"Death Stranding” is not fun. It is inherently rather un-fun, but this isn’t to say that it’s a worthless experience or that it didn’t justify the millions of dollars and hours that went into making it a reality. “Death Stranding” is, despite its critical polarization and apparent lack of redeeming qualities, one of the most important games of this console generation, and one of the few recent triple-A releases that questions the limits placed on video games by their audiences.
This may read quite differently in the wake of COVID-19 — the world of “Death Stranding” is a ruined America where everyone lives in isolated shelters and the only things connecting society are the internet and a system of couriers running packages between cities. This was all caused by the Death Stranding, a cataclysmic event that created both massive numbers of tar-coated invisible ghosts and toxic rain that accelerates the ageing of whatever it lands on. The player is Sam Porter Bridges, a surly workaholic porter tasked with reconnecting America and preventing a hypothetical second stranding.
The gameplay of “Death Stranding” consists of navigation, resource management, asynchronous online multiplayer features, complicated physics, and the occasional bouts of stealth and combat, but it mostly boils down to long stretches of walking or driving; you are a mailman, after all, and your job is to deliver come rain, shine, sleet or hail. The main appeal of this passive style of gameplay is that you can play music over it and easily unwind. There’s just enough involvement to keep you engaged without it requiring your full attention, and the minimal licensed soundtrack isn’t really much to miss. While the game starts to wear out its welcome by the end of its 30-plus-hour runtime, it still manages to justify far more of it than most others.
The narrative is banal, boring and wordy, as is par for the course when a game is written by an unchecked Hideo Kojima. Every time you complete a major delivery, you get an earful about the next mission. In some cases, characters come along with you and tell their whole life story in a grating voice. Whole chapters are devoted to lifeless people you don’t care about, most of which are on Sam’s support team. There are a couple of good performances, but they’re buried under hours of color-by-numbers nonsense.
Frankly, I think the story of “Death Stranding” would be made more interesting if it was mostly environmental — if almost nothing was explained and the scenic vistas did the talking — but that may be a bit cliché after so many indies have done it, and would definitely conflict with the cyberpunk storm-of-information aesthetic the game is going for. Speaking of aesthetics, the photorealistic visuals create some often striking tableaux, such as climbing through a massive
mountain system, dodging ghosts in a ruined city, or jumping from sinking building to sinking building in an ocean of tar. While the way things are shown is ordinary, what is shown isn’t.
“Death Stranding” is important for many reasons. It goes in a completely different direction from most games; it’s one of the riskiest triple-A bets this console generation; it shows an original, ambitious, fully-realized vision in game form; and it represents Kojima finally reclaiming creative control from his bosses and fans after decades of being pushed around.
It was a shame to see it polarize the gaming community as it did, but I suppose it was inevitable given that it both made pretensions to starting a genre rather than to being particularly fun or difficult and that a large part of the gaming community are entitled and chronically averse to new ideas. It’s almost like any game seeking to change the face of the industry can never quite do so without making some arbitrary appeal to it through marketing, like how no one knew who Yoko Taro was until he put out a game with a French maid on the cover.
At any rate, I hope “Death Stranding” is eventually vindicated by history for being the breath of fresh air that it is rather than carelessly tossed into the pile of actual high-profile failures like “Ride to Hell” and “E.T.: The Extraterrestrial.”
Gaget is a student in Fairbanks public schools, and has developed six games, all of which are featured in the compilation Rong Wrong November ‘19. He is a neutral game reviewer.
If You Play
Internet Usage (accounts for download size): 55 GB download plus “social strand system”
ESRB Rating: M
Release Date: Nov. 8, 2019
Genre (if applicable): N/A
Developer: Kojima Productions