|Dev: Kojima Productions|
|Initial Release: November 8, 2019|
|PC Release: Summer 2020|
|Players: 1 Player|
|Screen Resolution: 480p-1080p||Blood, Intense Violence, Partial Nudity, Strong Language|
by Benjamin Maltbie
Death Stranding is a game written by Hideo Kojima, so fans already know what to expect to a degree. You can expect prevailing strangeness. You can expect deep, complicated lore. You can expect acronyms galore. Most importantly, you can expect a very filmic sensibility since Kojima says Kojima Productions will eventually make movies and seems like he loves that industry. Snake from Metal Gear Solid was, after all, inspired by Kurt Russell’s portrayal of Snake Plisskin in Escape from New York. As such, players can expect a very cinematic experience from the auteur’s latest game.
Death Stranding has, frankly, brilliant cinematography. The lengthy opening cinematic is engaging, even with barely a word spoken. The first hour of the game is full of thrilling cutscenes, and the way it plays with suspense is something to be applauded. There is a great balance of tension and release, which is important. The tension makes you fear for yourself and the world. The tension is also derived from the somewhat laborious gameplay; you have to work hard to progress and losing that progress is not pleasant. The respites, or contemplative downtime, are important too, because they allow the player to become invested in the world they are saving. The more leisurely strolls and beautiful scenic views, when they are encountered, offset the storms and monsters.
What I’m saying is Death Stranding does something unique in this medium. It blends mechanics and narratives to create atmosphere and unified themes. It’s so uncommon that games that keep narrative and gameplay separate get a pass, because that’s the industry norm. Death Stranding unifying these elements is something I adore, and it’s one of the game’s standout elements.
Death Stranding has a fully unified world that is more than a mere backdrop. This is both a story of man versus man and man versus environment. Things can be straight up hostile in this version of America. Essentially, the world has been torn apart, socially and physically, by an apocalyptic event. The arrival of creatures called BTs, short for Beached Things, complicates things. These creatures are beings caught in the space between the land of the living and the land of the dead. An overwhelming fear of them also means that some deliveries involve delivering bodies to incinerators. Compounding the BT problem is the presence of a type of weather that ages the body and corrodes materials. This weather often signals BTs, so it’s a harrowing experience, both for the characters and the player. All of this makes essential deliveries perilous, which is why delivery people are held in such high regard.
Sam Porter Bridges, aptly named for the fact that he is porter, is considered a legend at the job. Not that he cares much about that reputation; he’s keener on just getting the job done. He is also something called a repatriate, which in addition to being a cute play on words for a game about reuniting America, means he can return from death by following strands in the ocean. Reviving causes a cutscene that is equal parts serene and grotesque, while also damaging the area of the world where he died. I love it, I hate it, and it is incredibly on brand for the game.
Sam can also perceive and engage BTs due to a rare ability called DOOMs. When you begin the game, you enter your birth date, which is supposed to affect the way DOOMs work. It isn’t clear, at this point, what this aspect of the game actually does, but it does seem to prize the constellations Pisces, Cancer, Delphinus, and Cetus, named for a fish, crab, dolphin, and sea monster, respectively. Note the water theme, as in Death Stranding, the ocean represents the land of the dead.
Going forward, there are going to be spoilers leading up to chapter 3. If you haven’t played that far and care about spoilers, turn back now. Please.
Death Stranding’s central gameplay mechanic revolves around, fittingly enough, making deliveries. To make these deliveries, you must navigate hills and rivers, avoid BTs and hostile humans called Mules, and be mindful. You can only carry so many items and the way you organize them and the amount you carry affects your fatigue (although you can always manage your fatigue by pounding some Monster Energy drinks). It also affects your balance. Sam will teeter about while walking or running, and you must use the trigger buttons to affect his posture so that you don’t tumble down a mountain or whatever. Sam will also eventually acquire weapons, like grenades made from his urine and fecal matter that can damage BTs. This game is weird. You’re also crafting buildings, roads, and signs that could make traveling easier. Honestly, this game is full of items and mechanics that keep coming as you progress and in ten hours of play, you will continue to see new tools to play with.
The most useful too, to my mind, are the BBs. BB’s are little babies in a chest-mounted jar. Did I mention this game is really weird? Within Death Stranding’s tragic world, BB’s are considered technology, which is a cold stance to take. Their unique quality is that they can sense BTs even better than people like Sam. This is represented by a mechanic arm that flits to indicate proximity to the beasts and, more importantly, points in their direction. This ability is derived from the fact that BBs are babies are from brain dead mothers. They call these still mothers. The BB is more than a mechanic, though. It’s something to connect to. It gets sick and stressed, and Sam must placate them. It’s important to do but it’s also kind of beautiful.
Sometimes the mechanics in Death Stranding can get bogged down, though. Different buttons have a myriad of functions and, because of the nature of the game, you will often find yourself navigating menus. These menus aren’t intuitive, which is a shame considering how important they are.
Another core part of the gameplay is in the navigation itself. Maps can indicate storms and laborious routes. Charting a course takes more than simply placing a waypoint. In a way, you select your own challenge level according to the path you dare to take. Oh, and there are also regular difficulty settings, so there is a way to focus on the story if this is all starting to sound like a bit too much.
Beyond being filmic, the game and its story can be very writerly. Death Stranding is full of motifs and symbols that should be fun for players to put together. The story can be complicated, for sure, and even keeping up with the meaning of the various acronyms can be quite a task. Fortunately, there aren’t all that many characters, which helps make the world feel empty in an anxiety-inducing way. It also helps you get to know people. The story is, ultimately, about connection.
The theme of connection manifests in multiple ways. This is not an exhaustive list, but there is the BB connection to still mothers, Sam’s emotional, physical and psychic attachment to the BB, the connection of towns through an internet Sam is installing, deliveries, Sam’s last name, “Bridges,” and the connection between players via the helpful objects they leave in the world.
These objects can be incredibly useful, and I was surprised to discover the degree to which players are networked together. This system might be familiar to people who have played Dark Souls, as it basically links worlds together over the internet. It’s a bit more friendly, though. Players can place ladders, ropes, and other tools for people to use. These can also be “liked” by players, representing the communicative nature of social media, I think. They can also just place signs to warn or greet others. Pretty on the nose, right? When you first enter a new area, though, you don’t have any of these benefits. That creates a sense of danger, isolation, and imbues an appreciation for other players when the network comes online.
The trait of perseverance also comes across in a compelling way, and it is even contrasted effectively between characters. Perseverance is a heroic trait, but Sam doesn’t really come across as a hero. He mostly seems like he just wants to get his jobs done at first. A better word might be dutiful, and his behavior seems to hearken back to that alleged slogan of the United States Postal Service that supposedly claimed, “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” Conversely, his sister traveled the entire country, coast to coast, trying to help set up the UCA, which is the acronym for United Cities of America.
The perseverance is also represented in gameplay. The animations really sell the fact that what Sam endures could physically or mentally break a person. From a player standpoint, persevering through the wealth of difficulties, even after death (another important aspect of the game), becomes a virtue. Death Stranding is just a game, but you can feel proud of yourself if you don’t rage quit.
Death Stranding will not be for everybody. It seems meticulously engineered for a pretty specific kind of nerd. My wife, for example, loves this game, and when she loves a game, she dumps hundreds of hours into it. Me? I merely like this game, and probably wouldn’t invest a bunch of time into it were it not for work. Of course, there will be people who won’t like the game at all; it will feel like a chore to them. Fortunately, it doesn’t take long to determine whether or not Death Stranding is a game for you. I recommend experiencing it in some way, though, be it through a stream or a borrowed copy, because I think it will be talked about for years to come.