The Death Stranding Experience – Episode 1

2,747 words.

Previously on The Death Stranding Experience: The Prologue.

As we roll into the second hour of the game, you may have noticed I haven’t talked about Death Stranding gameplay very much yet. That’s because, in the first couple of hours of Death Stranding, there isn’t very much gameplay. It’s extremely cut scene-heavy. (It becomes cut scene-heavy at the end as well.) It’s one of the game’s criticisms, though I personally found the cut scenes riveting so I didn’t mind at all.

There’s an introductory cut scene, then a short period of gameplay. Then a long cut scene in a cave, then a short period of gameplay. Then a long cut scene depicting a voidout, then a long cut scene in your private room with Deadman, then a short period of gameplay. Then we arrive at Episode 1.

The Prologue essentially just lays out the bizarre state of the world, but in Episode 1 we get our first real glimpse of the characters and the story that will propel us through the game.

Reminder: Spoilers below.

Episode 1 “Bridget”

At the end of the Death Stranding prologue, we’re left with a giant crater in the ground where a city used to be (Central Knot City), with Sam and a “bridge baby” the only survivors. The explosion is known as a “voidout,” and it occurs, I think, when the dead make inappropriate contact with the living. The exact mechanics of it elude me even as I write this 80 hours of game time later. In practical terms, anyone who dies must be cremated within 48 hours or else a voidout occurs, which is an explosion large enough to destroy a city. Dying really sucks in Death Stranding.

Sam wakes up in a place called Capital Knot City, on the east coast of America, in a place called Bridges Headquarters. Bridges is a delivery company. We meet a man called Deadman, who has a giant scar on his forehead that makes it look like his scalp was sewn on. (Deadman looks like Guillermo Del Toro, but is voiced by Jesse Corti.) Deadman explains that Sam is alive because he’s a “repatriate,” which basically means he can come back from the dead. I don’t remember any explanations for why some people are repatriates in the world of Death Stranding, but it’s a very convenient trait for a video game protagonist.

Incidentally, they pronounce the noun “repatriate” like RE-PAA-TRIATE, where PAA rhymes with apple, whereas I’ve always heard it as RE-PAY-TRIATE. I notice and am bothered by little things like that during cut scenes, while accepting unquestioned the fact that Deadman looks like he was sewn together.

As usual, there’s a lot to process in our conversation with Deadman, and most of it doesn’t make any sense yet. I’m just going to skip most of it for brevity. Play the game if you’re interested. (Or watch the video on my channel! I only need about 900 more subscribers before I can start rolling in that sweet, sweet YouTuber money.)

Shameless self-promotion.

Anyway, we’re given Order No. 2, a delivery task to take morphine to America’s last president, Bridget Strand, who is dying, and who we will soon find out just happens to be Sam’s mother.

The major “quests” in Death Stranding are referred to as “orders,” and there are a total of 70, if memory serves. Some of them are optional, but most are required to finish the game’s story. Some are easy, some are hard. This one is easy.

I should note here that the game references “America” a lot, which I found somewhat irritating throughout. I personally prefer to refer to “America” as “the U.S.,” because it’s not one entity, it’s a collection of 50 federated states. I think of “America” more like the geographical continent, North America, not the political nation state. I feel like it’s a common misconception of people in other countries. People think of the United States as one big homogeneous region filled with people who are all the same, but it’s not like that at all. It’s more like the European Union, a large region filled with many different countries. It’s more apparent now than any other time in my life. But I digress.

There is also the rather obvious fact that the “America” in Death Stranding is about 1/1000th the size of the real United States. You walk a kilometer in the game, which feels relatively authentic, but according to the map, you’ve crossed three states. It’s weird, and there’s no explanation for it in the game. I kept waiting for them to say something like it was all a virtual world or something, but they never did. It’s a glaring anomaly.

We get more tutorials on how to play the game as we’re delivering the morphine to the Isolation Ward, mostly related to our navigation tools like the compass. This will be a common theme. There are vast amounts of tutorials and instructions and tasks given to us in the form of “phone calls” from people in far away places, and over the course of the game you receive hundreds of “emails” and “interviews,” which are encyclopedic background information about the world.

In the Isolation Ward, we find out that Bridget Strand, the president, is actually dying. She asks to see Sam. But first, we meet the director of Bridges, Die-Hardman. He wears a skull-like mask to cover his face. No, really. I’m not making that up. Somehow nobody in the game world notices the mask or the strange name. We’ll be hearing from Die-Hardman a lot during the game, as he’s one of the primary voices we hear over the radio giving us tasks and reminding us how to do things.

Nothing at all unusual about this character.

Again, I simply can’t summarize the story here. It’s a lot. The cut scenes are densely packed with information that is difficult to follow on first viewing. In a very brief nutshell, Bridget (played by Lindsay Wagner, who I only know from The Bionic Woman) implores Sam to help his sister Amelie, who is out west, rebuild America. “You can make America whole,” Bridget says. “If we don’t all come together again, humanity will not survive.” It’s a very unsubtle social commentary about the times we live in. Then the president dies.

There are a number of strange things about these scenes, and I’m not sure they were ever fully explained. When Deadman asks/tells Sam to deliver morphine to the president, Sam responds, “What president? America is gone.” After the delivery, Deadman says, “Thank you. This will help to ease the pain and allow her to speak with you in these final moments.” Sam looks puzzled and says, “Her?” Deadman responds, “The first and last female president of the United States. Surely you remember her? She raised you.” Sam looks baffled but doesn’t respond, while I was baffled that Sam would not know the president or who raised him.

These faces are rendered by the in-game engine, by the way.

While in the room with the dying president, Die-Hardman tells Sam, “President’s waiting.” There’s a pause as Sam hesitates, looking over at the sickly woman on her death bed. “It’s your mother, Bridget,” Die-Hardman continues, as if this needs to be said. How does Sam not know his own mother is the president of America? We know he’s been away, but that long? It stood out in the scenes.

My thought at the time was that Sam somehow existed outside of this world. Perhaps it was an alternate universe? Perhaps Sam was a time traveler? Maybe he lost his memory after the repatriation? It made no sense at the time, and I still can’t fully explain it, even after seeing how the story turns out. Was it a mistake? Did they intend for the story to go one way but steer it a different way by the end? It’s certainly not unheard of, but usually you go back and edit the beginning of the story to match the ending. Perhaps they couldn’t do that in this case because of all the time and expense of doing motion capture and voiceover work.

Maybe the implication there is that Sam really was gone for a long time. Years or even decades, maybe, out on his own in the world of Death Stranding. That’s one reason I’m writing these blog posts, to try to understand the game better. I like to try to puzzle things out on my own before I just go read a wiki.

And I just now noticed that Die-Hardman greeted Sam by saying, “What’s it been Sam? Ten years?” So I guess I nailed it.

Something else I noticed in the death bed scene only on a second viewing: Heartman and Mama, characters we meet much later in the game, were both standing around the death bed, and they disappeared after the president died, during that slow pan up to the ceiling when all of the attending nurses vanished to reveal most of the hospital room was only a hologram (or something like that-it’s something else I don’t fully understand). There was no way to know who they were at the time, but I thought it was an interesting detail.

Sam is reluctant, but to make a long story short, he agrees to help, because there wouldn’t be a game or a story if he didn’t. His first task is the classic video game trope quest: Carry your dead mother in a body bag on your back to an incinerator before the corpse explodes and destroys the whole city. I can’t say that I’ve ever carried a corpse to an incinerator before in a video game, but I did it in Death Stranding. Fresh corpses flop around a lot, making it harder to balance. This is the first extended taste of real gameplay in Death Stranding.

We get a lot more tutorials on the road. There’s a deeply complicated map, where you can plot a route across the terrain by setting a series of waypoints. I tried to use the waypoint system at first, but after a few hours I found it easier to just wing it. We have to learn how to cross rivers and climb mountains to get to our destination. It took me about fifteen minutes of real time to carry the corpse to the incinerator. Essentially all I did was walk from one place to another place, but the “traversal”-a gaming term I have only just learned this year-is really engaging.

Throw Momma Into The Incinerator.

The game is often described as a “walking simulator.” Most people use that term in a derogatory way, to indicate that all you, as the player, do is hold down the forward button for extended periods of time. Some games are aptly described like that. I’ve seen plenty of criticisms of Death Stranding that are perfectly valid, but this isn’t one of them. Calling Death Stranding a walking simulator is about as reductive as you can get. If you want to think of it as such, just know that it’s the most complicated walking simulator ever made. It’s the Dark Souls of walking simulators, you might say. I wish some of these mechanics would make their way into MMORPGs in the future.

We get another track of music from Low Roar during this journey to the incinerator. The game plays tracks of music a lot like a music video channel. It displays the name of the track, the musician, and the record company at the start of each song, which is nice, if not exactly organic. This time, it was “Bones.” I liked the song, but I still looked for a way to disable playing these tracks, because I still had ideas of uploading videos of this gameplay and this would be another copyright claim for sure.

I could not find any way to disable the music. There is only a “master volume” setting. It has the air of an intentional cross-promotion, as if the game is a kind of advertising platform. There would be other examples of this sort of cross-promotion. This was another thing I’ve never seen in a video game before. It wasn’t terribly intrusive, but this is one thing from Death Stranding that I hope doesn’t catch on as a mainstream staple of every video game in the future.

After cremating the president’s corpse, for reasons that I struggle to comprehend but have something to do with the ashes of burned corpses entering the atmosphere-the “chiral density increasing”-a timefall begins and the ghostly hand creatures known as “BTs” descended on the area.

I can’t even begin to explain BTs. Honestly, after 80 hours of gameplay, I don’t even know what “BT” stands for. They are ghosts, that’s a good-enough explanation for the purposes of this post. There are different kinds, but if you touch one, bad things happen. They float around the terrain, tethered to “the other side” by an ethereal umbilical cord.

Sneaking around the ghostly BTs.

You’re supposed to sneak around the BTs so they don’t notice you, so this part of the game is a lot like a stealth game. I generally don’t like stealth mechanics, but I found it very tense and engaging. This part of the game serves as our first tutorial of the mechanic. You crouch and navigate around them. If a BT notices you, you’re supposed to hold your breath until they wander away. You have a certain amount of time before they “get” you.

You yourself can’t see the BTs, but your odradek, the little radar-thingy on your shoulder, points in the direction of the nearest BT. This detection is made possible by the use of a bridge baby, a “BB,” which is a prematurely-developed baby in a glass container you wear on your chest. It’s exactly as weird as it sounds. Sam just happens to have the “faulty” BB from the prologue, but Sam takes pity on it and takes it with him.

This BB ("bridge baby") allows us to see ghosts from the other side.

You probably have a thousand questions by now. I don’t blame you. I told you, this game is densely-packed with worldbuilding information that doesn’t make a lot of sense at first. There are volumes and volumes of text inside the game to explain the backstory and lore. You just have to trust me that it starts to become more clear as you spend more time with the game. Give it 10 or 20 hours. Maybe 30 or 50? Okay, in reality, I’ve finished the game and I still don’t fully understand it all.

The point is, to complete the mission, you have to sneak past a horde of BTs to leave the incinerator, and you need a bridge baby to do it. It was all very exciting and scary. The way the game conveys the information that a deadly ghost BT is nearby is really inventive. Your odradek spins and flaps at different rates and changes color depending on how close they are. It’s a different system that really immerses you in the experience far more than a minimap would, and it takes a while to get the hang of it. It’s possible some other games have done this before, but I’ve never experienced anything like it. I will probably say that a lot in these posts, so you can make a drinking game out of it.

I made it back to Capital Knot City relatively unharmed on that first run, but with a new respect for those ghostly BTs, and a BB on my chest. I did not know what would happen to me if I was caught by BTs, but I didn’t want to find out.

By the way, as if the story wasn’t complicated enough, when Sam plugs himself into the BB jar (through an attachment that happens to look a lot like an umbilical cord), he sees “flashbacks” of memories from his BB. We see our first at the end of the incinerator run. They show a man who we assume is the BB’s father, played by Mads Mikkelsen. We’ll learn a lot more about him as the game goes on, but we’ll have to wait until the end of the game to learn the whole story.

Next, the game has even more surprises in store for us, because we will soon learn about “the private room.”

Next: Episode 2.

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