After video game developer Hideo Kojima left Konami in 2015, many wondered what his next move would be. Would he go small and develop an indie game or leave the industry entirely? In the end, it seems Kojima may be making his biggest game yet.
Death Stranding debuted at E3 2016, and it quickly became the game with the cryptic title and an equally bizarre premise. Since that announcement, more details have been teased and even more eccentric trailers have been shown alongside an impressive cast that continues to grow. Yet we still don’t fully know what Death Stranding is about.
Kojima is notorious for the baroque, philosophical, thematically complex, and deeply strange plots of his long-running Metal Gear Solid series. Freed from the constraints of working under the umbrella of a major publisher, he seems to be leaning into those tendencies even further with Death Stranding. True to form, he’s been very vague so far about the game’s plot, giving out bits and pieces of information in trailers and in statements.
One trailer that appeared to give us a sense of the game’s bizarre world debuted at The Game Awards in December 2017. Rain pours down on a dark and barren landscape. Three men in worker jumpsuits are in distress after an apparent car wreck. One man’s suit has an attached capsule with a floating, live baby inside, along with a mechanical claw that seems to have some form of artificial intelligence. A shadowy figure with his own mechanical claw emerges. The first man detaches his baby capsule from his suit, then proceeds to get flipped upside down from a vine below the water before stabbing himself (likely under the control of the shadowy figure).
Another man — the game’s protagonist Sam, played by The Walking Dead actor Norman Reedus — picks up the baby’s capsule then looks to the sky at a giant monster with vines coming out of its hands. The screen turns white, and Reedus awakens deep underwater. Bodies and vehicles float above him. The scene snaps back to Reedus in his suit on the ground. The camera view funnels down his throat to reveal the baby, which is alive.
The trailer ends with Reedus looking out at a giant crater. The narrator says, “Once there was an explosion, a bang which gave rise to life as we know it. And then came the next explosion.”
It took over a year before we finally learned what that meant. As shared on the game’s official website, Death Stranding takes place in the near-future, where explosions have occurred all over the planet and have led to the current state of events. Humanity’s extinction is closing in, and it’s up to Sam Bridges to save them as he travels across a “ravaged wasteland.”
The United States appears to be one of the worst-hit areas on Earth, with Bridges remarking that the country is “finished” in the May 2019 trailer. This trailer also briefly showed a female president confined to a hospital bed in the Oval Office.
Kojima noted during an interview with PS4 system architect Mark Cerny at PlayStation Experience 2017 that the theme of Death Stranding is “connections.” He has, on multiple occasions, cited Japanese author Kobo Abe’s novella Rope as a major influence. In the story, Abe said the first tools mankind learned to use were sticks and ropes; sticks could be used to keep threats at a distance, while ropes could secure the things people cherish. While its historical accuracy may be questionable, it is a lovely fable, and the concept seems to be a huge influence on Death Stranding.
Kojima said that most games arm players with sticks, allowing them to fight enemies and other players, but that he wants his new game to revolve around the “ropes” that bring players together. He added that the game will still arm players with “sticks,” suggesting there will still be violent conflict. In these abstract terms, players will have to consider when to use a stick to push people away, and when to use a rope to connect them.
Part 7 of 9. On sticks and ropes. pic.twitter.com/RxgkNXOYRG
— Kojima Productions (@KojiPro2015_EN) June 16, 2016
We’ve since learned that killing or dying will have some sort of consequence in Death Stranding, but in classic Kojima fashion, we don’t know exactly what that means just yet.
In an interview with the official PlayStation Blog in February, Kojima shed some light on Death Stranding’s moment-to-moment gameplay. He confirmed rumors that it would be an open world game, saying “I can’t really speak on that right now, but in a word, it’s an action game — an open-world game, with a lot of freedom.”
Just how much freedom? Hideo Kojima himself attempted to give us an idea in a tweet posted after the May 2019 trailer. This featured a scene with Sam scaling a mountain using a rope, but because there isn’t a linear way up the mountain, this isn’t the only solution. Kojima also stressed that you can climb to the very top.
In the new DEATH STRANDING trailer, there's a scene Sam sets up the rope. The snow mountain is not the set, the path exists and you can actually go climb up the mountain. The snow mountain appears in the beginning of the trailer is exactly what it is.#DEATHSTRANDING #デススト pic.twitter.com/IhODkpG66R
— HIDEO_KOJIMA (@HIDEO_KOJIMA_EN) May 31, 2019
Alongside your typical mountain-climbing gear, you also have access to an extendable ladder. We’ve seen Sam use this as a sort of makeshift bridge, extending it over a series of hills to quickly move forward.
Death Stranding will contain firearms, as briefly featured in the May 2019 trailer. The scene in question appeared to take place in World War 1. Unlike the Metal Gear series, it won’t strictly be a stealth game, and Sam will also be able to engage enemies in melee combat. Much of the time, however, his goal will still be to avoid the monster-like creatures he encounters. Jokingly called a “mailman simulator” based on early footage, Death Stranding will task you with protecting supplies you’re attempting to deliver from the “Beached Things.”
When asked about his repeated references to “strands,” Kojima elaborated, saying that they will be an important and distinguishing part of the game. “In action games, generally, the player has a gun and plays against enemies in a single player environment — or they take it online and play against other players in a competitive environment,” he said. “They join in together with guns — it’s almost always with guns — to take down a stronger opponent. In this game, you can do that but I wanted to go a little deeper beyond that with something that doesn’t focus on a weapon like a gun, and that’s what has a connection to the strand concept.”
In an interview with IGN, Kojima elaborated on the role of death in the game, and how its thematic and mechanical significance has been largely taken for granted in the gaming industry. “Games started over 40 years ago with arcades. When the player dies, it’s game over. You continue, and time goes back to before you die. You can die as many times as you want, but you always go back to a little bit before you die. That was a mechanic made specifically for putting in coins, and it hasn’t changed since then.”
Dying will not lead to a conventional reset to where you left off, but will transport you to a sort of purgatory that you are free to explore before returning to your body. Unlike conventional games wherein your many lives are essentially retconned away, death and reincarnation will be thematically and mechanically built into Death Stranding from the ground up. The system sounds like it may share some ideas with the Dark Souls series, where dying players initially return in a weakened “dead” state.
Death Stranding will feature a form of pseudo-multiplayer, despite being a largely a single-player game — you can think of it almost like the system used in Devil May Cry 5. You’ll be able to share supplies and safe-houses with other players as you make your journey, but you won’t be directly interacting with any of them.