By Neil Merrett
Death Stranding, released on PS4 in 2019, developed by Kojima Productions
PLEASE NOTE – There are some minor spoilers concerning gameplay mechanics in the early parts of Death Stranding.
Videogames can often surprise when focusing on the everyday things that humanity is capable of taking for granted.
imagine losing the solid ground below us; our ability to maintain balance and avoid collapsing into a fleshy mess; or how about no longer having the concept of sending and delivering goods and messages to people around the world regardless of the distance between us.
What if we found ourselves having to cope without them? This is about as basic a premise as it is possible to give about Death Stranding, the latest title to be produced by the esoteric developer Hideo Kojima.
As in life, staying on your feet and keeping moving is often challenge enough, for the average player.
After years of cryptic announcements and trailers hinting at some strange otherworldly tale of unknown cataclysmic horror and demons, it may feel strange to find the first hour of the game is spent trying to collect medicine parcels in a sedate highland setting and then deliver them to an isolated automatic delivery depo.
The esoteric delivery game
In essence, you play the role of a kind of futuristic postman in a lush, desolate world, with your objective being to simply navigate the steep slopes and cliffs effectively and without falling flat on your back and destroying some precious cargo.
While the gameworld appears to resemble our earth, At the start of the game, all you can be sure of is that there are strange terrifying beings that are unable to be seen by the human eye waiting among the foothills and grasslands.
With all this esoteric plotting and uncertainty, there is something comforting then about a simple mission to find parcels in the wilderness and getting them back to the rightful owner. The world as we know it may have collapsed, but people still love a parcel.
In essence, Death Stranding is part camping trip game, part existential humanist journey into a literal unknown and a kind of climbing simulator, all built over a Stephen King- like horror story about the threat of losing our collective wisdom in the face of an intangible supernatural terror that seeks to literally swallow us whole.
The game, like any basic quest, requires the player to get from point A to B, letting them trace their own path onto the game world from the handy in-game map.
But in embracing those very human impulses of seeking shortcuts or an quicker path through rivers or over cliffs, keeping balance – both physically and mentally – is a vital part of gameplay.
If the player trips up on a delivery, then they must learn to balance themselves while stumbling or risk losing everything they are carrying. Comfort and progression in the game comes from learning how to use the controller’s shoulder buttons to ensure your backsack doesn’t throw you off course or that the player is dragged away down a river in a strong current, you have to stay stable amidst human and not so human horrors.
It will not be a game for everyone, but you cannot say that Death Stranding isn’t different when we hear the usual cries of a lack of originality in open world mainstream games.
Equipment upgrades and tools are of course available to assist in getting to the next location, but this again relies on the player balancing their load-out, or otherwise risk having to constantly square themselves to stay on their feet.
Should you attach a ladder pack to your left arm, then the player risks a perilous journey if they do not have something to balance their other side.
Yet, the more you end up packing, the less bounty that the player is able to recover and the more likely you are to suffer exhaustion or simply fall flat on your arse both literally and in metaphorical terms.
There is the option of course to carry items in the player’s hand, but this also limits the ability to scale and keep your cargo balanced.
As in life, staying on your feet and keeping moving is often challenge enough for the average human.
This simple mission structure of the game is soon further complicated by the very different terror of the ‘Death Stranding’, an undefinable and demonic force that seeks to torture and claim souls across the game world. Like the in-game rain storms that distort nature and risk corroding your cargo by warping the concept of time, one of the more supernatural challenges posed by the game is that death itself functions almost like an atomic bomb or some looming catastrophe.
If suddenly surrounded by these strange humanoid and animalistic apparitions , then the player is required to hold their breathe with a push of the R1 button and get to relative safety before their stamina is fully depleted.
To fail to escape their clutches appears to throw the player into a nightmarish ordeal that requires them to reach some form of solid ground as nature around you breaks down.
Here, the ground appears to become a swamp-like blackness with large whale-like creatures seemingly ready to pull you into the literal void. Quick thinking, and a little classic platforming action are sometime required to find some form of solid floor in one of the more unsettling and unique features included in recent games.
The ties that bind
One of the game’s stranger and more compelling mechanics, is the small baby carried by the player in the game’s world. It’s narrative function in the game is to allow for the player’s environmental scanner to detect the monstrous ‘PTs’ that are visually undetectable to the player until it is often too late to avoid them.
But in the game’s often on-the-nose focus on the various themes of connections, ties and bonds, the experience adds a further level of peril and challenge to ensure this little virtual life is somehow comfortable and content in its artificial amniotic tank.
After some misjudged tumble down a mountain, or some close encounter with the PTs, the player is asked to calm the infant – named a ‘BB’ – should it be stressed or hurt during an encounter. This involves using motion controls to rock the game controller as if cradling a life itself.
Yet beyond the ridiculous sight of real-world humans cradling a plastic peripheral, the experience can feel strangely soothing and calming after facing the game’s supernatural ordeals. Quiet, contemplative comfort, like in the game itself, can come in many forms.
One of the apparent themes of Death Stranding, is the idea that the player’s greatest aim is to try and provide comfort and balance in a world where humanity is utterly powerless amongst a changing natural order.
There are of course some more basic adventure elements also hiding in the game. Such as initially faceless smugglers that seek to murder and main to get the cargo of others and prevent the player in their mission of reestablishing connection to the world.
Run-ins with these smugglers can often descend into limited stealth sections and basic melee combat where you punch each other in the face in order to dispatch what are more traditional enemies at the start of the quest. Here, is the more basic adventure game elements some might be seeking.
But the smugglers are just one of the many perils – both of a tangible and intangible kind – that make up the challenge in Death Stranding.
After a few hours of the game, the mechanics will not work for everyone. But there is something unique and very human here hidden amongst the requirement to hikw into the game world’s foothills and mountains.
Unlike the common videogame trope of being the one hero capable of battling and destroying an evil force through some heightened abilities or super weapons, a key component of Death Stranding is to try and avoid confrontation and ordeal.
What can be a more human experience than simply trying to put one foot in front of the other and get to a location with the least amount of stress and terror along the way.
The opening portions of the game are not so much about preventing or avenging a supernatural apocalypse, but to try and provide comfort to those living through it in some small way.
Your mission in time expands to not only deliver parcels, but to re-establish communications and a form of online connectivity so the human race once again warn and share across what remains of the US.
A lasting legacy of the player’s actions is intended to be hope. That is not a terrible thing for a game to aspire to in 2019.