Gaming Thoughts – Death Stranding

So last night…after 60 hours of gameplay I finished my playthrough of Death Stranding, Hideo Kojima’s first game since parting ways with Konami back in 2015. The discourse around the game is showing to be quite divisive, as Kojima games tend to be in general. I’ll admit I have been reticent to chime in(much) on the discussion surrounding the game as so much tends to be completely subjective, and also the fact that there are so many facets and aspects of the game that I find myself quickly spiraling into a semi-coherent ramble(just ask my wife…). For today’s post, I’m not going to delve too much into the general reception of the game but have decided to focus primarily on my three main takeaways from the unique experience presented by this game. For the sake of spoilers and the overall Kojima-ness(it’s a word, look it up) of the game’s storyline and the many, many metaphors contained within I have also decided not to tackle too much of the story other than just the basics.

Death Stranding takes place in an America that has been nearly destroyed by a cataclysmic event known as the Death Stranding in which the worlds of the living and the dead have converged with the remnants of humanity hidden below the surface in fortified bunkers as otherworldly creatures known as Beached Things, or “BTs” are unable to be seen by the naked eye and plague the land above ground. With the country fractured and in disarray(METAPHOR ALERT) Sam Porter Bridges, played by Norman Reedus is employed in reuniting the country via the Chiral Network – a sort of internet. To complicate matters, any sort of precipitation – rain, snow, etc. is known in the game as “Timefall” and causes any organic material to rapidly age and decay, including humans. This brings into the game an element of item deterioration, down to the very boots you wear.

Sam is equipped with an Odradek – a spider-like apparatus that sits over his shoulder and is primarily used as a scanner as you navigate the world, along with the most-memed aspect of Death Stranding – the “Bridge Baby” or “BB”, which is carried in a glass “womb” that Sam carries on his chest as BBs are among the only living creatures capable of detecting the invisible BTs. One of the central themes of the game is death and the afterlife along with the space, or beaches, as they’re referred to in the game. These represent the sort of Purgatorial realm that separates the living and dead.

The World

I love the rugged terrain and moody atmosphere

The America that Kojima Productions has created is nothing short of astounding, the rugged rocky terrain with stretches of grassy expanse is simply breathtaking. There’s also the snowy beauty of mountain ranges with marshy lowlands in the valleys below. Several areas feature a barren, rusty, Mars-like landscape you must traverse. One order may ask you to transport supplies to a settlement on the very edge of the map, while the next may direct you to retrieve items that had been lost in an ambush. Upon completing the deliveries, Sam is then able to connect the location to the larger country via the Chiral Network forming another “strand” along the way. You can also undertake additional deliveries which upon completion assist in strengthening your connection level up to 5 stars.

The key word in describing the gameplay is traversal, the game has been labeled as “just a walking simulator” by some; the central gameplay element sounds anything but complex, Sam takes on orders(missions) at different terminals across the country and sets out to transport a myriad of items to the corresponding locations scattered about the area. “The game is just a glorified Amazon delivery person-simulator” is among the most common criticisms of the game…..I understand I may just be weird, but that’s part of the game that I find endearing – would anyone other than Hideo Kojima be crazy enough to pull something like this off? The fact that traversal is the primary gameplay element along with a generous amount of inventory management and stealth with just a sprinkling of combat into the mix. One order may ask you to transport supplies to a settlement on the very edge of the map, while the next may direct you to retrieve items that had been lost in an ambush. Upon completing the deliveries, Sam is then able to connect the location to the larger country via the Chiral Network forming another “strand” along the way. You can also undertake additional orders to build your “connection” with the settlement along your journey across the country.

From the moment I began playing the game and was placed in this gorgeous, expansive world I was compelled to keep going and to see just what lay over the next horizon. I kept thinking to myself while playing, “Ok…I’m supposed to be bored now right?”. The bulk of your travels will by made by foot, with the eventual ability to fabricate additional tools and even some vehicles. The traversal through the game across the desolate landscape has such a haunting otherworldly vibe I found myself in near disbelief at the quality of visuals in Death Stranding. While traveling there isn’t a whole lot in the way of soundtrack outside of a few ambient sounds until encountering a point in your journey which triggers one of the many licensed songs from the Icelandic band Low Roar. This generally occurs just as you venture to the top of a hill and see your destination finally lays ahead of you. The feeling of relief in just the fact that you’re completing a mission and reaching your destination became such a weird, almost intoxicating feeling. The feeling of satisfaction as you think “I’ve finally made it” is unlike anything else I’ve played in a game, with the closest example being the moment of finally defeating that giant boss in a Dark Souls game. Another aspect of the game I have also seen many others reference is the contemplative, zen-like feeling in your travels as you will spend a great deal of the game all alone. I found the game downright relaxing at times.

The music used in the game is phenomenal, with Ludvig Forssell’s original soundtrack evoking waves of emotion throughout the game, particularly in BBs Theme which is a melody patterned as a lullaby one might hum as they cradle a newborn. Just hearing BBs Theme since beating the game is enough to bring back the rush of emotions I experienced through the game. There is an impressive amount of licensed songs used in the game as well; nearly twenty songs alone from the band Low Roar, with nearly a dozen other songs used by other artists. Similar to the range of 80’s music that was placed throughout Metal Gear Solid 5. Among my favorite licensed songs are ‘Pop Virus’ by Gen Hoshino which I listed in last week’s game music post and the song ‘Death Stranding’ by Chvrches which is quite literally, the title track of the game. I liked Chvrches prior to playing the game, but I really have fallen in love with this song. Kojima certainly understands the impact audio can have in conveying moods and emotions in any piece of art, and it is no more evident than while playing Death Stranding.

A Helping Hand

Another gameplay element central to Death Stranding in asynchronous online play that lets players leave ladders or ropes in various places not only to assist you in traversing the rugged landscape, but also to leave behind you a hand of assistance to others making their way through the game. Once an area has been connected to the Chiral Network you can begun to rebuild the country decimated by the Death Stranding. You can use gathered materials towards building paved roads or eventually zip lines(awesome!) to provide greater ease in traveling from place to place. You can build additional structures like watchtowers to survey the surrounding area or Timefall shelters to offer a brief respite from the container-ravaging rain or snow. You may find the battery of your reverse trike is running low on battery and find a generator standing just up ahead; the satisfying reward of knowing you’ve helped someone else in the lengthy journey through the world is one of the biggest achievements of the game. One any of the several boss fights, you can see the specter of other players fighting and will assist you by tossing weapons and health in your direction. This isn’t a completely new gameplay facet as this was also used in From Software’s Dark Souls series where players could leave messages of either warning or encouragement for others. The idea of “connections” and “strands” were meant to be central to the game experience as Kojima himself has stated. The landscape of America is vast and barren and has been a criticism of the game from some publications as the experience was found to be an empty and lonely; that’s precisely the point. The pervasive feelings of loneliness and detachment are at the heart of Death Stranding as Kojima stated the game was a result of the loneliness he himself feels from time to time in our current world. More than ever before we are able to communicate and connect with others around the globe, but for many there is still a missing feeling of being “connected” to those around us. Something as simple as a sign of encouragement from others can help remind us that even though we may feel all alone in this giant empty space, we aren’t. Metaphors like this aren’t hard to see as Kojima games historically have been ANYTHING BUT SUBTLE when it comes to their central themes.

The Journey

It’s only been about 24 hours since completing the game, but I can already feel the game has been an experience that will stick with me a long time. After finishing the game, there’s a feeling not of being exhausted, but more that you know you have climbed the mountain and have seen a long journey through from start to finish. While playing Death Stranding I have mentioned multiple times how it felt similar to making my way through the even lengthier storyline of Red Dead Redemption 2 in that it wasn’t the hyper-stimulating gameplay experience like playing through Doom or any number of action or FPS games, but there’s a feeling of satisfaction in seeing the resolution to your emotional investment.

It wasn’t as much of a surprise that the voice and motion capture performances in Death Stranding are nothing short of phenomenal. Norman Reedus is probably the most surprising as initially most of his lines were delivered in a low gravely tone that it sounded as if he was trying to play Solid Snake, but as the game progressed you see Sam open up a little more and displays a greater range of emotions and feel like you’re not JUST controlling Daryl from The Walking Dead. I can’t go without professing my love for Mads Mikkelsen, who I was beyond excited when I first heard he would be starring in a Hideo Kojima game. I love his movies and especially his portrayal as the evil Dr. Hannibal Lecter in the NBC show Hannibal(gone WAY too soon…); the quiet intensity he brings to the story as Cliff was excellent. Troy Baker and Lea Seydoux were great as usual as the terrorist Higgs and Fragile. Tommie Earl Jenkins who plays Die-Hard Man was one of the best performances I have seen recently as he begins the game as seemingly just another Col. Campbell/Major Tom type to give you advice or directions(or is he?). By the end of the game I was nearly as attached to these wonderful characters with way-too-on-the-nose namesakes as I did to Arthur while playing Red Dead Redemption 2, but what surprised me the most was attachment to my BB. I have no nurturing instinct whatsoever but I got quite attached to the little guy. It was such a heavy “feels” moment to see Sam and BBs journey come to a close and in a way felt similar to that of Kratos and Atreus’ in God of War.

But…is Death Stranding a fun game? I personally didn’t find myself ever bored or frustrated when playing the game, I felt so enamored with this gorgeous world and the truly unique story it tells. I absolutely love this game, but I have no problem with the fact someone else may find it boring and hate it even after “actually playing the game”. My biggest critique of the game would be that the controls aren’t completely perfect, but not enough to put me off playing the game, the pacing of the game I totally understand may detract others from enjoying the game as much. I found it interesting that the game begins with you being nearly helpless and had to progress to make connections and fabricate weapons, being able to create the different powered skeletons made it immensely easier to keep Sam upright. By the final chapters of the game you feel a sense of progression in both the storyline and your abilities. I had to laugh that after the final credits you are shown your stats from your time in the game and there’s a category for Tumbles Taken which tracks just how many times you fell over due to unstable terrain or losing your balance. The OCD part of me also enjoyed how the game will force you to prepare for potential situations that may arise during your mission and will not think twice about punishing you for being careless.

Death Stranding is a game that was never intended to be a conventional experience, and that’s the two key words I will use to describe the game, experience and investment. If you’re looking for something simply to hold your attention as you zone out in front of the tv, you may be utterly disappointed. In a gaming industry being more and more dominated by sequels and remakes as they provide the safest return on a publisher’s investment, one cannot deny how impressive it is that a big-budget game with such an abstract story and more non-conventional gameplay features exists. Despite there being those still insisting the contrary, video games can be art, and any artistic medium is mostly subjective. Editor-in-Chief of Game Informer Andy McNamara has stated the interesting thing about Death Stranding would be as a discussion piece and likened it to something you would see in an art gallery. I have also sadly noticed those out there defending the game and claiming that those who were critical of the same simply hadn’t played it or “just don’t get it”. Now that I’ve finished the game I will mostly likely attempt to wrap up some other games on my plate as I want to get a decent sampling of games released in 2019 before I start with my game of the year talk, which is obligatory for anyone blogging about video game it seems. I will most definitely come back to Death Stranding as I’d like to go for the platinum trophy. At this point, I would have to say Death Stranding is definitely Top Three of my favorite games of 2019. I do find it amusing however, that Kojima’s game about connecting others has proven so divine already…

Has anyone out there taken a gamble and picked up Death Stranding? If so, what did you think? Did you love it or hate it, what did you like/dislike about it? I’ve been looking for others to actually discuss the game in more nuance than simply “It’s the best game ever!” or “it’s a pretentious walking simulator!”. Feel free to leave a comment or you we can discuss on Twitter @gamingomnivore. I also included a couple tracks from the game that I’m currently in love with! Thanks for reading!