Video Games

It Turns Out Death Stranding Is Surprisingly Forgettable

Death Stranding

I have a confession to make (and this is something that pains me deeply to admit): When it comes to Hideo Kojima’s Death Stranding, absence does not make the heart grow fonder. The strange thing is, I can’t really put my finger on why I feel this way.

I loved Death Stranding when it first came out. I spent more than 60 hours exploring it’s strange world, plotting the fastest possible delivery routes, and peeing on shadow creatures. (Yes, this game features a peeing mechanic.) It has a ton of great ideas built into it (you can 3D print a working motorcycle!), and the cast is phenomenal. But after leaving it for a few weeks, any ambition to ever return to it has fled.

There are games that absolutely break my heart that I never finished, like Ni no Kuni, Horizon: Zero Dawn, and Super Mario Odyssey. Then there are games like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, which I did finish but I still find myself yearning to go back to. But when I think about returning to Death Stranding, all I can muster is an apathetic “meh.”

Death Stranding

I’ve put a lot of thought into why this might be, and I don’t think I’ve been able to come up with a satisfying explanation.

It definitely has nothing to do with Hideo Kojima’s sometimes bafflingly strange take on gameplay (which some people find off-putting). I adore the Metal Gear Solid games (in fact, I would put Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater on a list of the best ten games of all time). While I wasn’t completely satisfied with the second half of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, the first half was incredible. The Kojima weirdness is a huge part of the appeal of both Metal Gear and Death Stranding. So that’s not it.

Is the gameplay loop a bit bland? I don’t think so. I actually really enjoy games that give you monumentally boring tasks. As I write this, I’m thinking about how to maximize the layout of my farm in Stardew Valley. I find it kind of relaxing to play games that feel like work. Death Stranding can absolutely feel like work, but I don’t see that as a downside.

Plus, there are some really great gameplay elements in Death Stranding. Riding a perfectly planned zipline network is a thrill, and the bola gun is one of the most entertaining weapons I’ve used in a video game in quite some time. Death Stranding has moments of monotony broken up by sequences of intense action, but I would say the same thing about Shadow of the Colossus, which is another game I’d put on a list of the absolute best.

Death Stranding

Perhaps the world of Death Stranding is just too damn bleak? Well, that’s a valid complaint for some people, but I personally enjoy that. In Dying Light, for example, the oppressive bleakness is one of the things that makes the game stand out. I would say the same thing about the Harvest Moon-like Graveyard Keeper (which should be on your radar if it isn’t already).

Perhaps the game feels meaningless? This is actually kind of valid. Death Stranding doesn’t just use meaninglessness and futility as themes — which Metal Gear Solid V did as well — but it removes any stakes or sense of accomplishment. Protagonist Sam Porter Bridges has a sort of immortality, where he can return from the realm of the dead at will. Death in the game means losing a few things, but it’s nothing that will really set you back all that far. It’s a minor inconvenience. The stakes feel low enough that you can sort of glide through the difficult parts of the game without focusing too hard on what you’re doing.

On top of that, your score is measured in “likes.” You can’t spend your likes; you really can’t do anything with them aside from watch them endlessly tick upward. It’s cool to see this number grow until you realize there’s very little benefit to it. It’s just an abstract number that ultimately doesn’t mean anything. Of course, you could say this about any video game score. While the high score in Donkey Kong was a major source of competitive gaming drama, it really doesn’t mean anything, does it? It’s just a number. But Death Stranding seems to work really hard to keep reminding you of that fact. These are likes on a vague social media platform that doesn’t even exist in any tangible form. This is ultimately part of the game’s message, but this element creates a sense of existential boredom.

Death Stranding

In some ways, Death Stranding feels like Metal Gear Solid with all the best parts stripped away. There’s still some cool stuff left, as is bound to happen when you do anything even remotely similar to Metal Gear, but perhaps not enough to build a 100-hour experience out of. Maybe Death Standing just stretches itself a little too thin? This is a vague statement, but I think there might be something to it. Or maybe not. I don’t really know.

It’s possible that I’ll return to Death Stranding eventually. However, that’s looking increasingly unlikely as my stack of unfinished games grows taller and my frustrating sense of Death Stranding ennui keeps getting in the way. As a decades-long fan of Hideo Kojima, I want to love this game so much, but I just feel so detached from it. Perhaps I’ll be lured back if a really intriguing batch of DLC drops, but until then, I’m probably done with Death Stranding.

Josh Wirtanen owns this place and has opinions about pretty much everything. Follow him on Twitter: @joshuajwirtanen.

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