So, I beat Death Stranding over the weekend and feel the need to talk about it. I don’t have anyone in my personal life that plays video games so I figured I may as well write out my thoughts and what better place to post those thoughts than a forum, right? I’ll try to organize my thoughts as well as I can but be prepared for rambling. I’ll also try to not spoil anything but I’m not sensitive to spoilers myself, so I don’t know what a spoiler is and isn’t with this game, honestly. I won’t talk about the narrative of the ending, for example, but I will discuss the mechanics. Anyway, here goes some rambling about Death Stranding.
Preamble Before the Ramble
So, before I inundate this post with too much rambling, I figured it would make sense to talk about my overall impressions of the game. I put just over 31 hours into the game, focusing primarily on mainlining it but doing enough to level up quite a bit (I believe my final level was 209). I thought the main experience, delivering packages, was pleasant. Maybe I should contextualize my experience with games currently. I work as a mental health therapist in my own private practice. Between work, friends, family, and other types of self-care video games lately have gotten less and less of my focus. There was a time, like when I was in college, when video games were fighting head to head with my academics as my sole focus. Now, it’s one of many focuses. Further, when I’m home I’m usually exhausted. I’m an introvert so socializing and social situations in general, though I do very much enjoy them, take it out of me. So, work drains me, as do my friends and family, so when I do get back to self-care, I’m mentally exhausted much of the time. Though there are exceptions, I’m finding that I more and more gravitate toward games that are easy and take less overall focus. Or, better yet, don’t require fast reflexes. 85% of Death Stranding involves holding L2 and R2 and pushing up on the left stick as you progress through pretty environments. Those are the parts of the game I really like, even though on its surface that sounds boring. No doubt it will be to a lot of people, but for where I am in my life that experience was extremely pleasant.
Let’s Talk Narrative
So, I’m going to break up the narrative of this game into three parts; the lore, the plot, and the characters. First, let’s talk about the lore, or world building, or however you’d like to put it. Which might seem weird as the starting point when discussing a narrative as you’d expect the plot to lay the foundation for everything else. But, in Death Stranding, the lore is the groundwork, for better or worse. First though, let’s talk about Kojima. See? I’m rambling. I already had one ‘first’ and now there’s a second ‘first.’ Anyway, my experience with Kojima’s games started with Snatcher on the Sega-CD. I played MGS on the Playstation when it first released, as well as MGS 4 when it released, went back to play 2 and 3 when they re-released, and then played 5. I liked them all well enough but was never enamored with the story. I appreciate the tone all those games struck, even when those tones conflicted with one another. I have a predilection toward over-valuing tone in my stories, sometimes leading me to overlook problems in the narrative. Death Stranding strikes a strong tone and mostly consistent tone. It is deathly serious primarily with small moments of levity. It’s also very earnest and sincere. As an occasional grump, bothered by the state of the world currently, it’s nice to see a genuine, sincere, and earnest look at what the world could be under dire circumstances. But where the game’s lore falters is part and parcel with Kojima’s writing. It either over or under-explains everything. Let me explain. In MGS, for example, the science behind Snake’s equipment is over-explained much of the time. Take the codec. You know, as a player, that the codec stimulates the small bones of his ear so only he can hear the calls and dialogue. This explains how he can receive calls and orders without being detected. That’s fine and good but that explanation leads to more questions that the lore can’t account for (unless I get comments below that prove the MGS lore does account for these things but at least you’ll get my point). Guards can’t hear the codec calls and dialogue from Snake’s team, but they can hear him talking, right? Which how would a device implanted in his ear pick up his voice anyway? Unless there’s something built in his suit, which why wouldn’t they explain that detail? Unless the codec is picking up his thoughts. Which, if it is, how the hell does it do that? You see what I mean? An over-explanation opens the possibility for your audience to over-think what they’ve been told. It also then sets a precedent that the lore will be explained, no matter how hole-filled that explanation might be. So, when the game doesn’t explain the lore, or does so in a thrown-off and cavalier way (nanomachines, for example) it can be frustrating to the audience. Death Stranding has the problem of a having a complex world that is not explained too well through in-world story telling and so relies heavily on codec, codex, and cutscene exposition to explain that lore. But falls prey to the over and under-explaining that plagued MGS. It’s distracting for the audience and leads to questioning the logic of the world, which underpins everything else.
The plot, then, requires that the audience accepts some of that lore in order to buy into its conceit; that a disconnected society, on the macro level, and disconnected individuals, on the micro level, can’t survive. That on both scales connections with one another are required for humanity to not only survive a dire situation but thrive. This is the part that is sincere and earnest. On some level, I too very much believe that sentiment. But the game doesn’t do much with that idea. As a player, you know connection is ‘good’ and disconnection is ‘bad’ and sort of why, from some of the characters’ perspectives. Though, much of the ‘whys’ are “humans weren’t meant to go it alone.” They don’t do any work to explore the systemic problems with the old connected world and how it might be different this time. Or how different cultures may impact the view of ‘connection.’ It’s base and simplified and goes nowhere.
The same could be said of the characters. There was a Youtube video I saw long ago that jokingly asked people to describe Star Wars characters without describing their jobs or their look. Obviously, that’s an overly simplified way to look at Star Wars, but it makes a good point. I guess call me captain obvious, but some stories do a bad job at making characters well-rounded and developing them. Sure enough, so does Death Stranding. I think there’s more to them then I was expecting given most of their names, since I apparently judge characters by their covers, but by and large the characters in Death Stranding are defined by what they do or what they’ve done. Let me make a point of reference and be a cliché at the same time. Look at the character of Charles Foster Kane from Citizen Kane (yes, I went there). Part of what makes that character work so well is that you learn a ton about him through numerous avenues. You’ll get the exposition like you get Death Stranding, given in that movie from the varying perspectives of the characters talking to the reporter doing the article on Kane’s life. But you also see Kane through multiple stages in his life and how his environments change his perspectives, motivations, and intent. You see how he can be charming but also vindictive. He can be caring and earnest but selfish and egotistical. You see all that because you’ve seen where he’s come from, what he’s been through, what his drives and motivations are, and how all those things interact with his strengths and weaknesses. Now look at Sam Porter Bridges. You know he’s antisocial, in part because we’re told he has a phobia (why didn’t they just say he has social phobia or social anxiety?), but also by his actions. He’s gruff, laconic, and often quiet. But he develops while keeping some of those characteristics that define him. At the end, he’s still gruff and laconic but he allows for more moments of intimacy with others. He is in character form the embodiment of the theme of the game itself; human connection is vital to human existence. But how that information is delivered to us as an audience is through either expository conversations or sudden character shifts. We don’t know what motivates Sam other than his connection to his sister. We don’t know why that connection than generalizes into intimacy with Fragile, for example. It’s hard to even infer a reason for that character change. We just know that it happens. We know what he’s been through, as we are controlling all of it, but we aren’t privy to his mindset leading us to know why he choses to change his behavior from self-concerned to altruistic at points. He just makes those shifts, we as an audience observe the shift, are occasional told about said shifts (or need for an upcoming shift) through expository dialogue, rinse and repeat. With Charles Kane, we know what drives him. We know his intent, his motivations, how his actions either align or go against those motivations, and how all of it leads to the character’s development from a child to an old man. With Sam, or really any of the characters in Death Stranding, there’s just action and reaction with each action symbolizing character development.
But What About the Gameplay?
The gameplay of Death Stranding can be broken up into chunks. There’s delivering items, developing the world and your character, stealth/combat, BT encounters, and boss fights. I’m totally pulling this number out of thin air, but I’d hazard a guess that 85% of the game is focused on deliveries and world and character development. To be clear, the world and character development basically means doing things like public works projects and providing avenues for traversal, delivering lost cargo, taking shelter, etc. that lead to likes for your character, leading to leveling up and new skills and improved stats (like being able to carry more weight), and, when done by others, leads to smoother experience for you. It is another way the game delivers (hahahaha) the theme of the game to the player; doing things to improve the world and connect with others helps you as much as it does everyone else. I mentioned in my preamble that I enjoyed the delivering of goods. Those two components are the bulk of the game and despite the narrative problems and any other qualms I have with the game that most of the game was enjoyable to me should be a big takeaway.
By ‘stealth/combat’ I’m specifically referring to the interactions with the ‘mules’ faction. These are the humans who have become ‘addicted to likes’ and will attack transporters just for their goods for no rhyme or reason. This is the most ‘Metal Gear’ this game gets. Essentially, you can sneak around these enemies, take them out stealthily, steal products back from them, lethally and non-lethally attack them, or just avoid them entirely. In design, these encounters are open-ended and in concept they seem like a great break from making deliveries. In practice, however, the controls that are designed for delivery don’t translate very well to combat and stealth. This is especially true when you are in the process of making a very big, heavy delivery. They become more of a hassle than a fun diversion. I heard a person on a podcast refer to them as the ‘inclement weather’ you as a deliveryman must deal with on your way to making a delivery and I couldn’t agree more. Then there are the BTs, who at the start of the game are meant to be terrifying, almost as if they are an enemy in a game like Outlast wherein the goal is avoidance at all cost. Until later, when you are given the tools to destroy the BTs almost more swiftly than you can the mules. When you are caught by the BTs, you enter an ‘encounter’ almost like a battle arena from a real-time RPG wherein you can fight the BTs or escape from the arena, which is made difficult as the ground is flooded and hard to move through. You can use platforms to move faster, but the game’s controls don’t really translate to platforming, either. If the mules are the rain for the deliveryman, the BTs are the snow.
Then, the boss fights. Boy. So, take the comments I made about the control being bad for combat and platforming. Now consider that the boss fights are all almost entirely combat and platforming. Yeah, I think the boss fights are one of the worst parts of the game. The control just don’t work for them. It all feels mushy and clumsy. I will say some of the boss fights look cool and maybe in a better controlling game they may have made for fun encounters. But, not here. Which leads me to the worst part of the game.
This is probably the most spoiler-ish I’ll get in this whole write up. So, for those that don’t want any spoilers at all I’ll say that the end of the game, maybe the last 15-20%, is far and away the worst part of the game. All the gameplay components that don’t work in the game are doubled down on in this section and the credits, the first credits (yes, there are two versions of the credits), are some of the most self-indulgent credits I’ve seen in a game. Now, on to some ramble-y, spoiler-y details.
The game is broken up into two maps; a starter, tutorial map and a second, bigger map. After a terrible boss fight that tries to call back to MGS 4, the player must traverse from the south end of both of those maps to the north to get back to the very start of the game. All the while, BT encounters are forced, mules are still present, and it’s raining the entire time so all your equipment is degrading (and you can’t build new equipment because of narrative mumbo-jumbo). Then you get to a last boss fight, which is about the 4th or 5th boss fight over the last 2-3 hours of gameplay when, for me, I’d had about 2-3 boss fights the last 30 hours prior. After, the player character is placed into a state of limbo where you are forced to sit through a segment of the credits (the actors, the leads, and Kojima four or five times) broken up into, I believe, 3-4 segments. Each segment lasts about 2-5 minutes where you as a player just run around until the game squeezes out a bit more ending before another chunk of credits. Then it ends, you get cutscenes, the rest of the credits, and then the game asks you to make one more mother-fucking delivery. Luckily, it’s a fast delivery. But I almost shut the game off at this point. Then you are dropped back into the world to do more deliveries if you’d like. Which, you know, I’m good.
Dude, I don’t know. Like I said, I like 85% of the gameplay. I love the way it looks. I appreciate its tone and sincerity. I’m happy I played it not just so I could be a part of a zeitgeist or because ‘I just had to know.’ I liked a lot of this game on its own terms and despite itself. But I’d also not recommend it to anyone I know. In a way, it reminds me of Dear Esther. Unlike Death Stranding, I love Dear Esther. But I completely understand why others wouldn’t and I couldn’t recommend it to anyone I know. But, for me personally, it’s a phenomenal game. I don’t feel that way about Death Stranding, mind you, but I do like it all the same despite knowing that it is not a game for anyone and has gigantic problems.
Anyway, I think I’m done rambling. Oh, ok, I’ll end with a piece of advice. Don’t watch someone playing this game. I can’t think of a worse game to watch someone play than Death Stranding. If you want to experience this game, play it yourself. There we go. Some sound advice to make this post have some value. You’re all welcome.