Death Stranding is a terrible story, but a wonderful puzzle

[Minor spoilers in this piece, mostly thematic. There are no specific plot spoilers in this article, but if you’re sensitive to spoilers of any kind, and you plan to play Death Stranding, turn back now.]

The news that Hideo Kojima wants to make a movie fills me with dread.

Having recently slogged through Death Stranding’s tedious story, I strongly suspect he’ll struggle to create a film that’s worth watching. To put it bluntly, I think he’s a bad writer.

And yet, here’s a troubling contradiction. Death Stranding is an excellent game. It’s a clever work of interactive-narrative originality. How do I accommodate my conflicting opinions?

Where Kojima stumbles

I’m far from the first person to complain about Kojima’s tendency toward verbosity. His weakness as a writer is on full display in Death Stranding. (To be clear, narrative design is “writing,” but I’m speaking specifically here of story construction, dialog, and character development.)

The reviews have already noted that Death Stranding’s monotone characters talk too much. They over-explain their motivations, detail obvious plot directives, and grind us down with references to sophomoric themes of togetherness.

Kojima has little interest in brevity or subtlety. He’s overly keen on tired horror tropes, like creepy, abandoned baby dolls, spider webs as sources of evil, and masks as motifs of hidden motives. He leans heavily into sci-fi drivel about demi-gods, government conspiracies, and phony science.

Characters spend hours talking rubbish about how BTs intersect with BBs and how the Void Outs are triggered by Mules and Timefall and Dooms and Chirals and … actually … it turns out that this gibberish is precisely where his good instincts shine through.

And where he excels

Kojima is awful at telling a recognizably, coherent linear story, but he’s highly skilled at creating a vast narrative landscape of intrigue and then smashing it up into a million little pieces, before allowing us to see each of them, one at a time. The initial confusion is part of the thrill.

This game isn’t a story as you might expect to find at the movies or in a novel. It’s not even like a standard video game in which one scene leads to another, and then on to an ending. It’s more of a giant jigsaw puzzle made up of tiny little stories.

Kojima offers an illusion that, at some point, we can put the pieces back together and they’ll provide resolution. This illusion turns out to be a trick, but it doesn’t matter. Illusions can be clever and entertaining.

He has a knack for presenting visual and imaginative oddities which leave me badly wanting to know what the fuck is going on.

Why are we eating bugs? Where do these ghosts come from? What’s on the other side of that mountain? Who are these jack-asses attacking me? What’s it like to have a motorbike? Why am I carrying a baby in a box?

Kojima is good at replacing one mystery with an answer that leads to another question. Kojima’s uber-story is overwrought, partly as a result of being constructed from so many quivering little mini-stories, none of which really fit with any of the others. It’s like trying to make a beehive out of bees.

In the end, Kojima can’t fully explain it all, because so much of his work is inexplicable. His starting point is a muddled canvas of blurry ideas, so how can his end-point be anything other than a mess?

Of course, this won’t stop speculation about what it all means. Many will try to make sense of the mosaic. That in itself is a game which he has teased with tiny narrative pieces, and I’ll enjoy watching it play out on social media in the weeks ahead. Much of his work is evocative of emotions and themes that may or may not show up in the story itself. Perhaps a unified theory of Death Stranding will emerge, but I doubt it. Kojima’s business is mystery and illusion.

Ultimately, Death Stranding is a world piled with glittering treats of the imagination. They intrigue me enough to play on. I’m captured not by the humanity of his characters, nor by the arc of an original story, but by lots and lots of shiny little things that I pick up and examine and want to know more about.

And that story, of course, is not the entire experience. Death Stranding is set in a singularly beautiful world. The central activity of walking is executed superbly. Its well-constructed fetch quests are finely tuned. Kojima’s casting choices are inspired, displaying his genuine adoration of film and omnivorous taste in pop culture.

I enjoy inhabiting his world, experiencing the game’s challenges and surprises. I enjoy uncovering its myriad mysteries, one by one. I believe the social, sharing elements of the game will be rewarding to players.

As the game’s story grinds to an end, and as I think back on the long hours I spent in its company, I find I’m unable to fathom this world’s narrative entirety, despite it being explained to me at least three times. I remain unconvinced that Kojima fully understands it as a truly coherent story, as opposed to a collection of psychedelic anecdotes, glued together with a paste of mumbo-jumbo and distracting verbosity.

I’m not sure it matters. Despite his literary shortcomings, Kojima is a great game designer.

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