I remember the exact moment Death Stranding clicked for me. I was crossing a raging river near the crest of a waterfall, desperately clutching the left and right triggers and pushing ever so gently on the thumbstick as Sam Porter Bridges inched forward step by step, a tower of packages teetering precariously on his back. After a few excruciatingly tense minutes of wading, I was finally mere feet from the other side, when suddenly I stumbled forward and fell, losing all of my cargo to the current. As I watched the metal crates I’d worked so hard to protect float downstream, banging against every rock on the way, I said out loud in a state of supreme aggravation, “This isn’t fun.”
While playing a game for review, I’m constantly asking myself whether a game is fun or not. No matter how simple or complex a game may be, to me, its value is ultimately determined by how fun it is. But playing Death Stranding challenged this criteria in a big way for me, especially for a AAA game. Whereas in most games each element contributes to the overall fun and/or enjoyment of the experience, all of Death Stranding’s elements, from presentation to gameplay, operate in support of the narrative (even death itself, one of the oldest, most fundamental video game tropes there is, becomes a major story element in the game). The game’s main aim isn’t to be fun, but rather to tell a moving, meaningful tale, even if achieving that goal isn’t always pleasurable for the player.
Stacking loads of crates on Sam’s back to the point where even standing still runs the risk of the entire shipment toppling over can be an extremely aggravating experience. My river fiasco wasn’t “fun” as I so eloquently blurted, but that doesn’t mean that it was void of value.
Death Stranding is a story about reconnecting and rebuilding America, a land that was built on the backs of blue collar, hard-working, unsung heroes like Sam. While some may dismiss Sam’s long journey as nothing but an Amazon delivery sim, I find even the game’s most frustrating moments to be full of meaning and emotion, and that’s because Sam’s labor is the narrative’s center of gravity. Not experiencing that struggle first-hand would cause the narrative and its themes to fall flat. After all, the struggle to rebuild is the point.
Anyone who plays Death Stranding will inevitably find themselves in a scenario similar to my river incident, in which they hit a wall and ask themselves earnestly, “Why the hell am I still playing this thing?” It’s a good question, and I think the game pushes players to that point of desperation and defeat on purpose. Persistence is one of the key themes of the story, and trudging through the game requires a measure of patience that most mainstream, big-budget titles don’t require. It’s a long, arduous road getting to the end of the story, but the hard work ultimately pays off. The refrain “Keep on keepin’ on” is one of the most powerful, poignant messages I’ve ever seen in a game.
While some may consider Death Stranding‘s lack of truly fun moments to be a bad thing, I think it’s important to acknowledge that in other forms of entertainment, being fun isn’t a requirement at all. Take movies, for example. There are different genres of movies, and some are fun, like comedies, kids movies, and action-adventure blockbusters. But some of the best movies aren’t fun AT ALL. It’s totally acceptable for movies—particularly dramas—to not be fun or entertaining, and that’s because they engage audiences in different ways, evoking emotions like sadness, regret, fear, and anger. These feelings are unpleasant, but experiencing them in through storytelling can be extremely cathartic. We love dramatic and even painful movies because they provide points of recognition and understanding for those seeking a deeper human connection.
If challenging, artistic dramas are embraced in art forms like movies, TV, and books, why should games be any different? Death Stranding is a sci-fi drama featuring incredible performances from professional actors of the highest caliber. What Hideo Kojima and company have created isn’t simply a video game featuring long cutscenes. It’s more than that. It’s an interactive story that puts you into the mind of its protagonist in a way that movies can’t, and presents characters emoting on a level we’ve never quite seen in video games before. To call it a game implies that having fun and winning and/or losing is the going concern when, in truth, the going concern is the narrative.
It’s worth noting that games with punishingly difficult and/or tedious game loops aren’t anything new. Dark Souls, for instance, is notoriously difficult, frustrating, and somewhat tedious depending on your play style, yet this action RPG is usually put in the “fun” category because it ultimately comes down to the aforementioned winning or losing. Finally clearing a particularly tough boss fight comes with its own gratification and sense of achievement. Trudging through Death Stranding‘s map to deliver that pizza, on the other hand, doesn’t always feel that rewarding — and that’s because the point of Sam’s role in the story is that it’s truly thankless. Like the men and women who built the original vision of America the heroes of the game so desperately want to bring back.
Death Strandingalso feels closely related to smaller experiential games like Journey. The simple act of traveling fuels the narrative in both games, though they wield this concept in different ways and to different effect. Journey is an absolute joy to play, with movement so breezy, buttery smooth, and easy to understand that you’re put mentally and emotionally at ease, in an almost transcendental state of video game bliss. Traveling in Death Stranding is a constant struggle, testing your patience and often putting you in states of rage, confusion, and even boredom. Despite the difference in implementation, the two games use the act of traveling to manipulate players’ feelings and get them to an emotional state that makes the main storytelling moments maximally effective.
I found the gameplay in Death Stranding to be extraordinarily polished and deeply engaging throughout, just not in a conventional way. As in most action-adventure games, you’re given tasks to carry out and encounter a variety of obstacles along the way. But in this case, completing each of those tasks means something not just to the NPCs in need of supplies, but to Sam and his character development. At the story’s outset, he’s as closed-off an individual as you’ll ever meet, but as he helps bring people together by making deliveries along with his loyal BB, his humanity bubbles to the surface. He works hard, and the player works hard, but it’s all for the greater good.
The idea of long-distance human connection and a greater good is reflected in the game’s online component in a brilliant way. Having players work together to literally rebuild America isn’t just another hollow video game quest—it’s a shared activity that says something profound about the state of our society, how far we’ve fallen, and what needs to be done to reclaim a land that was once ours. Gathering materials and donating them to another player’s bridge under construction may be fun in a way, but really, it’s about more than that: the ability to connect with each other by helping one another. The only potential reward is a “Like” from other players that doesn’t have any actual gameplay value beyond the knowledge that someone else appreciated a helpful gesture.
“The original meaning of communication is to care and feel for others, but technology has carried us in a wrong way,” Kojima told the Washington Post recently. “Technology would only help us become enriched in our lives, but it’s the way we use technology. I’m not saying social media is a mistake. What I fear most is that people will be so afraid of using social media or playing a game…People should know that being connected online is not a bad thing, it just needs some tweaks. I just want them to think about how we could use this technology to be better and think about it.”
Everything in Death Stranding has real meaning, and while these concepts are richer and more complex than we’re used to seeing in big-budget, AAA titles, I believe this game, perhaps more than any other, proves that video games have the potential to be the most powerful storytelling tool ever created.
Death Stranding does signal a new path forward for games, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only path. There are loads of modern games that use traditional concepts that put fun first, and they are no less valuable than the boundary-pushing games we see from mad scientists like Kojima, William Chyr, and Sam Barlow. Untitled Goose Game and Death Stranding have absolutely nothing in common except for the fact that they’re helping to grow the art form in their own, unique ways.
As a storytelling medium, video games have the potential to examine the human condition in fascinating ways. But as we’ve seen in other art forms, sometimes telling these kinds of stories in a truthful way can be painful, infuriating, and unpleasant for audiences. In a medium like video games, the idea of not having fun is still something of a foreign concept. No matter how you slice it, the term “video game” implies that you’re going to be entertained and have a good time.
Death Stranding represents an exciting paradigm shift happening in the games industry right now. It’s an uncompromising experience that doesn’t pander to its audience and throw explosions at the screen for fear of players growing bored. Kojima seems quite happy to let players grow bored, get angry, shed tears, and feel utterly annoyed, and that’s because he knows that all of those emotions allow the player to connect to the story more intimately. Death Stranding isn’t fun, and that’s one of its greatest strengths.
Bernard Boo is a freelance contributor. Read more of his work here.