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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Sid Meier's Civilization

Recently, I brainstormed the possibility of redesigning Beyond Earth's winstates in order to support cooperative victories. With Civilization VI having been announced last month, I want to take some time to look at some different ways to approach victories in the mainstream Civilization games. Since Civilization III, there have been five victory types that have appeared in every mainstream Civ game:

  • the military victory = kill or conquer everyone else
  • the science victory = build a space ship to Alpha Centauri
  • the culture victory = accumulate the most culture yield (usually through wonders)
  • the diplomatic victory = vote for yourself to be leader of the United Nations
  • the score victory = if no other victories are met by a certain number of turns, the civ with the highest score wins.

Earlier games had fewer victories (only military and space race), but there have been other victory types as well. Civ III and IV had a victory that simply required the player to occupy a majority of the map's land area and population (which could be achieved via military conquest and/or relatively peaceful expansion). I liked this victory type because it facilitated role-play by allowing me to grow my empire organically without having to feel like I was constantly meta-gaming for one of the other victories - just keep growing by whatever means are necessary or convenient. Civ IV also had a religious victory that required you to convert other players to your religion and then get them to elect you to be Pope or whatever. Civ: Revolution and the board game even included an economic victory in which you must accumulate a certain amount of wealth tokens. This was different than the "economic victory" of Civ V, in which you save up enough money to buy out the alliance of every city state on the turn before a U.N. election.

Civilization IV included a religious victory [LEFT], and the board game includes an economic victory [RIGHT].

These victories are intended to provide a direct path to victory using each of the major fundamental gameplay styles. But are there other methods?...

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Civilization: Beyond Earth

I started writing this post months ago (back in 2015, I think) - long before I had any inkling of the impending release of Civilization VI. This post may be entirely moot now that Civ VI has been announced, and it seems unlikely to me that Beyond Earth will see further expansions. However, I still want to present these ideas, so I've re-written this post to be less speculative and more retrospective. Even if these ideas aren't fated to be implemented for Beyond Earth, it's still an opportunity to look at a way in which the game could have differentiated itself from Civ V, and they could serve as a template for future Civ titles (maybe even Beyond Earth 2) or for modders. Maybe I'll even mod it in myself if I get time and motivation.

Civilization: Beyond Earth really struggled to separate itself from Civ V. The expansion, Rising Tide takes steps to address this with some of its new gameplay mechanics and revised diplomatic engine. Sadly, these efforts don't really address one of the underlying, fundamental, disconnects that the game has with me:

"One of the things that bothered me about Beyond Earth was the way that the victory conditions create an unnecessary competition between the different civs. Aren't we all just colonists from the same earth who are supposed to be trying not to repeat the mistakes of the past? Aren't we trying to preserve the human race? Without the various civs starting the game with any sort of pre-established ideology or agendas, there's no reason for them to be competing with one another. Without a genuine shared victory, there's also no systems in place to share your colonial success with your fellow colonies. The net effect is that once you've defeated the challenge of taming the planet and [one way or another] eliminating the aliens as a threat to your expansion, then the rest of the game is a competition between civs to be the first to reach any of the [mechanically satisfying and varied, yet intellectually vapid] victory conditions."
   - from my Rising Tide review
Civilization Beyond Earth: Rising Tide - attacking cities
Heck, why are we competing to begin with?

Despite being mechanically different from Civ V's victory conditions, Beyond Earth still fell into the trap of being fundamentally, unnecessarily tribalistic and competitive. I don't know if this is supposed to be some kind of sad, fatalist message that Firaxis is writing into Beyond Earth: that we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past. This isn't Fallout. I hope that Firaxis' designers aren't that cynical, and that it was an unintentional emergent consequence of design.

This may seem like a small, trivial, superficial issue, but it's not. Regular Civilization is easy to buy into because it's based [loosely] on established history and uses real-world characters and states that most people are already familiar with. Buying into the theme of Beyond Earth is just so much harder because there's so much of the game that just doesn't make sense, or which doesn't really follow from the opening cinematic or the game's flavor text. This is why Alpha Centauri went to such great pains to personlize the leaders, and to turn them into charicatures of established real-world ideologies and standard sci-fi tropes. These are factions with established goals and agendas that we can understand, and we can buy into their conflicts. Beyond Earth doesn't have that, and so not only do its leaders fall flat as characters unto their own, but the entire basis upon which the game's core conflicts and victory conditions are based start to fall apart as well.

In any case, I think that one of the best ways that Beyond Earth could have truly separated itself from Civ V (mechanically and thematically) would have been to change the competitive nature of the victories and introduce truly cooperative victories, or maybe even a "players versus map" victory type. And I want to emphasize from the start that I haven't put nearly as much time into Beyond Earth as I have into Civ V. I'm by no means an "expert" in the game. So feel free to take the following suggestions with a grain of salt. I admit that these ideas simply might not work, but I still think that it's worthwhile to explore the possibility space that this game could have offered...

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