Movies based on games are nothing new. Uncharted overperformed at the box office this month, and just this spring, we have Sonic the Hedgehog 2 and a Halo streaming series coming up. Gaming provides franchises with ready-made stories, built-in fanbases and visually iconic characters for our IP-hungry corporate entertainment system.
Then again … how many movie adaptations of great games are any good? Movies have historically done a great job building off of books, comics and other written media, but games have provided a greater challenge because the stories in games require player engagement. It’s not as difficult to make a movie out of a book or a comic because you’re using the language of film to retell a story that exists outside of a player’s choices. Translating the storytelling mechanics of a game into a film is just as hard as well. But what about the opposite direction? What about a game that wants to be a film?
Death Stranding, Hideo Kojima’s 2019 game, famously straddled the line between mediums in a way few games had, and part of what makes it work is the one and only Mads Mikkelsen.
Before diving into Mikkelsen, let’s briefly talk about Kojima. The famous Japanese game designer has always been a fan of movies; indeed, his Twitter bio reads “70% of my body is made of movies.” As a child he watched one movie a night, and if you follow him on Twitter, you can often seen him enjoying limited editions of his favorite Blu-rays while you silently tell yourself that yes, he’s just like you. Kojima’s games have always had a cinematic quality to them, lifting from the classics. His seminal Metal Gear Solid for the original PlayStation featured a espionage-style storyline with an eyepatch-wearing character called Snake (a nod to John Carpenter’s Escape From New York). Kojima has always pushed for the medium to be cinematic, but he’s never lost sight of its unique qualities. Attempts at adapting his Metal Gear Solid series into film have usually floundered because their stories are fundamentally interactive. Oscar Isaac is supposedly attached to the property now, but we’ll see how that goes.
Still, with Metal Gear Solid V, Kojima made the jump from Hollywood style to Hollywood casting, casting Kiefer Sutherland as the protagonist, a role that previously had gone to actor and writer David Hayter. The reason for this was not just star power alone, Kojima said; as facial-capture technology evolved, he wanted a real actor to act with their face, not just their voice. Fans argue that replacing Hayter could’ve been conducted with more tact, but Sutherland is who Kojima wanted — and it probably did deliver the best performance of a big boss in the series. The result was a game that really brushed against the boundary of games and film, setting the stage for Death Stranding to burst through it.
For Death Stranding, Kojima pulled out the stops when it came to actors. The cast incorporated Léa Seydoux, Margaret Qualley, Lindsay Wagner, the likenesses of Guillermo del Toro and Nicholas Winding Refn, and Norman Reedus in the lead role of Sam “Porter” Bridges. To top it off and tie it together was Mads Mikkelsen as the enigmatic Cliff. The story goes that Kojima got Mikkelsen’s number from del Toro’s Rolodex and simply called him and asked him to be in the game. What’s endearing about Kojima is that he’s just as much of a fan as you or me; he posted plenty of photos of the two of them hanging out casually during production. When you play the game and see Mikkelsen’s performance, it’s not hard to see why Kojima would be so happy to have included him.
Within the game, the player controls Sam, delivering packages across the open world to people isolated and cut off from each other. In this world, stepping outside may mean death; although the game came to be before the COVID-19 pandemic, it certainly came to mind plenty while playing it during 2020. As part of his journey, Sam has to carry a young child, BB, with him.
Cliff features heavily in the game’s promotional material, but his role in the story is enigmatic. He appears at key moments of the game, and the player must occasionally do battle with him in other-world scenarios based on various conflicts in human history (World War I, Vietnam, etc). In later, non-interactive flashbacks, we see Cliff visit his comatose wife in the hospital, trying to cope with the loss he feels. Mikkelsen’s performance in the game is genius in that he’s able to take Kojima’s quite-nuts (in the best ways) scripts and imbue them with a sense of true pathos. You really do buy him as the husband optimistically wishing his wife a merry Christmas in one scene yet despairing at the end of it. Kojima’s faith in putting serious actors into games pays off; without an actor of Mikkelsen’s character, it is unlikely that the player would be able to build such emotion for Cliff over the course of the game.
This is important because toward the end of the game, it’s revealed that Cliff is Sam’s father. We’ve been seeing what happened to Sam’s parents through his own eyes in flashback. A supernaturally afflicted Cliff believes BB is his son and that Sam has stolen him. It’s a subversion of our expectations given Cliff’s creepy appearance and antagonistic behavior. When father and son finally reunite, it’s an emotional moment that really lands. It works on a cinematic level and as the culmination of several hours of gameplay.
Truthfully, Death Stranding is weird as hell and hard to describe. It’s a game, but it features both interactive and non-interactive cinematic sequences with Mikkelsen being cool as hell and really selling dialogue that would make a script editor blush. The sheer amount of odd concepts it plays with are headier than most blockbusters would handle in either medium, and Mikkelsen just … sells them. I barely scratched the surface of what this game and story is in this essay because the focus is, of course, in how Mikkelsen makes it all work.
Death Stranding works because Kojima crafts a narrative that demands your interaction. Thanks to its cast and style, it feel like the closest thing to a movie in game form we’ve ever seen. Kojima even included a mode where players can’t die, so that they can experience the story — explicitly stated as the “fans of Mads” mode. Talk about star power.