After years of teasing out Death Stranding trailers and doing his best to explain Death Stranding, Hideo Kojima took the stage at Tokyo Game Show 2019 twice last week to dish out over an hour of new gameplay. We now know a lot more about exploration, customization, and the imposing Catchers–the otherworldly beasts you’ll fight in the world’s pitch-soaked battlefields. But in an effort to better understand where Kojima’s touted Social Strand system is coming from, we spoke with him at Kojima Productions’ Tokyo Office between his TGS demo days, where he also graciously posed for my new favorite photo.
Death Stranding’s Nov. 8 release will be here before we know it, and at that point all of his allusions, terminology, and even his post-Metal Gear reputation, will be put to the test. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Kojima doesn’t care if we understand what he’s going for with Death Stranding when we finally get to play it for ourselves. That, he says, could take years to make sense to some of us.
It’s also no surprise that he’s already thinking of what comes next while the rest of us grapple with whatever Death Stranding turns out to be. Specific plans remain a closely guarded secret, but Kojima was able to shed some light on what we can expect from him, and from the industry, in the coming years–including a potential collaboration with Keanu Reeves. What follows is a closer look into Death Stranding, and the intent of its creator, in his own words.
Kojima Productions’ Aki Saito was the interpreter for the interview, and the transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and flow.
GameSpot: The last time we spoke was at DICE 2016, and at that time I asked what the biggest misconception people have of you is, and you said that people think it takes you too long to make games, and you said that’s not true. Looking at the scope of Death Stranding, I’m impressed that it’s already ready to be released, and I’m curious if you did anything notably different this time around?
Hideo Kojima: Don’t get me wrong, I’m always quick. It’s like, three years? I can’t really say anything about Sony right now…maybe it will take 8 years, or maybe 10 years for first-party titles, like Nintendo as well. Cyberpunk has probably been worked on for more than 8 years. I’ve created in three years. When I was creating Metal Gear Solid 5, I needed more time because I had to produce the engine, as well as produce other titles.
So, if you looked back at the interviews three or four years ago, I’m as consistent as I said about game design… I’m kind of very efficient in the way I make games in a short time. Every day, every hour, I decide right or left. I won’t say, “I’ll think about it” or “let’s think about it,” I make a decision on the spot. So, that’s one reason I don’t outsource so much because you have to answer emails and wait for answers, that’s why I do it in house as much as possible.
One of the reasons it’s fast is because I do all the planning, design, and produce, and that kind of forces me to make quick decisions. There’s no time lag. Like other developers might have different people doing boss battles, and different people doing the cutscenes–it’s a bit chaotic when they have to pull everything together. But our team is only about 80 people, usually other big teams are 300 or 600. So that’s what–with the short amount of time and [fewer] amount of people, and the direct feedback I give–allows me to make this game in this time.
During that same interview, you said you were never going to change anything just so a game could sell more copies. Now that you’re running an independent studio, and the stakes have obviously risen, do you still feel that way?
There’s an easier way to make money, like buying stocks… What I’m doing right now is really hard to do. I’m doing it the really hard way. Like with a new game there’s a lot of risk, but I want to do that. And I think that’s [the] destiny of my life, of the short lifespan that I have.
Death Stranding Announced at E3 2016
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In creating this new Strand genre, what are the challenges that came with that, and with implementing it into a game?
So yeah, it was the same with the stealth genre before, but since I do most of, or part of, everything–like the game design, or the theme, or story, or the cutscenes–the theme was always there about connection, and that’s why it’s consistent. I think that’s the key to making this new genre, as you say. If i was doing just the story, it wouldn’t be what you see it today.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not just trying to create new genres, I want to create new fun for the users. The genre can be named by them afterwards, so that’s my goal. So what happened was that, when I showed the trailers to everyone, people said, “What’s this game about? I have no idea.” So I thought I should name it something, so I just named it Strand Game.
Do you think other developers are going to pick up what you’re doing and run with it in their own way?
Probably not the carrying aspect, but of course the online aspect…maybe a lot of developers might use that element. When doing the Metal Gear games, when stealth was introduced, I deliberately made the player not use a weapon. But when competitors brought out stealth games, they used the stealth element but with a weapon, so probably a similar thing will happen.
Since you’re trying so many new things, are you anticipating that some players might not understand it, even when they play it?
It doesn’t really matter, they can play in their own style. I think, at the very least, they will understand through the story of connection, or even the meaning of not being connected. I have to kind of accept the fact that when you introduce something new, people will take time to digest the concept because it never existed. People will say, “Oh, I don’t want to just carry things” because it never existed, so it might take time for that. So again, it doesn’t really matter if people get it right away, maybe in five or 10 years it will make me happy if players realize what the game is about after time has lapsed, when each player has, at their own pace, digested.
Recently, all the games are like: you play it, you know it, you feel good, they’re fun, and that’s it. I want to create a game where there’s a hit to it, you can’t swallow it and it’s there for a long time. Maybe in a year, or in five years, suddenly there may be an experience in their life and they realize what Death Stranding is talking about. Maybe they will play it again and have a different perspective. That’s why I said that I don’t really care about people not understanding it on the first try.
How do you feel about the feedback loop that exists on the internet, between game developers and players?
I don’t think it’s real communication. For example, in Japan there’s a word called “omoiyari” which means caring for others. Like if you go to a restaurant in Japan, you’ll find this, where people care for you beyond just serving food. But in America you tip the people, so they try to service you more. In Japan, you don’t have this tip system.
So for instance, there’s a letter–we’re online now so it’s really quick, you can FaceTime, it’s right away–but 100 years ago, 200 years ago, there were only letters. There’s a soldier in the war field back then who writes a letter to his wife. So he gives it to the military, it’s sent by ship, it takes like four months, and then his wife opens the letter. This is what was written four months ago and maybe he’s dead on the other side of the world [by then]. It’s not real time, there’s such a big lapse. The wife has to think about what the husband was thinking about four months ago, in this situation, and this is the omoiyari feeling–caring about others. In this era, it’s a little different because it’s instant, a lot of people are anonymous, and you can say bad things on there.
In the game you see footprints but there’s a time lag in the game as well, just like the letter theory, so you have to think about why they went that way. Or, there’s a bottle of water in the locker, not in a private box but in a shared box. And you’ll wonder if the player put it there because they had to lessen their load, or, were they serving other players? You kind of think about that. That’s not happening in the real world on the internet. So the player gets thirsty, and they find this box, and they are really happy. And you’ll remember that feeling; you’ll be so thankful for people you’ve never met before. And if you continue like that, you will probably do that as well. That’s the thought here.
I don’t think this is the correct answer, but currently, in games like first-person shooters you aim for a headshot, you try to defeat others. The, “I’m stronger” kind of thing. Of course those games are great as well, but for my game, I want it to use the letter theory and give that experience to players.
For instance, if you climb mount Fuji [in real life], it’s really rough. There’s a cabin in between when you’re climbing. Of course it’s very easy if there’s a path, but sometimes there’s no path. And I always feel very thankful for the path and the cabin. I’m always grateful to the first person who makes it, and if I can drink coffee in that log cabin I am so happy about it. So I think if someone feels that way, they can then give that to other people as well. That’s my hope for the game. It’s not the main theme, but that’s the hope.
Death Stranding – Official Briefing Trailer | TGS 2019
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But what if people do the opposite in the game, and as you’ve mentioned before, leave a ladder to disaster. To what extent can the opposite be true?
It might not be intentional. We do a lot of playtests in the office. So sometimes there’s a bridge that crosses a deep river, and people feel grateful, but it only goes to the middle of the river. Of course you don’t give that bridge a thumbs up, but it probably wasn’t intentional. I pretty much feel that there won’t be much intentional evil. I want people to think about that as well if they fall [off that bridge]…”I won’t do that to someone.” And you might make the same mistake.
Say there’s a cliff and you go down a rope, but you need to go down further, but you can only reach a certain point. So maybe then I see your rope and your footprints and I felt really thankful for it. But if I go down, I might see that it doesn’t go all the way and think about the reasons you did that. The best thing would be to put a second rope so other people don’t fall in the trap. When I check people playing the game, a lot of people only play for themselves, and they just use it. And others, these people change the way they think when they place the ladder, and think of a different perspective: what if I put the ladder here, will it be useful? It’s interesting to see this, and especially [in] the footprints. You might get lost and your footprints will scatter around, but when you find the footprints of others you might feel very happy at first. But you don’t know if that’s correct and you just follow it and it goes off a cliff, you know this person was probably lost too. So when you think about that you want your footprints to be accurate or correct.
In the game, when you follow someone’s footprints, and then a person comes for a third time [to follow the footprints], the wilderness that was there will turn into a small path. People have a natural intention to follow the path, so it really depends on who you are playing with indirectly. The path might already be there if people are already follow it over and over again.
How far can players shape the world and how long will that persist?
One of the hooks is that it’s not just making the path, but because of Timefall, because of the time lapse, that path might go away if people don’t use it–then new ones would be made. But the most appropriate ones would probably persist.
Is this connection mentality something you want to continue to explore after Death Stranding?
Yes, the Social Strand system, I would like to continue, maybe. Like streaming games, if I want to do something new in that aspect, I might keep this thinking as well, but not the storyline or the gimmick.
So Death Stranding won’t be made into a series, necessarily?
I’m not really sure. But the most difficult part is: when you create something new, you have to create a sequel and then a third version, or it would not remain as a genre. So that’s one difficult part. When this game comes out there will be a lot of pros and cons, and [these elements could become the essence of the core part], but I think it’s better that I keep it going in a sequel. Why I can’t say it’s definite is because I only have one body, and there’s many projects that I have to be involved with. And it’s really tough for me physically to do many things at once. Yeah, probably at least 1.5, and then 2, maybe, at least so that it remains and people are aware of the genre. There are a lot of other projects that come up like TV dramas and things like that. A lot of pitches come my way.
Do you want to continue making games driven by technology, or do you ever want to pull back and do something that’s a bit more primitive, in a sense?
Well it’s difficult to explain, but yes and no. Yes, meaning I want to use new technology like streaming and AI, but created in a more analog way, so to speak. So yes and no. Like, not really gamey-gamey like you see, but something with an analog feel to it. However, even if it might look primitive, the technology I use will be really advanced and state-of-the-art technology.
When you think about game streaming, which company is taking the right path?
I can’t really say, I have a lot of connections with people, right? [Laughs] I can’t say who will be the winner, but I can say that the streaming era will come for sure. VR is actually stagnant right now, but will probably progress in the future with AR as well. So the next five years will be the era of streaming where people can use their personal devices and everything will be streamlined, but the years after that will be when AI jumps in more.
I’m being told this is my last question, so I have to ask: will Keanu Reeves be in Death Stranding?
Keanu is a great guy. I have a close friend, Nicolas Refn, he introduced me to Mads and I made an offer to Mads to be in the game. I went to Denmark and talked to Nicolas again before I gave the offer to Mads, and I said I met Mads a couple of times but I really wanted to reconfirm with Nicolas that I really should work with Mads. Nicolas said, “I made Mads grow. He’s great, but the best guy is Keanu,” and he was doing Neon Demon at that time. So he was trying to persuade me to use Keanu, and I thought maybe I will change from Mads to Keanu.
We were having this dinner, and there was this chef, and I called the chef and told him that I’m thinking of using Mads, and asked what he thought. Even the chef said maybe Keanu is better, even though he liked Mads a lot. But I did write the character for Mads, imagining him, so I am very happy that I offered it to Mads in the end.
So as I said, Keanu is a great guy, and in the future it would be great if we could work together. It could be a game, or maybe a movie or TV I might work on, so maybe next time. But I want to say Mads is really great. When I met Keanu, I was shocked that he was so polite; a real good guy. Were are only one year apart in age, so the appreciation towards a lot of things are similar, I think. So in the future, I would like to offer something to Keanu.