In the wake of everyone throwing out their ‘Best Of’ lists for 2019, I wanted to go in a different direction. I’ve only completed around 15 games this year, most of which have made it as articles on this page, so it felt overall disingenuous to say that one of those is the best game of the year.
However, there is one in particular that stood out from the bunch that I got my hands on. One that I would consider the best gaming experience that I had this past year;
I first heard of this game like most others with the reveal at Sony’s 2016 E3 conference. In this reveal, and later in the scattered new extended trailers and teasers that would follow, one thing became clear to me, I needed to play this game. Why did I feel that way?
The older I’ve gotten, the more I appreciate the eccentric in entertainment. I get extremely bored with formula. My favorite music genre largely involves a form of progressive metal that doesn’t follow the same verse/chorus/verse/chorus format. I don’t like being able to guess where a story is going, I don’t like having story acts telegraphed, I don’t like seeing obvious character archetypes play out.
Another game I completed this year was Dragon Quest XI. I didn’t write about it on this page because while I thought it was a fun experience and enjoyed it enough to play through it for over 90 hours, it was a standard JRPG. Nobody is actually somebody, go on a quest to find some macguffins, good prevails over evil and so on. There is one unique turn mid-way through the game, but there’s nothing new there.
Up until Death Stranding‘s release, I watched every official trailer outside of gameplay and I had absolutely no idea what I would be in for. The style, mystery and horror-like imagery was all I needed to know that Hideo Kojima had something weird in store for us.
I intentionally stayed away from anything gameplay related because I really just didn’t want to know. I was already hooked and committed to putting the time in to play the game when it was released.
Death Stranding is this gaming unicorn that we were all able to witness at once. Konami was rumored to (and likely did knowing Konami) cut Kojima’s development time of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain and cut ties with Kojima after it’s production was completed and the game was released in September, 2015. This was soon followed by the now infamous speech by Geoff Keighley at the The Game Awards ceremony on December 3rd, 2015. Kojima reformed as the head of his own studio and was later signed on with Sony to create his next new game.
The point of this information for me, is the feeling that in no other circumstance does Death Stranding get made. The concept, gameplay and lack of action for a AAA game release isn’t normal. It feels like Sony game Kojima whatever he wanted, to create whatever he wanted.
There are times that situations like this aren’t successful. George Lucas had zero boundaries when creating Star Wars: Episodes I-III. Unlike A New Hope, there was no one to tell him no, or that an idea wouldn’t work like he had during the development of A New Hope. He was an artist without limitations. In some cases it works, in others….not so much. Some will think that Kojima needed boundaries in Death Stranding, but I’m thrilled that he seemingly didn’t.
Spoiler warning for story sequences and themes in Death Stranding.
As soon as I booted up Death Stranding, I was completely immersed in this world of trauma, despair and hopelessness. The world building is excellent and I consistently felt this swelling of emotion as I progressed through the story. Instead of action packed sequences, you’re met with traversing large, empty expanses with this music in the background that entirely fits the mood. Instead of confrontation after confrontation with soldiers or mercenaries, you’re expected to avoid conflict until you, along with the game’s main protagonist, Sam, can learn how to really deal with the situation you’re in.
Many themes and characters are introduced, most importantly, your BB (Bridge Baby) unit. Your BB helps you to see BT’s (Beached Things), the dead that are tethered and stranding to the world of the living. You can imagine how important this BB becomes to Sam as the game moves on. Sam can’t survive without the BB unit, and the BB unit would be decommissioned and destroyed without Sam. This brings me to;
Where I loved Death Stranding the most is in its depiction of connections with people. You begin the game as a lone porter, Sam Bridges. You have no ties, nor do you want them. You’re content living life that way and have no intention to change. You then get swept up in this mission to save someone you care about, but also with the added effect of doing someone else’s bidding by connecting the continent together again. On your way to completing this mission, receiving ‘likes’ from the game’s NPC’s and real-life players becomes paramount.
In traditional game’s, you level up with experience. In Death Stranding, you level up by doing things that other people like. Build a road that everyone is going to use, receive likes, find someone else’s package that they weren’t able to deliver, bring it back and receive likes and so on. It felt necessary to do certain things to receive likes and ‘level up.’
By the time you have your beach rendezvous at the end of the story, you’ve connected the entire continent and given them a chance to survive after the Death Stranding. You’re infamous among the people, a legend. You’ve been set up with this character arc as Sam Bridges, loner, only cares about himself, to becoming an individual with a continent full of friends, someone who has been able to lower his defenses and befriend people for the first time.
You reach a pivotal moment as the game winds down with Fragile, a woman you’ve built a connection with from the very beginning of Death Stranding. She implores you to stay with everyone you’ve helped throughout the game. Sam refuses. Right before, you’re told that the BB unit, whom you’ve named Lou at this point, has not survived and needs to be incinerated. However, you’re also given the hint that removing Lou from his holding chamber may give him a chance to survive. Your bracelet that tracks and keeps you attached to the world is removed, and you’re given the opportunity to make a choice.
After turning his back on Fragile, his other friends and the country, he starts his ascent to the incinerator, alone, to destroy the one connection that mattered most to him. As you walk, again through a vast expanse with just perfect music playing in the background, you can see Sam wiping his eyes and getting emotional as you get closer to the incinerator.
After reaching your destination, Sam saves Lou from the incinerator, pulls him out of his casing, and successfully resuscitates Lou. The game ends on Sam and Lou, now named Louise after finding out she is a female, holding hands disconnected from the world he himself connected.
My take on this, is that Kojima is showing us his opinion on social media and social norms. How many of us out there have posted a picture, or made a comment specifically for likes, or upvotes, or hearts or whatever else? And why? Why does that matter? It doesn’t. What matters are the personal connections that you have with people, the people that are close to you, the people that you care about and whom you return the favor. Does having one thousand friends on a social media site matter when none of them care about you?
The connection that Sam valued, was Louise, his pseudo-daughter by the end of the game. They had spent this entire journey together which include extreme down turns where it wasn’t clear if Louise would survive or not, but each of those moments had Sam right behind her. If there was a choice to replace her, he refused. If it made more sense for Sam to continue without her, he pushed the importance of needing her back. It was always there throughout this game of connecting the entire country where it was really one connection that mattered for Sam.
Some will say that this choice ruins Sam’s arc. Sam went from a loner, to someone connecting the world, and then back to a loner. I disagree with this. Sam’s journey included connecting the country, but those were superficial to him, he was never connected to that aspect of the journey, it was always about reaching the end destination of his mission.
Sam’s arc is complete. He went from a loner to someone who is now connected. Instead of being connected to the world, he chose his daughter.