This isn’t really a review. It’s more of a meditation.
A lot of ink has been spilled about Death Stranding, Hideo Kojima’s often baffling debut as an independent video game auteur following his split with long-time employer Konami. It’s been an almost inescapable force of curiosity since the initial trailer (which frankly made the game somehow even more mysterious than when there was nothing about it out there to read/see) and now that it’s finally been released, the reviews have been positive if not murky and confused.
If you’ve avoided the hype – Death Stranding is set in an apocalyptic near-future where the worlds of the living and the dead have intersected. Human society has collapsed, and the world is scarred by the effects of “timefall,” rain that decays and ages anything it touches. Humanity is collected in tiny, seclusionist enclaves. Ghosts collect in fields, hunt the living and – well, kill them, but it’s a lot more than that. You play Sam, a courier of sorts who for !PLOT REASONS! can traverse the wide open world delivering and reconnecting the scattered remnants of humanity.
If you’ve played the game, I hope you can see how careful I am about not revealing too much. It’s not like it’d be easy to explain, anyway.
There’s a lot going on in Death Stranding and it could be deeply dissected and disassembled, but an image early in the game caught my interest and made me think more about what was happening around me.
The world is littered with afterlife imagery and symbolism (and often outright size-72-bold-italic-underline-declarations) from a variety of mythologies, but climbing a mountain with 100kg of badly-balanced cargo on my back never felt like one of the images until I fell. Stumbling and careening down the mountain I’d just pushed myself to scale my cargo broke away from my back and scattered across the field below, accompanied by my dignity. Collecting it again was an extremely manual task (especially as some had fallen in a river and started to float away), but once I’d recollected my deliveries I began to scale the mountain again, determined I could make it over and to the next settlement.
When I got to the top of the ridge, I realized just how far away I was and how difficult the path was going to be.
In a way, Sam is a Sisyphean character – a person existing in an afterlife and forced to carry cargo a hill only to carry it down again, then repeating this action for eternity (or 80ish hours of gameplay, whichever comes first). The primary difference between Sam’s narrative and that of Sisyphus is one of connection.
While Sam is essentially alone in his journey, the narrative of the game is about making connections between people. There’s a sort of play on social media and the gig economy within Kojima’s vision – you are basically a grim Postmates courier, and you are awarded for your work with “likes” that serve as the games currency.
That said, it wouldn’t be Kojima if the game wasn’t breaking the fourth wall or some fifth wall we didn’t really consider until now. Not only are you the one reconnecting people to society and one another you’re also connected to other players playing the game, albeit indirectly. As you leave boot-prints across the vast wilderness, so do players in their own instances of the game. As more players follow certain paths, roads form. Furthermore the ladders, ropes, bridges and other structures players create in their instances of the world echo across the other instances – there’s no better feeling that approaching a rough climb only to see some kind soul left a rope tied to a stake at the top. I gave that rope many likes.
Interestingly enough, the gameplay isn’t actually fun in the strictest sense – I am enjoying it, it is often exciting, but it’s almost gamified chores in the manner of Minecraft or a Harvest Moon title (with less turnips). I’ve heard reviewers say things along the lines of “this is a game that might actually be more enjoyable to stream someone else playing” but I don’t actually know if that’s true. I feel like watching someone else slog cargo across the wilderness would be the equivalent of watching video of someone sneezing in hyper-slow motion; it might be enjoyable, if you’re into that kinda thing.
That brings me around to the idea of social media and the connection/disconnection paradox. The game itself is almost FOMO personified – an auteur game developer going indie to produce a game that takes our notions of gameplay and narrative and shreds them to pieces, then throws in some scatological humor and a baby in a jar for good measure. Kojima’s debut as an indie developer is something the video game world has anticipated for years, and yet the reviews on Metacritic look like a review of a “blood-sausage-only” themed restaurant: People who love it, love it. People who don’t hated at first bite. If you’re on the fence, what option do you have but to take the plunge or walk away – and who in the era of social media wants to walk away from the living meme factory of this game? Who doesn’t want to feel connected to the people around them through a shared language of symbolism and knowledge?
Death Stranding says something we’ve all heard from a boomer facebook meme or a stoned friend who won’t leave my house after three days: It’s ironic technology has made us more connected than ever but also more disconnected. That said, Kojima appears to not just be addressing this obvious truth but inverting it, playing with its artistic truths and showing us just how normalized it is.
That was another surprise – after about two hours of play, the patented Kojima weirdness ceased feeling surreal and was almost banal. I barely flinched when my baby-in-a-jar “liked” something I built. I nodded when a man with a skull mask casually mentioned he was named after the “particle of god” (I DIDN’T EVEN ASK, HIGGS). It actually made sense when I found a spot that appeared to be in silent consensus across multiple instances of the world to be a good place to pee.
Do I think you should play Death Stranding? Sure, go for it, you might hate it. You might not – you may find haunted pizza delivery to be a delight, or at least tolerable enough to make it to the next 10 minute cinematic. Either way, Kojima has begun to explore the medium of video games in a way that is exciting from an artistic standpoint, now unleashed from his bonds and free to make whatever crazy-go-nuts thing he wants to make. Seeing a director approach a game with such gravitas and purpose is a refreshing tincture for some of us that have been pounding the “video games are art!” drum the last 20+ years (but have had 50 permutations of the same first person shooting gallery AAA game, then a thing with a goose.)
The goose thing looks good though, too. I haven’t played it yet.