Death Stranding is the game we didn’t deserve but what Kojima needed.
Death Stranding has given rise to an inner conflict unlike any other game I’ve previously played. The usual conflicts I might have over playing a game are over an approach to a situation, whether to customise my character’s appearance one way or another, or which skills to unlock first. With Death Stranding, however, I’m questioning the fundamentals of how to play the entire game – in essence, am I playing it the way it was meant to be played? This also boils down to how is Death Stranding meant to be played, actually?
I’m traversing a barren wasteland. It’s desolate and damp. I have a semi-metric ton of cargo strapped to my back and appendages, and the suspense of sneaking around BTs is crushing me akin to the cargo I’m hauling. The smokestack of an incinerator hangs high above my head, so close and yet so far. The only other living thing around is the BB strapped to my chest. Is it even ‘the’ BB, a ‘BB’ or ‘BB’? My thoughts are overwhelming me and I’m surrounded by BTs, and I am actually scared.
Death Stranding has an interesting title in that it literally means being disconnected permanently from one another and yet, the whole game is about making connections. It’s also ominous whereas – at least as far as I’ve progressed in chapter 2 – the game itself has an undercurrent of optimism and hope. At least that’s how I see it. Still, the game holds true to its title in that I personally get anxious when encountering BTs. Anxious in a way that is unlike any other game I’ve played in recent memory. However, the nervousness and anxiety don’t push me away, they keep me focused. Usually I don’t like playing games that manage to stress me out and make my heart pump a bit too fast, like horror games – I just don’t like the feeling. With Death Stranding, I want to keep pushing forward despite the anxiety.
— Jaakko Ahlsten (@JenkkaAlhosta) January 8, 2020
The oblique references to Metal Gear Solid are also what keep me going.
It’s not just the BTs (Been-Theres, as I’ve come to call them, to myself, and believe you them, they’ve been there so it’s no wonder they’re back!) that cause anxiety while playing Death Stranding. I’m actually feeling guilty and anxious over utilising equipment and structures I find lying around on the path I thought I was making for myself, by myself. In fact, what’s happening is I’m standing on the shoulders of giants, so to say, and instead of being a pioneer, I’m tracing the paths of the actual trail blazers. My only comfort is the acknowledgement I receive from other players in the form of likes for the equipment I’ve left behind for others to utilise on paths less travelled. Hell, I even may have blazed a few trails of my own.
I’m supposed to reconnect the distro center west of Capital Knot City to the Chiral Network and that means passing through hostile territory. I’ve yet to accrue any worthwhile means to defend myself from the MULEs and I’m scared of them – I can see them but they can also see me! What if I take a detour and travel through the gorge behind the incinerator? It’s risky though – heavy timefall, lots of BTs, and seems like a steep hike uphill. But at least I would have some chance of avoiding confrontation with anyone if I just keep my head down and hold my breath. I’ll take my chances.
At the time of writing this, I’ve progressed on to Chapter 3 and my head is still spinning – am I truly playing the game to its fullest potential by taking advantage of the efforts of those who came before? The idea is already mildly irritating. Why is this so frustrating?
Then, it hits me. What if – you might want to take a seat for this part – Kojima’s intention is to make you question the way you play? Is Kojima really deconstructing the silos we gamers have built for ourselves, those that make us think we need to rely only and purely on our own skills and abilities? Is Kojima telling us that we should embrace others – create connections or strands – even when we’re not actually playing with them, without even possibly knowing them?
It all starts to make sense. Think of it this way: the fact that there are tools, equipment and such lying around in places I’m going to, in places that I would use them in – that is, where it’s actually convenient for me instead of for the game – tells a story outside of my avatar, Sam Porter Bridges. It actually tells stories – stories of the people who have tried before what I am trying to do now, those who have (in the context of my story) failed their mission.
It speaks volumes of how the world I inhabit as Sam has other people living in the world too, it has been inhabited before my time. These are the tracks of those who came before – some more successfully than others, others less so. And, in the bigger picture, my tracks will tell stories to those who come after, they become a part of their story as they reach places where I’ve been to before. They will utilise the tools I left behind to ease the way for them to follow their path.
This leaves me to wonder whether this is actually the legacy I leave? Is this the legacy that Kojima wishes to leave behind? Furthermore, was the first person to play the game, the one who traversed these barren lands first, whose boots were the first to imprint on that virgin soil, symbolically Kojima himself – the trailblazer of his own path, who wished to create something unlike what had been created before, who wants to keep pushing the envelope further than it has been before? Death Stranding starts out mechanically as something quite reminiscent of his previous work, his outlandish sense of style is evident from the get-go, and yet, Death Stranding manages to quickly steer clear of any known paths and forges an identity all its own.
What if, in subtext, Death Stranding is actually a story of what it’s like being Hideo Kojima – what if Death Stranding is actually a Kojima simulator, at least if you turn off the offline features?
The timefall starts to subside, the hill starts to slope down towards the river valley, there’s still some rocky terrain to traverse but nothing a climbing anchor and ladders won’t handle. My Odradek is spinning slower, eventually giving me the OK sign – I’m out of the woods, the distro center is right under me as I descend down the slope. I made the trek through the detour and managed to avoid both BTs and MULEs. And what do you know – my cargo remained intact as well! the containers would’ve only lasted another minute or so of timefall but they got me where I needed to. I wonder if anyone else thought of taking that route?
Furthermore, having completed the game in the process of writing this think piece, I realised that this game would never have been made if it wasn’t made by Hideo Kojima. Whether or not he realised it, this fact underscores the game’s central message of connecting with people – after all, Kojima’s connections are what made this game’s production possible in the first place. This confirms my hypothesis that Death Stranding is indeed a Kojima-simulator.