Hideo Kojima's games are loved by their devotees for, among other things, the amount of surprises his development teams manage to squeeze into unexpected places. There's a level of detail to the worlds they create that is unique and, while much of it is ready to be found, certain interactions or possibilities are always buried-away for the most dedicated and experimental of players. Now fans have begun to take widespread notice of a Death Stranding secret that has previously been discovered, but never seems to have made much of an impression before.
The secret is that during the game's climactic boss battle with Higgs, the comically evil antagonist, players can choose a pacifist route to frustrate the enemy. Do this long enough, blocking Higgs' blows but refusing to retaliate, and the boss will grab Sam and trigger an animated sequence, one in which Higgs punches Sam repeatedly before pulling him close and biting off a chunk of his ear.
There seem to be two things in the background here. First is the Metal Gear parallels, with the Sam/Higgs fight something of a throughline from the MGS4 battle between Old Snake and Ocelot, which also includes rare animated sequences the player can trigger.
Second however is that this seems to be a pretty straight reference to what happened in a 1997 heavyweight rematch between Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield: frustrated by Holyfield's defence and a second round headbutt, Tyson proceeded to bite a huge chunk of Holyfield's upper ear off in a clinch. Incredibly enough, the fight would only be stopped after a second and much less serious bite, with Holyfield winning by DQ.
The reference seems unmistakeable, mostly because the image of the damage to Holyfield's ear was so gruesome and striking that the pictures went global at the time: the damage done to Sam's ear by Higgs is the same wound, on the same ear, and the animation when it's being done also echoes the boxing match's clinch. It was one of those sporting events that became mainstream news, as Tyson's controversial and fearsome reputation boiled-over into an act of bestial rage against a technically superior opponent.
Why a Mike Tyson reference? I suspect it's as much to do with how iconic the image became, as well as the mainstream consensus that Tyson had finally exposed himself as an uncontrollable monster who, frustrated by excellent defence and unable to land telling blows, resorted to savagery. The idea that Higgs, revelling in his power and desperate to defeat Sam, would become so enraged by a good defence he'd stoop similarly low maps onto it well.
The scene is doing the rounds because of this tweet, which includes video of the scene (and was spotted by GamesRadar+).
If you keep blocking Higgs' punches, you'll lose part of your ear permanently #DeathStranding pic.twitter.com/utAHgkSDOBJuly 23, 2023
I hadn't come across this before, but a quick search shows that players have discovered this previously: it just never seems to have been especially picked-up on. Which is par for the course with Kojima's games, where it sometimes seems every straightforward sequence is just built for players to take it apart with unexpected behaviours.
One especially neat aspect of the ear loss, however, is that it happens on the beach. Long story short, this is a kind of limbo in Death Stranding's lore that exists between life and death, and has a kind of shared permanence to it. Thus when Sam suffers an injury or dies in the living world, he repatriates and is reborn healed. But when he suffers an injury or dies on the beach, as Higgs says, it's permanent. So lose your ear like this, and Sam's ear will remain injured for the rest of the game.
pic.twitter.com/Z9tp2nQGSFJuly 26, 2023
No-one's subsequently found if the injured ear has any other effects within the game world, though don't be surprised if someone randomly delivers a parcel in a few years' time and discovers a new voice line or something. What's impressive about this detail is how tucked-away it is, how incidental, and yet how much effort has gone into it: for an interaction most players won't ever trigger, this has its own bespoke animated sequence and an entirely new character model for the game's main protagonist. The detail itself doesn't make a huge amount of difference within the game, and yet it's been treated with the same care as a major plot point.
Tyson reference? Just a neat Easter egg? Or something that will turn out to have another payoff somewhere down the line? No-one really knows and, far more than the self-aggrandising credits, that's how you know you're playing a Hideo Kojima game.