“Death Stranding” is the oddest AAA game I’ve played this year and I mean that as a compliment. Imagine the television show “Lost,” with its time-hopping story line about characters stuck on a mystical beach, crossed with the go-out-and make-things approach of “Minecraft” and you’ll get a sense of Kojima Productions’ peculiar title.
Sam (portrayed by Norman Reedus) is a man who works for a company delivering packages to the inhabitants of what used to be the United States. In the aftermath of a cataclysmic event, the Death Stranding, the country passed from a nation to an isolated scattering of cities, outposts, bandit territories and independently maintained properties. Deterring travel between these areas are BTs or beached things — violent, ghostly apparitions caught between the worlds of the living and the dead.
BTs are invisible to ordinary human eyes, but people afflicted with an advanced case of DOOMs Syndrome can see them. (Of course, “DOOMs” calls to mind the famous series of first-person shooters; Kojima’s allusions and fourth-wall-breaking winks are a definite part of “Death Stranding’s” charm.) Sam has DOOMs. He can sense BTs but not see them. After a particularly harrowing run-in with the spectral entities leaves Sam the lone survivor, he comes into possession of what looks like a fetus in a wearable container. This BB, or Bridge Baby, is a biological radar that allows Sam to gauge the direction and distance of BTs in his vicinity.
Sam, who was raised by the former president of the United States, would prefer to be left alone. He’s fine living without a country. For him, America was a troubled incarnation, a place with an aptitude for violence. Yet, despite his gruff exterior, he’s a bit of a pushover. He is convinced by the President’s daughter, Amelie (Emily O’ Brien), to try to unify the settlements by linking them to the Chiral Network, a souped-up version of the Internet. To do this Sam must travel from the East to the West Coast to bring computer terminals into the Network’s fold using a tool created for that purpose by twin physicists. (I could spend a paragraph on Mama and her sister and their moving story line, but in the interest of space, I will note that Margaret Qualley, who plays the twins, is terrific and I predict everyone will love Mama.)
There are loads (!) of details I’ve omitted from the foregoing synopsis because wrestling with ambiguity and grasping at narrative strands is a pillar of the experience.
As important as it is to get people onto the network, lots and lots of packages — from medical supplies to pizza — need to be delivered. Figuring out how to make the most of Sam’s expeditions is essential. The more cargo Sam delivers, the more perks he’ll acquire in the form of tools and other resources to make his hauls easier. Thoughts of reward must be counterbalanced against the hazards of over encumbrance; the more Sam is weighed down, the harder it is to maintain his balance along slopes and inclines. Learning how to shift Sam’s weight around as he schleps about on foot (by pressing the right or left trigger on the controller to make him lean in one direction or another) is key, since a fall can damage his cargo and cut into profits.
Sam can carry a number of tools, such as climbing ropes and ladders, to make his expeditions easier. Eventually, he’ll acquire the means to build zip lines, bridges, private residences, etc.
A standout feature of “Death Stranding” is its take on cooperative gaming. By bringing new areas into the Network, online players gain access to other players’ structures and cargo. Dropped cargo can be found out in the world as well as at hubs or “knots” of the Chiral Network. At knots, Sam can stash his supplies in a private locker or donate or retrieve supplies from a locker shared with other online players. Delivering other players’ cargo is a quick way to level up Sam. A no-package-left-behind mentality is encouraged.
The first dozen or so hours spent with “Death Stranding” will likely try the patience of a chunk of its audience. There are many gameplay systems to learn and it can be aggravating delivering packages back and forth across arduous terrain, sneaking past BTs only to have your attention drift and slip on a rock. The first time I gained access to a poor-handling motorcycle I was elated. It was like water in a desert. And the first time I saw a paved road I wanted to hug the players that had made it.
It is a game of delayed rewards. Only when the credits roll do its narrative elements snap into place with a magician’s flourish. It took me fifty-six hours to complete the fourteen episodes that make up its core campaign. And it wasn’t until I hit Episode 5, “Mama,” that the game really clicked for me. Certainly, I found carrying packages to be a tedious activity at points, but what lingers in my mind are sublime moments like when I dashed through a valley swarming with bandits with a swaying tower of cargo on Sam’s back, or the time I rushed into a private residence that some blessed player built in an area overrun with BTs. I will remember the game’s characters (Heartman, Deadman, Fragile, I salute you) and the snowballing effect of its story, which I consumed with increasing enthusiasm.
So yes, the grind is worth it.
Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer. His work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the New Yorker and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.