For years, those of us keeping an eye on Hideo Kojima have been surprised, confused and optimistic about his latest project: Death Stranding. Before the title came out, did we know exactly what it was about? Not at all. Were we frightened of the unknown? Probably. After its release, Death Stranding was indeed a divisive title. While devout Kojima fans were able to eat the title up with no problem, others found gameplay to be repetitive and mediocre. A friend of mine and I were discussing the title recently and the phrase “pretentious BS” found its way into the conversation (sometimes I do like pretentious BS). While there are parts of Death Stranding that have players divided, one element of the title should be revered by all: its soundtrack. Coupled with the title’s technical graphics, Death Stranding’s soundtrack is emotional and hard-hitting in all the right ways to help create the cinematic experience Kojima was aiming for. Orchestral pieces help drive story forward, while pop tracks from major recording artists serve as background music for gameplay. Between these two genres of music, fans are given a little bit of everything that still manages to create a unified soundtrack.
“Once there was an explosion. A Bang that gave birth to time and space…” The opening cinematic for Death Stranding sets the tone for the story in a way I’ve not experienced before in a game. The use of cinematography and recording artist Low Roar’s “Don’t Be So Serious” track help paint the picture of desolation and loneliness of a post-apocalyptic Earth. The way Death Stranding has been created is more like a movie than a game and its cinematic nature is taken even further with the thoughtful selection of music. We can hear many similar recording artists from Low Roar to CHVRCHES as we get into the gameplay. Kojima went as far as to contract major artists to create special tracks specifically for Death Stranding. Utilizing a “radio” mechanic that plays songs for you is a neat feature that brings contemporary artists into the world of Death Stranding. The folk nature of many of these artists helps create lonely environments, or moments of calm as we progress through the game.
While pop tracks are peppered throughout the game — with an official playlist having been created — Death Stranding also features an original score created by Ludvig Forssell. The score features hair-raising melodies that make use of synths and orchestral components to create an epic sound for the title. The track “Once, There was an Explosion” has a weird melody with hard synths that is reminiscent of 80s horror movies (think John Carpenter). The use of synthesizers also gives life to the sci-fi horror Death Stranding is supposed to be about. The use of bass in this particular track also helps create the element of an “explosion” that is at the heart of the title’s plot. At times, the thoughtful composition by Forssell lifts Death Stranding up where it may falter.
One of the more emotional tracks can be heard during an early moment in the game, when our protagonist Sam visits his mother. They have a very real conversation about what it means to save humanity from its current state of crisis. The soft piano is emotional as it begins solo, yet as the track progresses we hear more instruments added to it and a change in composition. Strings accompany the piano to create an ethereal sound and add a twisted edge to the track as it morphs into a chilling composition. About halfway through we hear this change for a few bars and then it softens again with vocal accompaniment. The track represents the ebb and flow of the conversation we watch unfold between Sam and his mother as she asks him to promise that he will help restore the world.
While there are many tracks used to represent the hopelessness and desolation of Death Stranding’s world, we do meet characters who carry new hope with them. With those characters, we can hear a shift in composition towards a more upbeat sound. One such track that exemplifies hope is “The Face of Our New Hope.” To avoid major spoilers, I’ll just say Sam eventually meets someone who has a plan to restore order to the world. When we talk with her, piano and strings start light and fast, but eventually crescendos with the help of optimistic strings and tinkling synths. It’s a track that gives so much more life to the moment it represents, to a point where one can associate the score with a particular character.
Whether you like Death Stranding because you’re a die-hard Kojima fan, or someone who didn’t care much for the title because of its filler, everyone on both sides can agree that Death Stranding’s music is some of the best to ever come from a video game. Kojima has basically created two different sounds for the title: a pop playlist and an orchestral score. While both can seem vastly different because of the various genres thrown around in a single game, each track has been thoughtfully curated to create a singular sound for Death Stranding. The pop tracks feature everything from folksy composition to more synthetic sounds, while the orchestra utilizes a myriad of traditional instruments along with synthesizers. We could go from a CHVRCHES track to one of Ludvig Forssell’s in an instant and not think anything of it because of how it all fits together. It all works because there’s a common element in it all: emotion. Picking emotional pop tracks and composing an emotional score is the common factor that binds it all together. Despite the various opinions on the game, Death Stranding’s sound rises above it all.