Hideo Kojima makes video games.
But this Japanese gamemaker is more than just a video game designer, writer, director and producer. No, to gamers in the know, he’s considered more of a genius auteur than anything else. And after breaking away from a 30-year partnership with the Japanese production house Konami, Death Stranding is Kojima’s first new creation. He’s written, produced and designed it to blend moviemaking chops with video game brilliance.
And boy is it a doozy.
Death Stranding is a game about package delivery. Yeah, that’s pretty close. You certainly do a lot of digital walking, running and vehicle maneuvering. It’s about delivering packages in a world where America has been decimated and erased, death is kind of broken, people carry around living unborn babies in a jar, and a good rainfall can reduce you to an ancient corpse in mere minutes.
If you’re having a hard time wrapping your head around what that looks like, how that might work in a game setting or what you would actually do there, well, you’re not alone. And you can play this game for an hour and still feel the same way. It’s a combination of grandiose spectacle and dull grinding mundanity. Utter surprise and headache-worthy frustration.
It’s … unique.
The game takes place at some point in the future. A devastating apocalyptic event called the Death Stranding has crushed all of humankind. It has not only dissolved our physical infrastructure—ridding the land of roads, railways, and cities—it’s also made the barrier between the living and the dead as porous as a sieve. Terrifying invisible apparitions known as BTs crawl about, leaving corrosive, tar-like handprints in their wake. If these powerful, sightless creatures find you … you’re dead.
Then there’s something called Timefall, the new version of acid rain. But this storm-delivered fluid ages everything it touches. Let it drench you and … you’re dead. Oh, and the dead become a weapon, too. When somebody dies, if that person isn’t cremated within 24 hours, the body explodes like a nuclear bomb in a land-cratering “voidout.” Well, then everybody dies.
Then there’s you. You’re Sam Porter Bridges, a courier with the ability to traverse the surface of the planet while everyone else huddles in some underground shelter. It’s not that Sam is impervious to this world’s many forms of death, but he can move about because he has a few special abilities that most others don’t.
First of all, he has a special condition called DOOMS, that allows him to sense a nearby BT. Second, he’s also a “repatriate,” which means that instead of detonating after death like other dead folks, Sam can somehow find his way back to the living and, after spitting up a lung-full of tar and gunk, draw breath once more.
Sam’s mother also just happens to be the President of what’s left of the crumbled and broken U.S. government. On her deathbed, she gives Sam a mission to reconnect America. It seems a new technology has been developed called a Chiral Network (think of it as something like an ectoplasmic internet connection). So Sam’s mom commissions him with the job of heading West, connecting America’s suffering settlements to the Chiral Network, delivering much-needed supplies and eventually remaking the bones and sinew of America itself. Along the way he’ll rebuild roadways, rescue his captive sister and, well, save mankind from complete extinction.
When I quickly write things out in the above summery form, it all sounds straightforward. But trust me, that’s only the very tippy tip of this strange video game iceberg. I barely even mentioned the babies (or BBs) in glass containers. Somehow this world has found ways to bottle up “living” stillborn children and use them as a tool to umbilically connect users to the “Beach,” or the land of death. These prenatal guides predict BT arrivals and offer insight and a sort of defense as well.
Things get so much weirder from there.
If you’re wondering what kind of game Death Stranding actually is, well, that’s sort of tough to pin down. It’s part shooter: You can find machine guns, rocket launchers, shotguns and the like to blast away at—and splash the gore of—human enemies. You can also drain your own blood to create explosives to use against god-like beings. But the game doesn’t often encourage trigger-pulling against humans because, you know, the dead explode. Running away is often preferable.
There’s also quite a bit of adventuring and building here. You’re always moving through the game’s massive open world, grinding out a path across rivers, up mountainsides, and around gorges. You use ladders and ropes, build bridges and even reconstruct portions of America’s highway system.
Another big chunk of the game feels like a photorealistic movie. Cutscenes in the story mix can seemingly run on for an hour or more, and they feature characters played by well-known personalities and actors such as director Guillermo del Toro, Mads Mikkelsen and a youthified Lindsay Wagner. In and around those long-winded narrative scenes is an abundance of foul language containing f- and s-words and a variety of other crudities, such as “b–tard,” “d–mit” and “a–hole.”
In total, Death Stranding is a tough game to label. It can be foul, bloody and oddly dark. It’s bizarrely convoluted and difficult to understand. At the same time, its visuals are sometimes awesome, and its singularly crafted creative vision is off the charts.
A part of me can appreciate the aesthetic, genre-obliterating risks that Hideo Kojima has taken here. Still, this is an M-rated game featuring exploding corpses and babies in bottles, among many other disturbing, unnerving images that are difficult to unsee … to say the very least.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.