“It’s so hard to make connections when you can’t shake hands” – Troy Baker’s Higgs says this early on in Death Stranding to Norman Reedus’ Sam – and damn it if that sentence doesn’t sum up Australia in July of 2020.
This isn’t going to be a regular review for Death Stranding – I want to get that out of the way first. I’ve written a preview last week about my initial experiences with the PC version of Death Stranding, and you can read that here to see what I thought of the visual upgrade, the move to PC and how the game handles. Then if you want to read about the console release, you can find our original review here.
Death Stranding is a long, slow game that at times can feel like the myth of Sisyphus, that you’re pushing a boulder up a hill before having it fall all the way back down again. It’s a game that moves in centimetres in order to cover kilometres as you’ll walk from one side of America to the other, and talk to every bunker-dweller along the way.
It’s a gorgeous game with very little combat, a frustrating inventory system and incredibly long cutscenes, telling a story that feels halfway through when it starts and doesn’t explain much at all.
But that isn’t new commentary – what I want to talk about in this article is the world of Death Stranding, the world we’re in now and why for me Death Stranding isn’t a perfect game, but for some people, it might be a perfect game for right now.
2020 vision – one step at a time
Releasing Death Stranding in 2020 on PC is a really interesting move. On the one hand, there’s an obvious parity between the game world and the world we’re all living in now. One of them features fractured governments struggling to keep their countries together against a vicious virus and internal conflict, and the other is Death Stranding.
Death Stranding lands you squarely in the feet of a post-apocalyptic delivery-man named Sam, who must connect the remaining pieces of the United States in a world where every death can cause an explosion – a void out – that’s akin to a nuclear bomb. Oh, and there are vestiges of the afterlife seeping into our world through the ghosts of the dead and creatures from the other side. It’s a lot to take in, but it is an interesting world and one that I personally found intriguing.
Years ago I found the inherent value in games that allow you to leave your body for a few hours and land squarely in someone else’s shoes. Over the last five years, I’ve spent a cumulative total of about six months stuck in hospital following major spinal surgeries, then add onto that months and months of rehab and movement therapy. But this isn’t a story about that so much as what it taught me.
Hospitals are boring, exhausting, infuriating places that run on schedules – you see the same doctors and nurses in the morning, during the day and in the evening. For a couple of hours you might get a visitor and then you’ll get fed. Other than that it’s a lot of bad midday TV and waiting, stuck inside your own mind trying to ignore whatever put you in that bed.
My saving grace was my Nintendo DS with Pokémon. When I was home, it was my PS4 and The Witcher 3 and when I could move away from the couch and sit up later, my PC.
Passing time between medication or food or exercise is easier when you can be someone else, go somewhere else and feel powerful when you’re anything but.
There’s an inherent frustration with being stuck to one place, whether it’s in a hospital bed watching nurses and doctors come and go day in, day out – or stuck at home under lockdown and walking from the bed, to your desk to work and back again in cycles. Because that’s where many of us have found ourselves over the past few months.
The feeling of overwhelming frustration that comes with being cooped up can only really be described as having itchy feet. In either way it is a yearning desire to get out, to see the world and just to look beyond your own four walls for a few hours.
PC gaming, tech and the threat of tomorrow
Huge swathes of the western world have been locked down for months on end, as I myself have been working from home since February. Death Stranding being released to PC right now, at this time and to a world cooped up inside and frustrated beyond belief – this could well be the second chance this game needed.
In my own opinion, the original release of Death Stranding had a number of shortcomings, the chief amongst it being expectations. Fans of Hideo Kojima’s work at Konami thought they were getting a big juicy steak and they actually got fish.
Nothing wrong with that, just not what they expected, no one’s fault.
Newcomers to Kojima’s style might have thought it was too slow, too long, and filled with more unexplained theories than an avant-garde philosopher’s crumpled pages. Then there’s the star power, a massive game filled with big-name actors with plenty of screen time to go around and a graphics engine that is in itself gorgeous, but does make you wonder – should this have been a film?
Then again, in 2020 we’ve seen how in response to the lockdowns across the globe. Twitch viewership has skyrocketed, game sales are up and people stuck at home are spending more time than ever on their computers.
Outside of my day job I’m the editor of Checkpoint, a mental health charity devoted to the benefits of mental health in gaming. And only a few weeks ago I edited this story about a young man who learned to cope with depression and anxiety through gaming, and Death Stranding helped him cope.
In the same way that I did through my time in the hospital, he found an outlet in games that led him to a better mental place. That makes me think about how we play games, what draws us to one story over another and what we take from a game that informs our ordinary life.
That was a few weeks ago now, and I approached these weeks playing Death Stranding through that lens; of someone stuck at home, yearning to escape, and think back to how I felt at a similar time.
To take it back to what challenged Death Stranding on console, take a look at the PC audience. I’ve been a PC gamer first and foremost forever, and surprise surprise, it isn’t because of the RGB. No, it’s because there are experiences on PC that just don’t fly on consoles. Every major release, I do make the decision between playing it on my PC or my console and at the end of the day it comes down to the game and how I want to play it.
My PC is for strategy titles like Total War, Civilization or Frostpunk. It’s also for RPGs like Divinity or XCOM. But most importantly here, simulators like American Trucking Simulator and narrative games like What Remains of Edith Finch.
And that is precisely where Death Stranding lands for me.
A visually striking, well made narrative experience that takes the time and attention of a story-driven narrative title and blends in the long-road simulation of a trucking game. Death Stranding isn’t a game I’d put on when friends are over, but it’s one I’ll play on a Sunday afternoon, with a dark beer, a bag of Skittles and it’s raining outside
Because when you’re stuck inside, stuck in a bed, or stuck at work, games can still let your mind do what your body can’t.
So yes, Death Stranding is beautiful in the way the blasted volcanic landscape of Iceland is beautiful. It’s a slow game that prefers you not to ask questions, but just to sit along for the ride. So while it is hard to make connections right now, especially as you can’t shake hands, Death Stranding’s focus on forging connections, restarting a society and venturing out into an unsafe world might be a little taste of much-needed catharsis.
It still has all the same issues it did when we first reviewed it and for that reason, it isn’t a game for everyone, but might be great game food right now.
Death Stranding was played on PC using a digital early access code provided by 505 Games.