The Hideo Kojima conversation is a tidal wave of misery that will consume us all. The perpetually confusing Death Stranding is out in the wild, and the volume of commentary on the discourse is almost as deep as said discourse itself. I’m not going to get into Death Stranding, mostly because I haven’t played it. Instead, I want to focus on one particular aspect of the Death Stranding conversation that stood out to me in a more medium-wide sort of way. I’m going to talk about the weird cross-section between games, fun, and well, things that aren’t fun.
Some reviews of Death Stranding being passed around are made fun of because they label Kojima’s latest big-budget nonsense as not “fun,” but are branded with near-perfect scores. There’s also a lot of screaming over lower review scores, but that’s just normal angry-gamer stuff. What I want to focus on is this supposed dichotomy–how can a video game be considered not fun to play, while also good and maybe a nine or higher out of ten? I could give a snarky and arrogant answer to that question, or I could skirt around the edge and say it’s an “eye of the beholder” situation.
I don’t just mean that in a cowardly, “everyone has an opinion” sort of way. Every statement on video games is inherently an opinion. That’s how it works. What I mean is, whether or not a game is “good” can often come not from liking or disliking, but rather what the viewer or audience wants to get out of a work. A game might not be fun in a typical video game way, like say how Grand Theft Auto or Super Mario Bros. are, but perhaps it uses interactive concepts in a way that’s thought-provoking or intellectually stimulating.
It’s similar to how a movie can use difficult material or utilize unconventional editing and shooting techniques. These are two different ways to make a viewer uncomfortable, but without compromising craft or creative investment on the part of the author(s). Novels can do similar things–venture beyond the bestseller list and you’ll find writers willing to break convention and assault traditional grammar, all for the purpose of communicating something bigger than the usual rulesets.
Sure, it is possible for a movie, game, or book to be both fun and engaging on a deeper level. Games are trying harder and harder to tell great stories these days, even in the blockbuster, AAA space. The barometer for quality in entertainment media has only been raised over time. But that doesn’t mean eschewing conventionally accepted or accessible methodology in art is incorrect or wrong. In fact, there are entire genres that have taken the concept of robbing fun from the player to heart and brought them to serious heights.
Just look at the survival genre or roguelikes. Both of these gaming spaces are similar, in that they actively antagonize the player. They are wrapped in familiar packing, the former typically shooting or puzzle-solving or the latter platforming and RPGs. But fundamentally, both genres take away elements of “fun factor.” Survival horror takes away ammunition and player agency over things like the camera and or character's movement. Roguelikes give you a taste of RPG elements, like leveling up, but often make you start back from the beginning if you die. Both genres explore what players have fun with in games and twist those concepts into something more arduous and painful.
Death Stranding is, technically, mostly a game about traversing great, open distances and delivering packages. This doesn’t sound fun, especially due to the apparent minutia of maintaining balance, building structures, and walking. This isn’t Metal Gear, which had the fun shooting and stealth elements. Instead, Kojima, known as a gameplay and mechanics wizard well before his weird auteur storytelling fame, took his knack for translating concepts in a totally new direction. It is a direction that doesn’t care if you’re having fun or not. For many people who like to dive into media with their galaxy brain caps on, this is the sort of experience they crave. And, for all the weirdness hamfisted metaphors Death Stranding likely drowns itself in, there’s great value in the gameplay also eschewing convention in pursuit of a concept.