Technique & Themes: Exploring the Cinematic Elements of 'Death Stranding'

Hideo Kojima’s cinematic eye has been critical to his work. Metal Gear Solid not only redefined what developers could do with their games, but also elevated the emotional potential that games could deliver. 

That cinematic quality has grown with each new game of Kojima’s – it comes as no surprise then that Death Stranding is his most sophisticated work to date. 

In my hours playing Death Stranding, I couldn’t help but notice the intricacies that made up the gameplay. The hardcore Kojima fans of the world know the guy loves movies and how much they’ve influenced his games. With this in mind, I thought it would be fun to speak to the cinematic elements of Death Stranding, referencing several film directors and their works. Please keep in mind that these points are of my own opinion and are only meant to provoke a fun dialogue.

In other reviews I’ve read regarding Death Stranding, there has been a couple of mentions of the late Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky. Tarkovsky, known for incredible films like Ivan’s Childhood and Solaris, was known for his drawn out takes; the camera work in his films would linger on a subject, creating a meditative focus. I agree that the spirit of Tarkovsky’s work is felt throughout Death Stranding. The way the camera tracks Sam’s journey, forcing the player to be present in his every laborious movement, feels like something Tarkovsky would setup to keep his audience engaged. 

Death Stranding’s meditative nature also feels reminiscent to that of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. The world of Death Stranding exudes emotion and meaning throughout its land. Along with the game’s excellent soundtrack and auditory serenity, Death Stranding’s still moments give off an elegant balance of calm and unease. Nolan’s work in Interstellar offers an emotional backdrop for the characters, similar to how the player may feel when taking in the barren America before Sam. 

When it comes to the stealth sections and BTs encounters, I actually think of Stanley Kubrick. In these scenarios, Kojima shifts to a tight focus on Sam. These moments are full of tension and anxiety, drawing parallels to Kubrick’s work. In particular, I am reminded of The Shining; many of the film’s shots are tight, claustrophobic, and exhibit careful plotting. Kubrick was relentless in his delivery of detail, and Kojima demonstrates the same level of care. With BB detecting the nearby BTs, the player has to tread carefully among the otherworldly beings.

Making matters more difficult, the player’s BT encounter may take place on a mountainside that is full of rocky terrain. In these cases, movement becomes even more anxiety-provoking. The manner in which Kojima plots out paths for his players, putting them through emotional, even physical stress, would make Kubrick proud.

Like some of his previous games, Death Stranding involves moments of fourth wall breaks. When looking at how Death Stranding delivers its winks and nods to the audience, I think of Spike Jonze’s use of fourth wall breaks. Both his films Being John Malkovich and Adaptation play out to a tongue-in-cheek cleverness. Kojima might be a little more forward, but his level of self-awareness is similar to Jonze. Kojima is in on all the jokes with the player. He acknowledges the goofiness of certain interactions, understanding that players will be both caught off guard and engaged.

On a non-technical note, there are many works of science fiction that one could point to regarding Death Stranding’s themes. Having completed the game, there are two films that come to mind I feel share thematic similarities – Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men and Alex Garland’s Annihilation.

Children of Men takes place in a world facing extinction. With children no longer being born and growing tensions, people are left in a state of despair. One thing leads to another when the film’s protagonist discovers a woman who is pregnant; from there, he accompanies her on a journey to protect and deliver her to safety. While the two post-apocalyptic worlds may look different at face value, I would argue that Death Stranding emits a similar somber tone. After the cataclysmic destruction brought on by the Death Stranding event, America is left torn apart. People struggle for resources, communities are isolated. Throughout the protagonist’s journey in Children of Men, he eventually comes to discover hope and the possibility of a future; this reminds me of Sam, who overtime begins to see the possibility of people coming together and making America whole again.

In Annihilation, our protagonist joins a group who investigates a supernatural presence called “the Shimmer”. While the film takes place on Earth, the environment within the Shimmer is warped; the DNA of various life forms mix together, creating unique hybrids of life. This concept of a supernatural environment feels similar to that of the different environmental elements that make up Death Stranding (i.e. BTs, void outs, and Timefall). However, there is another idea that makes for a strong comparison between the two stories – Annihilation’s exploration of violence and relationships.

The film ponders such notions as how people react to something unknown; how we process our fight or flight instincts; how a limited understanding of the world may hold us back from a greater sense of compassion.

Throughout Death Stranding, many of the characters reflect upon their interactions with others. Both Death Stranding and Annihilation involve themes surrounding “relationships;” whereas the former is about creating bonds, the latter is more of an effort to examine how we conduct ourselves. While both stories look at relationships in different manners, the craft put into these explorations is well done and intriguing. Just like Annihilation utilizes surreal science fiction to present a thought-provoking dialogue, Death Stranding uses its fantastical components to convey a rich and emotional story.

While opinions may vary, there is no denying that Death Stranding is a fascinating experience. With no restraints on his creativity, Kojima is able to present a vision that is his to the core. His passion for cinema is felt and seen throughout Death Stranding. From the technical aspects to the narrative themes, Kojima has made an experience that is immersive and emotional, all while expanding upon the medium of video games.

What do you think of the filmmaking points that I picked up on and discuss in this article? Are there are other cinematic qualities you noticed? How do you feel Death Stranding reflects Kojima’s growth as an artist?

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