Tag Archives: Death Stranding

Twenty-One Minutes

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.

Anyway.

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.

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The Ephemeral and The Sublime

Over the years, Hideo Kojima has, because of his Metal Gear Solid games, become one of my favorite video game designers. He’s also certifiably bonkers, mixing in discussions of American militarism-as-neo-colonialism in a game where you fight giant mechs alongside a mostly naked sniper who can’t speak because of a parasite that uses language to spread (and thus serves as a vehicle for Kojima to discuss how English becoming the global lingua franca is in turn another form of colonialism).

Point is, I’m always stoked to see what he’s making.

A new trailer for Death Stranding, his first post-MGS game, dropped last night. Like the handful of other trailers for the game that have come out, it’s weird and near indecipherable, with little information on what it’s like as a game. And at eight minutes long, it’s a pretty long trailer.

To the point where it’s less a trailer and more of a short film unto itself. It’s very self-contained, missing a lot of the “what comes next”-ness of trailers. While it does evoke a desire to figure out what’s going on, but that’s hardly the point.

There is little narrative in the traditional sense. Sure, we have a protagonist in Sam and a beginning, middle, and end; but it’s not about him doing something. Rather, the trailer presents a tableau of a scene, a moment for you to experience and are the better for having done so. The trailer presents the sublime, something quite beyond our comprehension but beautiful in its terror. It’s less about the catharsis and more about the process of watching Sam and his compatriots attempt to fend off these unseen creatures in a mysterious, physics bending world.

So in that sense it’s a lot like the movie Lady Bird.

Lady Bird is about a girl in her senior year of high school, her relationship with her mother, her relationship with herself, and that messy transition from seventeen to eighteen. It’s a tender story, told with a full heart and helpings of honesty. It’s reliant less on vying for that big, cinematic climax than it is on capturing a very particular moment in time for a very specific person.

And like the trailer for Death Stranding, it captures the ephemeral. Things happen, and then something else does. Lady Bird isn’t trying to say something bigger about the world, it’s just trying to tell its story (as Death Stranding’s trailer weaves its vision of terror). There’s no One Big Moment that defines protagonist Lady Bird’s life. Rather we see snapshots of a very specific person. Because of its honesty and specificity (Lady Bird’s idiosyncrasies are at once wholly unique and beautifully universal), we, as an audience, are allowed to experience a part of a life. One that, having seen, we are more for having done so.

It’s a fairly common anti-structure in indie-darling movies; you can see it done well in Drinking Buddies and Lost in Translation. Boyhood doesn’t know what it’s trying to capture besides “uh, time passes, I guess” and so fails to capture anything. Meanwhile Monsters sets its journey against an alien presence to heighten its exploration of loneliness and presentation of the sublime. Ken Liu’s short story “The Paper Menagerie” captures a difficult relationship. And it’s what Death Stranding’s trailer does so well.

I will campaign for narrative until the sky falls. But stories can be about moments too. The key is to make the audience feel something. As a reader/viewer/player I engage in fiction not because I want to sit idly by as something happens, but because I want to be taken on a journey. I want to feel something, sorrow or joy, something funny or something epic. Lady Bird didn’t need a Big Epic Conclusion to make me feel like a teenage girl. And Death Stranding doesn’t need flashy gameplay to present the sublime in a fracking video game trailer.

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