Title: Death Stranding | Developer: Kojima Productions | Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment, 505 Games | Initial Release: 8th November 2019
Initially revealed at E3 back in 2016, Death Stranding marked a new beginning for creator Hideo Kojima, and is the first game to come from the reformed development studio, Kojima Productions. Far from conveying a clear message of what the game was actually about, the early promotional campaigns left many confused but did an undeniably good job at creating intrigue and, with each subsequent teaser and trailer, it became obvious that this game would be nothing if not enigmatic.
With backing from Sony Interactive Entertainment and built on Guerrilla Games' Decima Engine, as used so effectively in Horizon Zero Dawn, some began to consider the potential for Death Stranding to be a creative masterpiece with the underlying technology to match, while others had the more cynical expectation of an unfathomable mess of self-indulgence. In truth, the final product sits somewhere in the middle with definite elements of both and remains a divisive game; though it could be said that the best creative pieces often are...?
"To see a world in a grain of sand, and a heaven in a wild flower. Hold infinity in the palm of your hand, and eternity in an hour."
These words, the opening lines of a William Blake poem, were the very first thing shown in the 2016 reveal and signalled Kojima's intent right from the outset. Whatever the game would actually be about, clearly this was going to be a project of intrigue and paradox but also one that would demand almost unending commitment from its audience and attention to even the smallest detail. While this concept is certainly borne out in the things the game asks of you while playing, it was surprising that its quest for multi-level engagement chose to completely forgo any form of virtual photography features. All the more so, considering how it's Decima Engine sibling became one of the main catalysts for the growing interest in console photo modes.
freeze time and stretch out every opportunity
In a purely artistic sense, virtual photography absolutely encapsulates the vision of those opening words; the ability to literally freeze time and stretch out every opportunity; to take in each tiny detail, exploring the world and its contents on a scale way beyond anything that the game alone would otherwise allow. Kojima Productions may have a clear idea of how they expect everyone to play their game but it could turn out that virtual photography is in fact the route which will lead to the deepest connection to its underlying strands.
The good news then is that, along with this summer's release of a PC version of the game, the previously "missing in action" photo mode has now been revealed. Confirmed by Kojima himself to be also coming to PS4 in a not-too-distant update, the fully featured suite will bring with it some great opportunities for virtual photographers on PC and console alike, and it could hardly come at a better time.
Kojima games have something of a reputation for being visionary, just look at Metal Gear Solid 2's talk of the use of trivial information and half-truths by a digital society, and Death Stranding certainly follows suit with some remarkable social commentary. Should the uneasily pervasive Chiral Network and certain people's obsession with "likes" not quite register with you, then the widespread social isolation of people trying to avoid an unseen threat with a weighty reliance on non-contact deliveries and remote communication surely will. While its place as a creative masterpiece remains up for debate, in 2020, as we remain deep in the COVID-19 pandemic, this game is perhaps more relevant now than it ever will be again.
the most connected I have been to a virtual landscape, furthering a desire to photograph it at every level
Philosophy aside though, there is something unavoidably alluring about the empty yet stunningly realistic open world landscapes in Death Stranding. Obviously inspired by the barren volcanic terrain of Iceland, and produced in meticulous detail with the help of Decima's GPU-based procedural object placement, this is more than just a space to play in. With highly nuanced mechanics, you pay great attention to the world beneath your feet in a very natural way, thoughtfully choosing a path rather than simply charging directly towards the next waypoint. This may be the most connected I have been to a virtual landscape, furthering a desire to photograph it at every level from the colossal mountains and monolithic rocks to the lichen growing on them.
Add to this things like a particularly well implemented weather system, complete with time-altering effects; the heavy use of symbolism in everything from babies and hands to bridges and ropes; even the way the soundtrack seamlessly surges to fill the emptiest moments, and there is a lot to stir your creativity. Character models too are exceptionally detailed with eyes that are believable enough to draw you in, though perhaps this is a clue as to why there was no photo mode in the game originally.
With its all-star cast fully rendered in 3D with impeccable, and crucially, recognisable detail, Death Stranding may have found itself in a more difficult position than most other titles. Rather than the relatively straightforward intellectual property of original characters, here we have household names like Norman Reedus, Léa Seydoux, Mads Mikkelsen and Lindsay Wagner taking centre stage, even the hologrammatic NPC's are laden with cameo appearances. This, along with a moderate helping of product placement, could have conceivably added image rights and third party brand complications to the already grey area surrounding the potential use of virtual photographs...
Or maybe I'm trying to read too much into it and photo mode was simply overlooked during development, but with someone as forward thinking as Hideo Kojima involved, I'm not sure I want to believe that. Whatever the reason that they were initially separated, Death Stranding and virtual photography are soon to become bound to one another and I cannot wait to turn an hour into eternity.
Check back here for a first look at the features and of course, a full photo mode review once it lands.