It’s rare that triple-A games are as strange as Death Stranding. It’s rare so much money is spent on such a bizarre product. And it’s exceptionally rare that a major studio release is as idiosyncratic to its director. I’m not a fan of auteur theory in collaborative media, of which gaming is absolutely one, but if ever a big-budget game supported it, it’s Death Stranding.
In Death Stranding’s uncommonly original post-apocalypse, the world’s population has been decimated, and its surface scarred, by the arrival of “BTs,” spectral interdimensional beings from the world of the dead. Their intrusions into our world accompany rainfall that accelerates the aging of anything it touches; they drag victims into slicks of tarry goo; and when people die, they leave sizeable craters in their wake. The United States is now the United Cities, a fragile alliance connected only by delivery agents, who have now become the most important people on the planet. One such “porter” is Sam (Norman Reedus), who’s able to sense BTs via a mysterious medical affliction - and via a baby he carries around in a bottle. It’s up to Sam to reconnect the United Cities, and to take on a number of increasingly surreal threats that spring up along the way.
It is, to put it lightly, a weird one.
True to form, director Hideo Kojima has stuffed Death Stranding with strange and inscrutable cutscenes, dropping players into of a universe of abstract science and metaphysics. through eerily beautiful imagery, impressive motion capture, and ponderous exposition. Almost immediately, you’re confronted with terminology like “timefall,” “cryptobiote,” “voidout,” “DOOMS,” “chiralgrams,” and “autotoxemia,” and wild visuals like disembodied growling handprints, jar-babies that operate a kind of ghost radar, and a dream-world beach full of dead fish. Not until considerably later do these ideas coalesce into something even approaching sense, and even then it requires acceptance of A-grade handwavey technobabble.
What happens outside those cutscenes is just as strange and subject to taste. The bulk of Death Stranding's gameplay is...delivering packages, and rebuilding infrastructure to expedite delivery of packages. Kojima actually did it: he made a triple-A walking simulator. Lugging cargo across the game’s craggy terrain, players must pay heed to terrain, slope incline, cargo weight distribution, boot wear, stamina, and balance, if they want to get where they’re going. Upon delivering your sometimes comically tall stack of cargo, you’re graded on the efficacy of your couriership, in one of the game's many bewildering menu screens. Later, you construct vehicles, robots, and roads to aid delivery, but the core gameplay remains the same. Where other games use locomotion as a means to get to the action, in much of Death Stranding, walking is the action. There’s a quiet dilapidated beauty to the experience, especially when the game’s dreamy soundtrack fades in. It is strangely engaging to potter about lugging cargo, taking in the views, resting when you get tired. Such a feeling seems improbable in a triple-A game, but it’s here, and the more gamerbros get to experience it, the better for future diversification of the medium.
For gamerbros, there is a bit of combat, but even the most conventional part of the game is still odd and lethality-free. Facing humans (like a cult of rogue postmen addicted to delivering cargo), you’ll tie up or render your enemies unconscious. Facing the ghostly BTs, you’ll hit them with experimental weaponry that mostly just incapacitates them so you can escape. Get caught in the Armus-like mire secreted by the BTs, and you’ll face a spontaneous boss battle against a Lovecraftian beast bent on dragging you to hell. Mostly, though, you’ll simply avoid confrontation altogether, using your baby-radar to locate enemies and sneaking, sprinting, or more accurately stumbling the hell out of dodge. The game’s stealth “rules” are a bit tricksy, with human and BT enemies alike noticing Sam seemingly at random, but tiptoeing through a ghost-infested crater is suspenseful regardless.
Hideo Kojima has always been fascinated with America in his games, predominantly in interrogating its military actions via the Metal Gear series, but in Death Stranding he makes new observations - new, and thuddingly simplistic. The game is all about building bridges between people, figuratively and literally, alive and dead, and it's reflected blatantly in nearly every aspect of the game. Sam changed his surname from Strand (explicitly pointed out in dialogue as both a verb for leaving someone alone, and as a noun for something that binds people) to, literally, Sam Porter Bridges, and bears a crippling fear of emotional and physical connection. Lea Seydoux’s freelance deliverator is named Fragile, referring to cargo but also the delicate emotional state shared by everyone affected by the BTs. There’s a lot of crying in this game. Nothing’s subtle, but Kojima has never been known for subtlety.
That theme is borne out in online features too. Death Stranding isn’t a multiplayer game in the vein of Destiny or Call of Duty - or even of Metal Gear Solid V - but players’ actions do intrude into other players’ game worlds. Structures you build have a chance to show up in other players’ games, and vice versa; you can deliver other players’ lost cargo, deposit little stamina boosts, or even leave motivational messages. Every player-deposited item can be “liked," creating camaraderie without ever actually putting players alongside one another. As an environmentalist, it's a bit disquieting for the game to equate pavement with progress, but as a player, it is useful skirting past enemies on a handy highway erected by another player. It’s still a lonely game, pitting Sam against an vast and unyielding landscape, but sometimes when you yell out, you might hear a faint response on the wind.
It’s hard to communicate the volume of Death Stranding's strange ideas, but a few examples might help. The game’s first mission is to cremate the president, who also happens to be your mother, by dragging her corpse by hand over a mountain to a crematorium. You can have Sam pee almost anywhere, but it’s best not to, because sweat, urine, and excrement are better used milled into weapons against the BTs. You replenish your fluids by drinking a canteen of, specifically, Monster Energy Drink - a jarring bit of product placement amplified by its isolation in an otherwise desolate world. When Sam dies, he’s teleported to an underwater otherworld, in which you, his soul, swim your way back to his body. And of course, there’s the baby in a jar, which you manually rock back and forth to calm down, who gives you visions of its father Mads Mikkelsen, and who is your first line of defense against the BTs. The unborn, connected to the dead: bluntly poetic as ever.
Death Stranding is a breathtaking exercise in creative hubris from a game director with a sizeable cult of personality. Kojima has used his enormously-budgeted project as an excuse to hang out with creative people he likes: in addition to Reedus, Mikkelsen, and Seydoux, the game features Guillermo del Toro, Nicolas Winding Refn, Edgar Wright, and a multitude of other directors and artists, all spouting dialogue so oblique it could only come from Kojima. Death Stranding is certainly “visionary” in that it follows a specific vision, but I wouldn’t necessarily call it “visionary” as a synonym for “great” like many do. It makes a convincing case that producers can be a vital balancing force: far from balance, Death Stranding frequently tips from “strange and intriguing” into “outright alienating.”
That’s classic Kojima, of course, but it doesn’t make Death Stranding a classic. Much of the game is a punishing slog, with clunky enemy engagements and a finicky jumble of gameplay systems. I often felt that I should be profoundly moved by it - but the meaning was always either too obvious or too buried to do so. I applaud Kojima for using his Sony blank cheque to make something so wilfully different. But by the time the game opens up into the existential epic it wants to be, it’s just too caught up in itself for me to care anymore.
I love that Death Stranding exists. But I do not love Death Stranding.