Death Stranding is in love with the beauty of the natural world. Venture up any of its challenging mountaintops and you’re greeted with a gob-smacking look at the forests and plains below. Its snow-covered foothills convey a deep sense of isolation and calm. Its yawning impact craters hint at a tumultuous history. They’re the kind of views that dwarf your place in the world — rebuke the idea that any one person might conquer the planet.
Death Stranding isn’t just in love with gorgeous horizons, either; it’s in love with what those awesome sights are made of. It wants you to appreciate the beauty of nature by considering how and why you navigate across its gorgeous and often melancholy terrain, how its contours might push back against you, and how we’ve pushed back against them in turn. At its most triumphant, Death Stranding accomplishes the kind of bold, imaginative departure from video game norms many expect from writer and director Hideo Kojima and Kojima Productions, the new studio formed from the ashes of the Metal Gear Solid series after Kojima’s split with parent company Konami.
But just as often, Death Stranding‘s affection for its breathtaking spaces manifests in cluttered, uneven ways — plagued by the same kinds of menial ideas many open-world games have struggled to move beyond. It’s not so much that these flaws destroy its wonder. It’s that Death Stranding is a shining example of a big budget game that could have altered the way we look at the giant areas we explore in video games… but blinks at the last second.
A Real Trip
Death Stranding is, primarily, a game about delivering packages from point A to B. The titular Death Stranding, a cataclysmic event that rendered much of the world devoid of human presence, has cut off all communications between regions and made moving supplies from one place to another a dangerous endeavor. Making this problem worse is the sudden proliferation of Timefall, rain that accelerates the aging and deterioration of anything it touches, as well as Beached Things (BTs), ghostly figures that cause monstrous explosions just by coming into contact with human beings.
At the desperate behest of his mother Bridget (the last living president of the newly-formed United Cities of America), Sam is tasked with traveling from the east coast of UCA to the west, hooking up the entire nation to the chiral network: a kind of internet that allows outposts to communicate with each other and manufacture goods and services needed to survive. Many of the cities and outposts Sam needs to connect to need supplies, or aren’t eager to reassimilate back into the UCA, so Sam also needs to deliver packages to and from different outposts to gain their trust and get them to join up again. It’s a silly setup that only gets sillier with time, but it works as a way to give all of your deliveries dramatic tension.
Death Stranding‘s greatest accomplishment is that it doesn’t let you forget the ground you walk on during these trips. The trigger buttons’ default function isn’t aiming or firing a gun, but holding onto the straps of your backpack for leverage. And, since you often transport comically large loads of ladders, climbing anchors, medicine, and other goods, you need to contort yourself almost constantly if you’re holding a lot of stuff.
Hold Onto Something
Your body is not just as an avatar for your expression within a game world, but a physical object with weight and orientation — something most games let you forget. I would occasionally come across a particularly annoying rock formation strewn across a valley and think twice about taking a shortcut. Timefall also erodes your cargo, and wading into its presence puts you on a generous, but constant, timer. Climbing rough inclines has a satisfying friction. Moving down steep slopes is tricky; going downhill produces a frightening amount of momentum, but you can feather the triggers to avoid tripping over yourself and scattering supplies everywhere (possibly breaking key cargo), but still retain some of that speed.
BTs also abound throughout America, and introduce a great twist on the stealth gameplay Kojima Productions is known for. They’re invisible to the naked eye, but you can see them if you stand still. Better yet, BB, a baby riding in your sci-fi papoose, can suss BTs out with a radar tuner, but doesn’t explicitly highlight them. As a reworking of the covert gameplay that defined Kojima Productions’ previous mainstay, Metal Gear Solid, this new kind of encounter feels tense and unnerving. Rather than scout out encampments for movement patterns and watch your plan unfurl, you need to constantly react to the colors and whirling sounds BB uses to guide you. You have all the information you need to get through these encounters. Yet I still felt left in the dark in just the right way.
Overcoming all these obstacles on your way from point A to B makes the journey all the sweeter. Climbing up a particularly snow-capped mountain for nearly 10 minutes, I was blanketed by a thick whiteout that made it hard to see where I was going. I had trouble finding handholds on its unforgiving slopes and got lost more than a few times. The Timefall nearly eroded all my gear. But when I finally turned the camera past a particularly jagged rock to reveal the square profile of the outpost I was looking for, I sputtered a quiet “Oh thank god,” and breathed a sigh of relief. Death Stranding wants to plant you in the role of a rugged mountaineer triumphing over nasty inclines. Early on, it succeeds with vigor.
Taming A Hostile Planet
Despite all the touches that make its hikes challenging, Death Stranding isn’t a very hard game. I died maybe three times throughout the nearly 50 hours I spent playing it. And I only failed a mission twice (once on purpose, just to see what would happen). Though the trek up that snow-capped mountain felt arduous, I can’t say I was ever in any real danger. Outposts can manufacture various tools and supplies to take with you. That includes ladders to cross small rivers, bridges to cross large ones, and climbing anchors to make lethal jumps much easier. You can even create vehicles like motorcycles to help you ride through plains and clear areas more easily. Although vehicles have a tough time making it through the more elaborate scenery — especially mountains.
You can also render this hostile world toothless through attrition. It’s a symptom of the open-world approach. Much of your time is spent walking down the same paths as you complete side quests and smaller, unimportant missions. Spend enough time doing that and you will eventually gather more resources than you know what to do with — making the choice of what to take on your next journey trivial.
You also get access to assorted major tools like trucks and exo-suits that let you ferry massive amounts of cargo without really thinking about it. By that point, the trek becomes less that rugged mountaineer fantasy, and more about just transporting an object from point A to B. The satisfaction from having made a perilous journey is slowy sapped away as you realize you’re going to have to do it a few more times.
Death Stranding also bows to conventional wisdom when it comes to conflict. Gunfights, as a whole, feel largely unnecessary. Camps of zealous porters addicted to the high of delivering cargo roam the land, and will attack you on sight. You can engage them in a few ways, but few produce the same joy that just traveling the world does.
These encounters, where attempts to evade line of sight are met with immediate detection and gunfights, are frivolous and bumbling affairs (again, Death Stranding is not a hard game). They’re tepid and uninteresting. I eventually wound up running or riding right past them without consequence. The few sequences that force you to confront someone with a gun are the game’s lowest moments. That’s a shame, since they’re tied to some of the most pivotal beats and exciting imagery the game has to offer.
I’m much happier with the more harmonious elements of Death Stranding. The objects you spawn to help out, for instance, aren’t just for you. If your console is online, and you happen to be inside the chiral network, you can use objects left behind by other players.
This lends the game a social quality that lets you feel the presence of people as they traverse their own version of this world. You can even see their names. It’s nice to find some equipmentalready connecting two steep cliffs you would have had to walk around otherwise. You can reward players with likes for their efforts, too, which act as a form of experience that helps level them up.
This does lead to some strange but fun situations. As I walked back down that snow-capped mountain, for instance, I saw a pair of futuristic zip-lines. These objects are the fastest way to traverse up terrain, but they require at least two separate machines to function, and the two zip-lines I saw weren’t close enough to connect. I had a spare machine to make one at my disposal, but it wouldn’t have helped me much; this pair of lines was more set to climb up the mountain, not down it. And because you can’t like an object while riding it, my intermediary zip-line probably won’t get many likes.
But I set it up just the same. It was my way of paying it forward. I’d crossed other people’s bridges and left their motorcycles out in the rain to wither in Timefall. I’d rested in their makeshift bases and made use of their lost supplies. So this thankless zip-line? It was the least I could do.
Meet The New Weird, Same As The Old Weird
Death Stranding‘s love of the natural world extends to its cutscenes. They tell a story laced with gorgeous, moving imagery alluding to how the ravages of climate change, weapons of war, and humanity’s selfishness have nearly destroyed the Earth. It’s not subtle about its message, and as a product of the team that created Metal Gear Solid, that’s to be expected.
Given the chance to start fresh and create a new setting, characters, and plot without the need to tie up loose ends decades in the making, Death Stranding… largely sticks the same vices that got Kojima Productions where is is now. Metal Gear‘s absurd plot and rollicking pace were assuaged, however, in part because watching them unfold over the course of two decades made the series something of a ride for fans who wanted to see how Kojima and his team would write themselves out of obvious holes. That same tact is far less endearing here.
Some of the self-indulgence can be fun. Death Stranding‘s cast is made up Hollywood celebrities: including surprisingly undersold performances from Norman Reedus and Madds Mikkelsen. Whereas some of the casting, like Guillermo Del Toro’s body and face performed under a soundalike, comes off as fawning. And, yes, it does seem like a guy swinging around a massive budget to fulfill personal whims. But casting Lindsay Wagner doesn’t feel like a move made by a marketing team. Rather, it feels like someone watched The Bionic Woman when they were a kid and really wanted her in a game. That’s the kind of personal touch you can’t help but roll your eyes and smile at.
Still, the plot of Death Stranding is muddled by unsubtle storytelling and a superficial density it mistakes for nuance. With an even looser tether to the real world than Metal Gear‘s alternate history, that density becomes more tiring than endearing.
The main character, Sam Porter Bridges, works for a company called Bridges, whose leader is Bridget, and is porting items across the UCA to build both figurative and literal bridges that connect people… Jargon flies fast and heavy, with terms like “BTs,” “BBs,” “Chiral Network,” and more coming both so often and so intermittently, you need to delve into the numerous in-game emails and text archives just to follow conversations across 40 or 50 hours. If anything, some of the most interesting writing is in sub-plots (like one about a pair of scientists who discovered Timefall is useful for farming wheat and turning it into beer). But those aren’t at the forefront the way they deserve.
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Kojima also dives head first into more topical subjects. Although Death Stranding‘s take on them hardly feels essential. It harps, constantly, about how receiving a “like” can give people a rush. MULEs, the primary human enemies you face in combat, are literally addicted to the rush of validation they get from the likes they get for delivering cargo. There’s also talk about how social media has slowly torn society apart by keeping us all at arm’s length, and how mankind attempted to build walls to keep out immigrants (yes, it’s that direct) before the Death Stranding.
Its desperation for you to to grasp the allusions quickly wears thin — like the Egyption concepts of “Ha” (body) and “Ka” (soul) implemented for no better reason, it seems, than to make characters sound smart. Plot twists happen frequently, too, but don’t usually amount to much when it comes to moving the story forward or reinforcing themes. Its conspiratorial puzzle box doesn’t seem particularly interesting to unravel, either.
While the surface-level storytelling is eye-rolling, corny, and needlessly dense, the imagery of the world Death Stranding presents can be powerful and evocative. It more capably captures its love of nature and contempt for man’s presence within it than any amount of talking.
For all the talk of creating a new America made up of cities, the country you traverse doesn’t look at mankind’s presence too fondly; the few cities you do run through are barren, often nothing but ruins, and regularly eerie. If you happen to get caught by BTs and pulled beneath their black tar, they spawn a giant monster that resurfaces the ruins of the old world — like buildings and shipping containers. And as the plot quickly spirals into a deluge of overly long reveals and exposition, there’s some powerful imagery speaking to the real-world consequences of our actions and our relatively small place in the universe.
Keeping it Together
While the plot can make the concept seem tired, the ways you interact with players does more to reinforce the need for social connection than all the harping in emails ever will, too. Seeing a notification that another player used that zip-line of mine, and even give me likes for it, is gratifying. And treading into uncharted territory without that connection to the people who helped me along the way feels cold and isolating. Damned if it doesn’t really make me want to connect with people, however corny that idea might sound on paper.
So yes, Death Stranding is often overeager and even embarrassing. So many of the things it puts up front – an overdeveloped, twisting story that has a few interesting points and delivers them haphazardly, a reliance on age-old approaches to conflict and mission design that don’t earn their keep — feel ancillary to the incredible view of horizons and the need to help a few friends reach them with you.
Long after I’ve forgotten specific plot details about who is actually who, or what significance any of its hamfisted metaphors might have beneath the surface, I’ll remember that perilous climb up the snowy mountain, or the time I planted a zip-line to selflessly help anyone who might need it. Because as unsubtle as its methods might be, Death Stranding‘s love of the natural world shines through with physicality that’s rare in video games. And as corny as it might sound, it got me to appreciate that journey from point A to B, as well as the gorgeous triumph of seeing the horizon from a mountaintop, just a little bit more.