- Played on: PS4 Pro
- Release date: 8.11.2019 (PS4, PC release in 2020)
There is a stroke of brilliance in DEATH STRANDING, the new game from celebrated game design auteur Hideo Kojima, that has to do with how we connect with others. Your game is always online, hooked to a larger world of other Strands (the universe where the story takes place), and everything you build, destroy, or even walk through, echoes through these worlds as remnants that others can interact with.
At one point, I was scaling a mountain pass that I had thought would make a good shortcut (it didn’t), and that looked like it would be easy to run through (it wasn’t). I found myself stuck between jagged rocks, unscalable walls, and a threatening thunderstorm about to ruin the rest of my day. My cargo, the priceless material you transport and the game heavily revolves around, was taking damage. So I began to build. I pulled out my ladders and made an exit down to a lower level. I threw down rope and descended until the ground stopped sloping. By the time I was back on the ground, the cliff wall looked like a Rube Goldbergian device. I wouldn’t return the way I came.
A day later I signed back into the game to find a message waiting for me. Someone had gotten lost on the same mountain as I had, and they had found the path I made. It was still just some footsteps, but my gear was there, and it had saved them and their cargo.
Somewhere, I had made a connection.
It’s not a new concept, the Dark Souls series has done the same kind of otherworldly messaging between players for years, but never before has there been real lasting implications like now. Because I felt that there was another person whose game would change because of something I did, it made me want to be a better player and person to them at all times.
The game often goes out of its way to remind you that you’re not alone, and everything you do affects someone out there, as Kojima pleads through his game for a more gentler, kinder world of tomorrow in not just his game, but worldwide. It works, too, I found myself eagerly seeking the kindness of strangers, and went out of my way to provide in return. Coming back for a new run to find notes that someone had used a ladder I had placed, or found my trail routing them around something dangerous was a thrill every single time, even after hours of playing.
Which is great, because huge portions of the rest of the game is very much another Kojima product, meaning it’s a load of nonsense so pleased with what it has to say that if it liked the sound of its voice any more, it would just sit in a room and sing to itself all day long.
The plot is… elaborate, to put it kindly. Boiled to its essentials, it’s the story of a man who cannot die working with a broken government in an attempt to reconnect the broken colonies of post-apocalypse America back into a unified whole. This is accomplished by porters working for different operations either called BRIDGES or FRAGILE. Your mission is to collect important items from one city (called in-game as KNOTS) to another, all the while securing routes for other porters to safely travel in your footsteps.
As far as concepts go, it’s brilliant in its simplicity. The problem lies in the execution of things.
Everything, including the kitchen sink, the replacement sink, and the kitchen itself have been thrown into this thing. Kojima borrows from films, books, music, games, and comics with reckless abandon, and there is a perverse charm to just how irreverent and shameless it all is. Most major characters are played by Kojima’s friends, and they include people like Guillermo Del Toro, Nicolas Winding Refn, even Conan O’Brien, because why not? At a certain point it becomes interesting to connect new cities together just so you can see what kind of a cameo is up next. On the other hand, this comes at the cost that you’re not as such experiencing the story that Kojima so desperately wants to tell and instead just playing a meta-game with celebrities in it.
The reason for all these actors is because of the cutscenes. Anyone coming in fresh to a Kojima game, here’s what to expect: Kojima wants to be a film director. He wants to be a film director so bad that he will wrestle the beautifully designed game that he’s made from your grubby little paws so that he can show you the themes of the story over and over again in long, convoluted, beautifully rendered cutscenes. Kojima holds the world record for the longest one of these in a game (27 consecutive minutes), which itself is nestled in another record for the longest cutscene sequence in a game, meaning it is only broken up by dialog and not gameplay, at an insane 71 minutes. To actually play a Hideo Kojima game, you have to be willing to sit through a movie first.
It’s this that drives me nuts about Kojima’s games, because by themselves they’re fun to play and exciting because they adamantly push for innovation at every turn, and that innovation is buried under the indulgence of someone who wants to meld two mediums together that just don’t mix. If it’s a film, I will sit down and pay attention to a film, as I will immerse myself in the gameplay. But the moment the cutscene begins to talk about using your items to heal you, and presenting me with future mechanics that I need to remember, I check out. Same thing if I’m in the middle of a good bit of gaming, and the game takes away my agency to not just show me what happens next, but also to force me into an entirely new scenario afterwards, I lose interest.
Speaking of the mechanics, I already ranted about this in my review of RED DEAD REDEMPTION 2, and much of the same applies here. The biggest peeve is once again the degradation system, which never was a good idea, and still isn’t one, even when it’s been fine tuned as it is here. Everything breaks down; your gear, your vehicles, even your shoes. So you need to carry more stuff to fix the things that are about to break. A normal mission goes something like this: go to a town, deliver items, get more deliveries, buy new gear to replace old stuff, buy a bunch of fixing materials and new shoes, head out into the wild. Get lost, get ambushed by ghosts, get rained on, fix your gear, fall over (this happens a lot), fix the gear you just fixed, hobble into the nearest town, deliver items. It’s exhilirating at first, but tiresome once you realize the limits of said system. Once you’ve cleared the first MULE camp, the previously menacing outsiders become just another nuisance to clear out in a new area.
I just wanted to explore and help others. By the time I reached chapter five (out of fourteen), I realized that the main mechanic of the game wasn’t going to change, and everything that would come from here on out was a longer repetition of a good idea run into the ground. Towns still needed connecting, and older towns had more errands to run, only with longer routes.
Again, the main story is a simple and interesting one, it’s just buried under a mountain of padding that does nothing for the game except extend it needlessly. Every time your character rests, which is often, he has to go through the same dreary drip feeding of exposition from any one of three characters, followed by talking heads on a monitor or reading endless amounts of letters or info boxes. By the time you get out on the field and exploring, you’re still barraged by radio calls from people who just can’t wait to tell you about the drama in their lives.
When Kojima lets his games be games, they’re terrific fun that do more for the medium than almost any other game designer out there. The problem is that over the years I’ve become to feel like Kojima is becoming more and more resentful about gameplay getting in the way of his films, and it actively hurts the final result. It is no surprise that Kojima Productions have announced that they’re transitioning into motion pictures as their next project.
All this sounds harsh, and it might be overtly so. But that’s simply because at its heart DEATH STRANDING is a wonderful experience, one that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend everyone to try out. It has moments of staggering beauty and clarity, where you could swear that the medium transcends itself into something better. The first few moments in the game are minimalist masterpieces, where everything you need to know about this world, the people, and the conflict are told through gameplay. It’s just you picking up clues as a mournful song plays in the background.
Towards the end of the game I realized that this particular moment wasn’t any kind of mission statement, it was just Kojima bookending cutscenes. Every chapter begins and ends with the same scenario, and even before the halfway point diminishing returns had set in, and I was ready to check out.
Except that it would have meant abandoning all the potential connections waiting for me out there, and I couldn’t bring myself to leave people on their own. The connection was too strong.