Initially revealed at E3 back in 2016, the early promotional campaigns for Death Stranding may not have conveyed a clear message of what the game was actually about, but did an undeniably good job at creating intrigue. With each subsequent teaser and trailer only adding to that, it soon became obvious that the game would be nothing if not enigmatic.
Pre-release opinions certainly differed; some considering that with backing from Sony and the use of Guerrilla Games' Decima Engine – as deployed so effectively in Horizon Zero Dawn – Death Stranding had the potential to be a creative masterpiece with the underlying technology to match, while the more cynical views spoke of something more unfathomable and self-indulgent. 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."
- AUGURIES OF INNOCENCE // WILLIAM BLAKE -
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 is arguably fulfilled to an even greater extent through the digital art of virtual photography.
In a purely artistic sense, the use of photo mode absolutely encapsulates the vision of Blake's 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 probably had a clear idea of how they expect everyone to play their game all along, but in my opinion, virtual photography is in fact the route which leads to the deepest connections to its underlying strands.
Freeze time and stretch out every opportunity...
Indeed, the addition of a fully featured photo mode to the game in 2020 proved to be a great success, with many people finding inspiration in the game's unique themes, and the inbound Director's Cut will likely continue that momentum. Especially so after Hideo Kojima himself recently took to Twitter to give his thoughts on why virtual photography is a true form of art; his games and this digital art just seem like a perfect match...
It is of course, no secret that Kojima games have a reputation for being visionary, just look at the dissemination of trivial information and half-truths by a digital society in Metal Gear Solid 2 for example. Perhaps then it is no surprise that Death Stranding has managed to be inspiring to other artists, but it has to be said that the game does include 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. In 2020 and beyond, Death Stranding is perhaps more relevant than could have ever been expected.
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. With obvious cues from 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. Through highly nuanced mechanics in the game, 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 is 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; exceptionally detailed character models and sci-fi gear; 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.
- THE POINT // DEATH STRANDING -
There was a point when I did wonder if we would ever see a photo mode in Death Stranding. Whether its all-star cast fully rendered in crucially recognisable detail, or the 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. Thankfully those were concerns that proved to be unfounded and, whatever the reason that they were initially separated, Death Stranding and virtual photography are now bound to one another for ever more.