So: Death Stranding. It’s actually the first Kojima game that I’ve played, or at least that I’ve finished: I dipped into the first Metal Gear Solid a while back, but it wasn’t really my thing, and I haven’t played any of his subsequent games.

It turns out, though, that I kind of like Kojima’s approach to world building, at least if Death Stranding is representative. Like, the basic world building doesn’t make sense, but that’s okay: it’s coherent and stylish enough? For a while, I actually was wondering if I was getting a Killer 7 vibe; ultimately, I decided that no, I wasn’t, but still, I respect a game that’s doing its own thing.

The way the game’s worldbuilding played into the combat was something that I wasn’t so into: I set the difficulty down to Easy fairly early on, and that was definitely the right choice. But the way the game’s worldbuilding played into the navigation and package delivery: that’s a completely different matter.


This isn’t an original observation, but: I started playing Death Stranding soon after COVID started, and it is shocking how well the two pair together. (I came to Death Stranding after Kentucky Route Zero, and I mixed in some Animal Crossing as well; I can’t imagine a more topical trio of games.) You’re playing as a character who doesn’t want to be touched, traveling through a mostly empty world to keep isolated outposts in connection by delivering packages and putting them online: yes, this is relevant.

But also: even setting COVID aside, Death Stranding turns out to be totally my thing. You spend a large portion of your game time traversing environments; the game treats this with respect, as something that’s a worthy activity on its own right.

I’ve played through so many RPGs that have you traveling from place to place, that constantly interrupt that traveling through battles, and where, if you skip those battles; you’ll find that upcoming required battles are somewhere between unpleasantly difficult and impossible. In a game like that, the priorities are clear: traversal is tertiary, battles are secondary, the leveling curve is primary. Whereas, in Death Stranding, most of the time, you’re just trying to get yourself and whatever stuff you’re carrying from A to B (possibly with the idea in mind of traveling to C after that): the game makes it clear that this is a worthy activity, even a primary activity on its own, one that the game actively leaves space for you to enjoy.

Challenges are present during your traversals, but they mostly take the form of the environment: making it through mountains or past bodies of water while carrying large amounts of cargo, trying to stay out of the rain. There are occasionally enemies: some are humans, some are supernatural creatures, and in general my feeling is that their presence mostly makes the game slightly worse; after turning the difficulty down to Easy, though, they were fine, and there was some benefit in terms of the occasional heightened edge that it gave to certain of your traversals. And the supernatural creatures tied in with the overall plot, and the game generally only seriously deployed them in a way that did help with the overall frame story; I’m less convinced that the human enemies added anything to the game, but, if you’re playing in Easy, it’s easy enough to beat up all the enemies in a region, after which they won’t respawn for many many hours, quite possibly not until you’ve left that region of the game.


The traversal isn’t an isolated activity, though, either in gameplay terms or philosophical terms. You’re traveling from place to place to help people, and to help rebuild a world. And that notion of a collective rebuilding effort is reflected in the gameplay as well.

In terms of rebuilding, the environments have places where roads are planned; if you deliver materials to them, then an auto-paver will come alive, and all of a sudden, you’ll have a nice smooth road cutting through some hills or even making a path around mountains; it makes things easier on foot, and makes it possible to haul large amounts of cargo by truck. And, for areas less amenable to roads, you’ll eventually unlock the ability to build ziplines to quickly take you from place to place, over ravines and up and down mountains; makes traveling hugely easier, and they’re fun as well! You can only have so many ziplines, but you can also place ropes and ladders to let you navigate particularly steep bits.

But it’s not just you doing this: the game’s world is a loosely shared world. So you’ll periodically get a notification that somebody else has delivered materials to one of the road’s auto-pavers; or you’ll come across zipline pylons that another characters has placed. The game does something interesting with the shared world nature: as far as I can tell, I don’t have access to all the structures that some fixed set of other players have placed, I only see a subset of their structures. But it’s enough to make a real difference: on an emotional level, it makes you feel like part of a group with a common goal, and on a practical level, it’s quite a bit easier to traverse a region once you’ve hooked it onto the game’s version of the internet and other players’ ropes and ladders and pylons pop into view.


So there’s something at the core of Death Stranding that I really like: it’s about an embodied world, about a collective world, about making things better in concrete ways. Yes, there’s this big overarching plot, and that plot is kind of remarkable in its own way. But there’s something more unusual and more powerful at its heart.

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