now available on the Playstation 4.
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