Last week, a beguiling new video game trailer was broadcast across the internet from the Los Angeles Convention Center, a giant glass structure in the city’s downtown area. A key part of Sony’s 2018 E3 press conference, Hideo Kojima’s Death Stranding presentation channeled the eco-horror of Annihilation with the grace of ‘70s Tarkovsky. Despite revealing first gameplay, we know precious little about the work, save for some key characters and its lonely, almost photorealistic environments. One thing is clear, though: its green, moss-soaked landscapes are so gorgeous I want to lie face down in them.
At this year’s E3 (a typically gamified abbreviation of Electronic Entertainment Expo), Death Stranding was not the only game to feature beautifully rendered vegetation. Ghosts of Tsushima posses an exquisite, albeit Westernized conception of the Japanese countryside, while Halo Infinite channels a sci-fi New World vibe, replete with wandering deer and herds of rhinoceros. The Last of Us Part II and Anthem, meanwhile, use the dense flora of their environments to frame contrasting takes on violence. These games (Anthem withstanding) aren’t approaching their environmental subject matter with the same whiz-bang attitude common at the Los Angeles show. Instead, their depictions are accompanied by often sombre tones, part of a newly emerging seriousness by which blockbuster video games tell their stories.
These aren’t the first games to lovingly depict vegetation, of course. It’s a visual cue that dates back to the ‘80s, including Zelda’s first outing in 1986, evolving during the 16-bit era. Secret of Mana, released in 1993 for the SNES, featured intricately detailed trees and shrubs for the era, Hiro Isono’s iconic box art hinting at what the future might hold for video game greenery. Over the years, the sophistication with which plant life is rendered has only grown more sophisticated. The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion debuted at 2005’s E3 with considerable marketing energy spent on the “procedural generation of photorealistic trees, forests and landscapes.” A year later, the knotty forests of Crysis signalled a new benchmark in arboreal fidelity, albeit with a jarring emphasis on the destructibility of its trees. Its presentation was an advert for both the game and the CRYENGINE software it was created with.
Kojima, too, has long been interested in bringing digital foliage to the fore. In 2004, he wrote, produced and directed Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, where most of the action occurs in a richly detailed jungle terrain, a stark difference from the cold, metallic environments featured in previous games. Death Stranding looks to be his most ecologically minded game yet, with the trailer presenting marine life washed up on land alongside the hyper-detail of its landscape. The Japanese game director has previously emphasised an anti-nuclear sentiment through his games, perhaps most visibly manifested in Metal Gear Solid V: Phantom Pain. But Death Stranding appears to shift emphasis to the environment itself, revealing compassion for plant life through its almost obsessive representation.
It’s achieved this partly through Guerrilla’s Decima Engine, the same software used to create last year’s Horizon Zero Dawn, another game with pertinent ecological themes. Hermen Hulst, the Managing Director of Guerrilla joined Kojima on stage at E3 to discuss what is essentially a business partnership — i.e. Guerrilla’s licensing of the game engine to Kojima Productions — saying, “I’m very happy to see the world’s most beautiful moss and very detailed landscapes.”
Horizon Zero Dawn’s fixation on visual minutiae required the specialisation of job roles with artists employed to create landscapes, settlements, trees and rocks. It also came down to “having a real good look at what our Decima Engine was doing and what it needed to be capable of,” Gilbert Sanders, Principal Artist on the game told me over email. He was part of a small sub-team at Guerrilla called Team Green, its artists tasked with creating much of the game’s vegetation for the game’s environments including pine and aspen forests.
In a GDC presentation of almost unfathomable complexity to the layperson, Sanders details the process of creating the vegetation exploring polygonal structure, translucency of leaves, and the movement of the trees in wind (amongst many other things). Such a keen eye for detail has perhaps left its mark on him in the real world. Sanders takes care to be as non-intrusive as possible when capturing reference or shooting source photos in the wild. Flora made it into the game through the Procedural Placement System (a tool for dressing the game’s environments with plant life), assisted by rigorous performance testing to ensure the game didn’t buckle under the vegetation’s processing demands. Each step helped ensure the Decima Engine conveyed the game’s ecological concerns with visual potency, a history of tweaks and optimisations Kojima might look to exploit on Death Stranding.
The Ghosts of Tsushima, a samurai game set during the first Mongol invasion in 1274, might not have an “environmental” story to tell, but it does have a beautiful pampas field. Joanna Wang, the game’s Environment Lead, explained at an E3 interview panel how the team constructed the vast stretch of Japanese long grass by procedurally placing half a million individual flowers onto the digital terrain. Describing it as an “ocean of pampas”, she said “when the wind blows you feel like a wave hits you...this is an emotional feeling.” In curious synchronicity with Death Stranding, Wang also focused on the game’s moss, describing how player’s would discover large swathes of the small, flowerless plant in forests. “The moss is a key thing. It’s hanging on the trees; leaves are already buried into the moss. This is the beauty of Japan.”
That these environments are deployed so conspicuously to the public suggests the corporations behind them are keen to exploit their coded meanings. They are new markers for the played-out legitimisation rhetoric video games seem incapable of escaping. “Look how far games have come,” is the implicit messaging as studios attempt to mimic organic reality to such an exacting degree. It’s presented to us as another example of mastery of a medium and, to an extent, it is, but too often it’s just a different frame or window dressing for another third-person action experience. Death Stranding, with its idiosyncratic style, might challenge some of these norms, building a playful weirdness into its bleakly beautiful environments.
In 2017, a study entitled “The Nature of Americans National Report” found a widening disconnect between Americans and nature, with more than half of adults spending five or less hours in nature each week. As these games grow increasingly adept at rendering ecological phenomena, and as we spend more time playing them, the medium might come to augment our understanding of the digital and organic, an idea perhaps not lost on the Death Stranding director. Speaking during another interview at E3, Kojima said “the goal of this game is not fighting with your enemies and defeating them. The goal of this game is to reconnect the world.” It’s unclear exactly what Kojima means, but for now, there is an undeniable thrill to seeing vegetation rendered with such a pristine, digital sheen.