The year I plunged, head-first, into the world of Hideo Kojima
By: Bobby Weisblatt
On March 4, 2020, I turned 27 years old, and buried my grandmother. She had turned 99 the previous month, and had been living in a nursing home for 2 years. Little did she know, she had chosen the ideal time to call it a day, as in the coming weeks, that very same nursing home would be riddled with the Coronavirus. I was lucky enough to travel back to New Jersey for 48 hours in order to attend the funeral before returning to my home in Dublin, Ireland. After landing in Dublin Airport, I had no way of knowing the flight I just deplaned would be my last of the year. Less than a week after returning home, the Coronavirus was in full-swing, my office closed down, and all of Ireland was put under strict lockdown and a stay-home order. It was at this point that I decided it might be a good time to finally get my hands on the post-apocalyptic mail-delivery game known as Death Stranding.
Death Stranding, a game ostensibly born from the mental womb of Hideo Kojima, had been released in November, 2019, after years of anticipation. Upon its release, it was met with mostly positive critical reviews and a profitable sales margin, despite maintaining lukewarm feedback at the user level. At the time, I had little interest, as I had never played a Hideo Kojima game before, and didn’t know much about him, beyond my impression that he was the sometimes prolific and sometimes megalomaniacal designer behind the cult-favorite series: Metal Gear Solid. Kojima had unceremoniously parted ways with long time publishing partner, Konami, in October 2015 after the release of his final contirbution to the Metal Gear Solid series. Following his departure, he founded his own studio, Kojima Productions, and proceeded to work on his passion project: Death Stranding. Over the next several years, through news clips, demo videos, and rumors of partnering with big names like Norman Reedus and Guillermo Del Toro, hype for the game continued to swell. Once it finally arrived, gamers were surprised to see that what they got was a mix of Kojima’s trademark storytelling, and a game that primarily consisted of delivering packages across a post-apocalyptic American landscape. The whole thing seemed beautiful and absurd, but I wasn’t ready for it just yet.
Once the Coranavirus pandemic, and subsequent lockdowns began, it felt like there might be more to the world Kojima created than I originally thought. With newfound time on my hands, and little reason to leave my living room, I decided to give it a go. I was immediately taken with the game’s design, it’s stunning vistas, and eerily comforting score & sountrack. I also found a profoundly hypnotic relaxation in the main gameplay track of walking, running, hiking, or biking, across a desolate waste in order to deliver essential materials to shelters and waystations, where the remains of society lived in underground bunkers, isolated, not just from the outside world, but from each other. While on the surface, your main goal is to delivery packages from place to place, you have a secondary goal: connecting each of the shelters visited to the growing national network, known as the “Chiral Network” (it’s basically the internet). On top of this, you are working, sometimes alongside other players, to build roads, bridges, and communication networks across this future shadow of our American present.
There’s something prescient about the way that Kojima sees America based on the future he created. Before you start reconnecting things, it is a world of invisible people, hidden below the ground, who don’t share resources, information, or even emotional connection with other human beings. Some of the human beings you encounter are enthusiastic about you connecting them to the internet and opening the digital gates for them; however, just as many others, are guarded and cautious. In a less futuristic game, you’d imagine some of these characters as perched on their porches, sat in a rocking chair, with a hound and a shotgun. Though, through your generosity and kindness, you’re usually able to convince them why it’s better for them to be connected, and that despite what they think, there is a future worth fighting for. In the midst of a global pandemic, exacerbated by the massive social & political rifts in America, this point really hit home. I felt that I needed to go further.
After I finished Death Stranding, I took a week of vacation, which was gathering dust in my employee portal. With nowhere to go and no one to see, I decided to spend the entire week working my way through the Metal Gear Solid series: 5 games spanning a release timeline from 1998 to 2015. While these games became notable for different reasons in their own times, they do share a lot of the consistent themes that burst through the surface in Death Stranding. Throughout the series, you play as a series of agents, placed into stealthy scenarios, usually tasked with trying to stop another party from weilding the doomsday-esque nuclear technology known as Metal Gear. However, if there’s one thing that each game in the series has in common, it’s that nothing is as it seems. Don’t think “double-cross”, think more like triple and quadruple cross. These plot shifts, and changing loyalties often play to comedic effect as Kojima’s cumbersome narratives continue to pile on the schmaltz. However, it all comes back to Kojima’s origins, as a designer raised on the influences of American Film and TV throughout the mid and late 20th century. The series is rife with references that range from Die Hard to Escape from New York. Kojima was born in Japan 18 years after the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He grew up during the influx of American influence that followed.
From Metal Gear Solid to Death Stranding, Kojima consistnetnly holds up a mirror to American audiences, showing what we have looked like from the time he was born and into the future. His work shows us a duplicitous people, who inhabit a realm of the unreal, where no one is one they seem, large corporations and military factions wrestle for control of ambiguous resources, while the majority of us plug in and drop out. Kojima famously breaks the fourth wall quite regularly, openly pointing the finger at the games’ players as those who are seeking refuge in a virutal reality, in order to escape the unknowability of the world we inhabit. However, despite all of this, he still sees a future, where there is hope that we will rekindle our need for human connection, albeit after some sort of global catastophe.
On November 3, 2020, I celebrated Election Day by reatching one of my favorite documentaries: Hypernormalisation, written and directed by Adam Curtis. The central thesis of this documentary is that since the late-nineteenth century, world leaders in both the East and West have mastered the tactics of creating a world where the thinly veiled line between reality and fiction is nearly impossible to discern. He likens this to the fictional space known as “The Zone” first thought up by Russian authors Arkady Strugatsky and Boris Strugatsky, in their 1972 novel, Roadside Picnic. The novel was bolstered by its 1979 film adaptation, Stalker, from legendary Russian auteur, Andrei Tarkovsky. In this post-nuclear space known as “The Zone”, the very rules of physics and biology do not apply. Shadows do not match the position of the sun, and as a result, all knowledge stemming forth from those foundations, ceases to apply. I’d also say that the work of Hideo Kojima also stems from fascination with this area of “The Zone”.
With the global pandemic reaching its one-year anniversary, and things continuing to look bleak, despite improvements, it can be easy to fall into this view of “The Zone” in the outside world. After all, none of us would have predicted the course of 2020, if given the chance one year ago today. If what we thought was sure to be a normal year, like all those we had previously lived, wasn’t, then what else does the future have in store for us? The works of designers like Kojima, documentarians like Curtis, and authors like the Strugatskys, allow us to peer into “The Zone”. They ask us to question the nature of our reality, and what we actually know. However, among these, I think that, especially now, Kojima stands alone, because despite all of his narrative smokescreening, he sees a light at the end of the tunnel. He sees one thing to be unwaveringly true in times of uncertainty. We need each other.
Bobby: “Having lived in New Jersey, Georgia, California, and Ireland, all in the past decade, I’m not really sure where I’m from anymore. What I do know is that I love music more than anything, movies after that, and I pretend to read more books than I actually do. Currently working in Sales for the tech company: Asana. You can usually find me watching trashy 90’s Japanese Gangster Films, listening to Thee Oh Sees on repeat, or drinking a pint around Dublin.”