Online interactions doubles down on connected isolation theme
Very end heavy - you have to be patient
Death Stranding takes time and patience to understand. The game is oxymoronic in nature, and complicated. Hideo Kojimaʼs newest game bears the marks of his trademark style – utterly bizarre ideas and concepts, names and gameplay, but all that gives it a charm that is hard to both replicate and to hate.
Using a fragmented United States of America as the setting for Death Stranding, you explore a world with ghostly figures with an affinity for black tar. The worldʼs been divided and fragmented by an event called the Death Stranding, weakening the veneer of reality between the living and the dead.
Sam, the protagonist has the unique ability to sense BTs (ghostly figures that litter the wastelands) and spaces between the isolated cities. Sam is also effectively immortal able to reconnect his soul to his body, something which is referred to as him being a “repatriate”.
Then there’s the rain, referred to as Timefall in the game. Timefall greatly accelerates the passage of time of anything it touches, aging things quicker upon contact.
Thereʼs a lot to take in in the initial stages, however, it does make sense in time. Death Stranding is about exploring the world and its history and Samʼs past and relationships. Its hard to put into words without stepping into spoiler territory, but the larger narrative is intrinsically linked to the personal story.
Sam is a porter (read: deliveryman) for a company called Bridges, which is part of UCA (United Cities of America), whose main goal is to reconnect the scattered and isolated populace of the country, no matter how remote.
That premise fills the majority of the gameplay – delivering cargo. Sometimes, these delivery jobs have criteria and requirements to them, such as time limits, or fragile cargo, but the core part of the gameplay still comes back to Sam loading up his backpack with stuff and journeying through the world from location to location, through hell and high water.
This is where me describing Death Stranding as both oxymoronic and complicated start to take hold and I began by saying that context for a lot what Iʼm going to say matters. Death Stranding is not going to be for everyone.
The core gameplay might not be “fun” for some for a litany of reasons, and it can massively drag whatever little attention span you can afford into the proverbial gutter. It borders on tedium, frustration and combines many of gamingʼs bugbears into the equation – persistent inventory management, over encumbrance, fetch quests – yet despite all that, I personally enjoyed my time doing all that.
Somehow those fetch quests didnʼt feel so… tedious. There was perhaps a need, maybe an obsession, maybe a demented sense of pride, to do the damn job and get the cargo to the recipient in perfect condition.
Calling Death Stranding a Delievery Simulator would not be amiss, but that is a somewhat erroneous assessment without any of the context and the narrative. Oh, and thereʼs the baby in the jar that youʼre technically both attached to and using as a tool to detect BTs, and escorting across America.
Death Stranding isn’t a game, it is a social experiment, an experience.
BB, the baby in the jar is a weird concept on its own, yet I found myself weirdly connected to it – I didnʼt want to do anything to upset the baby, and whenever it got stressed out and cried I found myself taking the time to soothe it. BB is as central to the overall narrative as Sam is, and the game (and Norman Reedusʼ lines and acting) make you care about it.
Death stranding makes players work for the story, but by the endgame youʼll be invested in Sam, Fragile, BB, and the rest of the cast. Iʼve always said that a writerʼs job for fiction is to make the reader say “this is bullshit, but i believe it”, and Death Stranding contextualizes and makes sense of many of the fantastical elements of the characters and the concepts presented, and the overall lore.
Again, you have to dredge through hours upon hours of deliveries to get to the end of the story, especially if youʼre the obsessive type, but it is to facilitate Death Stranding earning its name, and establishing the theme – isolation and connections. Itʼs pointed out early in the game that the word “strand” in having opposing definitions of leaving something alone, as well as something that binds us together, and that paradox is on full display in the game.
For one, Sam only interacts with people directly on rare occasions, and most occasions his interactions are with holograms, fully demonstrating the strand being both connective yet isolating.
Furthering the theme, Death Stranding features an asynchronous multiplayer – your world (and by extension, other playersʼ game worlds) are affected by the other players items and decisions. Players may set up structures, like generators or ladders or (literal) bridges, or might lose cargo which you could pick up and deliver.
Countless items spread across the landscape makes the world living, in a sense; youʼre alone, but not lonely. Many of these things will assist you as youʼre trekking through the world, and it gives the feeling of working together to make the journey a little easier. You might be playing a single player game by yourself at home, but youʼre never alone in the game.
It feeds into the social aspect of how you would play the game as well – I found myself incessantly building roads and bridges, laying down signs of where BTs might appear, and generally placing my excess ladders and the such in the share lockers provided.
Thereʼs a sense of community, if slightly unspoken, in that youʼre doing your part in making things more bearable for others players. Part of me is reminded of how No Manʼs Sky was supposed to be, and currently it currently feels, and I think thatʼs a fair comparison to make.
On the technical side of the game, movement is fantastic. If you’ve played Kojimaʼs Last Game, Metal Gear Solid V, there is some sense of familiarity. The mission preparation screens, the inventory, the icons for items and even the movement of Sam feel similar to MGSV.
Movement being a key part of the game, it was essential that Death Stranding nail that aspect, and can I just say I really enjoyed moving around in the world. However, I do have some apprehension about how the vehicles move. They feel a little finicky and floaty, and the general sense it that it feels very detached from moving on foot. That is just a minor quibble that I have, but its not game breaking by any means.
Graphically, Death Stranding looks amazing. Running the game on a launch day PS4, and while there were some frame hitching, the game ran without much issue, and looks absolutely gorgeous in the process… or absolutely terrifying in an encounter with a BT. There is a feeling that my launch day console is being pushed to the limits of what it could do, but itʼs holding up just fine.
In terms of sound design, there are 2 main implementations. In the Overworld, there is a distinct lack of an OST score, barring the portions where you hit the next story beat, usually just before you make it into your next port of call.
The sound of each footstep is hauntingly beautiful. You can listen to the songs in your private room, which is fine, but not having a soundtrack while journeying might be jarring, which I suspect is again to drive in the theme of isolation.
Death Stranding is not a “fun” game by many metrics, yet a the same time it is testament of how video games are just more than guns and action set pieces.
Death Stranding is more like a seasonal TV show, slowly revealing the overarching narrative while getting you invested in the characters instead of rushing you from set piece to set piece like a summer blockbuster.
It is my honest opinion that Death Stranding isn’t a game, it is a social experiment, an experience. To treat it any less feels wrong. It makes you wonder about the theme, about the message of the game.
I wonder how many people would enjoy the entire experience as I did.
Death Stranding is available on the PS4 with a PC version coming later in 2020.