“A man only needs one thing in life. He just needs someone to love. If you can’t give him that, then give him something to hope for. And if you can’t give him that, just give him something to do.” - Flight of the Phoenix
Sometimes I think my love language is fetch quests.
I’m playing a video game called Death Stranding. I play a character named Sam. Sam’s a delivery man. The world has suffered an apocalyptic event, but there’s still a few people left, and they would very much like their stuff in the mail. Most of the stuff is of scientific interest or food supplies. Sometimes, it’s artifacts of the past, like movies or video games. All of it goes on Sam’s back, and most of it is heavy. The game is about how that stuff makes walking harder. It’s about other stuff too, but mostly that.
Sam is never not exhausted. When you enter a resting area, the same video always plays. Sam collapses on a bed. He lets out a sound of incredible relief. Whatever you just got done doing is over. You can sleep a while. My favourite cutscene in the game is one where Sam falls asleep mid-conversation. It’s a terrific moment of character development. I bought it completely. Sam is not a video game character with a lot of get up and go. Sam mostly wants to be left alone, and he mostly wants to do nothing.
I’ve been a Nintendo customer most of this century. Most of my time spent playing games has been on the 3DS. I own a Switch. It’s great. Nintendo has gone a long while using art styles to cover up graphical infidelity. But this game is on another level. I know now what I missed out on by choosing the less powerful consoles this decade. This is the first game I’ve played that takes advantage of a new graphics card. Death Stranding doesn’t have an art style so much as everything looks three steps back from actual life.
The character models occasionally gave me the uncanny valley willies. Usually, it happened around the teeth. Tongues are still hard for 3D modeling.
Sam is running forward. His feet jump from rock to rock. In most 3D open world games, when I run up a hill, my avatar doesn’t act any differently than running on flat ground. The characters act the same on snow and sand and water. But in Death Stranding, slight wind affects Sam’s gait. If I pack his gear off-balance, walking is difficult. I liberally use the F key in the menu, which organizes packages automatically. I click it once, and a ten-foot pile of suitcases becomes a five-foot pile, with the rest strapped to Sam’s arms and legs. Then it’s one foot in front of the other to the next fallout shelter.
Most characters live inside bunkers, shelters, and military houses because the apocalyptic event made it so rain prematurely ages everything except Sam’s jumper. The rain is also where the ghosts are. Rain makes time pass faster, and it erodes the earth and also all your stuff. The rain is, like a lot of things in this game, a pretty heavy-handed metaphor. Time hits different now.
This is the first video game I’ve played with a keyboard. Hold down W to walk forward. A and D sidestep. S walks backward. V punches and kicks. C crouches. Alt holds Sam’s breath. The mouse moves both the camera and Sam’s walking direction. Sam moves slower than the camera, so he’s always catching up a bit to your direction. Maneuvering Sam is a bit like riding a horse. Occasionally, Sam will slow himself down. He might dodge on his own. The game communicates something important here. Your inputs affect Sam, but you’re not Sam.
The other characters in the game serve two purposes: give Sam stuff to deliver, and fill him in on their plan to save the world from total extinction. Everyone’s name means at least two more things. Die-hardmans’ deal is all about how he sometimes wants to die but can’t. Deadman feels like a mystery until you piece together the reason behind his Boris Karloff scar across his forehead. Heartman gives himself a cardiac arrest every twenty minutes for sci-fi reasons. The naming schemes are cute, but it would have been better if every character didn’t so obviously spell it out to Sam. “Without a future, my life is just ends at a cliff,” says the character named Cliff. Higgs calls himself “a particle of God,” which gives away his goon nature. Amalie spells out her name and translates it so you’ll go “oooh”. Fragile has a whole catchphrase.
Then one of these people gives Sam a delivery, and it’s up to me to figure out how to get Sam across a field of debris.
Sam is driving a truck. I’m elated when I unlock the truck, because I can start moving freight at 10x Sam’s previous weight limit. I start to grind out deliveries. An hour goes by. I’ve gone back and forth between the same five locations. Then, Deadman tells me all about the MULEs, bands of people just like me who went crazy from the thrill of delivering things. The next person I deliver stuff to tells me that there’s no shame in taking a break from time to time. I save the game, and go for a walk.
One wasted opportunity for empathy is with the MULEs. I love them as a metaphor, both for “completionists” who must 100% their experience, and for overwork hustle culture. These people have gone mad from working too much.
But there’s nothing you can do for them. You can save America. You can reconnect preppers and cynics and Conan O Brian, but these people—people with whom you share a profession—are just lost causes. The only thing you can do is knock them out.
Which, I guess, means they at least get to rest.
I’m playing this game in the winter of 2021, a year into a global pandemic. I’m delivering packages to people who are staying away from the big danger, and Sam has a fear of being touched. The game’s themes are about human connection and how difficult that is when living a normal life is impossible now. The game was released in late 2019, which means it’s at least somewhat prophetic. At least, it gets to sit alongside Kid A predicted 9/11 as strange coincidences. It feels like pandemic fiction, and it’s one of the few pieces of media that explores the current physical and emotional plague.
I’m not sure why Sam does this job. There doesn’t seem to be any payment. The only food he eats are little bugs he finds along the way. Before he’s tasked with saving the country by heading west, why was he working at all?
I’m recording my gameplay. I’ve never done this before. I’ve never had the means. And I forget sometimes, so there’re parts of my play-through I don’t have. There’s fifty gigs of video on my hard drive now. I stream some of it on Twitch. I’m playing a game and offering a performance and creating files I’ll use for a possible video of this essay. I’m not good at this yet. Why am I doing this? Just because it’s something to do? Just to see if I can?
Sam is climbing a snowy mountain. In a squall, visibility gets reduced to inches. I check the map every five seconds in case he gets turned around. He definitely gets turned around. I accidentally drop Sam off a cliff. I have to walk around this part again. The mistake hurts. The baby is crying.
There’s a baby strapped to Sam’s chest for sci-fi reasons. They have a whole thing going on. Sometimes the baby gives me a thumbs up, and it appears on-screen, a Facebook like manifested. Other characters send me thumbs-ups throughout the entire game. It means nothing, but it’s nice. It’s the first time in years a social network feature hasn’t caused me anxiety.
Death Stranding is single-player, but there are moments of connection with other players. Like with the characters in the game, the “moments of connection” is usually stuff to carry. At every shelter, you see orders left behind by other players that you can fulfill. Sometimes, players will leave weapons and materials for anyone to use. Ladders, ropes, and bridges used by other players out in the world appear in your world too, as if to say “Just because I’m not really here doesn’t mean I can’t help you.” You can load yourself up with gifts from other players, and the weight can crush you. There must be some algorithmic magic at play here so I only see some of these objects. Otherwise, the world would just be a sea of player items. The point of this network is to make the game less brutal, sure, but maybe also to show that we can build a social network to help. These things don’t have to become Twitter. They can be for good, too. No negativity, just vibes.
Eventually, I unlock the ziplines. Every 300 metres, I can drop a giant metal fork that connects the entire joint with hook shot wires. After I unlocked them, I always carried at least two little suitcases that made more ziplines. The game becomes about making sure you place them in places without obstructions. Ziplines make you immune to the bad guys, and you go Sonic fast. Sam will let out a “yeah!” while riding them. This is fun video game stuff.
Sam states early on that has no connection to anything alive. His only connection is with the figurative embodiment of the end of the world. “No ties to anyone but you,” he says to Bridget, the princess in another castle. He was raised by a figurative death. No wonder he fears human connection.
But eventually, Sam gives the baby a name. Over fifty hours, I watch him grow as a character, until there’s a room of characters cheering him on for becoming a more realized human being. They’ve all grown a bit, too (and in one case, uh, merged?) and Sam has affected them all in positive ways. They all but say “congratulations” while applauding.
Stunt casting is a two-way street. It’s cool to see such prestigious actors in a video game (though I’m always appreciative of it). I am playing as Sam, performed by Norman Reedus. That tension never drops. Norman never fully disappears. Anytime Mads Mikkelsen came on screen, I thought “hey, there’s Mads Mikkelsen.” I rarely thought of him as Cliff. Kojima cast Guillermo Del Toro and Nicolas Winding Refn, and there’s a cameo by Conan O Brian. These are insane things to do.
Here’s a reach (but this game seems to reward the reach): Del Toro and Refn were captured as 3D models, but their voices are performed by different actors. Both characters talk pretty endlessly about “Ha and Ka,” the games’ sci-fi word-soup that roughly translates to “body” and “soul.” Both characters theorize in different ways how Ha and Ka can exist separate from one another sometimes, causing interesting phenomena. Every other major actor voices their own dialogue (though the minor cast has plenty of splits). It’s just those two that are separated. It’s great subtext, or at least a neat coincidence.
That’s not to say there aren’t moments where the surprises work. My favourite twist was Cliff’s, and the specific BB he’s after.
I’ve steered Sam around a whole continent. Together, we’ve connected everyone via some sci-fi version of the internet. It’s maybe made the world more dangerous. There have been side effects of connecting people. Monsters appear more often. And just in time, there’s a big plot twist. That princess is in yet another castle, and also it’s maybe the same princess from Braid. And then I have to take Sam all the way back.
I adore the pacifist notions in Kojima games. Kojima games are often violent. There is also a button on the controller that lets you shoot people. But Kojima games are also always about violence, and usually how violence is not the answer. This game lets you kill people, but it comes with a massive punishment. Now you have a body to deal with, and if you don’t take it to an incinerator, it will become a ghost and make your life worse. I was so happy to see that I could play this game with non-lethal ammunition. My favourite weapon was the bola gun, which fired a wire that tied up bad guys Batman-66-style. It never grew old.
The final boss fight happens five hours before the end of the game. It’s a one-on-one fistfight with the specter goon that’s been haunting us all game long. After you kick and punch him enough, you both end up in the muck. The scene transitions to a side-by-side Street Fighter scene, with health bars and everything. This is Kojima at his cheeky best. In both deflating the gravitas of taking out the big bad, he reminds us what’s up. We’re not in a fight for our lives. We’re playing a game. Have fun.
Sam has one last delivery to make. As I steer Sam over some shallow rivers, the camera pans back farther than it ever has. A pretty song plays. He’s not in any danger. I haven’t mentioned this yet, but walking around in this world can be soothing. At the end, it hammers the soothing bit home. Sitting at my computer, I got a little of that feeling of taking a pleasant hike in the woods. I get into that flow state. This moment lets you really enjoy the walking. There’s nothing horrible left. And then it’s over.