This opinion article contains spoilers, but only takes a look at the first quarter of the game and the trailers. It’s best to expose yourself to a similar amount of content before reading, as this is a reaction piece to a very obscure game that is likely not even meant to be understood upon the first completion. Refer to the embedded trailers in this article as primers/refreshers for this read.
If you caught the @Destructoid Twitch midnight launch stream with host Dreezy, then you know there were a lot of crazy reactions to what we witnessed in Hideo Kojima’s first independent project: Death Stranding. In fact seeing this game streamed on launch night was hilarious, because everyone was losing their… marbles trying to make sense of each consecutive strange scene. The chat was constantly coming up with crazy theories and spamming eccentric reactions, all while Dreezy provided his own live commentary. Before seeing Death Stranding, I would not have recommended watching any single player game in an interactive setting. This game changed my opinion though, because no matter how hard anyone tries to make sense of this narrative, they will still be confused the first time through and I’m not going to lie, it was fun to feed off the energy of the mass hysteria. It’s a lot to take in when seeing this game for the first time, and I’ll admit I’ve had to rewatch all of the trailers and cutscenes several times (up to the point where Dreezy ended the stream) in order to write something coherent here. It’s a game that we didn’t get the chance to learn much (if anything) about for the entire development cycle, and the trailers we did get only raised more questions than they answered.
We learn from the trailers that the game is centered around the story of Sam Bridges and takes place in a post-apocalyptic America where supernatural void-demons seem to have invaded Earth and caused a mass extinction of the human race. We also learn that the cataclysm has extended far past the scope of humanity as an early cutscene observes a beach covered in dead marine organisms and black figures briefly floating in the sky. The landscape itself has been transformed too and appears very barren at times, which I can only assume is symbolic of the state of humanity. It’s all very mysterious and the level of realism brought on by the graphics make it feel all the more creepy.
I can’t help but get a sense of weirdness that is very reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick films, and yet Death Stranding’s story is markedly unique in itself. I had the pleasure of hearing Kojima give a talk at the 2017 E3 conference, and there he spoke about his influences growing up. While Kojima is Japanese at heart, he found a lot of inspiration in western media while growing up, and I think that experience is one of the ways he’s able to consistently connect with western audiences as well as he does. In fact, this game conveys a theme of unity among most of the characters, as they have been so beaten down by the atrocity of the Death Stranding (which is what they call the mass extinction event), that they just want to see America reunited and experience a sense of hope again.
I went into the Destructoid stream with an open mind and high expectations for the game, having only watched the launch trailer days before, and I think that was a great way to experience the game for the first time. Kojima clearly put a lot of emphasis on evoking an emotional response out of the audience, and while I think the audience may feel left in the dark all too often when it comes to understanding the significance of events, this game is easy to feel caught-up in. Within the first several minutes of beginning the game, there are invisible apparitions stalking about, leaving trails of human handprints on the surfaces they touch, we learn that the rain is acidic, and you are basically a delivery man. Am I making sense? Great.
Seeing this game streamed on launch night was hilarious, because everyone was losing their… marbles trying to make sense of each consecutive strange scene. It’s a lot to take in when seeing this game for the first time, and I’ll admit I’ve had to rewatch all of the trailers and cutscenes (up to the point where Dreezy ended the stream) in order to write something coherent here.
This lady recommends eating mysterious floating grubs for general well-being.
After completing a very simple fetch quest, Bridges drops off the packages to a nearby waystation, and we get the revelation that “payment” comes in the form of social media “likes,” and occasionally some resources. Now before I say anything else, I think the idea of so much value being placed on social status in a futuristic post-apocalyptic society is downright hilarious, but it’s also generally confusing. I’m sure there’s a deeper economic system tied into the likes that I haven’t grasped yet, but this nevertheless serves as an example on how the user-interfaces and in-game systems are not very intuitive, and that type of inconvenience won’t sit well with general audiences. A few more visual cues would certainly help to expedite the learning curve for the various user interfaces.
When it comes to the story, it won’t take long for anyone to realize that this is a very weird game, and I’m being genuine when I say that we haven’t even scratched the surface of the oddities to come. The next sequence of events to unfold in the story is very unsettling, but it’s worth examining in detail, because we get our first look into what seems to be an antagonist for the story and we see a clear demonstration of what the supernatural entities are capable of.
Moments after leaving the waystation, a truck with a ridiculously high hydraulic lift kit rolls up and a morgue worker named Igor recruits Bridges into a strange mission. Igor has a corpse that needs to be incinerated to prevent it from reaching the final stage of “necrosis” and exploding, and he needs Bridges to protect him from the supernatural beings (BT’s) he expects to encounter along the way. Did I mention Igor also has a baby in a tank, hooked up to a device, which he claims will help him detect the apparitions? Bridges is fine with all of this though, and climbs into the vehicle with him and they set off to an ominous incineration facility located up in the mountains. It doesn’t take an expert to realize that this mission isn’t going to end well.
Igor gives us some backstory as we drive along, while a black tar begins to bleed through the body bag and slowly dissolve into the air. The characters don’t even seem phased by the phenomenon though, and generally ignore it. This is another instance where we have to realize that the game isn’t going to tell us how everything works, but rather it will show us in time. This approach to the narrative did feel a little tedious for me, because the game is constantly raising more questions than it answers, but it does make for some very dramatic moments, since we can’t even begin to guess the implications of that black goo. As they move further along the road, a thick fog develops around them, and the lighting quickly becomes washed out and eerie. Suddenly, one of the apparitions (BT’s) slams into the truck, causing it to flip over, and the camera cuts to black.
Bridges awakens to see the truck driver pinned underneath the overturned vehicle and Igor is frantically trying to free him. Amidst the struggle, the baby-powered demon sensor springs to life and the spooky handprints appear and begin to stalk around the scene. After several tense seconds, the BT gives up, and seemingly disappears; or so the sensor suggests. I really like the human reaction to the presence of BT’s, because it reminds me of the Tyrannosaurus Rex from Jurassic Park. Humans cover their mouths and attempt to be as still and quiet as possible, just like how they thought in Jurassic Park that the T-Rex could only visually detect motion. I have to wonder if this is a reference or just wishful thinking on my part, but it gives the BT’s a degree of character without ever having to explain them.
After Igor gives a thumbs up like they’re in the clear, Bridges turns his attention to the corpse and watches it fully melt into the black tar-like substance. The keen viewer can also make out the slender silhouette of a BT emerging from the corpse as if being freed. Handprints then emerge from the tar and make their way directly towards Bridges, but the BT diverts its attention to the truck driver who has lost all restraint and is now begging for help. The BT engulfs him in a pool of the black tar, which ironically frees him from being pinned under the truck, but then it begins to drag him away. Igor refuses to let it take his coworker alive though, and shoots him in the head as a final act of mercy.
A mysterious, masked humanoid then levitates down from the sky and lands on the overturned truck and points a finger at Igor. The black tar begins to engulf him next and rapidly spreads to flood the whole scene. The mysterious masked being vanishes, and Igor breaks into a full panic, throwing his baby (called BB) towards Bridges and pleading for him to run away, before turning the gun on himself and trying to commit suicide. Before Igor can fire though, he is jerked into the air by an invisible force and the shot misses, while the gun falls out of reach and leaves him helpless. This is where the game really freaked me out, because Igor seems to know something that we don’t and he’s not about to let it happen to him. Without hesitation, he pulls out a utility knife and begins to stab himself in the heart repeatedly in an attempt to die, all while he is drawn higher and higher into the sky. Bridges seems to be in a state of shock, but manages to retrieve BB from the black tar and looks back up to see that a towering black monstrosity with tendril-like appendages has appeared. Igor’s final screams can be heard as he is consumed by the monstrocity and a subsequent explosion kills Bridges and ends the scene.
I was stunned by the raw intensity of this scene, because the characters behaved in a way that an audience would expect real people to, and the animations were spot on. Igor is a great example of how a character can have a huge impact on the audience in a short amount of time, because he was written in a way that his emotions seemed genuine. This is the type of storytelling that suspends the belief of the audience, and it’s what Death Stranding needs to maintain in order to be successful.
After Bridges’ death, another cutscene then begins, which I can only describe as a series of hallucinations that eventually lead to Bridges’ reincarnation. Some things are hard to put into words, and are better experienced first-hand. It’s a wonder Kojima didn’t release Death Stranding in October, because this seems like the kind of game that will keep someone up at night. It’s beautiful, scary, and addictively intriguing at times and I wonder if Death Stranding could have seen a lot more mainstream attention while the hype for Halloween was still going strong. It does seem to be doing quite well though regardless, as I saw the number of viewers reach 110,000 on Twitch last Saturday night, which made it the most viewed game on Twitch.
As great as the cinematics were though, I did see some glaring issues with the plot and characters. Once Sam Bridges wakes up in “Capital Knot City” where the new American seat of government has been established, the main quest is forced upon him in an awkward fashion. We learn that Sam’s mother is the president of the United States, and that she is on her deathbed. Her dying wish is for Sam to finish the work their organization started to reunite the United States. This sounds reasonable enough, but Sam has some reservation against it, and the story does a poor job of explaining why. What is obvious though, is that Sam believes it’s too late to save humanity and that everything is lost. Sam is so entrenched in his opinion that he leaves his mother to die without a clear answer. Without additional context, this makes Sam seem like a disrespectful son, but there are answers in the photograph that Sam keeps on himself at all times. The photo contains a younger image of Sam along with a pregnant woman who was likely his wife and Sam’s mother, all smiling. Sam does have a sister, but she appears to still be alive during the story, so this fact leads me to believe that Sam’s pessimism stems from the loss of his wife and child.
The other problem I have with Sam as a character is the abundance of trust placed in him by everyone else. After his dying mother and kidnapped sister fail to convince him to help their cause, a masked man named “Die Hardmann” who is basically the second-in-command of America, manages to change Sam’s mind with a few dry words. The sudden change of heart feels more like a convenient write-off rather than a decision made by a real person. What we end up with is an emotionally troubled guy who is peer-pressured into saving America by two strangers. Talk about underwhelming.
What I can’t get over though, is why they want Sam to be their hero so badly when his motivation isn’t there. His family tried and failed to get him on board and he only agreed to help after relentless peer pressure. For a task as important as what they’re calling for, it seems like they would want someone fully committed and Sam seems whimsical at best. A protagonist needs a logical motivation and it’s lacking here. It seems like there was a lot of missed potential to bring his dead wife and child into the story early on and create that reason for him to go and save America. Sam obviously resonated with BB too, so I think the story could even further that relationship into a theme of saving America for future generations.
They love to use satire to highlight the implications of technology
Death Stranding is best described as a game/movie hybrid and it’s a format that isn’t often explored by game developers, though Quantum Break should come to mind if you’re a fan of rpg’s. The problem with blending cinematic and interactive narratives, is that it can be challenging to achieve an equal value of production quality across every aspect of the game, because both high fidelity cinematics and quality of gameplay are each major undertakings. I also bring up Quantum Break, because it suffered from the same problem as we now see in Death Stranding, which is an over-emphasis on narrative at the expense of gameplay. I’m just not sold on the whole delivery man aspect when this game has already set up such a compelling level of mystery and danger in the supernatural. I think the main problem with the gameplay is that the pacing is too slow, but I struggle to think of what it immediately needs and that is a bad sign. There’s really a lot to be desired here in the gameplay, but at the very least it needs some more varied environments, vehicles, and enemy types. Now this is just a first impression, and some of these concerns may be addressed later on, but boring the audience with slow-paced gameplay in the first act of the game is dangerous, because it can result in them putting the controller down indefinitely and never finishing the story. That possibility should be a creative’s worst nightmare, but it’s also something we’ve learned to expect from Hideo Kojima and Death Stranding is no exception. Maybe this game is like fine wine, and just needs more time for the player to truly appreciate it and enjoy it, but my opinion still stands that a game shouldn’t take too much time to hit its stride.
“A very special delivery from Kojima. It will make him very popular indeed.”
If I had to describe this game in one word, I would use “intriguing,” because despite this game’s shortcomings, the story is just begging to be explored and understood. The level of weirdness is so off the charts, that there’s simply no way to predict where the story arc will take the audience. The approach to storytelling is also incredibly immersive, because of the visual fidelity and art direction. In rare instances, it can even be quite humorous as the game demands Bridges to physically carry an obscene amount of objects on his back like he’s Atlas or something, and then scuttle across rough terrain while trying not to face-plant. At other times he may need to urinate in the middle of a mission, because there’s a full-bladder mechanic that can hinder his performance. Seriously, I can’t make these things up.
Death Stranding may be too weird to become a blockbuster success, but I think it’s too rare to fail, both because of the game’s legitimate merits and the following that Kojima enjoys. I suspect he will continue to receive enough support to deliver his sequel or trilogy and accomplish his artistic vision for the IP. Death Stranding demonstrates a level of polish that isn’t all that common in triple-A games when they launch these days, and that level of completion should be respected. It also feels very refreshing to get a game where the developers took a risk and made something decisively different. While I do have some serious gripes about the gameplay and characters at times, I still think this game is a must-see for anyone who’s into story-centric games.