In 2016, Hideo Kojima strode onto the stage at Sony's E3 press conference to uproarious applause. He surveyed the assembled crowd and said in English with a broad smile, "Hello everyone! I'm back."
It was the culmination of a saga that had begun the year before, when Hideo Kojima was unexpectedly pushed out of Konami shortly before the release of Metal Gear Solid 5. Kojima had claimed for years that he was ready to be done with Snake, Big Boss, and all the rest. Now he was free to make something completely new.
The trailer that followed lived up to even the loftiest expectations. It began with a William Blake quote ("To see a world in a grain of sand, and a heaven in a wild flower. Hold infinity in the palm of your hand. And eternity in an hour"), followed by a slow pan across a desolate beach covered in dead sea life, finally coming to rest on a naked Norman Reedus lying next to a crying baby with an artificial umbilical cord. Reedus sobs as he picks up the baby, only for it to abruptly disappear, leaving him with oily handprints as tiny footprints track over his legs.
It was the kind of mind bleepery that could only be addressed with memes, and the internet didn't disappoint.
But beneath all the jokes about Norman Reedus hugging Grubbin, there was real excitement about what Kojima might bring to the table. The shackles were off. There were plenty of jokes about how "Kojima Unleashed" could top the possessed ghost hands and memetic vocal parasites of Metal Gear Solid.
Three years later, the final game is out. Everyone is arguing over whether Death Stranding actually an incredible work of art or just ridiculous melodrama, but as for whether Kojima is truly free of Metal Gear Solid, that's a harder question.
On the surface, Death Stranding is very different from Metal Gear Solid. Instead of supersoldier Solid Snake, you play as a glorified courier named Sam Porter Bridges. There are few bases to infiltrate and no giant mechs. The world is vast and lonely.
But if you've played Kojima's past work, the similarities are obvious. As I wrote in my review:
A lot of people joke about Death Stranding being "Kojima Unchained," but in the end, he returns to many themes that should be familiar to fans of his work. Killing, as in the Metal Gear Solid series, is heavily discouraged. If you actually kill anyone, you have to ferry their body up to an incinerator and dispose of it, lest they turn into a BT. Several of the weapons are non-lethal. A simple rope, referred to as The Strand, is one of Sam's most potent weapons, as it allows him to quickly disarm and incapacitate bandits. The story; the BTs; the fact that your bullets are made from Sam’s own blood (and urine); the little mementos that collect on your shelf as the story progresses—all of it feels in keeping with the vibe established in Metal Gear Solid.
And actually, the similarities don't end there. Its depiction of the apocalypse; its commonalities with mech anime like Neon Genesis Evangelion, and its preoccupation with American history and politics should all be familiar to long-time Kojima fans.
Indeed, its foundational principal has its roots in the dawn of Kojima's career. When he took over Metal Gear way back in 1987, just a year after joining Konami, Kojima's first idea was to make it a game about running away rather than fighting. It was a concept considered so radical that many of his team members reportedly rebelled.
Kojima recalled in an interview with The Guardian in 2012, "I remembered the film The Great Escape and thought this would be a good approach for something distinct. My first concept was for a game in which you were a prisoner of war and simply had to escape. If you were caught you'd be brought back to the prison. The idea was for a non-combat game."
Metal Gear, of course, was a hit, lauded by fans and critics alike for creating a whole new genre: stealth-action. In the years that followed, Kojima pushed the notion of non-lethality further and further. In Metal Gear Solid 2, he introduced the tranquilizer gun to neutralize enemy soldiers. In Metal Gear Solid 3, he made it possible to allow The End to simply die of old age. Non-lethal playthroughs became a badge of honor for Metal Gear Solid fans—a sign of true mastery.
But for a handful of boss battles, as well as bandit camp infiltrations that play like a very light version of Metal Gear Solid, Death Stranding would seem to take this notion to its logical conclusion. Kojima expounded on this decision in an interview with BBC Newsbeat. "The attacks and violence seen online these days are out of control," he said. "So I designed this for people to take a step, and—by connecting—relearn how to be kind to others. I don't think anyone in the world is opposed to that."
Death Stranding's commitment to non-violence—even if it still resorts to blockbuster setpieces from time-to-time—is probably its most laudable aspect. It feels remarkably different to play a game that deemphasizes interactive killing to the extent that Death Stranding does. Nevertheless, it's a familiar part of Kojima's oeuvre, as are the stealth-action segments that creep in from time to time; all lonely refugees from his days at Konami. Sam Porter Bridges may be a glorified mailman, but at heart, he's really not so different from Solid Snake, gravelly voice and all.
Walking the Tightrope
Another key aspect of Death Stranding that should be familiar to Metal Gear Solid fans is its perspective on America. In Metal Gear Solid, America is a clumsy behemoth that's been fatally compromised by a vast web of conspiracies going back to its founding. One of its most famous scenes is a post-credits telephone conversation between the villain Revolver Ocelot and an unseen figure, who is subsequently revealed to be the President of the United States.
Kojima's apparent fascination with America has manifested itself on numerous occasions throughout his career. He has a noted love of Hollywood cinema, and at one point opened a studio in Southern California. He's known for palling around with American stars like Norman Reedus.
Kojima himself described his relationship with America as a "tightrope" in a 2004 interview with Edge magazine. In that interview, Kojima talked movingly of how his father had experienced World War II, dodging bombs and fire while carrying wounded children to safety.
"[My father] lost a lot of friends and could see all the terror and suffering the war brought down on Japan. It was like walking a tightrope. He hated the Americans for the war, but when he got older he made contact with the United States and accepted, and finally fell in love with, American culture. I believe that I share this tightrope ambiguity with my father," he says.
Death Stranding reflects this tightrope ambiguity well. On the face of it, it seems to have a more positive perspective on America than Metal Gear Solid. Sam Bridges' main quest is to rebuild the shattered United States (or "United Cities of America") by connecting it to a massive online network that confers all manner of high-tech benefits. But as the story unfolds, it becomes clear that the UCA is every bit as compromised as its forebearer.
In the end, both Metal Gear Solid and Death Stranding reflect America's propensity for wanting to do the right thing while also doing great evil. Both feature meditations on America's treatment of its soldiers; both feature high-level officials with deeply ridiculous nicknames. From a thematic perspective, Death Stranding winds up treading surprising familiar ground, which is not something you'd expect given the bold imagery of the original trailer. From Death Stranding's apocalyptic setting, similar in some ways to that of Snatcher (both feature strange creatures that arise after the destruction of civilization); to its preoccupation with death and the supernatural, all of Kojima's favorite story devices are on full display in Death Stranding.
None of this is anything new for Kojima. Even back in 1998, when Kojima was lauded for revolutionizing the stealth-action genre with Metal Gear Solid, he was quietly repurposing old material. Metal Gear Solid was in many ways a 3D remake of Metal Gear 2, even as it was referred to as a sequel. Metal Gear Solid 2, meanwhile, sought to deconstruct the original Metal Gear Solid (and media in general), but in a way that basically recycled gameplay and storytelling tropes from the first game.
As former USgamer editor Jeremy Parish wrote in a 2018 anniversary piece for Polygon, "You really get the impression that Kojima subscribed to George Lucas' "it’s like poetry; it rhymes" philosophy of self-referentialism, but never figured out where to draw the line. Solid’s heavy use of recycled concepts turned out not to be unique in the Metal Gear games; instead, it became their stock-in-trade, with each new sequel containing numerous elements of its predecessor. At some point, these ceased to be mere references and became full-on reprises."
You could chalk it up to Kojima being Kojima, and Kojima himself would probably point out that great directors like Martin Scorsese and Stephen Spielberg have defined personal styles; something that's reflected in the near endless wave of Spielberg-lite '80s nostalgia in theaters and streaming services these days. The difference, perhaps, is that auteurs like the Coen Brothers can pivot from a farce like Burn After Reading to a glorious western epic like True Grit, and still be instantly recognizable.
To one degree or another, Kojima has been leaning on the same tropes since the 1980s. Will he ever make his western?
This may seem like an odd criticism in light of Death Stranding being praised for its originality. (I even called it "The Boldest and Most Perplexing Game of 2019.") It goes to show that even when he's recycling old ideas, Kojima has a knack for recontextualizing them as fresh and new. At its best, Death Stranding really does feel like a deconstruction of the elements that we take for granted in open-world games, like fetch quests and traversal. Its online connections really are cool, even if in some ways they feel like an upgraded version of the nuclear disarmament game from Metal Gear Solid 5. Every director has their own bag of tricks.
But as for Kojima truly breaking out and evolving, I'm not so sure. The faces are new, many of the gameplay concepts are fresh, but in some ways it feels like he still hasn't quite put Metal Gear Solid behind him. If he's ever do that, his next game may well be truly special.