At the Tribeca Film Festival last week, Hideo Kojima fans arrived in force, hoping for new footage or spoilers for his mysterious new game Death Stranding. Out of hundreds of waiting fans, many arrived wearing Kojima Productions shirts or carrying Metal Gear merch for the gaming auteur to sign. Kojima ended up rushing across the red carpet, while The Walking Dead star Norman Reedus posed for selfies and signed one fan’s NES Metal Gear cartridge.
Unfortunately, it turned out Kojima had no new footage of Death Stranding to show that night, though he did hint that gamers could expect some new footage in a month or so - we’re guessing at E3 2019. But lack of trailer aside, moderator Geoff Keighley of Game Awards fame managed to wring plenty of intriguing information about the upcoming title out of Kojima and Reedus.
Here are the most intriguing details we gleaned from the panel about what to expect from this bizarre PS4 title.
You play as both Sam and Norman Reedus...
We knew from E3 that you play as delivery man Sam ‘Porter’ Bridges. But Kojima revealed that you’re also playing as Norman Reedus himself.
A huge cinephile, Kojima said that Reedus’ previous filmography will influence the character you’ll play in Death Stranding. While he liked how Daryl’s side-character badassery stole the show in The Walking Dead, he also enjoyed how “sexy and cute” Norman was in Boondock Saints, and his black humor as the host of reality show 'Ride with Norman Reedus'.
“In Death Stranding I’m trying to put every aspect [of Norman] in there,” Kojima said through his interpreter, “and you will see his … everything, in the game,” he finished, suggestively, cracking up the crowd. By the end of the game, he says, you’ll “love Norman”.
“So, they’ll play as me?” Reedus recalled asking Kojima for clarification. “No, they’ll be you,” Kojima replied.
Metal Gear Solid always had meta elements to its stories, from Psycho Mantis judging your player stats and favorite Gamecube games in Twin Snakes to the AIs telling Raiden to sit further back from the television in Sons of Liberty. It’s unsurprising that Kojima’s first game with total narrative control would play back into the idea of Sam/Norman being separate from the player that controls him.
“You’ll see Norman as Sam in the game, and you’ll see his acting, and you’ll enjoy that,” Kojima promised. “You have to become Norman when you play. And Norman says a lot of things that you’ll probably feel, playing as Norman. So he’s Norman and Sam as the same time.”
To fully capture Reedus for the game, Kojima spent two straight days scanning Reedus’ body and facial expressions for the game. Later, when Reedus got a new tattoo, Kojima insisted that they rescan to insert the tattoo into the game. And he joked that if Reedus got a tattoo after the game comes out, he’d sell it as a DLC skin.
Reedus, who joked that he came from the “waka-waka-waka generation”, said that he thinks it’s important to make Sam feel like a real person, compared to an empty avatar you control.
...and as a camera?
Kojima finished off his confusing Sam/Norman explanation with a hint about another section of the game, where you’re not playing as either.
“If you go somewhere in the game, you won’t be controlling Norman or Sam. You’ll just be controlling the camera, and you’ll see Sam/Norman, and if you look at him he might do something like wink at you.”
Lots of AAA games have a photo mode now, where you can take a shot of the protagonist amidst the beautiful scenery. Unsurprisingly, Kojima took this concept and inserted it into DS as a meta game mechanic.
We know he did something similar with the classic concept of the “Continue” screen after death in a video game. In a 2017 IGN interview, he explained that an underwater sequence in a 2017 trailer for Death Stranding was actually a “purgatory” that your dead Norman Reedus must be reincarnated from to return to the game world.
A story about connections
Thematically, Metal Gear went far beyond secret clone agents fighting giant mechas. The series touches on everything from the dangers of genetic modification to the merits of denuclearization to the exploitation of soldiers for political gain.
We still don’t know why Norman Reedus is wandering a post-apocalyptic world with a baby inside his throat. But, Kojima revealed the themes that he hopes gamers will take away from Death Stranding: connectivity (or disconnect) from the world and the people around us.
“There are so many things happening in the real world - in America, in Europe - everything is actually connected by internet, but we’re kind of not connected the way we want to be,” Kojima said. "I'm putting that in a metaphor in the game. The player will have to reconnect the world in the game. You're very alone, in solitude, but you're trying to connect.”
To complicate things, he also suggested that connection isn’t always the answer. As an example, he claimed that a person might be jealous of a happy couple, but then go on a date and realize he was happier on his own. Knowing when to disconnect from persons or things that don’t inspire happiness also, apparently, plays into the themes of the story.
Whatever your decisions, it’s sure to be intentionally political and controversial. Kojima says he envisions Death Stranding’s story taking place in the “near future”, as the result of the “tensions and divisions” in the world today.
He also predicts that the story will "make people cry". So you'd best be prepared for an emotional, intellectual roller coaster.
An open world, but a non-branching narrative
Open-world games present a challenge for large gaming studios, let alone indie developers like Kojima Productions. You need to tell a cohesive story while also letting players do whatever they want; create a convincingly large environment with enough activities inside of it that it doesn’t feel empty; and ensure those activities aren’t repetitive or buggy.
Kojima admitted this has been a challenge during the panel. Game narratives, he claimed, used to be like a highway: gamers could ride in any lane or go backwards, but the world’s parameters were set and narrow. Now, gamers can exit the highway and drive on other roads at any time.
For Death Stranding, Kojima's solution seems to be to offer the illusion of choice to gamers.
Kojima hinted that the game will offer players with painful, tear-inducing choices. But when Keighley asked if this meant that players could influence the story via their choices - think Mass Effect or Dragon Age - he firmly shut down the idea, saying he has one narrative in mind.
Reedus did suggest that his acting did vary based on potential choices the player might make. But it almost seems like these choices ultimately won't effect the overall story for one gamer versus another.
Potential online features
Fairly early on, we learned that Kojima planned to include some elements of online co-op in Death Stranding, with player two playing as a female protagonist. But based on last week’s comments, there may be far more to it than just that. Kojima claims that he “threw in a really new idea".
"You're connecting the game, and everyone is playing it together, and you'll be connected, everyone will be connected together as well," Kojima teased.
"And I can't say anything because Sony will be very unhappy. I don't want to be disconnected to Sony," he finished, to laughs from the crowd.
Despite Death Stranding being single-player, it sounds like you’ll need Playstation Plus to get the most out of it. But what is Kojima’s supposedly unique idea? Players dropping into other players’ worlds happens in games as varied as Forza Horizon 4 and Dark Souls. MMOs’ very foundation is connectivity with other gamers. So we admit to being stumped about what exactly he has planned that Sony wants kept mysterious for now.
How Death Stranding came to be
After Konami forced Kojima out and cancelled Silent Hills, Kojima decided that he wanted to start his own independent game studio. He also decided that he wanted to design his next gaming protagonist with Norman Reedus specifically in mind.
Only problem was, he had no concept art to show or staff to begin working on pre-production; only his words and ideas. So Kojima invited Norman Reedus out for sushi and talked about his Death Stranding ideas for two hours. At the end of his pitch, Kojima asked Reedus if he wanted to star in the game, and he immediately said yes.
This was thanks to Oscar winner and Silent Hills collaborator Guillermo del Toro, who has great respect for Kojima and told Reedus to “do whatever [Hideo] wants".
Reedus gushed to the audience about Kojima’s directing style, saying that he has an “infectious enthusiasm” for his work, an inherent “honesty” to his filmmaking, and a respectful desire to collaborate and improvise ideas with him rather than control his every move, as other Hollywood directors have done in the past.
Because of the MGS series’ meticulous attention to detail, Kojima has obtained the reputation of a perfectionist; he denied this during the panel, however. He “daydreams” the outline for his games’ stories, but he needs dialogue with others to truly flesh out the details. "I like a lot of things live," Kojima explained. "I want to really do a collaboration."
He says that he can never go back to the way things used to be, when he only worked with voice actors and scripted games alone in his room. He wants his experience directing actual scenes with Hollywood actors like Reedus, Mads Mikkelsen and Léa Seydoux to be the norm going forward.
Though one thin certainly hasn’t changed from the old days of Metal Gear Solid 4: Kojima admitted that “of course there are a lot of long cutscenes” in Death Stranding.
The future of Kojima Productions: a Netflix partnership?
During the Q&A, one fan asked if Kojima ever planned on directing a movie of his own. Sadly for his admirers, it doesn’t look like that’ll ever happen - at least not in the traditional sense.
“I really wanna shoot movies too,” he answered, “but I don’t have time. I’ve received many offers, [but] I really want to create games until I die.”
He continued on to express his interest in creating content for streaming platforms like Netflix or Amazon Prime. “Everything is there right now, and I think there will be games there sooner or later.” He predicts that games and films will become “closer” from a structural standpoint, and wants to “challenge” bridging that gap.
Netflix has already begun releasing interactive 'Choose Your Own Adventure' experiences like Bandersnatch. One can only imagine what the king of gaming cutscenes could do with his own branching FMV experience.
In an interview with Nikkei Business (found by Variety), Kojima said that with the advent of 5G and the Google Stadia gaming streaming service, he’s excited about the possibilities they represent for his future games. “There’s one big thing I have in mind related to streaming as well,” he said, but “I can’t say anything more as I don’t want to spoil though.”
One thing’s for certain: the only thing Kojima loves more than thinking up bold new ideas is keeping those ideas top secret and tantalizing us with enigmatic hints.
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