The following essay contains massive, world-ending spoilers for Death Stranding.
“I’m not a big gamer,” the Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen said in a recent interview with GQ. “The last thing I did was Pac-Man, but that’s a few years ago.” Mikkelsen has appeared in movies like Casino Royale, Doctor Strange, and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and played Dr. Hannibal Lecter in the NBC series Hannibal. To his own amazement, his latest star turn comes in a leading role in Death Stranding, an open-world adventure video game starring several prominent actors in motion-capture performances. It’s the latest release from Hideo Kojima, the Japanese designer who created the Metal Gear Solid series. “My son is a big gamer, and when he heard I was having a meeting with Hideo, he was like, Daaaaaaaad! It was like the coolest thing he’d ever heard,” Mikkelsen said. “Never mind all the films that I’ve done that I thought he’d find cool. This was the coolest thing.”
For three years before the game’s release in November, Kojima hyped Death Stranding on the strength of the tearful performances from the high-profile actors he cast. Kojima seemed to be making a movie rather than a video game. The earliest previews revealed clips from cinematic cutscenes: Norman Reedus cradles a baby while sobbing on a beach of gray sand, Mikkelsen writhes in a black viscous substance, Guillermo del Toro scurries through sewers in a city under siege. But the gameplay remained a mystery, so video game critics wondered whether Death Stranding would ever exist as anything more than a series of cutscenes made for a strange, unfulfilled project. These fears recalled the cancellation of Kojima’s cult-classic horror game Silent Hills by his publisher, Konami, in 2015, despite the 2014 release of a demo for the game titled P.T. (“playable teaser”), which Kojima codirected with del Toro, and which also featured Reedus. Kojima relaunched his studio independently after leaving Konami in 2015 and reunited with del Toro and Reedus on Death Stranding.
The previews for Death Stranding encapsulated Kojima’s obsession with Hollywood and filmmaking. “In the future,” Kojima told the BBC in a documentary about Death Stranding, “Kojima Productions will also start making films.” It’s a loaded promise for video game critics and enthusiasts to parse: For the past couple of decades, video games have aspired toward the cinematic pretenses of filmmaking, while Hollywood has, in contrast, adopted video games into films with a cluelessness verging on contempt. Kojima isn’t the first video game director to cast live-action stars from movies and TV shows as leading characters, nor is he the only video game director aspiring to cinematic excellence. But these aren’t movies with button prompts. Kojima’s games are, primarily, games, as renowned for their interactive systems as they are for their clever direction. Kojima uses cinematic elements to create an engrossing world for his characters to inhabit, but he never mistakes his audience: His games are intended for a player, not a viewer. Kojima doesn’t want to create cinema so much as he wants to integrate art critically across many mediums: movies, TV shows, novels, history, drama, comedy, and video games all in conversation together.
In Death Stranding, Reedus plays the protagonist, Sam Porter Bridges, a deliveryman who hauls precious cargo—including a baby—across the United States, which has seen its population decimated and its government toppled by an ongoing paranormal calamity known as the Death Stranding. Sam works for a secretive organization founded by his mother, Bridget Strand, who dispatches Sam on a westward journey with the baby, known in the game as BB, to recruit survivors among the crumbling, disassociated territories and reunify them as a proud nation: “To bring people together,” as the game’s characters say, and “to make America whole again.” But the continent is plagued by dreadful apparitions, known as BTs (“beached things”), which prey upon human survivors as humanity dwindles on the brink of extinction. Death Stranding requires the player to guide Sam as he hikes, climbs, crouches, flees, and stalks through 3,000 miles of ruinous American wasteland. Sam uses guns and explosives to fight the BTs, but the game otherwise discourages the player from using lethal force to subdue living opponents, such as the bandits Sam encounters during his travels. Many confrontations are de-escalated by running away. In this way, Kojima distinguishes Sam from his most famous protagonist, Solid Snake, the stealthy, deadly super soldier from the Metal Gear Solid games.
Mikkelsen plays Clifford Unger, a.k.a. Combat Veteran, a vengeful U.S. Army captain—and an apparition—who stalks Sam. Unger is the archetypal Kojima villain: a brooding mercenary with supernatural powers and, for good measure, an assault rifle. He believes that BB is his long-lost child who has been abducted by Sam. In the game, the player is treated to flashbacks of Unger pacing in a hospital room, soothing his premature baby and his comatose wife, both of whom had been detained by a secretive organization called Bridges—led by Sam’s mother—and subjected to paranormal experimentation. Ultimately, Unger attempts to flee the hospital with his child only to be shot and killed by security officers. From beyond the grave, Unger struggles to reclaim his baby from Bridges. He transports Sam and BB to a series of 20th-century military theaters: Western Front trenches in World War I, a bombarded city in World War II, a chaotic jungle in the Vietnam War. In these battlefields, Unger unleashes his soldiers against Sam, and so the player must hunt and kill Unger repeatedly while discovering his tragic motives.
Though the player experiences the game through Sam’s perspective, Unger best embodies how Death Stranding alternates between gameplay and cinema. Sam, the humble courier, is rugged and charming, but understated; Unger is the far more dramatic character, and Mikkelsen delivers the game’s most heightened performance. Unger and his ghost soldiers enter each battlefield through choreographed introductions, which resemble military drills as much as they resemble dance routines. Unger doesn’t speak during these sequences, though he certainly performs. He smirks, he cries ink-black tears, he summons a cigarette from thin air, and summons his rifle—he’s spoiling for a fight to recover BB from Bridges. “I’m not the villain in this game,” Mikkelsen told GQ. “I always try to make my villains heroes, to try to see the world from his perspective. That’s important, that you justify him somehow, or at least humanize him to the degree that you can recognize what his motives are.”
In his cutscenes, Mikkelsen hammers home the more solitary beats in Unger’s story. But Mikkelsen must also sell Unger’s role as a practical opponent for Sam. Unger is a classic video game boss, with hit points, damage output, and programmed patterns for attack and defense. Sam’s three boss fights with Unger stress-test the game’s combat system, designed to discourage lethal force against most of the human opponents, though Unger and his ghost soldiers sometimes give the player no choice. In the Western Front trenches, Sam must repeatedly confront Unger in close quarters with narrow corridors and stacked cargo obstructing the player’s view. In the World War II battlefield, Unger and his ghost soldiers spread across the town square, taking potshots at Sam from windows and arches as the player hunts Unger. In Vietnam, Unger dispatches his ghost soldiers with startling sophistication: The ghost soldiers lay booby traps in the tall grass and overwhelm Sam from all sides. Unger beckons: “We need reinforcements!” “Tango, tango!” “Give me back my BB!” Here, Mikkelsen elevates a dramatic convention common in shooters: a character shouting on loop in order to invigorate the player in combat. Sam’s three confrontations with Unger hint toward a deeper connection between the two men. After conquering his mysterious opponent, Sam stands over Unger, who grabs at BB, who is mounted on Sam’s chest, bringing the two men into a strange, combative embrace as Unger’s dreamscape collapses once and again.
Through the sheer force of his performance, Mikkelsen flattens this game’s convoluted cosmology into a straightforward, heart-wrenching drama about parents, children, life, death, regrets, and rebirth. Mikkelsen collapses the distance between the interactive mode of gameplay and the cinematic mode of a character contributing to an expansive and complicated world. Death Stranding does, however, conclude with about 90 minutes in cutscenes, with minimal player input, to resolve all of the drama about Sam, Unger, BB, and Bridges. By the finale, Unger migrates from the story’s margins to its big, interactive heart. He begins as a mysterious father presented, at a distance, through flashbacks, and is revealed to be a martyr whose paternal convictions hold together this unwieldy open-world melodrama about war, patriotism, ghosts, the gig economy, social media, human connection, and extinction.
The final hours of Death Stranding got me wondering how an awards ceremony or a film festival might account for performances in a PlayStation 4 release. The Game Awards, scheduled for December 12, nominated Reedus and Mikkelsen for Best Performance, and they’ve also nominated Death Stranding for Game of the Year, though not without controversy since Kojima cast his friend Geoff Keighley—the host and producer of the Game Awards—as a minor character in the game. Keighley denies any conflict of interest. He says he had no say in the game’s nominations. Death Stranding has provoked a similar controversy in Japan, where critics noted a cameo appearance from Hirokazu Hamamura, an executive at Enterbrain, which owns the publisher for the popular video game magazine, Famitsu, which Hamamura used to edit. Famitsu gave Death Stranding a perfect score in its review. Keighly’s and Hamamura’s roles as bit players recall earlier concerns about Kojima developing the game as a pretext for stunt casting and social climbing. Kojima has, arguably, gone Hollywood to a fault. But he’s also made a brilliant game about characters and territories plagued by separation. I won’t defend the choices to include Keighly and Hamamura, but ultimately, the performances by Mikkelsen and Reedus vaporize so many of these concerns. I can understand why Kojima recruits such an odd, broad celebrity coalition into his expansionist project. It’s possible he casts Keighley for the same reason he casts Mikkelsen. In the critical threshold between creative modes, Kojima brings people together.