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'I’m 55 and could die tomorrow': Why Hideo Kojima is making Death Stranding like it is his last game

Dan Silver
Death Stranding is still an enigma - Kojima Productions/Kojima Productions

When The Telegraph sits down for a rare audience with iconic game developer Hideo Kojima in a private meeting room off the E3 show floor his body is with us in downtown Los Angeles but his mind is very much up the road in Hollywood.  

The night before he premiered the fourth trailer for his latest opus Death Stranding at Sony Playstation’s press conference. Much like the first three it proved both utterly compelling and completely baffling. Opaque cutscenes featuring foetuses in jars and invisible monsters who left handprints in the mud punctuated long-awaited first glimpses of gameplay almost completely comprised of scenes of The Walking Dead actor Norman Reedus’ courier character trudging forlornly across beautiful but barren landscapes.

Kojima obsessives - of which there are many due to his incredibly popular series of mind-bending Metal Gear Solid action games - have spent two years poring over these clips and also the director’s social media feeds in an attempt to decipher what it all means. Significant swathes of the internet are stuffed with fan theories taking in everything from hardcore scientific theory to hatstand science fiction fantasies - often all at once.

Unfortunately for them Kojima is no mood to offer a helping hand.

“Once the game is completed I believe people will be able to connect all these elements,” he explains via a translator. “It’s not that I’m just putting random hints out there - everything comes together. I’m trying to make sure that all the pieces of the puzzle fit in. But if I just give answers to people at this stage? I don’t think that’s very interesting.

“We live in a society where any questions you have you can go to the internet and immediately get answers. What is fun? What is not fun? What is in this game? What is not in this game? Everyone asks but that’s exactly what I want people to perceive on their own, because that is what is fun about a video game. I want people to have these conversations to build excitement until they have the final answers. The game hasn’t been completed at this point but we already have some sort of game going on with the fans already.”

It has been made clear that Kojima is not ready to talk about Death Stranding’s storyline, gameplay, structure or pretty much anything connected to what players will actually do in it. He is, however, keen to talk about the stellar cast he’s been assembling for the project.

The new trailer revealed two new additions to the previously announced line-up of Reedus, Danish actor du jour Mads Mikkelson, and Oscar-winning director Guillermo del Torro: French-born Bond girl Lea Seydoux; and veteran actress Lindsay Wagner who, it transpires, had a somewhat transformative effect on the young Kojima while playing The Bionic Woman in the ‘70s TV show.  

“As a teenager she was the person I idolised the most, the actress that had the most effect on me,” he reveals. “For Death Stranding the idea was always Norman [Reedus] would be the main character. Next I had to think about the heroine. This year I turned 55 and maybe tomorrow I’m going to be dead, I don’t know. Every time I work on a project I want to make it like it might be my last so I die with no regrets. So in that regard I thought I’d ask Lindsay as the person I admire the most whether she’d like to work with me.

“Similarly Lea is a person I have huge respect for so I wanted to ask her to be part of the project. I’m not thinking about what kind of impact they’ll have on the marketing of the game - they’re just people I would really like to work with. My idea is not just to 3D scan them and just using that data. I had an idea of creating the game together and them having an impact on what the game is and fully being part of the game development. It’s a huge honour they accepted working with me because of that.”

The Walking Dead's Norman Reedus takes center stage in Death Stranding Credit: Kojima Productions/Kojima Productions

Hollywood actors have started to look on video games more favourably thanks to an increase in both the budgets of AAA titles and also the sophistication of performance capture techniques but it’s still unusual to see a cast quite as star studded as Death Stranding’s. But Kojima knocks back my suggestion this is an attempt to legitimise his chosen medium.

“That’s not my aim at all. Game development is something that takes a lot of energy and requires a lot of time and is something you wholly invest your life into. I’m sure it’s the same case for making a movie but when you’re investing so much you don’t think about whether [actors] sell or whether they’re famous or they’re established. For me it was more working with people I trust and people I like to work with.

"Back in the day we didn’t use actors - we created characters from scratch like they did in anime. In my case I’ve been making games for 32 years and [the technology now means] I can create whatever I can think of with 100% validity. But that’s not interesting because it has no analogue element, it has no organic, living element. For example, if I had Norman here I might say I want him sitting in this chair and he’ll say, no, I think it would be better if I sit over here. And I’ll be, right, let’s see what comes out of it.

”I want to get the kind of chemical reaction that comes out of using these actors, to create the game and develop the game together. Working with Norman, working with Mads, working with Lindsay, working with Lea - all of them contribute a lot and have a lot of ideas. Especially Mads - he’s the guy who takes over the whole set at times!”

Wagner, it transpires, was a harder sell. Kojima reveals she didn’t have a particular positive impression of video games it took a considerable amount of effort to convince her to take part.

“Most games have elements of violence and this idea of battling with the stick and she’s not very fond of this idea,” he says, referencing the Kobo Abe short story Rope he used to introduce Death Stranding’s approach to gameplay at E3 two years ago. “I explained to her is the aim of Death Stranding is not doing that - it has elements of it, of course - but rather it has this concept of pulling everyone together with ropes.”

No one's quite sure what the babies in Death Stranding mean yet. Credit: Kojima Productions/Kojima Productions

Interestingly, the representation of Lindsay Wagner who appeared in the post-credits coda of the latest Death Stranding trailer has been digitally de-aged to look more like the actor Kojima remembers from his youth than the 68 year-old woman she is now.

“This was quite difficult and something I probably shouldn’t have tried for my first project,” he laughs. “A lot of my team members were opposed to this idea…  Many movies including Rogue One and Tron have tried this de-ageing process and some have got better results than others. For Lindsay we 3D scanned her but [de-ageing her using] computer graphics was quite challenging because we do everything in real time.

There are always four elements. First, what kind of world it is - the designs, the colours. Then the theme: what do you want people to get from there? The third element is the story. And gameplay is the fourth

“But then we all went to see Blade Runner [2049] last year and [the digitally recreated version of Sean Young’s character] Rachael looked fantastic! We spent a lot of time watching the ‘making of…’ to see how they got those results - and it turns out they were doing the same process that we did.

“Lindsay Wagner has done a lot of movies but I think most people around of her have an impression of her from The Bionic Woman so for her scenes [in Death Stranding] we intentionally used lenses and lighting originally used in the ‘70s.”

There is, it transpires, also a justification within Death Stranding’s fiction for Wagner’s appearance but, inevitably, Kojima’s keeping it to himself. “I cannot just announce it here," he says disappointingly.

Instead our conversation turns to his approach to world building. The environments shown so far in each of the Death Stranding trailers have suggest an other-worldliness out of step with the more recognisably real-world settings of his Metal Gear games. How does he go about creating something like that from scratch?

“It’s a game so there are always four elements I constantly have in my head,” he explains. “First, what kind of world it is - the designs, the colours. Then the theme: what do you want people to get from there? The third element is the story. And gameplay is the fourth.

“All these four elements I think of on my own. I don’t think there are many people in the industry nowadays who think of this on their own but I have to. So if I wanted to create this room, for example, I start thinking what kind of people will be sitting here and what kind of conversation we’ll be having in here.

“At that point the details aren’t set so from there I start detailing each character. How will they be dressed? What kind of watches will they be wearing? What kind of label will be on the bottle of water? Adding each detail little by little. As long as the theme and the story and the game elements are solid through all of this than they should persevere. So many people have input because so many people participate in making the game that these pillars have to be really solid otherwise the game collapses in on itself.”

The Telegraph's Dan Silver with Hideo Kojima Credit: Dan Silver/Dan Silver

Given the overtly cinematic nature and scope of many of his games it’s often been said Kojima would be better suited to making movies instead. “I’d like to make a movie, for sure!” he reveals before lamenting the lack of time he has to do so on account of how much effort and energy he puts into making video games.

With his lively Twitter account and celebrity photos, one suspects Kojima also likes his status as one of gaming’s genuine auteurs and the attendant attention and fame it affords him. Before I can pose this question our interview is brought to a premature close two minutes ahead of schedule. The reason? So there is time to take a photograph stood next to Kojima... at his request. And why not enjoy it? Living every day like it was his last.​