Death Stranding is as bizarre as it is innovative
Toward the end of Death Stranding, a character offers a trinket to the game’s protagonist along with this explanation: “I brought you a metaphor.” This feels like a suitable encapsulation of Hideo Kojima’s dense, nigh-indescribable opus, as much as one statement can encompass the many disparate ideas tied together in the game’s world. The greatest barrier of entry to Death Stranding, as with any of Kojima’s auteur projects, is suspension of disbelief on both a micro and macro scale — or to put it another way, learning to accept without question both the grander scheme of the story and the brief idiosyncrasies that comprise it.
There are plenty of aspects of the game which, on their own, come across as nonsensical, but focusing too long on any individual brain scratch of an encounter does a disservice to the game’s surprisingly cohesive and affecting narrative. With Death Stranding, Kojima and his team have produced an insanely inventive and inventively insane sci-fi yarn (or “strand” to put it in the game’s terms) that suffers from occasionally repetitive action and overwrought story work but delivers on its promise of introducing a new type of gaming experience.
To summarize the premise of Death Stranding succinctly, particularly without spoiling late-game reveals, is a fool’s errand, but here is an attempt. Sam Porter Bridges (voiced and motion-captured by a committed, grunting, and oft-nude Norman Reedus) is a delivery man, or “porter,” for an organization called Bridges — hence the name Porter Bridges — in a version of America that has been torn apart by a calamity referred to as the Death Stranding. In the post-Death Stranding world, beings from the world of the dead, referred to as BTs, have appeared across the country, causing massive explosions called voidouts if they manage to capture living people. In the wake of one such voidout, which Sam survives because he is a special type of deathless person called a Repatriate, he is called to Bridges headquarters, where his estranged mother figure, Bridget Strand (Lindsay Wagner), the president of what is left of America, sets him on a mission to travel across the continent and connect various cities and outposts to a super-high-speed information-sharing and 3D-printing system called the chiral network.
As Sam makes his way across the country establishing the chiral network of the United Cities of America, Bridges uncovers lost information about the origin of the Death Stranding while Sam makes bonds with a cast of eccentric supporting characters including Léa Seydoux’s Fragile, Guillermo Del Toro and Jesse Corti’s Deadman, Tommie Earl Jenkins’s Die-Hardman, Margaret Qualley’s Mama, Darren Jacobs’s Heartman, and more. Mads Mikkelsen and veteran videogame voice actor Troy Baker are on hand as some of the main antagonists.
Also, there’s a baby in a jar. Again, it’s difficult to explain the significance of the baby in the jar without spoilers, but it is significant. The jarred baby is a Bridge Baby, or BB, able to detect otherwise invisible BTs due to its split connection with the world of the living and the world of the dead. Each time Sam connects to his BB, he has a shared flashback with the baby that shows him a glimpse of Mikkelsen’s character’s backstory.
In terms of gameplay, BB is essential to traversing the gorgeous rocky fields and snowy mountains of ruined America. The general gameplay loop of Death Stranding involves accepting cargo from a distribution center, loading it in a comically large bundle on Sam’s back, and trekking it to a destination along the way to the next connection point for the chiral network. Plotting a course either through or around various obstacles is key, and BTs are among the game’s most unsettling roadblocks. In their passive state, they appear as ghostlike humanoid figures tethered to an area by umbilical-cord-like strands. If Sam makes too much noise too close to one, a monstrous entity emerges and attempts to drag Sam into a tar field he needs to escape to avert a voidout. It’s appropriate to list BTs as obstacles rather than enemies, because despite how creepy they look and how unnerving it is to be caught by them, they’re usually not overly difficult to slip away from, at least on the standard difficulty setting. More troublesome are the timefall phenomena that accompany the BTs, and the human enemies who get their jollies from stealing and hoarding cargo.
As a result of the Death Stranding, precipitation like rain and snow has been converted to timefall, which greatly accelerates the passage of time anywhere it lands. These weather effects have implications for the condition of Sam’s cargo, but they are also closely linked to the online social aspect of the game, which is among its most interesting features.
Before leaving a distribution center with a delivery order, Sam needs to assemble a loadout, which can be an involved process. In addition to whatever cargo is mandatory for delivery, Sam can carry additional footwear, tools, climbing accessories, building materials, and weapons. After a certain point in the story, he can also choose a vehicle, if the terrain he’s traveling is suitable for one. Sam can technically carry hundreds of pounds of gear at once, but the heavier his load becomes, the more difficult it becomes for him to keep his balance, and falling over damages cargo.
If Sam doesn’t have the gear he needs for an expedition, he can either fabricate new items from raw materials via the chiral network, or he can check a shared locker to see if any other porters have left behind anything he can use. This sharing of materials between players is an integral part of the Death Stranding experience, and it’s a clever and unobtrusive way to further hammer home the overarching theme of creating connections between people to survive hardship. Other porters will never appear in the game, but evidence of their travels is everywhere. Outside of materials left in shared lockers or garages, items lost out in the wilderness by players will also appear in other players’ games, and those players have the option to pick them up and take them to their destinations.
Most important socially, though, is the ability to share structures built by other players. If one player places a ladder or a climbing anchor or a battery-charging generator, that tool will be available for other players to use. It’s even possible to lay down the foundation of a larger structure and request that other players deliver materials to complete it. This is where timefall enters the online gameplay equation.
To prevent clutter from overtaking the breathtaking vistas of the lonely landscape, Death Stranding makes use of both instanced servers that house only a measured number of players and the degrading effects of timefall. Any items or structures left out in the open will eventually be destroyed by the weather, making it necessary to build and rebuild shared gear and waystations. It’s a communal environment that’s handled differently from any other in recent gaming history, and it’s one more thing that makes Death Stranding feel unique.
There are a lot of ideas presented in Death Stranding, so much so that it can feel like the Kojima Productions team might have just been throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what would stick. Some strands, like the impeccable visual design, intriguing social system, and strategically employed melancholy acoustic songs, stick better than others, like the fine-to-underwhelming combat, boss fights, and weird product placement for Monster Energy drinks. Taken as a whole, though, the game is more than the sum of its parts, and it leaves an indelible impression beyond its twisty, turn-y, high-concept, and wildly Kojima-esque ending.