Hideo Kojima (Metal Gear Solid series, Death Stranding) is a bit like the video game version of Wes Anderson (Rushmore, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou). The comparison isn’t immediate. Anderson makes awkward dramadies about family life with distinctive color pallets. Kojima is known for agonizingly detailed games that mix the petty with the grand, the sublime with the ridiculous, and has chunks of exposition so long that even his fans can get impatient. At a glance, the two have nothing in common. But their own unique styles are so distinctive that, at the end of the day, as ridiculous as they both are, those styles are the reason why we see their movies and play their games.
Death Stranding‘s America has been so thoroughly changed by the titular and mysterious apocalypse that any trace of the familiar is gone. The Stranding changed reality in a fundamental way. Rain accelerates the aging of anything it touches, causing rust and decay. Corpses explode if left uncremated, wiping out entire towns and spawning ghosts called “BTs,” or beached things. The remains of humanity hide in underground shelters, connected only by a super-internet called the chiral network. And the chiral network? Well, that uses the world of the dead (“The Beach”) to transmit data, material, and energy. But some things can’t be transmitted; anything with a soul, anything unique.
Oh, and there are unborn babies in bottles who can see ghosts. And there are umbilical cords everywhere?
Several years prior to the start of the game, Amelie Strand, daughter of the last president of the USA, lead an expedition to the West Coast with the intention of reconnecting the shattered USA. On the way out, they would lay the ground work for the chiral network; on the way back, they finalize those connections and bring them online. But an insane terrorist captured Amelie, and is holding her hostage on the West Coast. Bridges, the organization responsible for the chiral network, recruits her adopted brother, Sam, to finish the network and rescue Amelie.
It’s easy to deride Death Stranding as a walking simulator. Most of the game is walking from place to place, or at least, making deliveries. And strangely– it’s really satisfying. There’s nothing quite like staggering into a prepper shelter with a stack of boxes on your back and getting those likes. Combat is in frequent, and usually best avoided– it can damage your cargo, for one, and if you happen to be trapped by a BT, and fail to kill the monster at the center of the BT infestation, you might wake up and find an enormous crater in the landscape. I mean, like miles wide. Enough to be an inconvenience for you should you need to return here (and, in the interest of grinding rep with a particular location, you usually do). But walking isn’t the only gameplay element, or even combat. Combat is a fairly standard over the shoulder affair, nothing flashy.
There are hints of a multiverse throughout the story, which manifests in the game as the structures, signs, and tools placed by other players. It remains ambiguous throughout the game whether these structures are from other porters or other Sams, but they are there for you to use. In return for their use, you give the structure “likes” (Basically experience points). Using an object automatically provides a like, but if the player desires, they can manually assign a much larger amount. Those likes help protect the object against timefall, and translate into experience points for the person who placed the object.
Death Stranding is a game whose story makes a big deal out of the need to reconnect shattered people, and it follows up on that well. Some elements can feel tacked on– the combat, for instance– but the whole gently-cooperative system of shared world really knocks it out of the park. You’ll see signs from other players warning you that this water might be deeper than you think, or this slope steeper. You’ll find signs encouraging you after a rough passage. You might crest a slope with your equipment running low on battery power, only to find a generator built there with an insane number of likes– clearly, everyone else was in the same situation, and XxCheetos420xX was just better prepared than the rest of us. There’s one of those car-swerve memes floating around on Reddit about the need to help out players who’ve helped you.
The story is largely successful, though not flawlessly. On the downside, it feels a little disjointed and hokey at times; some of the names and character designs, in particular, are a bit hard to swallow. “Die-Hardman,” “Deadman,” etc. There’s an explanation behind almost everything, and it’s usually pretty good, but it’s hard to swallow the guy with the skull mask named Die-Hardman in the president’s office without comment. Some things aren’t foreshadowed well enough, and occasionally a character will throw something INCREDIBLY important at you like you’re supposed to have known about it for the last forty hours, even though that’s the first time you’ve heard it. (I’m looking at you, Extinction Entities.)
At its worst, I kept feeling like Death Stranding needed a second draft to build new ideas in more organically. But aside from that, the story elements are really knocked out of the park– particularly the various backstories of the people Sam meets. There wasn’t a single member of the cast that didn’t make me feel for them at some point in the game. And it’s a remarkably warm experience for a game about extinction; there’s such a drive to help others (NPCs and players) that I couldn’t help but feel positive when I was playing this bizarre game with oil-slick ghosts and bizarre umbilical cord imagery everywhere
Should you play it? That depends. If you’re a fan of Kojima, yeah. This is a great Kojima game. If you’re not, it’s a little more touch and go. Kojima games are quirky, long winded, and sometimes you’re going to roll your eyes at them. He’s going to make you change your boots (For real. They wear out.) and there’s at least one section where you’re just running through a desolate beach with no hint of what to do next. You have to go into his games knowing that these things are part of the experience.