It’s been a little over a year since Metal Gear Solid writer and designer Hideo Kojima’s first game without Konami was released, the oddity that was Death Stranding. Gamers and critics either loved it for its unconventional gameplay mechanics that set it apart from basically every other game out there or found the gameplay loop profoundly boring and the story absolutely bizarre. But those opinions were stated in 2019, and the world is a much different place now. So, if you have been stuck in isolated lockdowns, lost your job or miss your friends and family, maybe picking up Kojima Production’s first outing, Death Stranding, is worth it. Let me explain why.
For the sake of this article, I’d like you to read it with this song in the background, which is featured in the game as you walk long at one point.
To explain Death Stranding (or anything Hideo Kojima has written) is a bit of a challenge in itself, so let me be brief about it. The world is ravaged after some past disaster and is dependent on couriers to hand-deliver goods across the United States. Sam Porter Bridges (The Walking Dead’s Norman Reedus) is such a courier. He delivers medicine, machines, printers, whatever the people need, across large stretches of country, usually on foot. There are dangers in the wilds, from bandits seeking the packages for themselves, to the supernatural terrors known as BTs. While he’s delivering packages to various outposts, he’s also attempting to get the inhabitants to connect to the Chiral Network, a sort-of internet that will “connect” America again and allow information and collaboration to be reestablished across the land. Sidenote, but this is the most Icelandic version of America I’ve ever seen. Co-starring in Kokjima’s self-serious story are Mads Mikkelsen, Léa Seydoux, Margaret Qualley, Tommie Earl Jenkins, Troy Baker and Lindsay Wagner, along with appearances by directors Guillermo Del Toro and Nicholas Winding Refn.
Because of the dangers in the wilds, the journey is often long, quiet and lonely. Sam walks for hours, accompanied only by a baby in a pod called a BB to help detect the ghostly phantoms of the land. Alone with his thoughts, he does his best to not trip over rocks, get swept away by currents, or attacked by bandits called MULEs. As he begins to hook up cities and settlements to the network, something unique happens. You yourself begin to make connections with other players, without ever seeing them.
Let’s say you come across a river or a canyon, the natural thing to do is place a ladder in order for you to cross. But instead of it simply lying there collecting dust or waiting for you to return to it, said structure can show up in other people’s worlds as well. So if I leave down a helpful ladder, you may very well come across it and benefit from it. If you do, you may give a like or numerous likes to the item, just like you would on social media. This pursuit of validation, to know what you’re doing is benefiting someone else is on their own and going through the wringer, creates the sensation of what you’re doing is beneficial beyond the narrative scope of the game. You delivered medicine to that town, but you also left some tools behind to make someone else’s trip that much easier. So without ever seeing another player, there’s this sense of community whose sole desire is to make sure that everyone is winning, benefiting and getting praise for their work. Leaving signs that say “keep on keeping on” or altering the next traveller of danger on the road really creates this sense of connection to the world.
It’s not only structures and tools that are left behind by players that contribute to the validation and reward system of the game. Let’s say you’re walking and you see that a player dropped some items; it could be a ladder or a rope or perhaps some cargo that was to be delivered. You can in turn pick those items up and deliver them/return them on behalf of that player. In doing so, you gain more likes. You’re not just looking out for yourself in this dystopian reality, but ensuring that you’re just one piece in the cog and by helping others, you’re making the world a better place. You can some likes and the original courier also benefits by having the cargo reach its final destination. You can even entrust the cargo to someone else, if the final destination is not on your route, ensuring that someone else could pick it up should they be going somewhere you’re not.
Considering many of us are living virtual lives without much physical contact in 2020, having a game like Death Stranding around, which is about the mundane and the isolation, but also about wanting to do good and have that good be validated, is oddly enough, a great and rewarding experience, especially for those who may have a lot of downtime on their hands. Too often this year, I’ve seen and read about people being incredibly selfish and self-absorbed, but because this game encourages teamwork, positive vibes and validation in the face of lonely isolation. Your walks may be lonely, dangerous and haunting even, but somewhere out there, someone else went through the same challenges you are going through and decided to leave behind something. I “like” this. Death Stranding is currently available on PS4, PS5 via backwards compatibility and Microsoft Windows.