What's wrong with everybody in Death Stranding? Its cities are empty apart from holograms sending and receiving packages. Moving the packages is your job, and it is even lonelier work than you’d expect. The survivors living out in the volcanic Nordic/“American” wilderness seal themselves in shelters, greet you via hologram, and send their praise of the postman on in emails rampant with emoji, all written in the same unctuous style. Projections appear on the doorstep of their shelters to acknowledge receipt of a package, in the same words they used to acknowledge the receipt of the last package. The game’s protagonist, Sam, watches the tape loop without comment. For budgetary reasons, he is usually unvoiced by Norman Reedus.
It isn’t hard to understand that in Death Stranding the boundary between life and death has collapsed, society followed suit, and you must “reconnect” the country by visiting different holograms and fixing their internet. Every big idea in Death Stranding will be explained to you by many different characters using exactly the same language, and you cannot fail to learn the vocabulary of its apocalypse (the Beach, the Seam, Ha and Ka, Sixth Extinction) by rote. But you don’t really care, because the people affected by these catastrophes are barely present. It’s hard to understand why you should work so hard to reconnect a nation of animated greeting cards.
Death Stranding couldn’t be farther from Red Dead Redemption 2, another self-indulgent open world project that still took pains to show all of its minor characters exceeding the bounds of their bit roles. They showed up uninvited, feuded with each other, entangled themselves in larger threads of the plot. Here all the preppers and distro managers stay behind glass. You need a significant case of Kojima Brain to delight in the mere appearance of Jordan Vogt-Roberts or Edgar Wright or Junji Ito as one of these colorless projections.
It was during the long trek across the Central Region in Chapter 3, back when I still liked Death Stranding, that I started to feel like the game’s one-sided conversations and stilted, repetitive exchanges might not be an intentional distancing effect by Hideo Kojima, auteur. At first I could work with the excuse that it was part of the all-encompassing trauma and isolation accompanying the Death Stranding event (an email mentions “increased agoraphobia” among survivors). But this was a stretch, as I was surrounded by a network of cheery signs and tools and support from other players, and only felt alienated when I met back up with the cold and boring figures representing humanity. And it snapped once I learned that reconnecting every prepper in the nation does not change those nerds’ behavior in the slightest. In the post-game, the streets are still empty, the shelters still sealed, the shut-ins waiting behind their doors like the fevered citizens of Yharnam. (But Bloodborne also gave those people stories.)
When the game does bother to open one of these doors, to tell a less-than-cosmic tale, it loses its footing completely. Chapter 3’s Order 34 asks Sam to reunite two star-crossed preppers, the Chiral Artist and the Junk Dealer, by carrying the former over to the latter’s house. This is the most involved story written for any character in the game outside of Sam’s colleagues in Bridges (the remainder of the US government), whose monologues fill entire chapters. It’s a pivotal moment—the shut-ins finally emerge from their holes—that showcases the game’s technical resources at the same time it destroys your faith in its storytelling.
Please take the time to watch the cutscenes that bookend this mission. They defy easy summary:
- The floaty, curious camera improves on the direction in older Kojima games like Metal Gear Solid 2, which came off as a glib imitation of his favorite action movies, or Metal Gear Solid V’s JJ Abrams shakycam. It hovers close to faces and bodies, playing to the game’s strengths: investment in costuming, mechanical design, and 3D-scanned expressions. Death Stranding’s faces, and particularly eyes, look far better than its Decima Engine sibling Horizon Zero Dawn.
- It’s pitiless to tether this camera to the Chiral Artist, who sounds like she’s reading her lines off a piece of paper very carefully. You are trapped in this black hole of a performance for eternity; the camera cannot escape its event horizon.
- The mocap for the Chiral Artist in the first cutscene couldn’t look more like a person in an empty studio talking to themselves.
- I have no idea why she begs Sam to agree immediately, when the game knows well that the player must exit the cutscene, reopen the terminal, and click “Take on Orders.” Why add this friction? Was a Yes/No pop-up beyond the resources of Kojima Prod.?
- Can’t the Chiral Artist just put on some waterproof Acronym™ techwear and follow Sam to the Junk Dealer? He does carry Mama later, but she’s almost dead.
- We’d get through this in half the time if the characters didn’t say everything twice. (“I can’t believe you’re alive! I thought you were dead.” “The UCA can count on me. I won’t let you down.”)
- Norman Reedus says nothing for this entire sequence!
The mission becomes more inane in retrospect when emails begin to arrive that reveal the couple has broken up following all of this. The Chiral Artist writes that she made the trip back to her mother’s house on her own, rendering Sam’s role in the earlier drama even more absurd. An even later email says the couple has gotten back together. Why? The Chiral Artist’s Mother told them both about a previously unknown tragic backstory: as a youth, the Junk Dealer was part of a gang that killed the Chiral Artist’s father, but he helped save the Chiral Artist’s life and repented. Both the Junk Dealer and the Chiral Artist somehow forgot about this.
I’m sorry to spend so much time repeating a story that didn’t bear telling once. But the whole excruciating saga of the Chiral Artist and the Junk Dealer is incredible in its refusal to end. It keeps crawling on, frittering away the little meaning it ever had with additional postscripts. It’s a low point where all of Death Stranding’s narrative issues pool: an extreme disregard for the player’s time, an obvious inability to get Reedus back in the studio, amazement at its own underwhelming twists, and frequent dips past unconventional storytelling into the plainly bad kind.
The Bridges team get more respect than the Chiral Artist. Their cutscenes are more lavish, their voice actors better. They all get monologues explaining their own names: “Heartman,” for example, explains that his real heart is shaped like a cartoon heart, and he regularly stops his heart to simulate death, and he also lives next to a lake that is shaped like a big heart. The game is immensely proud of this trick, as if it was the first man to begin an essay with “The Oxford English Dictionary defines….”
The childish not-quite-wordplay could be a nursery rhyme thing, an attempt to work on the same register as “London Bridge,” which Amelie sings and various Bridges structures hum. In small doses, the repetition can be transcendently stupid, like the “I won’t scatter your sorrow to the heartless sea” scene in MGSV. But Death Stranding doesn’t work in small doses, and it grates. At least Spider-Man does not speak only in spider metaphors, live in a spider-shaped house, and own a spider factory.
In the hours-long pileup of cutscenes that conclude Death Stranding, I lost patience: by the time I learned that “Die-Hardman” was called Die-Hardman because he survived many dicey situations without dying, and because his ideals die hard, and because his real name is John McClane (not a joke), I was past caring. The game doesn’t know when to quit, or how to pace itself; like the Chiral Artist story, or many Kojima stories before it.
To make the case for Death Stranding, you have to excuse so much: the three full chapters of awkward third-person shooting, the slack and spectacle-driven boss fights, the identical rooms and structures and cutscenes you find across the whole US, the character who jokes about his own “boss fight” so lazily that you doubt Kojima remembers why people liked his metafictional shtick in the first place, and one of those plots where one omnipotent character manipulates everyone else in the story every step of the way, for reasons only the most charitable viewers will accept. Or the fact that its core concept of lugging things around is not fun for long—certainly not compared to MGSV’s open missions, which bridged the gap between stealth and action as no other game has. Death Stranding is only exhilarating when you cheat it, taking a road or zipline over the terrorist camp, speeding through a BT field on a motorcycle instead of creeping through.
Early in Death Stranding, I wondered if its strangeness was proof that it was one from the heart, a dreamlike passion project with its own rhythms, like Boorman’s Excalibur, or something. But by the end, it just seemed haphazard, a project that never sketches out the emotional background to support its big ideas, and places hilarious weight on dialogue that simply doesn’t work in English. It’s a game about a wilderness that never feels alive, where you never look at the rocky bottom of the river but at the digital red and yellow Xs painted on the surface of the water, where cold photogrammetry reproduces a world devoid of surprise.
Chris Breault is a writer on the internet.