To be honest, I haven’t a clue what Death Stranding is about, but the one thing that I do know by looking at both the E3 and The Game Awards trailers this year is that Kojima Productions has a very clear and unique artistic direction for the game. And we can begin to picture where that comes from now thanks to a tweet earlier this week by the man himself, Hideo Kojima, showing off his desk, most importantly his book shelf.
For those that have followed Kojima since his departure from Konami, it’s clear the man likes to drop a hint. You could even call his tweeting and pictorial composition deliberate. So in that sense, this picture of Kojima’s to-hand reference material might tell us an awful lot about the world of Death Stranding.
How To: Mads Mikkelsen
There are two books related to Mads Mikkelsen on display here. One of which, the Feeding Hannibal - A Connoisseur's Cookbook, you might have seen in bookshops ready to eat your Christmas stockings, and in the far corner The Art and Making of Hannibal the TV Series. These aren’t just books that say ‘look at what my game’s star does’, these are templates, bibles even about Mikkelsen, the man playing the eponymous Dr. Lecter of the series.
If you were to look at the Amazon listing for the latter book, you’ll see an excerpt that talks about the costume design for Hannibal, which is almost exclusively three piece suits and blends of Scottish wool. These are distinctive and give Hannibal an air of class, an expectation that style and sophistication go hand in hand with cunning, deception and control.
Not only is this reference material for the way Mikkelsen carries himself and his poise in the show, there’s a pictoral library of what makes that confidence and disturbing evil so visible. This can also be seen in the deliberate hand movements and the craning of his neck during his character’s introduction in the Death Stranding trailer. This neck craning shows an almost sexual gratification from the retracting of the symbiotic probes (which is something we’ll expand on later), much like Hannibal’s own fetishes in the show.
There’s an interesting piece about Lecter’s silhouette, which in this case means the shape of someone's body and costume, rather than a black and white portrait shot. Hannibal is fashionable, yet very much of a specific time period. As the book says, the clothing choices are “an amalgam that respected Lecter’s creative flair but also held a respect for the past he carries with him”.
From what the trailer is inferring, Mikkelsen is clearly playing an antagonist and these references to his previous works would be incredibly useful for Kojima Productions’ designers. It’s fascinating to see characters created for specific actors like this, which can take into account their previous performances and roles.
This character that has been created for Mikkelsen to play, combined with the technology that Kojima has hand selected (like SIE Visual Arts and the Decima engine) means the quality of Mikkelsen’s acting ability is easily transferred to a gaming medium.
Let’s discuss the clothing. It’s military and it’s functional but, given that he has just emerged from a tunnel full of black liquid (I’m sure X-Files creator Chris Carter will have something to say about that), it looks remarkably clean compared to his fellow soldiers. Even the occasional stains look more like secretions from the character himself rather than anything external. The majority of his uniform is an off-white colour, not even camouflaged. His hair is white, a direct opposition to the black of the liquid, giving him an angelic air. That could be a self portrait of how the character sees himself – correct, righteous, understanding of all, superior. A classic self-righteous villain.
The Art of Innocence
Art anthologies are abundant on Kojima’s desk and many will repeat a theme. One such theme is the innocence of youth, which is interesting given the prominence of infants in Death Stranding’s trailers.
The first book in the collection is a retrospective of Mary Cassatt. Born in the USA but raised in France, Cassatt was an early impressionist artist at a time of severe upheaval in the art world. Impressionism was a burgeoning trend and the group, much like many great movements in art and literature, was not well received and even rebelliously distanced themselves from the academic tradition. Her most famous works, however, come from her later life with the theme of mother and child. The most inspirational and stylistic of these is Madonna and Child, one of the oldest artistic religious representations of the mother of God.
Even though for thousands of years, depictions of the Madonna, or the Virgin Mary, were common, they were most popular during the Italian Renaissance. Another book in Kojima’s collection, Venetian Renaissance art, looks at this period. Leonardo’s The Last Supper is probably the most recognisable piece from this time as well as the many variations of the Madonna and the child. The portrayal of mother and child is often in a virginal context amidst a backdrop of wealth and prosperity, as if the two go hand in hand – innocence and the opulence of a golden age.
Renoir (whose book is also visible in the photo) is best known for rejecting the impressionist movement and focusing on painting women, in particular younger girls and older nudes. Portraying the former as a celebration of youth and especially childhood as innocence, vulnerability and purity.
We know nothing of the child in Death Stranding or its significance to the greater whole. Could this be like Children of Men which deals with an infertile human race? The child is obviously something that needs to be protected. From the cradling by Norman Reedus to the moment Guillermo Del Toro’s actions appear to teleport the baby to the protective vessel, there is a need to defend this newborn from the outside.
Much like the art we’ve discussed, the mother is seen as the protector, doting on the child who is seen as a saviour, especially in the religious parlance. How much of this is visual symbolism (like the doll that bears a resemblance Reedus’s character in the E3 trailer) and how much of this is plot establishment is unclear.
The portrayal of both Reedus and Del Toro as protector with Mikkelsen as hunter is close to the portraits’ expression of innocence. But it is also what is happening behind the subjects that provides the biggest context here as Kojima is not looking to reproduce the scene, but to unsettle it.
The Eve of Destruction
There’s very little evidence in history that shows a place or a society decimated by nature. Reclaimed spaces, yes, but actually destroyed, no. There’s no great document, for example, recalling how a place that was so alive was instantly reduced to nothing, its citizens frozen in time and death, with the sulphurous stains on the brickwork being all that remains. In the picture of Kojima’s desk, you’ll notice a book on the Roman city of Pompeii.
Pompeii is the only place that we know of that shows a prosperous world destroyed by something other than man. Although given the game’s title, ‘Death’ and ‘Stranding’ are two word pairings that separately could be natural events but together indicated outside influence.
For Pompeii there was no outside influence, only the rage of the great god Vulcan could be blamed for the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and the destruction of the city. But it is the physical remnants of that place that contrast so well to the depictions of Venice in the renaissance art. Both show between them the before and after of a building style and display of wealth reduced to mere rubble.
Why exactly was Vulcan angry enough to destroy Pompeii? Who knows but the parallels between the destruction of that world and the destruction of Death Stranding’s have a certain similarity – the occupants of their worlds have gone too far.
The most prominent and striking book on Kojima’s desk is the Killzone Visual Design book. Killzone’s visual aesthetic is very recognisable in the Death Stranding trailers. Which could have something to do with the fact that the trailers were produced in the Decima engine, made by Killzone’s creators Guerrilla Games. There is also a small satellite team from Kojima Productions housed in their Amsterdam based studio. So a style guide that shows how you can create a destroyed urban landscape by the creators of your game engine can only be helpful.
You have the grey, cement- ridden ground with the fallen buildings indicating the destruction of society and civilisation all around. It’s a science-fiction dystopia oft referenced in popular culture, the constant territorial war that surrounds it, the huge gaps in technology between oppressors and survivors and the division between those in prosperous central cities and outlying economically impoverished colonies.
It’s not a particularly new concept when you add all these strings together but it is potentially interesting in what Death Stranding will do as a game, especially given the quality of storytelling that has existed in science fiction/armageddon/protector narratives of late. Your opinion on Kojima’s narrative skills may be a bit jaded by the fact he’s only dealt with one franchise and essentially four main characters for nearly 30 years, but I for one am intrigued as to what he can do with this setting.
The Persistence of Memory
One of the tropes of these kind of dystopian fictions is that things were better and could be again. That the present is just a surreal shadow of the reality. Amidst all of the perceived innocence of the cradled child, Kojima’s world is in chaos. If history is written by those in power then you can imagine that Death Stranding’s antagonists would be showing the beauty of renaissance art compared to what actually is happening.
Returning to Kojima’s desk, there is large array of surrealism on display here, the contradiction between what is being visually represented and what actually is happening. Fabulas Panicas is a 1960s comic strip by Alejandro Jodorowsky which shows a surreal, visually chaotic and conflicted world. Dali’s works of surrealism, along with his most famous The Persistence of Memory painting, is preoccupied with rejecting the solidity of time and showing the rejection of determinism.
Given the warped imagery in the trailer showing military equipment and vehicles that are most definitely out of place for the world around it, you can see the fluidity of time. There’s a definite disconnect between the technologies on display. You’ll see a squadron of fighter planes fly overhead that are reminiscent of the Kawasaki Ki-100 craft that operated in World War 2.
The soldiers look like those from the shots we’ve seen on news broadcasts for almost two decades in the middle east. The tank looks like an American M18 Hellcat, with its slanted sides for storing equipment. In this case though it’s displaying bones like the trophies of a hunt. The helmets that the soldiers wear, with the exception of their commanders, are also pre Gulf War.
But then you have the goggles that Mikkelsen’s character wears that seem to disintegrate into thin air. There’s the symbiosis of inhuman and human technologies. There’s a pod that a baby just appears in, almost like a portable neonatal unit, but even that looks like different level of technology compared to the handcuffs that are worn by both Reedus and Del Toro.
Fluidity of technology is one thing in a broken society and is to be expected with the scarcity of replacement parts. But the fluidity of time in this is very key. The surreal should be unrecognisable from reality in the whole sense but when you look, there are little things that connect it to what we know, that scare us into accepting the surreal as real. War imagery is a powerful choice but it’s the surreal mix that makes it so interesting, especially when there’s a glimmer of familiarity, comfort and colour in a lone rainbow. Like the nostalgia for better things long since lost, the persistence of memory drives this entire trailer.
The Surreal and Aliens sounds like a film graduates dissertation title, but the two really go hand in hand. With Aliens: The Set Photography on Kojima’s shelf you can immediately see the influences of not only Giger’s work, but also James Cameron.
It’s important to make that definition because Aliens is distinctly more militaristic than any other film in the series. The set photography can give Kojima many clues as to how soldiers can walk around an inhuman landscape as if it is the most normal thing. Something Mikkelsen's little troop does with ease as they wade through the black liquid in the tunnel.
What the book also shows, compared to other Alien showcases, is how the parasite operates en masse and with others of its kind. The Aliens take over the base on LV-426 and quickly become a facultative parasite, one that doesn’t need a host to operate. At times they are like drones for their queen. The skeletal soldiers of Death Stranding are attached to Mikkelsen with the symbiotic black, snake like tubes but these are retracted as they move out and control is still exerted upon them. But they still have their own, formely human, characteristics. Like the spade painted on to a helmet. A symbiosis of experience as well as body maybe? It's well trodden ground in games like Halo's Flood parasite but even so, to keep so many characteristics visually is intriguing.
The tank is an interesting point because that is almost a mixture of both alien and machine. If you look at the way the alien colonises the corridors and building in Aliens, it’s like an infection, spreading its way across every surface until everything is this partly symbiotic and blackened exoskeleton. If there is any book that is going to show you how humans react and operate in these kind of worlds then the Aliens set photography is surely the most colourful and definitely the most infamous example.
To Leave In a Helpless Position
Stranding. It’s an intriguing word and possibly unfamiliar to many. The E3 trailer showed a very literal stranding of sea creatures followed by a singular figure abandoned on a shore. That trailer is full of iconography that is still too subjective to really comment. But it’s interesting to note the books on ancient Egypt and Greece, societies with multiple deities to worship, as well as the book on Lascaux and the drawings of early man. It’s unclear what this could mean yet but I’m excited to see how this creeps into Kojima’s vision.
So until then we are helpless to further speculate without knowledge. What is clear is that the Decima engine is an incredibly powerful tool. If the product of these reference materials and the capture from Sony’s Visual Arts Solution’s can be so well produced and identifiable in a trailer alone, then I think we’ll have a lot to look forward to in future peeks into Death Stranding.