‘Death Stranding’: Christmas as You Get Older
Written By: Anniemay Parker
‘Death Stranding’ by Kojima Productions is a game that could’ve done so much more as a short interactive experience, a movie and even a novel. While it’s open-world is beautifully haunting with the vast expanses making the player feel even more isolated, I personally couldn’t help but yearn for something more. The first 2-4 hours of gameplay are chock-full of exposition heavy cutscenes. Coupled with understanding the most humane and mainly mundane game mechanics, along with appreciating the design and aesthetic of ‘Death Stranding’.
Initially, I was in love with this game’s unique playstyle and expert usage of mo-cap. The sound design for this game is fantastic with specific ringtones for different characters, nuanced menu sounds when selecting and deselecting and the soundtrack of this game fits any scenario the protagonist Sam Porter Bridges is in. However, the shine of this game dissipates like the glory of Christmas as you grow up. The endless walking and management of cargo not only becomes tedious but is allowed to be completely voided by the introduction of trucks, reverse trikes (futuristic motorcycles) and exo-legs. Entire gameplay mechanics are replaced with ‘mainstream’ ones such as driving and shooting which are just as boring.
This dullness I encountered is not uncommon to the real world; jobs can become boring and bleak, hobbies can lose their sense of purpose and routine can drive us insane. But, it must be noted that all games involve routine: fighting games such as ‘Mortal Kombat’ reward us with high damage combos if we can land them. Strategy games such as ‘Civilisation’ teach us the trial and error of our decisions and paths we take. First-Person shooter games like ‘Call of Duty’ teach us which weapons, loadouts and perks are the best for certain maps and help our playstyle excel. The differences between these games and ‘Death Stranding’ is that the routine of such titles gifts us with greater challenges, rewards us with unlockables, ranks and pride.
Meanwhile, Kojima’s complex narrative is partnered with simplistic gameplay that doesn’t really reward the player all that much. Sure, there is the likes system which can applaud your thoughtfulness of placing a generator somewhere and there’s the rankings given when completing a delivery. But the game is missing that pull many games (both AAA and indie) have.
As I explained to a friend over Messenger after 10 hours of gameplay, the mechanics are wonderfully crafted and executed but cannot sustain itself for the 14 chapters within ‘Death Stranding’. While your carry load, walking ability and amount of likes can be upgraded, you don’t necessarily feel these changes as by the time you do upgrade, at least on my playthrough, I already had Bola guns, exo-legs and a MULE truck from a camp I cleared. Even fighting becomes easy as you can just charge into MULE’s or sprint through BT areas with exo-legs or throw Hematic grenades. The original fear and excitement of Christmas, of ‘Death Stranding’, dissipates when you realise there’s nothing really stopping you from opening those presents early, just like there’s nothing stopping you from driving right past BT’s or spamming bosses.
The issue with ‘Death Stranding’ is that there are too many safety nets, too many ways to rectify what should be, as Higgs and Deadman put it: ‘A Game Over’. Nothing you do is given real weight because there was nothing stopping you from not winning. Even if a BT snags you, the Catcher can be avoided and even killed with Hematic grenades. Worse still, all the BT’s in the timefall area despawn and you can happily pick up your cargo and soothe BB in what was once a no-go zone. The challenges you are provided can be easily avoided not only by unlocking exo-legs and vehicles, but by understanding Sam’s sense of gravity, when animations tend to occur and the most efficient way to stop them.
Originally, I wouldn’t dare sprint down a hill and drop my 88.5kg’s of metals, edible plants and lost cargo for Port Knot City. But by the time I reached Lake Knot City I understood that you could easily pull Sam up and spin in a weird circle when trying to shift your weight. Even the save system of ‘Death Stranding’ gives players a get-out-of-jail free card. When entering a distribution centre or UCA area, an autosave is made when dropping off packages and/or accepting a new order. Manual saves are still present of course. However, if let’s say your truck dies on the way to a non-chiral network area or you lose too many resources, there is nothing stopping you from just reloading your Distro save and starting the journey all over. This strategy would be painful if I had been walking, but in the instances of having a vehicle, I was able to lose little to no time at all.
As soon as the players are given a challenge, their own ability to adapt removes the challenge and punishes them with boredom for understanding the game. Although I must admit, one emotion I constantly felt during my experience was stress. The stress of managing my cargo, of tilting Sam in just the right way to not fall flat on his face, the worry as I crossed a body of water with reduced stamina, watching the battery of my vehicle run out as I’m only metres away from my destination. This deep-seated anxiety was the only thing keeping me playing as I was hoping to get some kind of relief or reward for my efforts.
But despite its beauty and narrative complexity, ‘Death Stranding’s’ mechanics makes it a present that’s best left wrapped: functioning and achieving more as an enigma than an answer.