There are few pleasures in life as rich and thrilling as those offered following the spectacle of a Hideo Kojima game as it crawls into the light. The feints! The sleights! The babies, in the case of Death Stranding, sloshing around in those fluey amber sarcophagi! Kojima is a wonderful game designer, but what he really excels at these days is this. The protracted and bizarro reveal, often employing Geoff Keighley - these are strange times - as the platonic ideal of a straight man.
Kojima is in a privileged spot, and he seems to be making the most of it. His games have been bangers generally, so there is a huge audience waiting to see what he'll do next. But they also - and this is where he has a freedom unmatched by many elsewhere - really want him to do something weird and perplexing. I have watched all of Death Stranding so far with the kind of awe you get while watching a master at work. I had a guy around this morning fitting a catflap, and the ease and skill with which he seemed to just know where to cut and where to stop cutting was a strange joy to me. With the dying beach, the bone-clicking, finger-crunching audio, with Norman Reedus and his flesh covered with those Cueva de las Manos palm prints that promise, along with the oil and the fabulous whirligig scanner thing, the numinous convergence of the very old and the very new, well, with all that stuff there is no doubting: Kojima is a guy who knows where to put the catflap. And yet the latest teaser sort of makes me sad. Why? Because after all this shapeless chaos, it looks an awful lot like the start of a boss fight.
There's still a lot I like about it of course, the flappy wet-weather gear, those brilliant scanners mounted near the shoulder, which bring such playful, terrifying life and personality to the Scandi SF trappings. I even like the big Gaudi dog thing that's conjured at the climax of the scene, the way it attends to its paws, the way its whole weight seems to angle it forwards. And I love the way the Man in the Golden Mask removes his mask to reveal...another mask!
But beyond that a strange, wrong-footing game is suddenly terribly familiar. The dialogue is stock pre-boss PowerPoint, but more arresting is the way that the conventions of the boss-fight-as-interruption are encoded in that first shot of Reedus that then pans to the horizon. Or the fact that the charming baddie kicks off his magic by punching the ground, in the way that a million other charming baddies have kicked off their boss-fight magic. "All you gotta do to make it out alive is not get eaten." Gotcha.
Even this is interesting, though, because it places in sharp focus something about Kojima that I've always almost been able to grasp. Namely, that Kojima's flights of fancy are always backed by design that doesn't frighten anybody off. It may be inventive in its own way - I still love the commitment to zero-casualty play in Metal Gear - but it's always based around recognisable stuff. Open-world games for the last Metal Gear, humble Hide & Seek for the first.
To put it another way, Kojima is just weird enough. You get the frisson of being surprised and maybe even challenged, but you also get a boss fight.
In this way, he reminds me even more of Stanley Kubrick than he did before - and he already reminded me of Kubrick quite a lot. Kojima and Kubrick: two auteurs in the public imagination, and two people who always managed to bring in a profit. Like Kojima, Kubrick is always just weird enough. Just weird enough to be interesting, never too weird to be off-putting. This is probably why his films have almost all made money, and why Warner Bros, or whoever it was, was so committed to him, even though, elsewhere, they hardly seemed to be running a Parisian salon. 2001 is the only example we need for this really. That opening with the apes seems structurally audacious, and it is, it is! But once you realise that the protagonist of the film isn't any one person but rather humanity itself, the opening's also a lot more conventional. There at the dawn of human violence, our genus is having a meet cute with God. Will they or won't they? (Spoiler: they will, and they even have a kid together!)
The trick to both Kubrick and Kojima, I reckon, is that they wrap unusual artistic visions around a canny commercial core. Nothing wrong with that in the slightest, but it still makes me a little wistful when genre steps forward to calm the babbling waters of mystery somewhat. Maybe it's just a little sad whenever decisions have to be made - and whenever a project that could be about anything has to decide more precisely what it is going to concern itself with. Focus! At some point, you have to pick your boss battles.
Of course, it's possible that the Man in the Golden Mask is another fake-out. Perhaps behind the second mask is a third mask, so to speak. That's probably what Kubrick would have done.
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