Tear Down That Fourth Wall
Death Stranding kicks off a timely and important conversation with its players
Kojima Productions’ Death Stranding has already unleashed a tidal wave of discussion on the internet and it hasn’t even launched yet. It’s been in the hands of game reviewers for the last several weeks, with the review embargo lifting just a few days ago. As one might have expected, opinions are not simply mixed; they’re sharply divided. Are we looking at an entirely new genre here? Is Death Stranding simply the pinnacle of Kojima’s awkward and self-congratulatory philosophical wankery? Is it frustrating — or worse — utterly boring? Is it difficult or too easy? Is it “beautiful” (and what does that actually mean in the context of a video game)? Are its themes of connection — both physical and emotional — fittingly deep and insightful? Or is it more like a pool of water collected under a shadow — tantalisingly foreboding and limitless at first glance, but jarringly shallow once you dive in?
If you’ve seen any of the reviews so far — especially Tim Rogers’ clever, hour-long, earnestly-satirical humblebrag that redefines the game review — you may reasonably conclude that Death Stranding confidently answers “yes” to every single one of those questions.
There’s a lot to say about this game, obviously. Even the folks who simply can’t get into it — either because they find the gameplay itself too tedious, or because Kojima the auteur and the associated fan bubble around him triggers their gag reflex — are discussing and debating this experience in a way that simply doesn’t happen very often. It’s worth pointing out that “it generates heated discussion” isn’t necessarily something that is inherently good or valuable. Sometimes it just boils down to two groups of fans and anti-fans raging at each other over social media.
But this is where I want to pause for a moment and discuss one particular element of Death Stranding that really breaks through the bullshit cloud. Let me just repeat that final sentence from the last paragraph: Sometimes it just boils down to two groups of fans and anti-fans raging against each other over social media.
I’m hovering on this point because this is something Hideo Kojima specifically discussed in a recent BBC documentary that covered the final moments of Death Stranding’s development.
“The attacks and violence seen online these days are out of control. So I designed this for people to take a step back and by connecting, relearn how to be kind to others.”
By now, if you’ve seen any coverage of the game, you’ll know that the central theme is about “reconnection”. This theme acts as the fulcrum for the various gameplay components; it provides a purchase to all of the game’s systems, both philosophically and mechanically. As Sam Porter Bridges, you’ll explore a ruined America, delivering parcels to stranded, frightened folks who cannot venture outside due to its post-apocalyptic dangers. Delivering these parcels has its own benefits, but the overarching goal is to connect up the Chiral Network, which is really a sort of fancy internet. It “connects” people conceptually, but also quite literally, by enabling other porters to physically print objects within the radius of an active Chiral node. These objects, too, are about building physical connections from place-to-place.
Hideo Kojima also cites both the election of Donald Trump and Brexit as motivating forces behind the creation of Death Stranding. Whatever your views about those two cataclysms, there’s no question that both have been enormous drivers of (or, some would argue, symptoms of) massive social divisions. These events have occurred in a context where the internet — social media in particular — has become ubiquitous, and where online toxicity is at an all-time high. Given that Hideo Kojima is no stranger to providing commentary on current affairs (the entire Metal Gear Solid franchise is, at its core, a conversation about geopolitics), the motivations behind Death Stranding aren’t surprising. And I must admit, there’s nothing remarkable about the Trump/Brexit motivations in and of themselves. What’s really fascinating, in my view, is Kojima’s discussion about online toxicity — not because he’s saying anything novel about the problem, but because Death Stranding is his attempt to find something of a remedy.
It’s easy — and tempting — to see Death Stranding’s various riffs on “reconnection” as both florid and superfluous all at the same time. From the often painfully-obvious character names — Bridget (or “Bridge It”) — to the fact that every major gameplay system folds back into the idea of “reconnection” — the idea of connecting people through parcel deliveries, building the Chiral Network itself, building objects that connect points on the map, and even Sam Porter Bridges’ “connection” to the world of the dead. The ways in which the central theme is embraced at every possible opportunity might feel like overkill to the point where it almost seems amateur; like a film student beating audiences over the head with an impressively heavy stick, repeatedly asking the question “Did you get it?!” Yep, we got it.
On the other hand, there’s clearly more going on here. In the BBC interview, Hideo Kojima discusses the relationship between game and real world. This is where a penchant for breaking the fourth wall reaches (and I’d argue, meaningfully exceeds) what Hideo Kojima did in Metal Gear Solid 2 with its surreal, fourth wall breaking ending.
“Trump is building a wall, and the UK is leaving the EU. In this game, we use bridges to connect things. But destroying those bridges can instantly turn them into walls. So bridges and walls are almost synonymous. That’s one of the things I’d like players to think about in the game.”
Consider, for a moment, the core gameplay loop of Death Stranding. You’re mostly alone in a desolate world. Your whole reason for existing, at least in practical terms, is to deliver packages to people. To a large extent, your reward for doing this is simply the satisfaction you’ll gain from knowing you have helped someone. Moving from point A to B is often a gruelling, slow, painful process; it requires meticulous planning ahead of time (the route you’ll take, the equipment you’ll carry, and so on) and you may easily find yourself completely stranded in the middle of nowhere, realising that you’ve made some egregious error in planning before setting out. Along the way — as you connect the Chiral Network — you’ll come across helpful structures that other real-world players have built; in the context of an impossibly harsh journey where you have struggled to simply balance the deliveries on your back, these small kindnesses may feel overwhelming when you encounter them. You can leave feedback — Likes — on these items, which the creator will see in their game.
Hideo Kojima makes a point of saying that there are “no negative interactions in the game” — it’s only possible to interact in a positive and constructive way with others. The game’s world and systems are largely built around rewarding cooperative behaviour, especially against a backdrop where everyone else is anonymous: leaving behind a ladder means you’re losing one from your inventory — and it’s a precious commodity — but at least you know that this specific ladder may save someone’s life and/or enable them to complete a delivery. You know how it feels to encounter an oasis in the desert, and it’s satisfying to provide that sometimes incalculable relief for others.
“After spending dozens of hours in the game, you will come back to reality in the end. When you do, I want you to learn what you used in the game.”
There are numerous moments in Death Stranding where Hideo Kojima breaks the fourth wall in ways that are stylistically similar to his previous games. As Sam Porter Bridges sits on his bed and you pan the camera around, he’ll sometimes look right at you and wink before shifting his gaze back to the floor. These little morsels are the Kojima-esque crumbs that fall from a cake with a delicious gooey centre that you’re only able to enjoy after consuming the jarringly bitter sponge surrounding it (perhaps the centre is too sweet and the sponge too bitter — the aim, it seems, is to bite off roughly-even portions of both for the ultimate mastication experience). But I digress; I’ll move on before being completely sucked down the drain of Kojima’s wankertub.
What’s really going on here is that Death Stranding is completely unvarnished, unfettered Kojima. This is what happens when there’s nobody to tighten the purse strings or to reject an idea. This particular cake might seem like an especially tough object to swallow — as discussed, gag reflexes the world over have blocked it from many writers’ digestive tracts — but the fact that it exists at all is quite remarkable.
In my view, Death Stranding’s defining feature — and possibly its lasting legacy — is related to this whole business about fourth wall breaking. It’s not just that there are little winks and nods throughout the experience, it’s that the entire game itself attempts to be a personal blueprint for each player who encounters it. As Hideo Kojima says: “After spending dozens of hours in the game, you will come back to reality in the end. When you do, I want you to learn what you used in the game.” Death Stranding demands that the player overcome daunting isolation, frustration, and tedium in the pursuit of kindness to others. Connection, therefore, isn’t the end goal here: it’s the methodology through which one builds an interactive kindness tutorial. Death Stranding doesn’t simply poke occasional holes in the fourth wall through which fleeting streams of light escape. Rather, it completely obliterates the divide between game and player. As Tim Rogers so eloquently said in his review, “it’s like being forced to eat vegetables at gunpoint”.
In a world where we humans have never been so further apart, where we fail to extend neither courtesy nor good intentions to those with whom we disagree, where we are so interconnected yet so hopelessly isolated, it might just be time for an intervention. Maybe we should just sit down, be forced to eat our vegetables, and to relearn how to be kind to each other. For better or worse, that’s precisely the medicine Death Stranding seeks to administer.