Death (Stranding) is a Beach(ed Thing)

(AKA “2019: A Strand Odyssey”

AKA: “Neon Genesis Strandelion”

AKA: “21 minutes Jump Street feat. Nicolas Winding Refn”

AKA: “Like tears in the Time(fall)”

AKA: “Super Strand Bros. Next Day Delivery Edition”)

I’ll stop there (sorry).

Death Stranding is a game that exists. This is a post re: my takeaway after finishing the main story, 50 hours later.

Disclaimer #1: This game is truly incredible and I loved it.

Disclaimer #2: No (explicit/contextual) endgame spoilers here, all images are from the beginning areas of the game.

Disclaimer #3: The following article makes almost no sense. Enjoy!

TOMORROW IS IN YOUR STRANDS

You either face-plant into Kojima-san’s fever-dream-esque, over-the-top, hyper-cinematic SOCIAL STRAND game, or live long enough to see yourself become a hater. There is no middle-ground with this auteur. I have gone up the Ladder of Igor, past the Cosplayer, through the Tar Pit to get to the Golden Masked Terrorist, into death itself where there’s a depressingly grey beach, and all I got was this BB. “What, you may ask?”, the answer to which, is, “Yes.”

Once there was an expression. On my face. It was an odd expression. It was a mixture of shock, fear, disgust and incredulity. This soon passed. I now have an expression of pure joy. Utter. Joy. Why, you may ask? I’ll explain in the most confusing way possible, since trying to explain every detail of DS without actually experiencing it is like reducing the Mona Lisa to mere atoms and expecting someone to see the bigger picture (pun FULLY intended). Ergo, the following:

#Disclaimer 4: If you like walking in the rain, listening to Low Roar, weird sci-fi horror, and generally chilling out (mostly) with a video game, then stop reading this and play Death Stranding. Then come back and read this. Then you can nod your head, avec un understanding grin plastered to your face, while muttering, “this guy GETS it!”

I WANT MY BB BACK BB BACK BB BACK BB BA-

DS is a game where you eat weird bugs to speed up blood regeneration.

DS is a game where you make deliveries and walk a lot.

DS is a game where you can pee.

DS is a game where you can escape the reality of soothing your real-life baby by soothing a virtual baby.

DS is even a new genre of game.

DS sounds so weird and simultaneously interesting on paper, that finding out for yourself what all the hubbub is about is worth the price of admission alone. The above bullet points are pretty much how it was pitched to me, at least by superficially perusing through the hashtag on Twitter back in November 2019. At that time, I decided to ignore it. I am not a Kojima fan-boy, and have never really understood the adoration of Metal Gear Solid, however, I can appreciate Kojima-san’s greatness from afar. Someone once described the lauded game designer as “the video game equivalent of Quentin Tarantino”. Controversial? Yes. A heavy-handedness with cinematic techniques, convoluted plots often explained with large expositions-dumps and style over substance? Perhaps. Regardless of your opinion, creators like Tarantino and Kojima are true auteurs; they have a hand in every single little detail about their project. Every frame is a painting, that is honed and tweaked according to the maestro. I fail to think of another person in the video game industry that can produce a AAA-budget game with this level of independent control. DS is Kojima Productions first baby, that has arrived kicking and screaming, slimy and beautiful, into our “not worthy” arms.

After playing DS, I can safely say that I am still 100% sane. I think that this is an amazing game that pushes boundaries beyond current gaming tropes. I think that DS is a necessary explosion that opens gamers’ eyes to the possibility of enjoying a big budget game on par with GTA5 or the next Call of Duty or the next Far Cry: Super Mega Outpost Edition, now with even more outposts, that doesn’t conform to those templates. Those games have worked (financially at least) for many years, and DS is so utterly left-field that it deserves to be talked about for years to come; as a bonkers masterpiece.

But what is a Death Stranding? How did I even get here? And who the hell is Sam Porter Bridges and why should I give a damn?

STRANDERS GOTTA STRAND

At the beginning of the COVID-19 lockdown, I decided to buy DS to fill up the evenings when I had some free time away from looking after a 2 year toddler, and from work, and from my newly pregnant wife (love yooooou). In the past 2 months, I have played 50 hours or so, which mainly entailed *deep breath* stealth walking through BT (Beached Things)-infested territory to avoid being sucked down into the inky world of the dead, which is really annoying when you’re just trying to deliver *checks notes* “Cryptobiotes, sperm and eggs, metals(100), resins(80), ancient fossilised rock, and springs(120)”, to the Distro’ centre south of Lake Knot City, even if I can repatriate due to my DOOMs affliction whereby I can come back to life no problem, while also avoiding wandering into MULES who will shock me and steal my equipment, while also navigating steep, rocky and wet terrain that in any “typical” video game wouldn’t even register as an obstacle, and during which there is a supernatural rain that deteriorates your equipment over time, with Low Roar playing in the background. Oh, and the environment is jaw-droppingly gorgeous – a sort of desolate, Icelandic, alien foreign planet type concept that is so minimal and yet so detailed it makes my eyes bleed. Like, imagine if Denis Villeneuve directed a live action adaptation of End of Evangelion.

Seriously, it is really good. Really good.

STRAND BY ME

What hooked me at the beginning of the game was the story. You really have to lean into the ridiculous amount of acronyms and words that have no meaning yet, and trust that the game will explain things to you in the end. The setup is brilliant, and the cinematic cutscenes are refreshingly long and relaxing. Yes, some may see this as a downside, but I loved popping the kettle on, putting the controller down and just watching a crazy-weird Netflix-level 20-40 minute film every few hours.

In brief, you, Sam Porter Bridges (yes Kojima-san loves his wordplay) are tasked with reconnecting the Chiral network (Twitter/Amazon prime/The Internet hybrid) by linking up with individual “preppers” (people who give you deliveries and need stuff) using a Q-pid (a floaty necklace of USB-drives). You have to get across the UCA (post-apocalyptic America following the Death Stranding (let’s call it an explosion for now that ruined everybody’s life)), avoiding BT’s (the weird inky whales and people that drag you into Death) and terrorists, and Troy Baker (who I’m pretty sure is fourth-wall breaking his entire performance), to link up to Edge Knot City (West coast) and also find a girl called Amelie (who was leading the whole linking up the network, and you love her, in a platonic way). Got it? Good.

The main gameplay loop is making deliveries. This is where the game EXCELS.

I could not put the controller down until the delivery was done. There is such a wonderful feeling of task completion as you load up your inventory, take on the order, adjust your weight (∆ to auto-arrange), make sure you have 1x ladder, 1x climbing anchor, 5x hematic grenades (your blood to kill the inky BTs), 5x blood bags, 1x container repair spray (timefall, duh), 2x pairs of Bridges boots (lv3), 1x power skeleton, 2x PCCs (lv2), 1x Bola gun, and maybe a floating carrier if I’m feeling wild. You head out, and the loop begins. You constantly check your map, plot your route, tap R1 to scan the environment, on-the-fly adjusting where you should be heading, maybe you even fabricated a bike to speed things up. You may have even taken on some other orders, if they’re on your way to the story delivery mission. Maybe you want to help build some roads, or even better, zip-lines. Ooh, look some lost cargo!

Outside of this loop, the game breaks down a little for me. Any combat scenario involving MULES, or a boss fight, or a particular storyline that involves your fighting Mads Mikkelson on a World War 2-esque battlefield were very frustrating. DS is not built for combat – it is super clunky and painful. To the point where I dreaded any combat sequence (I emphasise, they are very very few and far between). Having Sam sprint around, firing guns is like placing Mario inside Read Dead Redemption 2 – jarring, to say the least.

DO YOU EVEN STRAND, BRO?

What about the story? By the end, the story was becoming so convoluted that I ended up searching Reddit for a non-spoiler mega thread of each episode in the game, to make sure I had understood what just happened. The 10 hours it took me at the end of the game to see out its conclusion (which pretty much starts once you arrive in the West at Edge Knot City) were full of cutscene after cutscene, story exposition and lots of cinematic tropes. Was it all good? No, a lot of it was clunky. Kojima-san definitely has a style, given he is 70% movies, but it can come across a bit too over the top, especially with the odd line of dialogue. One in particular that grated me was from a character called Fragile, who, by her own admission says, “I’m FRAGILE, but I’m not that fragile”. Maybe it’s the overuse of wordplay, if you can call it that. The characters in DS are caricatures of humans, at least on the surface (Heartman, Deadman, Die-Hardman), but when their eponymous episodes go into depth, their motivations and lives become fleshed out and much more believable.

Kojima-san is going for a sense of “cool” in his storytelling too, in his editing, in his music choice, in his fake out fade-to-blacks, à la The Sopranos, or more recently Mr. Robot. Not every beat hits but what I appreciated was how uniquely cinematic DS felt. Games like Detroit: Become Human or the Telltale games can feel like you’re playing a movie or a comic book, but they still feel focus-grouped, toned down to be palatable to the general audience. DS is Kojima’s brain-child, with all his shackles taken off. The ending of the game was so insanely strange that I’m still processing what it all means right now. If we ignore the spoilerific details of the story, I’d like to go into the themes that I think that Kojima-san was hoping to share with us.

It’s about building Bridges (ha).

I’M IN A GLASS CASE OF STRANDMOTION

DS is a game about loneliness, social interaction and connecting with… things. DS has released into the cultural zeitgeist where social media has encapsulated our world into a sort of “over-connectedness”; we are always on display and online, and have lost the “soul” of meaningful interactions. Kojima-san has gone into detail re: this, here and here. Everyone is an individual island, connected superficially via the internet, but there is little empathy or care in those connections, which can make them meaningless and detrimental to our mental health.

To feel lonely is to be human; we are a species that strives for social interaction; a SOCIAL STRAND SPECIESTM if you will. Kojima-san puts this idea front and centre with Inception/onion-layers of layers. There is the main aim of the game to physically “re-connect” society through building the chiral network. There is also Sam’s fear of people touching him, his disconnection from losing his family; Sam is the lonely avatar, the lone wolf that we project ourselves onto, talking, joining and connecting with so many preppers and characters throughout the story. We are not just reconnecting physically, but mentally too.

There is the connection between Sam and BB; a premature, technically unborn, baby kept in an artificial womb that you carry around and alerts you when BT’s are near, given its intrinsic connection to death, i.e. it’s in between states of being. Sam develops an emotional connection with BB, forcing you to soothe its cries if you trip up – essentially you’ll care about a piece of navigational equipment as if it’s your child. And honestly, it really works and isn’t an annoying game mechanic.

CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE STRANDED KIND

A strand is a piece of rope, something that brings two points in space together. To be stranded is to be bereft of something, be it a place or a person. Kojima-san brings these two meanings to fruition throughout the 40+ hour long story, and actually kind of sticks the landing. The main difficulty in comprehension is how long and complicated the story is – like trying to hold all the plot points of a Iain M. Banks Culture novel in your mind without being able to flick back through the pages, or having a dramatis personae/index to peruse.

The theme of connection comes out in a unique gameplay element, which makes DS a quasi-multiplayer experience. With each prepper station you bring online, i.e. extending the chiral network, you have access to other players’ structures that they have built to help cross the terrain, e.g. ladders, ropes, or even roads, bridges, vehicles and zip-lines. It’s very well done, in that you never feel like that traversal is too easy, now there are roads everywhere, rather, a part of a road may be started. Likewise, you don’t feel the opposite – the majority of my interaction with this system has been nicely fitting in with what other players have left behind, e.g. adding to a zip-line network that now encompasses all the delivery stations in a snowy mountainous region. The bleeding effect of other players’ structures into my world, or vice-versa, yours into theirs, is a subtle knife – a goldilocks zone. Again, here, the game excels at giving the player the exact amount of help they need.

Beyond structures, you can click the touchpad on the dualshock 4 and call out into the void, hoping to interact with a virtual player, who, if you’re lucky, might illuminate on your screen with a greenish halo, and a reply to your “I’m Sam!” with “Hey, I’m Sam too!”. You can also leave signs, warning players of BT-infestations, heavy timefall, Mules or even drop motivational emojis – “Keep on keeping up!” is a phrase I’ll never get out of my head.

There are shared lockers in every Way-station where you can claim cargo or donate some you don’t need, which are accessible by other players. There is lost cargo dotted around the map that you can help and deliver, if someone has dropped theirs. There is even a “Like” system whereby you can give likes to structures or other things left behind by other players. In return you can get likes for building structures, improving roads, etc. At one point during a boss fight, humanoid avatars appeared (which didn’t look inky and evil) and started throwing me weapons and tools to help me during the encounter. This is all part of developing a positive-only social interaction. This is Kojima-san’s reflection on our hyper-direct, often blame-placing and toxically hate-fuelled online culture in the real world. It’s a wonderful game mechanic and extremely relevant to the current socio-political landscape.

I’LL BE WAITING FOR YOU ON THE (weirdly grey and desolate) BEACH (with dead whales and creepy dolls)

I believe that Kojima-san’s message to us is that to rebuild our world, to create a positive, developing and thriving society, we have to create meaningful connections, not just a network of information sharing, but a network of feelings and love (YES I WENT THERE). The story of DS shows the good and bad of connectedness, implying that Kojima-san himself doesn’t have all the answers to how best humanity can move forward. He wants us to develop our own solutions and share them with the world. How can we create a better society? How can we connect to people, to the environment, to the planet, without ruining everything with our metaphorical muddy footprints? One day, humanity will surely end, Kojima-san is using DS as an opportunity to show us that life is a struggle, to survive is a struggle, even suffering, and that’s the point. Life, finds a way, found a way and we should make the best of the time we have in this chaos. DS is a piece of art that shows us that we are not alone, no matter how much we feel it. All it takes to make a connection is a word, a text, a smile, or maybe just crossing a continent and giving someone a hug.

We have gone from thinking of DS as a walking simulator to considering the meaning of life. I expected nothing less from Kojima-san. DS is a game that will connect with you (if you let it) in many different ways. I connected with the story, maybe not as deeply as say, The Last of Us, but I lapped up the Kojima-commentary and almost wish there was a Netflix version I could show my wife. I think it’s an excellent game, more for its sheer audacity in rejecting traditional gameplay templates, and creating a game that is really fun to play. I wouldn’t have invested so much time if I didn’t enjoy it.

To wrap-up, I will say that DS is an incredible experience. I highly recommend you play it, whether you are a Kojima fan or not, this is a piece of artistic creativity that is a commentary on our lives, how we interact and why we should make a better world free of the mental war we rage daily on the internet.

Above all, stay safe out there.