Monthly Archives: October 2020

Stranded Solace

I find Death Stranding’s postgame to be wonderfully meditative. I realize that the tranquility I suggest sounds quite incongruous with the game, one that I’ve said before manages to capture the terrible wonder of the sublime. But when you’ve finished the main story, uncovered the central mystery, and become quite adept at avoiding the ghostly BTs, the game is all about taking a hike.

In my continuing effort to get every trophy for the game, I’ve been hunting Memory Chips. They’re little collectibles with data from before the Death Stranding, taking the form of pictures of motorbikes, figurines, music albums, and movie posters (like Dr. Strangelove!). I used guides online to point me in the right direction so I’m not searching in vain, but I don’t look up the exact location so there’s still some exploring to be had.

So I climbed a mountain southeast of the Timefall Farm. I charted my path and slowly made my way up.

At this point, scaling mountainsides has become a somewhat mundane affair. Put a ladder here, climb there, don’t fall down. The America of Death Stranding is one ravaged by time and isolation, the only signs of humanity are the ruins of the old world and survivor’s bunkers, alongside the few Knot Cities and constructions by other players. It’s a very lonely game, but beautiful in its isolation. It’s just you and the wilderness, figuring out how to ford rivers and scale cliffs, avoid terrorists and navigate crags. There’s little more important than getting from A to B. The real goal is the journey you had along the way. 

As I neared the summit — and the purported memory chip — I noticed something artificial at the top of the mountain. Not something built by another player, but something intended to be part of the world. I crested the mountain and found a torii, a Shinto gate.

I crossed the threshold, and a song started up. Now, there are a lot of songs in Death Stranding, they usually play on a cue prompted by setting out on a special delivery or when first reaching some narratively important place. It’s always a beautiful moment; the other sounds of the world fade away and the song’s info is overlaid on the screen. It invites contemplation and slowing down for a minute, taking in it all.

It wasn’t the first time Silent Poets’ “Asylums for The Feeling” played in the game; it’d played before much earlier during my approach to Port Knot City. Yet the song, which like many of those featured in Death Stranding, is a melancholic tune, the sort that so wonderfully encapsulates the mood of the game. From this mountain, just past the gate, I could see the ocean stretching off towards the horizon. Behind me I saw the Farm and other mountains I’d climbed before and, not far past them, the towering incinerator. I could see before me the world I’d been crisscrossing for months. I turned around, and past me was the a world, and an ocean beyond. The totality of it all hit me there, a sensation of being very small, and very accomplished.

There’s little in the game pointing you in that direction, besides the presence of a totally optional Memory Chip. The peak doesn’t stand between two destinations, nor is there any delivery that takes you there. It’s something you essentially find for yourself, another part of the game that’s more about the journey than the destination. Death Stranding is a walking simulator, sure, but it’s a game that makes that walking wonderful. Sometimes you need to be able to slow down and just take in the world.

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Comforts

I started playing Death Stranding again last night. I wanna Platinum it, that is get all the trophies in the game and really finish it. Also, I was watching The Great British Bake Off with the girlfriend, and the game seemed a nice match.

Which, I realize, sounds kinda odd. Bake Off is a super-chill, slightly-competitive show about baking filled with wonderful people and truly encouraging hosts. Death Stranding is a game about a porter making deliveries across an isolated, post-apocalyptic America ravaged by a rain that speeds up time. Also, you’ve got a fetus in a tank that helps you detect ghostly beings from beyond the realm of the living. Were there a scale of the ordinary, Bake Off would sit comfortably with Norman Rockwell paintings, while Death Stranding would be far, far away.

I have never seen Law & Order, but I’m told it’s quite ordinary.

But both share a similar sense of optimism about the world. Bake Off isn’t nearly as cutthroat as other reality tv shows and there’s a delightful sense of camaraderie between the bakers. Though, as a competition, it is ostensibly about finding the best baker, it’s far more about having fun with the bake and displaying creativity and technical excellence. It’s just really nice. Meanwhile, for all of its horroresque elements, Death Stranding is actually a game about reconnecting. Everyone may be stranded from one another, but that doesn’t mean you can’t create strands between each other (seriously, that’s how the game frames it). Over the course of the narrative, you reconnect lovers, siblings, parents and children, and friends to each other. In a broken world, there is hope, and that hope comes in reaching out to each other.

They’re also really great companions in this seventh month of quarantine. Bake Off has a wonderful warmth to it, where people genuinely like each other; Death Stranding finds solace in solitude, where having only the wilderness (and your fetus buddy) for company is enough. That and getting to go outside.

This pandemic has been stressful. I’ve made a decided choice to maintain operating under quarantine rules — not eating in restaurants, not visiting friends, avoiding social groups — because it’s the best way to keep myself and the people I care about safe. It’s tiring, man. I miss going for walks without a mask on, I miss hanging out in bars, I miss being places that aren’t my apartment. Plus the whole, y’know, existential doom of living in a global pandemic. I’m trying to find ways to help myself chill out, an endeavor that’s not always that easy. I find that there’s something quite comforting in playing Death Stranding, particularly now that I’ve beaten the game. I know how to avoid the antagonistic MULEs and the creepy BTs, plus I’ve built enough infrastructure that making deliveries is a matter of driving along roads and zip-lining across mountains. It’s peaceful, almost meditative, and my deliveries are met with thanks by their recipients. Being aided by other players who’ve left vehicles and ladders behind along the way only makes my life easier — and serves as a reminder that, hey, people are pretty good when given the chance.

I think the relief that comes from games like Death Stranding’s postgameand a show like The Great British Bake Off stems from their inherent senses of hope. The world of Death Stranding may be desolate and empty, but there are still people trying to do their best out there — you’re not really alone. This season of Bake Off takes place during a pandemic, something that even the calm of the Tent can’t quite keep the world at bay, but the show’s still a reminder about the best of people. Ultimately, right now (and honestly, in general), that’s what I wanna enjoy. Stories of hope, ones that eschew that atmosphere of grimdark that’s all too prevalent in reality for something a little nicer.

Also, I can’t bake, so Bake Off is really quite a fantasy world for me.

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Feeling Like A Starfighter Pilot

Like any kid obsessed with Star Wars, I daydreamed about hopping in an X-wing and flying around doing cool stuff. Battlefront II, from way back in ’05, scratched some of that itch. The newer Battlefront II did too, although its starfighter mode got precious little attention. I’ve toyed with checking out the X-wing games from the 90s, but never got around to doing so. The Star Wars Squadrons was announced over the summer and I got really excited: here was this game all about piloting space ships and getting in dogfights. It promised an immersive experience, one that involved managing power while darting around debris; a game where an X-wing, Y-wing, and A-wing all handled differently. Anyway. Game came out yesterday, and let me tell you, the game feels so darn good.

Game feel is that secret spice of game design. It’s not always easy to quantify, but it’s absolutely intrinsic to any action-based game. It’s not going to be much fun if the simple act of moving your digital avatar through space is a slog. One reason I stand by Balloon Fight as being a quintessential game is that it’s odd flight mechanic (tapping A bobs you a little in the air, controlling your altitude is a matter of directing your falling) is so well executed that just bopping around the map is a simple pleasure. It feels good to play.

Gamasutra has a really good article about game feel, and what components usually make it up. Super Mario 64 is held up as one of the best feeling games to play. Moving Mario around the world is inherently fun, owing in a large part to how seamlessly the players’ controller inputs translate to action on screen. Jumping doesn’t feel like a gamble every time you hit the button, rather you know how far he’ll jump when you hold down the button a certain amount of time.

Interestingly, the design process for Super Mario 64 involved creating a small ‘garden’ where Shigeru Miyamoto and the team fine-tuned Mario’s controls. They hadn’t made any levels yet, because most important was getting Mario right. And not just the controls either: part of good game feel involves making sure all parts of the game line up. It’s not just that the avatar on the screen moves in relation, but that the noises the game makes as Mario jumps around and the animation of movement all fits together. Going back to Balloon Fight for a moment, the character’s arm-waving and bloop sound matches tapping A perfectly. One reason game feel is so hard to pin down sometimes is because it’s a culmination of every system coming together.

Star Wars Squadrons capitalizes on game feel. It’s entirely in first person, with most of the game information being given to you not through a HUD, but via the instruments in the cockpit. I’m still getting the hang of flying and fighting, which is a delicate ballet involving shifting between to engines, weapons, and shields all while weaving through space trying to get a bead on that enemy fighter ahead of you. Each ship handles differently, a TIE Interceptor isn’t just faster than a standard TIE Fighter, it’s also much more delicate. A Y-wing can soak up more damage than an X-wing, but it’s not as useful in a head-on dogfight. More than anything, though, the game just feels so right. Staring out the octagonal window of a TIE an upping the throttle, hearing the telltale whine around you and then the lasers firing. 

It’s clear that so much work went into making the starfighters feel right, into making sure that they flew the way you expected them. Sure, Star Wars is fiction so it’s not like we’re trying to mimic the handling of an F-15, but trying to match a collective imagination created by a multitude of movies, tv shows, and books. Star Wars Squadrons delivers, and it’s a game I’m slowly getting a hang on even if I keep getting outmaneuvered in online play. Maybe one day I’ll be really good at it, maybe I won’t. But hey, in the meantime, I get to be a starfighter pilot.

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