Games

I Still Don’t Understand ‘Death Stranding’ (and That’s a Good Thing)

It may only be a few months until launch, but Death Stranding remains shrouded in mystery. This first independent project from gaming auteur Hideo Kojima has been an enigma ever since it was first announced. When the world first saw Norman Reedus standing on a foggy shoreline with a weeping fetus in his arms, many questions naturally arose. Why is a celebrity actor cradling an unborn child on a beach? What kind of gameplay could we expect from this? And what does “Death Stranding” even mean, anyway?

Years may have passed since that initial reveal, but in my view at least, these questions still haven’t been fully answered. I simply do not understand Death Stranding. It’s confounded me like few games before it have – and yet, that may be the very best thing about it. There’s something enticing about that mystery. Death Stranding could create an experience unlike any game before it, and while I can’t claim to understand it, I’m certainly excited for it.

Between trailers, interviews, and a fairly hefty amount of gameplay footage, there’s been an increasingly constant stream of information about Death Stranding for over a year now. This is especially true at Gamescom 2019, where the game has had an extensive presence with two full trailers and a live gameplay demonstration. For most games, this extensive amount of coverage should eliminate all the biggest questions, presenting a relatively clear idea of what the final product should be. But consider the content of Death Stranding’s most recent trailers: one consists entirely of an exposition dump about the power and proper maintenance of jarred fetuses, while another opens with Norman Reedus urinating in a field to create a giant mushroom before dropping off a package for Geoff Keighley. Previous trailers show ruined cities overflowing with tar, gold-masked lion monsters, and levitating shadow creatures. If you can make heads or tails of all that, then you’re certainly cleverer than I.

With every new piece of information, I find it more difficult to wrap my head around the game. Even with the few concrete details known about it, Death Stranding continues to defy simple categorization. Although it features stealth elements, it certainly doesn’t seem like another Metal Gear; while it will have a massive open world, it doesn’t look like it will follow in the footsteps of signature modern open worlds like Horizon Zero Dawn or Breath of the Wild; and though it tells a story about reconnecting the broken cities of a post-apocalyptic United States, its mixture of stealth, politics, and the supernatural make it distinct from most other narrative-focused games out there. Each trailer introduces another wrinkle to the perplexing web of Kojima’s latest vision.

It is this very ambiguity that makes Death Stranding so enticing. With most games, it’s easy to understand them based on a quick glance at their trailer alone. This will reveal their genre, their personality, any unique gimmicks – all the usual culprits. But with Death Stranding, the more we learn about it, the more the mystery grows. At this point, it’s even difficult to pin the game into a single genre. Only the most ambitious games manage to create genres of their own, but from what we’ve seen so far, Death Stranding looks like it could be one of them. It could simply be little more than excellent marketing, but knowing that Kojima’s unbridled imagination is behind it, my hopes are high.

Death Stranding

It would make sense for Death Stranding to be so inventive given the circumstances behind its creation. For years, Kojima’s corporate overlords at Konami had stifled his creativity as they moved the company’s focus away from Kojima’s traditional titles like Metal Gear and Silent Hill towards more immediately lucrative pursuits such as mobile platforms and pachinko machines. Now that Kojima has freed himself from those restrictions and formed an independent studio of his own, his vision can run more freely than ever before. It’s to be expected that, finally presented with the opportunity to fully express his vision, he’d do so by creating something truly daring, something never seen before.

Of course, as attractive as the intrigue around Death Stranding may be, it doesn’t change that it’s difficult to really judge a game without knowing much about it at all. With so many important details remaining unspecified, there’s no telling whether Death Stranding will actually achieve its clear ambitions. If I were to view things pessimistically, I’d posit that the game’s ambiguity could be nothing more than an elaborate marketing scheme meant to mask the lackluster game beneath it. While I’m certainly much more optimistic about the game than that, I can’t deny the very real possibility that it could be the case.

But at the end of the day, I simply cannot resist the romantic allure of a game so surrounded by mystery. The core of Death Stranding may be wrapped in an inscrutable fog, but Kojima uses this layer of secrecy to invite players to experience a game that is truly new, an all-too-rare commodity in games today. Kojima hasn’t been free to express his vision so fully for years now, but at long last he has his chance. I cannot comprehend Death Stranding, and that’s exactly why I’m so excited for it.

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