Before Hideo Kojima took the stage to screen his new Death Stranding trailer at this week’s Game Awards, Geoff Keighley delivered an emotional speech taking Konami to task for the company’s bafflingly toxic treatment of the director over the past year. The sentiments echoed an interesting tidbit Keighley dropped in a recent interview, where he elaborated by alleging that the publisher had forcibly removed Kojima from the rest of his team during the final stretch of Metal Gear Solid V’s production.
“He was locked in a separate room on a different floor than his development team for the final six months of development,” Keighley said in the interview with Glixel. “He couldn’t even talk to them — he had to talk through someone else. That’s how that game was finished.”
With the past couple of difficult years behind Kojima, it feels impossible to view the new Death Stranding teaser as anything but a jubilant re-affirmation of absolute creativity — and personal freedom. There was a taste of that earlier this year, in the game’s Norman Reedus-led E3 debut, which saw the actor framed naked in Christ-like imagery on an oil-soaked (or is it ink?) beach littered with dead marine life.
To see Death Stranding’s kick-off as anything but an unsubtle dig at Konami after the cancellation of Kojima’s Silent Hills collaboration with Guillermo del Toro is unlikely. Now the second glimpse into whatever it really is establishes an entire world in a masterfully weird and menacing five-minute vignette, which just happens to star del Toro as well as Kojima’s proclaimed favorite actor, Mads Mikkelsen. And it’s all pulled off without anyone uttering a word.
Even during his days at Konami, no one made trailers like Kojima, and that clearly hasn’t changed. His love of film is evident in every cut and tracking shot; the unbroken path that follows del Toro, swinging up to a military state procession of skeletal soldiers and what resembles a cephalopod tank, is reminiscent of Alfonso Cuarón’s famous long take in Children of Men, and is more than likely not a coincidence. Rather than simple marketing, Kojima’s trailers are like small, self-contained stories unto themselves, and there’s some irony in how the technique fuels anticipation far more than captured gameplay ever could.
If you’re already a fan of Kojima, the trailer’s hallucinatory visuals are a joy to watch unfold. After lingering on the WWII-evoking patrol, the scene returns to a worried del Toro activating an industrial baby incubator, hesitating to move under a tunnel as it fills with oily water. (Note his character’s lobotomy-esque scars, easily imagined as the result of an in-joke between the two directors over their shared love of monster movies.)
As del Toro watches a broken doll float by on attached to what looks like a lure, the camera follows into the darkness, soon revealing a special forces team led by Mikkelsen, black liquid caked from his eyes, stepping out of the shadows in a haze of red light. Set to Stranger Things-style synth, the anticipation and payoff are expertly crafted.
These strands feel like the culmination of iconography, themes and ideas that Kojima has circled for years, from his obsession with spec ops hardware and the supernatural to opaque, allegorical imagery that fosters more questions than elucidates. Without a doubt they’re dropping hints of what’s coming next under our very noses — del Toro’s lapel pin, a map of the United States stretched with a spider-web with the word “BRIDGES” emblazoned across the top — is most certainly one of these. In any case, Kojima revels in separating the line between the meta and the fictional, so you can never be quite sure if what you’re seeing is the really the whole truth.
If you’ve never heard of Kojima or even played Metal Gear, welcome. From what we’ve been shown so far, this is proof of what’s possible when games let artists call the shots instead of producers, and seemingly where projects aren’t as restricted by timelines and budgetary concerns.
Death Stranding has been pledged to be finished before the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, and while that might seem like a far-off, remote deadline, the project will realistically take as long as it needs to. This kind of creative freedom is a unicorn in any industry — there’s probably no other creator in games that has such complete control over anything, let alone that could be considered a true auteur.
In Kojima’s defense, he’s earned it over the course of a 30-year career, consistently proving himself in clever, sophisticated gameplay as much as ceaselessly strange and compelling narratives, characters, and concepts. In an industry where writing is often relegated to the lowest ranks of production, Kojima’s insistence on storytelling is inspiring. And whatever may come next with Death Stranding, get ready — it’s only getting weirder from here.