Gameslife

Gameslife #2 – Death Stranding and Connections

On May 29th, a new trailer for Hideo Kojima’s much anticipated ‘Death Stranding’ came out, announcing that the game will be available from November 8th of this year. For those of you unfamiliar with Hideo Kojima and his work, he is kind of a big deal in the world of video games. He is best known for his hugely popular ‘Metal Gear Solid’ series (of which I am a huge fan) and for his unique cinematic and surreal style of narrative and game design. This new trailer has definitely piqued my interest in the game and given me good food for thought in the way we interact with others, both in the gaming world and beyond.

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(Norman Reedus and Léa Seydoux as characters; Sam Porter Bridges and Fragile respectively. Picture from Death Stranding’s PlayStation website)

I have to say, although the Metal Gear Solid games are some of the best I’ve ever experienced, I was not originally excited about Death Stranding. When the first trailer for this game was unveiled at E3 2016, I was interested to see what Kojima was up to next as it looked likely that 2015’s Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain would be the last Metal Gear game Kojima would produce. What I ended up seeing was a naked Norman Reedus on a blackened beach surrounded by dead crabs, crying and holding a tiny baby/foetus attached to him via some sort of umbilical chord cable along with many other strange details. Now, if this is the first you’ve heard of Death Stranding, you’re probably suitably confused and disturbed about what kind of game this is, which was just about where I was when I first watched the trailer.

There have been numerous trailers since then, still equally weird and disturbing, and still not inspiring me to actually want to play the game. Though in typical Kojima storytelling style it was fascinating to try and solve the riddle of what on earth this game is about from the seemingly invisible monsters that stalk the lands to the scenes of skeletal World War 1 era soldiers interacting with this oily apocalypse. I’ve always enjoyed trying to make sense of a Kojima narrative that doesn’t just give you the answers, but rather gives you hints and clues and, often times, more questions. Over the years, Kojima fans have been hard at work trying to make sense of these trailers, and if you want a taste of just how extensively it’s possible to find meaning in all the details of these trailers, you can check out this expert analysis of the first Death Stranding trailer by youtuber, RagnarRox.

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(Player controlling Reedus’ character, Sam, as he tries to escape paranormal peril. Picture from Death Stranding’s PlayStation website)

But, what’s really gotten me interested in the game recently is the theme of connections that has taken a more prominent place in the most recent trailer. If you’ve had a look at the trailer (here’s the link again), you will see this theme quite prominently expressed in the on-screen text, character dialogue and the premise for the player’s mission to reconnect the shattered remnants of American society as the character, Sam, the character Norman Reedus portrays. Here’s what Hideo Kojima himself has to say about the game in a recent promotional tweet:

(Hideo Kojima’s English Twitter Page)

I’m sure many of you will be able to relate to this message in some way. Looking back at other interviews and articles about Death Stranding, it seems as though these highlighted themes of “Strand” and “Bridges” have been quite prevalent in Kojima’s mission for the game for a while, rather than being just a new development.  In a 2016 interview with IGN, Kojima refers to a short story, “The Rope”, by Japanese writer, Kobo Abe, to describe his intentions behind Death Stranding. In this story, Abe describes the first two tools that mankind developed. The first tool mankind created was the stick, to put distance between them and things that might do them harm. Once mankind was more developed, it created the rope in order to keep important things secure. Attributing this to action video games, Kojima states that the normal way you interact with the simulated world is through sticks, but in Death Stranding, he wants to offer players the equivalent of ropes tools to forge connections with the world and other players. In an interview with Total Film Magazine (as reported by gamesradar), Mads Mikkelsen, who has lent his acting talents and likeness to Death Stranding, has said that the game will require players to collaborate from all parts of the world. Reedus has also hinted at the game including elements of social media (IGN report here).

This is something that Kojima somewhat touched on in The Phantom Pain, where players can collaborate with each other to achieve in-game nuclear disarmament. While it wasn’t a prominent feature in the main body of the game, I thought it was a very interesting social experiment and it was nice to see how it did bring players together over the cause of nuclear disarmament in many forms such as the Metal Gear Anti Nuclear community on Reddit. I’m very curious to see how this concept will evolve in Death Stranding and whether it will achieve Kojima’s goal of helping people “understand the true importance of forging connections with others”.

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(Snake and friends in Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. Picture from Metal Gear Informer)

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(Achieving Nuclear Disarmament in Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. Picture form Geekster)

Seeing Kojima embrace the concept of connections and making it such a key part of his newest creation is very heartening for me. Growing up, I was a very shy and introverted child and I struggled to make connections with other people. I was confused about the rules of engagement, what other people wanted me to say or do and why being social seemed to come so naturally to others and not to me. Having a desire for connecting with others, but feeling I lacked the skills, I weirdly found that games were a great way for me to forge connections.

Since gaming was such an experiential media, where you are an active participant in the story rather than a passive observer, you can more easily feel a connection to other people who have also played that game and had similar experiences. Talking to people about the games we’ve played became an instant way I could connect with other gamers and it’s still exciting to find someone who’s played and enjoyed a game that I have enjoyed. When you share experiences of playing a game you share successes, struggles, revelations, discoveries as well as which parts really moved you and why (that last one was a less popular talking point but has led to one or two deep discussions). On top of that, playing a game in the same room as a friend can be a very sociably rewarding experience. It’s like having a personal audience, cheerleader or even mentor with you on your adventure!

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(Picture from Jeshoots)

It was a revelation for me discovering that there were many games that could be played co-operatively. I found it immensely satisfying to combine efforts with friends and succeed together against all odds, whether we were an SAS squad behind enemy lines in “Conflict: Desert Storm” or gourmet chefs working together to complete food orders in hilariously unsafe work environments in “Overcooked”. These so-called ‘couch co-ops’ seem to have gone out of fashion now, but they’ve been replaced with the rise of online gaming which allow players all over the world to co-operate with each other. While I do prefer ‘couch co-ops’ it has been a great way of  staying connecting with friends since I’ve moved up north. Bizarrely, these online games can be a good place to meet new people as well and it’s now not uncommon to hear that some friendships have started when people connected online to help each other out with some kind of mission or quest.

While online gaming can be a good place to make connections, it has also been a vehicle for bullying and all kinds of social cruelty. I’ve once or twice found myself in online games lobbies where I’ve felt very unwelcome to say the least. Oftentimes, these online games have inbuilt features that try to curb anti-social behaviour and allow players to choose what kind of game they want to join – for example, you could join a hard core ‘play to win’ game or a ‘just for fun’ game or even a ‘make new friends’ game.  But, these things can be hard to enforce, especially in massive open-world online games like Grand Theft Auto. For the uninitiated, just see what happens to youtuber, ComedyKnife who wanders around the game world saying ‘hello’ to everyone.

It does unfortunately seem that this anti-social trend in gaming is indicative of anti-social trends in society. As Kojima writes in the above tweet, “People have built “WALLS” and have become accustomed to living in isolation”. It seems now, more than ever, society is putting up walls and people are becoming more closed off and defensive, choosing to interact online rather than experience face to face interactions. Eric Weiner, author of “The Geography of Happiness” writes about the societal trend of using money to isolate oneself despite the fact that happiness is hugely dependent on interactions with other people.

Interacting online isn’t a bad thing in of itself, in fact there’s a lot to say that being able to interact online is a good gateway to face-to-face social interaction for introverts who, like I did, struggle to connect with others. Game researcher, Nicole Lazzaro, believes that ambient sociability (where players play their own game but are given opportunities to positively interact and help others) can help train your brain to experience social interaction as more rewarding.

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(Screenshot of hunting and cooking together in the frontier in Red Dead Online)

However, we see the dark side of online interactions when people feel that they can hurl any abuse they want to other users without any repercussions because they’re safe from behind their screens.

So, does that mean that Kojima is fighting the current in terms of creating a game that encourages connections in a medium that can harbour such hostility? Well, yes and no. It’s true that a lot of social cruelty does occur through the medium of online gaming, but there’s also evidence that many gamers desire to bind together and collaborate in games. In her book, “Reality is Broken”, Jane McGonigal writes about the many pro-social aspects of gaming, arguing that the connections gamers are making with one another are reversing the collapse of the extended community by creating new ways of interacting. She also uses the example of the “Halo” series of games and its community of players as evidence of the potential of games to bring people together through things like the enormous fan-based sites such as Halopedia, as well as the community services provided by Bungie, Halo’s Developer, to help players feel that by playing the game they’re contributing to something bigger than themselves. Her book contains many more examples and I would highly recommend it for anyone interested in the wider benefits of games and gaming.

I am very interested to see how Kojima uses Death Stranding as a way of connecting people both through its story and its gameplay. However, it’s also important for us as individuals to take responsibility for establishing positive and meaningful connections ourselves, whether that’s through social media, gaming or face to face interactions with strangers or friends. A smile and a quick word to a stranger may not always be welcomed or reciprocated, but it does have the potential to brighten someone’s day and remind them there are nice people out there. Perhaps, for now, it would be useful to use Kobe’s stick and rope idea to interact with the world around us. As an introvert, I understand the value of distancing yourself from people from time to time to allow yourself to recover and be in your own head space, in which case, the stick can be used (peacefully) to create that distance. But it is also important to connect with people who are going to provide you with positive interactions and who you enjoy helping and supporting with your actions. While it is tempting, in a world that can feel very angry and divided, to always use your sticks to defend yourself, if you remember to use your ropes, you can secure a good team to yourself to allow you to better weather the trials ahead!

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