I spent the last few weeks playing through Death Stranding.
I looked forward to its release in 2019. It was announced for Playstation at the time. I don’t have a game console, so I waited for it to come out on PC based on early rumors. It was indeed released on PC in 2020, but I only have a very basic work laptop. So I thought I would wait some more to see what happened.
This Christmas, Epic Games gave Death Stranding away for free. Instead of buying a system, I was able to play it for just $10 through a streaming game service (Nvidia GeForce Now).
I think that this was a very appropriate way to play a game that features people waiting for things to be delivered — through a network that they’re waiting to see constructed.
Death Stranding’s story is disjointed. Like Hideo Kojima’s earlier Metal Gear Solid series, it’s largely constructed around the characters. Here, each character is coping with the prospect of death.
In this case “death” seemingly isn’t meant to describe the end of existence. It’s more of a metaphor for separation as well as a common denominator for all forms of life (including the beached whales that are everywhere in the game, hence the word stranding).
Each character confronts the prospect in a different way. The main character, Sam, copes with death and/or separation by withdrawing and avoiding physical contact. His boss/commander, Die-Hardman, copes by concealing his survivors’ guilt. Other characters cope through clinical interest in death (Deadman), vengeance (Cliff), and control (Higgs), a sort of deeply felt navigation of the edge of death (Fragile), and a sort of sleep (Heartman).
That’s also offset with the theme of birth. There are two characters try to cope through bloodline or family (Mama and Lockne). Sam is also responsible for a “bridge baby."
There are a lot of references to the particulars of Egyptian religion and mythology, particularly its terms for body and soul. This is also relevant to the design and superficial motives of a certain character — one of the game’s antagonist, Higgs. This gives the game a sort of conspiratorial or occult feel that’s in line with Kojima’s style.
However I think there is a more general outlook that works. I think you could use any concept other than death to get across just how large separation can be…it’s just that the distant and intangible nature of death makes it seem weightier.
In fact, the scale that separation entails is part of the game’s other theme — travel.
Some reviews have called the game’s mechanics tedious or demanding, but that’s not quite true. It’s only the first time that you traverse any given area that the landscape seems gigantic. It’s only once that you have to put substantial effort into movement and route planning.
It’s explicit that you’re supposed to feel like you’re in the body of the actor playing Sam (Norman Reedus). In an interview, Reedus said:
[Kojima would say] “Do that again.” It happened so much, and I kept saying, “Why are we doing so many of these little Norman things?” He told me pretty early on when I asked him that everyone was going to play me in this game, and he said, “No, they’re going to be you.”
After you do that — after you manage Sam’s movements and get to your destination — you have a network that is capable of providing electricity to tech and vehicles. The world of the game feels much smaller after that. It feels “connected” in the same way that the modern connected world allows you to Google Street View somewhere in seconds, rather than fly somewhere in hours, rather than take a ship somewhere in weeks.
Like most open world games, there is a fast travel system, but I never used it or felt a desire to use it. The game lets you move at your own pace. There’s the drudgery of slow walking and the passive boredom of riding a fast zipline. The vehicles are a sweet spot in the middle, and you still have to manage your battery and avoid running out.
By the credits of Death Stranding, the two themes are united — the distance of death and geography. You’re stuck in a vast, looping “beach,” where the geography you previously were able to traverse represents an infinite void of death or separation. Then there’s some more content (a long epilogue of cutscenes) that ties things back to the themes of connection and birth.
Though I enjoyed Death Stranding, I didn’t give the game as much time as it asked for.
I read some of the diaries on the game’s wiki instead of collecting them in-game. I also watched some of the cutscenes on YouTube rather than in-game, as they are not balanced throughout the game very well — in fact, the game infamously has 2 hours of ending cutscences.
I had little interest in the side missions, which asked me to deliver more difficult cargo. Maybe some of the object recovery quests might have sent me to new locations, but I didn’t take the time to find out. I did, however, spend a lot of time wandering around during main missions.
I’m not sure what influence can be taken from Death Stranding. There are a lot of other games that involve harsh terrain in a comparable way: Getting Over It With Bennet Foddy (2017) and Snake Pass (2017) and possibly Lemmings etc. (1991). It’s not a “fun” genre, more like a puzzle genre, but there’s certainly demand for it.
It also makes me think of a distinction two other game franchises: Mirror’s Edge and Assassins Creed, both of which use a sort of “parkour.” Mirror’s Edge makes you feel responsible for the character’s precise body movements as you maneuver yourself around obstacles. Assassin’s Creed involves climbing and jumping, which flows elegantly but seems kind of automated.
Even if there’s no reason to use a mechanic that is exactly like the one used in Death Stranding, maybe there are some broader design choices to drawn on. The game has a satisfying blend of detached planning/mapping and instant immersion that could be applied to other games. On the other hand, its unlikely any other game could handle things as well thematically.
Have you played Death Stranding? What did you think?