My relationship with Death Stranding is oddly circumstantial. I’ve been a fan of the Metal Gear Solid series since the 9th grade, which also made me a fan of series creator Hideo Kojima. His falling out with Konami is no secret and I was amped for his new project when it was announced for PS4. Then on October 13, 2019, just one month before Death Stranding (and when The Last of Us Part II was still scheduled for February), my PS4 Pro died. It was really terrible timing considering all the impending game releases and the fact that the PS5 would be launching in 2020. Not great timing at all.
But, I wanted to play those games at release, so I decided to buy the Death Stranding PS4 bundle along with the collector’s edition I had previous pre-ordered. I looked like a super fan walking out of Best Buy that night. After launch, I started playing the game and listening to the conversation surrounding it. Do we really walk/hike this much? Why do I have to hold the triggers down constantly? Are BTs really this frustrating to navigate around? What is this plot?
I remember hearing how long episode three was; how people were 20, 30, even 40 hours into the game and still in episode two. I remember Dan Ryckert, a staunch Metal Gear and Kojima lover, say he couldn’t believe Kojima made a bad and/or not fun game.This negative spin really shut me off to the game. I wasn’t feeling it. I put Death Stranding down.
I had a pretty high monetary investment into the game though. I also had daily reminders of it throughout my apartment. Besides the branding on the console, my wife Abby put the BB statue prominently on display atop our bookshelf, which is smack dab in the middle of our home. Friends would also ask where I was in the game; how was I enjoying it? I had to keep saying I put it down, but would return to it…someday.
After replaying all the Naughty Dog PS4 games and publishing Chasing the Stick: The History of Naughty Dog during the PS4 Era, I was in a gaming lull. I wasn’t really playing anything of my own accord while working on that story. My friends Logan and Mike encouraged me to go back to Death Stranding. So I did.
Death Stranding was exactly the game I needed to play right now. I also needed that six month gap. I needed the discourse surrounding Kojima’s first new IP in roughly 20 years to dissipate. With fresh eyes and plenty of time off, Death Stranding finally made sense for me to play.
The very first thing I did was tweak the difficulty settings and my play style. Why did I want to see this game through? I wanted to see Kojima’s story. So I dropped the difficulty from “Normal” to “Very Easy.” I wanted as little friction between me and the plot. On my end, I stopped trying to pick up miscellaneous packages: If it wasn’t on my path and wasn’t for my destination, I didn’t pick it up. No materials. No deliveries. I focused solely on the core objective of the current mission to push the story forward.
This immediately lifted off so much imaginary pressure. I knew every combat encounter would be a cake walk. Even if they were easy on “Normal,” I felt relieved knowing they would be so simple going forward. Typically in open-world games like this, I try to do most of the objectives. But I was having a miserable time doing so in Death Stranding; lumbering around with a pile of oddly shaped packages. With this new mindset, I had no qualms leaving packages to deteriorate in the rain.
Another personal adjustment was tweaking my play time. I wouldn’t play for more than 90 minutes at a time usually. I found that I felt pretty done with delivering after that amount of time. So I’d save and shut it down. There was zero urgency to beat the game as soon as possible to be a part of a conversation. That time passed. I was free of a social desire to be involved. The people I would want to talk about the game with anyway would be there when I beat it.
With these changes to my approach, I was able to wholly focus on the gameplay and story that Death Stranding was presenting me with.
As a kid, I loved maps and exploring outside. My room was map-themed with elements like a world map on the wall and globe rug. Video game maps are exciting to me. I love when physical maps are packed in like with Red Dead Redemption II or The Witcher 3. A huge factor in my love for The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker is the ocean map and slowly filling it out over time. Firewatch still has some of the best map interaction around. I find maps and using them to navigate highly engaging.
I would also hike and explore woods near my home in Indiana. When I lived on St. John, the island forests were rich and dense. I read My Side of the Mountain and thought the main character Sam was living the dream.
Death Stranding’s core gameplay is a fusion of those two things. It involves studying the world map, filling in its edges by bringing locations onto the network. You plan routes, using markers to pepper the world with a digital overlay. Crevices and mountains force you to navigate around them or through them.
It reminds me of Lewis and Clark’s expedition west after the Louisiana Purchase. Land unexplored by Americans that was charted and navigated. They went coast-to-coast, along rivers and over mountains, and sent back things discovered along the way. Sam’s journey to reconnect America is similar in a basic premise.
More often than not, you have to go back-and-forth to delivery locations. Before returning to the game, I heard about climbing up a mountain repeatedly and how you’d have to cross the entire country at the end of the game. This filled my with a hardened weariness. But, when I actually got to these moments, I found them not as terrible as I presumed. I amped up the perceived terribleness so much during my six months off that I ended up finding these moments to be fair. Particularly the journey back across the America I had just finished connecting, I found it to be much shorter than I feared. I actually enjoyed it! I got to use my knowledge of the lands and routes that I had spent so much time navigating before to make for a swift trek. Crossing a map that was once desolate and disjointed, but was now teeming with user-created shelter and tools was encouraging and uplifting. At the end of the game, when I passed a small sign that I had planted outside of the first city back in November, I had realized how far I had traveled and overcome; both in the game and in real life.
As for the story, the whole point I had in playing this game, it certainly has its own peaks and valleys. On the whole, the story is a wacky alternate future with super humans with gifts that are clearly birthed from the mind of Kojima. Some hit fine with me, like Fragile and Mama, others felt cramped or unfinished, like Deadman and Die-Hardman. Mads Mikkelsen’s role is the highlight, with a strong strand of intrigue to pull you along throughout the game. I was also quite fond of Norman Reedus’ role as Sam. Maybe it’s due to watching Norman portray Daryl on The Walking Dead for the past 10 years, but his performance as the loner turned hero came off to me as authentic and engaging.
The looming threat of the game though? Extremely frustrating. The world and its lore is dense and complex, built up in jam-packed, long cutscenes, particularly in the beginning, middle, and end of the journey. Kojima stacks all these fictional elements on top of one another until it all collapses at the very end; just like when I stacked too many packages on Sam’s pack and tried to climb a sheer cliff. The conflict’s resolution was particularly exacerbated.
The overarching (and often heavy handed) themes of connection, parenthood, duty, and knowledge have a clear point of inspiration. Kojima’s journey into independence from Konami. From the semi-public fallout, to the partnership with Sony, to founding his own studio, to picking a game engine from one of the PlayStation Studios, to the partnership with Guerrilla and the Decima engine, Death Stranding is Kojima’s story. The constant message of reconnecting people and sharing immense knowledge for the betterment of mankind comes from his experience and heart. The legacy and story of Death Stranding may never stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Metal Gear series, but it’s clear to me that it was the most personal story Kojima has told and was one he needed to tell in the medium he knows best.
Death Stranding is a game where Shigeru Miyamoto’s love for exploring became fused with Kojima’s wacky narrative and dedication to intricacy. It’s not a game for everyone. It was the game for me at this point in my life though. It was worth the wait, even if I came to the party six months late.