Despite having not played a Hideo Kojima game since the original Metal Gear Solid back in 1998, I decided it was time to break that lengthy drought by picking up the new social media/gig economy/Norman Reedus simulator, Death Stranding, so I could see just how weird the preceding two decades had made the gaming world’s most notable auteur. Within an hour, all of my wildest hopes for pure video game absurdity had been met thanks to a crying baby attached to my suit and Academy Award winning director Guillermo del Toro informing me that he stole my fluids while I was unconscious to study them. If I had hit the power button then and never returned, my investment would’ve been worth it, but fortunately I kept going and soon discovered the true draw and greatest achievement of Death Stranding – the links between all the players undertaking this massive journey together.
At first, the connections between the players are relatively simplistic. As you progress through the post apocalyptic United States hooking up various outposts to this world’s version of the internet, the Chiral Network, you start to receive help from equipment like ropes and ladders other players have left to make paths easier to traverse. Thanks to the game’s preoccupation with social media “likes”, you can even thank the players who left them as you make your way to your next delivery, and receiving a “like” back for your own cleverly located hiking aids delivers just the right dopamine fix to keep you going. It’s a fantastic addition that sets the game apart and helps the vast wasteland feel less abysmally lonely. Eventually, what could have become a simple gimmick turns into something much more engrossing in the game’s third chapter thanks to the addition of the game’s most brilliant invention – road pavers.
Upon leaving Lake Knot City, a nice politely beeping robotic structure offered me the chance to add resources to help build a massive road. Low on supplies at the time, I added what I could and moved on down the harsh terrain unsure of what dangers awaited me from MULEs (think terrorists obsessed with stealing packages in a world that doesn’t have 5 billion Amazon boxes sitting on front porches), timefall (think acid rain that has the unique property of aging whatever it touches), B.T.’s (think ghosts but creepier), or good old fashioned uneven footing. Each time I passed another paver, I offered what little I had and continued on my merry way until I reached an outpost well south of Lake Knot City to learn that I had to go all the way back to my starting location for my next delivery featuring a ton of cargo and a wealth of now known hazards. As I gave off a deep sigh and resigned myself to my fate, I was shocked to discover that those roads I had begun had been finished by other players. Suddenly, I had a fast and direct route to stay out of harm’s way, and even better, the “likes” were flooding in from people pleased with my roads. My shamefully low Bridge Link (the measure of how connected you are to the other players in the game) shot up 57 levels in a single go, and I was hooked on building roads.
Roughly the next 10 hours or so of game time would have one focus and one focus only – building as many roads as possible to assist my fellow porters. Sure, my main quest as the aptly named Sam Porter Bridges was to continue linking the rest of the outposts to the Chiral Network to reconnect the world, but that could stand a detour to make things a hell of a lot easier for everyone else out there. Less than half the total distance from Lake Knot City to South Knot City had received the necessary infrastructure upgrades, so I had my work cut out for me. Over the next several days, I had a blast logging in and finding new ridiculous ways to transport the required supplies to each increasingly hard to reach paver. At times, I felt like Santa Claus in a stolen MULE truck loaded to the brim with ceramics and metals, and at other times I felt like the world’s biggest idiot when I’d get my transport stuck inside of a canyon and be forced to carry the goods the rest of the way on foot. Whether I was being the best transporter since Jason Statham or a total dunce, I never lost that sense of being deeply connected to the rest of the Death Stranding world. I was a man on a mission, and I wouldn’t be stopped until my hard work paid off for all those who followed in my footsteps.
I found myself in a seemingly never-ending feedback loop of my own creation as I slowly uncovered what made this game more than just the world’s largest connection of fetch quests. As I built more roads I could make more deliveries to more outposts even faster and gain access to more resources to build even more roads! At some point there would surely be more to worry about, but for now this charming cycle was exactly what my brain needed.
Finally and mercifully that long road came to an end. As I reached South Knot City and completed the final 3 pavers earlier today, I couldn’t help but laugh at the ridiculous mission I had given myself. For several glorious sessions, Death Stranding had transformed into a service game in the same vein as Destiny, where my daily logins for random loot were oddly going to help others. In my mind, the many preppers and porters out there were passing along tall tales of Sam Bridges, the man who rebuilt the roads. Suddenly, I understood exactly what Kojima was going for with this utterly unique triumph of a game. My work, however, was only just beginning. There was an order at that southernmost delivery terminal just past my glorious road’s reach requesting a pizza within 60 minutes all the way back near Lake Knot City where the journey began. Fortunately, thanks to those previous 10 hours of hard work, it would only take 8 minutes, a tradeoff I had no trouble convincing myself was worth it. Here’s hoping that was just the first of many pizzas that reached their destination still warm thanks to my sacrifices.