NOTE: This article contains spoilers for the opening hours of Death Stranding.
For a brief moment in the game’s early hours, everything about Death Stranding fell into place, and I felt like I understood what Hideo Kojima set out to achieve with this strange, experimental project.
After the game’s prologue, you, as Sam Bridges, are sent out into the world for the first time since receiving your mission to reconnect America. The person who gave you this mission, the final president of the United States of America and your mother, Bridget, has just died in your arms, her final actions being to create a contract which requires you to help on a mission to connect the various disconnected cities that still remain in this ravaged nation.
More pressingly, however, is the issue of Bridget’s body. If it is left to rot and enters necrosis as it begins to decompose, the body will become a BT and endanger the lives of those around them. Any person who dies has to be burned at the incinerator to prevent this from happening… including the president.
Your first free moment in the game’s expansive, empty world comes while you’re tasked to carry and incinerate the body of your dead mother.
Connecting the Disconnected
The world may be desolate, cold, even unwelcoming to the normal person, yet there remains a beauty to it that left me in awe. A far cry from the concrete jungles of modern reality, rocks, mountains, and grassy terrain is all you can see for miles around. The incinerator you need to visit is at the top of a hill in the distance, and your task is to reach the top of that hill with the president’s body on your shoulders. Placing one foot in front of the other, deafening silence and the sound of your footsteps dominate your journey, except for one moment: as you step out onto the terrain for the very first time, the camera zooms out. Nothing but an insignificant speck in this vast world as you slowly travel across the empty wilderness with your mother on your shoulders, the hauntingly beautiful slow beats of the song Bones by Icelandic indie rock group Low Roar take over.
For this brief mission, I felt like I understood what Kojima set out to achieve with this game. In recent interviews prior to the game’s release, including one in particular with the BBC’s Newsbeat program, Hideo Kojima stated that his goal with Death Stranding was to create a game about connection. ‘You have Brexit, where the UK is trying to leave the EU, and it feels like there are lots of walls and people thinking only about themselves in the world… we’re using bridges to represent connection. It’s about making people think about the meaning of connection.’
Climbing this mountain with your sole focus being the journey to the top, with a clear purpose and stunning, uncluttered vistas surrounding you on all sides, just as you were coming to terms with the death of your mother and the weight of the mission you were about to undertake at the same time as your character, I understood Kojima’s thought process here. Sam Bridges is alone, yet through his actions, however reluctant, he not only brings others together but begins to connect himself to the world around him. He’s building bridges between the walled-off communities that remain standing and opposes the forces who threaten to stand in the way. The game is a little on-the-nose in terms of presenting these ideas, the use of music, in particular, feeling overbearing in its usage at times in spite of its quality (a variety of new tracks were created for the game alongside licensed music such as the aforementioned song). At this moment, however, I thought that, no matter how unlikely I considered the possibility to be before I booted it up for the first time, Death Stranding’s unique set-up may just work.
This soon falls apart.
For every positive aspect of Death Stranding, others feel like Hideo Kojima’s own strange act of self-sabotage. What makes these early moments work is a focus on the mission at hand, coupled with strong emotional story beats that tie directly into the gameplay itself. Very quickly, however, the game seems to lose track of both its narrative motivations and gameplay hook, bogging players down in an overload of game systems, overindulgent exposition and uninteresting story threads, interspersed with cameos that seem to solely exist as the excuse for Kojima to share with the world just how many famous people he knows.
Many of the celebrity inclusions are not due to their benefit to the project as a whole. The performances of Norman Reedus and Mads Mikkelsen are a highlight, a passion for the project clearly on display in their investment to their respective roles, yet every other celebrity performance would be much improved if they’d been played by anyone else who cared for the project they were involved in. Hideo Kojima may be close friends with Guillermo del Toro, yet the character using his likeness, Deadman, is more of a skin puppet for another actor who never seems to be able to match their performance to del Toro’s physical likeness. It’s admittedly cool to see celebrities who do play their character as well as provide their likeness, such as Léa Seydoux as Fragile, however, when their performance feels stiff and rigid as they try and do what best they can with some difficult-to-parse exposition, you have to wonder why they bothered. Without a passion for the role within the performance, it would be better to see a professional voice actor take the role on instead.
It’s not just celebrity inclusions that stand in the way of enjoyment. After this early mission, more systems are introduced to the point where the experience begins to feel unfocused. Rather than working to join people together by journeying across America delivering parcels and connecting communities, you’re distracted by the balancing act you’re soon forced to play with the various meters controlling everything from your stamina to your bladder. You’re scouring for BTs, protecting yourself from the rain and avoiding bandits while constantly being required to drop everything in order to play with BB (a baby strapped to your chest who can sense the BTs that threaten you on your expedition) to avoid them breaking down, and that’s just to start. The game becomes bogged down in gameplay systems to the point you’re not allowed to consider the wider implications of your work.
Your rewards for this work are equally unrewarding, as well. Delivering parcels at a city or delivery depot rewards players with a monotone holographic thank you and, on occasion, long-winded story exposition. Very quickly, I began to regret the possibility of completing delivery and forced to sit through an emotionless holographic explanation. The point of delivering parcels is to connect with other people, so for a delivery to leave you feeling so distant from the people you’re bringing together, with dialogue delivered so rigidly it rarely feels as though they even care that you reconnected their city at all, makes everything you’re tasked to do feel meaningless. This is all while ignoring the pacing issues this story has, often developing at a glacial pace over the course of many hours when the journey of Death Stranding would have felt much more satisfying had Hideo Kojima reigned in this adventure into a 10-15 hour curated experience.
Death Stranding: Kojima’s Misstep
Pacing is probably the game’s biggest issue. I felt like I could see this potential this title had to be something incredible from the very opening moments of the time I spent with it. I still think about the emotions I felt at this time because no game has made me feel quite like I did during this mission. Now, such thoughts are tainted by worry about parcel damage, struggling to keep my balance as I journey through the mountainous terrain while caring for a baby. It’s too much, and I’m left cold on the entire experience because of it.
I’m still glad that Death Stranding exists. Even if I would classify the game as a failed experiment that unfortunately didn’t succeed at what it tried to achieve from the outset, it’s a rare and distinct experience I’ve never seen replicated anywhere else, especially on this large of a scale. Such experimentation can only be a good thing for the industry as a whole.
Sometimes, though, less is more, and as I think back to those early moments when everything about the story and gameplay fell into place, I’m left wishing that Kojima had followed this advice during Death Stranding’s development.