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Death Stranding: A Masterpiece of Narrative Gaming

Review: Death Stranding
The PlayStation 4 game, Death Stranding logo

(Picture: Kojima Productions)

In Death Stranding, Hideo Kojima sets out to create a complex, layered work of art that attempts to dissect the human condition by combining psychoanalytic and Existentialist frameworks to the human experience. While giving the players a deep connection to the human condition, Kojima makes meta commentary on the evolution of gaming while also creating a truly cooperative atmosphere through asynchronous multiplayer. Even though there will be a wide array of interpretations of this truly profound work of art, I am confident that Death Stranding will be a landmark step in the evolution of narrative gaming. Stranding together cinema and gaming, Kojima adds his footprint to the path set by games like God of War, Red Dead Redemption 2, and Horizon Zero Dawn. Death Stranding successfully immerses the players into a world and story so rich, I oftentimes, could not separate the cinematic immersion from the player immersion. I was within both first person and third person perspectives, and Kojima induces this atmosphere by employing a stunning soundtrack, a beautiful setting, and superb acting performances, all of which combine into a brand new form of entertainment.

The player will play as the protagonist Sam Porter Bridges, acted by Norman Reedus, and from here on out referred to as Sam. Reedus’ performance in this game may be one of his best performances, and I do not say that as a pejorative. Once I finished the game, I was surprised to tell my friends that the acting was fantastic. I felt weird saying that about a game. Was it acting? Was it deliberate design? From my experience, I want to say that it was a seasoning of both which immediately told me that this was something unique. Reedus’s portrayal of Sam was a raw performance that, at times, peeled back the condition of the Millennial experience. The world is socially broken, and he is promised a reconstruction of that world; however, Sam has become isolated and cynical through the years and feels no duty to build something that probably cannot be fixed, and if it can be, won’t have the strength to provide meaning for long. He has seen the height of human connectivity, and it resulted in a world set on division and ultimately devastated by ambition. Reedus was a strong choice to play the foundations of this character based on past performances in The Boondock Saints and The Walking Dead; however, Reedus shows a deeper side of his abilities by evolving the character’s arc throughout the game. Alone, Reedus would have been good, but the supporting cast provided the necessary elements to build Sam into a morally courageous character.

It was only a couple of episodes into the game that supporting characters started pulling me in. At first, I thought they would play tertiary prop characters designed to simply move Sam’s plot, and, yes, while they serve that purpose to a degree in order to establish player movement, Mads Mikkelsen (Cliff Unger), Guillermo del Toro/Jesse Corti (Deadman), Troy Baker (Higgs), Nicolas Winding Refn (Heartman), and Lea Seydoux (Fragile) provide performances well-suited for award nominations. Without them, sometimes, truly only at times, the dialogue could be bland or traditionally ‘gamey.’ With these performances, though, their acting drew me further into the world and the desperation of the characters. This was especially true of Mikkelsen and Refn. In my mind, these actors deserve supporting acting nominations. Mikkelsen’s portrayal of Cliff Unger, an emotionally exasperated war veteran navigating the aloof bureaucracy while seeking moral wholeness, will leave the player both broken and hopeful by the end. Refn’s performance was equally as satisfying. While playing a smaller role, Refn makes great use of his time when playing as Heartman. His desire and ambition to reconnect with his lost family adds complexity to Sam’s construction of meaning and duty. During the twenty-minute cutscenes between Sam and Heartman, I felt like I was watching a series on television, and I always desired to see the next episode. As with all great cinematic performances, Kojima intensifies the immersion through a strong soundtrack and beautiful environment.

The elements of sound and visuals were not just individually beautiful creations; combined they fused into a captivating experience. Kojima introduces the world to LOW ROAR, an American/Icelandic musical group who are self-described as “post-rock,” “minimalist,” “ambient,” and “folk-rock.” Among other artists, these songs tell a story fitting both Sam’s adventure and the very world he adventures within. The world, as the player enters into it, is desolate and beautiful. It appears to be an American landscape that is both pre- and post-colonial. The massive map contains beautiful plains and mountain scapes that symbolize the ideal of American geography while ironically taking place in the real and flawed aftermath of Human catastrophe. The combination of “post-rock” selections and a nearly “post-human” world creates a player experience like no other. When I would stream gameplay, my viewers and myself enjoyed trudging through desolate yet beautiful mountain ranges or badlands while listening to choice moments of music. I would stop and survey the scenery for my viewers as they commented on the sublime experience. It is within this element of the game that Kojima made an interesting and successful choice. Just like the welcomed and rare sight of a new prepper settlement, Kojima creates an artificial scarcity of the soundtrack. While I wanted the ability to listen to the tracks on my many deliveries, my mood was deliberately altered by the director’s choice of when to play the music. The director maintained control of the tone of his work and heightened my emotional experience through this creative choice. While cinematic stories must effectively use sound, visuals, and acting to provide a world of verisimilitude, all great narratives, regardless of medium, must provide, well, a great story, and Death Stranding does not disappoint.

(Picture: Kojima Productions)

While there are a grand variety of themes to discuss within this work, Kojima’s use of Freudian constructs of civilization through the backdrop of Existentialism seems to highlight the most important aspects of his story. Kojima seems to center the story around elements Freud’s “paradox of civilization” and the competing drives of “Thanatos” and “eros.” In Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents, Freud argues that civilization depends on the repression of natural drives, and the repression makes humanity deeply unhappy which creates the paradox of Civilization, we need it to be happy, but civilization also subverts our happiness. Kojima uses Sam, the United Cities of America, and the preppers to express this paradox, though Kojima slightly alters it. While making contemporary commentary on the digital age, the story highlights our desire to be communal and independent at the same time. The more isolated and independent we become, the more susceptible we are to antipathy, sadness, and environmental danger; however, the more humanity condenses into society the more it is subject to widespread human-led destruction, sadness, and antipathy. In order to mitigate this, humanity tries to be communal while isolated through image based networks; however, this does not solve the paradox. Image and information based networks still exist in the context of our death drives (Thanatos) and our drives for love (eros).

The main antagonist, Higgs, leads a terrorist group who seems set on finishing off the sixth extinction event in order to find some meaning in a meaningless world, and he seems more apt to do this the more Sam “bridges” together humanity. Preppers, people who Sam tries to connect to the network, must overcome this legitimate fear. Without giving any spoilers, the story seems to hinge on how our familial and community bonds will always bring us closer to violence and destruction, though they are also a source of legitimate purpose and happiness. While Freud always viewed these concepts in the light of natural drives, Kojima introduces Existential elements to give new insights into the larger meaning of these drives for humanity.

In Death Stranding, the story seems to be motivated by differing obligations, moral duties, and familial ties. It isn’t until the end that Kojima reveals the true context. Our characters cannot truly evolve until they understand the true freedom of choice and responsibilities of that freedom. While Freud argued there are natural drives that compel our decisions, Existentialists, like Paul Tillich, Jean Paul Sartre, Simone De Beauvoir, and others, argue that our decisions are not restrained by objective rules. Since the universe does not provide objective meaning, not only can we individually create meaning, it is the only ethical life. This sounds cheery until an individual understands the context. Ultimately, any meaning we create dies with the individual which implies the absurdist question of whether or not any many can be truly created.

In Death Stranding, there is a sense from Sam and Higgs that his world is meaningless. Regardless of the acts of any organization or individual, the next mass extinction will happen sooner or later. We can make choices that may keep humanity temporarily alive, but, ultimately, the chaos of the natural universe will dispose of the species like it has with every other. Throughout the game, Sam becomes an Existential hero, one who accepts meaninglessness and continues to build. He reminds me of Albert Camus’ Sisyphus, the one who smiles at the gods’ punishment. In order to do this, he must first become truly cognizant of his own absurdity and freedom by transcending societal and individual bonds to make an authentic choice about his existence. These themes crescendo when the game ends with a two-hour ending sequence that will make player thoughtfully consider their own freedom and purpose within our human existence. In connection to these Existential questions, Kojima also comments on the state of gaming through thematic concepts and the mechanics of the gameplay itself.

(Picture: Kojima Productions)

After making Death Stranding, Kojima commented on today’s “multiplayer world”. In an interview Kojima stated,
“If you look at the world right now, we are connected to the internet 24 hours a day. And that technology was supposed to be there to make us happy. However, what you see today is people anonymously fighting each other or discriminating against each other. Some people are getting tired of social media or the internet as a whole. But when you play Death Stranding, your connection with other people is entirely positive”
As someone who plays quite a few multiplayer games, I reflected on the accuracy of his statement. While gaming presents an opportunity to bring people together, we often get together in small groups and either find fun in beating other players or attaining some artificial ranking in order to sublimate our desire of being the best. Even in survival simulations, like Conan, Ark, or DayZ, we often take the blank check world to create more oppression. Kojima, through Death Stranding, offers the players an asynchronous multiplayer mechanic that I haven’t experienced. In this game, you truly cooperate and, oddly enough, feel grateful for others. While the players may never see each other, we experience the purpose and work of strangers.

When I started making deliveries, I could scan for the footprints of those who came before me, and over time, those scanned footprints become slightly traveled paths, and later those paths become trading roads that could be easily deciphered. I felt like I was working with others to re-establish this world. That feeling only increased as more of the story is revealed. After episode three, I was introduced to large scale projects like the highway system. I spent hours working with ghosts of others to produce something that would significantly increase the fun and efficiency of my deliveries. When trying to discover a path around some BT’s (the common ‘baddie’ in the game), I would feel truly grateful to find a zipline structure located on an isolated mountain top that I could connect to, or a timefall structure to repair my gear. Since the game allows you to show gratitude in the form of likes, I always liked structures and paths that helped me. And, when I received likes, I felt like I accomplished something that actually helped out those arriving after me in the game. I never felt obligated to do this. Though there is small incentive to giving likes, likes helped out others more so than the person giving them. By the end of the game, I had received close to 200,000 likes, and while most gamers will never know, I felt like an important piece of this world. Even though I gained a sense of happiness from this mechanic, Kojima wants the players to reflect on our intentions within this system.

One of the more easily defeated opponents, the Mules, provide some interesting context to the meta structure of gratitude within the game. In the mythos of Death Stranding, Mules are supply deliverers, much like Sam, who became addicted to likes, and so they feel compelled to steal packages and supplies. At first, I thought it was silly motivation for my enemies; however, while reading an email sent by an NPC, which by itself is a mechanic thats adds a complexity of immersion, I learned that allegedly receiving likes and shares on social media prompts our brains to produce “happy chemicals” like oxytocin or dopamine. A recent study from Harvard lends evidence to this theory. At times in the game, I found myself acting like a Mule. I would deviate from the story for hours at a time to seek the ultimate reward from the preppers, a star I could wear on my pants. While some have complained about the core gaming mechanic, delivering supplies, I loved it. Sometimes, I forgot about the premier and engaging storyline, because I just wanted to deliver. Late at night, I would tell myself, “Just one more delivery.” That inner dialog would last for hours. One night while playing, I thought to myself, I have become a Mule. I have compelling and fulfilling purpose in the game, but I am chasing an arbitrary completionist reward. If this was a deliberate and cognizant design by Kojima, it was masterful.

Gamers who play narrative based games will regret not playing this landmark game/story. By the end of the game, I was in awe of how many elements from gaming and cinema were not just included, but richfully accomplished. This was a game that hit that sweet spot in art. Every facet was operated with precision, thoughtfulness, and peak performance. I was immersed into the world through a beautiful environment. I become lost in the dream of the story through captivating music, thought provoking themes, and immersive acting performances. The world became alive while I cooperated with strangers from around the world to build wonders of transportation and create safe paths through a dangerous, desolate world. All the while, Kojima produces seamless control and gaming mechanics that make the game fun to play and maneuver through the daunting environment. With all of these elements operating together, Death Stranding makes a strong case for Game of the Year.

Formats: PS4 (reviewed) PC (coming next year)
Price: 49.99
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Developer: Kojima Productions
Release Date: 8th November 2019
Age Rating: Mature 17+

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Good
  • Strong and complex narrative
  • Beautiful Visuals
  • Compelling Soundtrack
  • Deep Characterization
  • Meangingful Asynchronous Multiplayer
Bad
  • Niche Gaming Style
  • Easy Combat Difficulty
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Written by
I am a university instructor with a degree in English Studies-Literature from Missouri State University. I instruct courses in Philosophy, Ethics, and Writing. I spend most of my time teaching, traveling, writing or playing video games. In gaming, I am interested in narrative, survival sims, and multiplayer competitive games.

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