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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

We are living in Hideo Kojima’s dystopian nightmare. Can he save us?

(Alessandro Pautasso for The Washington Post)

“The untested truths spun by different interests continue to churn and accumulate in the sandbox of political correctness and value systems. Everyone withdraws into their own small gated community, afraid of a larger forum. They stay inside their little ponds, leaking whatever ‘truth’ suits them into the growing cesspool of society at large. The different cardinal truths neither clash nor mesh. No one is invalidated, but nobody is right.”

NEW YORK ⁠ — Just two months after the Sept. 11 attacks, Hideo Kojima published these words in what was the most highly anticipated video game of the early new millennium, Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty.

The game’s carefully crafted and exciting trailers promised an intense espionage experience. What Kojima didn’t say was that he also wrote a trippy cautionary tale about how information on the Internet can travel quickly and unfiltered, how people will retreat into political and social echo chambers, and that this digital disarray will only confuse future generations and historians.

But in a world that was yet to create MySpace — let alone Facebook and Twitter — Kojima’s fears of information warfare were dismissed as “Matrix”-inspired gibberish. After all, the game’s main theme was “meme,” ideas and customs that spread person to person. At the time, it was a term that didn’t yet have the valence or wide use it enjoys today. The first Metal Gear Solid’s theme was about struggling with your genetic identity. Metal Gear Solid 2 was about everything else passed on, memetics, cultural traits and social norms, and how social evolution is threatened by junk data crowding the Internet’s discourse. Crowding caused by what the game derisively called a “sea of garbage you people produce.”

Fast forward to today: Kojima’s dystopian future has become our current reality.

It’s a reality where studies show Americans even struggle to find common understanding around what caused the Civil War. Social media, a parallel digital society, has a reputation for being self-absorbed and mean. Some of those who built that space, like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, fear the “erosion of truth,” but won’t take action against lies and manipulated facts spread on their platform. Governments and media constantly call into question the actuality of our lived experiences.

Kojima teased that Death Stranding is a surrealist tale about “connection,” and that theme is pummeled into you over the course of the game. You play as America’s last delivery man, a loner and misanthrope named Sam Porter Bridges (Norman Reedus), who travels from coast to apocalyptic coast on a quest to “reconnect America” by bringing it back online.

It is Kevin Costner’s “The Postman” as directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. It is a game about humanity’s path toward collective isolation. It is, as Kojima told the BBC, a reaction to “Trump’s wall and Brexit.

The game is heavy with themes of chiral energy, a reference to the asymmetry of molecules. Are humans projecting imperfect mirror images of our humanity online? What do we stand to lose in the process? Many of the game’s characters wear masks, a visual cue that ties into the game’s themes.

‘Death Stranding’ game review: A stunning achievement that requires effort to truly appreciate

The question posed by The Post to Kojima during an interview in New York: Are we creating connections through separate online personas with masks, rather than our actualized selves?

Kojima smiled, and said, “Yes. Exactly.”

“It was a metaphor of what you just said,” Kojima said through a interpreter, admitting that his predictions 20 years ago were made when the Internet was still in its early stages.

“Today we’re so close together, 24 hours a day on social media real time,” Kojima said. “Everyone is saying what they want, saying bad things to each other with a mask on their faces.”

Jar babies, shadow ghosts and endless crying. What does it all mean? We spoke to video game auteur Hideo Kojima to explain the crazy story of Death Stranding. (Video: Jhaan Elker/The Washington Post)

Kojima has not been subtle that the game is a metaphor for modern society. In fact, a character late in the game says to Sam in no uncertain terms, “I brought you a metaphor.”

“The original meaning of communication is to care and feel for others, but technology has carried us in a wrong way,” Kojima said. “Technology would only help us become enriched in our lives, but it’s the way we use technology. I’m not saying social media is a mistake. What I fear most is that people will be so afraid of using social media or playing a game.”

When writing Death Stranding, he was thinking of people, particularly the young, too afraid to engage online, worried about “headshots” of any kind, whether it’s in a first-person shooter game, or unsolicited toxic comments and discussions.

Death Stranding is a game that heavily discourages violence. Many players will not even get a gun until they’ve played about 10 hours of the story, a striking contrast to the modern war game world where guns are glued to your hands.

In 1987, Kojima’s previous employer, Konami, wanted a war game. In creating Metal Gear, Kojima created the so-called stealth genre of games, and designed the series to reward pacifism, a groundbreaking concept at the time. Death Stranding is the next step in encouraging different behavior through interactive design and storytelling.

The only online interactions possible in the game include leaving helpful tools like ladders and ropes for other players to use, making encouraging comments like “Keep on keeping on," and sharing resources to build and repair infrastructure like roads and bridges, all in the name of connecting a disparate nation.

There appears to be no mechanism for players to troll each other. The primary way to communicate with another player is smashing a “like” button, complete with a thumbs-up icon. As in real life, the “likes” have no intrinsic value. Receiving a like in Death Stranding, then, is its own reward.

“People should know that being connected online is not a bad thing, it just needs some tweaks,” Kojima said. “I just want them to think about how we could use this technology to be better and think about it.”

Kojima himself is very much an avid social media user. His Twitter presence is famous for wholesome messages of positivity and creativity, alongside selfies with celebrities and creators he admire, including Robert De Niro, Star Wars director J.J. Abrams, and director Guillermo del Toro, who also appears in Death Stranding.

Kojima seems fascinated with the thumbs-up iconography of the like button, and compares it to two of mankind’s oldest tools, the stick and the rope.

“The stick to keep the bad away, the rope used to bring the good toward us," wrote playwright and inventor Kobe Abe in the short story “Nawa." It is a line that also opens Death Stranding.

Kojima hopes players will ruminate not just on the power of humanity’s tools, but the creativity that comes from our very fingers.

“Humans first started as a four-legged animal, as an ape,” Kojima said. “And then we stood on our two feet. And that freed up our hands. In the process of becoming human, we started to create something with our hands.”

Hands, Kojima said, can be outstretched to gather, to reach for something, or to shake that of another person to form a bond.

“But also you can make a fist, and this represents the stick,” Kojima said. “I just thought that there is no game that uses the rope concept, and there are so many games using the stick concept. Even the hand can represent a like."

Kojima’s works have a well-deserved reputation for being a bit impenetrable. Heavily influenced by European art-house cinema and Japanese animation, his work, including Death Stranding, lays it on thick with fictional terms and concepts, more so than most works of science fiction and fantasy. The game’s writing is filled with talk of Bridge Babies and Beached Things (both of which we don’t have space to discuss).

I asked him why he isn’t more straightforward with his messages and storytelling.

“Well, it’s entertainment to begin with,” Kojima said smiling. “I want them to feel something in the game. And when they go back to the real world, I want them to be talking to another player that played my game. That’s another connection you can make as well.”

Suddenly, Kojima’s past cryptic comments about how his fans were already playing the game, well before it’s Nov. 8 public release, make sense. The rampant Internet theorizing and obsessing over each trailer’s meanings connected his fans, as well as fans of the game’s other creatives, including Reedus, Mads Mikkelsen and Lindsay Wagner.

‘Is Death Stranding a real video game?’ Answering the biggest questions Kojima fans are asking

Kojima has always been interested in demolishing the Fourth Wall. The first Metal Gear Solid game famously asked players to read the back of the CD case, or plug their controller to another slot, to proceed with the story.

Death Stranding continues this tradition, constantly acknowledging its existence as a video game, and the player’s existence in the room as characters like Reedus wink and stare into you. Kojima is not interested in the “frames” of media, the squares and rectangles that cordon off stories, whether it’s a picture frame, a theater screen or our mobile phones.

Even his Game Boy Advance game, Boktai, was solar powered, forcing players to go outside in the sun.

Kojima’s hope is that the game’s message lasts long after the credits roll, particularly for the lonely people in the world. It’s why Sam is a loner, afraid of another human’s touch and detached from his family and his past.

The game also delays gratification. The ladder you dropped hours ago may never receive a like. But when it does, it happens when you least expect it. This is Kojima’s way of reminding people to treasure these connections for their own sake, rather than wait for the next post or like. And as Sam re-connects with his past, Kojima hopes players can also rekindle and reconnect with their real life memories with past loved ones.

“It’s a push in the back, saying ‘I can live another day,’ thinking that these people are still existing within you," Kojima said.

Death Stranding is finally released to the public, no longer a concept. It will be a video game played and debated. But how will its message be received? Is it more gibberish? Is it a constructive solution to our communication breakdown?

In September, Keanu Reeves visited Kojima Productions, yet another celebrity visit that ended with a signature on the studio wall. But it was Reeves’s message that alarmed people.

Save us Hideo!” Reeves wrote. It was a cry familiar to many who have followed Kojima’s work. It’s a lot to ask of one man, of one video game. How can we be saved?

Kojima’s solution is as simple as it is obvious. The answer is in our hands.

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