header is screenshot from Death Stranding
It's Kojima Time
Zack Kotzer

Inconsistent politics are not extraordinary. They are banal. Commonplace. Almost always the case but not often publicized. While you should be suspicious of ideology that rests like a puzzle piece against its opposition, you should also be disappointed by, say, the infinite so-called liberals that loathe sex workers. Their worldview, a sex worker’s proper place is chewing bubble gum by a police desk, feels overly informed by the Beverly Hills Cop movies. That’s also common.

To Hideo Kojima’s credit, most of his career has been trying to synthesize reactionary Reagan-era action movies like Rambo and Escape from New York into his personal anti-war beliefs. Can you at once feel disappointed by the sundowning of the anti-nuclear movement while taking perverse excitement in The Road Warrior’s wasteland? Yes, but you’re also at liberty to overthink it. And in Kojima’s case the Metal Gear games are a captivating confession of these conflicting emotions. You are the cool violence guys fighting to keep the world safe, but you’re also pawns of clandestine market manipulators who profit off the same danger that thrills you. With these secret strings exposed, with no opportunity to be a hero, the only real solace for these soldiers is death.

Ever since it was first revealed at E3 2016, it was clear that Death Stranding was only going to be more personal and even more political than Kojima’s past work. It was shown through trailers depicting visions of an ocean of death, grotesque war machines, graveyards of conflict, and an inhospitable climate. Cries of a man losing his child and surrounded by ghosts. Fans and critics combed the teasers for symbolic clues to where story and gameplay were going. Because we were all dumb, we never stopped for a second to consider it was all going to be literal.

Which politics Death Stranding and Kojima actually subscribe to is only more obtuse now with the game out in full. While the game’s cityscapes are buried underground, literally obscuring the functions of society from view, it seems like public infrastructure, health, and human survival have finally bested the economy. Is this a leftist utopia? Well, manufacturing and consumerism seems extinct through circumstance. The planet is ravaged by vicious ghosts and a magical 3D printer makes traditional jobs moot. Plus the country appears to be run by Amazon. Sam Porter Bridges, battling krakens with a tracker cuff on, is having as shitty a day as most fulfillment centre workers and they aren’t allowed piss breaks while he gets a dedicated button to let it flow whenever he wants.

So is this a libertarian paradise where corporations have provided everything their people need? Also not really. The isolationists of this world are painted as misguided. No matter how tough they talk, convincing them their lives would be better as part of a grand federal network is never tricky. Is it a military state, then? The default for most videogames? Again, through sorcery and devastation this world is way off-road from our own comparable landscape. There are hints of black ops but most evidence points towards every grand military project as a devastating failure. Much of the game is following in the wake of a fumbled attempt to conquer the west coast. The villains of Death Stranding feels akin to any of the political evangelicals who just want to see the apocalypse play out in their lifetime. The heroes range from indifferent to insufferable about the fate of humanity.

It’s hard to place a pin on what the message of such an otherwise operatic game might be. No Cartridge host Trevor Strunk wrote about his frustrations with Death Standing on EGM: “Without a cogent through-line, the game itself seems to shrug all of the issues it’s gathered into one big box marked ‘America is a complex thing’ before concluding that each individual is right in their own individual way, and that the collective can be mean and venal and cruel, but should probably still exist ... The game falls back on what have been fascinating themes for Kojima in the past, but now feel like somewhat obvious lodestars: fathers and sons; countries and hells for soldiers alone; and the extinction of the human race.”

Sniffing out the political ideology of Death Stranding, aside from it advocating for a generalized kind of collectivism, is frustrating. I’d sooner use a cootie catcher than personally wager who Kojima would endorse in the 2020 Democratic primary. Most inconsistent politics are banal, but politics as wackadoodle as Death Stranding’s deserve an equally wackadoodle breakdown. Kojima’s work is not only mutated by politics, but also by the personal. People outside of the game’s production may never know how much Death Stranding sipped from Kojima’s ghosted Silent Hills, but enough is obvious. They share a star in Norman Reedus. Guillermo del Toro appears as Deadman, where as he was originally co-directing Hills. Even Junji Ito, who was only eyed as artistic director of Silent Hills, ends up appearing as one of Death Stranding’s holograms to give you robot legs.

Kojima’s fallout with Konami, Silent Hills, his career, his living, was one of the messiest divorces games has ever seen. The team and legacy he spent his life building meant nothing next to pachinko earnings.And then he makes Death Stranding, a game whose BTs,chiral network, and their shared hollowed world, are reminiscent of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse, where the advent of the internet begins swapping people for shadows and ghosts. By the time people notice, it’s an apocalyptic event. Kojima’s life was ruined by video games, but it’s also how he rebuilt it. 

The development of Death Stranding looked unconventional in that, from what Kojima was sharing on social media, it appeared less like programming software and more like collecting autographs. Selfies with Norman. Smokes with Mikkelsen. Picking the coiffed brain of Conan O’Brien. While creating a story about technology that can build societies as quickly as rip them to shreds, Kojima was using videogames to make new friends and collaborators after the fire. 

And maybe that’s the only point coherent enough to pick out from Death Stranding’s mess of thematic contradictions: Accepting that there are chapters to our lives, that lives and worlds in their totality have beginnings and ends, but in between those bookmarks are people. Discovering that those people are worth opening yourself up to, even the ones that call you every hour about the wifi password. That’s Sam Porter Bridge’s character arc, after all.

Death Stranding is more macro than Metal Gear ever was. It doesn’t discuss geopolitics and deception as much as it does the vaguer relationships between technology, friends, life and death. It’s more interesting than teachable and riddled with inconsistencies. It may also mean that Death Stranding’s politics may only apply to one person: Hideo Kojima. Isn’t that neat?


Zack Kotzer is a former carny and current writer. His work has appeared in Vice, The Globe and Mail, The Atlantic, and Toronto Life. He has an upcoming book about pinball, his favorite thing in the whole wide world. He’s on Twitter.