Death Stranding is one of the best, most interesting and radical games of the year, perhaps the decade, maybe ever. And somehow that's just about the least interesting thing you can say about it.
It is a very good game, a profoundly beautiful and horrifying piece of culture that sits among the greatest masterpieces of the form. Anything less would be a disappointment. It does not disappoint.
Death Stranding is very strange. That is about the second most uninteresting thing you can say about it: it's a word that has haunted the game, as befuddled players have wondered what you even do, let alone how or why it does that.
But it is strange because it is playing with the very ideas of a video game, and what you expect from one. It does not offer you fun, or relaxation; instead, it offers you the hard-won rewards of difficult work.
Its focus is on ideas as much as gameplay, and while the practicalities are interesting and enjoyable, it's really the philosophical questions that this game seems focused on. It is likely to find more comparisons with film than games, given how devoted it is to playing with concepts and leading its audience through difficult dilemmas.
As such, this is a game that is likely to captivate those who play it, enjoy it and give themselves over to it. It is just as likely to enrage those who do not, and who take against the effort it requires you to undertake to experience its rewards.
Early on in the game, you are carrying a body – a body of someone very close to you, who you just watched die – that has been wrapped up like a mummy and attached onto your back. The spectral white form sits on your back as you ramble over grass and scramble up rocks, on your way to incinerate it so that it can be disposed of safely. It is a majestic, profound experience, upsetting with a shades of absurdity and horror. Death Stranding takes it out of you.
The central concern is connection. The game takes place in a dystopian world in which the US has been shattered into cities, which have lost contact with each other and therefore need you – Sam Porter Bridges – to deliver physical goods and link them back up to something like the internet. By doing so, the hope is that the world will start working again.
Despite all that concern about community, it is a lonely game. There are few people around, and none of them can be trusted, and you spend most of your time wandering over barren countryside on your own. But this is partly allayed by the strange multiplayer dynamic, in which other players can leave items behind that you can use, giving you the sense that other players are out there somewhere, all of you alone together.
There is real life in this game, and it is not all philosophical meditations on death, community, ecological disaster, the gig economy and the future. It teems with psychic babies and floating whales, and while it can veer into the pretentious and messy there is a core of concrete gaming pleasure that keeps it moving forward through the metaphysical sludge. And if you're ever in danger of taking it too seriously, you realise that a central dynamic of the game involves throwing bodily fluids at ghosts or growing mushrooms by urinating on some grass.
Since the game was announced, it has been carrying one very heavy question: what do you actually do? In short, it is extreme courier simulator. In slightly longer, it's a game in which you carry things across a beautiful landscape that does its best to make it difficult. The full length answer to the question takes as long as the game itself (somewhere just shy of 100 hours, if you're counting).
And what horrifying beauty there is in that world. It is a game of rich greens and inky blacks, sublime cliffs and powerful seas. It is probably the truest that nature has ever looked in the game, capturing both the living loveliness of the natural world alongside its danger and difficulty.
The game's enemies are equally beautifully rendered: haunting bodies with thin long strands stretching up to the sky and down to the floor, black inky monsters emerging from beneath the earth, bandits in raincoats with pointy, paralysing sticks. For such a desolate game, this is one that is richly realised with threats and villains.
Its characters are just as vibrant. Much has been made of the stars of the game – Norman Reedus and Mads Mikkelsen are especially powerful as actors – but they slot seamlessly into its broader world, which is populated with babies in tanks and holograms but nonetheless feels real and intimate.
All of that matters because Death Stranding is, at its root, an aesthetic experience. It is powered by ideas but embodied in visuals and sound, and its central achievement is how well its world is realised. Everything else flows from there.
The beauty takes the edge off the fact you spend an awful lot of time watching cutscenes and trudging through the world while delivering packages. It is easy to imagine how that could be boring, but it is not because the world is simply such a thrill to be inside of.
Death Stranding is not a game that will appeal to everyone. It is not a game that is fun, or which you'll be able to slip into when you want a brief distraction.
But it delivers on all of the hype that has surrounded it, which it turns out has been entirely appropriate and accurate. If the variety of cryptic clips that have surrounded the game have appealed to you, then so will the game; if it all seemed a little much, then you're probably right too.
Death Stranding is probably the most profound and thoughtful game ever made, more rich and more powerful than anything before. It is also one of the toughest, requiring hard work, loneliness and trudge. But if the game means nothing else then it is this: it is in that hard work that meaning is made.
It is a game about the profundity of mundanity, though those who dislike it could argue that it is about the mundanity of profundity. It is about hard work; it is hard work. It requires you to give yourself up to it, get lost in it – but do so, and despite all the hype and fuss you will be shocked by what you find.
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