In such a lonely, disconnected time, it feels good to connect — even if it’s just a game.
Death Stranding is a masterpiece. It doesn’t feel like it at first — it starts slow, and, well, kinda weirdly, and the various threads of plot and gameplay don’t fully come together in a satisfying way until the end. The first few hours is a lot of cutscenes and talk about a strange world of jargon and mystery — timefall, BTs, the Beach, the Death Stranding itself, etc. There’s a weird baby thing you strap to your chest that cries if you fall down. You can make Sam, the main character, use the restroom and shower — along with a luxuriously long scene of him showing, with as much Norman Reedus butt as you feel like gazing upon. It’s an odd duck of a game at first, to put it mildly.
Death Stranding is the first game made by Hideo Kojima’s independent company. His fans — myself included, full disclosure — had hoped for something great from a Kojima free of even modest constraints under his previous studio, and we have been richly rewarded. He did it. It is good.
In this game you just walk, at first. You walk through one of the most gorgeous landscapes ever sculpted in a game. It is a kind of symbolic America whose physical presentation is much closer to Iceland and the more barren and blasted parts of the American Southwest — rocky, mossy, rough and brutal, with few settlements and fewer trees.
To say you ‘just walk’, though, is a bit of a lie by omission, since the physics and mechanics of the game are so detailed that simply walking is an engaging task. Sam will walk as directed, but depending on his center of gravity and the roughness and steepness of the terrain, he will begin to wobble and may topple over completely if you fail to stabilize him. Just walking with Sam is an constant balancing act — literally — of trading speed for stability, both in the specific obstacles and in selecting a route to attempt as you cross the land in miniature.
You’re a porter, so your work is to deliver packages and make connections. Your grand mission is to go from the eastern part of America to the west connecting the dots as you go to rebuild. This is not the USA, mind you, but America, the place not the polity as the USA is no more in this world. It is a post-destruction America. The details of that are so complex it isn’t possibly to put them in brief.
When it comes to plot, the more important thing to know is: it will make sense in the end. Don’t judge too early, just take it in — it’ll come together in time. There are no wasted elements, no dangling bits Kojima forgot to prune; the narrative of Death Stranding is in beautifully poetic fashion a kind of braid of strands that appear loose and unrelated at first but which come together as a coherent whole by the end. You have to get to the end to see it all, though.
The mechanics and art are an absolute triumph of good design. There is an elegant, almost effortless harmony in how Sam the game element engages with the environment via his tools and movement schemes. The player might flail around at first — the beginning is the most difficult part — but soon Sam and the player are tight and efficiently devour kilometers over mountains and across crevasses. You’re given ladders and climbing rope, among other tools, to help climb and descent the many cliffs and peaks necessary to get your cargo from here to there.
It may sound simple — boring, even — but it is not. There is some tension in every delivery, especially in the beginning, in deciding where to go and what gear to bring. Every bit of gear makes you heavier and more awkward to move, more likely to fall and less nimble if you’re ambushed by the baddies. Do you go alpine style and take just enough to stay light and fast, or do you pack the kitchen sink and risk a nasty fall that could ruin the entire trek?
My favorite single moment, the one that made the while thing start to click for me, happened near the peak of what may be the highest mountain in the game. My stamina was burning up fast — I was freezing to death, basically, and starved for oxygen. I’d scouted a route along a knife-edge snowy ridge with a series of cliffs to defeat before my summit destination. It was dicey already, but become desperate when a whiteout snow storm hit me on the ridge. I couldn’t see to more than a few feet. I could barely see the ridge well enough to stay on it, and had to try to remember where the right route was in the cliffs beyond the ridge. I was maybe 15 seconds from death when I dragged in to the summit shelter to deliver my cargo. Poor Sam bent over at the waist and looked like he was about fall over, breathed ragged, before I let him drop down and regain his strength. It felt so good to make that connection and get that heavy gear to the high camp, though. So worth it. I started to ‘get’ the game after that near-death delivery.
The world of Death Stranding is our world, too, in abstract. Disconnected, afraid, dysfunctional, with more fear than trust. The game is about more than just hiking and getting boxes delivered, and this is maybe most apparent in the multiplayer aspect. You’ll never see another human player — there is one Sam in your game, and it is you, but you’ll see and benefit from the gear left by other players. A ladder left across a turbulent river from another player may appear in your game to help you cross, saving you from using one of your own. You can even give that ladder ‘likes’, and you’ll be shown the name of the real life player who placed it. Your gear helps others, too, and you see it whenever they like your stuff. Connecting the world in Death Stranding is a collaborative effort, then, rather than a lonely one. You can’t hurt anyone, you can’t grief another player, you can only ever give them more tools to succeed. It feels pretty good to know someone liked the road you built or the shelter you placed enough to dump some ‘likes’ on you.
We can be like Sam, if we want. We can literally deliver groceries to people who, for various reasons, can’t go shopping themselves — law permitting, of course. Unless you really wanna be like Sam and say fuck the police and just bring grandma her pills across town real sneaky-like. Do it smart and safe, obviously, but it’s an option. We can reconnect. Connection doesn’t mean we’re best friends, either in real life for the game, it just means there is a strand — a bridge — across which we can pass communication and material when we need to. That is worth something.
Play Death Stranding if you can. Be patient with the early section — Kojima is a post-modernist of sorts with a particular style of cinematic pacing and dialogue, but it all has a purpose. You will be rewarded with one of the finest examples of modern game making to date, and one that could not be more urgent, beautiful, and meaningful. It feels good to play it. There are scary parts, but that is part of making connections in real life — it’s scary to reach out, scary to ask for help, scary to make a new friend. There are risks. But the risks are manageable, the barriers surmountable, both in the game and in life.