A conversation with a coworker last week invoked an interesting way to look at Hideo Kojima‘s latest game.

We were discussing the Coronavirus. Born and raised in China, she remarked how America didn’t seem to take the threat of the outbreak seriously enough. She pointed out her home country’s reaction to earlier epidemics; how the government and its constituents were very quick to get onboard with precautionary procedures.

But I noted exactly how dispersed Americans are, which can also be a form of protection. Although there are great population densities on our coasts, most of us tend to live much more disconnected in our wide reaching countrysides. There’s American isolationism, and then there’s American intra-isolationism. Laughably, she understood my reasoning from her business experiences, when she worked with folks of our more mountainous and wooded areas. Places distant from large populations where the dialect is much more… regional.

But I suppose that just furthers Hideo Kojima’s point, and the underlying nature of Death Stranding.

Solitude Unyearned

Death Stranding‘s advertising is intentionally mysterious. Consider this an early game spoiler warning should anyone wish to discover this background on their own.

America is gone. Rain and snow are polluted with “chiral matter,” a substance which rapidly ages anything it touches. Vehicles and structures become decrepit and rusted, seeds sprout and die within a minute, while humans age decades from the briefest of showers.

Accompanying this horrid weather are near invisible creatures known as BTs. The ghosts of people who have not been cremated, they blindly seek to reconnect with the warmth of life. Unfortunately, their presence brings anti-matter, which reacts with our molecules to unleash nuclear explosions. Voidout craters pocketmark much of the United States’ territory, making our very neighbors more dangerous dead than alive. 

These threats have driven almost all of humanity underground to survive the Stranding. But a new initiative to reconnect America is underway. Protagonist Sam (Norman Reedus), is a porter reluctantly enlisted by Bridges, a company determined to reunite the scattered and divided cities of America under one flag. But more than the BTs and timefall, Sam has to rebuild shattered trust in civilization, and take on rival factions who seek to keep America divided. 

Kojima Productions may have benefited from being more forthright about Death Stranding‘s background and the isolationist cultures the setting promotes. Satisfying these questions badly weakened the first couple of chapters. There’s something improper about random people greeting Sam as “a legend” and discussing his exploits, before explaining what must be common knowledge about the world. If Sam was truly a legend, why the Post-Apocalyptic 101 lessons? Too many conversations had the, “As you know, Bob…” feel, distrusting players’ ability to reason and deduct the facts on their own.

A Tug of War

But despite the rough start, Kojima has not lost his game design instincts. It’s around the third chapter, “Fragile,” that Death Stranding stops feeling like a prologue and starts to get going. Here, the player is finally given the main map, an area of what must be former Michigan towards what could have once been Arizona. The expansiveness, equipment and buildable structures gives players tremendous depth in how they choose to tackle their many deliveries.

The premise of the Death Stranding involves missions to simply get from point A to B (and occasionally C) while transporting loads of goods. Distance, cargo volume and fragility, time, rough terrain, weather forecasts and enemy presence are all factors of each challenge. With the exception of Sam’s only companion, a pod-baby named BB, all these missions are undertaken alone. Human contact itself is the reward, but even that is muted through holographic projections of the overly grateful recipients. 

This peculiar, enduring loneliness is the thematic point however. Every step of the journey, from the story and the side missions to the simplest deliveries and multiplayer, revolves around the need to connect. The point is driven home with odd quirks, details and the game’s level up system. Oxytocin is a common supplement used by survivors to ignore their solitude. Many deliveries are luxury goods such as books, alcohol or video games, destined to single-occupant shelters housing “preppers.” And Sam’s reward for his efforts is… likes.

You read that correctly. “Likes,” just as on Facebook.

A New Genre?

Although some mock Death Stranding as a “walking simulator,” Kojima seems to draw inspiration from other beloved titles. The Elder Scrolls, particularly Skyrimoften consist of long hikes to discover the world. The beautiful, haunting music and gorgeous scenery have long been a part of the series, creating memorable but personal journeys. Red Dead Redemption and its sequel also crafted large, open worlds to traverse. To the characters of Rockstar’s game, hunting and fishing are mundane activities for making a living. To us, as players, they are the adventures we covet. 

One theory could be that Kojima saw his new genre in these games. That the adventure lies in the journey itself, that there is more to variety than combat. If this is truly his vision, then proof exists that he is correct. Game series like Dead Space, and aspects of Mass Effect* lost sight of their beloved nature, leaning more into visceral, easily expansive violence. While combat is enjoyable, adventures are exceedingly more difficult to make quantifiable, and thus are more valuable.

And despite its faults and frustrations, there are moments of pure magic in Death Stranding. Pausing to take in the majestic mountain tops after a tough climb. The apprehension of storm clouds rolling in, when one can see the black tendrils of BT umbilical cords descending from the heavens. Or that wondrous moment when Sam takes a rest and breaks out the harmonica for an excited BB. These instances of beauty make sense of Kojima’s vision that someday games and cinema will become one.

“That American intra-isolationism is constantly at work…”

The stick of alienation and carrot of social interaction does make sense. Yet when a guiding principle of a game revolves around its aesthetic themes, there will always carry some risk of friction between the story and the gameplay, and that cost Kojima other, proven avenues of storytelling. Despite the availability of vehicles to Sam, mid-drive conversations akin to the Grand Theft Auto series were rarely applied. And the timefall and outdoors denied use of visual cues like the desecration of Bioshock’s Rapture. Hints that washed away long ago, like tears in the rain.

Hideo Kojima is a living product of cinema, a walking library of narrative design. Hence applause must be given for his disciplined thematic consistency. But the appeal of Death Stranding is readily more subjective than his other works. Many people already spend a great deal of their time alone, choosing texts and social media over direct conversations. We order online more often, eschewing crowded transportation and retail outlets. Automation has replaced a great deal of human interaction.

That American intra-isolationism is constantly at work. And a game about confronting our solitude maybe a line most people are not ready to cross.

Karmic Conflicts

Kojima was carefully in what he borrowed from his legendary series Metal Gear Solid. Foes both living and dead require very different stealth and combat techniques.

Human enemies consisted of two varieties; terrorists, armed with guns, and MULEs, porters-turned-hoarders with an addiction to stealing cargo. Sam can avoid them by hiding from sight and countering their radar pings. Bola Guns can ensnare them, punches or tossed cargo can knock them out, rubber bullets remove them non-lethally. Combat is satisfying and varied, offering an unusually wide variety of techniques and equipment.

But the message of killing is confusing. When Sam obtains blueprints for regular firearms, his boss Die Hardman (Tommie Earl Jenkins) forbids using them. Yet Die Hardman’s orders mean nothing; players can still craft lethal weapons at any facility. Only the nature of the Death Stranding provides karmic punishment: bodies left uncremated will eventually cause voidout explosions, yet burning the remains causes more timefall…

And more BTs. 

The “dead” variety of enemies, BTs haunt areas undergoing heavy precipitation. On his own, Sam can only sense their presence, recognizing a dangerous area. But with BB’s help, he can see them from a short distance. BTs are sensitive to hearing, forcing the player to move quietly and hold their breath. If caught, they mire the terrain in tar, their forms reaching out to drag Sam down and away towards a much larger “Catcher.”

The player begins the game with no means to fight the BTs, but time yields combat options: blood filled grenades, anti-BT firearms, a chiral-handcuff that can cut them free. Yet the heavy rain makes escaping BT areas a race against time to ensure the cargo’s integrity. Needless combat yields few rewards, giving incentive to a “pick your battles” mentality.

E Pluribus Unum

Quite possibly the most intriguing idea in Death Stranding is its unusual approach to multiplayer. Naturally, the game’s nature lends itself almost entirely to the single player experience. But that’s not to say there isn’t room to let other people impact your adventure positively. And to show some love back.

Rather than direct interactions, players create structures in their own worlds and share some of them with others, a sandbox with borrowed toys. These shared structures do not take from the limited bandwidth, but are “freebies” that are excellent to take advantage of. On occasion, their presence can be annoying, but they are easy enough to dismiss and remove. Very often, complete coverage of useful structures, such as ziplines, requires assistance from other players.

But more than just connections with people, it creates user-created variety. What if this idea could be taken for other games, if experiences could be shared between worlds somehow? What if the effects of players culminate into greater challenges? Perhaps something akin to Castlevania’s Legion, only created by dead players? That’s certainly something one could see happening in the Dark Souls series, which maybe the genesis of the idea through its message and ghosts system.

If there was one improvement to suggest however, it would be more color contrast between the blue (player created) and green (created via multiplayer) icons. In fact, the light text colors and small button icons are the weakness of the UI design, being difficult to see against the bright sky or snow.

Death is Not the End

There are many other themes to discuss about Death Stranding. The idea of the afterlife and what it means to the world. The importance of time and the temporal connections to death. There is also the unusual character designs, each of whom is broken, and with startlingly different views on the matter of death. But this article’s theme has primarily been on the subject of connection, and such thoughts should wait.

Rumors abound, with some credibility to them, that downloadable content maybe released this summer. Some of which may even have further story matters to discuss, and may further expand upon the background of Death Stranding’s unusual cast of characters. If it’s true, then it maybe best to reserve further thoughts until then…

* — An easily forgotten point here, Mass Effect 3 used its multiplayer mode to impact the “War Assets” of the single player campaign. My understanding is that the current math does not require any coop play to get the full experience, but players are given incentive to engage in the combat heavy multiplayer mode. Personally, I spent too many hours enjoyed ME3‘s multiplayer a great deal, but I stand by my point that this highlighted action over adventure in the third installment. 

James Fadeley photo.

About James Fadeley

James is a short story author and novelist who spends way too much time playing video games. His first novel, The Gift of Hadrborg is based on The Banner Saga universe. If you think yourself insane, he can be followed on Twitter @JamesFadeley.