(a.k.a. The last person to finally play Death Stranding reviews it)
I love video games, but I play them infrequently. Between reading, writing, movies—there’s only so much time in the day. And video games can be notorious time sucks, so if I’m going to commit time to a video game I really have to be on board. Few video games have enthralled me as much as Death Stranding.
A Strange Lyrical Experience
I was intrigued by Death Stranding from the start, but it took me until earlier this year to finally get to it. I’d purchased the deluxe edition with the cook BB prop when it came out, but it’d been sitting there waiting for me to play. There was a lot of buzz around the game, especially with people struggling to put into words what exactly the game was and what it was about. There was the joke about it being a “walking simulator.” I can understand all these things. The game takes a game mechanic that could be very niche, to say the least, and makes gold with it. Yes, the basic thrust of the game is walking (or riding, or driving, etc) to and fro on a map, picking up goods, and delivering it. The thing is, the map is beautiful. The world and music are haunting. And rain itself is your enemy. Oh, and Lovecraftian nightmares can emerge from pits of tar and leave behind golden claws clutching at the sky when they die. Claws you can collect to do useful things with. Beautiful music interludes, awesome sci-fi design-work, and a fun combat system would all be enough to make a compelling game. Maybe not a long one. It might not be able to sustain itself. But thankfully the game offers so much more. One of my favorite aspects were the moments of absolute stunning beauty I experienced. Sitting down on the top of a mountain peak. Sitting in a cave as I listened to the rain pouring outside. There’s a meditative quality about the game at points, that contrast nicely with the scarier and combat-focused parts.
What the game is, in my eyes, is the video game equivalent of an indie auteur film. A deeply personal, heartfelt, and thoughtful piece of art that should be regarded as a classic in storytelling, whatever the genre.
Loneliness & Connection
I was thinking about the themes of Death Stranding after finishing it. The purpose of hope in the face of the ultimate sort of cataclysm. The worthiness of connection, even when you feel at your loneliest. All of these things resonated so much with me. I am definitely one of those people who have always felt a little outside of the world. I actually enjoy being alone, so loneliness in what I perceive to be the typical sense isn’t something I’ve struggled with. I’ve been blessed by a great family and an amazing group of friends as well as a partner I enjoy spending life with 24/7. I’m lucky. But there has been another sort of loneliness. A basic lack of understanding why people do things they do. A feeling of separation because people put up all these walls I don’t understand. A desire for deeper connection that, in the social media age of shallow connection, has felt less and less possible.
And, in the bigger scale of things, as someone who follows the data and sees were are on a path toward apocalypse (as far as our current way of life is, anyway) it feels lonely living in a world where people seem to just be keeping their heads down and quietly shuffling through life oblivious to it all. It can make one feel really bitter and nihilistic, honestly. What is even the point? Why even be kind? Why put in the effort when everyone seems to want something rather than reciprocate giving? Etc. I am, at the heart of things, an optimist. I grew up a Star Trek fan. I embraced the idea that humanity could rise above, and that through science, compassion, and ingenuity all things were possible. The last twenty years, though. Man, that’s been hard to hold onto. The fact that Death Stranding came out amidst COVID-19 will be talked about, I feel, by media scholars for years to come. It certainly resonated hard with me on that score. That feeling of trying hard to keep connections, but failing, and then struggling to connect—it really touched me.
Also, there is an idea presented that our means of connection could also be a danger. The concept of Beaches and chiral relay tech being our means of connection and salvation, but also the way we bring about our end, can’t help but make me think of the internet and social media. The way that these connections can enrich our lives as equally as they can spread hate and disinformation. The way they can make us feel connected, but only behind masks (and all that entails,) and the way they can make us feel incredibly alone. Certainly, the game looks at the climate crisis and asks the question, when we are so completely irrevocably fucked (sorry, the only word that feels appropriate) what is the point of even trying? The answer, about hope being found in the delay of the inevitable in the hope we find new solutions, is a grim answer but feels truthful to me.
Hideo Kojima explores, through sci-fi, some really big topics. Which, as a fan of sci-fi is always one of the most thrilling aspects of the genre to me. He walks the line well of saying some things quietly and some things—the things he wants the audience to not miss—much louder. It also helps that he doesn’t give much in the way of answers. He offers suggestions and different ways of seeing things. But it’s never definitive. I could go on and on about the different aspects of the game that made me think, but it’d be better for people to just experience it for themselves.
In addition to the above praise, Norman Reedus, Lindsay Wagner, and Mads Mikkelsen, in particular, put in stellar performances here, although the entire cast is brilliant. I loved Guillermo del Toro’s role here. As one of my favorite filmmakers and generally one of the loveliest-seeming creators, it’s hard not to love Deadman, even if he’s voiced (very well!) by someone else. There is a beautiful, emotive story that is blunted just a tiny bit by how piecemeal it’s laid out for the audience, with much of it coming together at the end. Not by much, and I think part of that is the fact that I took quite a while to play through the game, but I didn’t quite “get” some things because I’d forgotten the precise connection between, say, Sam and Amalie during the game. Part of that is because it’s kind of talked around, I suppose. But all of it was wrapped up and reinforced nicely at the end. The combat system worked well for me, except the use of the strand as a weapon. The whole game I thought it was a really awkward and clunky mechanic, until a battle near the end FORCED me to use it. This frustrated me as I’d abandon using it a LONG time ago, and again I thought it was really clunky and non-responsive. But, during that battle I was forced to use it properly. For those wondering, I didn’t “stay” in prep mode. It just seemed to insanely slow and I’m not great at parrying. Because it takes Sam time to get into preparation with the strand, my timing was always off. I acknowledge this is partly operator error.
The only other negative I have is sort of a double edged sword. On one hand, I really enjoyed the way the story wrapped up. However, I found the experience a little frustrating. I kept thinking the game was over, and through a few annoying mishaps where the game suddenly took me into combat when I was expecting it (and thus hindering my save) it ended up being one very long game session toward the end. It got to the point where I thought “just push through it’s nearly the end” and ha ha! It was not. But that’s more about the presentation than the content itself. All over, this is one of my favorite games I’ve played, and I very much look forward to the next one!