Death Stranding @ PS4 and PC
Emoji summary: 🌧🏞🏆
Spoilers: short intro to the story, limited mention of game assets, design and gameplay; and mention as to whether or not you can beat it & I've included pictures below the review incase you want to wait to see.
Before a musician plays an instrument with strings, they need to make sure it is tuned. I don’t like to hear that happen - the way the sounds start to bend and seem to hurt. But it’s not like I’m in rooms with musicians all the time so I suppose I can let it go. Before a baby arrives, someone has to cut the cord. It’s often tougher than the cutter expects (or so I have heard) but soon enough it’s done. The baby is free and floating; the baby now lives in this world.
Before you continue this review, ask someone to sit behind you and perform the following with their hands on your back - your bare back if possible, or as close to your skin as they can get. It goes dot, dot, line, line, creepy crawlies up your spine; cool breeze, tight squeeze, now you’ve got the shiveries. They have to say the words out loud as they do the actions so that it’s like a spell or a doctor’s check-up, and your soul will tingle if they get it right. I think we should start with this quick body game before I write about Death Stranding, the 2019 video game by Kojima Productions. It would help if you were struggling under the weight of a global pandemic while you read. It would help if you were listening to this review as you walk back from the shops with hands full of heavy shapes in tense plastic bags. It would help if you were on your own as well.
There will be no spoilers in today’s review. I’ll give as short an introduction as I can manage, followed by a wake; like, this is what the game did when it lived and this is how it has left me. There are no spoilers because sometimes when I write about a game, I am making the text for myself (to process or memorialise), other times I’m writing for the developer (to help them relate). But today I want to write for the people who haven’t played Death Stranding. I want to be an evangelist, not moving you towards some invisible Christian god but to this long, dark game instead. I am currently 95 hours in. I finished the main story at around 55 but I’m still here, lying on the tongue of the game, in all of its bitter aftertaste. 95 hours. I keep coming back to the same spot every other night to turn it on. I can hear the waves of the loading screen; the groans, echoes, the building pace. I turn it on. I click continue. I come to play and work.
In Death Stranding, you play Sam Porter Bridges, a delivery man tasked with travelling through the United Cities of America whose cities are, funnily enough, in lockdown. The land is anxious and empty for miles after a series of supernatural explosions has left the world haunted, changed: rainbows hang upside-down like eyeless smiles, the rain burns, and dark golden crystals grow out of the floor like the grasping hands of something buried alive. People are in hiding… and I won’t say from what. But Sam’s got a job to do regardless. He has to walk between their cities and outposts to connect locations to a new internet called the Chiral network so that everyone might be connected once again even if they cannot be together.
‘You can make America whole,’ you’re told at the beginning of the game, and so off you go to build the network. Some people need persuading - some are suspicious and critical, self-sufficient and no longer used to strangers. But you do the work to persuade them to join because everyone needs to be on this network; and also because it can only reach so far - you need one online to get to the other, like daisy-chaining extension cables across this dead America. Sam delivers things that these people need or want to get them on board. Lost cargo, special deliveries, time limits, long trips. The more you deliver, the better connection you have with a place and the more you can fabricate. There are bridges, roads, weapons - lots of gear to help him get the job done.
Sam is played by Norman Reedus, and Mads Mikkelsen, Lea Seydoux, Tommie Earl Jenkins and Margaret Qualley all play key characters. Some big names. Guillermo Del Toro provides his likeness for one of the characters who is voiced by Jesse Corti. And that’s it. That is all I can really say about Sam, Sam, the delivery man. I don’t want to give too much away.
I knew nothing about this game going in. I assumed that, yeah, it was simply a game where you played a courier. I had seen a few images of a man with an impossible amount of cargo piled on his back, looking ready to tip over at any moment and because of that, I thought the game looked sort of funny, a little slapstick. I knew nothing of the story that was motivating him to make these mad deliveries and no idea why the landscapes I saw in these pictures looked so poisoned and quiet. The deliveries are a big part of Death Stranding’s gameplay and something I greatly enjoyed, but the story! Well, I don’t know if people don’t speak about the madness of what goes onto happen because they want to protect potential players from any spoilers, or if it’s because they want to trick them into playing; wait until they’re close enough that the game can open its mouth, bite, and drag their sorry body along the floor until it decides to let go. I think that’s what happened to me. When I started the game, there was so much dystopia to digest: new vocabulary, rules, certain things to be cautious of and a lot to remember. And I was so busy trying to acclimatise to all of it that it’s like in sleepwalking, I had brought myself to the top of a cliff without realising that the game was sneaking up behind me ready to push me right off the edge. The world turned upside down and the rainbows with it too, and I was falling for days and nights and days again trying to catch my balance, my breath, everything. It knocked me sideways. It hurt.
It is a specifically horrible experience to play Death Stranding - there is no other way to put it. It is dreadful. And between the deliveries, Sam’s efforts to build a new internet, and the immensity of the story we’re doing all of this for, I was in a constant cycle of feeling weighed down, alone, late, chased, exhausted, and lost. I hate all of those feelings, so… why did I enjoy it so much? Why was I up late last night on eBay looking at collectibles and artwork to buy? I’m full of enthusiasm like you are at the end of a good gig when you beeline for the merch stand to pick up a memento of your evening - some fantasy keepsake you can hold onto the next day so you know it wasn’t just a dream. Foul game. Hard to stomach, big challenge to commit to, the most wrought I’ve ever felt as a player; the most afraid as well. And yet, I’ve ordered 2 t-shirts and some stickers. I’ve never done that after a game before. Eh, I think this might be what it feels like to be a fan.
It has taken me a while to understand why it is I played and loved this horrible game but I’ve remembered something that helps make sense of that reaction. In 2017, I had CBT with a long-haired ex-musician who spoke in slow, perfect sentences. One of the most helpful things he dared me to do was to turn my anxieties into challenges so that they would become things I could beat. I think this is what we have here: I think Death Stranding is 2020 made into a game I can beat. Even in just the small introduction I gave you: Death Stranding is a world out of step with itself; a world with fear, loneliness and lockdowns. The climate is brittle, as is the infrastructure. There’s an emphasis on key workers including the people out there delivering items to those who need them most. There are new rules, slogans, propaganda, and this coating of stiff hope over everything. Primary contact is mediated over the internet and face-to-face tactile communication is secondary and rare. I have seen so much of the writing in this game on our real life news channels; I’ve said these things to friends and have heard them said back to me. So, that horribleness is right, and to walk through a game that presents all of those problems and breaks the challenge down into digestible tasks and some sublime missions… well, I would sit down, plug my headphones directly into the controller and be gone for hours. I wouldn’t be looking at my phone - I wouldn’t need to. I’d be delivering. And I would end every session having accomplished so much. Playing has been like surprise therapy: fully in the zone and just working my way through tasks on behalf of the cause (the ones in the game and in my brain). Even though it’s scary, I still come back now to play and work because playing and working has meant taking back some control over the situation I’m in; it’s a way to process all of the days I’ve spent alone this year, and a way to accept why I had to be alone as well.
With the game’s main goal being to connect everybody through this new internet, it seems to sit us down and say, look, what happens in this life is out of our control. What we can do to make it worthwhile is reach out to other people; nurture our connections, make new ones, stay in touch, and tell our friends they’re doing a good job. Because until we can stand on solid ground again, out in the open, together and touching, all we really have is each other and there are still ways to make that work. It’s cheesy, it’s true. And it’s also sort of impossible for me to get over that being the game’s intent because even though it has so much of our current experience within it, Death Stranding was released in November 2019, a month before the first case of COVID-19 was ever recorded. Its existence is like some kind of fortune; like dug up treasure, a glass slipper; like dreaming the lottery numbers and winning the moon. There is no way Kojima Productions knew what was about to hit the world as much as it seems like they did, and for that very reason I cannot imagine a better time to play when playing feels like 4D cinema. Like we’re in it now, we should be thinking about it now, and all of our culture should be pressed up against it. When I knew I was close to finishing the game, I stepped away for one entire month because I didn’t want it to end and when the credits did finally roll, I remember standing up and doing something between cheering and dancing around the living room. This game has fulfilled a destiny nobody knew it had in the first place. It is unreal. Playing was like taking a cold shower in the rain; it has left me awake and ready to go, ready to work. It has helped me process the hurt of 2020 but it has uplifted me just as much. I am so grateful this game exists.
That’s the shape of the review without anything coloured in but how I felt about it is the easy part. Trying to commit any writing around what Death Stranding is in practice or even what it looks like might be a bit more difficult because it has an aesthetic that is wide, weird and evades any single genre. Before it was released, after years and years of development, the director Hideo Kojima (who is also responsible for Metal Gear Solid) said that players ‘will find something different, something that won't fit in established terms.’ I think that’s very fair. This game shifts and shifts again. It looks incredibly realistic but doesn’t stay there. Like the rabbit hole fall of the story, it moves just as madly through its art as well; passing through holograms, curses, dirt and clinical futuristic spaces. Sometimes the floor will lose its integrity and billow, possessed; and everything can speed up, turn on the surreal, and playing will feel like riding an open carriage through an oil field on fire. We’ll finally make it to a private room where we can sit down while the apocalypse waits for us outside. There, we can have some Monster Energy cans off our bedside table to recover. They’re still being produced even now. And then, we won’t see anyone for miles but we’ll make it to the bottom of a chasm and Conan O’Brien will be stood there with his girlfriend ‘The Cosplayer.’ Grab a flying bug to munch on; ride your floating carrier downstream. It’s bizarre. And the gameplay can turn just as quickly. Mostly, you’ll be getting on with a delivery - and Sam has this perfect weighted physics to his movement so pushing him along the UCA is pretty fun. But then that movement will pause and out of nowhere a dramatic cutscene will drop you in the middle of an action film where everything is go, go, go, full volume. You might be out walking, listening only to the sounds of Sam’s footsteps, and a slow, hurt song will creep in. Now, you’re wandering freely through a visual album with music by Low Roar and SILENT POETS planted around the map. It’s the sort of music that makes your heart big. I don’t know how else to put it.
So, it is a game but it is also a music video, a film, and it’s split into episodes like a TV series. It’s all of these things at the same time. Everything is packed in like an ambitious suitcase or a condensed treasure map full of cryptic lore and imagery. Each aspect makes the game even more dense but it’s never too heavy to bear because fundamentally, it is just one guy setting up an internet connection so that everyone can be closer together. Death Stranding is about how we relate to one another. I think that constantly repeated social aim is like a flotation device for all of the game’s mad baggage - like it can afford to be mad because of its clear direction. Hideo Kojima describes this latest creation of his as being a new genre altogether: a social strand system or a strand game. A strand being a tool through which we hold onto the world and to each other. Stranding meaning something untethered, alone, abandoned like a whale washed up and dying on a beach. The game is about these polarities and the new genre is the umbrella under which all of the different aesthetics and stories can come together. Within that, the social is an agenda but it is just as much a material used to shape everything that goes on. I mentioned that you can build things like bridges and roads but what I didn’t say was that your structures turn up in other people’s games, and theirs in yours as well. There’s been plenty of times I’ve found a ladder in the perfect place and thought, well thank god, I wouldn’t have been able to get across without someone having placed a ladder exactly where I needed it. I would be grateful to everyone else that has played; and that gratitude encouraged me to build more because I wanted to return the favour and be a part of the team. That follows through into the world-building, although it’s more subtle. If you keep walking over the same route again and again, eventually a path will appear - a desire line. The path can show up for other players and help them find their way forward. So, even though it’s a single player game and we don’t ever meet the other Sams, the social design of Death Stranding lets us play and work together like a shy community; like boats passing in the night.
There is a moment when a character turns to the camera and says that once this is all over, they’ll take us anywhere we want to go. I want that, I’m ready for that and I haven’t been until now. I have caved so many times this year in tears, stomach-drops and pure stillness but I am ready to finally move. With vaccinations and mass-testing, maybe 2021 will come true? I haven’t let myself think about the future at all because I have been stuck on the present. But things are coming into my head again. I’m starting to miss things, I want to go places - and not just on these walks to the shop and back, or round and round the park, but anywhere I want to go. Mass-testing and vaccinations are concrete signs of change, but it’s the batshit creative dystopia of Death Stranding that is letting me enjoy the fact we have might have these new futures ahead of us. I am genuinely optimistic. I am grateful too. I love the internet, I love my friends and I love this game. I’ll continue dropping into the body of Sam again and again on weekday nights to take on everything the game dares me to do because I can do it. I hope there are more titles to come to help affirm the new strand genre but even if its bloodline ended here, Death Stranding would have achieved something special in the world, even if its achievement is small, even if it’s mine alone. It has made me feel whole again; it has made me feel hopeful.