#playthis Death Stranding
I do not have a personal connection with Hideo Kojima.
I think these days, when it’s so easy to get in touch with the artists you love, there is a feeling of personal connection, but this is an error. Being familiar with someone’s presence in the media is not the same thing as knowing how they look when they’re deep in thought or how to elicit a chuckle when they’re feeling sad.
When we write about games, many of us talk about our personal connections with them; how could we not? Games are actively played. We are part of this world. We make decisions. We choose to hug or kill. Games are personal for us, and sometimes, that makes for very good stories.
So, hey, here’s mine: I grew up in a deeply religious household that decided video games were ‘bad’ because video games were the new thing. My dad told me once that God had told him that someone we knew named Davy would never go to heaven because Dad saw him playing a video game once, and Dad was made to understand that (Judeo-Christian) demons live their lives the way we play video games — when they die, they just pick a new body to start over. I mean, that’s just one mechanic, and I’m not sure how you would allow players to fail and experiment in a lot of things without dying (where do city builders fit into this? or Pokemon?), but whatever, that’s what my Dad thought.
When I played games, it was usually at a friend’s house. I remember a friend, Callum, bringing over Combat Flight Simulator 2 and installing it on my computer, and worrying that Dad wouldn’t approve, but as we were talking about it, I said something like “Dad doesn’t let me play games unless it’s Flight Simulator,” and Dad yelled “it’s not a game! it’s a simulator!” because, well, that’s how he justified it. A simulator was okay. Oregon Trail? Yukon Trail? Fine. Flight Simulator? Great!
(though he did get really upset at me once when I downloaded a mod that included Space Battleship Yamato for Flight Simulator 2002, because, he claimed, you could see a human form in the ship when viewed from the top, and that was bad somehow, because demons couldn’t take on the forms of humans, they could only be humanoid, and that’s what this was)
(I didn’t see it. I still don’t. He made me uninstall several of my mods for that reason that day. Real planes were okay though.)
When I first got into video games, it was because of an MSN Gaming Zone disc that came with Flight Simulator, which had Age of Empires on it. I also remember the Windows 95 disc that Dad had, which included a demo for Hellbender, which, having ‘hell’ in the name, made me worried Dad wouldn’t like it. I played those in secret. Seriously, I remember so many times, my finger on the power button, just waiting for someone to show up because I didn’t know that Alt+F4 existed at the time. I restarted a lot of computers. I remember the glow reflecting off my Dad from the CRT one night, as he sneaked up on me and caught me playing.
I didn’t get to play console games, is what I’m saying. My first console experience came, I think, was when I was 12, hanging out with my buddy Robert, whose dad was a cop, and that always intimidated me a bit, because he was huge and had a gun and slept at weird hours. We played Ghost Recon, the demo for Return to Castle Wolfenstein, and Halo with me one night.
I was blown away.
In 2003, I bought a Maximum PC magazine with a demo disc. I wanted the Rise of Empires demo — my knowledge was limited, but I understood “from the makers of Age of Empires!” (it wasn’t from Ensemble, however; it was from Big Huge Games, the “people” were the publisher, Microsoft) and I wanted to try it out. When I got there, it wasn’t, but the next month’s issue was. I want to say that Ghost Master and Chaser were in it. I played a lot of Chaser. There was a multiplayer demo and I secretly set up LAN parties with my siblings.
Most of the games I played were demos.
All of this relates to Hideo Kojima, trust me.
The first game I actually bought was Bioshock, in 2007. I was in college at that point. I had secretly squirreled away enough cash that as my local CompUSA closed its doors for the last time, I was able to snag it and the Orange Box for cheap. I also saw two games I would later pirate (and then, when I had money, purchase legitimately), Blacksite: Area 51, directed by Harvey Smith, who is now one of my favorite game designers, and STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl, which I believe is the most important and best video game ever made.
Both of those games had simulation mechanics.
I developed a value system about games: the best games, like Flight Simulator or Oregon Trail, had simulation mechanics. They were also heavily systemic, though I didn’t know the real term at the time. What I knew was the best and most satisfying game demos that I ended up getting from Maximum PC (I couldn’t subscribe or I’d get in trouble, I had to sneakily buy the magazines and hide the discs) were the ones I could play over and over and over again. Far Cry’s demo was a particular treat. Hidden & Dangerous, which was actually the full game and expansion instead of just a demo, was breathtaking. Clashing with a game’s systems, seeing how and win these tiny, individual slices of levels could be played in different ways was so cool. Finally, I felt that the best games had intuitive controls. As my chronic pain condition got worse, games where I could lose myself in the worlds became an important need.
This was, and remains, my value system for what makes a good game. It is a very personal system and it is rooted almost entirely in my past. I can argue, philosophically, why I think this is what makes for great games, but at the end of the day, all I can really say is, personally, this is where my life led me.
I tried to play Metal Gear Solid, because all my friends said it was brilliant. I remember watching Metal Gear Awesome, the flash video by some guy who makes a video series called “Game Grumps” now, which depicts some of the game’s coolest twists, like Psycho Mantis’ memory card scanning. I didn’t really like the controls, but I was playing the PC port of the game in like 2008, so, I mean… yeah. A PC port of an original PlayStation game released in 2000… well, it was rough. If the game was great, I couldn’t see it because the bad port got in the way.
Later, I tried the other Metal Gear Solid games, wanting, desperately, to connect to my friends who enjoyed these games so much, but finding, every time, that the controls made it too difficult for me to lose myself in the game.
Poverty meant I had to sell every game console I owned. I was going to the hospital 3 days a week, having neurofeedback done on my brain. I was contending with my grandfather’s attempts to sabotage my doctor-mandated healing, because he thought I was being weak, and my discovery of my grandmother’s Alzheimer's disease. It was challenging. A difficult time. I felt alone.
But I kept my PSP.
I’d purchased it because a year before, I’d worked for the US Post Office, sorting mail. My job was to make sure that people got the packages they were supposed to get. I got the job at my mother’s insistence in the fall of 2008. My retail job asked me to quit because they wanted me to start working a whole gosh darn 12 hours a week for them, standing up at a cash register at $7.25 an hour, and I laughed and quit because the post office Remote Encoding Center in Wichita, which was the last REC in the world, other than Salt Lake, was paying $14.50 an hour after midnight, and they wanted me to work 30 hours a week. I needed something to keep my mind of things, so I purchased a PSP and eventually a 60GB Archos Video player to watch TV shows I’d downloaded off the internet while I pressed 1 or 3 depending on whether mail was first class or not.
It was a repetitive task.
I ended up having to sell my Gamecube, PS2, and PS3, which I didn’t get to play a lot of games on, after I lost my job and had to spend all my time at the hospital, so I didn’t get to play the Metal Gear Solid games as much as I wanted to, but my PSP? I still had that.
I played Peace Walker.
I loved it. The whole… like… pet simulation management element of managing your mercenary crew, sending them on missions, training them, stuff like that, it blew my mind. I loved it. The controls were good too, they felt like the best the series ever had, because the PSP didn’t have enough buttons to let the game be as complex as it had been on the Dualshock. The limitations made it a better game, I felt. I loved it. I cannot tell you how much I loved Peace Walker, but I can say that it is crucial to my understanding of video game design.
Eventually, much to my regret, I had to sell Peace Walker and my PSP for food too. I had to give up all my little soldiers and their lives. The save was gone. GameStop paid me something like $30 for the console and the game, I think. I still feel heartbroken about it.
When Ground Zeroes came around, I wasn’t sure I would like it. Peace Walker, I worried, was a fluke. It wasn’t. I loved Ground Zeroes so much that I wrote about it here — I kidnapped almost every single guard in Ground Zeroes because I wanted to see if I could, and the game rewarded me with a wonderful memory as a result.
I loved Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain even more.
As I began to fell in love with Hideo Kojima’s games — as they got more simulation-focused, as their controls got better, as their systems became more readily apparent, the things I value in games — the long-time fans seemed to be falling out of love. All the people who’d told me how brilliant the games were for talking about memes or government information control or who loved things like the Psycho Mantis controller port switch and The End’s boss fight (where changing the PS2’s clock to a time after his death from aging would kill him) soured; they were upset that the games didn’t seem to be dense story experiences that made them feel smart and had memorable gimmicks. I was falling in love because the games were getting smart in other ways.
Then along came Death Stranding.
A big problem with social media these days is that people make the mistake of assuming they’re connected to people they’re familiar with. When I tweeted a screenshot of the intro to this article a few minutes ago, a friend reminded me that this phenomenon is called “parasocial relationship,” a one-sided relationship in which one person perceives a relationship that isn’t there. Celebrities don’t have time for us; we see them all the time because that’s how public relations works, but every human has what’s known as Dunbar’s Number, the number of meaningful relationships a single human can have at any one time (it’s about 150). Best friends, you can only manage to have about 5, apparently. It’s just hard for the human brain to keep track of more than 150 people.
For someone like me, who wants to be friends with as many people as possible, this is somewhat disappointing, but, hey, there you go. I’ll treat everyone with kindness but I’m not gonna beat myself up for having limited social bandwidth.
Hideo Kojima left Konami in what sounds like a painful separation. A lot of people who loved his work felt sad for him and wished him the best. We love his art, so it makes sense that we’d want to support him. That said, I think a lot of people have a parasocial relationship with the man they admire, and I don’t blame them. I’d love to be Kojima’s friend because he makes art that speaks to me. Is that possible? Almost certainly not, he’s got a lot of friends and we don’t speak the same language.
By the time Metal Gear Solid V came out in 2015, a lot of the discourse about women in games was changing, and some people understandably didn’t like the character of Quiet, who would flirt for the player camera. The way the game’s camera ogled her (there’s a lot of film scholarship on this idea of the camera being a character with a distinct voice, even if it acts passive), treated her like an object and not a person, didn’t sit right with some people. Kojima telling people they’d regret criticizing her character and then having a justification for why she was mostly-nude (when she was the only character with the parasite who was mostly-nude) seemed disingenuous. Some people didn’t like that. I personally really like the character of Quiet, but considering that you can literally unlock a non-nearly-naked skin for her… well, I don’t find the argument that she has to be in a bikini at all times or she’ll suffocate to be compelling. Also this outfit makes her look like a badass and it’s my preferred outfit for her. As a sniper, where is she gonna carry all her ammo and supplies in a bikini?
When the discourse on Twitter was about how Crunch Is Bad, and Kojima tweeted about how he was hard at work on the game and crunching hard, a lot of people mistakenly went “how dare he not realize we’re talking about how Crunch Is Bad here in America” as if he’d know. That whole parasocial relationship thing was at play, people assuming Kojima was in their bubble, having their conversations, thinking what they were thinking and intentionally going against it.
When someone mistranslated a Kojima tweet where he explained the difference between a Hideo Kojima game as basically “one where I was involved in all aspects of the game” as opposed to games he’d worked on and didn’t consider a Hideo Kojima game (like Castlevania), the whole misguided Twitter “auteur discourse” chided him for that. They were wrong to do so, but to talk about auteur theory and how it has been misunderstood is a whole other topic, so we won’t get into that in this article.
There’s also an increasing sentiment towards indie developers as “the future of games” as anti-corporate sentiment increases (again, this is in the US and European twittersphere), so when people see Big Names with Big Money talking about things like “wow I never thought we’d ship this game,” instead of seeing it rightfully as “every dev actually doubts their game will ship at some point,” or “this guy just left a 30 year career to do something on his own and it’s totally human to be nervous,” a bunch of them were like “how dare this famous guy with all the support in the world act like he’s worried!”
As someone who literally went to the hospital because of overwork on my very first game and hoping against hope that maybe it would get enough notoriety to get me a job… I’d personally like to ask that people try to be a bit more understanding (also I had a job for a while where I helped teach people whose first language wasn’t English so I’m aware of how language barriers can result in misunderstandings, so, yes, please, more empathy for each other, please!).
There’s also stuff like Kojima taking pictures of himself with celebrities or showing pictures of his Ludens character and people being like “wow he’s doing all this stuff and not making a game!” even though MGSV didn’t release for five years after Peace Walker, while Death Stranding only took four years to develop (and he had to set up a new studio in the process). Like… it’s weird for people to be mad that someone gets to hang out with famous people or make a mascot when he’s still releasing his games in a pretty timely manner.
What I’m saying is… there’s a climate where a lot of people were, I think, somewhat primed to be critical of Hideo Kojima because of assumptions about his behavior, some justified, some not, which predisposed some people to be… well, maybe not that receptive to his next game.
Some of the reviews were less than kind. I really disliked watching a video on IGN where some reviewers were like “it doesn’t even have map markers, you have to figure out where to go!” In an era where people have been clamoring to return to Morrowind-style “actually figure out where to go” design, and we’re starting to see some games, like Ghost Recon Breakpoint and Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, try to entrust players with more than just simple map markers… that seems like a disingenuous complaint.
I saw other people being like, “meh, Quiet’s character design in a completely different game was bad,” or “it has a lot of walking and not enough story” (it has a lot of story, how much gameplay you do is up to you), or “auteurs are dumb, anyways here are a bunch of more deserving indie auteurs.”
If there’s one thing I think you gotta do when criticizing art, it’s this:
Actually engage with the thing in front of you. Instead of using it for a launch pad to talk about something completely different. One of my favorite articles on the internet is about this phenomenon. There are other ways this idea manifests, but at its core, people are ostensibly talking about one thing when they really just want to complain about something else. It’s disingenuous, it’s dishonest, and it does a disservice to the work itself. Don’t to that. Talk about what you want to talk about, sure, but what about the work in front of you?
So that’s what I want to do. I want to tell you about the game I played and the things it did. While I’d love if Hideo Kojima came out against crunch or had really funny gimmicks like the PS2 clock thing for The End… if we’re saying we’re gonna talk about Death Stranding, then let’s do that.
(“but doc, you talked about how your lack of a personal connection to hideo kojima or how your dad thought games were invented by demons or whatever!” well yeah i had to set up this idea of my value system in games as well as talk about our connections with a work and their creators because of how this leads us to think about a work; if we’re talking about Death Stranding as a work, we have to be cognizant of these things going in. ignoring all the things in the game and saying “auteur theory is bad and crunch is wrong” is like, not relevant to the work in front of us)
Because here’s the thing: Death Stranding is real good times. Real good.
Hideo Kojima said something a while ago about Death Stranding being a new type of video game. He is technically correct. I have seen some people argue that the game can’t be defined or understood or whatever, but the fact is, there have always been people who are like “I don’t immediately understand what I’m seeing so it must just be weird for weird’s sake.” A lot of people saw the trailers with Norman Reedus naked on a beach and crying and a baby giving a thumbs up and stuff and went “wow this is so weird” and when it actually all makes sense as you play the game, they kind of steadfastly went “nope, it’s just weird. It can’t be understood.”
Humans made it, of course it can be understood.
(to be clear: I have an essay I’ve been working on that is about how we should appreciate art on an emotional level and not a rational one and it’s got lots of David Lynch and Andrei Tarkovsky in it; we can understand work without caging or constraining it on a purely logical level)
When I was younger and a more prolific writer of fiction, I had a lot of people ask me if I was on drugs, because I came up with things they didn’t expect. No, all I really did was try to reject the first idea that came into my head, because I was usually cribbing it from somewhere else. I’d come up with arresting imagery and then try to make sense of it all, and then I’d tell a story. I think all my stories — when I’m in charge of final cut, at least — make sense intellectually or emotionally, sometimes both.
When I see people saying that you can’t explain Death Stranding, I think they’re being silly.
There are some people who want to put every game into boxes; a friend of mine recently lamented that people referred to Rain World as a metroidvania, because it really isn’t. It has some similarities to metroidvania games, but that definition doesn’t really do it justice. It’s nice to have genres to do a quick explanation for people, but genres can be their own kind of jargon (if I say “this is a first person shooter” to someone who doesn’t know games, they might not understand it, but when I’m writing an article about video games for video game players, that might be very useful shorthand!).
Some people, however, cannot think outside of genre. I’ve met game developers like this. I’ve had editors like this. When I tried to explain that I loved Monster Hunter because of all the simulation mechanics, and compared and contrasted a Monster Hunter hunt with an average RPG, an editor stared at me blankly and then went “this is just like a news post” and showed me a boring article that simply listed some mechanics. Some people don’t have imagination outside of things they already know. I don’t know how to help with that.
Originally, I was going to write a whole thing citing a specific academic’s argument — which I found compelling — about language and stuff, but then I found out she supports some really horrible things, and I think I can do without appealing to her authority.
But I’ll do my best to argue this point. I just don’t know many academics who’ve talked about this so idk how I’m going to make this case, but here goes.
Language, as it evolves, tends to be descriptive, right? It’s also how we tend to learn it, at least in English. If I point to a house and say “that house,” you understand I am referring to a house, you understand, conceptually, what a house is and what it does. If I point to a house and say “that house,” and you don’t understand what the word “house” means (maybe we speak different languages), you might think I’m pointing to a car parked out front, a mail box, whatever, because finger pointing is not specific; you need the word and the gesture to get the specific reference.
Language is the core of any civilization; shared understanding of concepts is what allows us to communicate with (and thus connect with) each other.
I think there are multiple levels of understanding. There’s conceptual (we both agree that ‘house’ is, on some level, a single building that a family lives in together) and there’s emotional (if you are crying and look upset, I can tell you are upset), and then there’s a true, deeper connection (if you missed out on going to your favorite band’s concert, I know how disappointed you are, even if you are trying to pretend it’s not upsetting to you). There are probably others, and there is probably a hierarchy.
But, hey, language is important. Really important.
The problem is, sometimes people think the reference defines the object. We use semiotics (the study of symbols), as a way of learning how people communicate ideas, but then some people decide that the symbols define the form. What should be a handy means of communication instead becomes a mistaken pursuit of imitating the symbol.
(we could get into a whole thing about the ancient philosopher Plato and his mistaken belief that somewhere in a higher reality, there existed some form of ‘perfect chair,’ and somehow, all humans possessed instinctual knowledge of this perfect chair, and all chairs that humans made came from this ethereal magic chair, which is what his whole Plato’s Cave Allegory thing was about. let’s not get into that now)
(we could also get into a whole thing about this idea of skeumorphs — symbols that refer to objects despite having outdated elements; an example of this I read about recently was the way that maple syrup bottles have tiny handles — the handles themselves aren’t useful, they just exist to convey ‘this is authentic maple syrup’ because when maple syrup bottles were older and bigger, the handles were actually really important. Another example would be using a floppy disc icon for save files, or a picture of a corded phone handset to refer to a phone when most of us use cell phones. I THINK SKEUMORPHS ARE PROOF THAT SYMBOLS ABSOLUTELY CANNOT DEFINE THE PROPERTIES OF AN OBJECT’S EXISTENCE. THEY CAN ONLY REFERENCE IT.)
Years ago, someone got mad at me for saying I loved a particular RPG. He argued that the game I loved was not an RPG because a ‘real’ RPG wouldn’t let you pick which stat points you leveled up in (I guess he never played Dungeons and Dragons), a real RPG had to include a bestiary, had to be turn-based, had to have a party… basically, a lot of things I think are wrong. He wanted every RPG in the world to just be, I don’t know, I think it was Final Fantasy VI?
Meanwhile, the best RPG I’ve ever played is Disco Elysium, a game that doesn’t even have a combat system and your ‘party’ is just your partner, a fellow detective who follows you around and you can sneak out after dark when he goes to sleep to solve crimes without him.
Some people use definitions as a way to limit what a thing can be, and when something that exists outside of those definitions comes up, they throw their hands up in the air and go “I don’t understand this!”
According to a good friend of mine, “I feel like this is a product of the internet, the need to simplify things into rudimentary signifiers and groupings that are essentially… these codified concepts are memified thought, like a complex version of people using gifs to express their thoughts and emotions.”
It is easier to understand something when there’s a word for it and if you stick within that context forever. But there’s another problem.
I suffer from an issue with cytochrome p450, a gene that determines how I methylate, which is necessary for energy production in the body. It’s why I have chronic pain. I also have a difficulty absorbing magnesium. It’s a whole thing and it leads to a lot of pain. I’ve known many people in my life who reject the idea that I’m sick at all because there’s no real name for it. I’ve gotten more understanding after I was diagnosed with diabetes than I ever had for a much more severe genetic issue.
Words are containers, but to some people, they are cages.
When you name it, for many people, it becomes comprehensible. Death Stranding is new, and has no name, so for some people, apparently it is not comprehensible. I want to help people comprehend it, so here goes:
Mechanically, Death Stranding is a game about planning how to deliver packages and then attempting to deliver them. Thematically, Death Stranding is a game about connections between people and how important it is that we love each other.
What’s the difference between a good story and a bad story? What’s the difference between a good game and a bad game?
AS WE LEARN HOW TO WRITE THIS SHOW, A RECURRING PROBLEM BECOMES CLEAR.
THE PROBLEM IS THIS: TO DIFFERENTIATE BETWEEN *DRAMA* AND NON-DRAMA. LET ME BREAK-IT-DOWN-NOW.
EVERYONE IN CREATION IS SCREAMING AT US TO MAKE THE SHOW CLEAR. WE ARE TASKED WITH, IT SEEMS, CRAMMING A SHITLOAD OF *INFORMATION* INTO A LITTLE BIT OF TIME.
OUR FRIENDS. THE PENGUINS, THINK THAT WE, THEREFORE, ARE EMPLOYED TO COMMUNICATE *INFORMATION* — AND, SO, AT TIMES, IT SEEMS TO US.
BUT NOTE:THE AUDIENCE WILL NOT TUNE IN TO WATCH INFORMATION. YOU WOULDN’T, I WOULDN’T. NO ONE WOULD OR WILL. THE AUDIENCE WILL ONLY TUNE IN AND STAY TUNED TO WATCH DRAMA.
QUESTION:WHAT IS DRAMA? DRAMA, AGAIN, IS THE QUEST OF THE HERO TO OVERCOME THOSE THINGS WHICH PREVENT HIM FROM ACHIEVING A SPECIFIC, *ACUTE* GOAL.
SO: WE, THE WRITERS, MUST ASK OURSELVES *OF EVERY SCENE* THESE THREE QUESTIONS.
1) WHO WANTS WHAT?
2) WHAT HAPPENS IF HER DON’T GET IT?
3) WHY NOW?
THE ANSWERS TO THESE QUESTIONS ARE LITMUS PAPER. APPLY THEM, AND THEIR ANSWER WILL TELL YOU IF THE SCENE IS DRAMATIC OR NOT.
IF THE SCENE IS NOT DRAMATICALLY WRITTEN, IT WILL NOT BE DRAMATICALLY ACTED.
THERE IS NO MAGIC FAIRY DUST WHICH WILL MAKE A BORING, USELESS, REDUNDANT, OR MERELY INFORMATIVE SCENE AFTER IT LEAVES YOUR TYPEWRITER. *YOU* THE WRITERS, ARE IN CHARGE OF MAKING SURE *EVERY* SCENE IS DRAMATIC.
He capitalized all that. No idea why.
In Death Stranding, a dramatic moment would be sneaking through a BT field (if you haven’t played, this isn’t entirely accurate, but imagine a haunted place with ghosts called BTs that want to kill you), when you trip and fall, dropping a package. The BB — a baby in a jar that helps you see the BTs — starts to cry. Your package tumbles to the ground and starts beeping. A BT starts to take notice.
That’s drama. Your goal: deliver the package. Your obstacle: the BT field. What makes the story compelling is how you deal with the obstacle. All that tension is what makes for a good and interesting story.
I believe that great games tend to have this kind of ‘mechanical drama’ (tend to, because some games aren’t about mechanics, like My Father’s Long, Long Legs or The Rapture Is Here And You Will Be Forcibly Removed From Your Home, these achieve emotional impact in other ways). You want something, something else is in the way, and you go about achieving that acute, specific goal. A good game is one that makes that process interesting because of both the core gameplay and the emotional reason you want to achieve that goal.
Like… answering “what does the player want?” with “to win” isn’t a meaningful exchange. That’s assumed desire. What does that mean? Well, first, there’s this idea called assumed empathy, which is the idea that the audience will care that a character wants to rescue the world because we assume the audience is emotionally connected to the world, but earned empathy is where we make sure the audience is emotionally connected through the narrative.
Assumed desire, which is what I’m calling this thing that some game designers do, is like that. The designer assumes the player wants to complete the game, so they put objectives in the way and hope the player will just do that because the objectives are there. They assume the player desires to continue. A great game is one that earns that desire. Earned desire.
Game design is the art of motivating players to take action. A motivated player, one who wants to keep playing, is ten times more engaged than an unmotivated player, one who is playing because, well, the game is on the backlog or something.
A lot of game designers make the mistake of using psychological compulsion to encourage players to play, but this tends to result in burnout. A player who is emotionally invested rather than having their evolutionary lizard brain tricked into wanting to move forward is a player who is going to love your game and convince other people to fall in love with it too.
Death Stranding is a dramatic video game. I… look, I love it, and I have issues with the story, which I’ll talk about, but mechanically?
Mechanically, it’s a dramatic video game because it’s so good at making you want things (until it isn’t, the game’s last few hours are mostly just passive play, so there’s nothing to want or attain other than ‘more cutscenes’), and I’d argue… well, I’d argue it’s a masterpiece.
Andrei Tarkovsky and Masterpieces
The best compliment I ever got as a writer was when someone told me something like “I’ve been trying to write essays by coming up with a thesis and then using a game to prove that thesis, but after I read your work, I had been doing it all wrong. I should have been telling people what the work was instead.” I realized later that, hey, that’s how they teach you to write in college. Come up with a thesis statement, then prove it. I can’t write like that. It’s boring. I write like I’m examining something and telling you what it is when I’m done. It’s why this is 13,000 words long.
I like when the artists talk about their work because I think they do a more interesting job of telling us why they made stuff. The academics tend to be boring, I rarely learn anything from them intellectually or emotionally, and nothing Mulvey or Lacan or anyone else said ever made me a better artist, more capable of appreciating art or reaching more people with it. I do not see their value.
Then there’s Andrei Tarkovsky, that brilliant Russian film director whose every film is regarded by many as a masterpiece. We are very fortunate that he wrote a book about film, because he wrote the best book on film — and maybe art — that anyone has ever written.
In the book’s second paragraph, he talks about the down time between films, and how he began to interrogate his own aims for creating art. “What are the factors that distinguish cinema from other arts; what I saw as its unique potential; and how my own experience compared with the experience and achievements of my colleagues.”
Right off the bat, we have an artist getting his priorities straight: to talk about art, you have to understand the medium. A movie isn’t like anything else. A game isn’t like anything else. Some have argued that movies were the peak of art because they incorporated all prior forms of art, and later, the same was said about games.
I identify a lot with Tarkovsky’s introduction. He talks about how some people declared his work trash — I’ve been there — and how others found it profoundly compelling — I’ve been there too — and how he often felt let down by critics, even the ones who enjoyed his work.
“…so often they would use well-worn phrases taken from current cinema journalese instead of talking about the film’s direct, intimate effect on the audience.”
I think of Paratopic, that weird little game I came up with ages ago and was lucky enough to ship with some colleagues, and how so many people said that the game was “Lynchian.” I knew a serial killer and it profoundly impacted me. I channeled those feelings into a game. I was not inspired by David Lynch, I was inspired much more by a game called The Darkness, by the frustration I had with Gone Home, by a little book with a story about smuggling Bibles into Yugoslavia by a man named Brother Andrew (he prayed to God to hide the Bibles from the Communists, and somehow, the border guards did not see the Bibles), and, of course, knowing a man who killed people for sexual pleasure.
I connect with Tarkovsky so much here. I understand these feelings and frustrations. I worry that even now, as I’m writing about Death Stranding, I will not do it justice, but I’m going to try to do my best.
You should read Sculpting in Time. It is a wonderful book. “Trying to adapt the features of other art forms to the screen will always deprive the film of what is distinctively cinematic.” The same is true for games!
“One thing is certain: a masterpiece only comes into being when the artist is totally sincere in his treatment of his material.”
I think this is crucial to understanding Hideo Kojima’s work. He has given me absolutely no indication, in any work or interview that he has done, that he is insincere. That sincerity is why you can have a moment where Sam Porter Bridges flips over an hourglass, getting ‘likes’ from a dead man, and the scene that follows afterwards, which made me laugh uproariously.
“I don’t know a single masterpiece that does not have its weaknesses or is completely free of imperfections.”
We’ll come back to this.
But perhaps the most crucial thing he says about masterpieces is that “it becomes impossible to single out or prefer any one element, either in content or of form, without detriment to the whole.”
Throughout my life, I have seen, time and time again, people who like one element of work but not another doing their best to adapt that work and failing to do so because they could never see the whole of the thing. They’re like the blind man, holding on to an elephant’s trunk and saying “this elephant is thin and flexible,” while another grabs hold of its leg and says “it is sturdy and thick.” An elephant that is nothing but trunk or leg is not an elephant, just a piece.
Death Stranding is a game where all the pieces matter.
Death Stranding As A Masterpiece
The game begins with a simple package delivery. You learn the basic mechanics — how to walk, how to stay upright, how to pick up and carry packages, and so on. Then you watch a short video which introduces you to two crucial ideas: BTs (basically ghosts) and Timefall (rain that effectively ages whatever it touches). These things are the biggest threats you will face throughout the game, which means, as we discussed earlier, that they are a large source of drama.
Then you deliver your packages, watch another cutscene where you learn about another important idea: people who die become BTs, which are basically ghosts made up of antimatter, and if a ghost touches a human body, boom, there’s a big explosion. This is the apocalypse that destroyed the world. You have a special power that lets you return from the explosions when no one else can.
I am avoiding the jargon (voidout, repatriate, etc) because I’m assuming that you, reading this, may not know anything about the game, and I often find that to learn something, it’s best to help people understand, concretely, what their goals are. Jargon can get in the way of that.
Your goal here is simple: you need to deliver packages across America and reconnect settlements in the process. Traveling is dangerous because of the BTs and the Timefall. BTs want to try to kill you, and Timefall speeds up the time of whatever it touches, which means that the items you’re carrying can age very quickly. Take a briefcase, put it out in the timefall, watch it rust and corrode and eventually disintegrate. That’s bad when you’re a deliveryman.
Two problems face most nonlinear games today. More than two, but these are the relevant two:
- Fetch quests. Believe it or not, I once sat across from a man who ran a 300 person studio and had to explain to him what a “fetch quest” was and why most players generally looked upon “fetch quests” as boring. Put simply, a fetch quest is a task where you are asked to go get something and take it somewhere. “I need you to get me 5 bear hides! Go kill 5 bears and then bring them back to me!” Does that sound dramatic to you? Or does that sound like a chore? As a player, why would that be interesting or compelling? It mostly isn’t. It’s filler.
- Meaningless Upgrades. In a game, you generally do stuff to get things that make doing the stuff easier, which then opens you up to doing more stuff that you had not previously done. The problem is, a lot of games are really stingy with upgrades. A friend at Ubisoft and I were talking about this thing once, and we both agreed that the best upgrades are the ones that matter. A 1% upgrade to your magazine capacity in a 6-round shotgun does nothing. If it takes two trigger pulls to kill a specific unit and you upgrade the shotgun so it only takes one, that’s a meaningful upgrade.
So, along comes Death Stranding, and you go to a base, you get a mission to deliver packages, and then… you go deliver packages.
As with most games, a lot has been said about Death Stranding’s early game (when all you can do is hike), which is why a lot of people say that Death Stranding is a hiking simulator. The thing is, Death Stranding has not one but four distinct modes of transport, and each one fits a distinct niche within the game that is useful.
First, there’s hiking. You carry as much as you can and you contemplate things like crevasses and inclines and balance. You think about hydration, you think about wind and snow and rain. It is a game about looking at your map and going “hmm… how do I get there?”
Death Stranding has one of the best open worlds in games. A lot of open worlds are bad: they are just big spaces with randomly generated buildings and terrain everywhere. You cannot truly learn the space, because it is entirely random.
In Death Stranding, much like STALKER, you can learn the space. The more you play, the more you become familiar with the space. With no minimap or objective markers to guide you, Death Stranding pushes you to focus on learning the world. Even now, I can tell you that as you climb up from the weather station, there is a small ridge. You must pass that ridge, then continue climbing, and you will come to the Roboticist’s camp, but it’s not visible from far away, you have to cross another ridge to get to it, as it’s in a massive divot that is not visible from below. I learned how to go around certain things, I learned that BTs were unavoidable in other areas, and so on. I learned about this beautiful world, I became an inhabitant of it, and that alone was reason to fall in love, but a singular aspect does not make a game a masterpiece.
In Fallout: New Vegas, I once pressed the auto-walk button, went to the restroom, got a drink of water, came back, and found that my character was still walking forward. Nothing had changed, nothing had been encountered while I was away. My character simply walked in a straight line.
Death Stranding is much better; it encourages you to engage with the world by making you think. Is this water deep? If so, you may wish to cross up stream or use a ladder, if your ladder can reach across the river. Will you trip and fall over these rocks? During this snowstorm, can you read your map well enough to plot out a course (requiring you to plot your own course by placing a series of markers on the map, which allows you to see holograms of those markers in the game world, helping you navigate?).
So we have a game that simulates the physical elements of hiking (losing your balance, crossing deep water, etc), and then we have a game map that supports it, but… to be honest, that would wear thin. That would wear very thin very fast.
So Death Stranding introduces upgrades. One of my favorites is a pair of robot legs that lets you carry almost 100kg more than normal and makes it way easier to maintain your balance, so you aren’t pressing right trigger and left trigger as much to avoid falling over. I was also a big fan of a cover that prevents items from falling off your back when attacked and mitigates the effects of timefall on items you’re carrying.
You’ve got in-depth hiking mechanics, a world that you can learn, tools that you can employ to help you get through the world (like ladders and climbing ropes), and then? Then you have packages, which can be damaged by breakage (through timefall causing them to rust or when you drop them or hit people with them — because, oh yeah, there are bandits and terrorists in the game world who also exist as threats to make the space more engaging). What you end up with is this super tight game where everything feels relevant (except the weather map, which I never felt the need to use, since you always get into rain before you get into BTs, and you can learn where BTs spawn soon enough).
That’s a really good game right there, but honestly, if that’s all it was, then Death Stranding might not be a great game.
Just when you start to get tired of hiking, Death Stranding gives you a vehicle. It actually shows you the vehicle a while before you can get it, as if to say “wait, there’s more!” but you can’t use it early on. Your first vehicle is a kind of motorcycle known as a “reverse trike” (two front tires, one rear), and you only get to use it after you make a long and treacherous climb, to really make you appreciate getting it.
Eventually, you get a truck, which can carry more stuff. I got my first one by stealing it from bandits, which meant that the items I carried in it would rust because of Timefall. When I finally unlocked my own trucks, I found that they had covers that would protect my packages from timefall and they could carry a great deal more things.
By this point, you’ve explored a huge portion of Death Stranding’s world, and you have a good idea of how to navigate it. You are intimately familiar with the space. The vehicles don’t just shorten the distances, they still require you to plan your routes effectively, and you’re still thinking, moment to moment, about whether you really can drive your truck up a steep hill to a base or through that bandit camp without getting caught.
I’ve had to abandon cars and move along on foot. I had bandits steal my truck once — and all the supplies in it — and had to sneak into their camp, jump into my car, and race out of there before they realized I’d stolen it all back.
You still have to hike, but now the experience is greatly rounded out with cars.
Roads. Before you get a truck, the game shows you these great, big machines called “autopavers.” You can take resources, which you get from completing delivery missions or find in the world, put them in the autopavers (and, in a really cool twist, you’ll find that other players are putting in resources too, so it’s a group effort), and eventually, complete road segments. The more segments you complete, the easier it becomes to deliver some of the game’s biggest jobs, like 500+ KG of resources. I don’t think there’s any way to do that without a good truck.
(slight complaint about trucks; there’s no real way for me to know whether or not I’ve accepted too many jobs for my truck to carry until after I accept them, and that’s kind of a bummer — I wish there was an element of the interface that said “warning, you cannot take everything you’re carrying and put it all into the current truck you have without overloading it” or something. that would help make the game more usable in my opinion)
Now you’ve got roads, and they helpfully avoid most of the game’s biggest hazards, and they also keep your vehicle batteries from draining while you’re on them… and… honestly? I think if the game stopped here, it might be a bit boring. Driving on the highways is the least exciting part of Death Stranding. It’s when you just hold down the buttons to make your car go and occasionally steer. It is not as engaging or in-depth as off-road driving and hiking.
Then, you get ziplines.
Death Stranding lets you build structures in the game, and it also has a huge asynchronous multiplayer element where players can build things and sometimes, those things will show up in your game. I’ve been saved by some genuinely great recharge station, safe room, and bridge placements. Your items will show up not just in your world, but other player’s worlds as well, which means that building intelligently will help both you and other players out in huge ways. You need to build intelligently because you only have a limited number of build points; your network can only support so many structures.
Every map of Death Stranding’s America has its own distinct regions, and each region is tied to an official base or a prepper shack. When you enter a region for the first time, you cannot build anything because you’re “off the network,” and you can’t see items other players have placed. When you raise a facility up to 2 stars, they’ll join the United Cities of America and expand your network, giving you more area to build your items and more bandwidth to let you build more structures. A zipline, for instance, costs 500 points of bandwidth. Do more missions for the base and you’ll increase their rank up to 5 stars, getting more bandwidth in the process.
As a result, to build the best possible delivery network, it’s in your best interests to meet everyone you can and maximize your relationships with everyone you can. Doing so also raises your delivery man rank, which gives you some useful upgrades (like “you can hold your breath longer,” which is very useful when hiding from BTs), and sometimes causes people to give you powerful items you can’t get elsewhere. I kept doing missions for some characters because they’d give me things like Chiral Boots, which have the highest durability of any boots in the game.
You can build a zipline network to every single base on the map if you want. I know this because that’s exactly what I did. No base left unconnected. If someone wanted something, I could hop on a zipline, woosh on over to their base, and give them a delivery.
Death Stranding’s infrastructure mechanics had four distinct stages, each a very satisfyingly chunky progression from the last, but it never rendered earlier systems of movement obsolete; everything was still ultimately required.
But the core, the thing that made Death Stranding work for me?
Moment to moment gameplay is important because it’s about micro-planning. In Hotline Miami, you walk into a room with three bad guys and you have one bullet in your gun and you immediately start planning what to do next. One of them has a gun, so you shoot him first, throw your empty gun at the nearest guy, take the dead man’s gun, and shoot the other two.
Death Stranding accomplishes micro-planning with the moment to moment stuff like “can I climb this/will I fall over if I do it/do I need to catch my breath here?” It keeps you engaged and thinking about the space you’re in. That’s good, that’s where you want to be in a game.
But you need long-term planning for an open world game to feel really juicy, and Death Stranding has that.
So. Here’s a game that accomplishes what my favorite game of all time, STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl, also managed to accomplish: creating a sense of growing expertise through becoming more knowledgeable about the world while attaching said expertise through a system of unlocks that all feel relevant and noticeably chunky. Each upgrade matters.
I’ve played a lot of games with something like “does 2% extra damage,” but when it takes two axe swings to kill a zombie, 2% extra damage is meaningless because it doesn’t reduce the number of actions you take. Death Stranding’s upgrades matter.
On top of this, it also gives you something I don’t think I’ve seen in games before, and I don’t know what to call them. There’s this person, the Chiral Artist’s Mother, who will give you chiral boots for doing work for her. You can’t get these boots as an upgrade, you can’t craft them yourself. You have to get them by maintaining a relationship with her. See, Death Stranding doesn’t just say… “hey, do this once and you’re good forever.” If you want the upgrades she provides, you need to keep giving her deliveries. It helps maintain the sense that this world isn’t a game to be conquered, but a place to be lived in. Your relationship doesn’t end just because you maxed out her upgrade tree; the game’s mechanics encourage you to keep checking in on people even though your relationship has been maxed out. Not a lot of games do that; it’s a wonderful blend of narrative and mechanics. They support each other.
So, to recap:
Death Stranding is a masterpiece of game design, a game where the more you play, the better you get, and the better you get, the more opportunities you find available to you. Everything in the game supports everything else. Your growing experience mirror’s Sam’s own. Rather than arbitrary Gamey Game Design, Death Stranding is one of those rare games about journeying to and becoming part of another world.
But that’s merely what a good game is.
What really puts Death Stranding over the top?
First, Let’s Talk About Its Shortcomings
I know, I know, the pacing here is weird. I’m sure a professional editor would have my hide for this, but to understand why I think Death Stranding is so wonderful, I gotta tell you about where it falls short.
Okay, so, first, I mentioned the weather system not really being involved. But that’s just one little flaw. Doesn’t that make the game look even better, like Cindy Crawford’s mole or something?
(if you’re a gen-z person, you might not know about the famous model Cindy Crawford, but hey, she had a mole on her otherwise flawless face, and people considered this blemish to be something that made her even more beautiful, so that’s the reference i’m makin here)
Well… okay, so… early on, a problem with Death Stranding is repetition. This isn’t actually a problem for me personally, but a lot of great games understand that variety is the spice of life, and they work hard to give you variety. Since Death Stranding is a game that’s all about getting you in the mindset of the protagonist, putting you in his shoes… it starts out pretty mundane. You get a feel for who he is and what he’s about before things change.
If you, as a player, crave variety and distinction, this might not land for you. If you’re like me and you play games to inhabit the lives of the people you’re playing as, this is absolutely awesome. Plus, as you play more, you unlock more mechanics and the game gets a lot more varied and interesting. After all, Death Stranding is a game about discovering nuance through expanding your relationships, dedicating your time to mastering the mechanics available to you, and unlocking upgrades to make your life easier.
But… there is one area where I think that falls short. I mentioned that the weather system in the game feels somewhat useless because, well… once you know where the BTs are, they’re… well, they’re always going to spawn there. That rarely changes. Since Death Stranding sees you getting more experienced and knowledgeable about the world, knowing which spaces to avoid and which spaces to proceed through is crucial to becoming a better deliveryman.
There is a trade off, though.
If the location where BTs spawn rarely, if ever, changes, then sure, that might get a bit boring, but it also means that player signs matter.
What are player signs?
Well, throughout the game, you can build things like ziplines and roads. As you connect locations to the chiral network, you can see other things that other players have built, and they can see what you’ve built. In this way, though you never see each other, you can still greatly benefit each other’s experience. This includes signs, and running through them (they’re like holograms) gives you gameplay benefits and plays a little audio message when you walk through them, like “you can do it!” or “keep on keepin’ on.” The other day, a friend of mine posted a picture of a river he needed to cross, and someone had placed stamina-giving signs evenly across the river, meaning he could safely cross by recharging his stamina at the perfect moment.
It’s another one of those perfect little systems. But… if BT spawns changed, then player signs would be useless! So the tradeoff here is that hey, yo, maybe the world isn’t as perfect a simulation as it could be, but that’s alright because it’s necessary in order to support the really interesting multiplayer features.
Long ago, when my parents forbade me to play games, the only games I could really play in secret were single-player games. I got to escape my life by visiting virtual worlds, but those worlds rarely had other people in them. I developed a value system that said that single-player games were the best because I could truly get lost in them; reminders of reality, like real-money item shops or characters with names that seemed like fake gamertags (lookin at you, Forza Horizon 2) broke my immersion in the experience.
Death Stranding, like Forza Horizon 2–4, has this idea of asynchronous multiplayer; you’re continually reminded that other players are in the world, but this is a great thing, because this is a game about forging connections with other people. While Forza Horizon loses something by getting rid of actual rival characters, Death Stranding gains a whole lot; this game would not be as wonderful as it is without the multiplayer component. If you’re going to play it, you need to accept this fact.
So… BTs don’t move, but they shouldn’t, because that would make it much harder for players to engage with the sign mechanic.
Seems kinda weird I care about that, huh?
Well… you’ll see. ;)
Unfortunately, this kills the variety of the experience; every BT field encounter plays out more or less the same way because not only are the locations relatively static — I was never surprised to discover a BT in a previously safe location, though I was occasionally surprised to discover that BTs weren’t in the forest near the wind farm (which seems like a bad place to put a wind farm, but I live in Kansas, so I have Informed Opinions about how wind farms ought to work), but they’d always show up eventually.
If I could change one thing about Death Stranding, I’d probably increase BT variety over time. The more you play, the worse the world gets, the more kinds of BTs you can encounter. Maybe there are reasons to go into BT fields other than the occasional delivery mission. Maybe you need to research BTs. Something like that, just to add a little more variety to the experience. While Death Stranding is meticulously designed, without any fat… sometimes fat is good, sometimes you want wagyu beef instead of 100% lean, you know?
But then there’s a more serious problem.
I know I said that Death Stranding is a mechanically dramatic video game. It is! When you’re being stalked by a BT and you make the choice to plunge into a river and hope you can cross without the BT following you, that’s dramatic. When you’re worried about timefall destroying one of your containers before you get to a safe zone, but then you happen across a player-produced shelter that gives you respite from the storm, that’s dramatic. When the game creates moments like these, it’s absolutely stunning.
Then… there’s the story.
Here’s the thing, I actually like the story. I know a lot of people are like “wow kojima so crazy,” but like, you like Marvel movies, Jimmy. Those are just as weird, but they’re rote. You’ve seen ’em before. Death Stranding will tell you a story that you haven’t seen before, but it’s not any more weird than what you get in a Marvel movie.
In rough terms, in a world where the afterlife is a scientific fact, ghosts are real. In fact, ghosts are theorized to be antimatter. Ever watched an episode of Stargate or pretty much any sci-fi ever? Good. You know that if matter touches antimatter, there’s a big explosion. Ghosts are made of antimatter. When ghosts who haven’t crossed over touch a human, boom. Antimatter explosion.
There’s no real reason to worry about spoilers in criticism — we are, after all, engaging with the work — but it wouldn’t benefit this essay to actually go in depth here, so I’m not going to. As long as you don’t look at your cellphone and fail to just watch the cutscenes, you’ll understand what’s happening.
In a world where Netflix is actively structuring its tv shows to play to the attention spans of people who ignore the shows most of the time and only look up when loud noises play… well, I dunno. I don’t know what to say to that. It makes me sad. The game has a pause menu; if you need to look at your phone, you should pause the game first. If you want to engage with a work of fiction, constantly dividing your attention is bad.
I can’t blame you if you wanted to look away from Death Stranding at times.
Here’s the thing: Hideo Kojima is a pretty good director. I mean, some of his cutscenes in Ground Zeroes, The Phantom Pain, and Death Stranding are really well done.
Check this out:
In this cutscene from the beginning of the game, Sam meets Igor, who explains that if bodies don’t get burned up and is allowed to enter necrosis, a BT shows up within about 24 hours. As we’ve already discussed, having a BT show up in a population center is bad.
We watch the drama unfold: they have to dispose of the body, but to do it, they need to go to a BT field. Since Sam can sense BTs, he’ll be helpful. He agrees. They head off to the field. Then things go wrong. We see that BTs introduce electrical interference, we meet one of the game’s villains, we see some genuinely stunning imagery, and all of it — literally all of it — ends up making sense.
It’s a terrifying, powerfully made cutscene, and if you gave Hideo Kojima a movie where he was directing this, I think he’d be considered a better movie director than Christopher Nolan. There’s genuinely great tension here, and fantastic direction.
And then… well… there’s everything else.
Early on in the game, you’re told that The President is Dead and they don’t want anyone to know, because people will panic. Okay, fair, this is an apocalyptic future and one of America’s largest cities, Central Knot City, just got destroyed along with its entire population. Maybe not a great time to tell people she died.
Then you’re introduced to Amelie, the President’s Daughter, who is to be the next President, and… I mean, as an American, I’m like… why? Dynastic presidencies are rare (I can think of two! and the only one I was alive for was bad!) and always happen as a result of an election. Why should ~I~ care about Amelie? The game explains that she’s an inspiration… but… it never really proves it. You don’t have people going “wow, Amelie’s an inspiration to me because…” and you don’t have cutscenes showing that Amelie is a good or important leader.
There’s a good explanation for this. Like I said, this is criticism, so there’s no reason for me not to spoil, but I don’t want to get caught up in the details. The important point is that the game never proves that Amelie deserves to be president, so your core motivation in the game — to bring back the Chiral Network that she brought online — isn’t one you, the player, connect with emotionally. The game just tells you that it’s important so you’re supposed to care.
One of my screenwriting teachers, Kevin Willmott, wrote an Oscar-winning movie called Blackkklansman, which was directed by Spike Lee. During one of our classes, Kevin showed us a movie called Red Tails, which was about the Tuskeegee Airmen, some brave and incredibly good fighter pilots with an impeccable track record of protecting their bombers from Nazi fighters. What could have been an inspirational movie is anything but, and one of Kevin’s examples was in a scene where one character says “please give us better airplanes to help us fight nazis,” and another character is like “okay.” Then another character in the next scene is like “did you get the planes?” and the guy is like “yeah we got the planes.” Then in the third scene, another character is like “did we get the planes?” and the character is like “yes we did.”
This is a lot of characters giving us information we already know.
Kevin said this phenomenon is called a double beat. We’re getting information twice, but we’re not benefiting from it, because we already know it. The emotional impact is lost. In the above example, he said it’s called a triple beat because it technically happens three times, but most people just call the phenomenon a double beat. It robs the scene of drama. That’s not good.
I remember Kevin telling us that if he were writing the scene, he’d have a character say “please give us the planes,” and the guy who could give planes would look skeptical, then we’d cut out the middle scene and move to the last one, where two pilots are on the airfield, and a character who looks worried goes “did we get the planes?” and then you’d hear the planes roar overhead and the pilots would cheer. This, he argued, would feel way more emotional and impactful than what we got. Since he went on to win an Oscar, I believe him.
Death Stranding does this a lot.
Remember what Mamet said?
OUR FRIENDS. THE PENGUINS, THINK THAT WE, THEREFORE, ARE EMPLOYED TO COMMUNICATE *INFORMATION* — AND, SO, AT TIMES, IT SEEMS TO US.
BUT NOTE:THE AUDIENCE WILL NOT TUNE IN TO WATCH INFORMATION. YOU WOULDN’T, I WOULDN’T. NO ONE WOULD OR WILL. THE AUDIENCE WILL ONLY TUNE IN AND STAY TUNED TO WATCH DRAMA.
Death Stranding is a breathtaking, beautiful, stunning achievement in the gameplay. When I am doing things that I am emotionally connected with, I’m having a great time. When I’m watching cutscenes that ramp up the tension or help me connect to the experience (like meeting Cliff for the first time), they’re really, really good. The tension of Heartman trying to tell me information while he’s about to die is really good.
But when Die Hardman acts his heart out in a really well directed scene that, narratively, has little drama to it (he’s sad for doing a bad thing), the scene doesn’t quite land.
When Amelie tells you your origin story… well… it’s not… great. You walk around a beach while she tells you stuff. It’s kind of aimless and boring. I think that might be the goal, but… then, after this sequence where she tells you what happens, you get to watch it, and it’s so much better. There’s danger! Cliff wants to escape with BB, but he’s being chased down, and Die Hardman tries to help him escape but is in love with The President so he can’t just completely defy her, then she tries to make him shoot Cliff, and he accidentally shoots both Cliff and BB — a literal baby — and like… damn. The sequence is tense, it’s really well acted, it’s… like, she just told you what happened, and that was boring, but when you see it for yourself, it’s phenomenal.
It’s a game that sabotages itself. When the really well directed cutscenes fail to nail the drama the way the opening cutscene does, the narrative falls apart. I suspect that a lot of the people who said “the story’s bad” weren’t so much complaining about the events in the narrative, but the difficulty in sticking with cutscenes that lost their emotional impact.
Then again, someone once told me that Fury Road was bad because the characters never talked about their motivations, and according to him, “good movies” like Marvel movies were ones where the protagonists clearly laid out what they wanted. Anyone with a modicum of literacy in film knows that Fury Road is a masterpiece and Marvel Movies are designed to be consumed by children, but hey, you do you.
But, hey, the cutscenes are like six hours of a game that I spent 80 hours playing, and there are a lot of great ones throughout. I think Death Stranding would be better if it really tried to earn its emotions in the cutscenes, but I’m still calling the game a masterpiece. Why?
Here’s Why Death Stranding Is One Of The Best Video Games Ever: It Made Me Cry, And I’ll Tell You How!
Earlier this year, I talked about the games I love in a piece on why some games don’t work for me.
I love games that tell stories that surprise and delight me. When a game fails to do that, I stop caring. I like going to worlds that are unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. I am enthralled by games where real thought and attention was paid to the mechanics, I mean real fuckin thought. Where everything in the game is integral to the game, not just thrown in because that’s what other people did.
In Death Stranding, there’s a moment when the timefall, the rain that corrodes everything it touches by making it ages, destroys everything that you and other players have built. Everything.
Bridges? Gone. Ladders? Gone. Recharging stations? Cars? All of it, gone. This results in a tense journey across the map before the ultimate battle. You’re trying to deliver a package that will save a friend’s life. The setup is great: throughout the game, there’s these grubs you can eat to restore your blood levels, but Sam emotes like they’re super gross. Another character seems to like them, and she has the power to teleport. As the world comes to an end, she exhausts herself through teleportation, and it becomes clear that, hey, she needs the grubs to survive. Since you can’t just zipline over there, because the ziplines are destroyed, you’re tasked with a difficult journey through BT fields you’re intimately familiar with, and now it’s harder than ever, because if the grubs get submerged for too long, they’ll die and she can’t eat them to survive.
Remember what Tarkovsky said: “it becomes impossible to single out or prefer any one element, either in content or of form, without detriment to the whole.”
See how great that is? Over hours of play, Death Stranding has set up this funny relationship between Sam and his friend, Fragile, and now her life depends on him doing one of the most difficult deliveries of his career, repaying her for all the times she’s saved his life. This has been set up since the game’s second cutscene, which happens about 5 minutes after you start it for the first time.
It’s a brilliant setup and payoff, engaging with a huge portion of the game’s mechanics, from basic movement to weather to combat to the little grubs you gotta eat to heal. Everything matters. It is impossible to single out or prefer any one element of the game without a detriment to that magnificent whole.
So you’ve done this immensely impossible mission, you end up with an epic boss fight where you’re trapped and timefall is decaying your package as you fight against one of the largest and most challenging bosses in the game… and… then you win, even though it pushed you to your limit and… then… it’s over.
There’s a new President, everyone is saved, the future is still dangerous — there are still BT’s out there — but it looks like everyone’s going to be okay. You did your job, and like Max at the end of Fury Road, you’ve regained your humanity and maybe it’s time to head off, alone. Except… well, you’re not alone.
Your BB, BB-28, who you’ve nicknamed Lou, your constant companion throughout the game, the baby you take care of and who takes care of you, is dead.
Dead things get necrotic in 24 hours.
You’re going to have to incinerate him.
It’s a moment of heartbreak. For 80 hours of gametime, I’d fought and survived alongside BT. I’d heard his panicked cries when I fell down, I’d soothed him, we laughed on ziplines together, I fought Cliff Unger’s vengeful ghost and proved that I could take care of BB. When BB ‘broke’ and Deadman had to fix him, I felt naked and vulnerable. When I got him back, I was happier than ever.
And now he was dead.
And I had to burn the body.
So, there you are, walking out of the White House, retracing your steps from the very first mission, when you had to incinerate the President’s corpse to prevent another explosion.
“See the sun set…”
Cliff Unger is your father. I think by this point, you’ve learned this. You were the original BB. Those memories that BB had? Those are yours. BB isn’t just this child you protected, he’s a part of you, in the most literal sense.
“I will hold you and protect you…”
Here you are, walking out into the world, and for the first time in a very long while, you’re alone. All those things you built were washed away by the timefall. It’s just you and BB, and he’s still. He’s way too still. And you’re so alone. There’s no one but you and BB. And you’re listening to a beautiful rendition of the lullaby that Cliff, your father, sang to you before he died.
You can’t hold BB and protect him.
“I’ll stay with you, by your side, close your tired eyes,” she sings, and Sam says “Come on, Lou. One last delivery.”
And you’re so alone.
But then you walk out into the world, and one thing remains.
Timefall might break down bridges and ziplines, but holograms aren’t material. They’re just light. And because they’re light, because they can’t decay, they remain. The only thing left in the world were a bunch of signs left by the people who’d come before me, words of encouragement, words saying “keep on keeping on,” and “you can make it!” and stuff.
I wasn’t alone. I never had been. Everyone was around me, telling me I had the strength to carry on.
I started crying.
After 80 hours of play, the mechanics had played out just so. The moment landed. It was perfect. Death Stranding had forged the connections it needed to. The cutscenes might not have worked — even I, who was doing my best to follow along, had checked out, but Death Stranding had so effectively put me in Sam’s shoes, the lyrics so wonderfully illustrating what I felt in the moment… it was sublime.
Not a lot of games manage to accomplish the sublime.
All I want right now is to rest. I don’t remember when it all began. Maybe it was this year, when I escaped two abusive relationships, including one that dragged on for months. Maybe it was in 2018, when my heart gave out and I needed surgery. Maybe it was 2017, when I lost my home, or 2016, when I worked myself into exhaustion trying to graduate and both my dogs passed away. Maybe it was 2014, when I lost my job because my boss discrminated against disabled people. Or 2012, when I was abused by another boss with the same problem. Maybe it was 2010, when I was going to the hospital 3 days a week, being told “you’re one of the sickest patients I’ve ever seen; it’s remarkable that you’ve worked so hard to make it this far.” I discovered my grandma’s alzheimer’s that year, which she’d been hiding as best she could. Maybe it was 2008, when I was told I had to give up my dream of flying planes. Maybe it was 2006, when I was so sick I couldn’t even go to school, or 2005, when I first started to get sick.
I don’t know.
What I do know is that all I want is to rest.
And here I was, playing this game, and I felt like someone had connected with me. I mean really, truly connected with me. Someone saw how hard I’d fought, how much I’d gone through, and they told me that I could do it. I could carry on, just a little longer, and then, finally, I would have permission to rest.
Hideo Kojima and everyone else who made Death Stranding, and every player who posted those signs of encouragement, heck, even BB-28 and Igor, the only character in the game whose items remained in the world on my long trek back to the incinerator forged a connection with me in that moment that no work of art has ever managed to accomplish for me before this.
I told a friend I never really wanted to be famous as an artist, I just wanted to be understood. I’ve often said that I think the artist’s prayer should be “Lord, may I never be anticipated, but may I always be understood.” I have fought so hard just to survive, and there have been so many moments where all I could do was put one foot in front of the next and hope it would work out. I have starved. I have struggled with suicide. I have been overwhelmed by crushing loneliness. Without other people, I never could have survived, and in one beautifully crafted moment that relied on the weight of the 80+ hours I played before it, I felt a connection. I felt understood.