Tag Archives: Death Stranding

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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What Day Is It?

I kid. I’m mostly sure it’s Saturday.

Mostly.

Kinda wild that another week has already gone by. Couldn’t tell you what I’ve been doing, just because it’s the thing where days tend to blur together, kinda like how summer days used to back when you were a teenager only with less time spent going outside and more existential dread. Fun times.

I’ve been doing stuff, to be sure. Reading, cooking, supposedly writing; stuff like that. Been playing video games too, and not just playing Star Wars Battlefront II while listening to podcasts, either (though certainly a lot of that).

I’m a huge fan of game maker Hideo Kojima. His Metal Gear Solids are truly singular in how wildly bonkers they are and with how committed they are to their bits. They’re games about nanomachine-enhanced soldiers, using ketchup as fake blood, and the ramifications of mutually assured nuclear destruction. The second game is a serious exploration of meme theory and the permeation of culture into a person’s psyche and their need to act it out wrapped up in a story involving clones, a roller-skating bomb man, and giant mechs. Trust me when I say these games are ridiculous and thoughtful at the same time, sometimes spinning between the two ends in a matter of minutes.

Death Standing is his latest game, one I’ve been eagerly waiting for since it was announced. The game’s borderline nonsensical, but it’s so committed to its nonsense that it somehow makes sense. I’ve talked about it before on this blog, about running deliveries in an isolated, disparate, post-apocalyptic America (and how that’s oddly prescient given where we are now).

I’m over seventy hours into the game, which is testament to how much time I’ve on my hands these days, but also pretty impressive since it’s a game I’ve only been playing with my girlfriend so it’s on her, too. Somehow, this plot involving stillborn fetuses being able to bridge the gap between life and death has just gotten weirder as it’s gone on, but it’s a game so sure of itself you can’t help but to get sucked into its melodrama and want to come along for the ride. It helps that the game’s central themes are so clearly on its sleeve; Death Stranding isn’t a game about death and life so much as it is one about the connections between people and a meditation on ways that people stay connected — like the internet. And then there’s Mads Mikkelsen playing, well, it’s almost a spoiler to say who he is, but he just adds to the madness in a fantastic way.

I’m someone who has trouble sitting still. Binging movies and tv is hard for me, since I have this antsy need to be doing something. So video games are a wonderful diversion for me, as they’re a medium where I feel like I’m taking an active part in stuff. And I’m so glad that there are games like Death Stranding to occupy my time, the sort of art (yes, art) that’s so specific and singular and fills me with joy.

See you in seven days, which should be Saturday again.

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Alone Together

I’m a big fan of escapism. Not the sort where you bury your head in the sand and ignore the world around you; the sort where you pay attention to what’s going on then seek out solace in entertainment. Call it self-care, call it recharging; but I believe that part of being an informed member of society is knowing when to disengage for a bit.

So it’s times like this that I really enjoy a good video game, in this case, Death Stranding. Because what better way to escape the current headlines than by playing a video game in which communities are isolated and it’s up to you, Sam Porter Bridges, to bring necessary supplies to these holdouts and help reconnect them to the greater world. In a world where no one’s going outside for fear of what it portends; you’re the one who can help bring everyone together.

It’s a lonely game too. Sam’s out there in the American wilds by himself. Most of the people he makes deliveries too he talks to via hologram, even though they’re sharing the same space they aren’t really there. The only people Sam actually comes into contact are the hostile MULEs, who  you have to fight, and the enigmatic Fragile, with whom Sam isn’t willing to get too close to. You’re alone out there.

Except, you’re not.

Death Stranding is actually a multiplayer game. You don’t interact with other people directly as in other games; you don’t pass someone else running deliveries out there. The multiplayer aspect in Death Stranding is very passive, and also very wonderful and tied into the way the game works.

Transporting cargo is difficult. The terrain is unforgiving, with rivers and cliffs impeding progress at every turn. There are ways to get around this; a well-placed ladder can help you ford a river, a climbing anchor makes it safer to descend from a cliff’s edge. You can carry a PCC with you that can be used to build structures, like generators to recharge vehicles’ batteries, bridges to get those vehicles over rivers, or shelters to wait out the dangerous Timefall and repair damaged cargo.

What’s cool is that these structures aren’t limited to your own game state. Ladders you place and bridges you build are shared among other players, meaning that CoffeeMan69’s ladder could make your trip that much easier. You can also upgrade and repair others’ structures, so if ol’ Coffee’s bridge is falling apart you can contribute materials to repair it. Roads that scatter the terrain require a lot of materials to be built, and constructing an entire network usually means a few people coming together to get it done.

It’s such a terrifically subtle form of multiplayer that has you really appreciating the other people playing the game. I’ll never see CapnCasper in the game, but I’ll be eternally grateful for the bike they left behind that made my delivery that much easier. Though there’s a small gameplay benefit to helping others out, it’s mostly to better the community as a whole. That bridge you build won’t just help you, but any other player who comes across it. You should help build that road ‘cuz it will make everyone’s life that much easier.

Death Stranding is a game that’s, in part, about being stranded from society, about being alone but still doing what you can. You, the player, though, aren’t alone. You’re part of a community of other players all working towards the same goal. It’s a reminder that even if you’re stranded alone out there, you’re not really alone when you’re at it alongside someone else.

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Walking Game

I’ve finally started playing Death Stranding and it is delightful and weird and everything I want it to be. Basically, you play as a Porter, bringing things from A to B, by walking and sometimes balancing your load. It takes place in a post-apocalyptic America after the Death Stranding put a hold to civilization and isolated everyone. It’s up to Sam (you) to reconnect the United Cities of America by visiting various outposts and connecting each Strand and Knot together (get it?). There’s also the mysterious Timefall, a rain that speeds up time on all it touches, a consistent danger in the world that’s heralded by an inverted rainbow. Also, BTs, which are, um, ghosts(?) that follow you by your breathing. And a fetus strapped to his chest that helps you sense those BTs but also has memories of its own. And if a BT grabs hold of a living person they can create a massive explosion that obliterates everything around it. But not Sam, since he’s a repatriate and able to come back to life.

Like I said, the game’s fricking weird.

And oh how I love it.

I’m only a few hours in, but I know I’m in for a ride. In part because director/writer/producer/auteur Hideo Kojima proved in the Metal Gear Solid games that he is a man with a vision. That vision may be totally bonkers and nuts, but he knows what he’s doing and you’re just along for the ride. I’ve been looking forward to Death Standing for years, so my personal hype makes sense, but I’m just so darn delighted by how completely devoted to its weird idiosyncrasies it is.

Perhaps it helps, then, that gameplay is so basic. You’re walking. Amidst all these complex themes (seriously, I found myself looking up chirality and knot theory on Wikipedia during my commute because of this game), the core mechanic is just going from A to B, traversing ridges and fording rivers and using a ladder to get a little higher. You’ve gotta load your gear just right so you don’t topple over, and toppling over is bad because you don’t want to damage whatever it is you’re transporting.

It’s simple.

But I know it’s gonna get more complex. Not just because I’ve seen trailers for the game that involve doing more than I’m doing now, but because that’s how video games work. You start off simple, with the basic mechanics of the game (in Death Stranding, it’s walking and balancing; in Super Mario Bros., that’s jumping and squashing goombas; in Breath of the Wild, it’s walking around and hitting things with sticks) and as the game goes on things get more complex (Wild gives you a hang glider, Mario has you swimming sometimes, Death Stranding, well, I’m not there yet).

A neat part of a well-made game is how the game gets more complex as it goes. It takes time, sure, but by the endgame, you’re managing a variety of systems and mechanics that would have been overwhelming at the get-go. Metal Gear Solid V starts you off with only a couple guns and a horse. Over time you’re able to deploy decoys, call in helicopters, have a sniper buddy, drive a tank, and play music on a Walkman. It’d be a lot to drop on you at once, so instead, the game paces it out, introduces you to things as they happen. The MegaMan games are like this too; with the platforming starting off simple and later stages throwing more curveballs at you and mixing things up as you go on, so by the time you reach the final stages you’re acing all that came before.

As of now, Death Stranding is a simple game with a lot of crazy ideas, and I know that simplicity is foundation for more interesting stuff later on. In the meantime, it’s a really weird game about walking and I am so here for it.

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Twenty-One Minutes

I’ve made no secret my anticipation for Death Stranding, the latest project from Hideo Kojima, the gaming industry’s undisputed resident auteur-genius-lunatic. This is the guy who brought us all the lunacy of the Metal Gear Solid series that somehow managed to merge questions of linguistic existentialism, mutually assured (nuclear) destruction, and giant robots into a cohesive narrative about the role of a soldier. I wanna see what this guy does.


The latest trailer focuses on the character Heartman, based on the likeness of Nicolas Winding Refn. Which, before we get any further, sidebar:


Refn is a writer-director, perhaps best known for the excellent movie Drive and more recently Too Old To Die Young. He’s not the sort of person you expect to provide the likeness for a video game character, but here we are.

Anyway.

Heartman. His whole deal is that every twenty-one minutes his heart stops and he dies, only to be resuscitated by an AED three minutes later. During those three minutes, he searches for his family on the “other side,” before coming back to life and resuming whatever it is he’s doing. Since most of life — aside from sleeping — can, as he puts it, fit into that twenty-one-minute window, things do go on.


Alright, let’s take a second and acknowledge how freaking silly this is. Who on earth is going to commit to a bit as ridiculous as a character who chronically dies? Someone walking around with an AED strapped to his chest and keeps coming back to life?


With that out of the way, let’s now acknowledge how ridiculously brilliant this is. Kojima is a man known for taking big ideas and running with them far past anyone with a modicum of self-awareness would think to. The latter half of Metal Gear Solid V is essentially a treatise on the connection between language and cultural identity as weaved into a narrative through a deadly virus that’s passed on through speech. Somehow, it works, and the notion of a lingua franca has never seemed quite so ominous.


In light of that, I really can’t wait to see what Kojima does with Heartman. Kojima is not a man to approach an idea like this half-heartedly or with his tongue in cheek. There’s no winking at the audience, no sheepish acknowledgment that the idea is patently ridiculous but, please, just go along with it. Nope. Heartman dies every twenty-one minutes and that’s that.


But because there’s no winking, it means that Death Stranding will be totally free to explore just the toll this has on Heartman. He can’t really accomplish much of significance in the periods he’s alive, so the question becomes if the time he spends dead is what really matters, as that’s when he can look for his family. In light of that, are those twenty-one minutes just him waiting to die? How then does he spend his time?


The trailer features Heartman’s room, a small studio stocked with books and a variety of media. Knowing how short each instance of his life is, though, how does that affect the diversions Heartman seeks out? There is some irony of this being presented in a Hideo Kojima game, a man who made a reputation out of cutscenes longer than Heartman’s lifespan, but perhaps Heartman then serves as a vehicle for Kojima to meditate on the transience of life. Writing a character who experiences life in such a different way forces Kojima to look at things differently. 


Ultimately, that’s all part of the way Kojima approaches stories. Nuclear-wielding mechs and nanomachines are vehicles to really get into the nitty-gritty of thematic questions. Heartman, then, is the home for questions of existentialism, as filtered through an idea somehow simultaneously so ridiculous and brilliant. It’s simply wonderful, and just another reason why I really can’t wait to get to play Death Stranding later this year.

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The Ephemeral and The Sublime

Over the years, Hideo Kojima has, because of his Metal Gear Solid games, become one of my favorite video game designers. He’s also certifiably bonkers, mixing in discussions of American militarism-as-neo-colonialism in a game where you fight giant mechs alongside a mostly naked sniper who can’t speak because of a parasite that uses language to spread (and thus serves as a vehicle for Kojima to discuss how English becoming the global lingua franca is in turn another form of colonialism).

Point is, I’m always stoked to see what he’s making.

A new trailer for Death Stranding, his first post-MGS game, dropped last night. Like the handful of other trailers for the game that have come out, it’s weird and near indecipherable, with little information on what it’s like as a game. And at eight minutes long, it’s a pretty long trailer.

To the point where it’s less a trailer and more of a short film unto itself. It’s very self-contained, missing a lot of the “what comes next”-ness of trailers. While it does evoke a desire to figure out what’s going on, but that’s hardly the point.

There is little narrative in the traditional sense. Sure, we have a protagonist in Sam and a beginning, middle, and end; but it’s not about him doing something. Rather, the trailer presents a tableau of a scene, a moment for you to experience and are the better for having done so. The trailer presents the sublime, something quite beyond our comprehension but beautiful in its terror. It’s less about the catharsis and more about the process of watching Sam and his compatriots attempt to fend off these unseen creatures in a mysterious, physics bending world.

So in that sense it’s a lot like the movie Lady Bird.

Lady Bird is about a girl in her senior year of high school, her relationship with her mother, her relationship with herself, and that messy transition from seventeen to eighteen. It’s a tender story, told with a full heart and helpings of honesty. It’s reliant less on vying for that big, cinematic climax than it is on capturing a very particular moment in time for a very specific person.

And like the trailer for Death Stranding, it captures the ephemeral. Things happen, and then something else does. Lady Bird isn’t trying to say something bigger about the world, it’s just trying to tell its story (as Death Stranding’s trailer weaves its vision of terror). There’s no One Big Moment that defines protagonist Lady Bird’s life. Rather we see snapshots of a very specific person. Because of its honesty and specificity (Lady Bird’s idiosyncrasies are at once wholly unique and beautifully universal), we, as an audience, are allowed to experience a part of a life. One that, having seen, we are more for having done so.

It’s a fairly common anti-structure in indie-darling movies; you can see it done well in Drinking Buddies and Lost in Translation. Boyhood doesn’t know what it’s trying to capture besides “uh, time passes, I guess” and so fails to capture anything. Meanwhile Monsters sets its journey against an alien presence to heighten its exploration of loneliness and presentation of the sublime. Ken Liu’s short story “The Paper Menagerie” captures a difficult relationship. And it’s what Death Stranding’s trailer does so well.

I will campaign for narrative until the sky falls. But stories can be about moments too. The key is to make the audience feel something. As a reader/viewer/player I engage in fiction not because I want to sit idly by as something happens, but because I want to be taken on a journey. I want to feel something, sorrow or joy, something funny or something epic. Lady Bird didn’t need a Big Epic Conclusion to make me feel like a teenage girl. And Death Stranding doesn’t need flashy gameplay to present the sublime in a fracking video game trailer.

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