Where do I even start with Death Stranding? With the fact it’s the weirdest video game I’ve ever played? With the gameplay that involves running over mountains with copious amounts of cargo strapped to your back? With the cut sequences that involve talking to people who may or may not be there on a beach full of dead fish? Or that you have a baby in a bottle strapped to your chest the entire game, and that’s not the weirdest thing that happens?
Death Stranding is a game that you’ll either love or hate. Me? I love it.
Given the influence of weird fiction in my writing, I was drawn into the complex, and often inexplicable plot. Directed by Hideo Kojima of Metal Gear Solid fame, Death Stranding charts unfamiliar territory in game storytelling, rewriting rules about what a narrative should be, while dismissing traditional storytelling tropes and breaking the fourth wall. Is it fully successful in what it tries to achieve? I’m not sure. But what I do know is that I really dug this near-meditative game about life and death and baggage.
What is Death Stranding about?
What is Death Stranding about? Well, that’s the million-dollar question. I can tell you where it starts. Sam Porter Bridges is a courier who crosses a post-apocalyptic landscape to deliver essential goods to the remaining cities. The living huddle in dense underground cities, although you stay strictly in the real world (or is it? WHAT IS REAL?), to avoid attacks by BTs. It’s not too long before you discover the BTs are the souls of the dead that roam the earth. The earth has been forever changed into a barren purgatory. Those with DOOMs make deliveries, people with varying levels of psychic powers which allow couriers to see BTs or travel through chiral energy. It’s on one of these deliveries that you rescue a BB, a psychic baby in a bottle, which helps you up your DOOMs skills.
BBs, BTs, DOOMs. If that’s a lot of acronyms, you’re not alone.
Also, there’s rain which makes you grow old. And rainbows are bad.
If you’re struggling to get your head around that summary, think of Death Stranding as a cosmic horror version of the Kevin Costner film The Postman. A weird fiction hiking simulator, if you will.
Death Stranding gameplay
Never has taking a piss been so vital to a game.
I’m not even joking.
Because the wilderness is so toxic, showers and trips to the toilet will become part of your regular post-delivery ritual. And there are advantages to evacuating your bowels; early in the game you’ll get, uh, poop bombs, made from your own excrement. I do love this commitment to recycling.
Apart from taking out BTs and MULEs (Death Stranding’s cargo hogging bandits) with your pee, the main gameplay revolves around delivering packages to various cities and depots. These are vital items, such as medical supplies, CDs, and sperm. Okay, so the first one might be the most vital here.
Along the way, you’ll traverse a rocky landscape, and it’s important to make sure you plan your route – the quickest way is not always easiest. Spending too much time outdoors in the ageing rain damages your cargo containers, reducing your ability to earn from deliveries, and potentially destroying the cargo itself.
Added to this, the threat of BTs and MULES makes it more challenging to get through areas. When faced with BTs in the early parts of the game, you’ll simply need to avoid them using fairly standard stealth techniques, such as crouching and holding breath. BB is well attuned to the spirit world, and her windmill alert system will blink rapidly as they approach.
Running straight into an area crawling with BTs isn’t recommended, but if you take the stealth approach, dispatching the BTs is relatively straightforward. Finding them is the hard part. Even though your
spidey DOOMs senses register the BTs, you’re often twirling around to see if they’re behind you. Their eerie hand prints offer a satisfying horror element to the game, and if they catch you, you’ll lose your cargo – and maybe your life.
There are a plethora of tools to help you navigate the landscape, from ladders to climbing ropes, as well as support devices such as post-boxes, watchtowers, and bridges. You do work for a company called Bridges, after all. These can be built from materials earned from doing jobs for local centres or found in the landscape. But be careful about picking up too many things; you’ll totter unbalanced over the rocky world once your pack nears the weight limit. There’s a kind of absurdity to these teetering piles, something that appealed to my sense of humour. The automatic cargo distribution button is your friend, and it can be accessed through the cargo menu on your map.
The menus here are frustrating; you’ll need to confirm every choice, rather than select and exit. This makes for a painful navigation experience, having to track down to the bottom of the page and hold X, rather than just pressing circle to escape.
Death Stranding Online
I’m not usually one to play online games (too many fears about getting DMs from someone called biggusdickis69), but in this case, online play gives you an advantage, and the haunting sense that people have come before you in the desolate landscape. Sometimes when you call out, people will answer, although you’ll never see them. Returnal is similar in tone, although I like the storytelling better here.
It’s kinda nice to see people using the pieces of equipment you leave out, passing on a thumbs up like whenever something is helpful. It’s this cameraderie which is encouraged throughout the game; putting items into the shared locker for other players to use nets you more likes, which increases your standing as a porter.
I’m still getting my head around how the level-up system works. it’s a star which expands when you do certain jobs, like carrying heavy loads, keeping the damage to a minimum, your speed, and the ever elusive miscellaneous category.
Death Stranding acting
It’s worth mentioning that there’s a plethora of excellent actors among the cast of Death Stranding. Norman Reedus of Walking Dead fame plays Sam with stoic determination. Mads Mikkelsen plays BB’s dad, or as I call him, Mads Dads. And having watched Crimes of the Future, and played Death Stranding this week, Léa Seydoux always reminds me of how talented she is. Call me a fan.
I’m here for Death Stranding in the same way I was here for the last episodes of the original Neon Genesis Evangelion. I’m not sure what’s going on, but I’m committed to see it through.
If you need everything explained, every loose end tied up, then Death Stranding is unlikely to be the game for you. But if you’re someone who contemplates the unexplained, is curious about loose ends and ambiguity, and enjoys inventory management, then Death Stranding could be right up your alley.