With Death Stranding: The Director’s Cut finally available on PC and Kojima Productions now working on the sequel, we’re saying goodbye to Death Stranding three years after its initial release date. I’ve just finished my second playthrough of this extraordinary game, this time playing the Director’s Cut. I initially thought Death Stranding would be a confusing and boring game, so was put off buying it when it first came out like many others, yet it has turned out to be one of my favorite video games of all time and possibly one of the most underappreciated video games ever released. Those who were put off by the gameplay have potentially missed out on one of the greatest video game storylines ever written, and as a picky person when it comes to choosing video games to play, I don’t say this lightly.
Kojima Productions’ Death Stranding was first announced at Sony’s conference during E3 2016, a year after Hideo Kojima’s dramatic split with Konami. We were gradually served several beautiful, yet completely confusing teaser trailers and descriptions of a storyline that were so out of the box that it was almost cryptic and impossible to understand (we even published two articles at the time to summarize the gameplay and storyline the best we could for those interested in playing it), the public’s interest in Death Stranding was being driven solely by the intrigue and memes generated from its wacky marketing material. But there was one other thing behind the rallying support on the project: the messy divorce between Kojima Productions and Konami.
Hideo Kojima is a creative legend in the video game industry, most known for being the father of the Metal Gear series which was also one of the titles that kickstarted the stealth genre of video games. For years, Kojima had expressed an interest in developing a Silent Hill game and in 2014, a mysterious demo called P.T. made its way onto the PlayStation Store. P.T. was extraordinary and unlike anything else seen in the horror genre. Players would traverse an endlessly looping hallway that would become more twisted and disturbing each time. It was filled with cryptic puzzles that had to be solved to discover the true ending, which revealed P.T. to be a demo for a new Silent Hill project called Silent Hills, developed by Kojima in collaboration with horror film legend, Guillermo Del Toro and starring Norman Reedus.
Konami had finally given Kojima his wish, until Silent Hills was unexpectedly pulled from production. P.T. is still considered today as one of the best horror games ever made despite being only a demo. It was so well received by both the general audience and critics alike that it was a key influence on many great horror games that came after including Layers of Fear and Resident Evil 7: Biohazard. The canceled Silent Hills project will forever haunt me as one of the greatest games that never was, so why did it happen?
The answer is simple; Konami didn’t want to make big budget video games anymore, seeing more money in the mobile gaming industry and pachinko machines. It was around this time that Konami also announced they were no longer focusing on individual studios such as Kojima Productions and internal sources hinted that tensions had risen between Konami and Kojima Productions, most likely due to the cancellation of the Silent Hills project. Konami didn’t just cancel Silent Hills; they attempted to wipe it from existence. They first removed it from the PlayStation store, which replicated an event similar to Flappy Bird. People were selling PlayStation 4s with P.T. installed on them on Ebay for extortionate prices until Ebay began pulling them down. Similarly, any effort made to re-create P.T. has been halted by Konami. And when the PlayStation 5 was released, Konami even blocked people from trying to download P.T. onto their new consoles from their PlayStation 4 library. Guillermo Del Toro referred to this as the ‘scorched earth approach’ in an interview with IGN and was so baffled and distraught by the decision that he told Shacknews that he would never work on another video game again.
Kojima was removed from Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain’s marketing material and even blocked from receiving the award for Best Action-Adventure for Metal Gear Solid V at the Game Awards 2015. A few days later, Kojima left Konami and Kojima Productions was set up as an independent company. In that same month, Kojima announced that he would be partnering with Sony to make a new game, which would later be announced as Death Stranding. Anybody who had played the Metal Gear series was filled with utter intrigue of what Kojima had to offer now that he was no longer shackled down by a parent company. Already known for his weird and wild storylines before going independent, Kojima was now creatively free to do whatever he liked. As a result, we now have a game where you walk around with a bottled fetus strapped to your chest as you post parcels and avoid being killed by giant squids and rain that progressively ages you.
Death Stranding is set in an apocalyptic United States after an extinction event known as the Death Stranding brought Beached Things (BTs) over from the Beach. The Beach is most easily explained as a dimension similar to the afterlife. There are countless Beaches, such as ones for different people and The Beach filled with the recently deceased that Heartman (Nicolas Winding Refn/Darren Jacobs) encountered. Some characters within the story can frequently visit their own Beaches or other peoples’. Heartman systematically visits different Beaches when he suffers a heart attack every twenty-one minutes before his defibrillator brings him back to life. Fragile (Léa Seydoux) has a unique ability to travel between Beaches and uses this to fast travel. Sam (Norman Reedus) frequently ends up on his Beach as he is a repatriate, someone who comes back to life after death by traveling through the Seam, a space between the living world and the Beach. He uses his time on the Beach to communicate with Amelie (Lindsay Wagner/Emily O’Brien), who, like Fragile, can visit different Beaches as she pleases.
BTs are one of the core enemies in the game and you will encounter them repeatedly while travelling. As they come from the Beach, they are linked with that world, and can also derive from corpses that go through necrosis. BTs are highly destructive and make living in the outside world extremely dangerous. They are invisible to those without DOOMs or BBs to sense them and create an explosion known as a “voidout” when they kill living beings. They also bring Timefall with them, a type of rain that rapidly ages anything it touches, including structures. To survive the effects of the Death Stranding, humanity now lives underground in scattered settlements and cities, isolated from each other and wholly reliant on porters, like Sam and Fragile, to receive essential supplies. Death Stranding is remarkable in that, despite being released just days before the first recording of COVID-19 in Wuhan, it somehow managed to embody our experiences of being in lockdown almost to a tee. Humanity is utterly reliant on delivery services to not only survive, but to find some enjoyment in their confined lives. In this world, antidepressants are delivered as an essential supply, along with food and water.
What I loved most about Death Stranding was Kojima’s choice to make the protagonist a blue-collar worker who, at the beginning of the game, is reluctant to support the cause that he’s encouraged to help with. Sam Porter Bridges isn’t a compliant hero unless it involves ridiculous delivery requests. He doesn’t want to save the world and has no interest in reconnecting America again. He’s like the Dragonborn from Skyrim if the Dragonborn told the Blades to shove Alduin up their arse and only ever wanted to do fetch quests. Sam is by no means a one-dimensional character, in fact he’s incredibly complicated and difficult to understand at first. For one, he has more medical conditions than the cast of House M.D. This includes DOOMs, those with this condition have a connection to the Beach, the strength of which varies from person to person.
Some can sense or see BTs and others can travel to and from the Beach. The main antagonist, Higgs (Troy Baker), also has DOOMs and has the unique ability to summon and control BTs. Sam can only sense BTs. And, as mentioned earlier, Sam is also a repatriate who comes back to life after death. These conditions are a tricky way for the game to explain certain essential gameplay functions, such as why Sam can respawn after death and why we can see the BTs for gameplay purposes while most of the characters in the game cannot. To top it all off, Sam also has aphenphosmphobia, a phobia of being touched, which means the life of solitude as a porter suits him well.
As Sam, the player will trough through dangerous BT and hostile human territories and withstand extreme weathers, all to deliver parcels that will improve the quality of life of those living in underground shelters. Some of these NPCs will have ridiculous requests too, such as travel across half the map in 40 minutes to deliver a pizza before it gets cold but do not tip the contents. You’ll fall off a cliff, be shot by terrorists, and dragged through violent river currents. Then you’ll turn up at your destination bloodied and bruised with your BB crying its eyes out because you tripped over one too many times, only to be scolded by your client for arriving two minutes late. Your primary goal is to travel from point A to point B with one key point in mind: do not damage the packages. You’ll often be given extra tasks too, such as arriving in a certain timeframe, or some parcels can only be held in a certain way, can’t be taken on vehicles or zip lines as they are too fragile, or need to be kept in certain temperature conditions. But your primary goal is still to get the parcel to its destination in one piece. The rest can be shrugged off as an ‘oh well’, especially if you’re doing an ‘Amazon delivery driver’ run and don’t really care about your end score as long as the package wasn’t completely torn to shreds, what’s a few scratches here and there anyway?
Kojima has created one of the most unique gameplay experiences in recent years, there is simply nothing out there like it. The gameplay focuses almost entirely on physics and puzzle-solving to get from point A to point B. There are some great action and stealth sequences mixed in too to keep things interesting, but most of the time you’ll be planning routes, building structures along the way, and traversing tricky terrains while trying to keep your precious cargo safe. As mentioned before, the gameplay was what put a lot of players (including myself) off giving Death Stranding a go. And, as you trek your way through the prologue, you’ll probably be thinking that you’ve made a mistake in chancing the purchase. But then you’ll start tearing through each delivery, feeling a little more of a bounce in your step each time you head to your next destination. You’ll plan which orders to pick up based on where you’re already traveling for the story, start contributing materials to build structures and make each journey back and forth easier. Soon enough, you’ll look at the clock and realize it’s time for bed and will tell yourself that once you’ve delivered the next set of parcels, you’ll give the game a rest. But, oh look, the next destination isn’t too far… maybe one more trip. In other words, the one thing that I thought would be the downfall of Death Stranding turned out to be its hooking point, because Death Stranding is like playing with crack. I simply could not put it down.
As you go about your journey, you’ll see echoes of other players, messages they have left behind and equipment and packages they have dropped. They can be called into boss battles to help you out if you’re short on equipment, and you can also request specific equipment to be delivered to your nearest postbox or settlement while out on the road. You’ll share structures with them, postboxes where they can leave unused equipment, and you can even build bridges and roads together by contributing materials. Kojima has called this kind of multiplayer experience a ‘Strand’ game; you’re traveling solo but you’re never alone. It’s very reminiscent of Dark Souls’ multiplayer-style, though without invasions, misleading signs and ‘finger but hole’ messages. It’s a wholesome experience, especially when the journeys of other players make each trip even easier.
Death Stranding does an amazing job of progressing the gameplay as you become more accustomed to it. Everytime you think ‘ah yes, I’m getting the hang of this now’, you’ll either be introduced to a new enemy or obstacle, or you’ll be treated with new equipment which will completely change how you’re traveling across the map. New equipment will quickly become a blessing, not just in making each journey even easier but also keeping your playthrough interesting and making every trip unique. By the end, you’ll be zip lining across the map, coursing over the motorways that you have built with other players and using robots to do certain trips for you.
Bridges is a major company that not only runs delivery services, but is also a part of the UCA, the newly formed governing body of the United States of America. After a failed mission to export a corpse on the verge of necrosis from Central Knot City led to a voidout, Sam wakes up in Capital Knot City which is also Bridges’ HQ. He is asked to deliver morphine to the President of the UCA, Bridget Strand (also played by Lindsay Wagner/Emily O’Brien), who is dying of cancer. But this isn’t a simple task for Sam, who is Bridget’s estranged adopted son and there seems to be a rift between the two. She begs Sam to rejoin Bridges after he left the company following the suicide of his pregnant wife, which led to a voidout and Sam being the only survivor (and the prime suspect). She wants him to help Bridges in their effort to reform America.
Sam is contacted by his sister, Amelie Strand, via hologram, who tells him of their plan to connect America to the Chiral network so that each individual settlement can share information and supplies with each other – helping to reunite humanity once more. Amelie once tried this, but her expedition was interrupted when she was captured by terrorists known as the Homo Demens, led by Higgs, who do not want America to be re-connected again and would rather humanity succumb to its inevitable extinction naturally. Sam is tasked with continuing this mission, traveling across America and connecting the settlements to the UCA while saving Amelie from where she is being held in Edge Knot City in the process, so that she can take on her mother’s role as President of the UCA.
Death Stranding‘s storyline is such a humungous influx of information that it’s very difficult to understand what you’re doing when you first start the game. Not only are you getting to grips with this world and trying to understand the concept of Beaches and Beached Things, but you’re also being slammed with this exposition on Bridges and its efforts with the Chiral Network. Then you’re being told that Sam has DOOMS and is a repatriate, so not only are you trying to build an understanding of the world you’ve just been thrown into, but even the main character and his multitude of conditions is completely baffling.
And then, just as you’re thinking ‘alright, so we’re in the apocalypse and I’ve got to find the President’s daughter, this might not be as complicated as I thought’, you’re given a baby in a bottle which helps you detect BTs. I am, of course, talking about your beloved ‘Bridge Baby’ (BB), a fetus of a ‘stillmother’ (a pregnant person who is on life support) and has a link between life and death, so is kept in a pod to allow its wearer to see BTs. BBs are a tool, though throughout the game’s progression, Sam becomes increasingly attached to his own BB, which he nicknames Lou. It’s not hard to see why he becomes attached so easily, as gameplay will involve keeping Lou happy by soothing it when it’s stressed so that it doesn’t go into shock. The relationship that forms between Sam and Lou is incredibly touching and so well-written. Lou goes from a mindless tool to Sam’s companion after several hours spent journeying together. Sam will start to talk to Lou more frequently during his trips and begins to care very much for Lou’s safety.
But your BB brings its own troubles. Along your journey, not only are you consistently halted in your progress by Higgs, but you’re also being hunted down by the mysterious Clifford Unger (Mad Mikkelsen), a deceased soldier who exists in Beaches following themes of war and he can drag Sam into these Beaches in an attempt to take Lou, who Cliff deems is his own BB. His claim is supported by the flashbacks that you’ll experience each time you reconnect with Lou when you leave private rooms, showing Cliff from Lou’s point of view as he cares for him.
The story of Death Stranding is split into 15 chapters, each representing a different character. I loved this setup as by the end of the game, you care for each character. There would even be characters such as the oddly-named Die-Hardman (Tommie Earl Jenkins), who I spent the majority of the game thinking he was undeveloped and had the weakest writing, only for this to be completely turned around within the last half an hour, utterly changing my perception of him and being completely transfixed by Tommie Earl Jenkins’ highly underrated performance.
On top of this, most of the characters had captivating backstories that helped develop our knowledge of the world. Fragile was once a highly renowned porter for Fragile Express, but she has hit rock bottom as not only was her reputation tarnished due to some connection with Higgs and his terrorist attacks, but she was also soaked in Timefall at one point, rapidly aging her from the neck down and dramatically shortening her life expectancy. Mama (Margaret Qualley) is a scientist who was a victim of a terrorist attack at a hospital that she was in while waiting for a cesarean section. As a result, she ended up being crushed under rubble and her baby was born as a BT, still tethered to her. Heartman was also in a hospital when his wife and child were caught in two simultaneously occurring voidouts in adjacent locations outside of his home, forming a heart-shaped crater. During the explosion, the hospital’s power briefly went out, turning off Heartman’s life support and thus sending him to the Beach, where he spotted his family. Once the emergency power came back on and Heartman was brought back, he began purposely stopping his heart for three minutes every twenty-one minutes, just to travel back to the Beach to find his family again.
Death Stranding truly felt like more than just an enjoyable game, it’s an experience that every player should at least try, or even watch a playthrough of simply for the storyline as it’s that good. Even the second time around, I was utterly absorbed into its world, characters and story. The last few cutscenes where every loose end is tied up and you’re repeatedly slammed with shocking revelations and plot twists is something that I haven’t felt so emotionally involved in since the soul-crunching ending to Bioshock Infinite. It skips the exploration aspects and intricate map design of most open world games, yet still feels completely fulfilling and not like it lacks these aspects. Instead, you’re walking across desolate, beautiful planes, inspired by locations in Iceland. When partnered with Kojima’s on-point indy soundtrack which perfectly matches the empty tones of the game, it’s utterly gorgeous.
Death Stranding has its flaws, it isn’t perfect and it was certainly a risky idea. But for a game made from a studio just one year after it went independent, it’s certainly a bloody good start. And I would call it a masterpiece.