Jumping The Soapbox: Death Stranding or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Like the Gameplay

DSJTS0Death Stranding is owned by Kojima Productions and Sony Interactive Entertainment

I’m not gonna lie, I’ve been pretty down on Kojima’s latest game for a while now.  Sure, we all got caught up in the hype when we first saw naked Norman Reedus and were left wondering what could all that nudity mean, but by the time that Del Toro got his own trailer and the babies became more and more… prominent (let’s go with that word) in the narrative, it all felt like a splash of cold water on the face; a revelation that he may be throwing things against the wall to see what sticks rather than doing something with any real thematic heft to it.  But I could be wrong!  I fully admit that watching trailers like this aren’t always a clear indication of what the final product will be like, such as the case with Dead Island or even The Order 1886, and frankly it all feels very intentional; as if he’s trolling for hundreds of videos breathlessly narrating their ideas of what this could all be about, and playing into that game is harmless but feels rather futile.  Still, I’ve also been trying to get better at judging films in a non-literal fashion, and Kojima is if nothing else a VERY frustrated filmmaker!  Until someone in Hollywood gives him a chance to direct something he’s gonna take it out on all of us by making the most bizarre and ludicrous trailers imaginable for supposed video games, and while I can’t really get mad at it, I just don’t feel the hype anymore.  But hey, I’m already here and there’s a new trailer out with ACTUAL gameplay footage, so let’s at least take a look at what we know so far and see if there’s anything worthwhile to gleam from all this!

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…What? – The First Two Trailers

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As I said, I gave Kojima a lot of credit for that first trailer which was strange, provocative, and surprisingly vulnerable with some clear themes about loss, grief, and the way that male identity (in how we are socialized) play into those experiences.  It sets a very apocalyptic tone with the dead animals, the copious amounts of oil (or an oil like substance), and the washed out aesthetic which goes along with the idea that this world is dying in some way.  Not a bad way to kick things off, and Kojima couldn’t have been more popular at the time due to his recent fallout with Konami which made it a perfect storm of intrigue and feel good sentimentality.  By the second trailer though, I was starting to get worried.  Yeah seeing Pappy McPoyle (also known as Guillermo del Toro) carrying around a baby in a war torn city did advance the narrative at least somewhat since we know how some other people are reacting to the end of the world, but I don’t think the trick works twice and this felt more like a holding pattern than anything else.  When we should have been getting hyped for the GAME, it was still being incredibly coy about everything.  Now we had to start asking questions about the weird fetus thing, the black goop that keeps showing up, and new things like the soldiers with skulls for heads being lead around by Mads Mikkelsen!  Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE Mads Mikkelsen, but I was starting to get a bad feeling that Kojima left entirely to his own devices is gonna end up missing the forest for the trees when developing this.

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Look, if ANYONE was gonna lead a bunch of Skeleton dudes into a warzone, IT WAS GONNA BE FREAKING HANNIBAL!

Have you ever heard of the movie The Deer Hunger?  It was a film directed by Michael Cimino back in 1978 that came out of nowhere and won FIVE Oscars out of a whopping NINE nomination!  His movie was such a hit that he convinced United Artists to fund his passion project called Heaven’s Gate, and was given an eleven million dollar budget as well as total creative control.  I mean, come on!  He was the guy who made The Deer Hunter, right?  SURELY he knew what he was doing!  Yeah… the production turned out to be a TOTAL nightmare with Cimino making cupreous and costly decisions that ballooned the budget to over FORTY-FOUR MILLION (adjusted for inflation that’s almost a hundred and fifty million) which resulted in an abysmal flop for the studio that Cimino never really recovered from.  Yes, he did make his fair share of movies after that and Heaven’s Gate has its fans, but with what we had seen of Death Stranding up to this point with so much craft and manpower put into such cryptic trailers that may or may not represent the game itself, well let’s just say that I wouldn’t be surprised if Sony was starting to sweat about that blank check they wrote him.

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…Wait, what? – Trailers Three and Four

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Now with the first two trailers as serving as little more than mood pieces, it was definitely time for them to move things along a bit and try to give us an idea of what this is ACTUALLY about instead of just vague suggestions of its themes.  They… KINDA do this, particularly with the fourth trailer, but I still feel that it’s holding things way to close to the chest for me to get excited about.  Some of the more concrete details we get in this are that Norman Reedus is working for SOMEONE doing SOMETHING that involves hazmat suits and fetus slings.  Okay, this could probably use a bit more explanation still.  I mean at least they start establish some threats here as well as a few bits of their technology that you can start to gleam a bit of functionality from.  They wear these suits to protect themselves from the toxic sludge that seems to be everywhere, and that an even more sever threat lurks within the muck.  I like to think that this is the super grim dark version of Splatoon where the Octolings used their ink to poison humans and travel to the ones who were left to finish the job themselves, but I doubt that Nintendo and Kojima would be able to come to that kind of agreement; even if Solid Snake is in Smash Bros.  It’s nothing TOO complicated at first as we arrive on the scene in media res (Norman Reedus is waking up despite this being a POOR location to get some shuteye) and things go to heck real fast for him and his crew who all get sucked up into this muck.  At the end of this trailer though there seems to be some sort of colossus, and then he’s underwater, and then he’s not.  Oh, and he’s got a fetus in his throat for some reason despite the fetus’s clearly being housed in those weird satchel thingies.  I at least like how they visually call back to the first trailer with the final shot of this one, but I still don’t know what the motivations are of anyone in this or what we’re even fighting for once we get our hands on the controller.

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It’s a Shadow of the Colossus sequel!?  Well why didn’t you say so!?

Now the fourth trailer might be the one that could turn it all around for me, right?  I mean there’s a much heavier emphasis on story and dialogue as well as some footage that seems to be from actual gameplay, so we’re getting more information as well as an idea of what we’ll be doing!  That’s good, right?  Well at least the gameplay is intriguing, but it becomes more and more clear that the narrative, even when the TRY to explain it, is overly convoluted and, to put it frankly, pretentious.  Let’s try and really look into the dialogue here to try and piece together what’s going on.  We know his name is Sam Porter Bridges and that he’s THE MAN WHO DELIVERS.  Ha ha, he’s a guy who delivers things across this wasteland AND there’s a lot of baby and birthing imagery.  He’s being courted by a woman named Fragile who seems to have her own delivery company (who knew that the two things that would survive in the post apocalypse are UPS and FedEx!?) but for whatever reason he’s not interested in joining her.  The monsters we’ve seen up to this point (they’re invisible sometimes and they seem to be wherever the goop is) have the power to… age things?  I… GUESS this is what the fetuses are for… because they’re full of youth and the delivery boy’s suck it down to keep themselves healthy?   See, I thought they were just goop dudes who dragged you into the goop to suffocate, but nope!  Aging powers!  It still just comes off as utter nonsense and the dialogue is just as cryptic as everything else we’ve seen, so I still can’t get invested in any of these characters or its setting in any way other than a certain amount of intrigue.  I still don’t care what happens to anyone, but I do kind of want to know HOW it’s gonna happen to them as the imagery is still rather striking to look at.  The best part of the trailer though is the end where they seem to be running through ha scenario you’ll ACTUALLY play through in the game, but even this is rife with absurdity that pulled me out of it.  Sam seems to be stuck in a warehouse of some kind with those goop monsters outside and a person he’s talking to on his radio tells him “if one of those things eat you, it will trigger a void out!”  This is what I’m talking about!  It can’t be just YOU’LL DIE, it has to be either some obtuse euphemism for that or some other concept entirely that I guess is supposed to hold as much tension as, you know… DYING.  Nothing in this can be straight forward for me to grab onto; everything done to the most basic details has to be hidden within layers of jargon and metaphor.  At this point I was just getting tired of these, even if they were showing new stuff each time, and I wasn’t sure if anything was gonna get me back on board for this prior to its release.

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They’re not just gonna KILL him!  That would be FAR too gauche.  They’re just gonna keep clipping through him until he says uncle!

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Oh, NOW I get it! – Trailer Five

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So now we get to the trailer that just came out which revealed more story, more gameplay, and a release date for November of this year!  Overall, this is the best trailer of the lot; particularly because it has a much stronger focus on gameplay which looks utterly intriguing.  I’m loving the various ways your character moves through the environment (the ladder is AWESOME!) and it’s reminding me a lot of Breath of the Wild in terms of its sheer scope and the way that its environments inform its narrative.  Sadly the narrative itself is still obtuse with its overreliance of jargon and just how far into this story we’re entering it from.  We still don’t have a clue what happened to cause the Earth to end up like this, but I’ll try to give at least a rough estimation of the current status quo.  The world governments have basically collapsed and the people are mostly eradicated (think Mad Max with rain instead of dirt), and Sam is doing… something for BRIDGES; a branch of the US Government that I guess is here to… fix things.

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Wow, Sam.  You really dressed to the nines to see The President; wearing your best tactical tank top and everything!

This is actually a WONDERFUL premise, especially with our environmental issues posing a real life threat and a game about trying to fix that (and possibly even the futility of individuals to do anything about it) is rather profound.  On top of that, it reminds me of The Red Zone in France which is a place so devastated by combat in the first World War that it’s still too toxic for humans to this day, despite regular cleanup efforts which have certainly shrunk the area but have not cleared it up entirely.  It’s a haunting reminder of the devastation of war which his certainly a topic right up Kojima’s alley, and the visuals we see in the gameplay portions really reinforce the utter scope of it all and our insignificance in it.  However, I’m still not quite certain that’s what the game is ACTUALLY about considering how many other plot points they’ve brought up in this trailer as well as the previous ones.  I mean… is this supposed to be an End Times scenario as well as Post-Apocalyptic?  We’ve already seen the goop monsters before which AT LEAST AS FAR AS I CAN INFER might be the ghosts of all the people who have died, but then Mads Mikkelsen appears to be the leader of a DIFFERENT type of ghost that are all red and skull like, and… I think they’re from Hell?  Frankly it all just feels too much even THIS many trailers into the darn thing, and it seems that Kojima agrees with me considering the cheeky ending to the trailer.  Mads Mikkelsen talking directly to the camera and says “I’ll show you the real thing soon” implying that he’s FULLY aware that none of this makes the least bit of sense but if we stick with it long enough he MIGHT just give us a few more clues!  Isn’t he magnanimous?  Wait, DID HE MENTION THE MOON!?

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Wow, Sam.  You really dressed to the nines to see The President; wearing your best tactical tank top and everything!

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Nope, Still Lost – Final Thoughts

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The this is, I’m not gonna spend the next six months looking for minute details or trying to unravel whatever secrets Kojima planted in the background of whichever trailer for three seconds, and it’s starting to feel like Kojima is compensating for a BAD narrative by making it abstract.  We saw a bit of this in Metal Gear Solid V which had a DECENT narrative, but a lot of the extraneously bizarre stuff felt more out of place there than in any of the other games.  Perhaps the open world aspect of it, as well as the more recognizably grounded setting, made it feel that extra bit extraneous where the other games had a much more linear story that let the world develop at the right pace to make it work.  Even Metal Gear Solid 3 (the BEST one) managed to feel consistent within its own silly narrative despite its sixties Cold War thriller aesthetic.  This feels like we’re going to have SOMETHING of a story, but no direction to it; no clear narrative but rather a setting.  An INTRIGUING setting to be sure, but I’m dubious that the game will be able to reconcile ALL of its bizarre concepts into something even remotely cohesive.  Fortunately, I’m immediately impressed with what I’ve seen of the gameplay itself so far and hopefully Kojima’s weird choices with the story won’t interfere TOO much, or will ACTUALLY turn out to be as brilliant as he clearly thinks it is.

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