The world is a dead, cold place. Isolation ebbs from the horizon, rather than the setting sun. People – or what remains of them – have dug themselves beneath the world, refusing to set foot on the poisoned planes of their species’ birth. That which ties them to the world, that which is meant to give them life, has become their doom: they are strangled by their own umbilical cords. The world of Death Stranding is not, however, devoid of life but rather devoid of connection: It is an apocalypse of isolation rather than annihilation.
Death Stranding is an open world delivery game, an action game, a haunted house game where the house is the United States of America. It’s a game which relishes in the ideas of connecting people, as a gameplay mechanic and as an ethos; it is unsubtle in promoting the solution to the growing catastrophes of nationalism, climate change, intolerance and hatred as shared humanity. When the world is a cemetery, all you have are warm bodies.
Players assume the role of Sam Porter Bridges, which is as unsubtle as naming your police character John Cop. Sam is a professional delivery person, traversing the harsh but beautiful landscape of a haunted world, to drop off packages for those who remained. Sam isn’t paid for this work but feels it a calling – It’s never entirely clear what the rewards are, save his ability to remain alone and obtain the benefits of rest and respite at drop off locations. Sam, however, is soon roped into a mission by the “first and last”, as the game says, female president of the United States. She requests that Sam travel from East to West, connecting disparate communities to a single network – this would allow communication, sharing of data and resources, to help rebuild the world. Sam does this by, basically, connecting a USB dongle at the drop-off station terminals.
It’s a simple, consistent goal, that grounds Sam’s mission and explains the motivation for the entire game.
Explaining the game
Despite the weirdness of the world and that infamous first trailer that perplexed everyone, the game itself is rather simple in terms of mechanics.
You start off in Location A, obtaining packages for Location B; you then travel to Location B, navigating treacherous landscapes, mercenaries seeking to steal your cargo and ghosts who appear with rain. You can take damage, must watch your stamina and become familiar with Sam’s balance and resource constraints. Once you get to Location B, you drop off the packages and repeat for Location C. Each time you succeed in a delivery you obtain points in the form of “Likes” (a literal thumbs up emoji and sometimes action). Accumulating Likes grants access to various bonuses, including items and character attributes – such as carrying capacity. Performing main missions nets you Likes and progresses the game; performing side-missions – which are deliveries to locations you’ve probably visited before – merely nets you Likes. Players will wants to accumulate Likes because, aside from character progress, each drop-off point will give you unique items you can’t obtain anywhere else.
That’s it. That’s the whole game (so far).
It does deliver
Despite it being about deliveries, the game’s setting makes all the difference. It’s a gorgeous dead world to traverse, with mysteries about who Sam is, how the world came to be this way and what the hell is going on with the tiny baby attached to your chest.
So far, much is being held close to the chest – I still have no idea what the “Death Stranding” even is: It sounds like an event, but what it is remains unclear. Players will feel very much like they’ve stepped into a complex TV series in the middle of its second season but that’s part of the charm.
You must read every note and email you obtain, listen carefully to dialogue. This is not a game that will explain it you but that mystery helps maintain its strange appeal. Emails from smart scientists and engineers debate various aspects of the world, including the meaning of life and death, the Death Stranding itself, religion, god, the universe. These are often well-written and fascinating in building this strange sci-fi world.
There are long stretches of the game where there’s nothing but the wind, Sam’s footprints and an endless landscape before you. Sometimes a beautiful song will play. These are calming, serene moments that feel at once fulfilling and wrong: Like picnicking in a graveyard with your favourite person.
Whether it is a slog or a joy will be up to each player, but I am finding it to be of the former experience. Not only does Sam “feel” good to play – in his responsiveness and the genius of the controls – but I am genuinely elated when delivering packages. I know what went into getting that package there! It’s may be a strange sense of accomplishment, but seems no different to perhaps to obtaining all the secret collectibles in any other game.
I appear to be half way through the game, but that might be some deception. I will have a part 2 when I’ve completed it.