I Played Death Stranding So That You Don’t Have To

Although you might want to.

It’s really hard to say. In all of my years of playing games, I don’t know if there has been a game that I played the living heck out of, enjoyed and yet am not certain I would ever recommend it to other people.

Part of the problem is that if you take the version of the game that you see in previews and trailers — it would honestly be an easy no. The elevator pitch for this game is that you are Sam Bridges Porter (and more on that later) entrusted with reconnecting America by making deliveries while dodging armed gangs and undead creatures.

If that was all there was to the game, there wouldn’t be much to write about. As a walking simulator, it is rather tedious. Not challenging, mind you, just tedious. Getting from point A to B is mostly just a factor of time. At one point in the game I decided to race through an area full of BT (AKA Beached Things AKA one of the few acronyms the game bothers to explain) and was rewarded by careening right into the things. When the BT’s grab you, they turn the area around you into an oily mess and summon some random tar monster.

To defeat that monster you …. walk away. That’s it. You just pick a direction and walk away. Sure the oil will slow you down and maybe the random tar things might kick you around a little, but there isn’t any real conflict. You just … walk away. And in doing so, the oily area will clear up and the BT’s leave the zone.

And all of that is easier than trying to avoid them in the first place. This underscores what is probably the biggest issue with Death Stranding, it refuses to punish the player for anything. Writing teachers will tell you that it’s hazardous to fall too much in love with your characters. Care too much about them and you won’t be willing to put them interesting, albeit dangerous, scenarios.

Kojima initially picked Norman Reedus to play the lead what would be the cancelled Silent Hills game. His respect for Reedus may have turned into something problematic in this game. Reedus’ Sam Porter can carry an absurd amount of gear long distances, punch out entire camps of armed thugs, take stupid amounts of damage, outshoot trained combat veterans and … oh right, can’t die. If anything, the whole game has an issue with focusing on masculinity as a means to an end. The plot is largely focused on male characters, despite an early appearance by several female characters. The male characters also feel much more nuanced and interesting. There’s a weird trend of female characters getting replaced with quieter, more boring versions of themselves. And in a game where most everything is named very much on the nose (Deadman works with corpses, Heartman has a whole heart thing going on, Diehardman … well, you get it) there’s a female character named Fragile. Thankfully, she is at least a bit of a badass.

So some of the core mechanics are wishy washy and the Kojima has some masculinity issues which probably need worked out. Why should anyone play this game?

Well first of all, Kojima and company have built a beautiful and interesting world. The tedium of delivering goods is easily offset by the landscape around you. After all, Journey is basically a walking simulator on steroids and nobody complained about that. Plotting a route, gearing up and heading out is something you eventually look forward to doing just to see what the next vista looks like. In some ways, the lack of conflict actually works out here. The world invites you to see what’s around relatively risk free. The game might not willing to punish the player, but it is very quick to reward the player. Making deliveries will put you into a long cycle of find new places, getting new gear and getting stuff upgraded.

And then there is the most impressive part of the game. There is one easy recommendation: if you don’t have an Internet connection or don’t plan on playing this game online … don’t bother. Death Stranding implores a passive form of multiplayer where other players’ signs, paths and constructs show up in your world. You don’t access to these things until you link an area to the in-game’s network. So as you expand, the world expands and gets tangibly better. If you create helpful constructs, you get notifications if people use them. Players can like each other’s constructs and while likes don’t really factor into any part of the game play, they do serve as an interesting scoring system.

It is hard to underscore how successful this part of the game is at making you feel like you are interacting with other players despite never seeing them in the game. You find yourself trying to see if there are places that need improvement and laying down those improvements. Other players are doing the same and the end result is a patchwork of people being useful to each other without ever actually meeting them. It is a really cool set of interactions that plays right into the game’s themes about connecting people to build a better future. The whole thing is really an achievement in gaming and Kojima and his crew should be seriously proud for how well it is pulled off.

In some ways, the game feels like a story Kojima wanted to tell and he’s just letting other people play along. The story is 100% Kojima, full of nouns and verbs which are never really explained and a lot more that are explained to death. By the time the credits roll, the narrative makes more sense than it really has any right to do so, but you’ll probably still be struggling to connect the dots on all of the mythology being wrapped together.

So Death Stranding is very hard to recommend given that there are parts which are just something of a mess. The main delivery wouldn’t be enough to carry this game on it’s own and it’s possible someone will find that part just plain boring. The story is entertaining but also somewhat nonsensical. And while there is some pure brilliance in the cooperative aspects — it takes a while to dig into that. I would say everyone should give it a try on their own time. If you are a Kojima fan, you’ve already finished it. Otherwise, wait for it to hit a price point that makes sense for you to give it a chance.

Gamer, polyglot developer and wrangler of strings and cats.

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