Death Stranding Teases More Historical Allusions
He has, as they say, gone full Kojima.
That can mean a lot of things, of course. Hideo Kojima’s status in the video game community has only improved since his recent falling out with Konami, giving strength to an running online in-joke/slogan/act of defiance. Even Kojima’s famous new friends like to get in on it.
That status was vaunted already; as the mastermind of the Metal Gear Solid series Kojima can do no wrong in the eyes of many, a walking talking Exhibit A in the video games as art debate. His “cinematic” style and deliberate invocations of philosophical exploration into genre-defining stealth games have made him a legend. Subsequently, if you like video games and enjoy reading about them you can in theory have no reaction to or opinion about Hideo Kojima. But you probably do.
I have my own of course, but I find it difficult to pin them down. Most recently, I find myself more excited about his new project Death Stranding than I ever have been about a Metal Gear Solid game, including Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, about which I got rather excited indeed. Kojima’s latest has come to us in a duo of thoughtfully crafted trailers as likely to be leading viewers astray as advertising any clear elements of the upcoming game. The casting of Norman Reedus, (the apparently extremely nice) Mads Mikkelsen and Guillermo del Toro is attention grabbing, but something in this latest trailer caught me more than the intriguing hints at a plot exploring the divide between life and death, or the star turns.
The World War II iconography here is unmistakeable. Undead soldiers march behind a Lovecraftian tank with an almost cavalier allusion to Nazis trooping through Europe. The skies belong to the enemy, del Toro’s character trapped, hiding on low ground and looking to the sewers beneath.
Kojima could have a lot of fun with this. Like many people my age who like video games I failed miserably to avoid being snatched up by the Metal Gear Solid games early on; far and away the element in the series that appeals to me most is Kojima’s fascination with the present and future of international relations. More specifically, the Metal Gear Solid series very clearly rests on the product of a Japanese mind, with Kojima’s homeland occupying an intriguing place in late twentieth century geopolitics. During the Cold War, Japan rose from an American-sponsored workhouse of Asia to a superpower sitting on the Pacific Rim, all power and influence derived directly from economic influence and power. Japan had no army to hold back from direct conflict, and sits alone in the nuclear age as the only nation to suffer a nuclear attack. All of this seeps through the Metal Gear games: Solid Snake’s famous declaration that “war has changed” in Metal Gear Solid 4 represents the game’s central premise neatly, with the character’s narrative and the broader geopolitics of Kojima’s near-future dovetailing with one another, but Snake’s sense of loss and discombobulation essentially mimics a postwar Japanese state in a world dominated by the possibility of conflict. The post-2001 world brings as much doubt to Tokyo and Nagoya as it does to New York and Chicago, compounding the complications of forming a coherent Japanese worldview that includes a clear sense of national self.
Seeing Kojima take these influences and throw World War II into the mix is promising. In the years since MGS4 Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe has pushed harder for a more formal reconstitution of a Japanese military, a decision that does not reflect a shift in Japanese popular opinion but rather reflects the realities of his own political debts and somewhat concerning historical interpretations. The series that made Kojima a legend centers itself entirely around the creation and resistance to enormous weapons of war, the Metal Gears of the title. It seems, perhaps, Death Stranding is more interested in what makes human life valuable. By evoking the imagery of Nazi stormtroopers and the use of flying machines in the sky to represent totalitarianism of pervasive observation and control, Kojima borrows from well-worn territory, but it is a well that seems slow to run dry. Time will tell how much of this comes from the man’s showmanship, but personally I look forward to more clearly historically inflected world building with much greater enthusiasm than I do the roles laid out for the famous faces we have seen so far.