There’s a board game I love that no one else in the family ever wants to play. It’s called Iron Dragon, and whenever I suggest a round, everyone groans. Part of it is that the game takes at least four hours to play. Usually more. Okay, a lot more. Another part is the absolute tedium of it. You start out with a small train and a bag of money. You draw a card listing a series of destinations, the cargo they’re after, and how much they’re willing to pay. Then you plan your route accordingly, building track as you go. First player to connect six cities wins.
Playing well—and winning—requires a careful balance of risk vs reward as well as luck. I love it. Planning out my routes and calculating exactly how much it’s going to cost me to build the track there. How much I’ll make by connecting the dots.
I should have loved Death Stranding. The player character Sam is literally the last functioning postal worker in a post-apocalyptic America, and he is trying to reconnect cities coast to coast. Along the way, he’s expected to deliver packages. The more successful deliveries he makes, the more resources are available. The higher his reputation, the higher the value of his contracts. It’s like the game was made with me in mind. The whole post apocalypse angle, general weirdness, casting of Norman Reedus as Sam, and multiple posts from players admitting to how much they cried at a certain plot point had me picking up this game with the sort of eagerness I usually save for a new installment of Assassin’s Creed.
The game is gorgeous. Even though the world is essentially dead in about the creepiest way possible, the landscape is beautiful, from the color scheme to the way familiar landmarks have been smoothed by extreme age into bare, rolling hills. If we were to fast forward time to an extreme degree (or experience the chronological apocalypse proposed by the game), I can imagine a world that might look like this. It’s eerie and disturbing.
The animation is stunning, as is the choice of voice actors, who are mirrored by their on screen characters. They play their roles to a degree of believability that quickly sucks you into the story. The story is fascinating. You’re thrown right into the action and given only enough information to pull you forward, learning as you go.
The visual effects, tool manipulation, and even combat are familiar enough, but different enough for you to grapple with play while gaping at the complexity of it all. It’s actually all a bit overwhelming to begin with. Grandly cinematic, and obviously a labor of love for Hideo Kojima.
The Not So Good
I don’t want to label this section The Bad because there’s nothing wrong with this game. My lackluster feelings and final abandonment have more to do with my frustration with certain aspects and full on queasiness regarding others.
The game is hard. I don’t mind a challenge and will confidently check the experienced gamer box when starting something new. I play most games on normal and will sometimes up the difficulty to hard when it starts to feel too easy, or for a second play through. Sometimes, to get past a particularly nasty boss fight, I’ll knock the difficulty back to easy.
Death Stranding is hard in a way that has little to do with a difficulty setting. It’s more that there is so much to grasp and all at once. There’s the world and trying to fit your actions into the greater story. Then there’s simply walking with a loaded pack and not falling over. Oh, and not being sucked into the ground by temporal ghosts called BTs and possibly dying, thereby leaving a new, permanent crater in the world.
If you die near an outpost? Gone, baby, gone. The death of Sam kills everything. And then Sam comes back to life, because he’s different, which is cool, but also very, very disturbing—the mechanics of which I’ll get into later.
I’d try to plan my route around the BTs. Try not to let my skin crawl when the sound of the ghost meter started ticking like a Geiger counter. Try not to get upset when Sam fell again and the tank baby strapped to his chest started squalling, further aggravating the circling BTs. But avoiding troubled patches usually means climbing over rocks, using tools Sam doesn’t always have to hand because there is only so much you can pack on his back.
And then the rain would start. The rain is basically caustic. It ages things. Sam is somehow immune, but his cargo and tools are not. So while you’re urging him to climb that boulder and trying to figure out how to get him out of this crack without bringing on the fourth apocalypse, the screen is full of messages about how badly damaged the cargo is. How it’s nearly beyond repair, how it’s whoops, sorry, useless.
The world is depressing enough. This kind of stress, I just didn’t need. Especially because once two cities or sites are connected, there is no fast travel. No blipping from point to point. No protected road or easier route. If you want to deliver the next package to that place, which is ever eager for more deliveries (or the late completion of deliveries abandoned by other players), you have to do it all again.
Did I mention that the rain agitates the BTs? Rain basically makes the ghost meter go crazy and you can’t wait it out because all the stuff on Sam’s back is dying. It’s… not fun.
After I cratered the world six times trying to get to Louisiana, I was about ready to give up. The game was just too frustrating and not enough fun. My sense of achievement was at nil because I’d decided against making any more local deliveries in favor of advancing the story line. A visit to a wiki let me know that once I’d passed a certain point, traversing the world would get easier. I’d get bridges and rain shelters and so on. So I focused all my energy on getting through the mountains (through the rain and past the BTs) and down to the lake.
Up to this point, the weirdness of several aspects of the game had begun to bother me. Watching Sam shower and take a pee, and then packing canisters of his bodily fluids to throw as bombs among the BTs, kinda grossed me out. I mean, on one level, I got the theory of it, but on another… yuck. Then, every time Sam died, the view down his esophagus where a baby is swirling around in his insides, the baby’s butt flashing before it winks and gives us a thumbs up… just too freaking weird, man. I’m not generally squeamish, but this pushed a button I might not have known I had until I had to watch it happen several times over. The whole carrying a baby in a tank to warn Sam about the proximity of BTs bothered me too. It just felt very wrong.
Then I got to Louisiana and had to fight the big bad in order to advance. This was pretty much the end of me. Getting Sam through the murky black… is it water? Or is it death fluid or some temporal glue? Getting him through that to find enough bomb things to throw at whatever the fuck that creature was, trying to kill it over and over, watching the baby’s butt flash, listening to the eerie sounds of all of it… Done, so done.
Honestly, I think the game might be too bleak for me. Also, despite admiring the animation and the rendering of the voice actors’ likeness in the characters of Sam and Amelie especially, but all of them really, that intense level of detail actually threw me a little. Instead of becoming Sam, in the same way I became one with Kassandra (Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey) or Nathan (Uncharted), feeling as if I was a part of their makeup, I constantly felt as though I was on the outside. Not so much experiencing the game with Sam, but experiencing his frustration and disconnect with the world the way it was.
It’s hard to explain.
I guess in one way, it’s a compliment to his character, that he was so well defined. But in another way, that very definition kept me apart so that I wasn’t immersed in the game, but simply playing it. Then again, perhaps my difficulties with the gameplay were responsible for that.
Either way, I gave up and probably won’t go back. I have a list of games to play that is longer than my arm, games I’ll probably enjoy more—because that’s what gaming is supposed to be. Something I enjoy.
Death Stranding is an outstanding achievement and I can definitely see the allure. The artistry is above and beyond. It’s simply not for me.