Creative Outrage At Death Stranding Is Frankly Embarrassing
You’re five years too late with your 6.8/10 and your tongue clicking about character development.
‘The game is fun. If it’s not fun, why bother?’ It’s been three yes since Nintendo of America’s head, Reggie Fils-Ame managed to says these words to camera without visibly breaking a sweat or ushering guffaws from the film crew. Three more years in which videogames have asserted their position as probably the last entertainment hyperobject you can walk into a store and buy. Their physical media has lasted the gauntlet of floppy disks to leaflets with download codes and everything in between, their subject matter tackles everything from dating to flying aeroplanes and their ubiquity for pinning eyes to screens is, in terms of both duration and the Recommended Retail Price of making content which lasts for said duration, being pushed up to well beyond seventy American Dollars and has made them the economic envy of virtually every other kind of media.
Videogames have taken this grace period — not only the last three years but thinkably the last 11 since the release of the Playstation 3 justified a per game retail price of over twice that of a newly released DVD — and done almost nothing with it. The forms of play which already existed, whether singleplayer or multiplayer, franchise or indie, Visual Novel or Full 3D Game, have indeed all grown more sophisticated and technically impressive. They have done so to no greater thinkable creative achievement, they have done so with soaring levels of oversight and censorship, whilst the lack of regulation in their industry sees thousands of workers corralled in to early professional graves. They do almost nothing to oppose the monopolisation of media under chiefly American conglomerates (or the continued existence of properties as furnishings for yet shadier Japanese ones) oh and yeah, they also have one of the poorer reputations for both representation and any kind of cultural sensitivity of any of the sources of narratives from this century.
This is the playing field, not a semi-objective, academised set of perspectives or a set of philosophical outlooks or a measured form of production values, independently produced to an agreed upon standard. I don’t necessarily think videogames would be that much better if they were any of these things — although a cursory glance around Steam Greenlight may help you feel the magnetism to these ideas. But no, put simply, it’s a set of commercial interests which, when violated, can’t muster anyone to give a fuck about all of the good things we like about videogames: their general advantages in the areas of atmosphere, immersion and frenetic action over that of movies or their ability to create a physical space more compelling and verisimilitudinous than that of a young imagination reading a book. This is all fine but it’s rather expensive bar to meet— or is at least presumed to be so. Que that one image macro of how people don’t need a profit motive because look at this huge city Minecraft players have built. This constant monetary magnetism to what is considered to be, in Film and Theatre circles, the anathema of creative integrity is where narrative and immersive development and engineering in games have entrenched themselves. There isn’t an experience worth having, according to these people, that doesn’t require an enveloping, cascading procedural generation engine, capable of generating entire galaxies or which doesn’t require intense understanding of an internal economy, replete with real cash depleting premium currencies. One can tune into virtually any developer’s conference and see the requisite soundbites about the revolutionary, immersive power of VR (which I also don’t doubt) get regurgitated for hours on end. You can regurgitate, too, for just circa $900.
But now the rubicon has truly been crossed. There are no more barriers left to break and no more people left to piss off on either the cultural revelation side or the technology as commerce side of the argument. The entire dilemma of games simultaneously going through and ongoing renaissance and an ongoing industrial collapse has been smashed by a new taboo utterance. A game, for the first time ever, is not fun. This new artefact, apparently called Death Stranding is the first and only time any videogame property has committed this cardinal sin and the dissection of this crime is the sworn duty of anyone who champions games as art or indeed entertainment.
Or at least this seems to have been the editorial brief distributed to the desks of several major Videogame publications and blogger’s ‘drafts’ folders. Far be it from me to disavow satire it’s credence, let’s assume that this tract has weight. Let’s assume Death Stranding is the first major release game to not be a hyperactive ball of incessant instant gratification and psychologically sharpened mechanics. Immediately, my own memories of the game’s considerable lulls, the headache inducing UI, the convenient soup ladling of it’s own mythology and a slight oversaturation of online features in the otherwise atomosphere-heavy first act do come tickle a certain spidey sense warning off an unconditional recommendation to friends. This just leaves people writing about the game professionally to describe how they feel about the technical achievements, the re-configuring of Kojima’s disproportional dialogue in such a way as to furnish the story with a much more confident bleed of exposition, the apocalyptic setting (an increasing kernel for narrative among Kojima’s contemporaries), the characters — are their detached performances and sterile, uncanny appearances; too distracting or are they appropriate for this subject matter? Experientially, it seems to change from scene to scene but everyone from the big name actors to the small bit players give it their all in rendering human, humane contrasts to Yoji Shinkawa’s busily designed, decidedly more pantomimic villains and their technology. What about the setting? The swirling bleed of analogue, digital and spiritual(?) technology pushed through the wringer of hard sci-fi in media res plotting which provides the perfect level of alienation for the theme of loneliness?
So which way, reviewer man? Is Death Stranding a set of flaws inherent to the personal, humane perspective on narrative design lent to a game when it’s made by an auteur — as every fucking vaguely derisive review hastens to remind us ‘it is a Hideo Kojima game’. Or is it a bloated corporate excretion as every bit as insecure about it’s ability to satisfy its audience’s expectations as it is secure in the knowledge of copious funding and market well-wishing, (hello, Monster Energy Drinks) to be condemned on its disgusting money grubbing practices, content drought and derivative, asset flipping design laziness? The very same reviews which decry Death Stranding’s Kojimaness also concede: ‘Ultimately, Death Stranding is a game that is unlike much else I’ve played before, and I’m not entirely sure if I want to play anything like it ever again.’ — Giantbomb, if you want to check.
‘But this is it, Headington.’ The gaming press snap at me in the imaginary debate society which exists in my shower. ‘It can still look unique, still come with an artbook as thick as a drywall but even with those design merits it can still be bad.’ Fine, I’d reply. By what measure? No one seems to know and fewer still seem to care. Others, such as IGN appear to not have played the fucking game in the first place:
The “Death Stranding” in question is the name given to a cataclysmic event that only small pockets of humanity, the Monster Energy Drink corporation, and an apparently universally accepted Facebook-style social status system have survived It’s called the Chiral Network, it’s mentioned about seventy times in the first two hours. Since the Death Stranding, natural wildlife has been wiped out There’s a deer in the first cutscene. and rain Precipitation, to be a pedant. It emerges that snow and other weather conditions have been similarly affected. has transformed into “Timefall”, a deadly form of precipitation that instantly ages everything it touches. Lurking within each downpour are the BTs (“Beached Things”), paranormal entities who prey indiscriminately on survivors The plot updends that adjective in quite short order, leaving society confined to the safety of subterranean shelters. Above ground cities and research stations, actually, buffered by underground distribution centres — did you just watch the trailer a bunch of times?
But even when we give concession to this level of error — remember that the average member of Monster Energy Drinks’ target audience is going to be considerably worse at opinion weaving than even this — there is still a barometer. A battered and dusty spirit level we can use to muster some kind of common recognition of quality: fun. Is the game fun? I say it is, many others of respectable credence in the gaming press disagree. ‘The pillars of gameplay, combat, and story all bear the mark of creator Hideo Kojima,’ Explains Game Informer’s Matthew Kato. ‘But none of them stand out or carry the experience.’ Fine. I would simply argue a slight inversion, that each part of the game is technically impressive and has a rewarding loop but that they don’t coalesce very well due to a weird combination of pacing issues and under-explained mechanics. So we know the game can be fun but isn’t always, a descriptor befitting of anything from Farmville to Overwatch. If it’s as simple as assigning fun to the game’s action high points and low points, of which there are few of the former in the early stages, are we allowed to say that the game is committed to balancing it’s emotional impact between those quiet moments and action packed moments? Is it fair to say that a game about vast swathes of the population being wiped out might do well to ingrain a depiction of loneliness or struggle or misery? And to do so in a way which is seamlessly brokered in it’s mechanics, whatever the (considerable) shortfalls of doing so? Latching on to an atmospheric, if arduous exploration aspect to better appreciate a disappointing technical piece was, singlehandedly, the argument which saved No Man’s Sky from commercial doom and sailed it towards cross-platform franchisedom. Is any of this worth considering against the biting constraint of trying to complete a game paced like this when you have an article deadline? No, the game is not fun, so why bother?
What’s a little perplexing, then, is the absence of this maxim for the past half-decade (or the whole decade, come to that). When was this amorphous, slippery measure of quality going to be applied in the preceding ten years of derivative to the point of self parody shooters, asset flipped shovelware, weeb-magnetic kusoge, pretentious RPGs with the technical accumin of a fucking excel spreadsheet, lifesucking MMOs which come to feel like a second job which you get to pay for, asinine franchise excretions clamouring for DRM and copyright protections to preserve an identity whilst every second of their gameplay robs them of any? When did an alarmingly large dollop of the gaming press and their disciples decide to place this at the door of one the few genuinely influential (and densely well funded and connected) independent creators left? Do these people seriously believe this is the first time a game by a designer or designers of preexisting clout has presumed it’s own quality? Or that this is even close to the most commercially arrogant example of that? Or that there were no games which didn’t have this ostensible attitude whilst also failing in the area of originality in a way in which Death Standing can never be indicted?
I don’t think it’s possible to look good typing this many words solely for the sake of clapping back at those who decided to harbour strong criticism of Death Stranding where I have only a few, lest they discover I’ve tears dripping onto the keyboard as I try to defend my precious Kojima-Senpai. Regardless, I’m here to suggest that immaturity might be a reasonable explanation for the hundreds and thousands of comments and scornful hot takes consisting of people simultaneously decrying Death Stranding’s lack of a prominent combat system, their incredulity forcing them to fountain Monster Energy Drinks all over the screen, whilst also self-righteously insisting that they knew it was shit all along. Seriously, ‘pah, better cancel my pre-order’ says something about your radar.
None the less, Death Standing may be the first ever videogame to be reviewed, disparaged and folded into how people feel about the video game development model before it even came out. The rush to do so has, for one thing, covered over Kojima’s previous, greater mistakes, for another thing, glazed over the reflexive positive hype for the game in such a way as to mask the process when the next divisive release comes — and what’s worse — unleashed a torrent of derision for a disappointing release with a timing and tone that sounds oddly bloodthirsty. ‘I’m sick of these big, pretentious, single player AAA releases being boring bags of small technical milestones’ was quite a cross for the first AAA Action game with a chiefly non violent gameplay flow to bear; especially when it had to drag itself up the hill of being taken seriously by publications more readily suited to theatre and awards-season cinema reviews. It’s going to cultivate a strawman version of AAA games, whether auteurially produced or not, which will keep eluding the press, then audiences and then finally creators. And that’s how you get DOTA themed trading card games. Do you want DOTA themed trading card games? Because this is how you get DOTA themed trading card games. Sounds extreme, I know but the extremity of the creative outrage is getting pretty embarrassing, even just to write it rather than read it.