Empty roads leading to cities with people hiding inside. An invisible killer that makes the very act of human connection a risk. A frontline worker bringing joy and support to others simply by delivering a package.
This is America.
But not the United States of America. No, this is the United Cities of America, a fractured country suffering from a mysterious apocalypse known as the Death Stranding.
Hideo Kojima's Death Stranding is the follow up to his landmark Metal Gear Solid series. The eponymous destructive event is eventually explained across 40+ hours of gameplay, all while creating one of the most unique, satisfying, and emotional video games of the modern era.
And in doing so, the game explores themes of connection and hope in a world where isolation keeps you alive. In other words, it's pretty darn relevant in the year 2020, at a time when going outside can literally lead to your death.
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"Even when things look empty and feel bleak, isolation and distance don’t have to win."
In fact, Death Stranding —which originally released as a PS4 exclusive but is also arriving on PC in June — may be the ideal gaming experience for this new quarantine life we all lead, for many different reasons.
But let’s start with the gameplay. Early reviews were quite divided, with some derisively calling the game a “walking simulator.” Technically, that is an accurate statement — the majority of the game is walking from point A to point B.
But that’s like saying the goal of Uncharted is to shoot mercenaries; there’s so much more to it, and while a story-focused speed run will log about 35 hours, the deep gameplay and side quests allow for 100+ hours, as well as a post-campaign open world. (And really, you get vehicles and other evolving equipment around the seven or eight hour mark.)
The game can be taken at your own pace and missions tend to last 30-60 minutes, so it’s a good overall length for gamers stuck indoors.
As Sam Porter Bridges (played by The Walking Dead’s Norman Reedus), the gameplay experience in itself requires a different shift in thinking than the frenetic pace often found in shooter-based AAA titles.
Much like how Kojima made the act of hiding and waiting into a visceral experience in Metal Gear Solid, Death Stranding finds tension, terror, and even peace integrated into the mere act of getting to a destination.
Traversal, not combat, is the primary action. Rather than blasting away at aliens or mercenaries, Death Stranding makes every step forward feel like a victory. So many things are poised to take you down — from terrifying invisible demons known as BTs, to the weather, to mercenaries, to the balance of equipment on your back.
By making traversal the enemy, Death Stranding inverts player expectations. Rather than being a powered-up aggressor (though weapons do arrive and combat/boss battles become necessary), the game makes you focus on planning and movement, like Mirror’s Edge slowed down and remixed with elements of SimCity.
The result is gameplay that rewards the methodical rather than the reflexive, which leads to a surprising (and different) sense of satisfaction.
But while Sam is always alone on his mission, he’s supported by a real-time community of other players doing things like building bridges over streams, paving roads for your vehicles, or leaving you ladders and ropes when you need them most. And this is where things relate even more to our current situation.
Months before Death Stranding launched, the actual game continued to be a mystery. Outside of cutscene-based trailers and a few gameplay examples, no one actually knew what it was about.
Cryptically, Hideo Kojima talked about how the game’s main theme was connection, something he felt was slipping away in the real world despite life becoming digitally interconnected (a theme he presciently explored in Metal Gear Solid 2). Now that the game is available, it’s clear that this was accurate, and it works on several levels.
Culturally: To “rebuild” the country, the game emphasizes that communities must communicate and trade with each other. Your job as Sam is to link these communities by delivering the necessary equipment to do so. In addition to equipment, side characters will request things like books, beer, even pizza‚ all lost luxuries in this apocalyptic landscape, putting an emphasis on the little things that fill our lives with joy and meaning.
Socially: Every time you connect a community, their region becomes activated on the so-called chiral network. From a gameplay perspective, this means that people sharing your server now act to support each other by building universally accessible equipment, rest points, roads, even signs and emojis to convey encouragement. Although though you can’t see each other, someone always has your back.
Personally: How well do we really know each other? With its main cast, Death Stranding explores the hidden motivations each has — and the realization that in order to get through their own personal ordeals, they need to rely on each other.
Individually: For much of the game, Sam is a silent avatar, only grunting and responding to mission directives. However, around halfway through the game, his layers begin to peel back — and by design, his relationship with his BB (the “Bridge Baby,” which is the now-iconic baby strapped to his suit) evolves from a somewhat annoying tool to someone he — and the player — is willing to die to protect.
Those may seem like heavy themes to experience while living in an actual quarantine state, but here’s the thing about Death Stranding — despite starting in an apocalyptic situation where death only creates more death (literally, as when humans die in the game, they create explosions with a massive blast radius), the journey is literally and metaphorically about taking steps to reclaim humanity, even in the face of complete devastation.
This plays out on so many levels, some scripted within the game’s story and some through random community interaction. There’s nothing quite like being at the top of a mountain, trudging heavy step after heavy step through snow despite being out of equipment...and yet someone in the community has left you a ladder in just the right spot, along with a sign of encouragement.
This mix of functional and personal interaction is unlike any other gaming experience, all gradually building towards a communal sense of “we got this.”
All of the above has captured gameplay and thematic elements, yet doesn’t even touch upon the story. But a good story is something that’s always needed to get through difficult times, and Death Stranding might be Hideo Kojima’s most cohesive story yet. It opens with disorientation by design, starting you off among chaos with little explanation —making you experience Sam’s disconnection and apathy.
One of Kojima’s strengths as a storyteller lies in utilizing gaming as a medium: conveying emotion and feeling through interaction. Within the first two hours of the game, there’s a terrifying moment with the BTs that is only achieved with all of the elements of a video game: visuals, sounds, limitations of movement, and the required buttons.
These moments infuse emotion in a different way from films or books, feeling the scene’s weight while also having ownership. Games often gloss over this ability, but it’s something that Kojima has always excelled at.
The heart of Death Stranding is its story — which is best left to experience completely unspoiled. Most of the narrative is in the second half of the game’s campaign, and while many threads will initially feel completely disconnected, rest assured that all key subplots are tied up for an immensely satisfying narrative.
The game ultimately finishes on a beat of hope, despite surrounding you with death for literally every step of the experience. Like the other elements above, this feels particularly important to remember during our current point in time.
When it all comes together, Death Stranding makes for a completely original, completely unique experience, one that puts the spotlight on the journey, step after heavy step. Kojima’s message becomes clear for gamers willing to invest in it: that even when things look empty and feel bleak, isolation and distance don’t have to win.
In fact, through connection and community, there’s a way.
Because when life is pushed to the edge, it usually comes back — like Sam Porter Bridges — by putting one foot in front of the other.
Featured image from "Death Stranding" via Kojima Productions.