Death Stranding - title

I had no clue what to expect from Death Stranding. I probably would have bought it regardless because I usually enjoy Kojima's games. I was also curious if Death Stranding would be, in some way, representative of what the canceled Silent Hills might have been. Most of all, Kojima is a bold, and usually innovative creator, and I felt compelled to support his new studio -- if for nothing else than to give a middle finger to Konami.

After spending several dozen hours with it, I'm still not really sure what to think of Death Stranding. Much like with Final Fantasy XV, Death Stranding is loaded with novel ideas and messages that I find personally interesting or compelling. But just like Final Fantasy XV, those novel ideas take a back seat to time-wasting filler quests. Death Stranding can be hypnotically beautiful, zen-like, and maybe even emotionally moving, but it's also big, bloated, and convoluted, and it takes far too long to get where it's going.

At a very reductionist level, Death Stranding could be accurately characterized as "side quest: the game" or "Amazon courier: the game". But that characterization would be overlooking the nuance behind the game, and what it has to say about modern gaming and society in general. That makes it a very difficult game to review without giving one's self some time to let it soak in ... which is part of the reason why I've been mulling it over for more than a month now...

Rebuilding America, one Amazon delivery at a time

Carrying cargo is, in fact, the entire game! Our protagonist, Sam, is unwittingly tasked with delivering cargo across this post-apocalyptic America in an attempt to get in the good graces of the settlements dotting the land, and connect them all up to a vast information network to restore a semblance of civilization. On the way, you can literally build roads and bridges as you go -- rebuilding the American infrastructure little by little.

Online players will leave guideposts and infrastructure to help each other out.

This infrastructure is actually a clever implementation of the Demon's Souls / Dark Souls style of asynchronous multiplayer. In principle.

Instead of the ghostly visages of other player warning you of traps or ambushes or pitfalls, online players can build bridges, roads, vehicle charging stations, storage boxes, and other helpful infrastructure that will make your trek through the world legitimately easier. They aren't just cluing you in about what dangers to expect, or what course of action to take, the other players are actively helping you (and everyone else) without ever needing to set a digital foot in your game. Just like in FromSoft's Souls games, you can also leave little notes that take the form of emoticons, and which combine the function of the Souls player messages with avatar gestures.

When you first step out into the world, there's a sense of desolation and loneliness about the landscape. It reminds me a lot of Shadow of the Colossus, except our only company is a crying fetus instead of Aggro (who's such a good horsey!). The scenery itself is more evocative of Iceland, and doesn't look like any part of the United States that I've ever been. But then again, this is the same game designer who put a tropical rainforest in the middle of Soviet Russia, so... It's beautiful and serene, and figuring out how you're going to navigate the environment can be a legitimate zen-like puzzle.

Trekking through the map reminded me of the beautifully desolate environments of Shadow of the Colossus.

This game requires very precise and deliberate inputs from the player, and it can sometimes be very unforgiving of small mistakes. If you turn too quickly, Sam may lose his balance and fall over, possibly damaging or destroying the packages that you are carrying. Walk to quickly down a steep slope, and you'll risk loosing your footing and face-planting. You can hold one or both trigger buttons to try to stabilize yourself or catch your balance -- and there's no real reason to not hold both triggers the entire game, since balancing your load doesn't make Sam walk noticeably slower. And you'll have to manage Sam's stamina, the battery supply of vehicles or certain tools, and so forth. You might even find your hands cramping from holding down the triggers after a particularly long or strenuous journey over rough terrain, providing you with a small degree of physical discomfort to go along with Sam's physical exhaustion. And you'll be pushed along by occasional rainfall that will cumulatively damage your cargo and equipment.

Even though Sam will progressively get stronger and better able to keep himself balanced, and even though the game will gradually unlock new mechanics for making it easier to traverse the landscape, you can never get sloppy, and the game will punish you for impatience! It reminds me a lot of Dark Souls, except instead of getting killed by a hollow undead sword flurry because I thought I could sprint through a return trip through an early area of the game, I'm instead tripping over my own two feet because I tried to run down a mossy slope to get this delivery done faster.

Simply navigating the open world terrain without tripping and falling is a primary gameplay mechanic.

The terrain is important and relevant, and navigating it safely and efficiently is the game's core gameplay. You aren't simply holding the stick forward and walking a straight line to a point on the mini-map or radar, as you might do in, say, Skyrim or Far Cry. This is how you design an open world game! You make the traversal of the space into the operant challenge. Or, at the very least, make the space between landmarks -- and the act of traversing that space -- feel meaningful. I feel like game designers are really starting to vindicate all those blogs that I wrote years ago about the failings of open world design. The destinations aren't important in Death Stranding. It's the space in between (the open world itself) that is important.

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When I reviewed Captain America: Civil War, I said that "the Marvel cinematic universe may be starting to collapse under its own weight". I probably should have said that "it's starting to buckle under its own weight", since Marvel is still a ways off from anything that resembles collapse. That movie also got better upon repeat viewings, but I feel much the same about the recently-released Doctor Strange. In much the same way that I had suspected that Suicide Squad must have taken place years (or decades) prior to Dawn of Justice, I had also assumed that Doctor Strange must have occurred (at least partly) prior to the events of the first Avengers movie.

The story of Doctor Strange is, after all, essentially a Doubting Thomas story. That would be fine if Doctor Strange were a stand-alone movie, but a Doubting Thomas story is a really difficult thing to buy into within the Marvel cinematic universe. By the beginning of the movie, Stephen Strange (who lives in New York) must surely be aware of (and possibly have first-hand experience with) superhumans since the events of the first Avengers movie. In a world in which the literal Norse God of Thunder Thor has descended from the mystical plane of Asgard, to team up with a gamma-powered Hulk and a super soldier frozen since World War II, to defend New York from an inter-dimensional alien invasion, can you really be all that skeptical of astral projection, alternate dimensions, or even blatant magic?

Avengers Tower in Doctor Strange
Avengers Tower is clearly visible.

If Doctor Strange's car accident and physical therapy took place long before the events of the first Avengers, then this skepticism would be excusable. If Strange spent years at Kamar Taj learning magic, while oblivious to the events of the Avengers movies, Winter Soldier, and Civil War, then that would be a satisfactory explanation for his ignorance. But I don't think that's the case. Doctor Strange was tight-lipped when it came to references to the other Marvel movies (potentially for this very reason), but Avengers Tower still shows up in the skyline, and I'm pretty sure there were references to the other super heroes in the first half of the movie. In fact, I'm pretty sure that Strange gets a phone call asking if he'd be willing to treat an Air Force colonel who broke his spine in experimental armor. This must surely be a reference to Rhodes' accident in Civil War.

Captain America: Civil War - brooding characters
Strange is asked if he'd be willing to treat Colonel Rhodes after injuries sustained in Civil War.

Maybe I'm being nitpicky, but buy-in is important in fantastical movies like this. But it's hard to buy into Stephen Strange, and it certainly doesn't help that he's an abrasive ass hole and isn't very likeable at the start of the movie...

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