Kojima has always been a fan of Hollywood. It’s clear in everything from the opening “credits” of Metal Gear Solid to his love of long narrative heavy cutscenes. Heck, you can even go all the way back to the heavy inspiration he took from The Terminator with Metal Gear‘s box art. If you follow the famed developer on Twitter, you’ll regularly see him share his opinion on popular films and his fandom for older classics. While he’s still well aware that he’s making video games, he tries to bring that love to every project he works on. Death Stranding is not only another game that shows his love for cinema, it’s the biggest example of it so far and will test how effective Kojima’s celebrity obsession is.
Rollin’ like a celebrity
With his last few releases, that love has stretched into the casting choices. Snake in Metal Gear Solid 5 lost the signature voice of David Hayter, replaced by 24‘s Keifer Sutherland. While some fans didn’t appreciate how little Snake uttered in this new installment, Kojima didn’t seem to mind. His next work, the aborted Silent Hills, was to prominently feature Norman Reedus of Walking Dead fame. His role now transfers over to Death Stranding, a game that also features Mads Mikkelsen and Guillermo del Toro. While his earlier works were clearly inspired by blockbusters, these newer titles aspire to stand alongside them.
Simply put, Kojima seems to be pushing a new wave of celebrity-driven gaming. While Metal Gear simply features the voice of Sutherland, Death Stranding is sold partially on its famous faces. It seems like subtle difference, but it’s important as it is trying to bank of their voice and their likeness. These aren’t actors taking on a side project and having fun with it; this is a big commitment by all parties. It changes your design priorities and marketing and it could cause problems down the line. As history shows, the Hollywood model doesn’t always end in success.
Look at all those movie stars
Of course, this isn’t a new phenomenon. Celebrities have been big parts of games before, going all the way back to the early days. Nintendo made Punch-Out! into an NES staple on the back of boxing legend Mike Tyson. Activision has pushed several Call of Duty campaigns via involvement from actors like Kevin Spacey and Chris Meloni. THQ brought absurdity to new heights with 50 Cent’s starring role in Blood on the Sand. Perhaps most notably, Jack Black put his all into his starring role in Double Fine’s Brutal Legend.
Among just these examples, there is an equal number of successes and failures. Nintendo famously had to replace Mike Tyson with “Mr. Dream” in Punch-Out! after his infamy got the better of him. Kevin Spacey’s turn in Advanced Warfare made that campaign work better than most in the series, but it also dooms it to the dustbin of history due to the actor’s abuse allegations. Even in cases where the actor doesn’t end up causing the game problems, the cultural cache of someone like 50 Cent doesn’t last forever. A celebrity-driven experience is only as relevant as the celebrity in question, especially when it comes to legacy support and re-releases.
They’re all so beautiful and clean
Because of this, centering a big release like Death Stranding around a celebrity is definitely a risk. However, if done right, it’s a risk worth taking. Circling back to Brutal Legend, Jack Black not only strapped on the muscle suit for marketing, but he also toured late night shows promoting the game. He put his all into the performance and it was clearly something he believed in. Black has even recently played it on his YouTube channel. Having a big known name attached to something like this can even catch attention of people who don’t play as many video games.
This also came into play in Omikron: The Nomad Soul, Quantic Dream’s debut game and the only game to ever feature David Bowie. The dearly departed singer wrote new music for the project and seemed fascinated by the technological implications of its message.
These artists need to be all in because it shows when they aren’t. Both numbered Dishonored games have caught flak for their shaky celebrity voice acting. Susan Sarandon’s performance in the first game was muted and Rosario Dawn and Vincent D’Onofrio’s work in the sequel was also similarly criticized. Mortal Kombat 11‘s Ronda Rousey has also been demolished by critics and fans alike for her dead portrayal of an iconic badass. Even tournament commentators have jokingly asked if they could skip the Sonya intros during competitive matches.
While Reedus, Mikkelsen, and most rocks may have more acting talent than Rousey, his pick for Sutherland in MGS5 is just enough to warrant some skepticism. And not only is he increasing the number of famous people, he’s also using their faces, which shows a level of reliance on star power that is seemingly unmatched in the gaming world. The trailer was promising but he’s putting them in a position where they all need to be completely tuned in for this to work.
But if there’s anyone in gaming today that can inspire that level of passion in a project, it is Hideo Kojima. Even if his stories are sometimes long winding roads with no end in sight, there’s undeniable artistry to what he produces. It’s the type of prestige production that an actor can be proud to be a part of, inspiring that same level of passion in its subjects. If Death Stranding can hit this level, it will certainly benefit from its famous faces. At its best, this talent will bolster the game’s performances. At its worst, it will seem like a waste of money. Let’s hope its the former as Kojima’s obsession on star power depends on it.