Theo Yurevitch is a writer and educator. His fiction can be found in print and online in journals such as Saranac Review, Cosmonauts Avenue, Breakwater Review, and more. He has written about pop culture for numerous publications.
When I was a kid, I had a Super Nintendo and two games to pick between: Jurassic Park (1993) and Jurassic Park 2: The Chaos Continues (1994). “Chaos,” in this case, meant more than just fighting dinosaurs—it meant killing people. The enemies change from velociraptors to humans fairly early in the game, but I never got past the level in which they did. My mother had given me very clear instructions: I was not allowed to kill people in video games.
This wasn’t the only time my mother’s no-killing rule came up. The same thing happened when I went to my cousin’s house. She had a PlayStation. She also had a jewel case with a stark white background, red lettering, and the tagline, “Tactical Espionage Action,” over the title: Metal Gear Solid (1998). Jurassic Park 2: The Chaos Continues was released four years earlier, but Metal Gear Solid was lightyears ahead. Not only was the game-world exponentially more detailed, but there was also a story—a bonkers one as much about nuclear destruction as it was about the protagonist, Snake, dealing with the legacy of abandonment by his clone source/parental figure. The game felt like an action movie from the very opening title card declaring that this was the product of a singular director, an artist with a vision—“A HIDEO KOJIMA GAME.”
But in Metal Gear Solid (MGS), everything was like that level from Jurassic Park 2: The Chaos Continues. The world was full of human non-player characters that could be killed. Unlike the 16-bit beefcakes who grunted upon termination in Chaos, the 3D graphics in MGS made the enemies look more like real people. Their bodies shake when you spray them with bullets. Blood blows out of their heads in pink clouds. I’d never seen anything like it, and although I was an action-movie-obsessed little boy, I wondered if I should be seeing such gratuitous violence. Even though my mom wasn’t there to watch, I did as she said: I did not kill these digital people; I just watched my cousin do it.
But when I was older, I did eventually play MGS as well as all the sequels. There are five main entries in the series, each an updated take on “Tactical Espionage Action,” each replete with spy-thriller tropes, genre-bending motifs, meta-twists. All of these titles are connected by an ongoing plot that uses shadow organizations, global cabals, and soap opera politics to explore heavy themes such as denuclearization, identity, patriarchy, and patricide. And, for each title, famed developer Hideo Kojima is credited as director. Tons of people worked on developing these games—and the series’ corporate publisher, Konami, certainly exerted an influence—but Kojima is often perceived as the auteur, with the latest being 2015’s Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain (MGSV).
MGSV is the conclusion of the series, too, at least with Kojima at the helm. The development of MGSV was notoriously fraught and ultimately led to Konami parting ways with Kojima before the game even released, leading many bloggers, critics, and game-players to debate about whether the game would somehow be fundamentally different. In many ways, MGSV does feel different from its predecessors. Instead of extensive cinematics, the game is much more about emergent gameplay. You technically don’t even play as Snake. Nevertheless, this is still very much “A HIDEO KOJIMA GAME.” Every mission includes a credit scroll that ends with “Created and Directed by Hideo Kojima,” lest you forget. One side mission even has the player rescue Kojima himself from an enemy camp and bring him back to your “Mother Base.” The series has always been self-aware, but never more so than here.
While playing the game, I felt like I was going beyond the action tropes of its predecessors and was playing a full-blown mercenary simulator instead. In MGSV, in lieu of cutscenes about geopolitical conflict and nuclear Armageddon, you are the geopolitical conflict. Much of the game is about creating your own personal army with a good chunk of time spent at Mother Base—your in-game home—where you lead and manage your mercenary group. Sometimes your soldiers will get into fights, and you’ll have to play parent and separate them or send someone to the brig. If you rescue the in-game Hideo Kojima, you can assign him to your Intel Unit or R&D. You can use the game’s crafting system to build your own nuclear weapons.
Unlike the original Metal Gear Solid with its clear themes about the need for denuclearization, you don’t play as the hero in MGSV. With the story technically being a prequel to the original, you play as the clone source/parental figure—i.e, Snake’s father. At one point in the game, you even meet one of your clone-children, and, despite having abandoned them when they were first created, you try to bring him back to your Mother Base at your compatriots’ urging. Your clone-child then tries to kill you. In the end, he shouts, “I’m not like you!” and skedaddles. The series has long told stories about the harm caused by military leaders, political figures, and the powers that be. Still, it’s never made me think so much about the concept of fathering itself and how, as a verb, this traditional form of parenting might often mean some pretty toxic things—pushing away, separation, simultaneous advancement and entropy, and how action can often lead to destruction.
Recently, I went and played MGSV again. The game has aged well, but I’m not the same. I’m done with grad school and teach English at a university. I have more gray hairs. I eat vegetables. I’d like to have kids sooner than later. And I still play a lot of video games. But despite having played hundreds of them where killing is the central verb, this gameplay loop doesn’t really hold my interest as much anymore.
In MGSV, you don’t have to kill enemies—most of the time, at least. In fact, if you get through a mission without killing anyone, you actually get a higher score. At the very beginning, you get a tranquilizer pistol. Still, the story is about war. The underpinning principle of the game’s design is about pitting players against enemy NPCs on their way to an objective. The game might have less story than its predecessors, but it still tells one that precludes complete player agency. Sometimes characters die whether you want them to or not. In one of the final missions, a disease breaks out on Mother Base and you must go around and execute your infected compatriots. The mission left a bad taste in my mouth. These NPCs—characters who look up to you as their boss and leader—don’t fight back. There are no puzzles to solve or intricate levels to navigate. I did not find it fun.
So I stopped playing. I’ve been playing Kojima’s more recent game, Death Stranding, instead. When Death Stranding was released in 2019—the first game developed by Kojima Productions as an independent studio without Konami’s influence as the publisher—it was met with a mix of praise and confusion. Many a blog post derided the game as a “walking simulator,” as if that’s a bad thing. Instead of playing a mix of base building and “Tactical Espionage Action” as a wartime hero, you play in an open world as a courier. In many ways, it’s a much simpler game than the MGS series, too. The protagonist’s name is Sam Porter Bridges because he is a porter and occasional builder of (literal and figurative) bridges. You run deliveries in a surreal post-apocalyptic America—one that has been overrun by ghosts—and while it does get increasingly involved, both narratively and mechanically, there’s pretty much just a single kind of quest design: delivering packages. Doing so isn’t easy, either. While walking, you can lose your balance, tip over, and damage packages. There are different buttons for shifting your weight to the left or right. It is a walking simulator. Instead of enemy NPCs, walking is the challenge.
When I played Death Stranding in 2019, I played for nearly ten hours before I even saw an enemy NPC. When you finally do, you see they look just like you, wearing the same gender-neutral jumpsuits—and you pretty much just run away and try not to trip. Like in Kojima’s previous games, you can choose to kill enemy NPCs, but this doesn’t just cause you to lose points. Death Stranding goes beyond disincentivizing killing—the game barely provides the mechanics to do so and penalizes flagrant video game killing with both a fail state and a permanent crater-sized pockmark in the otherwise gorgeously designed open world. My mom would like the game. I love it.
I’ve played Death Stranding repeatedly since its release, well beyond seeing the credits roll. In the post-game, new deliveries are procedurally generated ad infinitum. I’ve played the game for over a hundred hours; now, I don’t even need to think too much to make my deliveries. When I was a kid, I wanted so badly to see what was beyond that level with human enemies in my Jurassic Park games. Technically, I was allowed to play that particular stage, but it was impossible to get past the NPCs while still following my mother’s rules. Nowadays, I’m (just a little) less inclined to play as a sociopathic video game character. My tastes have changed. By and large, I find the relentless destruction of the action genre pretty boring.
In contrast, I like that Death Stranding is often deliberately a glacially paced game. Most of what you do is walk from point A to point B, making deliveries in a barren, beautiful world. But unlike the MGS series, you don’t play as some macho lone wolf. You spend the game carrying a baby, literally strapped to your chest.
You’re not delivering the baby somewhere or anything like that. The game might be a series of fetch/delivery quests, but it isn’t one big escort mission. The baby is just your companion. Your character will talk to her occasionally. You can get a harmonica and play her songs or put her to bed. Sometimes the baby will get scared and start to cry, and you’ll have to follow button prompts to cradle her in your arms and rock her to sleep. They’re the same button prompts used in any number of other games to punch, shoot, karate chop, or execute. But here, you press them to soothe your baby.
Maybe my tastes have changed in part because I’m noticing different kinds of games as I get older and move into a phase of existence where what’s most exciting are the new lives and creations I can choose to be a part of, instead of having a long list of milestones for what to expect imposed upon myself. Many of those grand events are now in my past. To deal with that—or maybe because of that—I find it helps to be more outward thinking as I grow not necessarily wiser (and certainly no less morbid), but closer to the end. Death Stranding is one of the few AAA titles where you aren’t just ending things. You’re just hanging out with a baby. It’s great; her name is Lou.
Unlike in MGS, where you sneak through exotic locales across the world in service of a narrative about the looming specter of patriarchy engendering endless cycles of war, in Death Stranding, you just walk across America with your baby. Like my mother had wanted, you avoid violence, the kind that is central to so many games, all the way back to Jurassic Park and beyond. You walk around and help people by delivering packages. You spend time with your baby, and you play as a man—Sam, the literal mailman—but this isn’t another “dad game.” (See eg. this article by Mattie Brice, or this one by Sarah Stang. -Ed.) In Death Stranding’s mechanics, parenting style is divorced from gender. You, as Sam, don’t just protect baby Lou. You nurture. You care. You pay attention to the little details. That’s what I want to do—not indulge some fantasy about becoming an action hero. I want to one day be able to act the way you do with Lou and try my best at mothering.
McLuhan, Marshall, and W. Terrence Gordon. Understanding Media: The Extensions Of Man. New York: Gingko Press, 2013.
Ocean Software. “Jurassic Park.” Ocean Software (1993).
Ocean Software. “Jurassic Park 2: The Chaos Continues.” Ocean Software (1995).
Kojima, Hideo, director. Death Stranding. Sony Interactive Entertainment, 2019.
Kojima, Hideo, director. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. Konami (2015).