When Death Stranding reviews hit in November’s early hours, thoughts seemed to be divided in more ways than one. While some praised the game for its world and innovative design, others criticized the lack of interesting gameplay. Perhaps the most notorious opinion came from PlayStation LifeStyle, which, despite offering a particularly positive review, can be quoted as saying, “Death Stranding is not an especially ‘fun’ game.”
After a week of playing Death Stranding, in most ways, I agree that fun is not the first word that comes to mind when I think of Hideo Kojima’s most recent gaming venture. However, I can also safely say the game accomplishes so much more than just delivering on pure fun factor. Sure, the game can somewhat jokingly be whittled down to nothing more than a UPS walking simulator, but the core gameplay remains engaging through every breathtaking moment. Kojima’s effort to craft an artistic experiment and an experience gamers have never played before, for better or worse, is apparent only 10 hours in.
During Nintendo’s 2017 E3 Direct, Reggie Fils-Aimé famously said, “If it’s not fun, why bother?” Many have used this same quote to criticize Death Stranding both before and after release and, generally speaking, agreeing with the sentiment is pretty easy. As history shows, classic titles such as Pac-Man, Space Invaders, and Asteroids aimed to be “fun” and not much else and are regarded as trend-setters. At the end of the day, having fun is why everyone plays games, right? Well, not exactly. Do you like rollercoasters? Not me. Movies, books, and even music can be fun on their own. A fun movie might be filled with explosions and a carefree attitude, just as books can introduce quirky characters and childlike ideas. On the flip side, modern gaming classics such as Gone Home or even The Last of Us are not completely focused on putting unbridled fun at the forefront of design. This leaves one question: what sets games apart from other entertainment mediums? The answer, of course, is the medium’s ability to involve its audience.
Though many like to quote the former Nintendo president’s iconic line, his words are normally taken out of context.
“The game is fun. The game is a battle. If it’s not fun, why bother? If it’s not a battle, where’s the fun? It’s a test that you pass or a quest that you fail. A race against time. Fun and battle always lock together. But the game is also something else. It’s a journey; a passport to new worlds.”
I think the Regginator’s use of “fun” could somewhat easily be substituted for “engaging,” but that is kind of the point. ‘Fun’ is subjective, and my definition of ‘fun’ might be a little different from Reggie’s. So many words and feelings can go into what fun means; electric, exciting, enjoyable—you name it. Every individual game has its own take on what fun is, but the ways developers capitalize on the ability to involve players is precisely what allows gaming to thrive as a nuanced hobby. So long as the game takes advantage of the opportunities provided by the medium, how a ‘fun’ experience is achieved is up to the developer. As Reggie says, games can be so much more than just one thing, and anyone who has played Death Stranding knows all too well that the game has a lot going on.
Death Stranding is a pure adventure game in every sense of the phrase. Players fill the worn shoes of the weathered Sam Porter Bridges as he crosses varied, treacherous landscapes in the attempt to reconnect America. From a gameplay perspective, this trek requires players to maintain balance through the journey by watching Sam’s individual movements. Tilting too far to one side can be managed by pressing either the L2 or R2 buttons, and with the ground always moving beneath players’ feet, weight management is always kept in mind. Lose balance and risk damaging the precious cargo on board, thus resulting in a lower mission score.
Everything that makes up Death Stranding’s core gameplay loop sounds pretty taxing or even downright boring on paper. In practice, though, the end result can be compelling. Paying even the smallest amount of attention is enough to guarantee safe travels through the entire campaign, but any who forget to acknowledge their surroundings are sure to fall more than a few times. Wrinkles to the core gameplay—including guns and melee tools—crop up throughout to keep things interesting. In other words, Death Stranding appreciates player attention but does not demand it, all without forgetting that it is a video game. The game itself gives purpose and satisfaction to tasks that would otherwise be the very definition of boring and mundane. If critics and fans alike defined quality simply by the actions performed in-game, they would be doing the entire medium a disservice. Death Stranding probably would not translate well into the movie world; the mechanics are too crucial to the game’s ideas.
To refer back to Reggie’s words, games can be a “journey.” Few could say they have seen anything in this world that is similar to Death Stranding’s vision of a post-apocalyptic America. Kojima crafted a certified fever dream, but its unapologetic world building can at least be admired. I, for one, would rather experience new worlds that I could never hope to dream of rather than the same old tired setting. Games are often praised for their ability to offer escapism, and while I may not necessarily want to live in a world where Norman Reedus has small children living inside of him, I am grateful for the chance to look at what that is like (I think).
None of this means Death Stranding is a gift from God—it definitely is not. The dialogue is atrocious, even by Kojima’s standards, and sometimes gameplay is not made as important as it probably should have been. Kojima even illustrates his lack of restraint in Death Stranding’s in-game cutscenes that often fall nothing short of being feature-length films. I like the man’s creative eye as much as the next person, but I do not play games just to spend most of my time being force-fed themes and story beats. Kojima should have found better ways to communicate his message instead of what is demonstrated here.
Despite my complaints, though, the game still goes to great lengths to make sure it is a “game.” Endless challenge can be found in Death Stranding’s engrossing mountains and valleys, just as the game is indisputably a journey. Video games have become so much more than just an evolution on Pac-Man or Asteroids, which is why titles like Death Stranding can succeed on an artistic level. Saying a game is not fun is not as much of a fool-proof criticism as it used to be, and Death Stranding is proof of that; it never needed to fit the more recognized definition of fun. Some games are defined by how fun they are—others are not. Kojima Productions developed something that can only exist in the world of video games and it just so happens to be a cohesive experience as well. Personally, I think Death Stranding is fun enough for me (and I would like to believe it is fun enough for the Regginator, too). I play games that pull me in, and I can safely say I have never played anything as engaging as Death Stranding. Nothing has lived in my mind with such prominence in a long time, so I hope everyone else gives the game a chance: it deserves it.