When Death Stranding was released in early November 2019, I picked it up, as did many others. There was a lot of hype surrounding the title, defining it as a unique game. Legendary creator Hideo Kojima was the first to be in charge of his own studio. And the mystery surrounding it – what exactly is it all about? – He only helped.
Then I played it and like many others I didn’t understand it. It didn’t work. It was too weird, too stupid. Beautiful, compelling, definitely different from anything I’ve played before, yes. But I’ve resigned myself to the fact that it’s not for me. After about 6 hours I put it down and never thought about it again. Also, at that time, the first generation of the game, which was much bigger than my speed, was coming: Cyberpunk 2077.
Here we are in the spring of 2021. Cyberpunk has been delayed, delayed, delayed, and finally unleashed, and it’s…. not the game we had hoped for. Nor has 2020 been the year we’d hoped for, with an unprecedented international pandemic devastating the world and, here in the US, a boring pre- and post-election cycle that often looked more like a Shonda Rhimes show than reality.
At the start of the new year, my frustration with cyberpunk and the general weariness of waking up to more and more bad news every day put me in the mood for something slower, more introspective and otherworldly. Then I remembered Death Curl, or maybe he remembered me. I felt like he was talking to me and I liked it so much that I was surprised I had spent so little time with him. Over New Year’s weekend, I loaded it. And this time I got him.
The world of Death Stranding is the world of a torn America. A catastrophic event in the past half century has devastated the nation, leaving the landscape unrecognizable and much of the population dead. Worse, these dead now haunt the earth. Rain, called Timefall, ages and kills everything it touches if exposed enough. The rest of the population congregates in small cities of 100,000 people or less, or prefers to live alone in small shelters, and communicates primarily through holograms. The population has stopped. Society has become asexual, almost everyone is cut off from everyone else, and most are too afraid to venture outside the city walls. When someone dies, their body becomes a time bomb and within 48 hours a crater replaces what it was before, so the fear of death permeates everything.
Kohei Hirose Concept Art; Image courtesy of Sony Interactive Entertainment
Like Sam, you are one of the few carriers, glorified messengers, ready to make deliveries from one place to another to keep in touch with the world. And you did the biggest collage job of all, against your will: Create a virtual network that connects the east and west coasts and traverses rugged terrain to rebuild the nation.
It’s a hostile world, but it’s also a beautiful world. By using your natural tendency to sense the presence of dead spirits called BT, as well as the Bridge Baby, a real live fetus that somehow crosses the line between the world of the living and the world of the dead – one of those typical Kojima twists that makes outsiders tilt their heads and roll their eyes when you try to explain it – you can cross the line and avoid evil for the most part. You walk, run, climb, travel, fall, lead, call back, float and buzz through the landscape to the sound of your steps and the brilliantly dull music of composer Ludwig Forssell, plus the occasional whine of your BB keeping you company.
You meet other people, sometimes peaceful delivery people and sometimes hostile mules or terrorists trying to steal your cargo or just kill you, but mostly you’re alone. It’s a closed world. Except that, in one of the most impressive Death Stranding drawings, that’s not really the case.
The goal of your first foray into the region is to connect several places in a so-called chiral network, which should extend from one place to another on the path from east to west. During your trip, the landscape is barren and empty. But once your target network is activated, it’s full of signs that you’re not really alone. There are other carriers leaving a trail of encouragement, ladders, jump ropes, equipment, vehicles and shelters to rest. They will work with you to provide road repair materials and install cable car networks for faster travel. They even warn of dangers, steep slopes and difficult terrain, or point out places with beautiful views or hidden medicinal hot springs.
Meanwhile, you receive Magnets as a kind of currency, and give them to others in exchange. You never see another player, but his influence is felt. Theirs too; you get regular notifications when someone else, a real player somewhere in the world like you, uses what you deposited. You can even press a button to make Sam scream: Hello? Is anyone there?” and occasionally someone from afar – or perhaps from another group in the multiverse – answers and offers words of encouragement.
The sense of belonging is real, and this theme permeates every aspect of the Death Stranding story and gameplay. After a while, you start to like Kojima’s eccentric characters. You develop a bond with your BB. You begin to take an interest in the lives of the holographic characters for whom you make deliveries, particularly through their lengthy emails and interviews, which are unlocked as you play the game. After a while you log in.
Image via Sony Interactive Entertainment from The Art of Building Relationships with Death.
And then there are the BTs themselves, strange spirits that haunt parts of the landscape during the game’s most exciting moments. As the game progresses, you learn that these spirits, despite their actions and appearance, have no bad intentions; on the contrary, they only need to connect, and they are stuck between worlds, desperately trying to connect with one side or the other. The killing of these spirits, of these things of the shore, is not an act of violence, but an act of mercy that allows them to pass fully into the realm of the dead, where they can be fully absorbed into their kind. As terrifying and exhausting as it is to navigate these minefields of the other world, they also have a special beauty. Like all of us, these TSTs are simply misunderstood and seek to be validated by others.
But just like in the real world, there is no such thing as conflict. MULEs are basically like addicts who want to steal your packages to get high by delivering them themselves, a thinly veiled reference to internet communities and toxic trolls. And then there are the terrorists who want to see the world burn by killing innocent people and creating a vacuum – an explosion that comes from a dead body – just because they can.
This is not a happy place. But in its direct, essentially non-lethal combat, the Death Loop gives a whiplash. Covering your human opponents with a bolapistol and shooting them in the head is somehow much more satisfying than killing hundreds of NPCs in a normal video game. And later, when they regain consciousness (or, technically, reproduce), it doesn’t look like a dirty trick.
This is the most important part of the game, where the design intent and gameplay come together so everything feels real. From here there are endless trails, immeasurable routes around the mountain or the river. Many tools have more than one use or purpose. For example, an airline that allows you to deliver multiple packages and that you can also mount like a skateboard. You can use the grenade on the offensive with a direct hit, or throw it at your feet to block the enemy’s view and let him escape. Every object, structure, tool, building, villain and character is brilliantly designed to make you look at something in the game and just say: Yeah, that makes sense.
Image via Sony Interactive Entertainment
Lethal Thread is a slow burning yarn, making it perfect for the tumultuous year we’ve had. In 70 hours, I found a new favorite game that really got me thinking about what games are and what they can be. About what is fashionable and what is not.
When Kojima came up with the idea of a video game set in a remote world, he had no idea we’d all be cut off from each other months after release. The sense of nostalgia for a world trying to emerge from a difficult and divisive period would be more relevant today than ever.
At least the dead rope serves as a warning, or maybe a signal: As a people, we must unite. We need to strengthen and maintain our connections so that we don’t end up in a world torn apart from the things that really matter and where reality is blurred. It takes perseverance and hard work to get through tough times, but in the end, like Sam, BB and others, we all seek only the satisfaction and fulfillment that comes from a true connection with others.
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