I Went to the Death Stranding Pop-Up Event In New York City
Death Stranding came out a few days ago. After a ton of teasers and a lot of anticipation surrounding a game that was largely shrouded in secrecy, to someone outside of the world of video games, the whole situation probably seems a little strange.
So let’s back up a little bit.
Hideo Kojima is going to be a recurring figure throughout this story. He is a well-known Japanese video game director who is known as an auteur of video games, often having interest in producing unique games. He found success in his career with the Metal Gear Solid franchise where he began to be recognized as the personality as we see him today. The franchise and the artist were intimately intertwined until just after the fifth numbered entry in the series was released in 2015. Metal Gear’s publisher Konami unceremoniously and awkwardly parted ways with its figurehead and thus Kojima was free to be picked up by another publisher.
After taking some time off, Kojima created a team to become the independent Kojima Productions which was quickly swept up by Sony, the owners and developers of the PlayStation consoles. This meant that the next Kojima game to come out would be something exclusive to Sony PlayStation systems. Given the climate of games at the time, Sony was willing to give Kojima and his team a long leash to produce whatever game they wanted in whatever time frame they wanted; a rare thing in any industry.
After four years and a few very strange trailers that created far more questions than it answered, Death Stranding released on November 8th, 2019. In preparation and celebration for the launch of the game, a characteristically random announcement told the public about a pop-up event that would be happening in New York City during and just after the launch of the game. Despite being quite hard to find, I finally managed to sign up for the event. Going into it, I only knew that it was known as a “pop-up art event”.
Death Stranding as a game matches up quite well with its creator as one might expect. The game is very long and follows a man as he makes the journey to reconnect the United States in a post-apocalyptic world. Within the story, however, there is a cast of unique characters, many of whom are played by very well-known actors, and a baby that you carry around while you fight off various foes. But the bulk of the gameplay is spent trying to balance yourself as you traverse difficult terrain. There is almost no way to explain the game without referencing a trailer so do yourself a favor and have a look at this.
So a strange game produced by a very influential game director that stars the likes of Mads Mikkelsen and Norman Reedus is holding a pop-up event in New York. What is that going to look like? Well it looks like a few things.
I went to the event on the last day it was open. It was quite well attended from what I could tell, but there wasn’t a line going around the block. It seemed to me that the people who knew about the event, the real fans of the game and fans of the people behind it, had traveled near and far to check it out. I could tell there were people from New York and surrounding major cities who had made the trip. There was a consistent stream of people coming in from the times that the organizers had made available online.
Once we checked in, we waited in front of a set of sliding doors that opened on the press of a button from a worker who gave us some context for what we were about to see. Beyond the doors was a white tunnel with a single figurine in the middle and two more employees waiting to further our tour. The tunnel was a replica of a space that Kojima himself has in his office where the game was developed. The speaker spoke of Kojima with such reverence that it made me realize how much of the following exhibit would be about him rather than the game itself.
After exiting on the other side of the tunnel, we finished the short guided portion of the experience and were set free to wander the exhibit. There were five main segments of the event, only two of which were truly art exhibitions. Just past the entrance was a collection of concept art for Death Stranding depicting everything from vistas to weapons to characters to vehicles. Much of what was displayed was stunning and seemed to match quite closely to the look of the final product.
The second of the five locations was what seemed to be a recreation of the office space where the game was developed. Screens depicted Kojima as he worked alongside others at Kojima Productions during the creation of the game. Those screens were on desks that were complete with staplers and folders.
Bleeding into the next area which focused on sound was a pair of headsets and tablets that allowed the wearers to control the sound in a specific portion of the game. Without any accompanying screens giving context to the situation in the game, users could adjust levels for music, sound effects, dialogue, combat, weather sounds, and more which really gave a unique perspective on the power of sound in games. In continuing the theme, the following section of the exhibition housed a plethora of headsets which all played music that was either directly from Death Stranding itself, or was inspired by or inspiration for the game.
The following section held a replica of the motion capture station that was used to help capture the performances of the actors. Screens played loops of footage that showed several performances as well as the direction of Kojima himself.
The grand finale of the exhibition was an open area with walls filled with pictures of Kojima with collaborators on Death Stranding as well as a wall of black hand prints that had been left by a combination of the cast and directors of the game and fans who had attended. Cutouts of characters were dispersed among containers holding the collectors edition of the game and the custom Death Stranding PS4 console and controller. There was a life-sized, hyper-realistic statue of the main character of the game with a ludicrous attention to detail. Finally, there was a well-lit stage with a background that promoted the game for people to take pictures in front of. I’m assuming this last part was mainly utilized during the time that the people who worked on the game were at the event.
The experience ended in a gift shop that sold a wide variety of Death Stranding merchandise. As an additional, inconsequential note, I noticed that the game itself wasn’t being sold there.
The deepest of walkthroughs of the event wouldn’t have lasted for more than an hour, as one could expect for any pop-up event. People were excitedly looking at the art, musing about the motion capture, enthralled by the music, and giddy looking at the handprints and signature left by Kojima. This is the most important thing.
The fact that a video game can have such a reach that its fans feel compelled to travel from everywhere to see a small event is incredible. To watch people revere a game developer as much as attendees revere Kojima shows an incredible future for the medium. If it wasn’t for the PlayStation logos outside the building, passersby could easily mistake the fervor surrounding the event for that of a film or TV show release. If taken out of context, the art exhibited in the first section of the event could easily have come from a modern art museum. The technology for motion capture is straight from a physics lab. The list goes on.
The combination of art and technology required to create a compelling gaming experience is what sets the genre apart. Balancing story with gameplay and creating a compelling story that can last for anywhere from 8 to 60 hours is something that no other form of art and entertainment is capable of doing. This event showcases that as well as highlighting the widespread and excited fanbase that many games have acquired. Video games are as much a part of modern culture as movies or TV and this art event for a weird game that was produced by a video game auteur is just further proof of that.
Moving forward, I would not be surprised if we saw more of these sorts of events and more events celebrating the launch of games much like we see premieres for movies. Video games as a genre are just getting started and as we continue to watch them grow up as an art form, we continue to see a rise in their popularity. Not only does an event like this prove the legitimacy of video games as a medium, but it helps separate it from other forms of entertainment. No other form of entertainment could put on such an event with such a range of exhibits that can draw such a crowd. Only video games can do that.
So get ready for a new era of video games; it’s only going to keep getting bigger from here. As Kojima continues to be recognized for his talents, more and more video game directors will get the same recognition for their contribution to the medium and that spells nothing but success for video games.