This week in Zero Punctuation, Yahtzee reviews Death Stranding.
I was watching a digital Norman Reedus piss into a toilet, and when the toilet presented me a new piss grenade to throw at ghosts during my next hiking trip, I thought the piss looked a bit dark and orange, which in reality would be a sign of dehydration. I wondered if the game darkens Norman Reedus' piss if he doesn't hydrate often enough; I then further wondered if there was any game developer on this planet who could leave me genuinely uncertain as to whether or not their game has a urine coloration algorithm besides Hideo Kojima. Perhaps that alone is what makes him worth celebrating, even if his new game is more weird and boring than getting cornered by a caffeinated anime fan who wants to talk about his crossover fanfic between Attack on Titan and Last of the Summer Wine.
It's funny how Death Stranding can be simultaneously very weird and very boring; Kojima is a man of contrasts. I had no idea what to expect from Death Stranding, but at the same time, there was a lot that I could predict: I knew it was going to be very polished with an eye for detail, overwritten with a lot of grandiose-if-emotionally-awkward storytelling, and it would swiftly get very creepy every time a woman came onscreen. I think I've nailed the running theme between Kojima's female characters: they all have perfect, beautiful faces, but something has made the rest of their bodies horribly fucked up in some way, like Kojima's ideal woman is a mannequin head on top of a woman-shaped pile of expired dog food. Damn, I wish he had made that Silent Hill game; it would've given me the most ambivalent erection of my life.
Anyway, the premise of Death Stranding is that an apocalyptic event has blurred the world of the living and the dead; America is swarming with angry ghosts, and the destruction of the country's infrastructure has made it impossible to stockpile the power pills necessary for Pac-Man to eat them all. The population is holed up in isolated bunkers, and couriers are now the only line of communication between them, one of whom is our hero, Sam Porter Bridges, who carries around a magic baby that allows him to see the angry ghosts and has some condition that means angry ghosts hate the taste of his piss. Oh yeah, and every now and again, a magic rain that causes things to prematurely age falls from the sky. Don't you all feel silly you spent all that time stressing over nuclear holocaust?
The lore and backstory behind the setting, Hideo Kojima will happily deliver if you let him and don't have a ball gag close to hand, but let's focus on what's actually relevant to the gameplay, to wit: you deliver things to places, angry ghosts try to stop you, and you fling your piss at them; Death Stranding can stand alongside Postal 2 and Okami in the criminally underpopulated sub-genre "Games with a Dedicated 'Urinate' Button". But at its core, it's a hiking simulator; you strap the package to be delivered and as much equipment as you think you'll need to your body, and then, looking for all the world like an astronaut on moving day, you have to figure out how you're going to totter your way through two miles of rocky terrain, over three rivers, and up the side of an abandoned IKEA to the package's destination.
And the level of detail in the "carrying stuff" physics is where the core gameplay lands; you have to make sure the load is properly balanced, 'cos otherwise, you might topple over while descending a slope, damage the goods, and end up lying on your back, kicking your legs like the baby you currently have immersed in the jar of cloudy apple juice strapped to your nipples. These are the brief stimulating moments of action and drama in-between vast swathes of holding down "Forwards" and waiting. That's probably why people have been down on Death Stranding; it employs a core gameplay loop other than generic combat or stealth and isn't a nonstop roller coaster ride of noise and sparkly objects to distract us from the nightmare web of uncertainty and disenfranchisement that is our lives.
But I kind of like its meditative quality. Isolation is a very deliberate theme; even when Sam is in a city, there's never anyone else around, and he only interacts with the hologram at the front door who says, "Oh yeah, this small box of medicine will be a big help for all these other people that definitely live here!", and he might be sitting alone in the bunker rubbing insulin into his nipples, for all we know. But the lengthy trudges through majestic terrain can be uniquely serene and contemplative, although obviously, I had my podcasts on the whole way, the same way I play games like Elite: Dangerous or Euro Truck Simulator when I need to zone out for an afternoon and the liquor store's closed. I think Hideo "45-minute Codec conversation" Kojima missed a trick here; he could've included the boring game and a podcast in one convenient package, but nope, the usual excessive dialogue is mostly relegated to cutscenes or while you're forced to stand perfectly still in front of a hologram phone picking Norman Reedus' digital underpants out of his bum crack.
Not that Death Stranding doesn't have enemies or combat; obviously, it has the ghosts that are pissy in every sense of the word, but there are also the prerequisite open-world bandit camps, and the game supplies you with plenty of weapons. It's just there's absolutely no incentive to not run away or avoid them altogether; you can't carry much ammo, the enemy aren't very good at chasing you, and even though they drop loot, one more briefcase might be the straw that breaks Norman Reedus' back.
Which makes it all the more of a lurch whenever we get locked into a boss fight during the course of the plot; it's odd when a game that's mostly been based around encouraging players to find their own way to transport a corpse across two square miles of the surface of Mars suddenly won't let you press on until you've shown you can fling a blood grenade at an octopus nineteen times, or shoot Mads Mikkelsen. These aren't the skills you've been training me in, Hideo Kojima! I'm a hiker-postman; my skills are delivering stuff and complaining that my ladder's too short. That mission in the mountains where I had an hour's time limit to fetch medical supplies felt more like a boss fight that would fit this gameplay core, but by then, I'd unlocked the ability to build ziplines, which are fucking broken, frankly; turned an hour's trudge through hostile mountainous terrain into a five-minute Disneyland ride.
Death Stranding is like an anxious post-graduate at the optician, because it desperately needs to focus on something, but if you have enough podcasts and/or head injuries to sustain you through the slow periods, then you might find it an interesting enough alternative to the usual AAA tripe (or "tripe-le A"). Kojima's story-writing always comes across like he's only ever experienced human emotion from the far side of a thick layer of protective glass, but maybe we need someone like Kojima to shake us out of old, set-in notions about gameplay loops, or boss fights, or the interface needing to not suck hairy Swedish meatballs.
The one ghost I can't hurl my piss at is the specter of having to hold down buttons to confirm things; if I go into my inventory, I have to do it, like, four times to so much as adjust my bow tie. Sure, any game that tries to balance combat, stealth, hiking, package transport, and urination is going to be a controller-mapping nightmare, but there had to be a more efficient way to calm down a jarful of baby than four different button-presses plus waving the controller around like you're inventing a new sign language word for "disinterested handjob".
- Postman Twat: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- And another thing - what is it with Kojima and people with skulls on or instead of their faces lately
- I'm suddenly craving Monster energy drink for some reason