Death Stranding - title

I had no clue what to expect from Death Stranding. I probably would have bought it regardless because I usually enjoy Kojima's games. I was also curious if Death Stranding would be, in some way, representative of what the canceled Silent Hills might have been. Most of all, Kojima is a bold, and usually innovative creator, and I felt compelled to support his new studio -- if for nothing else than to give a middle finger to Konami.

After spending several dozen hours with it, I'm still not really sure what to think of Death Stranding. Much like with Final Fantasy XV, Death Stranding is loaded with novel ideas and messages that I find personally interesting or compelling. But just like Final Fantasy XV, those novel ideas take a back seat to time-wasting filler quests. Death Stranding can be hypnotically beautiful, zen-like, and maybe even emotionally moving, but it's also big, bloated, and convoluted, and it takes far too long to get where it's going.

At a very reductionist level, Death Stranding could be accurately characterized as "side quest: the game" or "Amazon courier: the game". But that characterization would be overlooking the nuance behind the game, and what it has to say about modern gaming and society in general. That makes it a very difficult game to review without giving one's self some time to let it soak in ... which is part of the reason why I've been mulling it over for more than a month now...

Rebuilding America, one Amazon delivery at a time

Carrying cargo is, in fact, the entire game! Our protagonist, Sam, is unwittingly tasked with delivering cargo across this post-apocalyptic America in an attempt to get in the good graces of the settlements dotting the land, and connect them all up to a vast information network to restore a semblance of civilization. On the way, you can literally build roads and bridges as you go -- rebuilding the American infrastructure little by little.

Online players will leave guideposts and infrastructure to help each other out.

This infrastructure is actually a clever implementation of the Demon's Souls / Dark Souls style of asynchronous multiplayer. In principle.

Instead of the ghostly visages of other player warning you of traps or ambushes or pitfalls, online players can build bridges, roads, vehicle charging stations, storage boxes, and other helpful infrastructure that will make your trek through the world legitimately easier. They aren't just cluing you in about what dangers to expect, or what course of action to take, the other players are actively helping you (and everyone else) without ever needing to set a digital foot in your game. Just like in FromSoft's Souls games, you can also leave little notes that take the form of emoticons, and which combine the function of the Souls player messages with avatar gestures.

When you first step out into the world, there's a sense of desolation and loneliness about the landscape. It reminds me a lot of Shadow of the Colossus, except our only company is a crying fetus instead of Aggro (who's such a good horsey!). The scenery itself is more evocative of Iceland, and doesn't look like any part of the United States that I've ever been. But then again, this is the same game designer who put a tropical rainforest in the middle of Soviet Russia, so... It's beautiful and serene, and figuring out how you're going to navigate the environment can be a legitimate zen-like puzzle.

Trekking through the map reminded me of the beautifully desolate environments of Shadow of the Colossus.

This game requires very precise and deliberate inputs from the player, and it can sometimes be very unforgiving of small mistakes. If you turn too quickly, Sam may lose his balance and fall over, possibly damaging or destroying the packages that you are carrying. Walk to quickly down a steep slope, and you'll risk loosing your footing and face-planting. You can hold one or both trigger buttons to try to stabilize yourself or catch your balance -- and there's no real reason to not hold both triggers the entire game, since balancing your load doesn't make Sam walk noticeably slower. And you'll have to manage Sam's stamina, the battery supply of vehicles or certain tools, and so forth. You might even find your hands cramping from holding down the triggers after a particularly long or strenuous journey over rough terrain, providing you with a small degree of physical discomfort to go along with Sam's physical exhaustion. And you'll be pushed along by occasional rainfall that will cumulatively damage your cargo and equipment.

Even though Sam will progressively get stronger and better able to keep himself balanced, and even though the game will gradually unlock new mechanics for making it easier to traverse the landscape, you can never get sloppy, and the game will punish you for impatience! It reminds me a lot of Dark Souls, except instead of getting killed by a hollow undead sword flurry because I thought I could sprint through a return trip through an early area of the game, I'm instead tripping over my own two feet because I tried to run down a mossy slope to get this delivery done faster.

Simply navigating the open world terrain without tripping and falling is a primary gameplay mechanic.

The terrain is important and relevant, and navigating it safely and efficiently is the game's core gameplay. You aren't simply holding the stick forward and walking a straight line to a point on the mini-map or radar, as you might do in, say, Skyrim or Far Cry. This is how you design an open world game! You make the traversal of the space into the operant challenge. Or, at the very least, make the space between landmarks -- and the act of traversing that space -- feel meaningful. I feel like game designers are really starting to vindicate all those blogs that I wrote years ago about the failings of open world design. The destinations aren't important in Death Stranding. It's the space in between (the open world itself) that is important.

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Silent Hills just won't seem to die. Shortly after the game was canceled by Konami, petitions started popping up demanding that it be re-instated. Then came the debacle of the Metal Gear Solid V release, which seemed blatantly incomplete and/or half-assed. Then Kojima officially left Konami, Guillermo del Toro tweeted that the cancelation of Silent Hills "breaks his greasy heart", and it all seemed done and buried.

Or was it?

Andrew House (Group CEO of Sony Interactive) announces a partnership with Hideo Kojima.

Within a week of the official announcement that Kojima had left Konami, he was reported to have already set up his own independent Kojima Productions studio, and that he had already partnered with Sony to develop an un-named PS4 exclusive. Geez, that was quick. Kojima has always had a good relationship with Sony. The Metal Gear Solid games were originally PlayStation exclusives, and were definite showcases for those Sony platforms. I mean, when you think of the original PlayStation, what are the first few games that come to mind? Probably Final Fantasy VII. Tomb Raider? Maybe Resident Evil? And definitely Metal Gear Solid. Even when Kojima was initially rumored to be leaving Konami, I had speculated that Sony might make a move to hire him. Contracting him to act as a second-party developer of exclusive content is just as good. I had also speculated at the time that there were three possibilities for Silent Hills to see the light of day:

  1. Konami could hire Kojima's independent studio to continue development of Silent Hills. This seemed unlikely considering the rocky conclusion to Kojima's employment.
  2. Kojima could buy the IP rights to Silent Hill (and maybe Metal Gear). This also seemed unlikely considering that both franchises are cash-cows for Konami.
  3. Lastly, there was the possibility that Kojima Productions could continue the development of what would have been Silent Hills, but without the "Silent Hill" title. Same game; different name.

The partnership with Sony opens up a fourth possibility: Sony could buy or lease the licensing rights to Silent Hill and then contract out development to Kojima Productions. This is the only way that the game could possibly see the light of day and still maintain the "Silent Hill" name. Konami has already expressed its disinterest in continued first-party console game development. It's just too expensive, and the company wants to focus more on its gambling business and mobile games. If Konami wants to continue to see revenue from those IPs, then they are stuck either making smaller in-house games (such as mobile games, pachinko machines, or browser-based games); or they would have to license out the IP to third-party developers. Sony certainly has the buying-power that Kojima, by himself, doesn't have, and could certainly afford to buy those rights, if they so desire.

A trailer for Konami's next Silent Hill game. Not exactly what fans were hoping for...
Hideo Kojima and Norman Reedus

However, Silent Hill fans probably shouldn't get their hopes up for a triumphant return of their tarnished, yet beloved, franchise. In the video announcing the partnership with Sony, Kojima says that he is "thrilled to embark on creating a new franchise with PlayStation". So this project does not appear to be Silent Hills. At least, not in title...

Kojima is rumored to be collaborating once again with Guillermo Del Toro, which opens up the possibility that the two are going to work on realizing the plans that they had for Silent Hills. During a keynote address at DICE, Kojima and Del Toro stated that they would like to continue to work together. Del Toro even went as far as saying that he would "do whatever the fuck Kojima asks him to". He even made an off-hand comment about famed Japanese horror illustrator Junji Ito. I don't know much bout Junji Ito, but his work is apparently a pretty big deal, and he's also been seen with Kojima. Kojima and Norman Reedus have even been seen together, and it's been rumored that Reedus will be working with Kojima again. All the pieces seem to be fitting into place...

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Silent Hills - playable teaster title

As most internet-savvy Silent Hill fans know, the recent rumors regarding Hideo Kojima working on a Silent Hill game are true. Konami stealthily released a hidden teaser for the project within a demo for a fake game (called "P.T.") being made by a fake studio (7780 Studios).

I don't currently own a PS4, since there haven't been any interesting games out for it yet (although Bloodborne and No Man's Sky both look like they sell me a console). As such, I was a little bit late in getting a chance to actually play the "P.T." demo, but I finally was able to play it on a friend's PS4 over the Labor Day weekend. Given my strong opinions regarding the Silent Hill franchise, I thought I'd weigh in on this whole teaser thing.

It is, however, important to note that "P.T." is just an announcement teaser, and not an actual demo. As such, it is not necessarily representative of the final game - and in fact, the demo clearly states this in the final cutscene. So the demo doesn't really tell us much about the gameplay or story of the new Silent Hill game. At least not directly. And so any conclusions that any one comes to will need to be taken with some degree of skepticism.

P.T. - hallway ghost
The hallway is almost a character in and of itself, and it is gorgeously rendered in Kojima's Fox Engine.

Considering my nature as a Silent Hill "purist", I'm skeptical and cynical about any new developments in the franchise. As such, I'm going to begin by getting my concerns and fears regarding this project out of the way...

UPDATE (September 23, 2014 3:30 PM Pacific Time):
New Silent Hills teaser video released at last week's Tokyo Game Show

Last week, Konami and Hideo Kojima presented a new teaser video for Silent Hill at the Tokyo Game Show. I was going to write a post about my impressions from this video, but there's not enough new information to warrant a whole new post. You can view the video below:

The new video is very short, and doesn't give away much in terms of the narrative direction of the new game. In fact, it's probably just another "proof of concept" project, and not actually representative of the final product.

The hallway shown does look like it could possibly be the hallway of a school (or maybe a daycare). If it is a school, could it be a return to the familiar Midwhich Elementary?..

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