In Death Stranding, your character Sam carries a small baby in an orange bottle strapped to his chest. It stays with him at all times. The child, called a BB, is essentially a tool: it alerts Sam to ghostly apparitions called BTs, which dot the post-apocalyptic landscape he must traverse. The whole situation is unsettling. BB cries when it gets scared — whether it’s because of imminent danger or because you keep falling down a slippery mountain — and the haunting sound is piped through the speaker on the PS4 controller. This makes it even more unsettling.
Over the course of the game, which lasts upwards of 50 hours, my feelings toward BB changed. At first, it was an uncomfortable nuisance, but eventually, I became attached to the kid. When it cried, I’d find a safe space to rock it until it calmed down, and I always made sure to check on it when we’d bunk for the night. During the few moments in the game when Sam and BB were separated, it felt like something important was missing.
The relationship between Sam and BB mirrors my experience with Death Stranding, the latest epic game from enigmatic director Hideo Kojima, who is best known for his work on the Metal Gear Solid series. It’s not a game that makes itself easy to enjoy. There are few concessions for uninterested players. It’s ponderously slow, particularly in the early chapters, which largely consist of delivering packages over staggering distances. Early conversations are filled with phrases and words that will be incomprehensible to the uninitiated — and, honestly, much of it remains a mystery after the credits roll. But over time, that sense of bewilderment slipped away. Eventually, I found myself engrossed, digging deep into the game’s arcane lore to understand, as best I could, what was going on. It’s not easy to get to this point.
Death Stranding is a game that seems to fight you every step of the way, whether it’s with clunky menus or nonsensical dialogue. It can be downright boring, but there’s also beauty and heart to discover if you can stick with it.
Death Stranding takes place in a distant future, one that has been ravaged by a largely unexplained phenomenon called the death stranding. It wiped out cities and almost all life while opening a gate between the worlds of the living and dead. Those ghostly BTs haunt forests and mountains, and certain humans called repatriates are able to return to life from a strange underwater space known as the Seam. Sam, played by Norman Reedus, is one of these repatriates. He’s also something of a post-apocalyptic delivery man, shuttling supplies from one settlement to the next. Early in the game, he’s given a particularly ambitious task: reunite America (now known as the UCA, or United Cities of America) by traveling across the country, connecting settlements to a sort of internet-like network. At the same time, Sam is trying to reach the west coast of the country to rescue his sister who has been captured by a terrorist organization.
It’s a lot to take in, and the game doesn’t do much to ease you into its world. Characters throw out terms like “DOOMs,” “chiral network,” and “stillmother” without explaining what they mean. For the first few hours, you will likely have no idea what’s going on. Luckily, the gameplay is much more straightforward than the storytelling. Initially, all you’re doing is walking. The company you work for, Bridges, will provide a package, and you have to deliver it on foot. Like most video game characters, Sam can carry an incredible amount of stuff; but unlike his contemporaries, Sam has to account for everything he carries. Before you set out on each mission, you have to carefully arrange your load — from healing items to precious cargo — so that Sam can stay balanced.
The remnants of America look like a postcard from a particularly dreary day in Iceland. Much of your time is spent amid a steady drizzle and rocky terrain, punctuated by the occasional brutalist structure housing the remains of humanity. Your main adversary, at least in the early going, is gravity. With the uneven landscape and copious packages to deliver, Sam has to stay balanced in order to keep his precious cargo safe. You do this by adjusting straps on your back. The trigger buttons on the PS4 controller handle each side, so if Sam starts tipping to the left, you hit the left trigger and he tightens up his backpack to keep steady. Essentially, this means that while all you’re really doing is walking, you need to stay intently focused. One small slip, and your cargo can be ruined. At times, Death Stranding can feel like a big-budget remake of QWOP. Other times, it’s achingly beautiful as you stumble through a ruined landscape while ambient rock plays in the background.
Gear is an important part of the experience. You’ll have access to ladders and ropes to help you traverse difficult terrain, and eventually, you can drive vehicles like trucks and motorcycles. It’s a slow burn, though; new upgrades come at a glacial pace, making each one feel significant and important. The first time you hop into the seat of a pickup truck, you’ll be overcome with joy. (Though that might be short-lived when your battery dies in the middle of nowhere.) There are also other obstacles, including terrorists who are obsessed with stealing packages and those pesky BTs that you have to slowly stalk past, holding your breath to avoid being detected. If you get caught, you’ll be thrust into battle with a massive squid-like monster swimming in tar.
The process can be incredibly tedious, and it’s not made any easier by Death Stranding’s clunky menus and controls. But it also makes a certain kind of sense. These trips should feel arduous — and they do. It may not be fun, per se, but it’s in keeping with the themes of the game. Death Stranding takes the prototypical video game fetch quest and stretches it out to epic proportions.
As you make deliveries, you’ll slowly learn more about the world. You’ll discover what happened to America, what a BT really is, and plenty more. It won’t all make a lot of sense, but you’ll hear plenty about it. Some of this will come from talking to the people as you make deliveries, who, after complimenting you on your delivery skills, will usually explain why they do or don’t want to join the UCA. (If they don’t, that means making even more deliveries to change their mind.) There are also plentiful cutscenes in which characters with typically Kojima-esque names like Fragile, Heartman, and Die-Hardman will opine about the state of the world and how to fix it. Much of the real nitty-gritty details come from optional sources, like the many emails you can read through to learn about the history and science of the world.
Death Stranding touches on all kinds of contemporary issues, particularly when it comes to technology. Sam is essentially a part of the gig economy, taking on a constant stream of small jobs, which range from disposing of nuclear weapons to delivering a pizza. You’re able to replenish your supplies via 3D printing — that includes everything from weapons to ropes to motorcycles — and you can even automate some of your deliveries by sending out a two-legged drone on simple missions. Meanwhile, seemingly the only non-human animal to survive is an enlarged version of a tardigrade, which is Sam’s main form of sustenance. But the game never really explores these subjects in much detail, instead focusing almost entirely on its own insular story of ghost-detecting babies and the end of the world.
The game is, for the most part, painfully self-serious. Don’t expect to see Sam smile much; he even has a curious allergy that causes him to cry while staring at the sky. The world is eerily empty — you don’t see the people in the cities, aside from a hologram of whoever is in charge of the distribution center — and it’s perpetually bleak and gray.
At times, though, Death Stranding can be downright silly and occasionally veers into plain stupidity. For some reason, the only brand to survive the apocalypse is Monster energy drinks, which Sam drinks to regain stamina. And when he goes to the bathroom, you’ll see an advertisement for AMC’s reality show Ride with Norman Reedus. One of the strangest aspects of Death Stranding involves the creation of grenades. As a repatriate, Sam’s blood is deadly to his ghostly enemies, and the scientists at Bridges use this to create all kinds of weapons. But it turns out that all of his bodily fluids can cause harm as well. Whenever you rest up in your room, you have the option to shower or go to the bathroom, and everything is collected to replenish your armory. One of the grenade types is called the “number two.” Later in the game, a sick character is diagnosed with “jet lag on a molecular level.”
Meanwhile, in true Kojima style, there are many fourth wall-breaking moments. Sam will acknowledge the camera, sometimes pointing you to where he wants to go or simply winking, and if you look at his crotch too long, he’ll get angry. There are bosses that call themselves bosses and a handful of other moments that poke fun at video game tropes. There are also a lot of celebrity cameos — and not just the main cast, which includes Reedus, Mads Mikkelsen, Léa Seydoux, Guillermo del Toro, and Margaret Qualley. Explore a bit further, though, and you’ll meet a cosplay-obsessed survivor played by Conan O’Brien or a character called simply “the film director” played by Kong: Skull Island director Jordan Vogt-Roberts.
As weird and silly as all of this can be, it does produce some truly human, touching moments. Despite their ridiculous names, the cast of Death Stranding is interesting and even lovable. I found myself pushing on late into the night to find out about Heartman’s quest to find his family, and I eagerly listened every time Deadman told me his latest research on the nature of BBs. It’s a surprisingly small group of main characters, considering this is a game that lasts dozens of hours, but each one feels well-developed in their own way. By the end, when everyone bands together Avengers-style, it’s genuinely touching. The first time Fragile says “I’m not that fragile,” you’ll probably roll your eyes. But eventually, you can’t help but smile when she says it.
The same goes for many of the minor characters who have their own tragic backstories. Even some of the smaller moments add to this sense of humanity, whether it’s forcing Sam to take a shower after a long, gross journey or a button that lets you simply sit down and enjoy a moment of peace. The juxtaposition between goofy and dramatic lends the game its own particular flavor.
Over the course of Death Stranding’s lengthy run time, I spent hours with these people, read over their correspondence, and literally walked across the entirety of America trying to bring them all together. By the end, I can’t say that I fully understood exactly what was going on. In fact, as Death Stranding approaches its climax, around the same time I felt I was finally coming to grips with everything, it somehow becomes even more convoluted. But ultimately, that didn’t matter much. Yes, the mysteries are a big part of the draw, and it’s disappointing that you won’t get all of the answers you’re looking for. And even some of the ones you do get don’t make a lot of sense. (Just wait until you learn BB’s origin story.)
To fully embrace Death Stranding, you have to let go of that desire to know everything. Much like watching Lost or playing pretty much any JRPG, the overall narrative is just a means to an end. It’s a setup for creating dramatic, emotional moments. It’s not always easy to get to those moments, and you’ll have to suspend your disbelief quite often to fully enjoy them, but for a certain kind of player, that long, exhausting journey will be worth the effort.