Impressions: Death Stranding

Hideo Kojima is a renowned video game auteur, who has always brought a distinctive and unique approach to video game design, blending innovative gameplay with serious subject matters alongside wacky easter eggs and comic-bookesque villains. The stories in his flagship Metal Gear Solid franchise were always convoluted, confusing, but also deeply touching stories of humans in conflict.

One of the higher-profile controversies in the gaming world over the past 5 years was the breakdown in the relationship between Hideo Kojima and Konami, the company that had published every game he worked on. Konami removed Kojima’s name from all promotional material for Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, pulled the plug on the hotly anticipated Kojima-led relaunch of Silent Hill and refused to allow Kojima to accept an award for his work on Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. It was a very public breakup that felt very uncomfortable for long-time fans of Kojima’s work.

But Hideo Kojima left Konami and set up a new production company working for Sony, and immediately began work on a new IP

That IP was Death Stranding.

Death-Stranding-Box

When it was announced all that could be said about it is that it looked…odd. Norman Reedus, in the nude, stood on a beach with a baby. What on earth is this game going to be about?

The answer when it comes is undeniably unexpected.

It’s a game about a postman.

Norman Reedus, the player character is a postman, and you are going to be spending several hours doing something that has become an overused staple of all MMO RPGs and sandbox games: fetch quests.

Take X from point A to point B.

Death-Stranding-cargo
Inventory management, the best part of any game!

It’s so simple, but at the same time so much more is going on. Because it is not just about fetch quests. Death Stranding tells a story about connections. The world has been torn to pieces by the mysterious event known as the Death Stranding, and everyone is isolated and divided. And you walk across the country to bring people together.

Hideo Kojima has always invited us to experience video games as art, and Death Stranding is a poem.

Of course, not everyone likes poems, and I would not begrudge someone who does not enjoy what Death Stranding has to offer. But if you want something different and are willing to open yourself to it, the game speaks volumes.

The game connects you to players all over the world, not by traditional multiplayer, but rather by seeing structures other players have placed in the world. You can place a ladder or a rope to traverse an impassable cliff, and other players around the world can use it too. Likewise, you will be able to use the buildings and constructs that other players who came before you have utilised. You are independent, but you are connected, and those connections are good. In days when Western politics are increasingly polarised, having the message reinforced that we are human and we are better connected cannot help but bring comfort to those of us who are weary of partisan conflict. It is a message that comes at the right time and the right place.

Traversal is a challenge by itself – you have to ensure your cargo is properly balanced and you are taking easy routes to ensure you do not trip or fall. You need to plan for what is coming ahead of you and take it easy, not overexerting yourself to get to your destination.

Enemies are a real threat, with human MULE’s wanting to steal your cargo and invisible BT’s creepily hunting you, you will need to work out the best ways to creep past or avoid them, or as the case may be, fight them. But combat is not the focus of this game and it is not build to be an action game. If you get attacked you can lose cargo, which can be knocked off your back or destroyed, and if that happens you fail your mission. So you again need to appropriately plan for what enemies and challenges you will face along the way.

Death_Stranding_bt
This is all you can see as the BTs stalk you…

Music is beautiful and sometimes haunting, setting the scene of an isolated but oddly connected experience, and the graphics are beautiful. Sometimes it’s nice to just sit down and enjoy the view, and that is something Death Stranding lets you do.

I am over 11 hours into the game, and still am not certain about everything that is going on. There is an expansive plot and I have no idea who the bad guys are at this point in time, but I am excited to find out. I am enjoying everything I am being asked to experience and can’t wait to see what more Kojima has planned for me.

DS harmonica
Nothing like playing the harmonica in your downtime…

If all you are looking for in a game is fast-paced action then this is probably not the game for you. If however, you are a fan of Hideo Kojima this game is an obvious buy. If you are looking for a different experience in gaming then this game might just be what you are looking for. I have always felt that video games are art, and for me, Death Stranding stands as a beautiful testament to that claim.

The Shining: Watch It Or Read It First?

This article contains minor spoilers for both the book and film adaptation of The Shining.

If you are reading this there is a good chance that you know the drama that comes whenever a film or TV series based on a book comes out. Do you watch it straight away or try to read the source material beforehand?

I am a habitual read the book firstperson, and the worst kind of person to watch a book based film with. Throughout the Marvel Cinematic Universe or Lord of the Rings films I have had to constantly consciously hold my tongue to stop me whispering my insider knowledge to my irritated family I am seeing the film with. Often with the announcement at the end of the film that the book was better’.

But with time I have learned to appreciate and respect the differences between the two story telling mediums. Following these points of personal growth, I did what once I thought was unthinkable, and saw a film before reading the book.

The film in question?

Stanley Kubricks iconic film The Shining.

The Movie Poster (Shining)

The film is so interspersed in our pop culture that many scenes in the film will be familiar to watchers by virtue of parody in other shows such as The Simpsons, which is why I thought it was a prime candidate for this experiment. And with the experiment now complete, I am ready to share the results with you, to help you make the decision on whether or not you want to break with tradition and watch this film before reading the book.

What are you wanting to experience?

Whilst both mediums tell a similar story each has a different focus that fundamentally changes the experience for the reader/viewer. Both book and film tell the story of the haunting experiences of the Torrancefamily whilst they are snowed in at the isolated Overlook Hotel over the course of several months. But how that story is told varies distinctly, and naturally when you have experienced one medium, some of the tension is pulled out of the other by the reader/viewers foreknowledge of the events that are going to unfold. In fact I believe that this foreknowledge is what was likely to be responsible for my issues with the pacing of the book, which I highlighted in my review last week.

The book has a distinct focus on the more supernatural elements of the story, looking into the dark history of the Overlook Hotel, and the obsession that starts to grow within the Torrance family, in relation to this storied history. In this regards it is much clearer what is happening in the book when compared to the film. There is some distinctly odd imagery in the film that seem unexplained and weird for weirdness sake, however it becomes more clear what this imagery is in reference to upon reading the book. Further the titular shiningis explored with much greater detail in the book and is a relevant plot point, whereas it seems to be a vestigial story element in the film, and could be entirely cut without removing anything significant from the story.

The film by contrast focuses on the mental trauma of isolation and the growing madness it causes. Haunting events still occur, but the question in the viewer’s mind is Is this happening or is it all in their heads?As a note of personal preference I find this horror to be more effective, as it feels more grounded in reality. The film continually utilises long cuts to build tension which works perfectly with the more psychological horror theme of the film. In a more artistic note the film uses single-point perspective extensively, clear inspiration for Wes Anderson’s later work. The combination of long cuts and single point perspectives build a sense of the enormity of the Overlook Hotel and the isolation the Torrance family are experiencing.

Both mediums explore themes of toxic masculinity and the damaging effect of patriarchal norms on men and those they love, however the book treats Jack Torrance in a distinctly more sympathetic manner than the film. Jack Nicholsons portrayal of the head of the Torrance house has a continual undertone of an unhinged individual, complicit in his own madness, whereas the book paints the picture of a sincere man struggling to fight his own demons despite his best efforts. Neither can be said to be objectively better than the other as each portrayal is directly linked to the greater thematic focus of each medium.

Does one story completely ruin the other?

The short answer is no. The long answer is that in addition to the different narrative and thematic focus of the book and the film, there are important set-piece differences between the two mediums, which I was surprised to discover. Without spoiling both the film and book completely there are distinct differences between the film and the books climaxes, which are each suited to their own medium and story, and would be less suited to the other should the scenes be switched.

Because of this you will not ruin the film by reading the book first and neither will you ruin the book by watching the film first. It comes down to a point of personal preference which you watch or read first, which hopefully I have helped to advise you on. In either case I would fully recommend experiencing both, as it is rare to find such an effective example of how to tell the same story in two different mediums and how one can effectively adapt a book to a film without sacrificing the artistic integrity of both mediums.

Book Review: The Shining by Stephen King

‘REDRUM’

The Shining Book Cover

When it comes to the horror genre there are few authors as established as Stephen King, with ‘The Shining’ being almost as well known as the author himself.

This is in part, due to Stanley Kubrick’s iconic adaptation of the novel, which launched Jack Nicholson’s career. But this is not the article to discuss the film. Here we are discussing the book.

‘The Shining’ follows the Torrance family as they take over residence of the Overlook Hotel, which closes down business for the icy winter months. Jack, the patriarchal head of the family is hired to be the caretaker of the hotel whilst it is closed, performing necessary maintenance and ensuring the central heating pipes don’t burst from the cold.

But the Overlook has a dark and sordid history, and as the snowdrifts close in, that history starts to come to life.

An Introduction to Horror

I do not have a large exposure to the horror genre when it comes to novels, so this book was something of a toe in the water for me. And I have been left intrigued in the genre, but would not consider myself sold yet.

The book switches from the perspectives of several characters, including each member of the Torrance family. This gifts the reader with interesting insights into the mental states of each character, which is particularly gripping when we are shown things through the eyes of Jack and Danny. But between moments of gripping tension are lulls that seem to go in for a bit too long. Wendy is not written sympathetically, and her self-doubt drags the tension built by the other characters’ perspectives.

There are also moments of awkward, hammy foreshadowing that feel too on the nose to compliment the subtle sensation of growing evil that King is trying to kindle in the reader.

But these hiccups do not undo what King does right. Dark toxic relationships and self-delusion are explored wonderfully, adding a grounding dose of reality to the growing madness that takes place at the Overlook. Whilst the book is undeniably a supernatural horror, the human, non-supernatural elements ratchet the tension, making the supernatural occurrences all the more terrifying.

The crescendo of the story has the feel of a false start, losing tension too quickly but when it does pick up the pace again the climax is tense and disturbing.

Overall I enjoyed reading this book. The Shining is not a masterpiece of writing; scattered with a few too many obscure metaphors, and the pacing issues I have spoken about above, but what it does well it does very well. It is a satisfying read and I am looking forward to exploring more of King’s writings to see if they offer more of the tasty morsels that I found in this book.

‘Show, Don’t Tell’ in From Software Games

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

‘Show, don’t tell’ is a staple of advice given to everyone who tries to tell a story. The purpose behind this advice is to avoid excessive exposition; the temptation of every storyteller who wants to let the reader know everything about the characters they have designed and the world they have built.

In every medium the storyteller must work on the balance between showing and telling. Tell too much and there is nothing to engage with, just facts on a page or read out to a listener, like a historical timeline or scientific analysis of an experiment. But if you don’t tell enough then there is no story, just events happening, without the insight that telling provides.

From Software games take this concept to heart and strip down the story telling experience to some of the barest bones that one will experience in a non-indie game, whist still providing an enormous amount of story to explore.

Many people who play their games feel that the storytelling technique employed by From Software falls into the category of events just happening with no story, and there is no real insight into what events take place between the beginning of the game and the end.

This is a view I strongly disagree with, and in this article I will attempt to illustrate the ways that From Software pushes the boundaries in ‘show, don’t tell’ storytelling through two key avenues; Item Descriptions and Item Placement.

This article follows on from my previous article on Dark Souls’ story telling, and contains spoilers for the Dark Souls Trilogy, Demon Souls, Bloodborne, and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice.

Environmental Storytelling

Environmental storytelling is what it says on the tin. The reader understands what has happened, not because the narrator has told then what has happened, but rather because the environment makes it clear what has happened. This is commonly used in video games when you encounter a pile of dead bodies before a major environmental hazard or enemy. The player understands that these bodies are here because something has killed them.

An example taken from Dark Souls would be as you enter Anor Londo. You can summon Black Iron Tarkus to help fight the Iron Golem. He is heavily armoured and incredibly strong. He can almost beat the boss single-handed. And once the Iron Golem is defeated you travel to Anor Londo, which requires you to traverse across the narrow beams of the roof of a cathedral, whilst being attacked by quick and dextrous enemies. On the floor of this cathedral you can find the body of a warrior in giant black armour. It seems that Tarkus may have been able to handle the great Iron Golem, but lacked the manoeuvrability and dexterity in his armour to traverse the cathedral roof, falling to his death.

Tarkus
So close, and yet so far…

From Software uses the placement of items throughout their games to add to the strength of environmental storytelling. This is subtle, and can easily be missed if you are not paying attention.

For an example of item placement being used in environmental storytelling we can take a look at Bloodborne. In Bloodborne you can encounter a young girl who hides inside a house. She can be convinced by your character to try to make it to the cathedral, but you never encounter her there. It is not clear what happens until you kill the giant pig in the sewers. The pig drops a red ribbon, and only drops this item if the little girl sets out from her home.

A player might talk to the girl and kill this pig without ever really thinking about the items they have picked up. This missable story adds to the depth and darkness that is found in Bloodborne; the little girl never made it to the safe place, due to being caught and eaten by the pig, and she only left her safe place because of you.

Pig
It’s twisted grin just makes it all the worse…

Another example can be found in Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. The Guardian Ape drops the item ‘slender finger’ and can be found with a sword embedded in its neck. By sharing drinks with the Sculptor you learn that he used to train in the Sunken Valley with a friend who used a finger whistle. When you bring the finger to the Sculptor he appears to recognise it saying; “What’s that you have there…Where did you get that finger?…I see… To think it was in the belly of an Ape… Let me see it. I’ll fix it to your prosthetic arm.” 

Finger Whistle
A sad story for so simple a description…

The Sculptor never explicitly states it, but if you take in the information presented with you across these different locations and item descriptions you realise the finger is the same finger that belonged to his friend, and you have confirmed the death of his friend by presenting him with the finger, which was not something he was aware of. It is possible that the sword belonged to the Sculptor’s friend, Kingfisher, and the ape killed her when it regenerated from the deathblow she inflicted upon it. It is never confirmed, but there is an interesting story that is told using the environment, without ever explicitly forcing it upon the player.

This second story adds another element of story telling which ties well with environmental story telling, but is distinct. Micro-exposition.

Micro-exposition

Almost every item in all From Software games provide world lore information that the player would not have access to, but not in the form of a large info dump.

You get little nuggets of information and the responsibility of the players to piece these nuggets together.

For example, in Bloodborne the ‘Great One’s Wisdom‘ item has the following description:

“Fragments of the lost wisdom of the Great Ones, beings that might be described as gods.
Use to gain Insight.

At Byrgenwerth Master Willem had an epiphany: “We are thinking on the basest of planes. What we need, are more eyes.”

great ones wisdom
Madness follows…

This micro-exposition might not make a huge amount of sense in isolation, but for a player who pays attention to the Environmental Storytelling and the details of these micro-expositions, a story begins to take shape. Around Yharnham and the College of Byrgenwerth are lots of unspeakable horrors covered in eyes. From these kinds of micro-expositions one can learn that the Scholars at Byrgenwerth undertook experiments to attempt to gain more eyes to achieve the wisdom of the Great Ones, Lovecraftian higher beings.

Although not directly explained, suddenly the monsters you encounter begin to make sense.

In Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice an item named the Ceremonial Tanto has the following item description:

‘Dagger with a stark white blade and hilt. Converts Vitality into Spirit Emblems.

Resting replenishes its charges.

Originally, this tanto was used in a ritual offering to the dragon, in which an emblem would be cut from one’s own life force and set adrift on the Fountainhead waters.

The blade is inscribed with its true name: “Devoted Soul”.’

tanto
Carve emblems from your body…

This item gives players an insight into the world that they are living in. We do not know why this ritual was performed or what it sought to achieve, but it gives the player a taste of information that encourages interest in the player and adds to the depth of the game more effectively than if the player had been given a larger exposition dump on how the dragon was worshiped.

You get an aperitif of story, that builds the experience without overloading it with large volumes of text that often go unread (*cough, cough, Dragon Age: Inquisition, cough*).

Tying Storytelling Together

The storytelling philosophy of From Software undeniably attempts to embody the concept of ‘Show, don’t tell,’ with varying levels of success. The fact that many gamers struggle to follow the story of earlier titles they have produced shows that this is not something that they have always done as effectively as they can, although the work of fans like VaatiVidya shows that the deep and complex stories are there to be found.

With From Software’s latest release, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, From Software seems to have found a good balance of showing and telling. The story is easy to follow, and we still have a glut of world building that happens only in environmental storytelling and micro-exposition, adding to the depth and enjoyment of the experience.

Seeing how these techniques work for telling stories in video games is something that should be studied by both video game creators and writers of traditional fiction.

The translation to paper of these techniques may be tricky to master but should lead to effective and creative storytelling and world building.

Impressions: Alien Isolation

‘In space no one can hear you scream.’

Alien boxart

Ripley has the motion detector in hand, watching the little blinking light get closer.

Her heart is pounding in fear. She has to get away. There is nothing she can do to stop the monster that hunts her. She can only escape.

It could be an Alien film, or it could be Alien Isolation.

I may be late to the pool party when it comes to Alien Isolation, but it is a game I have jumped into the deep end with.

I pulled out my PS4 camera, headphones and microphone, and braced myself for an immersive horror experience.

I was not disappointed.

The Set Up

In Alien Isolation you take on the role of Amanda Ripley, the daughter of Ellen Ripley who disappeared along with the Nostromo 15 years ago.

Amanda is an engineer in the employ of Weyland-Yutani, who is sent by the company to recover the black box of the Nostromo, which has been recovered by a space station, the Sevastopol, which is owned by rival space faring company Seegson.

Arriving at Sevastopol Ripley discovers the station has fallen into anarchy, androids are killing people under the control of a rogue AI, and there is something much worse hunting her…

You cannot kill the eponymous alien in Alien Isolation, and if it sees you it will kill you.

Instantly.

alien-1.jpg
It’s game over man, it’s game over…

You have to hide, you have to creep, and you have to keep moving.

The Game

I have always loved the lo-fi aesthetic of the Alien films and the game dives deep into this aesthetic. Cathode-ray screens, and bulky industrial grade machinery fix the game firmly in the world of Ridley Scott’s classic film, long before you encounter Geiger’s classic monster.

Motion Tracker
It’s in the vents…

The visuals are complemented by amazing sound design; you hear pipes dripping and the broken space station groaning as it falls apart slowly. Subtle music sets the tone of loneliness as your footsteps clang unnervingly in metal vents as you try to navigate various locked-down areas of Sevastopol. This game is best experienced with headphones.

If you play with a PS4 camera attached you can activate motion detection, which allows you peak around corners by leaning in the real world, adding to the immersion this game provides. The final level of immersion offered comes from the use of the microphone.

In a move that feels particularly tailored to trip up streamers, if you make loud noise into the microphone you can be heard in-game, which draws enemies to your location. Talking to your audience becomes an action that increases the risk to your character. It is a clever manoeuvre that adds to the difficulty for players who like to create streaming or video content out of their gameplay.

The alien is not the only enemy you face on Sevastopol. You face the aforementioned androids that are hardy but slow moving. You can out run them but running draws the alien to your location. It is best to avoid being seen by them if you can. You also face human survivors of the disaster that has struck the Sevastopol. They are faster moving than androids, much louder, and have guns. They can harm you from a distance and will regularly attract the attention of the alien by themselves. If you can hide well, the alien will kill them all for you, but once they are dead you are the next on the menu.

Impressions

This game is a fun and disturbingly immersive dive into Ridley Scott’s Alien universe. You are weak and alone. You creep your way around an atmospheric space station trying to survive, with sweat trickling down the back of your neck in the real world.

If you are a fan of survival horror experiences I would recommend playing this game. If you are a fan of the alien franchise I would recommend playing this game. If you are not a fan of these things I would recommend watching a streamer play it, so you can experience the tension with a degree of separation.

This is a master class of tension building in a video games and one I am excited to complete.

If you like this article, check out more of my video-game content here!