Hideo Kojima wants people to connect. That’s not just a theme in his latest game, Death Stranding — it’s also a huge part of his marketing platform. The celebrated game designer wants to meet people around the world, and he recently toured like a rock star to do so.
Hundreds of fans in different cities lined up to meet him on stops for the Death Stranding World Tour, like in Singapore, where hundreds waited patiently in sweltering heat. One fan claimed to have started the line at 3 a.m. Several attendees had traveled from regional countries — a Deadman cosplayer from Malaysia, a group of friends from the Philippines. This was a rare pilgrimage for fans and a chance to get up close with their idol. The main event — a Q&A panel and photo session — saw 600 people pack into the historic Victoria Theater.
This immense machine is powered by a small army — various groups of Sony staff, a local public relations agency, videographers and photographers, event security, a merchandise squad, minders and ushers, and of course, Kojima’s own people.
Event tickets were free, but required online registration. On November 4 and 5 at scheduled release times, tickets instantly sold out, with at least one resurfacing on a local online marketplace for the equivalent of $220. On PlayStation Asia’s Facebook event page, fans complained about potential scalpers and the ticketing process, which was done through the event registration service Peatix. Several people raged about having one finger poised to click register at exactly noon, only to run into technical problems. One Facebook user joked about forming a human wall to kidnap Kojima at the venue, while another posted that only Singaporeans should be allowed to get tickets. “Just saw one Malaysian and one Filipino comment [that they each] got one ticket,” they wrote. “This event is held in Singapore, locals should get it first before others. I need to call this out,” marking a sharp contrast to the unifying message behind the game.
In Death Stranding, protagonist Sam Porter Bridges has an anxiety-driven condition called aphenphosmphobia — a fear of being touched — which he gradually overcomes. “You have to shake hands or hug in real life,” said Kojima in an interview with Polygon at the Singapore stop, through interpreter Aki Saito. Kojima recalled the World Tour stop in London, where over 700 people waited in pouring rain to meet him. When the fans finally got in, they were drenched, which Kojima says didn’t bother him.
“It’s an indirect connection to the game,” Kojima said. “This is why I’m close to the fans when I take pictures.” But it seems Kojima has limits — during the free photo op for fans after our interview, event staff continually reminded people that Kojima doesn’t like to shake hands.
Kojima is a rare game developer to put such a focus on himself when promoting games he’s worked on — something that Kojima acknowledged on-stage at the main event. Amid the overwhelming spectacle of his celebrity, he still tries to emphasize the importance of connection with a greater whole. “Everything starts in the game, and then [players] go outside and feel a connection. I want players to feel there are connections in the real world as well,” he said. “Like talking to your friends, or maybe you see some construction work outside … maybe you felt something during the game, and you kind of want to say thank you to the people who deliver things to you, like the people at Amazon or the people in real life.”
Gratitude is a theme that runs deep through Death Stranding, with most if not all its NPCs acknowledging the role that Sam plays in keeping them alive. During the main panel event on this stop of the tour with Kojima, character designer Yoji Shinkawa, and Saito, who’s also Kojima Productions’ head of marketing and communications, host Joakim Gomez posed a lighthearted question: “What’s the heaviest bag you’ve carried?” And without missing a beat, Kojima cracked a joke: “I created Kojima Productions three years and nine months ago. I had a hundred staff. I think that’s the heaviest.” The audience laughed. This was, after all, a full house of gamers well-versed in the concept of a team carry, but in such a teamwork-oriented industry, it was jarring to see him saying the quiet part out loud with two of his senior staff on stage.
In the past, Kojima has often been portrayed as a lone auteur, most recently with a poorly-translated tweet that wrongly implied that he was taking all the credit for Death Stranding, which bothered Kojima. But his favorite meme, he admits with a smile, is “Kojima is god.” “A lot of people send me that.”
Putting down ladders and bridges in Death Stranding might initially come from the drive for self-survival, but Kojima hopes that players will begin to see how their own small actions can help others: “People use your bridge and you get likes. So you think, I was only doing this for myself, but it helps other people. This is the important part.” He goes on to add, “I know Asian people think in this way — and that’s an important part,” highlighting the unspoken cultural differences between western individualism and eastern community.
Asked if recent changes in the entertainment world — increased outspokenness and critical interest in representation and diversity — have had an impact on Kojima’s approach to worldbuilding and writing, he says, “It hasn’t really affected me. I always listen. I listen to people and I see the trends in the world. I’m always thinking about what to deliver.” At the end of the day, he points to the cyclical nature of art — after hundreds of years of cultural history and development, stories and trends repeat. He cited the emerging format of shorter episodic shows as a new trend in film and television. “There’s like 120 years of movie history. There’s always a new thing that comes out, people follow the new thing, and then someone copies that new thing. And this happens every 10 to 20 years.”
Kojima enjoys museums, which feeds into his big-picture approach to art — and film, and games. “Cinemas will always exist, but I think everything will go into the streaming world. The movie was always two hours, but when it turned to TV, it became a one-hour episode. People [watch] drama from anywhere,” he says, making framing gestures with his hands to indicate how a medium might change depending on the preferred choice of platform today: tablets and tiny screens. But he also believes that there are only a few archetypal stories in the world, and we’re just repeating different variations. It is with new formats that stories can change, he says. “In Japan, on NHK, there’s always, every day, a drama that’s 15 minutes for six months, and there’s a big story,” he says, referring to the channel’s iconic asadora or “morning drama” program. “You have to create a cliffhanger every 15 minutes.”
Kojima might prefer lengthy cinematics and repetition over short episodic story formats, but he’s open to projects that don’t fit neatly into either the “film” or “game” category. For all its cutscenes, Death Stranding isn’t a film, and until now, there hasn’t been a game quite like it. “Maybe in the future, I won’t highlight story,” Kojima says.
On the topic of political resonance in different media, Kojima doesn’t think that people are more dismissive of political messages in games than in films. “When you see a film, when the main character expresses something, you try to understand,” he said. “But in games, with the actual character, you make the decision. It’s you. Anything that you actually feel is you, so that’s different. It’s more impactful, because in the movies, you’re just watching the character.”
At the end of the day, the cult game designer hews to an old-school cinematic mindset and speaks fondly of the time spent working on the first Death Stranding trailer shown at E3 in 2016. “There were no staff or technical tools, so I just started making Norman, a crab, and a baby,” he says, referring to Kojima Productions’ early days in a coworking office, playing around with a mop and analog handprints. “Movie-makers are punk,” Kojima said. “They have a punk ethic. They make something that hasn’t been made yet. They fight for this, and get criticized sometimes — like Nicolas [Winding Refn]. We talk about that. We’re still punk.”