This article contains spoilers for the 2019 game Death Stranding.
One of my favorite details in Death Stranding’s world is the handprint smudge you see on the steel table in your “private room” if you angle the camera such that the light catches it the right way. I love the thought of an artist at Kojima Productions taking the time to add details like that, or how many meetings were held to discuss those things. Private rooms themselves are a curiosity in a game full of curiosities. They are all nearly identical to each other, serving as an elaborate three-dimensional pause menu in which you can perform some actions that serve a nominal purpose in the broader game, such as restoring your character’s stamina and other resources, and converting his bodily fluids into weapons.
As you progress through the game, your private rooms become adorned with more knick knacks and functional affordances that allow you to enhance some aspects of the core gameplay in minor ways. The interaction model with these affordances in a private room is a curiosity, too. You select an action (by moving the camera around your character and making a selection based on what’s in view), the camera drifts over to the relevant corner of the room, and the motion-captured animations play out. If you wish to “Use toilet (Standing),” then you can watch your character do so in real-time, through frosted glass.
You can probably spend a total of 5 minutes (minus the length of some cut scenes which take place there) in private rooms in a full play-through of the game since most of the things you do there doesn’t serve a crucial purpose, but they are an effective pacing tool.
Nearly everything in Death Stranding is experienced in real-time. You watch as your character strains and grunts to heft a hundred kilograms of packages onto his back, or as he enters a truck from the passenger’s side, scoots over to the driver’s side, and starts the engine. This carries over to the events that take place in core gameplay loop itself, which comprises a hike across what used to be the continental United States1. The primary mechanic is walking and deciding how, where, and how often to walk through an American landscape that has been rendered unrecognizable by the eponymous event, the “Death Stranding.” We are with our character as he stumbles after misjudging a step, cursing and sighing; and when he sits down on the floor of a cave, sheltered from the rain, loosening his pack to catch a wink (we watch him sleep here, too, in real-time)2.
Death Stranding is slow, deliberate, and contemplative. It wants you to feel your character’s weariness and achy bones. It wants to share with you the peace that washes over him as the rain clears and the landscape opens up, pulling the camera out and queuing up a Low Roar song.
In many games, transit between places often serves as filler material. This is acknowledged by offering fast-travel mechanics for backtracking to key locations. You’ve made the trek that qualifies the game for the genre for which it’s signed up, but we know you don’t want to go through it again. Hubs and dungeons are where the interesting gameplay and level design live.
Death Stranding inverts this focus. Its hubs are largely empty and closed off to you3, while the world between them is where you face the majority of the game’s challenges. The majority of the game is exactly that: traversing large distances over a beautiful, rocky landscape with a backpack full of supplies. The first couple of hours of gameplay hope to get you acquainted with this figure-background shift, offering tips like how to not fall over and how to best distribute your load. You find yourself wondering when it will start telling you how to actually play the game until you realize that “playing the game” has been what you’ve been doing the whole time.
The game’s difficulty ramps up primarily through the ruggedness of the terrain over which you travel. The first half of the game takes you across a landscape which, while littered with rocks and the occasional craggy gorge, can mostly be handled with the supplies you have access to from the start. Your primary concerns are things like the weather and hostile entities. In the later half, the altitude increases and you need to take much more care w/r/t what you bring with you, which route you take, and where you choose to step. The gameplay mechanics through which you these decisions are made are a fascinating expression of analog control. I’ve never been so mindful of my fingers’ positions on the controller playing a video game than when navigating some remote corners of Death Stranding’s version of the Rocky Mountains.
Hideo Kojima describes Death Stranding as the first game in the “strand” genre. The game has a lot of fun with the word “strand,” noting eagerly that it denotes both a mode of isolation (a beached whale is stranded) as well as a mode of connection (two entities can be linked via a strand). This idea echoes throughout the concepts that scaffold the game’s world, from the umbilical cords that bind the “beached” dead to their world beyond the “Seam,” to a simple tool in your kit used to tie up enemies4.
Kojima’s newly invented genre itself refers to the “social strand” mechanic that serves as a way to level the difficulty curve in the core game5. You shape your world by placing markers, building structures such as bridges and safe houses, rebuilding once-lost highways, and simply cutting paths through the landscape by walking through it. These alterations can show up in other players’ worlds to help them make it through their worlds6.
As you progress through your own game, the connection between your world and other players’ worlds gets stronger, giving you access to more of their structures. Signs can appear on steep slopes to cheer you on as you climb, or outside the ruins of an abandoned factory to warn you about the hostile apparitions lurking there. You eventually gain access to fragments of other players’ zip-line networks, inviting you to help complete them for quick and safe passage through mountainous terrain. If another player perishes trying to complete a delivery, you can pick up the parcels they left behind to finish the job.
You cannot interact with other players in real-time, and no other player’s avatar appears in your game’s world. There are no opportunities for toxic behavior: the only avenues for interaction are help and appreciation. If you wish to take on the task of completing 100% of the game’s achievements, there will be plenty of infrastructure left behind by other players to help you. I found myself building bridges and cutting paths in regions that I had long since completed, not because I would need them, but because they might be useful for others7.
The world of Death Stranding is bleak and treacherous, and teeming with allegory. The larger world has been deemed too dangerous to venture into, so inhabitants are forced to live in solitude, relying on couriers like your character to supply them with the things they need to work or wait out their days. Nobody knows why this has all happened, and the mistakes that were made trying to figure it out or make it right led to the devastation of entire cities. Humanity’s shared trauma is at once unifying and fraught. Sound familiar?
The hope of a rebuilt and reunited nation8 that your character’s benefactors wish to bring isn’t an easy idea to sell. The wellspring of technology and connectedness it promises comes at the cost of entering a de facto surveillance state. The organization doing the rebuilding and uniting records its members’ every word and action. It’s not a subtle gesture their device used for communicating and reviewing orders is modeled after a pair of handcuffs. The plot’s call to adventure is thrust upon your character via legal and bureaucratic means, after which his last vestiges of privacy are during showers and bowel movements (with the conceit, of course, that the substances produced therein will be collected, analyzed, and later weaponized).
Video games are rarely ever interesting to me qua a storytelling medium. The writing usually falls short, and the voice acting is almost always so bad that I change the language so it’s harder for me to tell whether or not it’s bad. I respect a game that acknowledges cut-scenes as burdensome, whether implicitly or explicitly. The rise of the video-game-as-a-cinematic-experience9 has largely raised the standards for this stuff, but from here it feels like video games are still trying to figure themselves out in that regard.
Death Stranding is endlessly fascinating to me in this regard. Kojima is so eager to give you so much information through every conceivable channel, through emails, interview data, and exposition dumps. He’s much more interested in building mystery and adding detail and layers to the world than he is in providing any answers, which are finally given to you as the first of two credit sequences roll. The epilogue, then, is about the characters reckoning with how wrong they were, and questioning their roles in the project of the previous 70 hours of gameplay10.
You’re mostly a passive bystander through this (until you very much are not: Kojima is not above using the “the key was you this whole time was!” trope), watching all of the non-player characters explain themselves and figure things out. You’re mostly just there to provide the labor that enables them11, but labor (and fatherhood, I guess?), you come to appreciate, is precisely what the game was supposed to be about.
I don’t know anything about game design, but I’m going to discuss something like I know what I’m talking about for a second. One challenge you face when designing an open-world game (or an adventure game, RPG, etc.) is that of scale. The real world is enormous, and what we consider to be a long distance out here is well beyond what can be represented in a game’s world, both in terms of capacity as well as design.
Even in a game like Death Stranding, there is a limit in travel where the pace needs to change or a checkpoint must be reached lest you risk losing the player’s interest. This limit obviously comes well before what we are generally willing to tolerate out in the real world. The largest zone in the game represents the landscape from Minnesota to northern Texas, can be traversed via motorcycle in about five or six minutes, so I imagine it’s about the size of San Francisco.
We need to shrink the game world, but we can’t shrink the elements within it. After all, our character is the size of a human, and he needs to interact with things that make sense at his scale, like buildings, vehicles, rocks, and rivers. Games do this by reducing the quantities of these things (a village with a hundred residents doesn’t need to be presented in the game with space for each individual), or by placing them closer together. This is why highways and airports in Grand Theft Auto games look awkward and stubby on a macro scale, but feel like their full-scale, real-world counterparts when interacting with them.
In spite of this, we want the world to feel vast. We want to feel like we’ve traveled miles and miles to come upon our next point of interest, or like we’ve scaled a mountain to urinate off the peak. This is an interesting balance to strike, and while I’m not too familiar with modern open-world conventions, it’s fun to see what games do to earn it.
One way I’ve seen this accomplished is through pure mechanics. Zelda: Breath of the Wild’s world feels larger than it is because it affords the player with opportunities to discover things in every corner. The path you take through it is rarely ever a straight line, so a journey of a half mile as the crow flies will almost always wind up being much longer. Grand Theft Auto accomplishes this feeling by building the world like a sandbox to play around in. The vast majority of anyone’s experience of a Grand Theft Auto game is extra-curricular.
Death Stranding’s world feels vast because the mechanics enforce an abundance of caution. You are eminently vulnerable and the landscape is hostile (recall that you have not only your cargo to take care of, but also a baby strapped to your chest to keep safe). You are required to take care and calculate your movement in order to succeed. As you forge a path, traversal through the world becomes easier, as you build infrastructure to bring the sundered world together. You are made to feel the friction loosen with every road and zip-line node you place. ↩
When I played MMORPGs, I primarily played spell-caster characters, which meant I spent a lot of time sitting and waiting for what were essentially progress bars fill up (i.e., the “casting time” of a given spell). I often wonder how long the supercut would be of every time I sat waiting for a spell to finish casting in these games. Death Stranding has a lot of that in the form of these short cutscenes that punctuate the gameplay. You can skip most of them, I didn’t always find them getting in the way of the flow of the game. ↩
You interface with the denizens of every city and waystation via a single terminal, and you almost never speak with any person face-to-face. You receive your orders and evaluations via hologram. ↩
The strand tool is something I never once used. ↩
Every single piece of writing about this game (including this one) buries this lede. Death Stranding is primarily discussed as a “walking simulator” type game with clunky combat and confusing menus, but I would argue that the core “walking simulator” mechanics work in service of the “social strand” meta-game. The entire premise of the game—its story and its core gameplay loop—is about re-connecting a sundered nation, and that includes the asynchronous connections you make with other players. Death Stranding wants this aspect not to merely enhance the gameplay, but instead it wants it to be an integral part of how you experience the game. ↩
This puts Death Stranding into the uncomfortable realm of the “live service” game, for better or worse. Many people my age have memories of when their favorite game went offline—when the fruits all the hours of work they put into it vanished overnight. It’s expensive to keep a live service running, especially when the revenue from the game it powers dries up. This also means that the experience of playing the game at release is very different from the experience of playing the game five years later, when most of us have finally gotten around to it in our backlogs.
Death Stranding, of course, has a way of getting ahead of this curve, at least for existing players. The structures created by players have a built-in lifespan over which they show increasing signs of deterioration. As you play, you’ll have to contribute repair materials for structures that you use the most often, lest they whither away. You eventually begin to learn which sorts of structures last longer than others and choose how to build your infrastructure based on those options.
With that being said, the structure deterioration mechanic is nearly inconsequential over the course of normal play. In the one-hundred or so hours it took me to get the Platinum “you’ve done everything in the game” trophy, I only remember having to repair two or three structures. That would probably not ever come close to being the case in a standard play-through.
This is my main critique of the game qua games: it introduces several mechanical ideas that sound interesting from the start, but end up going unused. Another example of this is the “supply requests” mechanic, in which you can ask other players to deliver specific materials and items to a distribution center or some other designated place on the map. This was probably conceived in an iteration of the game’s development in which supplies were far more scarce than they were in the final release. ↩
I think this mechanic needed a little more tuning for it to feel more balanced. The moment you unlock a region’s network (akin to activating a “tower” in your standard open-world game), the map immediately becomes littered with other players’ marks and structures. All the relevant conveniences are already there for you to enjoy. I didn’t find myself needing to build anything myself until about halfway in to my play-through, since I could just use everybody else’s stuff. ↩
The United Cities of America: ”Make America whole again.” ↩
I missed out on the first wave or two of this, but from my perspective it started around the launch of the PlayStation 3 and the Uncharted series, though you could argue that video games have tried to make themselves feel like movies since they were invented. ↩
I personally found the epilogue to be very effective. ↩
The standard Big Cinematic Video Game has a strange relationship with the player, specifically the player’s autonomy. The nature of the genre is linear, with the gameplay loop serving as a way to get from cut scene to cut scene. Your individual decisions are largely inconsequential, so the trick is to make the player feel like they’re an active participant in the plot. The part of the story that you tell is in the details of how a specific sequence played out, such that you are less likely to realize that all of the possible decisions you make will inevitably converge to a single thread. The appeal, therefore, is in how compelling or immersive those in-between segments are. ↩