video game review

Death Stranding Is the Year’s Most Bewildering, Ambitious Game

Photo: Kojima Productions/Sony

If you want to boil it all the way down, the biggest story in video gaming right now is a release that features a mailman who hikes across America to reboot the internet. Death Stranding, the latest creation of legendary game designer Hideo Kojima — the mind behind Metal Gear Solid — has been shrouded in mystery throughout its development. Trailers have been baffling and cryptic. In one, a naked Norman Reedus awakens on a beach, surrounded by beached whales, and comforts a baby that he finds. In another, Mads Mikkelsen sends soldiers with skulls for faces through a war-torn hellscape as Guillermo Del Toro tries to escape through the sewers carrying a baby in a glass tank.

Death Stranding is the first game from Kojima since his messy split with Konami — the publisher of Metal Gear Solid, who forced him to release the last installment in that franchise, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, in an unfinished state — and it bears all of his trademarks: stylish imagery, multilayered conspiracy, melodramatic conversations at a plodding pace, ruminations on what America (the country, the idea) represents, and so many bespoke intra-narrative proper nouns that the game practically forms its own language. Within the first 15 minutes, Sam Porter Bridges, played by Norman Reedus, escapes from “timefall” (rain that causes accelerated aging), avoids an invisible monster called a “BT” (Beach Thing), eats a “cryptobiote” to restore his health, and meets a courier named Fragile. Shortly after, he hikes to Port Knot City (what remains of D.C.) to meet President Bridget Strand, who leads the country now known as the United Cities of America, which emerged following a cataclysmic event known as the Death Stranding.

Kojima’s ambitions with the game were characteristically vast: he endeavored to make a game that is at its core a classic hero’s journey across dangerous territory, while also immersing players in the enthralling realities of … managing logistics. Every trek you take requires you to plan out your supplies, and your route, and account for unexpected obstacles. As you make your way through the world, characters work through their own personal demons, acting as stand-ins for different parts of society as a whole: Some are optimists about the future of America, some are pessimists, some are terrorists. Death Stranding is a game built around that open, desolate territory and finding interesting things to do there, the inverse of most open-world games, which only use such space as padding between detailed landmarks. It’s also a game about helping your fellow man, rendered by an online system that lets the player give supplies and resources to others on a parallel journey. Kojima has never been one for simplicity.

The initial info dump of the game can be slightly overwhelming, but the basic setup and structure picks up after the Death Stranding. Americans have retreated to the cities, which have isolated themselves from each other. As Sam Porter Bridges, players are tasked with hiking from outpost to outpost, delivering cargo. To get there, you’re given a handful of tools, like telescoping ladders and climbing ropes, to get over and around terrain. As you reach each destination, you connect that section of the landmass to the “chiral network,” which is the internet.

Bringing the UCA’s chiral network back online — connecting the once isolated regions — is the main narrative thrust of Death Stranding. The hikes between outposts form the center of Death Stranding’s gameplay loop: Head to a starting point, pick up cargo and supplies, get it to the destination, and bring it online. Like Kojima’s other games, it is heavy on minutiae. Pulling the left and right triggers on the controller causes Sam to redirect his center of gravity. Pick up too much cargo, all of which is rendered as comically large packages strapped to Sam’s back or limbs, and Sam is more likely to tilt over and fall, damaging the packages. Every so often, you’ll have to craft a new pair of boots when your current pair gets worn out. Hike too long without resting and stamina decreases. Spend too long in timefall and your equipment visibly rusts and degrades. You can pee wherever you want and a mushroom grows in that spot.

(All of this is before I even mention BB, or “Bridge Baby,” the half-living entity contained in a tank strapped to Sam’s chest that helps players stealthily avoid Beach Things — supernatural entities which can only be seen in vague silhouettes if you stop moving completely.)

Beneath the ornate storytelling, high production value, and wondrous, convoluted sci-fi gobbledygook, it is a game fascinated with the idea of collective action and forming connections between people. That message is delivered in a heavy-handed manner that only Kojima could credibly pull off, in a narrative laden with double meanings and linguistic tricks. Where once cities were stranded, now strands connect each city together. Cities all follow the same naming convention, with titles like “South Knot City” or “Lake Knot City,” knots in the strand. Sam Porter Bridges works for the government agency BRIDGES and Webster’s Dictionary defines “porter” as “a person who carries burdens.” Sam’s smartphone-like stand-in is a pair of high-tech handcuffs that let him communicate with other people; they are called “cufflinks.” You see, they link him, but they also cuff him.

Photo: Kojima Productions/Sony

The game is very much in dialogue with Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain; in many ways, it can be seen as its inverse. In Phantom Pain, the player character spent a lot of time running through lifeless open terrain on their way to designed military camps to infiltrate and plunder. There was little to do in-between these camps and the open-world setting felt incomplete. In Death Stranding, that lifeless terrain is central to the game. There are almost no signs of life and barely any ruins of the old America. It’s all natural landscapes dotted with the occasional tiny hut. What Death Stranding achieves in truly sublime fashion is that it makes that negative-space terrain interesting and poignant and full of suspense. “It’s about the journey, not the destination” is what I’d say if I had the Kojima-like courage to own my hokiness.

Yet there’s also so much world that you can’t immediately see. Regions brought onto the chiral network within the game also connect to the internet on a meta, real-world level. Once online, you encounter structures left by other players: ladders, ropes, bridges, vehicles, holographic floating emoji strewn across the landscape. The initial journey is always made alone, but after that, if you backtrack through a connected region, you get a boost from countless other players on a parallel journey. In a way, it acts as a metaphor for the way that online and offline life merges today, everyone posting past each other or vaguely in the direction of each other without interacting directly. You won’t see anyone else in the game, but you’ll find signs of life everywhere. (What appears in your game world is a selection of other players creations, not everything that everyone playing has ever plopped down.) Approach each creation from another player and you can hit the “like” button to give thanks. It all works seamlessly and effectively, and I often felt like I was getting essential help from benevolent strangers. In a period when we reckon with the internet’s power to connect people and how it can be used to manipulate people and callously break them down, Kojima (a guy who wrote a monologue about memes and the control of information for 2002’s Metal Gear Solid: Sons of Liberty) remains an optimist.

The metaphors are not subtle, but subtlety has never been Kojima’s strong suit. Early in a game, a disillusioned Sam tells President Strand that she’s “the president of jack shit” with a line reading so self-serious that it becomes funny. Supporting characters have names like Deadman, Heartman, and Die-Hardman. And in keeping with tradition, Kojima takes a scene that could be five minutes long and makes it 15 minutes long. Shortly after the credits rolled, I sat around for another 45 minutes of non-interactive cinematic cut scenes. Often his style can be opaque and cumbersome — what other game features the avatars of filmmakers Nicolas Winding Refn and Guillermo Del Toro as supporting characters, or has a random cameo from Conan O’Brien, just because the creators wants that? In what universe would anyone even fund such a lavish production? But it’s easy to forgive the indulgences because there is nobody else attempting this on the scale that Kojima is. Like some of the characters in Death Stranding, the man exists on another plane of consciousness. In many ways, it’s crazy that Death Stranding exists at all.

Death Stranding Is 2019’s Most Bewildering, Ambitious Game