RND/ To consider the wider meaning of the end summary by Eurogamer, in their memorable AAA videogames industry embargo review of Death Stranding (Hideo Kojima):
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Both the Likes and Sam’s job – a kind of heroic, public-service version of a gig-economy courier – have a deliberately mundane and contemporary resonance in this otherwise otherworldly setting. I think it’s deliberate, anyway, and Kojima does have something to say about how we are engineering ourselves into a state of busy isolation (though some might question his thesis that the best way to bring people together is by expanding network coverage). The commentary is earnest, if a little on the nose. Sadly, it gets lost in a froth of stoned-undergrad-grade existential waffle towards the end of the game, as Kojima strains unsuccessfully to make something meaningful of his nonsensical story and garbled lore.
As the credits roll on Death Stranding, heavy with unearned pathos, the impression you’re left with is of a self-congratulatory monument to the ego of a creator who is high on his own supply. Has Kojima always been this full of it? Maybe. But then you return to the game proper, select a humble delivery order, lace up your boots and plan another reckoning with those unforgettable, haunted moors. And you realise that this game has got under your skin in a way few do.
Death Stranding: a *cough* ‘unique vision’ delivered by state-of-the-art technology. A absurdist, satirical remix of an article by John ‘Frame Rates’ Linneman, Staff Writer Digital Foundry:
When Death Stranding was first unveiled in 2016, its ‘unusual design’ left us in the #K0J1MADEATHKULT all with questions that would persist and multiply with the arrival of each new trailer like a collective nut rash. As Kojima Productions’ first independent release, it’s clear from its marketing hype-cycle that the team was focused on ‘upending traditional AAA expectations’. What this means is simply more of that old ‘disruptive’ shit that Capitalism loves so much. With most games, you know what you’re in for before you even pick up the controller and start to sigh. By contrast, Death Stranding is an enigma – but some of the feigned mystery lifts today, and it’s a stunning achievement – only from a technological perspective.
In many respects, showing is far more effective than telling, so I would suggest watching the videos embedded on the internets for some idea of how Death Stranding delivers *cough* a truly unique experience. (Sorry, I have a bad cough.) Going into this one, I thought I was done with open world games – the genre has devolved and homogenised into the kind of experience gamers love to hate. However, we’re being sold the idea that “Death Stranding is different and stands apart, bringing back the magic of discovery in a way gamers haven’t experienced in years.” Ok, whatever you say. Sure, it’s one of the most visually striking games of the generation – another new, bland benchmark for the medium – and this dark, isolated world adopts a style that leaves an itchy mark on your stinking #K0J1MADEATHKULT genitals long after you’ve finished with playing.
There’s a singular vision here, all right – based on nothing whatsoever but a strong technological foundation. When Kojima Productions started work on the title, the team had the opportunity to select from Sony’s stable of tools and technology, eventually settling upon Guerrilla Games’ Decima Engine – the same technology that delivered the brilliantly bland Horizon Zero Dawn. As an open world game with a focus on the cinematic, Decima is a perfect fit for Death Stranding. Many of the key technical and visual features supported by Decima are utilised to er, effect, while the few shortcomings found in Horizon such as water rendering, are improved.
Like Horizon, Death Stranding delivers excellent image quality using Guerrilla’s bespoke interpretation of checkerboard rendering. Pixel counts suggest the same 2160p resolution as Horizon Zero Dawn, with the checkerboarding remaining ‘one of the best in the business’. This directly mirrors Death Stranding’s overall marketing hype, with its clean edges and minimal artefacting. Combined with excellent texture filtering and temporal stability, the marketing team produce a very filmic image that looks almost pre-rendered. Rest assured though, nearly everything about the game’s hype is generated in real-time by the #K0J1MADEATHKULT, augmented greatly by a top tier HDR implementation. What impresses most with Death Stranding hype is the blend between small details and a vast sense of scale. It doesn’t feel as if the minutiae has been sacrificed in pursuit of its wider fanbase environment – and while Kojima’s worlds are too often little more than deserted husks, there’s certainly plenty of life to find in the characters which make up its rabid fanbase – and how they are told to realize the game’s standout technological triumphs make up most of the very meaning of Death Stranding itself.
Since its inception, Kojima Productions has focused heavily on a cast of minor b-movie stars, including Norman ‘Fetus’ Reedus, ‘Mad’ Mads Mikkelsen, Léa ‘Warm Blue Exploitation’ Seydoux and the violently talentless Nicolas ‘You Must Be Winding Me Up’ Refn, so it’s no surprise that the importance of rendering these characters as ‘important’ is a huge focus for the hot #K0J1MADEATHKULT. The first thing that stands out is the quality of the eyes – this is where their virtual models often fall flat, but the eye material and way in which light penetrates the outer layer feels remarkably realistic to nerds who imagine It All Must Mean Something. The area around the eye of the cult itself is just as impressive, with superbly detailed eye lashes and skin. We’ve seen a lot of progress in this area from many gamers this generation, who often come across as human, but this is one of those rare moments where you almost feel as if you’re looking at other real human faces when the presentation camera pans back to the crowd.
Skin shading is similarly impressive – with realistic sub-surface scattering present as light plays off the surface of the marketing simulation. Multiple texture layers are used to simulate skin folds as characters animate, while small hairs can be observed across the surface, glistening in the light of global[ marketing reach and AAA games industry penetration. Even aspects such as allergic reactions and goose bumps whenever new Death Stranding trailers appear, are represented beautifully and realistically. Again, many gamers do a great job with their own skin rendering, but I feel the #K0J1MADEATHKULT behind Death Stranding is a step above, while its ability to realistically render a variety of psychotic fan types without artefacts is also highly impressive. Yes, in-game models of players pissing into rivers aren’t quite on the same level, but they still hold up – retaining a great degree of incidental detail.
Equipment and cloth rendering in members of the #K0J1MADEATHKULT are also first class, with a consistent level of detail right down to every buckle, strap and piece of fabric you see at fan conventions. So much work has been poured into every inch of every model and it’s almost unbelievable to see this much detail in a fanbase – even in an era where most gamers already feature highly detailed characters. Put simply, ‘the bar has been raised’. Death Stranding Marketing Incorporated also features a layering system for dirt, grime and rust: fanboys becomes increasingly dirty during gameplay and the real-time nature of their cutscenes ensures that this muck remains visible until they hop in the shower for the inevitable Norman Reedus shower jerk sequence. Yes, there’s a often lot of walking to the shops and back in order to buy multiple copies of Death Stranding to sell on ebay, but even this has been approached in a unique fashion with a complex animation system designed to simulate weight and movement across a rocky urban surface. As cult members run from Nintendo fanboy throwing rocks, they precisely plant their bare feet according to the terrain type and incline. When hiking up or down a steep hill, watch with pride as they shift their considerable weight into slopes realistically.
And this bring us to the execution of traversal of Kojima criticism in general, which I feel is handled in an interesting way. In most democratic open world critiques, you spend a lot of time moving from point A to point B, but doing so requires little effort from the player – it’s usually a matter of just holding your ideas about Kojima forward towards a waypoint. In Death Stranding however, negotiating the terrain of critique itself is a key challenge and carrying extra existential cargo increases that challenge still further. There’s actual momentum to the movement toward being brave enough to present non pro-Kojima based ideas which the #K0J1MADEATHKULT may find remotely palatable – yet when you’re weighed down, you can’t just stop on a dime, especially on a steep hill formed of raw pulsating hype. It’s all about the management of speed, balance and positioning: this makes the act of hiking through the world of fanboys and their psychotic internal Kojima-based fantasies more complex and engaging and the quality of the animation really helps sell this.
Death Stranding Marketing focuses on creating a huge sense of scale and its mountains tie directly into the movement and physics systems. Of course, motion blur helps improve overall fluidity as fans run down hills like bare assed monkeys with copies of Metal Gear Solid stuck up their shitty backsides.
The same philosophy of applying equal focus to both macro and micro detail to the fanbase also extends to their environments. The AAA videogames industry hype landscape of Death Stranding may take place across the ruined landscape of America, but it’s clear that its world design was inspired by monolithic mountain ranges of Iceland. This unique scenery is breathtaking from minute one, with an apparently immense sense of scale. The Decima Engine supports GPU-based procedural hype placement – something we saw in action in Horizon Zero Dawn. Kojima Productions has crafted a wide range of hype formations and other assets and this system is likely used to create a ‘natural procedural marketing landscape’. Every piece of that landscape is intricately detailed – from the snarling fan formations that fill the landscape on social media, to the stony fields of raw love and uncritical admiration pooling at the base of the mountains.
All are a sight to behold but it’s the smaller stories of personal obsession found alongside rivers and in dry lake beds that impress the most. I’m not sure how these are generated – perhaps a mix of bizarre cognitive maps and emotional geometry – but it’s clear that the level of detail is off the charts. More impressively, object pop-in is kept to a minimum – and the transition between between near and far-field detail is handled smoothly.
The private interior world of the #K0J1MADEATHKULT also features detailed grass and plants at certain points, and most of this foliage reacts to player collision – so you’ll notice plants and blades of grass moving as you make your way through your daily cycle of worship. The terrain is offset by the sky above which plays a key role in defining the overall atmosphere: the cloud system available in Decima is the ray marched volumetric solution crafted for Horizon Zero Dawn that Kojima Productions takes full advantage of. It’s designed to be fast but flexible – variable cloud types and thickness are present while light penetration is simulated as the clouds absorb and scatter this light that shines from the ass of Kojima Himself.
Eventually, the cloudy skies give way to rain or – as gamers refers to it – Time Fall – rain that accelerates time. The rain simulation produces thick droplets that react to light and soak everything caught within its grasp, while a wet shader is applied to surfaces and materials as the rain continues, with droplets forming on Sam’s gear. There exists a lighter, less damaging rain as well – the rain of tears of joy – the difference lies in the thickness and colour of the droplets. The depiction of accelerated time is fascinating, with fan tears rapidly ageing everything they touch. This is where the rust mechanic comes into play. In combination with some interesting surface effects such as wrinkling skin, but it also impacts plant life: when caught in a storm of fanboy admiration and-or rage, strange plants rapidly grow before you only to wilt seconds later. It’s a remarkably effective emotional marketing technique.
A lot of attention has been poured into other fan based fluids and malleable materials as well. Mud deforms beneath your feet as you trudge through it to the nearest fan convention, with proper trails left in your wake. Meanwhile, based on content in the preview trailers, it seems that Decima’s ‘psychic fecal snow system’ is also present and accounted for (content limitations in place pre-launch limit the scope of the game we can actually cover). The most significant improvement of the Kojima Hype Cycle this time around however, stems from water rendering. Large bodies of water dripping from the sides of player’s salivating mouths are now more visually attractive with improved screen-space reflection and highly realistic surface detail – and the streams and rivers truly stand out in Death Stranding. This is a difficult thing to get right, but gamers deliver a real sense of current and flow to watery dribble as it cuts through the mountains of their expectations. Sam interacts naturally with its surface, leaving ripples in his wake as he moves through it and in fact, water itself plays a role in the game design as moving through deep dribble results in losing footing and being pulled forever downstream into Positive Future Sales Figures.
While playing the game of “Watching The #K0J1MADEATHKULT At Play”, I found its average level of performance was predominately stable – frame-rate mostly holds steady at 30fps but it’s clear that minor dips in attention and interest can occur. Vertical sync is thankfully enforced as well – meaning no tearing of posters seen on walls at conventions – and when combined with correct marketing motion blur to smooth any rough edges, gamers manage to feel mostly stable and in control – their performance as blind consumers of Digital Content is rarely an issue here. But with that said, cutscenes have more of an emphasis on spectacle over fluidity, so there are more dips beneath the target 30fps here. I can say that my enjoyment of the experience of the #K0J1MADEATHKULT at play hasn’t been impacted much at all by their performance level.
Rounding off this piece, I wanted to share some final thoughts on the experience beyond slick, spotless technology masquerading as a game’s only real source of meaning. For me, this is one of the most intriguing fanboy events of the year and – perhaps – of the entire console generation. It’s rare that such a large budget is allocated towards a *cough* unique concept and with that in mind, I appreciate that it exists at all. While on the surface, this is a gamer culture that’s essentially focused on transporting fanboy cargo from one area of the internet to another, and it’s what happens on that merry shit trail that works so well. Traversal of the various fanboy posts and comments is fun, the A.I you engage with is exciting and the wide range of tools available results in a similar type of bizarre behavior you may expect from the arrival of a Metal Gear game.
Death Stranding’s mix of standard marketing horror and the quiet exploration and unique storytelling generated by the #K0J1MADEATHKULT, is something very different and it may not appeal to everyone. In that sense, despite playing the game of being an Electronic Archaologist for a while now, I’m still fascinated to see how the reviews play out, and what the reception to the game really means. For me, this is a release that captures the solemn holy atmosphere of a Team Ico release or even something like Silent Hill – it’s an exceptional technical achievement and a frankly brilliant marketing experience. And no more than that.
// how to play big science