I’ve made no secret my anticipation for Death Stranding, the latest project from Hideo Kojima, the gaming industry’s undisputed resident auteur-genius-lunatic. This is the guy who brought us all the lunacy of the Metal Gear Solid series that somehow managed to merge questions of linguistic existentialism, mutually assured (nuclear) destruction, and giant robots into a cohesive narrative about the role of a soldier. I wanna see what this guy does.
The latest trailer focuses on the character Heartman, based on the likeness of Nicolas Winding Refn. Which, before we get any further, sidebar:
Refn is a writer-director, perhaps best known for the excellent movie Drive and more recently Too Old To Die Young. He’s not the sort of person you expect to provide the likeness for a video game character, but here we are.
Heartman. His whole deal is that every twenty-one minutes his heart stops and he dies, only to be resuscitated by an AED three minutes later. During those three minutes, he searches for his family on the “other side,” before coming back to life and resuming whatever it is he’s doing. Since most of life — aside from sleeping — can, as he puts it, fit into that twenty-one-minute window, things do go on.
Alright, let’s take a second and acknowledge how freaking silly this is. Who on earth is going to commit to a bit as ridiculous as a character who chronically dies? Someone walking around with an AED strapped to his chest and keeps coming back to life?
With that out of the way, let’s now acknowledge how ridiculously brilliant this is. Kojima is a man known for taking big ideas and running with them far past anyone with a modicum of self-awareness would think to. The latter half of Metal Gear Solid V is essentially a treatise on the connection between language and cultural identity as weaved into a narrative through a deadly virus that’s passed on through speech. Somehow, it works, and the notion of a lingua franca has never seemed quite so ominous.
In light of that, I really can’t wait to see what Kojima does with Heartman. Kojima is not a man to approach an idea like this half-heartedly or with his tongue in cheek. There’s no winking at the audience, no sheepish acknowledgment that the idea is patently ridiculous but, please, just go along with it. Nope. Heartman dies every twenty-one minutes and that’s that.
But because there’s no winking, it means that Death Stranding will be totally free to explore just the toll this has on Heartman. He can’t really accomplish much of significance in the periods he’s alive, so the question becomes if the time he spends dead is what really matters, as that’s when he can look for his family. In light of that, are those twenty-one minutes just him waiting to die? How then does he spend his time?
The trailer features Heartman’s room, a small studio stocked with books and a variety of media. Knowing how short each instance of his life is, though, how does that affect the diversions Heartman seeks out? There is some irony of this being presented in a Hideo Kojima game, a man who made a reputation out of cutscenes longer than Heartman’s lifespan, but perhaps Heartman then serves as a vehicle for Kojima to meditate on the transience of life. Writing a character who experiences life in such a different way forces Kojima to look at things differently.
Ultimately, that’s all part of the way Kojima approaches stories. Nuclear-wielding mechs and nanomachines are vehicles to really get into the nitty-gritty of thematic questions. Heartman, then, is the home for questions of existentialism, as filtered through an idea somehow simultaneously so ridiculous and brilliant. It’s simply wonderful, and just another reason why I really can’t wait to get to play Death Stranding later this year.