Hideo Kojima is an enigmatic character. Depending on who you ask, his games are either visionary achievements or pretentious twaddle. Shortly after going independent with Kojima Productions, the studio announced a new kind of game called Death Stranding. Shrouded in mystery, with each reveal adding more questions, it quickly became the most anticipated release in years. But the question remained – would it be a resounding return to form for the legend of Kojima, or a case of over-hyped nonsense?
After fifty hours with Death Stranding, it’s still hard to explain exactly what is going on. Let’s start with the name.
A “death stranding” is a real-life thing that happens when a school of whales ends up stranded on a beach, dying shortly after (it’s funnier if you’re Afrikaans because “strand” means beach). In the game, the Death Stranding was an extinction-level event caused by Chiralium, a kind of antimatter that fucked with time and space and caused humans to literally explode upon death. It also introduced rain called Timefall that causes rapid aging, a form of afterlife called Beaches, and the BTs – ghostly apparitions of humans that died but are still connected to the world, haunting Timefall areas and spelling instant death for the living.
In desperate need of food and medicine, cities look to couriers for aid. And that’s where you, Sam Porter Bridges, come in. Ostensibly a super-courier due to your ability to sense BTs, as well as your inability to die – it’s a whole thing, you have super blood – you are the strong, silent type the world needs. That, or voice-acting is expensive.
Your mission, given to you and a host of literally-named supporting characters by a dying president, is to “reconnect the knots” by getting each city onto the Chiral network, humanity’s attempt to interface with Chiralium, allowing near-instant data speeds for 3D-printing food, medicine, and 16K Netflix.
Each mission is essentially a delivery. You must courier packages between cities, connecting each new city to the Chiral network. While doing so, you must also manage your blood, stamina, carry weight, footwear, and personal hygiene. Aided by your Odradek that scans your immediate surroundings for obstacles, you need to consider terrain and equipment, using ropes, ladders, and more to traverse the gorgeous but challenging open world. Finally, you must avoid threats, including cargo-stealing MULEs, cargo-damaging Timefall, and the terrifying BTs.
Let’s talk about that creepy baby from the trailers. BB-28 was born to a brain-dead mother, and so, through its umbilical cord, has a connection to both the living (you) and the dead (BTs). When hooked up to the Odradek, it allows Sam to see BTs, albeit briefly, allowing you to navigate the pants-shittingly tense BT-infested areas. Though considered a tool, BB is still a baby, and will cry if put into danger, requiring you to comfort it. Awww.
Kojima has a penchant for getting weird with stories. It always feels like he comes up with a compelling story, and then challenges his team to figure out the gameplay. This is different. While couriering packages from city to city doesn’t seem like an immediately obvious goal for an immortal character, it ties into the “strand” system previously teased by Kojima. Death Stranding is a collaborative world of “connected” players. While you can’t see or interact with them directly, players are connected via their actions, so things like dropping cargo, setting up ladders and other structures, or leaving signs of encouragement or caution, all become part of other players’ games. Those players can then give Likes, contribute upgrades, or share resources between each other.
It all feeds into the themes of duality and connectedness introduced in this crazy smorgasbord of science fiction, evolution, horror, and, I guess, logistics? Whether it’s players across game instances, cities across the Chiral network, or Sam literally plugging BB into his scanner to overcome the BTs, it’s all about the connections we make that allow us to empower ourselves. Like strands of rope, sharing the load, strengthening the knot. Kojima does love a good metaphor.
While it would be easy to fault Death Stranding for trying to do too much at once – and boy, does it try to do a heck of a lot at once – there are moments when the camera pans back on Sam making his way through the world and a song starts playing, evoking feelings of adventure and isolation, and it stops feeling like Courier Simulator and starts feeling like something… unique… but, shared. And really, that’s what we expect from Kojima.
Death Stranding is a difficult game to classify. It delicately strides the line between sci-fi horror storytelling, and open world cooperative adventure gameplay. The world went to shit, and it’s your job to fix things. Be careful to avoid the horrors recently introduced to the world, but don’t worry because you’ll have help! The rest can simply be experienced on your own. This is a resounding return to form for Kojima.
The storytelling is satisfyingly deep and engrossing
Switching between adventure and sci-fi horror keeps it fresh
The strand system works well to reward working together
Lots of jargon means lots of reading tiny text
Despite its best efforts, still quite unfriendly to newcomers
Cities feel quite empty, there are few non-story NPCs