Hideo Kojima's Death Stranding is the first (and potentially last) game I'll ever review on the Damn Blog. I'm not a gamer myself, and I rarely have the time - or the patience - to play through 40-hour interactive affairs. And while I do enjoy winding down after a long day with a few minutes of escapism, I think gaming as a medium still has a lot of catching-up to do when compared to, say, movies or books.
But this one's different. I've played around 35 hours of Death Stranding, mostly at night, during one of the most challenging and busiest periods of my professional life. I was literally unable to put down the controller - hooked by both its premises and execution. Long after the credits had rolled, I couldn't stop thinking about some of its core themes; about the characters, and - most of all - about the stunning, incredibly believable universe it brought me.
Death Stranding is a brilliant opus of narrative excellence, an incredibly impressive exercise in world building, and a fantastic interactive adventure to lose yourself into. This slow-burning, multi-layered mix of fantastic narrative twists, flawless visual storytelling, and rewarding exploration of some of humanity's core themes is much, much more than a game.
It is the medium's first masterpiece.
Death Stranding's narrative premise is really something else. Your name is Sam Porter, and you are - well - a porter. You deliver packages across a beautifully lush and desolated wasteland that used to be America. In the opening hours, you're recruited by an organization called Bridges, whose president - Bridget Strand - is also the last president of the United States; not to mention, your mother.
Her daughter - your sister - Amelie, has taken an expedition to the West to rebuild an internet-like network and re-connect the survivors of the United Cities of America. But she's been abducted by a terrorist organization headed by Higgs - a dangerous antagonist whose hobbies include blowing up old stashes of nukes and raising otherworldly entities called BTs to hunt you down... I've lost you, haven't I?
The truth is, Death Stranding's narrative makes zero sense when explained. You couldn't make a book out of it - words are not powerful enough - and its overwhelming complexity could never fit into a feature-length movie. Death Stranding's story can exist in one place - and that place is the interactive universe that is inside this game.
Indeed, Death Stranding is - at its core - a game; and a peculiar one at that. As Sam Porter, porter, you move packages from A to B using your legs, your tenacious will, and - of course - your (and the player's) time. Package deliveries in Death Stranding are a real-time affair: if you have to deliver, say, medicines from a city to a remote mountain outpost 20 miles away, you will - indeed have to walk for 20 miles.
And walk you will, trudging up and down mountains, hills, canyons, and marshes; avoiding treacherous slopes, freezing icy rivers, steep cliffs, dangerous ghosts (the previously mentioned BTs), as well as crazed post-apocaliptic cultists whose only remaining goal in life is stealing your precious cargo.
What makes this all tolerable is the perfect alignment of Death Stranding's core values with humanity's primary drives. You'll spend the first hours in Death Stranding's universe in an absolutely miserable state: wet from the constant rain, busting your knees on rocky hillsides, making it work with an extremely limited set of tools: that's exactly how the first Homo Erectus must have felt thousands of years ago.
There's something very primal about the way Death Stranding keeps Sam (and you, the player) walking, on and on. I personally feel it has to do with what carries us all through hardship: we do it for others and we do it because we can. Sam is a very reluctant protagonist that - at the start of the game - actively avoids contact with other people. Delivering things for him is a job, nothing more. But as the story goes on - and the gameplay branches out - delivering goes from being a chore, to being an art and a way for him to connect with others and develop himself into a social animal.
The 'others' in Death Stranding are of two types. The first type are, simply, the other (real) players in the real world. The game is, at its core, an asynchronous multiplayer experience, in which you share not the experience itself, but the gaming world. You do so by building useful things - such as shelters, bridges, vehicles or helpful directions. Other (real) players will find those in their game, and reward you with 'likes' - a currency that is (in the game as in the real world) intrinsically useless.
But by 'wisdom of the crowd', by liking structures, signposts and useful tips, you will surface them more and more often in the gaming world. Helping others by building useful things, or thanking them by 'liking' out how useful their things were, helps in turn all other players after you. It's an incredibly strong and rewarding social component to a game that's otherwise essentially about being alone in a desolate wasteland. And it works perfectly - by providing you with a final boost from a helpful stranger just as you thought you couldn't walk a single step further.
Last man stranding
The other 'others' in Death Stranding are the incredibly imaginative and wonderfully realized supporting characters. The plot is brought to life by some absolutely outstanding actors, delivering marquee performances in a digital medium - but the real greatness come from the characters' motivations and beliefs, which constantly evolve and intertwine throughout the twenty-or-so hours of narrative content in Death Stranding.
Technology has finally caught up with Kojima's vision of an interactive movie; and big names such as Lea Seydoux of 'Blue is the Warmest Colour' or Mads Mikkelsen of 'the Hunt' prove it by bringing their A-game to the performance capture stage.
Lea Seydoux plays 'Fragile' - the owner of a post-apocalyptic delivery company whose beautiful face contrast with a disfigured body. She's a multi-faceted, strong character - and to spoil her backstory or the role she plays in Sam's adventure would be absolutely criminal. Mikkelsen, on the other hand, stars in the role of Clifford Unger - a dead military commander whose soul is stuck on one of the many Beaches - Death Stranding's version of hell. Unger is probably the best written character of the bunch, and plays an incredibly important role throughout the campaign - and a pivotal one in most of Death Stranding's narrative twists and turns.
Other outstanding characters include Guillermo Del Toro's 'Deadman' - a tragically sweet, sensitive scientist with a few surprises up his sleeve; Nicolas Winding Refn's 'Heartman' - a brilliant researcher whose heart stops every 21 minutes for a short while - a time he uses to look for his wife and daughter in the afterlife; and of course President Strand (Lindsay Wagner) and Director McClane (an incredible Tommy Earl Jones), who both carry the story through some very significant stretches.
Carrying a child
The final ingredient in this incredible cocktail of primal gameplay and character-driven narrative, however, is Sam's masterful interaction with a fully digital character - BB.
Early in the game, Norman Reedus' character is tasked with 'decommissioning' a BB. BBs are, well, artificial babies in a pod, carried by porters to allow them to sense threats from the afterlife. This BB brings yet another very strong gameplay mechanic to the table: wandering into a ghost-infested area will have Sam hook BB up to his scanner, which props like a radar dish pointing to the nearest threat.
But BB is, after all, just a child: staying too long in a ghost-infested area, tripping and tumbling down a cliff, or accidentally submerging BB in one of the game's many rivers will trigger a stress response. To stop it your BB from crying desperately, and ultimately locking up altogether, you'll have to drop everything you're doing in the game, unhook BB from the scanner - leaving you vulnerable to any nearby threat- and gently sway your gaming controller left and right until BB is peaceful again. Absolutely brilliant.
As the game goes on, both Sam and you - the player - grow more and more attached to BB, even going as far as to give him a proper name later in the later hours. BB has an incredibly important role in both narrative and gameplay, and is brought to life as one of the best fully digital characters in recent memory.
There and back again
So this is Death Stranding - a game that requires 35 hours of your undivided attention for its storyline be even remotely understandable - and significant brainpower investment to really unravel what's going on throughout its 15 acts. A game where no character is really 'good' or 'bad', and mostly everyone has first, second, and third motives - that won't be clear until the very end. A game that commands you to trudge through hundreds of kilometers of rugged terrain to deliver digital packages to digital characters, where you are not the hero, but the most powerless character, where you can't shoot anyone, there's no game over screen, and you can't even win.
In today's entertainment landscape, attention is a scarce good. Stories are finely-tuned with test screenings and design committees, made to be understandable even if you start glancing at your phone halfway through, and with characters and plots digestible enough to appeal to the largest possible audience and carry the highest possible return of investment.
That's why game-changing entertainment products are an incredibly rare breed. They require strong, experienced creators with an even stronger vision; enough trust for corporate players to finance multiple years of production; cooperation between cultures, disciplines, and time zones. They require years of designing, and decades of gestation. And when they come out, they speak to audiences in a completely different languages from what they're used to; and they can't be sold by sale pitches, or blurbs, or awards, or reviews on the Damn Blog.
Death Stranding is one of these products. It isn't a paradigm shift just because of its multi-layered characters, its incredibly gripping story, its fantastic core loop and stunning production values. It is such because of an incredibly strong team that took a huge amount of risk creating a product that's so far out of the left field it's basically impossible to explain in a single, normal-size review.
Those risks have paid off. Death Stranding is a masterpiece. Now go and play it.