I finished the story of Death Stranding over the weekend. It took almost 80 hours over the course of two months. I left a large number of optional tasks unfinished, but I’m hoping to get back and do them at some point. It’s definitely the game of the year for me.
These 80 hours have been quite an experience. I’m very thankful that I’ve been able to play a AAA game with so much originality, because frankly I didn’t think I would ever see one again in my lifetime. Major titles have become such homogenized reskins of previous successful games that I feel like I’ve been playing the same game over and over again throughout the 2010s. But that’s definitely not the case with Death Stranding. Love it or hate it (and there are good reasons for both), it’s impossible to deny it’s different. There have been ups and downs, good parts and bad parts, but it’s been a very unique ride. I’ve never played a game like it in my entire life, that I can remember.
Where do I even begin with this game? I’m sure I’ve heard bits and pieces about the game for years, but I think my first visual encounter happened during E3 2018, when I saw this trailer, or some variation of it:
That’s E3 trailer is longer, with more creepy stuff, than I remember. I mostly remembered my first experience of Death Stranding as “that game where Norman Reedus walks around and talks to ghosts.” I had no idea what kind of game it was, but I remember thinking, “Well that’s certainly an odd duck, I wonder what it’s all about?” Then I promptly forgot about it again. I didn’t even mention it on my blog anywhere.
I didn’t think much about it even as the hype machine kicked in for the game’s launch in 2019. I knew it only as “that Norman Reedus game.” I did not know Hideo Kojima. I don’t think I would have even recognized the name. I’ve never played any Metal Gear games, the franchise he’s known for. I put Metal Gear Solid V on my Steam wish list because I remember a lot of people saying it was a great game, but I have yet to buy it. I knew nothing at all about his infamous split from Konami.
Then, on or around Death Stranding launch day, I was watching something on The CW, through their iPad streaming app. It’s a terrible platform. It plays a lot of advertisements. One of those ads was for Death Stranding. It played for a week or so, around the time the game launched. I can’t find it on YouTube. It’s not any of the top search results for television spots. It was a very quiet, introspective, ambient 30-second (or maybe even less) spot featuring some amazing scenery from the game’s cut scenes and little or no talking. Riding a motorcycle-ish vehicle across rocky green slopes while crows follow, whales flying in the air, and other completely outlandish imagery that makes no sense whatsoever, but is striking.
Around the same time, I also saw a few tweets about the game here and there. Most of what I heard was along the lines of, “This is a really weird game, but it’s not terrible.” I did not read any reviews, but I read the titles of some reviews, and critics seemed to be split, which I took to be a good sign.
So armed with all of that information and nothing more, not reading anything further, not watching any videos, I bought Death Stranding at full price from the Playstation Store, downloaded it to my PS4 Pro, and started playing it, almost completely blind. It’s only the second game that I bought at launch in 2019 (the other being Sekiro, because From Software, duh).
At this point I should warn readers that I’m just going to go ahead and spoil a lot of story down below. There’s a lot of stuff to spoil. There’s a lot of mysteries and reveals. If you’re even the tiniest bit interested in playing this game-and you should, because this game is a moment in game’s history, a historical artifact in a way, a game that should be studied in freshman games appreciation class-I would definitely recommend playing it first instead of reading about it or watching it, because it will definitely fall flat if you know what to expect. I don’t think it’s a game that you can play a second time. The only valid excuses I will accept for gaming aficionados not buying this game are a) I can’t afford it, or b) I don’t own a PS4. (Eventually it will be available on PC, I think, but I’m almost positive my PC won’t be able to run it.)
Playing a game without any foreknowledge of it is scary, but it can be one of the most rewarding experiences in video gaming, if you ask me. It’s an experience that reminds you why you play games in the first place. Most of the time, you’re disappointed. But sometimes… sometimes you stumble onto something that’s really memorable, and that’s what I was hoping would happen. You find a world that you never knew existed, you find the wardrobe that leads to Narnia. All the pieces seemed to be in place with Death Stranding. The stars seemed to be moving into alignment, and I just had an inexplicable gut feeling that maybe this game could be The One, like Neo in The Matrix. The last chance for such a game in the decade.
The game begins on a title screen that is completely silent. It’s so quiet you want to look to see if your speakers are broken, or your headphones aren’t plugged in. There’s no bombastic music, no explosions, nothing. Then, very faintly, you hear the sound of the ocean lapping against a beach. It’s haunting. It looks alien. It looks vaguely like Japanese horror, and I had no idea what was in store for me. I didn’t understand any of the imagery.
I checked the options quickly, then started a new game.
The first thing Death Stranding does is verify your birthday. Somehow it knew my birthday. Presumably it pulled the information from the Playstation Network. It annoyed me, because it was my real birthday, and I happened to be streaming my first impressions of the game. So somewhere out there, there are two or three people who got a nice view of my birthday. Normally I use a fake birthday on the Internet, but I guess I setup my PSN account prior to doing that. (Incidentally, afterward, I couldn’t find any way to change my birthday on my Playstation account, which is annoying.)
I can’t remember ever playing a game that knew my birthday and wanted to verify it for game purposes. The game told me, “Higher levels of DOOMS have been observed in those born under constellations such as Cancer, Pisces, Cetus, Delphinus, and Gigas.” The words made no sense to me. It was off-putting, because I thought it was a terrible gameplay decision to have one’s birthday (basically, a random variable) influence the way the game plays out. (In reality, as I’m writing this 80 hours of game time later, I’m not aware of how it had any effect on the game whatsoever.)
It was just the first and most innocuous of the oddities I encountered in Death Stranding, but a harbinger of things to come.
Next, the game launches into a cut scene. I settled in to see how the game would start. We see a guy in a spacesuit on an airless planet smashing the ground with a spear, and then ten seconds into this cut scene, I realize it’s not the introductory cut scene at all, it’s a big, elaborately-rendered logo scene for Kojima Productions. It was just like that Family Guy bit about studio logos at the beginning of movies. I rolled my eyes at the hubris. I didn’t know Hideo Kojima at all, but after playing Death Stranding, I can tell he’s got an ego the size of several countries.
The game really begins after the self-indulgently long Kojima Productions logo movie, with a quote and an opening credit sequence featuring absolutely beautiful landscape scenery accompanied by a lovely song called “Don’t Be So Serious” by Low Roar.
I’ve heard the type of music featured in Death Stranding described as “indie rock,” but to my ears, there is no “rock” in this music at all. Most of the tracks in the game sound more like “ambient” music to me, with ethereal, new-agey vocals. It’s a lot closer to Enya than Van Halen, in other words. In any case, I liked the song a lot.
I can’t possibly describe all of the nuances of the introductory Death Stranding cut scene, but suffice it to say it puts us into a world that is familiar but strange. We see a landscape that is beautiful but hostile-moss-covered rocks dotting yellow-green hills that remind me of places like Ireland or Scotland-we see inverted rainbows, we see dangerous rainfall, we see crows dropping dead from the sky, appearing to age and decay before our eyes. We see Norman Reedus, alone on a sci-fi motorcycle, fleeing from an invisible creature that leaves black handprints on the ground.
Norman seemingly runs over a silent woman dressed in black leather with a strange angular, almost glass umbrella, who appears out of thin air in his path and disappears just as fast. Norman wrecks his strange motorcycle (which is technically called a “reverse trike,” but we won’t learn that for many many hours in the game). Nothing makes any logical sense, but it’s beautifully shot and riveting to watch. It’s immediately apparent that the graphics in this game are going to be amazing, if nothing else. I can’t think of any other game I’ve played recently that tops it, to be honest. It’s the most photorealistic game I’ve ever played.
I’m going to have to condense my thoughts on this game or I’ll never get through this. I wanted to try to comment on all fifteen episodes in the game, to try to make sense of it all, and I’ve only just begun talking about the prologue.
After Norman Reedus falls off his motorbike in the introductory cut scene, you get to control him and walk around. (The trike tumbles off a cliff.) At this point the game drops you into the world with little or no guidance about what you’re supposed to do.
You can walk around. You can climb over rocks. You can jump. The number of animations your character has for moving around is pretty staggering. This is one of my favorite parts of third-person camera games: Just watching the character model animate in different ways as they traverse the terrain. You can tell almost instantly whether a game is serious or not by how much work goes into that feature alone.
One of the first things you learn is that you have a thing called an “odradek” on your shoulder. I have never seen the word “odradek” before, but it’s apparently a real word that more learned philosophers than I might know. In the context of Death Stranding, it’s a little sonar-like sensor that pings the world around you when you press R1. It shows you some information about the terrain topography, where you might slip or stumble, and it tells you if there are any important destinations or cargo nearby. There’s no minimap in Death Stranding, so the odradek is a useful tool that you use all the time to find things around you.
There’s a container on the ground nearby you’re told to pick up. This turns into a new adventure in and of itself. You can pick things up and hold them in your left or right hands like a briefcase, or you can carry things on your back. It’s not clear which option is the “right” one, but as the game goes along you find that most things are carried on your back.
You’re told to take shelter from the rain in a nearby cave. When you get to the cave, things really start to get weird. The cut scene that plays here is just the first of what will turn out to be some of the most engrossing I’ve seen in recent memory. It’s a study in “visual storytelling,” a concept I don’t think about very much, but modern movies are so devoid of it that when you see it in action, it’s shockingly beautiful to behold. (Part of it is in the E3 2018 trailer at the top of this post, between around 3:00 to 5:15.)
We learn that our protagonist’s name is Sam, so we can stop calling him Norman Reedus. Sam takes his shirt off so we can see he has strange handprints all over his body. Later we learn why, kind of, but it turns out it’s not really important to the story, it’s a metaphorical character quirk (he has aphenphosmphobia, and good luck saying that one). The metaphors are thick in this game. Anyway, the air goes cold and he’s “attacked” by an invisible … um, “entity” that leaves black tar-filled handprints on the ground like footprints. The woman we ran over before reappears out of thin air and helps us evade it. We learn her name is Fragile, and then they launch into some dialog that makes no sense whatsoever.
It’s a bit like the beginning of a large epic fantasy series. The beginning of The Way of Kings, for example, by Brandon Sanderson. It starts with five chapters of sentences that are almost unintelligible, because every third word is a descriptor of some in-universe person, place, or thing that we won’t understand until we’ve been exposed to it for a long time, slowly understanding the terminology through context and repetition. That’s what the first couple of hours of Death Stranding is like: I repeated to myself over and over, “What does that even mean?”
What’s a chiral allergy? What’s DOOMS? What’s an extinction factor? What’s a timefall? Who knows? But Sam and Fragile talk about them as if it’s common knowledge. Meanwhile I’m over here wondering if they’re even speaking English. I get the vague sense that “delivery companies” are a thing in this world, and Sam and Fragile both work for them, and they talk shop.
Fragile leaves (after enjoying a tasty juicy floating bug she plucked out of the air-that’s perfectly normal, right?) and Sam goes on to pick up some more containers and deliver them to a nearby city. The same Don’t Be So Serious song from Low Roar plays while we make our way down from the hills to the city, along with more title credits (in which we see the name Hideo Kojima about fourteen times, just to make sure we know who’s responsible for this). This is when I realize that it will probably be hard to upload any videos I make of this game.
You might think it would be easy to walk around picking things up. But you have to navigate around rocks, across the rushing water of streams that push you around and tires you out, and various other obstacles that might trip you up and make you fall. You have to manage your momentum going up and down hills. The more things you carry, the harder it is to navigate the terrain. It all combines into a gameplay mechanic I’ve never seen before. It’s really enjoyable to walk around, if you like exploring places in games. The scenery is just gorgeous.
When you get to the city and make the delivery, we get the third cut scene. This one kind of blew my mind. It turns out they’ve shown some of it before, way back in 2017, but it was all new to me:
There’s no understanding it. You just watch it with agape wonderment. Visual storytelling again. It’s hard to define, but when you see it, it’s magnificent. By the end of the game, it all makes sense, but at the time of first viewing, it’s a complete mystery what’s going on from start to finish (there is more in the game prior to where that trailer begins, which makes it even more mysterious). It’s such a tense scene, and it’s obvious that something momentous is happening, but you don’t yet have much context to understand why the characters are behaving like they are.
I don’t know about anyone else, but a great way to get me interested in something is to present me with a compelling mystery. After that third cut scene, I was hooked, and had to know everything there was to know about this strange world of Death Stranding.
Little did I know that the mysteries and eccentricities were just beginning.
I include here my recording of playing the prologue. Partially as a blatant cross-promotion, but also to illustrate my reactions to the game. I’m sure nobody else can tell, but I can hear the wonderment in the tone of my voice, and several times I was utterly speechless to describe what I was seeing. Unfortunately I had to edit out the song to avoid a copyright claim.
P. S. The game is so unique I don’t even know how to categorize this post. There is no existing genre in which this game fits.