There is no elevator pitch for Death Stranding.
Every inch of Death Stranding teems with meaning or implication. Even the stupidest and most pretentious developments build to create a multi-layered game, one with numerous potential points of attack to analyze. It is a story about fatherhood. It is a broad dig at the gig economy. It is deeply concerned with upcoming environmental disaster and American politics, old and new.
Death Stranding is also about throwing grenades made from your own piss and shit at ghosts. It is about hiking alone in the wilderness for hours. It is a tireless grind. It is a commentary on social media and the internet, delivered through the asynchronous interactions players can have with one another as they play. It is breathtaking in scope, consistently intelligent in design, and beautiful to behold. It is a heaping pile of pretentious nonsense. It is a game in which characters drop overwrought interpretations of Kōbō Abe quotes. Its most recurring visual motif is a not-so-subtle gesture towards Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. It progresses not with the quiet stroke of a pen but with the pounding crash of a hammer. “I brought you a metaphor,” one of the characters says late in the game. It is stupid, and obvious, and perfect.
Death Stranding is also Hideo Kojima’s first major project following his departure from Konami in 2015. The context is charged: here is a widely acclaimed “auteur,” supposedly shackled by corporate overlords let loose at last, ready to blow your mind open with a masterpiece. The game follows on the heels of the tragic cancelation of Silent Hills, which was to be a video game collaboration with film director Guillermo del Toro, starring Norman Reedus. (Reedus now stars in Death Stranding, along with del Toro and tons of other celebrities.)
Then there’s the supposed weirdness of Death Stranding itself. During development, its plot and gameplay were tightly guarded secrets, with exorbitant and celebrity-laden trailers providing the only hint of what was to come. The game has been mythologized through its marketing, and Kojima—already considered a legend—has been further mythologized along with it.
But that narrative is replete with mischaracterizations. Kojima is a man with a highly skilled team at his disposal, decades of experience, celebrity friends, and millions of dollars in Sony backing. He’s no scrappier than any other rich and famous person. Because of this, there are two Death Strandings. There is the one in public consciousness, and there is the one that I have played. The first is a dream, an impossible (and frankly unnecessary) vindication of games as art created by a glorified mastermind. The actual game is a fantastic mess.
But is it good, Heather? Yes, friends. I love it.
Death Stranding is set in an alternate future where a cataclysmic event called the Death Stranding has devastated most of the world. The incident, described as a great explosion, has blurred the lines between the land of the living and the afterlife. In the world of Death Stranding, there is in fact something after death, and it is observable and measurable. Furthermore, every person has been discovered to contain their own “Beach,” which is a limbo-like space that they arrive at before finally moving into the great beyond. The thinning boundaries between our world and the afterlife released spirits called “beached things,” or BTs. BTs ravage communities, wreaking havoc on the living. They are so dangerous that if a human makes contact with a larger BT, it can trigger an event called a “voidout,” a sort of miniature nuclear explosion that can destroy cities in the blink of an eye. The world has been fractured into a few remaining cities and pioneer outposts. Connecting them are delivery services, staffed by porters who brave the expansive waste and sneak through BT territory to bring essential supplies to the disjointed smattering of humanity that remains.
Players control Sam Porter Bridges, a lone wolf courier who is more content in the wasteland than around other people. After the last living president of the United States passes away, Sam is asked to carry out her final directive: connect the remaining settlements to the “chiral network,” a futuristic internet that allows for instant communication and fast 3D printing of infrastructure and supplies. The goal, he is told, is to “make America whole again.”
Carrying out this directive becomes ever more complicated as terrorist factions conspire to kickstart mankind’s extinction, politicians cover up horrible crimes, and a literal ghost bent on revenge wages a personal war against those who wronged him. It’s operatic, excessive, and ultimately leads to a finale so spectacular and absurd that it moves beyond anime overindulgence into a glorious pimple popping of plot.
So, there are grand political machinations that extend far beyond Sam’s reach. But throughout it all, he’s still just a postman who needs to make his deliveries while living in the worst possible world. To help him navigate that world, Sam is given a “bridge baby.” This baby in a pod grants Sam the ability to perceive BTs and progress on his journey across the continent. Throughout the journey, he will deliver countless packages and supplies from outpost to outpost, hiking untold miles in solitude while slowly bringing settlements into the network. Each new excursion is dogged by tough terrain, lurking BTs, raiders, and a corrosive rain called “timefall” that rapidly accelerates everything it touches.
Most of the time, Sam navigates these dangers while wearing a backpack crammed with packages and gear. The contents of the backpack must be balanced. If Sam’s too heavy on either side, he’ll fall. And if Sam falls, his cargo will be damaged. It is painful to traverse terrain and all too easy to fall, especially in the early game. But over time, Sam gets stronger, and the player gains more resources.
At first, Sam’s gear is little more than a good pair of shoes and maybe a rope for climbing. As players progress, they’ll gain access to a variety of robotic rigs to increase how much Sam can carry or how fast he can move in extreme terrain. Eventually, that means portable 3D printers than can build bridges or even safe houses to rest at provided you have enough raw materials.
It costs a lot of materials to build a bridge or a shelter. These structures also take damage over time and must be repaired. But you aren’t the only one in this world who is building bridges over coursing rivers, or hanging ziplines in rocky mountaintops. Death Stranding will put you on a server with other players, each of them building their own structures that you can share and use. You can even deliver packages that they’ve dropped, or leave behind packages you can’t deliver yourself. Every time Sam connects another town in the world to the fictional chiral network, Death Stranding will connect you to the real-life network of other players and their structures.
Sharing is rewarded. These structures exist in a pseudo-social network where players can “like” those that they find useful. The more “likes” you get, the better. It contributes to a progression system that uses a variety of criteria—mission completion time, the size of a cargo haul, completion of special conditions—to increase a player rank that eventually gives rewards, like the ability to carry more items or run down slopes without slipping as much.
But it’s not just delivering packages, building bridges, and connecting people to one another. Eventually, Sam gets weapons: rifles, shotguns, and grenades, all made using Sam’s blood and other bodily fluids. Because Sam is special, you see. He’s a “repatriate,” which means that instead of dying in mortal situations, he is able to guide his soul back to his body and rise again to complete the job. This makes him a perfect candidate for tough deliveries. His bodily fluids can be weaponized against the BTs as well, especially his blood. A “hematic” grenade can dispose of a BT in an instant, while blood-soaked bullets can slowly perforate them into mist. The best option is to avoid BTs altogether, relying on Sam’s bridge baby to perceive the ghosts’ locations and sneaking past them.
Death Stranding pulls from a variety of sources. The resurrections and multiplayer aspects of Dark Souls, the wandering of Proteus and No Man’s Sky, the clumsy body movements of QWOP, the skeletal remains of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain and more surprisingly Metal Gear Survive. These pieces come together into a unique package with a simple loop: you start here, now please go there. Pick a mission, grab your gear, figure out how to get there, climb over whatever mountain is in your way without losing all your cargo. Fall, get up, keep going. Rinse and repeat, with added layers of intrigue and combat challenges as the story progresses.
The larger narrative of Death Stranding is spellbinding, but like The Phantom Pain before it, Death Stranding speaks more clearly through its systems, and is more interesting to play than its raw narrative is to experience. Using the game’s system of shared building and messaging, it’s possible to warn fellow players of BT hunting grounds, leave garages stocked with vehicles to freely use, drop shoes and excess gear into shared storage lockers, and create complicated pathways through a treacherous game world. The word strand, we are told early in the game, refers both to a tie that connects something and the act of being stranded, isolated from others. Just as Metal Gear Solid V’s war micromanaging expressed the endless cost of mercenary violence and revenge, Death Stranding’s systems speak to these two interpretations. Initially, players are indeed stranded. They are alone in a game world with few signs of human interaction, then slowly but surely, the topography changes. Footsteps on a path, the start of a road. These span out to form a complex spider’s web of player structures. Every piece feeds into the other. It turns out having ladders, better shoes, and increased mobility matters a lot when you might stumble over the perfectly placed rock at any moment.
Eventually, I reached a particularly treacherous part of the game where most of my deliveries involved hiking through thick snowfall. A few players had braved this area before me, but I found many of their structures to be incomplete. A makeshift series of magnetic ziplines covered some peaks, but there were no connecting ziplines on the most obvious paths. The foundation of a more complex system was there; all it needed was some work to become the thing it could be. Instead of progressing forward with the story, I gathered the materials I needed and ventured through BT territory to place the required ziplines, ones that could allow travel over the most dangerous areas, the areas that Death Stranding clearly expected players to pass through.
It was not easy. Time and time again, I was dragged to the ground by shadowy ghosts and pulled into a stream of tar that rushed me away from my destination. I fired bullets coated in my own blood and threw grenades containing my sweat at massive beasts until I somehow managed to get where I wanted to go. Over the course of several hours, digital blood and sweat literally spent, multiple hikes through the worst conditions accomplished, I connected my ziplines with the broader network. Anyone who came after me would be able to use them, crossing over the mountains easily and flying over the BT’s feasting ground. I’m proud of those ziplines, of the work that went into making them. I’m thankful to the strangers whose devices I literally connected with to make something that would benefit not only us, but everyone who stumbled through the treacherous paths after us. There was no real point to doing this, other that it could be done and I thought it should be done. I needed to do it. I needed to build something.
During my time reviewing Death Stranding, I had a relationship fall into disrepair. That my most valued personal connection frayed while playing a game that is ultimately about the bonds we make was not lost to me. Time and time again in Death Stranding, I wandered through harsh red deserts and snow-capped peaks with the mission of bringing people together. I crossed bridges left by strangers, trusting that the paths they had laid would bring me where I needed to go. Outside of the game, I was lost. What does it mean for a connection to unravel, like an old rope bridge across a ravine? What does it take to rebuild one?
I don’t have answers to this. Death Stranding didn’t provide them. Instead, it insisted on a simple idea: that we are made strong by the grace and, more beautifully, the chance of others. That we travel on the roads of those who went before us, leaving our own marks that ultimately affect the path those behind us take. We walk alone more often than we walk together, losing ineffable things along the way like so much fumbled luggage. And yet, we sometimes see signs of care. In life, they’re small. A random text message from an old friend, a free drink at the neighborhood bar, an enthusiastic conversation with a co-worker about nothing important, the sound of your roommate playing his guitar. In Death Stranding, these things are literal. A generator powering our car in the middle of nowhere, a glowing thumbs up emblem at the city gates, a ladder crossing a flowing stream, a structure protecting us from the acid rain.
“I brought you a metaphor.”
Death Stranding’s multiplayer aspects function as both criticism of online parasocial relationships and a strong metaphor for themes of togetherness and worker solidarity. Crossing the lonely wasteland encourages players to build narratives in their minds. Stumbling upon new bridges and seeing the names of familiar players, it’s easy to believe you know something about them. I noted how one player seemed to place their structures in areas with heavy foot traffic, maximizing “likes.” Another always seemed a step ahead, building exactly what was needed with care and consideration. You build affection for some players, annoyance for others. The opportunists, the caregivers. You crave “likes” and engagement because it feels good to have something, anything in the wasteland. One time, I built the start of a highway outside of a distribution center and woke up to find the road had been expanded by someone else. My initial structure has thousands of likes. Later on, returning to it, someone else’s name was presented as the owner and they had even more praise than I’d received. Who was this asshole, swooping in to take implicit responsibility for something I had built? I bet he’s the kind of person who steals people’s jokes on Twitter. These thoughts are, of course, nonsense. There’s no more sense to our interaction than whatever meaning I brought to it. Yet I cannot help but believe I know who they are, and accept that they’ve undoubtedly formed their own thoughts about me.
In practice, building structures and expanding pathways creates more camaraderie than contention. There’s no denying the strange narrative context underpinning it all—we were, after all, extending from coast to coast in an effort to make America whole again—but the effect of these mechanics is more romantic than unfortunate. Countless workers, united in the solidarity of their task, creating public and functional means to allow essential services to continue. The work mattered enough that players had each other’s backs and tended to the essential parts without prompting. Death Stranding waxes poetic about intertwining souls and bonds that last from one world to the next. If love, sadness or duty could move from the land of the living to the dead, then perhaps these feelings of pride and solidarity can shift from the digital to the actual. We made something; we helped each other. Video game or not, there’s a comfort in that. It turns out that being an Amazon worker in the apocalypse isn’t so bad when solidarity prevails.
The larger world of Death Stranding is far from idyllic. Scattered throughout the broken continent are pockets of hoarders know as MULEs, as well as other terrorists, all of whom are eager to steal Sam’s cargo. These human adversaries provide a different challenge from BTs. If you want to pilfer MULE supplies or rob caches from terrorists, you still can engage in some stealth action, as you would with BTs. High grass and natural obstacles provide plenty of means for ingress, and gear like a bola gun and rope to tie up enemies let you incapacitate foes. The other option is loud and hectic, and just as worthwhile. With the right arsenal, it’s possible to descend upon an enemy camp like a marauding archangel, firing away with non-lethal rounds—killing a human would produce a BT, after all—and causing frantic firefights that reward prize resources and gear.
This is the most obvious vestige of Metal Gear Solid’s DNA. While Death Stranding is not an action game, it does handle action well when needed. This extends to boss fights, which I cannot spoil here except to say that they range from stealth guerilla affairs to biblical clashes that would feel right at home in Yoko Taro’s Drakengard. Violence is a last resort, and Death Stranding is best experienced in a careful and stealthy fashion, but when the time comes for the silence to break and explosions to ring out, it’s powerful. Not everything can be solved with a bridge. Combat is a hard truth, and one that always feels dirty and messy.
All of this is work. Death Stranding is a long and grueling game, but that grind and sweat is fundamentally important to its identity. After the initial plot is set up, the next 40 to 50 hours are devoted to quiet hikes and desperate forays with only a few plot punctuations. In Death Stranding, labor is key, and offering any convenience to the player outside of a few weapons and gadgets would rub against the game’s themes. If players are meant to value connections, they need to be alone for hours.
I did have a constant companion in these journeys: my friend and colleague Tim Rogers. We have talked for hours in his darkened office, chatted relentlessly over Slack messages. Plenty of it was goofing for goofs’ sake but when the time came for us to think about the world design, Tim spoke clearly.
“Games build excitement out of parts a filmmaker would edit,” he told me.
I can think of the moment that was most clear to me. Multiple hours spent in snowy mountains assembling underappreciated ziplines and shelters had taken its toll. I was playing a portion of Death Stranding that was miserable, which gave me the harshest environment and robbed me of essential tools. Cold lapped at my face, steel girders popped out of the snow like massive crucifixes. For two nights, all I knew was snow and acid rot. All I knew was white. Then I came over a ridge and saw green again. Glorious, growing grass. I wish I had the words to describe what it meant to see the color green again. It wouldn’t have mattered nearly as much if I didn’t put in all that goddamn work beforehand. I don’t think you can do that with a montage or smash cut.
For all of Kojima’s pretensions as a would-be filmmaker, for all of the celebrity casting and cameos from his famous friends, not to mention the corniness of the Monster Energy Drink brand deal (drinking the stuff in-game will fill your stamina gauge), the glue that holds everything together is how well Death Stranding works as a game. While a majority of the time is spent wandering, it’s never pointless, and even the emptier interactions—what does it even mean to “like” a stranger, anyway?—contribute to a whole that is always asking you to consider something. That can be the uncomfortable implications of American expansionism, the current era of Trumpism, the disastrous effects of climate change, the vapid but reassuring nature of social media, the raw physicality of bodies, or broader notions of labor. It’s all there, and it’s wrapped into a game that is both hard work and rewarding to play.
The strongest story in Death Stranding is the one told by its systems, but the cut-scenes and other narrative elements are still captivating, a slow burn that starts with quiet character moments and ends with a mountain-high pile-up of plots and motivations. Death Stranding takes a long time to define its world, and still leaves plenty to implication when the credits roll. There’s a lore database for learning some terms, but Death Stranding comfortably luxuriates in ambiguity before exploding outward into excessive action. Buried under all of the sci-fi terminology is a simple story; once everyone’s motivations have been laid bare, it’s not nearly as complicated one might imagine based on the game’s bizarre trailers. Death Stranding is ultimately more impressive in the raw sensory overload than in the moment to moment plot, but it’s hard to deny how much of an improvement its storytelling technique is when compared to Metal Gear Solid V’s lumbering monologues and swooping camera movements. Death Stranding, for all its convolution and visual excess, is evocative and often moving.
Much of this is owed to how much the actors commit to their roles, even if they’re often tasked with spouting overwrought metaphors or clumsy exposition dumps. There’s a sense that everyone knows this is a little bullshit, and that winking edge comes hand in hand with a larger commitment to the story as a whole. It’s more like watching opera or musical theater than a film. At times, its tone comes off more like a sentai show or B-movie, schlocky and sometimes sleazy. There are grand gestures, deep outpourings of emotion, deliberate choreography.
It’s hard not to like Sam Bridges, who faces all of Death Stranding’s bizarreness with a welcome everyman’s weariness, encapsulated in Norman Reedus’ characteristic growl. Troy Baker hams it up as the villainous Higgs, and Léa Seydoux nails the mixture of toughness and raw emotionality as Sam’s close ally ‘Fragile.” Then there’s Mads Mikkelsen, who commands attention every time he’s on screen. Yeah, it’s funny as hell to hear him whisper “I want my BB,” but when the time comes, he puts in the damn work.
Death Stranding sometimes falls into reductive gender tropes, in much the same way that other Kojima games do. This is a story of fatherhood, very often to the expense of the women in the cast. Sam’s ongoing bond with his bridge baby intersects with the story of Mads Mikkelsen’s mysterious villain Cliff, underpinning the main plot’s world-shaking politics with more human and relatable sentiments. But Death Stranding stumbles when the time comes to handle the women and their stories. There are gestures at motherhood themes to go along with the fatherhood themes, such as a storyline that uses ghosts as metaphor for postpartum depression, but this is ultimately a story about men, and one where even the bravest sacrifices of the female characters come hand in hand with the same characteristic leering camerawork of Kojima’s previous games. It’s never so gross as Metal Gear Solid V’s Quiet, but it’s still a noticeable issue that undercuts the narrative’s larger examination of parental pain and sacrifice.
That said, Death Stranding is also just as infatuated with the male body. Whether that’s the sensual framing of Mikkelsen smoking a cigarette or the way the camera moves to ensure you’ve seen just enough of Reedus’ naked body during shower scenes, Death Stranding’s bisexual camera is more interested in men than even the torture-laden, blood licking Metal Gear franchise. The difference is ultimately in how lovingly men are framed compared to women, both by the literal camera and also their place in the larger narrative. Fragile’s body can be marred by timefall, rain lapping at her skin, but it’s still ultimately Léa Seydoux running in the rain as the camera focuses on her ass. Reedus stands naked on a beach, and Mikkelsen rises out of a tar pit, and yeah, it’s sexy, but they’re also allowed far more nobility.
Death Stranding deals with many universal themes—children and their guardians, death, labor—but it is also speaking to more specific current topics as well. At the forefront is a deeply environmentalist sentiment about deteriorating habitats, extreme weather, and societal collapse. As reports flood in about our mounting climate crisis and the resulting cost of inaction, Death Stranding imagines a world where the most extreme conditions fracture the ties that bind the world together. This is evident in the world design, which ranges from rocky shoals and more reasonable terrain to extremely alien topography. There are portions of the map that look more like Mars than Earth, nearly blood red in the color of the sands. Raging snowstorms warp space-time, and sunken cities lurk beneath rising tides of tars.
Death Stranding’s conflict rises to biblical proportions. Many characters believe that humanity is doomed no matter what, that any action forestalling imminent extinction is a band-aid on a mortal wound. After all, with enough time, there’s no doubt that humanity will be little more than dust. Death Stranding has an undercurrent of fatalism that feels very much of the moment. Even as other characters maintain a hope that a better, sustainable future is possible, there is also a quiet acceptance that, you know, maybe we really are struggling in the face of something too big. That the little victories we find might be dwarfed by the larger problems we face. This is never offered as an excuse for idleness; it is clear there is work to do, despite it all. Death Stranding pulls between these two extremes. One that says there is no point. Another that says although the future is unknowable, there’s a duty to fight for something better, even as the sun grows hot, the bodies pile, and world cracks.
This message comes paired with gestures towards modern American politics. “Make America whole again” is the common refrain. In Death Stranding, America is a nation broken, scattered to disparate pockets of people just trying to get by, beset by monsters and marauders. The solution to this issue is suitably quixotic: what if we just fix communication lines between everyone? It’s an idea that doesn’t grapple with some of the more pressing questions of modern American politics—for instance, civil resistance—and one that can seem naive. The fracturing of real-life America is a symptom of a larger systemic problem of bigotry that’s seen a rise in violence and isolationist rhetoric around the world. In the face of this moment, Death Stranding decides that this is fixable. That the politics of division can give way into something more holistic and inclusive. Death Stranding, to its detriment, never quite reckons with its use of American iconography—it is a nation founded on slavery and colonial slaughter—but it still opts to point a finger. Things as they are cannot stand or they will lead to ruin.
The silver lining, of course, is other people. Death Stranding is not a subtle game. The mechanics are the message. Build connections, use those to literally span divides. Even as the story swells to a convoluted chaos that would make Metal Gear Solid 4’s monstrous canon-welding blush, Death Stranding’s most fundamental point is not hard to understand. Yes, this is hell. Yes, we are falling apart. Yes, this might be the end. But there is redemption in other people.