“The Rope and The Stick, together, are one of humankind’s oldest tools. The Stick is for keeping evil away; The Rope is for pulling good toward us; these are the first friends the human race invented. Wherever you find humans, The Rope and The Stick also exist.” – Kobo Abe
It’s a very rare piece of art that can gain acclaim. It’s an even rarer piece of art that can gain widespread acclaim. And it’s even rarer for a piece of art to get both widespread acclaim AND widespread criticism. That’s a truly rare piece of work, once that you can genuinely ascribe the term ‘art’ to. A work so idiosyncratic, so unusual, so mind-meltingly bonkers that you have absolutely no choice but to accept it on its own terms. A work with all of its creator’s individual neuroses that you simply must accept it as normal. A work you may very well hate, yet absolutely cannot forget.
That’s Death Stranding in a nutshell. A balls-to-the-wall piece of virtual insanity that is either super gripping, or super pretentious… and it’s all entirely according to your perspective.
What Is It?
Death Stranding is the first game to be developed by Kojima Productions, the studio founded by the now independent video game auteur Hideo Kojima. Over his twenty plus years of game design, Kojima has made his mark on an art form that for many years was often the creation of faceless, unrecognized developers. Kojima was one of the first developers to attempt to fully integrate the visual language of cinema (his first love) into video games. For much of his career, that was defined by his work on the Metal Gear series, itself an unusual mish-mash of American action movies, techno-thriller, and magical realism all peppered with smatterings of political and philosophical musings. Outside of this franchise, he also helped further the medium of the visual novel adventure game with titles such as Snatcher and Policenauts.
Now, after having been unceremoniously fired from Konami in 2015, Kojima was finally freed from any previous constraints from his former bosses, able to finally produce a title purely of his own creation and direction. The result is certainly unique, and definitely unlike anything you’ve played before (hence the reason I have to sort of front load this review with all of this superfluous information before getting to the actual review).
Now for the actual game itself.
In Death Stranding, you take on the role of Sam Bridges (played by Norman Reedus). Sam has a fairly mundane job: he’s a porter for a delivery company called Bridges, who delivers packages to various locations, and is graded on the state of the packages once they are delivered.
His job is pretty ordinary, but it’s his circumstances that make him extraordinary. Now, this game has a lot of terminology and world-building involved, some of which can get a tad spoilery, so I’ll try and phrase this as generally as I can. But the essential situation is this: A few decades before the game begins, Earth suffered a cataclysmic event known as the ‘death stranding.’ The exact nature of this cataclysm is complicated (because hey, it’s a Kojima game) but the result was that the division between life and the afterlife (and even time and dimensions) were shattered for good. Normally, when a person dies, their soul leaves their body to go to ‘The Beach,’ which is essentially a roadway to the afterlife. But after the death stranding, many souls cannot leave this plane of existence. These wandering ghosts, called BTs (Beached Things) will often attempt to re-enter their bodies, which not only attracts other BTs, but will eventually result in a void-out, which is essentially the metaphysical equivalent of a nuclear blast (again, a Kojima staple).
The result of all of this is that society, which at that point in time had become incredibly mechanized and comfortable, completely breaks down. Entire countries and their governments disintegrate almost overnight and humanity is left to pick up the pieces. By the time we enter Sam’s story, the former USA has become a huge wilderness, mostly reclaimed by nature. There are pockets of the old civilization here and there, but the nature of this new world means that most of these cities (and indeed, many people) are completely isolated from each other. Most have accepted a fatalistic outlook that borders on nihilism, and some have gone even further into actually welcoming the void-outs, even trying to instigate them through artificial means.
That’s when Sam gets a mission from his ailing mother…who also just so happens to be the last president of the former United States. With her daughter, Amelie, she has founded the Bridges Foundation (itself a subsidiary of the Bridges corporation) in order to re-connect all of the various mega-cities (called ‘knots’) to form a new country: the United Cities of America. Sam’s mission is not only to deliver packages, but to also connect the various cities to the ‘chiral network,’ an advanced version of the internet using ‘chiralium,’ a nearly limitless resource provided by the results of the death stranding.
Did you get all of that? Good, because it’s nowhere near comprehensive and I don’t want to give too much away.
Why Should I Care?
So by now, you’re probably curious about how this game actually plays. Sure, we’ve got all of this insane backstory, but what’s it like to experience this game’s actual mechanics?
The primary basis of gameplay in Death Stranding is Sam’s job, which is being a porter. A good deal of this game revolves around Sam picking up a package from a nearby distribution center, gearing up, and then heading out into the field to deliver the package. The field itself is filled with unforgiving terrain; rocks, cliffs, mountains, valleys, rivers and streams all stand in the way of your destination. There is also the issue of the ‘timefall,’ which is form of rain fall that rapidly ages everything it touches, from plants, to machines, to human flesh. This particular element can be a nuisance, as your supplies and your packages will degrade overtime when it is exposed.
Traversing this harsh terrain is not as simple as simply walking. Encumbrance is one of the central mechanics of this game, and you will need to learn how to balance your packages in such a way as to allow you to maneuver successfully. You will need to carry around supplies such as climbing anchors and ladders in order to climb or descend various cliffs and mountainous outcroppings. Later, you will be able to fabricate devices called PCCs, which are mobile single-use 3d-printers that can be used to create bridges, shelters, and zip-lines. This particular mechanic is a major part of Death Stranding’s appeal, as every structure you create, or ladder you leave behind, can be used by other players in order to make their traversal a little less arduous (and the same goes for you, so pay it forward).
Of course, this is just the natural issues you’ll have to deal with. One of your biggest obstacles are the aforementioned BTs, which are largely invisible to the naked eye (at least until they decide to attack you). Fortunately, you’re not completely defenseless as you have your BB with you. The BB is of course the meme-tastic infant that you carry around with you in a tank attached to your porter’s suit. BBs are premature infants who are removed from their mothers (who are brain-dead), and then put into special tanks, which in turn are linked to a robotic sensor that can detect the presence of BTs near by, allowing you to potentially sneak pass them. If you are caught, however, then you will drop all of your packages and may either be dragged underground (which will trigger a void-out), or be carried to an enormous BT creature (like a dolphin, lion, etc.) that will attempt to kill you. At first, you are largely defenseless against these BT creatures, but later on you will develop various grenades and weapons (which are armed with Sam’s bodily fluids) to either deter or even kill them. There are also human enemies like the MULEs (a cargo cult-like group of bandits who are obsessed with stealing your cargo and delivering it for cash), and a group of terrorists whose sole purpose is to instigate void-outs and accelerate the extinction of humanity.
In between delivery runs, you’ll have various other things to do. There is of course your primary mission of hooking up various settlements to the chiral network, but there are also other things as well. Every time you hook someone up the chiral network, you expand the reach of the signal (letting you use PCCs) and unlock new equipment and features. These include access to vehicles like motorbikes and trucks, as well as hovering platforms that can be used to carry additional cargo without over-burdening Sam. You can also access Sam’s personal room, where you can sleep, shower, read messages from other Bridges members, re-charge your health and energy, and ‘relieve’ yourself of your body fluids (which will then be filtered of chiral matter and used to create anti-BT grenades and ammo). Again, you’ll want to take advantage of the PCCs, as fellow players will pay it forward.
What Makes It Worth My Time and Money?
Oh boy, is this game ever going to cause some opinions to form.
Pretty much every other critic online who has given this game a positive review have essentially said the same thing: “I love it, but it’s not for everyone.” Personally, I absolutely adored it. If you don’t, I can certainly understand why.
Quite frankly, Death Stranding is a slow-burn. If you’re look for a kinetic, action-packed experience, then you will be disappointed. One of the things this game makes clear from the get-go is that your every action will affect the game’s world. If you die or kill someone, there will be a void-out that will remain for the rest of the game. If you over-encumber yourself, your equipment will wear out faster. If you try to run around without any thought for what you’re carrying, you will trip and fall. I do think it’s rather cynical to refer to this game as a ‘walking simulator’, but walking you will do.
That’s another thing: The encumbrance and gear mechanics will definitely cause some headaches for those with little patience. Your boots, for example, will eventually wear away from constant walking. Your packages and supplies, if exposed to timefall, water or just regular wear n’ tear, will degrade into complete uselessness if not properly stored. Any vehicles you manage to get may not run on petrol, but their batteries will run out if not properly re-generated (generations are one of the things a PCC can be used to construct). There is a fast-travel mechanic, thanks to the umbrella-carrying Fragile having teleportation powers you can use in Sam’s room, but you cannot take any cargo with you, so even there you must plan ahead.
And as you’re a porter, that means you’re going to do a lot of walking. A lot of walking. It’s not as simple as walking from point A to point B in a straight line (again, mountains and rivers and stuff). But traversal is the primary mechanic here, and if that doesn’t interest you, then this game won’t be for you. I will say that the first couple of hours in this game can be the most difficult, as you do not have access to the variety of equipment that the game provides for you as you progress. And again, fighting is not the central theme of this game. There is combat, of course, but it’s more of a last resort then an actual attraction.
But in my personal view? The game is much better off for that. The entire message of this game, it’s central premise even, is connecting. None of us is an island, and you cannot successfully complete this game without the aid of fellow players. That includes things like building structures, yes, and that also means altruistically leaving some of your own supplies for others to use. It’s about completing a zip-line path up the side of a mountain, so that another player can get over it easier than you could. It’s about using a climbing anchor to descend from a cliff, so that another player can use the rope to ascend it.
And perhaps the greatest collaborative project of all in this game: building the chiral highway, so that you and your fellow players can get from one point to another without running out of battery energy, or dealing with rocky terrain.
Everyone is in this together. Even when other people can’t realize it. That’s what makes Death Stranding so special.