Developer: Kojima Productions
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment, 505 Games (PC)
Format: PC, PS4, PS5 (coming soon)
Released: November 8th, 2019
Time played: 165 hours, 18 minutes
Copy purchased on day of launch
Death Stranding, much like 2019 ‘Game of the Year’ nominee Disco Elysium, is not quite like any other game out there. Whilst elements of Disco Elysium could perhaps be compared to a small number of isometric RPGs, such as the Shadowrun series, (more specifically the 2013 reboot Shadowrun Returns), Hideo Kojima set out to create an entirely new genre of gaming with Death Stranding. In the lead-up to its release, Kojima frequently marketed it as a “Strand”-type game, all whilst stressing that it was something gamers had never seen before.
Well, it’s been roughly 1 year and 8 months since Death Stranding’s release back in November of 2019, and with “Death Stranding Director’s Cut” now looming over the horizon, I figured now would be an opportune time to take a look back at how the original release’s unique gameplay and longevity lead to such a captivating experience for me personally. Let’s start off by acknowledging that it really was true: Death Stranding wasn’t something that players had ever seen before. The core control scheme may have been very reminiscent of a standard third-person shooter or tactical espionage action game, (not dissimilar to Kojima’s prior work: The Metal Gear Solid series), but Death Stranding hosted a wide variety of unique new systems, mechanics, and gameplay elements that distinctly set it aside from any other genre. For some people during the game’s very divisive launch, this leads to it being a fascinating new experience that was both loved and adored. To many others, however, it was considered sloppily handled, uninteresting, and generally quite dull. Thankfully, for me, it was the former.
In order to establish the premise of Death Stranding in regards to both its story and gameplay departments, I’d like to fleetingly address its core concept in a spoiler-free and simplistic manner for those of you who may not have yet experienced it. You play Sam Porter Bridges, (astoundingly well portrayed by Norman Reedus), a delivery man who must bring the people of America back together again following a quasi-surrealistic apocalyptic event that has wiped out most of the country’s population and brought about a deeper understanding of death and the afterlife.
To accomplish this you must make a vast amount of deliveries to those in need, which requires you to overcome a wide variety of obstacles. Timefall, for example, is a type of rain that ages whatever it touches, which Sam must contend with on a regular basis. MULEs will also stand in your way, who are a faction of former delivery men, driven insane by a new mental health condition known as porter syndrome. BTs also seek to hinder your journey; A type of ghost that only babies and people with a high enough level of “DOOMs”, (a genetic condition that also functions as an allergy), can see. It may sound insane, Hell: It IS insane, but the core gameplay loop of picking up a delivery, traversing the wasteland in order to deliver it, and building structures that will aid you and other players in follow-up deliveries, is extremely compelling.
My copy of Death Stranding arrived on the day of its PS4 launch and as a big fan of Hideo Kojima’s previous games: I jumped straight in. All in all, I played about 60 hours of the game before the PC version was announced, at which point I actually traded the game in and eagerly awaited the Steam release in order to purchase the game once more and play through it in full… This is something that I had never done before, and that should make one thing absolutely clear: When I made that decision, I was already head over heels in love with Death Stranding and knew full well that I was completely willing to experience those same 60 hours all over again, plus more. But why exactly was that? Past the story, (which I had yet to complete at the time), what was it that caused me to be so enamored with this experience, that so many others considered to be lackluster? Why was I content with sinking so much more time and money into the game before reaching the conclusion of its tale? Well, I can honestly say that there were many factors to my decision.
Let’s begin by clarifying that the game is filled to the brim with side content, albeit side content that is repetitive in nature. At any of the thirty-nine delivery terminals you find throughout the world, you are given two distinct options. ‘Orders for Sam’ are the game’s main missions which are usually accompanied by cutscenes, dialogue, immersive music, and numerous lore-filled text logs. ‘Standard Orders’ on the other hand are a bevy of optional side deliveries wherein you simply traverse the world from one place to another without music, with little to no story, barely any dialogue, and no cutscene accompaniment either.
For me personally, the Standard Orders were wonderful to experience no matter how long they took or how mundane the concept may have seemed from the outside looking in. When I started doing all of them, I unambiguously set out to do so purely for the sake of 100% completing the game, yet I quickly found myself deeply enjoying the formulaic gameplay loop, ultimately finding it to be rather therapeutic. I believe this was thanks to its appeasing aspects of my autism, or more specifically because it assuaged my sensory overload inherent traits. Regardless, each step of any given Standard Order appealed to me completely. Even now, so long after finishing the game, I sometimes close my eyes and envision myself guiding Sam over rocky terrain, packages in tow, in order to relax.
Whenever I picked up a Standard Order in Death Stranding, I would start thinking as logically as I could to deduce the best possible way to transport the item to its destination. If I went on foot I’d need to work out how the cargo would best stack on Sam’s backpack, by carefully arranging it so that he wouldn’t be weighted too much at either side. If it was a long journey and the cargo was too heavy, I sometimes needed to take a vehicle to my destination and contemplate how to navigate the upcoming terrain. I would often take on multiple Standard Orders at once by plotting a clever route that would reach multiple delivery terminals in a single journey.
Yet I’d always have to second-guess myself; Would this put me at risk of getting caught in the Timefall, or even trapped in the midst of BT territory as time progressed and the weather dynamically shifted? Would I need to bring ladders and climbing anchors to traverse particularly difficult terrain on my path? Or maybe I’d need to arm myself with non-lethal weapons in an attempt to retrieve additional cargo from MULE camps along the way? The planning phase was just so consistent and rational in ways that felt familiar to me. These were intensely satisfying goals to accomplish, of course, but this familiarity bred comfort and tranquillity for me, in a way that few games had done before.
Then, after all the planning, the delivery itself would begin. More often than not these are fairly straightforward once you’ve progressed up to a certain point in the story. As you travel: You find yourself learning the lay of the land either by consulting the intuitive in-game map or triangulating where you are between the different delivery terminals. They’re oft uneventful, done mostly in silence, but for me, that really wasn’t a bad thing. The ambient noise and increasingly familiar yet hauntingly beautiful surroundings were, bizarrely, like a breath of fresh air. It gave me as a player a plentiful amount of time to think, both about the game itself and my day-to-day life. Occasionally I’d find myself focusing as hard as I could to sprint through a Mule camp or sneak through a field of BTs, but even then the formulaic nature of the encounters still proved to be comforting to me, lightening my burdens of stress from outside of the game and giving my brain a chance to do what it does best: Exercise its logicality.
Throughout the months I spent with Death Stranding, I felt my mental health improve somewhat. I’m sure there were plenty of external factors to this, but I can say without a shadow of a doubt that the meditative state that the game gave me played a huge role in this. The autistic spectrum is what it says on the box: A spectrum. It features a gargantuan amount of identifying characteristics for each individual person, meaning that no two people with autism are the same, just like any two individuals taken from the broader population and hence the term: Neurodiversity. But many of us do share some key traits. For example, just like allistic (non-autistic, neurotypical) people, we are capable of self-analysis; aka introspection. The vast majority of us are able to think rationally regarding ourselves, the world around us, and all of our actions. Plus we understand what will make us happy, and at the opposite end: What triggers we’ll need to worry about in order to avoid additional stress, anxiety, breakdowns, and other intense emotional reactions.
In my case, I have a cocktail of neurological issues and differences, including but not limited to my autism and my severe social anxiety disorder, both of which go hand in hand by triggering additional traits of one another. I often need long swathes of time to process emotional issues and reduce the impact that any particularly stressful or anxious events may have had on me. It can be triggered for me personally by an inability to fix any issues that may arise, or by unintentionally trying to mask my autism by pretending to act neurotypically. Sometimes it’s triggered by the feeling I’m talking too fast, or too slow, or that I’m being boring, or that I can’t find the words to get a point across in a way that other people will understand. Sometimes it can be caused by an unexpected schedule change given that I live my life, day by day, according to thoroughly detailed ‘to-do’ lists. And sometimes I just break down and feel terrible for reasons I don’t necessarily understand.
But when events like this occur, I have a plentiful amount of coping mechanisms in place. Fiddling with stimming devices has helped me a lot since I first learned of them a couple of years ago. Spending time alone, even from those I love, with the lights out and something specific to focus my attention on has always helped too. Even things considered quite unusual by most such as chewing on my sleeves, studying somewhat complex mechanics in games, or fixating on an individual passion for a large and obsessive period of time have also been known to soothe me and help me cope during (or after) particularly strenuous situations.
The point I’m trying to make, however, is that Death Stranding’s Standard Orders managed to serve this same purpose for me… Getting to study these in-depth mechanics and maps. Getting to fixate on delivering every single order despite the large amount of dedication and time it would take. Settling into the formulaic patterns and structures of each journey in a dark, isolated room with some noise-canceling headphones. All of it was every bit as effective throughout the months I was playing it as stimming was, and continues to be. For that reason alone, Death Stranding meant the world to me, with its longevity helping me in ways I never could have imagined. There are a number of other examples of gameplay experiences that resonated with me in this way, which I’d also like to talk about.
Every once in a while, for example, I’d encounter a new and unexpected issue. About halfway through the game, I was doing a long-distance Standard Order from a city at the south end of the map to a city all the way at the top of the map. The cargo in question was about two dozen heavy containers of metal and ceramic materials which I was transporting via truck when, (potentially due to me making the truck too weighted on one side, or perhaps due to me simply making a mistake), I crashed said truck, tumbling off of a bridge and into a deep crevice within a desertous and rocky area, with the truck exploding shortly afterward. My initial reaction was to panic, naturally, but then I looked carefully and saw that the cargo hadn’t been damaged too much as, miraculously: Whilst the containers had been severely wrecked, the contents were still in good condition. This felt good to me, as this was a problem that I knew I could fix.
Resolving the issue all circled around to working out the most logical way of getting the cargo out of the fissure. I found my way back up to the bridge, placed a climbing anchor for rappelling back down to the cargo, then collected three containers. Afterward, I climbed back to the top of the rope, dropped them off, and repeated the process over and over until all of the cargo had been safely returned to the surface. I went on to place the cargo inside of a new truck, which I had just built at a nearby settlement. From start to finish, fixing the issue I had caused took roughly half an hour, but overcoming it was one of the most satisfying experiences I’ve had in my entire gaming history. Resolving this mistake always felt possible thanks to the depth of the game’s mechanics, and accomplishing such a feat only served to calm me further.
Finally, to talk more specifically about being victorious in Death Stranding; When you actually turn in a Standard Order you are met with praise and admiration from the cargo’s recipient. These are usually just a few lines of dialogue, (often repeated throughout the deliveries), expressing how much Sam has helped them and their settlement by delivering the requested items. The comments tend to be focused on logistics such as the cargo’s quality or volume, but it always felt fulfilling to me no matter how many times I’d heard it before. Afterward, you’re taken to a screen of statistics where I believe more of the game’s longevity may have been hiding, as you get to see how long you took to deliver the cargo, what path you took on the journey, and how heavy and damaged each delivered item was by the endpoint. This ultimately leads to the reception of a letter-grade rank for the Standard Order you’ve been doing, alongside being given ‘likes’ by the recipient which somewhat function like experience points: Levelling up five different points on a star graph that increase Sam’s stats every time he gets ten level-ups in a single category.
Upgrading these stats isn’t necessarily the aspect that I believe held more of the game’s lastingness, though getting them all to their maximum values certainly was appealing to the completionist in me. I believe it was the letter-grade rank received for each Standard Order that gave me even more reasons to keep playing. The instant gratification of a job well done increased the effectiveness of the game’s tranquil nature for me, whilst the disappointment of handling a delivery poorly always made me strive to continue with the experience and improve.
When all is said and done, Death Stranding has exactly 500 unique Standard Orders to be completed. Every one of them has an extra ‘Premium Delivery’ challenge to be undertaken for bonus likes, wherein a time-limit, extra cargo, and other difficulty-raising addenda are added to the Order you’re attempting. Some of these deliveries can take up to an hour, whilst some simply take the better part of five minutes. Yet, when all 500 orders have an ‘S-Rank’ for you to attain alongside the Premium Deliveries also having their own rankings, you end up with a conceptually overwhelming amount of content to lengthen your experience. It certainly helped me in adding to the time in which I could use the game as an alternate form of unwinding.
Furthermore, the likes you receive aren’t just for show. When you build something, (be it a bridge, a generator, a zipline, a road, etc.), it shows up to help other players in their world accompanied by your star graph and how many likes this particular construction of yours has received. Other players can like your creations when they see them just as you can like theirs, which leads to you getting a constant sensation of appreciation, with the knowledge that you’re participating in a team effort without ever having to deal with direct human contact. I expected this would have become a thing of the past as time progressed and people finished playing the game, but having recently loaded back in just for the purpose of exploration, newly built structures can still be found all throughout the world. This mechanic builds a distinct sense of community which certainly aided in both the enjoyment factor and my reasons for continuing to deliver. Helping other people feels good and receiving help from them feels good too, as simple as that.
In the end, that is why I felt, (and continue to feel), that Death Stranding has such longevity. Although it isn’t for everyone by any stretch of the imagination, the core gameplay of Standard Orders is entertaining in a way that helped provide scenarios in which I had complete control and focus. It felt therapeutic, gave me time to think and process, yet still surprised me with new experiences on a regular basis that always had a solution and thus never hindered my emotional state. It had a surplus amount of content that felt rewarding, whilst still challenging the player to improve upon each and every delivery grade, offering even harder versions of any tasks at hand. It even had, (and has), that lightly touched upon sense of community which still has a lot of obliging players making the world feel connected in a pleasant way without sacrificing anybody’s individual experiences. I really can’t stress enough: I loved Death Stranding so, so much. If you can relate to or understand the appeal of any of my feelings towards the game, then I urge you to give it a go when the Director’s Cut releases on September 24th, 2021. I’m certain you won’t regret it.