On Extinction and Futility: Death Stranding Review

Published by Hagen McMenemy on

On Extinction and Futility: Death Stranding Review

Hagen McMenemy | Avant-Youth

Once, there was an explosion, a bang which gave rise to life as we know it. And then, came the next explosion. An explosion that will be our last.

Those words from the opening of Hideo Kojima’s epic Death Stranding sat in the back of my head for the near 70 hours I spent playing the game. Kojima always has an underlying message with his projects and for some reason, those lines, among the hundreds of others within the dialogue, were the ones that stuck with me.

Hagen McMenemy | Avant-Youth

Even after getting the gist of Kojima’s message midway through, it wasn’t until the game reached its twilight moments that I fully comprehended this quote’s gravity.

Death Stranding is a game that has been divisive for many reasons. Some won’t find anything appealing about the “Fed Ex simulator” as it has been mockingly reduced and some find Kojima’s ego grating. Those are all fair assessments, but I think some people may be missing the point.

In this game, nothing is superfluous. In many open-world titles, which have littered the release windows this generation, all the emphasis is on the destinations. Rarely is time given to contextualize the game’s world. Open-worlds merely serve to artificially extend the experience out, a sandbox that exists in lieu of thoughtful level design. 

One of the game's many breathtaking vistas. Hagen McMenemy | Avant-Youth

This couldn’t be further from the truth for Death Stranding.

In Death Stranding, gameplay consists of delivering items between destinations and encouraging denizens, existing in wake of an apocalypse that has destroyed America, to join a new nation and become part of a connected network. You must efficiently adjust your inventory for optimal weight distribution while simultaneously traversing through hazardous territory that can range from swamps, rocky hills, and blizzard-laden mountain peaks that would make Everest shudder. 

What happens at point A and point B are important, for sure. The people you make deliveries to are grateful for and eventually join the network you’re creating during your trek from the East to West coast of America. But the real meat and potatoes of the game is the experience of what happens during the journey.

Whereas navigating worlds in other games is often an afterthought — a way to artificially extend the experience — it is the game in Death Stranding. Some have compared it to walking simulators like Gone Home. But even in those games, the walking only serves to vector the player between items and points of interest. All of the exposition will occur when reaching these locations but nothing really occurs between them.

Every aspect of the gameplay is methodical. You have to plan ahead and decide what tools are most important since they take up weight just like the cargo you will be carrying. You can be thrown off balance by rocks, slopes or water. You can run out of stamina while trying to balance your load and end up dropping and damaging it. Mercenaries can try to steal it or even kill you. Every moment of this game demands your attention and engagement.

I expected Death Stranding to be a statement of games not needing to be fun to be good, like Spec Ops: The Line or Depression Quest. But that wasn’t the case. 

Death Stranding is a blast. All of the game’s meticulous mechanics and the contextualization result in an addictive, rewarding gameplay loop that shaved hours off my days before I realized it.

When playing Death Stranding, The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus came to mind. Camus’s central argument is that in the face of overwhelming adversity and the apparent insignificance one person’s existence may have, shouldn’t individuals just kill themselves? Get it over with? If there’s no purpose, if the universe is apathetic to our struggles, then why bother? What’s the point?

Camus analogizes this futility with the Greek tale of Sisyphus, a being who is cursed by the gods to carry a boulder up a hill by day only to have it fall down at night. Then to do it again every day for eternity. Given the burden he incessantly carries on his shoulders and the futility of his actions, one could assume him miserable.

But in rejecting nihilistic thoughts and finding purpose in the actions he can control, defining his own existence and moving forward even when something might seem fruitless, one can imagine Sisyphus happy.

Sam interacting with Higgs.
Hagen McMenemy | Avant-Youth

Comparatively when Sam Bridges, the player character, feels what he is doing may serve no purpose, he carries on. He also does so in the face of nihilistic antagonists such as Higgs, who is aware of a systematic disaster that will end all life. His motivation is to expedite humanity’s extinction in the face of its inevitable end. 

This brings us back to that opening quote. Near the end of the game, I realized Death Stranding was a commentary on the global climate crisis – that this seemingly inescapable calamity facing our planet means we should probably just not care.

But Death Stranding says otherwise.

There is purpose in the struggle. Purpose in the moment to moment decisions we make. Purpose in the relationships we build with those around us.

One of the core gameplay mechanics is the asynchronous multiplayer. If I reach an obstacle, I can use one of my tools to build a bridge to cross a ravine or drop a rope to rappel down a cliff. These things you leave behind left behind by you will appear in other player’s games to offer them relief  if they don’t share the same tools to build what’s necessary.

Sam using a ladder left by another player in his or her game. Hagen McMenemy | Avant-Youth

This ties into the game’s social system of “likes.” Players can click a dedicated like button, resulting in positive reinforcement and doubling the same appreciation that non-player characters have for Sam and the player by extension.

Mads Mikkelson as Cliff Unger, one of the antagonists. Hagen McMenemy | Avant-Youth

Norman Reedus’s performance as Sam and Mads Mikkelson’s as Cliff Unger are outstanding. Well- acted and voiced, the characters all feel human. Kojima’s camera work rivals that of some film directors, and the attention to detail is staggering.

The relationship with BB, your infantile companion who can sense the BTs (who are made of a substance very similar in appearance and viscosity to oil), the game’s main antagonistic force, was genuine. I ended up caring about BB as if they were a real person. 

BB is short for Bridge Baby.
Hagen McMenemy | Avant-Youth

One of the most poignant moments in the game involves the culmination of Sam and BB’s relationship, which came after the narrative climax and had me reaching for tissues.

Death Stranding is flawed, as all games are. The script can be clunky, and Kojima’s penchant for convoluted character development still remains. However, the genius of Death Stranding is in its use of 20th century existentialist philosophy to capture the essence of the digital age by using gameplay to manifest our collective pathos.

What I took from this game is that though things might seem bleak, none of us are alone in our struggles. We have to take things day by day and work together towards making a better tomorrow. Nothing is truly futile.

All we have is us.

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Hagen McMenemy

Hagen McMenemy

Hagen McMenemy is a graduate of the University of Alabama and veteran of the U.S. Army. During his time in the military, he was a paratrooper that launched himself from various aircraft. He wants to manage the social media accounts of companies that align with his personal interests and values, and would one day like to live in Tokyo, Japan.

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