Death Stranding and the Missing Mechanic

How game mechanics shift in significance

Roads, Ziplines, and Auto-Obsolescence

We can think of the dynamics of game mechanics in terms of feedback loops. The core question is: how does engagement with a mechanic modify the player’s future engagement with other mechanics? In games centered around a tight gameplay loop — for example, the combat-exploration loop of an action-adventure game — the core mechanics will usually reinforce themselves by opening up more opportunities for engagement. You explore an area and you can now fight the boss. You fought the boss and now you can explore another area. Rinse and repeat. Via this positive feedback loop, the game can string the player throughout the entire experience while keeping the player engaged.

  • Moving through difficult terrain
  • Building structures to make it easier to move through difficult terrain
Zipline travel. Perhaps the most uninteresting three minutes of gameplay ever.

Reward and Punishment

This puts roads and ziplines in a weird position. Building a network of them is incredibly rewarding; it feels as though you’ve conquered a hostile landscape — all the more so because you spent at least one terrifying run through the area without that network. But, at the same time, you trivialize a good chunk of future gameplay by doing so. To complicate it further, the network is rewarding precisely because it trivializes a good chunk of future gameplay. The naïve solution to the zipline problem — “only make players go through an area once or twice” — doesn’t work because building zipline networks would not be rewarding if you never got to use them.

Vehicles?

Roads may be the more visible means by which the game hides away its core mechanics, but vehicles by themselves are also an issue. Large swathes of land in the game world are challenging to travel by foot due to treacherously slight slopes and jutting rocks, but are trivial to cross in a vehicle. In the first zone, the entire area between the home base and the spoopy mountain is flat enough for a vehicle to slide right through, but is rocky enough to force you to pay attention when walking. When you do the story missions in this area, you’ll be walking, but anytime afterwards, it’s trivial to carry one-and-a-half tons of cargo on a truck around the area. (There is, in fact, a side mission which has you carry one-and-a-half tons of dirt from two towns connected by a road. It’s fifteen minutes of waiting.)

Imagine walking. This meme was made by zipline gang

“Not a Shooter”

Despite purportedly not being a shooter, DS leans hard on shooter mechanics, especially for its high-tension boss sequences — for all except one boss (the only good boss). This is a bit of a problem, because the shooting mechanics are not particularly well-developed, and the slow and deliberate movement mechanics limit the design space for shootouts. Three of the bosses involve Gears-style cover gunfights. The first time around, it’s interesting, but these bosses are so mind-numbingly repetitive that I nearly dropped the game the third time around. The rest of the bosses are incomprehensible bullet sponges that do almost nothing as you spend ten to fifteen minutes whittling down their unreasonably dense health bars. In fact, I’m pretty sure the final boss cannot actually attack you. Without spoiling any more, let’s say that the final boss is impressive only until you fight it. (I said the same thing about the whole game of Xenoblade Chronicles X — ultimately for a similar reason.)

Conclusion: Fast Travel, Slow Travel

Roads and ziplines are a form of (very slow) fast travel: they move you across the map, more quickly than the alternatives, without forcing you to engage with game systems. And, to quote Tim Rogers:

If your game even has fast travel, then maybe you have acknowledged that your slow travel sucks.

I don’t think the slow travel in this game sucks. In fact, I thought that the slow travel was the most important mechanic in the game, and the most well-realized version of hiking in video games. But boring truck rides and boring ziplines suggest that the developers did indeed believe that carrying five hundred pounds of textbooks — in the snow — uphill — both ways — sucks enough to warrant eliding it from gameplay after going only one way. That is to say, Death Stranding doesn’t commit to its core mechanics. Instead, it weans off them into much less interesting fast-travel mechanics.

Software engineer, epic gamer, and Touhou developer. All my writing is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 unless stated otherwise.

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