Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Is Death Stranding's surreality just a smokescreen?

It's been two or three days since famed japanese game designer Hideo Kojima, from the PSX 2017 stage, treated the world with a new in-engine trailer for Death Stranding. As it's usual for Kojima's creations, Death Stranding has been at the core of many discussions about a fairly basic point: what is this game all about? Aside from a generic allocation in the third person open world action genre, people only have a handful of elements to make sense of the plot, the characters, the narrative universe, or even how it is going to be played.

Kojima Productions and Sony, which is supporting the game's development from several angles (base technology, development and marketing budget), have been working towards an advertising style based on drip-feeding the audience with information, but keeping the whole thing shrouded in mystery and surreality. Chances are you've seen something about Death Stranding already, but here's the third, puzzling outing from the game:

Now, judging from what can be read on forums, message boards and commenting platforms all around the Web, people kinda expected this new outlook to shine a little more light on the product - you know, actual details about its nature as a commercial thing. Sony itself seems aware of this, as lead PS4 architect Mark Cerny felt the urge to make clear how "it all makes sense 4 to 5 hours into the game", but it is safe to say that not everybody is comfortable with this marketing tactics. Not all players are into decoding clues or having to research their way into something that's supposed to entertain them in exchange for money; if there's a problem, though, it's two-way.

On one hand, we have a marketing approach that on the surface, does the exact opposite of what anyone would do in the intent of selling a product, especially a videogame. In theory, trailers and such should instruct the player about the game's setting, establish the hero, show his line of action and maybe hint at his motives a little bit. Once the interest of the viewer is picked, it is possible to expand the scope of the advertising narrative by gradually disclosing further details. We might call it an inductive process that works well in most cases, and for the vast majority of the potential customers. In the case of Death Stranding, the advertising narrative started way before it was first shown to the world.

Death Stranding is one of
those rare cases where
the history of the product
entwines tightly with its
author's real life experiences

It's one of those rare cases in game development where the history of the product entwines tightly and publicly with its author's real life experiences: after the sad goodbye to Konami, Hideo Kojima had to reconnect with the world, the audience and to some extent, the industry. He became strongly involved in social networks, so that anyone could have insights on his personality, his lifestyle and gaming related ambitions . He went on a personal, yet very public "journey to the West" in search of the technology that would provide the backbone of his new project, something that involved strands - ties, relationships, cataclismic endings and new beginnings. It's hard not to see the real life themes that goes into the genesis of Death Stranding and the way it is presented.

And it's natural to see a much more open mental disposition towards this style of communication among those who are aware of the implicit drama, of the long path leading to the game. The advertising strategy associated to Death Stranding speaks to those people first, and to the vast audience of narrative driven games second. So by design, it's not universal.

This leads to the other part of the problem, the customers themselves. Specific advertisement often leads to dissatisfaction for other parts of the audience which may be interested in the product, but feels like they are spoken to in a language they don't deem appropriate or effective. That's a consequence of overexposure to inductive advertising, which is designed to create anticipation by easing the customers into the sale process as much as possible, while in turns quashing their willingness to accept any form of complication.

Introducing a degree
of deduction to the process
can make for more interesting,
thoughtful and challenging

On the other hand, introducing a degree of deduction to the process can make for more interesting, thoughtful and challenging advertising, where marketing materials can turn into actual extensions of the subject. This particular intent is at the heart of each and every outing of Death Stranding, and there's significance to the choice of not showing gameplay to the public when a playable build was actually presented to director Guillermo Del Toro (and presumably Hideo Kojima's partners in crime Norman Reedus and Mads Mikkelsen) last November.

It seems clear that Sony and Kojima Productions have further points to make with the game than just trying to seel it to as many as they can: in a time of turmoil surrounding microtransactions and the demise of single player games, Death Stranding falls in line with the corporation's stance of full support to narrative driven experiences. While some might consider the queerness of the trailers too far-fetched for the game's own good, many others sees it as a sign of depth and originality - not because they are a designer's lackeys, but because they see how it ties into the game's language and themes.

No comments: