Death Stranding and the power of mind

Death Stranding

A few weeks ago Hideo Kojima announced the project Kojima Productions has been working on since its valediction from Konami. Death Stranding is already the target of many wild discussions, some of which will be approached in this essay, mixed with my own thoughts and ideas. Which role does surrealism play? How can we interpret the various devices Reedus’s character is carrying, what does the mass stranding mean or the hovering figures? Are there religious motives or references to physics? Is there a connection to Mad Max and Miller? Finally, what can we expect from the game or from Kojima Productions?

It’s not easily analysed because it’s not supposed to be.

Surrealism has its origin in the 1920s and, similar to Freud’s psychoanalysis (1890s), it analyses the fantastic, dreams, absurd and unconscious. Popular examples seem disturbing and confusing, there is no immediate sense or purpose, no evident conclusion that can be drawn. Instead, the game (or film, novel, piece of art) needs the player (viewer, reader, recipient) to make sense of it, including his or her ideas and experiences and thus creating different interpretations of the same groundwork. Hideo Kojima is no stranger to surrealistic games and Death Stranding promises to employ the same unsettling, subtle horror, that crawls under your skin, as other works of him do. Whatever we see is what it is. Like an artwork it changes when the recipient changes, having a different meaning every time somebody different approaches it. To be honest, the game may have a singular interpretation and one definite way of understanding it, but this would be neither Kojima nor challenging – in a good way.

Death Stranding

The excerpt from “Auguries of Innocence”, a poem by William Blake, suggests that there is more to the trailer than we initially see. Boundaries we are tied to do not exist and everything is relative – connected to our imagination and what we make of it. „A grain of sand“ is a part of the world and reflects the big picture, the earth, whereas the „wild flower“ and nature’s beauty represent heaven. According to Blake, a metaphor’s purpose is to give the recipient a single item that leads to a big message, something that is striking and able to provoke further images like the „wild flower“ and the „grain of sand“ represent heaven and earth. In the context of Death Stranding, Hideo Kojima apporaches a grave motif (human’s influence on the earth) in a metaphorical way in order to almost tantalise the viewer and make him or her think of what the trailer actually signifies. The ballad metre employed in the first four stanzas of the poem is a variant of the common metre and contains four iambic lines. This metre is often used in order to transfer every line of a poem or song to another melody or tune. That way, the poem is more conversational and can be used in other contexts. It makes it more dynamic in a sense that more people are able to comprehend it. For that reason, the common metre is fairly widespread and has been used in the Pokemon theme song and a lot of ballads and hymns. Although nobody wants to sing Blake’s poem in this specific case, the message is clear: By creating something that many people have access to, like a video game, a message can be easily spread, which is what Kojima does. The trailer proved to be immensely popular and is Kojima’s way of distributing a metaphor that is supposed to lead to said grave subject. He not only used Blake’s poem to demonstrate what he’s about to do with the trailer (using a metaphor to pinpoint a great topic with subliminal pictures), but also ultilised its metre and hence shows the effectiveness of delivering a message in such a way that many people can understand or interpret it and transfer its contents to other platforms. In a nutshell, the quatrain introduces the intention of the trailer in a subtle way and on a meta level. In addition, the poem contains paradoxes and allegories, something we are about to see repeated.

Death causes change and change causes death.

One of the rather popular opinions regarding Death Stranding features, well, death stranding. As Kojima already explained, the mass stranding is caused by the presence of something else. In the trailer we see hundreds or thousands of dead animals, most of them fish, but also aquatic marine mammals. The centre of many speculations is the so called cetaceans stranding, which can be caused by one whale or dolphin beaching and calling for others that follow the signal and eventually end up on the beach as well. By demanding to be rescued one can lead others into the same one-way street.

Death Stranding

However, this mass stranding (which is called death stranding in this case as the animals are already dead when they beach) can be caused by an intruder from “some world”. Are those the five figures floating in midair? Is it Norman Reedus’ character? Is it us? In combination with the black substance resembling oil, the mass stranding might be an allusion to pollution and climate change, disposing waste in the seas provably harms animals, not to speak of oil drilling and the consequences when it fails.

Oil is in many ways the world’s fuel. As an important commodity it fuels a global battle for power. A fictional world has already suffered from this circumstance and shows a world on the brink of disaster, a collapsed civilization. This fictional world is featured in Mad Max. The latest installment of the film series, Mad Max: Fury Road, won many Oscars, has many popular fans and an intrigueing soundtrack (Brothers in Arms by Junkie XL). In fact, even Kojima could not resist to use the powerful song for his entrance at Sony’s E3 presentation. He mentioned several times that Mad Max 2 is one of his favourite films and met director, producer and screenwriter George Miller last year. Furthermore, he explained that the films have been a major inspiration for his games. Death Stranding surely is no exception. While the background that led to the circumstances depicted in the trailer remain unknown, why not think of Mad Max? Did the merciless search for the black gold destroy the world in Death Stranding? Did it cause too much harm to the world and thus bequeathed an earth in ruins? While the Mad Max films are at least an inspirtaion for Kojima, the plot might reveal some similarities as the game progresses.

An alternate reality is still reality.

What instantly came to my mind was the idea of the five figures being aliens. Or at least some kind of unknown presence that disturbed nature and the sea. They do not necessarily need to be aliens, perhaps they come from another universe, not another planet. The “multiple universe” theory is also one of the most repeated ones. And Kojima has proven before that there is another reality. There is not just what we refer to as reality, what we can see and feel. James Sunderland from Silent Hill 2 shows us that reality can be a very vague term in Kojima’s hands. What he experiences is real because it is real in his head. Pyramid head, the nurses, his wife and Maria are real in the context of Silent Hill 2. It is not explained whether the world we see in Death Stranding’s trailer is different, so it might be the same world, just in another universe. Confusing. The protagonist, presumably from another world, pushed into this one, causing mass stranding as he disrupts an ecosystem. Whichever reality Reedus’ character is in, there is probably not only one.

Death Stranding

This theory was proposed after closeups from the dog tags (or keys) around the protagonist’s neck were published. There are equations on them that refer to quantum physics, the special theory of relativity and black holes. Theories claim that the character took those with him in order to save them in the new world. Other hints are the handcuffs, which seem futuristic and indicate imprisonment. Possibly, the protagonist was captivated and fled, whether this is a metaphorical escape or not has yet to be discovered. The umbilical cords are another aspect that is worth investigating. Kojima explained with the stick and rope metaphor that Death Stranding is not about conservative and usual game mechanics, but also new ones and defining a new genre. Thus, using the rope in addition to the common stick is what he wants to achieve. The rope is about keeping things close, binding them to oneself and what better way of illustrating a bond is there than an umbilical cord? The protagonist is connected to the baby lying on the beach, his scar on the stomach might be a hint to the baby’s origin. Not like an unnatural or mechanical birth, rather in a metaphorical way – ripping him apart and stealing something that once was his.

In him was life, and the life was the light of men. (John, 1:4)

Moreover, on the protagonist’s body we can descry hand prints, accentuated by the dirt on his skin and the way the camera touches upon and depicts his body. There are several conclusions as to what these hand prints mean: Holding on to something, pulling away or grasping someone – this might happen in an actual and realistic way. Reedus’ character, if we continue the strain of thought previously mentioned, originates from a different world or universe (hence the mass stranding), he might even be a clone, believing various internet theories and suggesting that the umbilical cord is proof of that. (Beside the character, the animals shown in the trailer have umbilical cords as well, suggesting that not only human beings, but animals as well are affected by the technology or mystery.) However, Kojima himself already disclaimed this idea.

Death Stranding

The same way the protagonist takes the baby and mourns its loss, other people (or even creatures), might hold on to him, don’t want to let him go, touching him and leaving hand prints all over his body in the process. On the other hand, they might encourage him to escape from whatever captivated him, flee into another universe, pushing him through a black hole or however you travel in a situation like this (despite the fact that this is not possible in real life, everything is possible in video games, so let’s accept this theory here). The hands can also be metaphorical, him not being able to let go the past, to let go what is supposed to die or vanished some time ago. We do not see anyone or anything that could have caused the hand prints, yet they are visible on his body. The baby, after it disappears, is only recognisable by its hand prints. Consequently, whatever Reedus’ character loses, stays with him, just as the baby, that disappears from his arms and leaves tiny hand prints on his thigh. It follows him whereever he goes, indicated by the hand prints in the sand, we see at the beginning of the trailer, filled with the black liquid, reaching out for him and being a constant reminder in case the character loses conscience and memories. Even when his mind becomes mad, the hand prints will be there to be reminiscent of his actions.

Five guardians of the galaxy or a threat to contrarian lifeforms?

Similar to the hand prints in the sand at the beginning of the video, the baby’s hand prints are black and full of the mysterious black substance. Is it guilt? Is the protagonist responsible for the baby’s disappearance, was it something material or immaterial that he lost, an attribute of his? Is the baby actually a part of the character, connected by the umbilical cord, something that dies and is no longer part of him? Clearly we can neglect the cloning theory, thus the black fluid is no residue of cloning and messing with contrarian production of human beings. Albeit the black fluid might be oil, we can agree on the fact that its meaning is metaphorical and its use in the trailer insinuates guilt – having lost something (in this case the vulnerable baby) and being responsible for its disappearance or devastation; like the world is soon to be held responsible for the irresponsible greed, concomitant with pollution and demise of civilization – seen from a rather pessimistic point of view as illustrated in Mad Max and explained above.

Similar to the baby, Norman is naked. Surely this is something that improves the trailer’s hype (nudity always works, admit or ignore it) and can be an indicator for various really interesting metaphors. Being naked suggests purity, being stripped to what is left after mundane devices were taken away or left behind voluntarily. All that is left – besides your body – are your choices, your mind and your conscience. The nakedness can also emphasise a catharsis. The protagonist has been reborn and is without anything else, just like a baby when it is born. His connection to the baby, illustrated by the umbilical cord, shows that they are indeed in the same situation and the character is about to be newborn and free like the baby. If there were no hand prints chasing him and symbolising the guilt he has burdened himself with. Because of this guilt he can never be free and innocent, can never be reborn like a baby. Therefore, the baby on the beach that represented his new beginning disappears and all that is left are the black hand prints that remember him of everything that he has squandered. Consequently, he mourns not only the baby’s apparent death, but also the loss of his new life.

Another question that needs to be answered is: What role do the five figures we see floating in midair at the end of the trailer play? Are they guardians, extraterrestrials or watchmen? Perhaps all of this? Are they watching mankind enhancing or destroying themselves, only interfering when their time has come? Some kind of aliens, coming from another universe to introduce mankind to new technologies and watch as Reedus’s character and his allies use them? Their position, seemingly superiority, and how they slowly move forward insinuate some kind of threat, though. As they slowly fade away, one thinks of surrender. Have the figures tried to prevent the world from falling apart, have they given up on this world as it is too late to interfere now? Alternatively, their movements could merely be a cinematic effect, everything is possible.

Death Stranding

The importance of the number 5 might be slightly overvalued, but here is my guess: 5 is kind of a mysterious number, it can mean a variety of things and undoubtedly serves some kind of purpose in Death Stranding. First of all there is the pentagram, five vertices, five edges. The number of meanings for this alone is overwhelming: its religious meaning indicates a resemblance to Jesus Christ, Freemasons knew it as a symbol for the four elements or cardinal directions plus the mind or aether and then there is the golden ratio, which implies perfection, roughly speaking (if you haven’t heard of this term, check out the link!). There are also five senses and Leonardo da Vinci drew the man with four limbs plus the head, both implying some sort of completion. The Luther rose has five petals, the book of psalms is divided into five chapters and the Hamsa has five fingers. Siddhartha Gautama, the first Buddha, met five ascetics after his awakening, Buddhism teaches five precepts and five aggregates called skandhas. I’ll leave the rest to your imagination. There are endless ways to make a simple number make sense when it as well just might symbolise harmony.

A theory about the hovering figures I heard from my friend that struck me the most is that the character and figures are in sandbox mode. They created the world and are now testing it, hence the equations he carries, those are the valid ones. If you want to go almost too far, you can even claim that the six dog tags around his neck resemble him and the five figures controlling this world, causing mass stranding and him being the fallen or chosen one, left to explore their world. This is emphasised by the empty circle in which the character awakens, where are no dead fish nor anything else.

I’ll keep coming.

A phrase we are all familiar with. There is a chance it refers to reincarnation of the character, but it is more likely that it refers to Hideo Kojima himself. According to a P.T. conspiracy theory, Kojima alluded to his return in the iconic playable teaser. The mysterious man uttering “I will be coming back” is seen as Kojima telling his fans that after leaving Konami he will return. His first words at the E3 reveal of Death Stranding only support our hopeful theory. The trailer’s soundtrack clearly states that Kojima will keep coming, along with Death Stranding, Norman Reedus, Kenichiro Imaizumi, a video game designer, Yōji Shinkawa, a Japanese illustrator, Kyle Cooper, who has already worked on various Metal Gear Solid games, Mark Cerny, lead architect of Playstation 4, Hitori Nojima, who has also worked on Metal Gear Solid, and the talented team at Kojima Productions. Speaking of which, the mascot Ludens has been shown for quite some time now and the last image, showing the head just weeks before E3, was subtitled with the words “I’ll keep coming”. Kojima already denied Ludens’ appearance in the game, so the phrase might refer to the whole team and their return to the business.

Still, one might ask why the name of the character Ludens Kojima Productionsis secret and Kojima refuses to tell us (is it “Ludens” in the end?) and whether the name is an evidence of who the character actually is, what his intentions are and where the game is set. Concerning the scenery, there are a few clues like the sperm whales (if they are sperm whales, I am no biologist) and the landscape. Sperm whales can be found in any ocean, additionally, the color selection indicates a cold climate and one can even recognise icebergs in the background. Possibly Iceland (by the way, the band “Low Roar”, who performed the soundtrack for the trailer, are an Icelandic band), Alaska, the East Siberian Sea or Greenland, generally the Northern hemisphere and somewhere close the Arctic circle. There even seem to be volcanoes judging by the few lava sightings at the end of the trailer. This is my guess, there are obviously other ideas with substantial clues, so feel free to discuss. Regarding the gameplay the climate could connote aggravated conditions and dangers, an atmosphere of solitude and coldness, starting at the top and working the way to the bottom of a world. We will know for sure when Kojima Productions and Sony decide to publish more material.

The only connection to the cancelled Silent Hills is Norman Reedus and of course Hideo Kojima as well as the coming back-phrases. Kojima declared that Guillermo del Toro will not be participating. We can safely assume that Silent Hills is indeed dead and we can wait for the next exciting project. Mind, no game engine has been chosen yet and the game will not be released any time soon, whereas “the game has already begun”.

As a matter of fact, we already know some things about Death Stranding: Kojima Productions set the ambitious goal of creating a new genre that is neither action nor RPG or horror, but when forced to be squeezed in those standard characteristics, it is all of that. After playing for a while, the player is said to realise that in fact the game alternates and appears to be something the player has never seen before. In comparison to the protagonist experiencing a rebirth, the medium itself is to be reborn. This renaissance of video games is another message on a meta level. While the historical renaissance let antiquity flourish again and amended it with modern influences, Death Stranding attempts to reincarnate video games. By using outdated and ordinary mechanics (stick) in addition to new techniques (rope) something established yet novel can be created.

Let’s keep them coming.

We already know a lot about Death Stranding at this point, however, there is no guarantee that this is what we will eventually get. Games have often been changed in the process, due to technical issues or storytelling problems. Regardless, the trailer teases a phenomenal experience and lures us into hoping for something extraordinary.

The trailer does not offer any reliable information and leaves us with speculations based on changing evidence. Therefore, aforesaid interpretation is not necessarily true or false. The text simply offers some ideas on a trailer and fulfills its intention – speculating. Nonetheless, keeping in mind that Hideo Kojima is the creator of these images, reassures us that there is not one true meaning and various interpretations are valid. No matter the intention, games already accomplished to shift our perception on them as art and media with cultural potential. Their purpose as artworks is to call attention to issues of mankind and offering access for everybody. Death Stranding may address certain issues, and despite the uncertainty regarding its „true“ meaning, it involves us. Games have the power to approach politics, environmentalism, racism, sexism and much more. That’s what Death Stranding demonstrates. Furthermore, art is about experiencing the unusual, discovering the unknown and abandoning the norm – what is exactly why we are so keen to see more of Death Stranding.

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