All cards on the table, I have not played Death Stranding. I’ve only watched a few streams and listened to several spoiler casts detailing the game’s plot. However, even before the game’s release, when I heard one of producer, designer, writer, and director Hideo Kojima’s long-time collaborators would be filling the role of art director, I was shocked Kojima wasn’t grabbing that title as well. I also knew I would need a copy of the Death Stranding art book. Yoji Shinkawa, known for designing the characters and mechs for the Zone of the Enders and doing the same for some other game series about snakes, is an artist whose work I can’t resist checking out. Even if it means looking into a game with women named Mama and Fragile–who, admittedly, isn’t that fragile.
What’s also far from fragile is this art book. The Art of Death Stranding from Titan Books measures at about 11” x 12”, making it a hefty addition to your coffee table or bookshelf. The pages are lined with a glittery gold foil, so you’ll want to opt for the coffee table as to not hide the lovely trim. The text on the book jacket is also a shiny gold while underneath the jacket, the letters gleam in shiny black, bringing to mind the Chiral goo in which the BTs lurk.
To get the negative out of the way, this is not a wordy art book. I know that sounds like a given, but my favorite art books include lots of design notes, maybe an interview with the art director, etc., but this is not the book for that. Instead, there is a caption for almost every image or group of images identifying whether or not the art was unused while occasionally giving a little insight into the inspiration behind a given element. For example, several captions note ancient Egypt as a recurring point of inspiration for several designs which I didn’t catch at first, given how subtly the influence is woven in. Zone of the Enders also takes cues from Egyptian iconography, so it’s nice to see Shinkawa pull from there again, given–despite my most intricate summoning rituals–we’ll likely never see another Z.O.E. game.
Moving on to the titular Art itself, each major character is given a couple pages of spotlight, showing off early concepts and beautiful renders from Shinkawa. His style makes great use of ink and shading for contrast and the linework always prioritizes character over precision or neatness. That approach makes for a bevy of captivating character designs, breathing a messier, organic feel to designs that lean into near-future sci-fi.
As the protagonist, Sam Porter Bridges née Strand gets the most pages, showing off not only his earlier designs, but all of the gear he can equip throughout the game as well. Though the rest of the cast receives understandably less attention, I still liked seeing some of the other ways their designs could have gone. My personal favorite designs are Fragile (who, again, isn’t that fragile) and Higgs and the later gets a couple extra pages showing off all the different ideas that could’ve been in place of his gold skull mask. Some of them are downright creepy, but no design in the game tops Fragile’s impractical, but very cool umbrella.
The other highlight for me in this book were the designs of the Beached Things, or BTs, unused or otherwise. These ghosts are truly haunting and I loved seeing some of the extra spooky details that went into designing them, like the golden skull resting in mouth of the whale-type BT. The jellyfish-types look straight out of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark with their blurry faces peering through their translucent membranes. There are even a number of early, unused BT concepts which look like they’d be right at home amongst the eldritch nightmares of Bloodborne.
Equally as disturbing are some of the early concepts for the stillmothers, arguably the game’s most chilling element. For example, one design features a limbless torso with a ghostly child cradled against her, still attached via umbilical cord. The stillmothers are an uncomfortable element of the game for me and that carries over to this artwork as well. However, when it comes down to pure aesthetics, these visuals are very affecting and appropriately upsetting.
The book’s later sections feature designs for vehicles, weapons, and landscapes. Some of the vehicle designs include breakdowns of individual elements like sketches of the seat, steering wheel, and gear shift of the Bridges truck. We’re also treated to a look at some of the components of various devices and machines Sam can build like the zipline and watchtower. These sorts of layouts always inspire a bit of awe in how deeply the artists consider the mechanisms which make these machines work.
The section featuring landscapes offers gorgeous spreads of washed out vistas that manage to be both barren and beautiful. There’s also lots of unused concept art for urban and rural settings featuring rotting cars, broken bridges covered in snow, and toppled statues buried in overgrowth. Barrenness is a key word when it comes to the feel of Death Stranding’s environments, but the artwork shown here emphasizes that barren does not necessarily mean ugly as these spreads are gorgeous to look at.
Overall, I would say The Art of Death Stranding is well worth picking up whether you’re a fan of the game, or just a fan of the game’s art director like me. The character designs in particular are ones I intend to return to often, but every element of the concept art makes for a treat for the eyes. If you haven’t played the game and are wary of spoilers, there are some designs shown near the end of the book that might count as context-free spoilers. Beyond that, clear off a corner of your coffee table and slam this bad boy on it like a lovingly rendered empty can of Monster energy. Don’t worry about scuffing the table, it’s not that fragile.