Death Stranding and the Missing Mechanic
(No narrative spoilers.)
Much has been said about the strange mechanic at the heart of Death Stranding — hiking through snowy mountains with a five-hundred pound stack of textbooks half-falling out of your backpack — especially on how fun it is. Some people think it’s not fun; other people say that games don’t have to be fun. I’m not interested in this question. I think there’s something more important to be asked about this mechanic: does the game commit to it?
Normally, games commit hard to their core mechanics, and this question becomes pointless. Some games will add new mechanics partway through the game — for example, The Messenger’s time-travel — and other games will allow less-important mechanics to fade away towards the end — for example, Disgaea 5’s Dark Assembly — but we would expect core mechanics to be core mechanics precisely because they remain important throughout the game. Can you even conceive of a Souls game that drops the swords ten hours in?
Death Stranding (henceforth DS) is the first game I’ve played where the mechanics that make up the game’s beating heart are stripped away in the middle of gameplay. Some of this is due to design missteps, some of it is due to lack of imagination. But nonetheless, it’s an interesting topic for discussion. Here, we’ll answer the question: how and why does Death Stranding fail to commit to its core mechanics?
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.
DS’s problem is that some of its core mechanics decrease engagement with the core mechanics — in other words, it has a negative feedback loop.Let’s enumerate the mechanics in question:
- Planning paths through difficult terrain
- Moving through difficult terrain
- Building structures to make it easier to move through difficult terrain
In DS, once you have built a road or a zipline network through an area, there are no longer any mechanics left in that geographical space. There are no paths to draw, no mountains to climb. Even the shooter and stealth mechanics, which we’ll discuss later, are left to the wayside, because nothing in the game can stop you when you’re barreling down highways (or ziplines) at thirty miles an hour.
While player modification the topography of a level isn’t a problem in itself, traversing highways and ziplines has no mechanical depth in DS. Outside of selecting which destination to go to, you don’t watch your feet, you don’t look out for rocks, you don’t keep an eye on your balance or the soft-yet-dangerous curvature of the ground, you don’t plan where to spend ropes to descend cliffs as opposed to trying to fall down them slowly — you don’t engage with the game’s systems. Engaging with the road/zipline mechanics makes all other mechanics obsolete.
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.
It’s worth noting that the other structures you build in this game don’t work the same way. For example, timefall shelters are a mechanic the player can use to cope with timefall; they do not trivialize timefall, since you can’t build a string of shelters across a mountain. (Instead, ziplines trivialize timefall.) Generators are a mechanic the player can use to cope with offroad movement; they do not trivialize offroad movement, because you’re still continuously running over rocks. (Instead, roads trivialize offroad movement.) It’s only roads and ziplines that cause this problem.
Ziplines and roads are fun because they trivialize the game. In a combat game, they would be called “overpowered”. In this sort of game, they’re a dominant strategy, but also a ultimately boring dominant strategy. The game might ultimately have been better with no ziplines and no roads.
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.)
Vehicles also have an incredible amount of collision resistance, as well as horrifyingly undeveloped handling, which means that even the task of driving offroad is reduced to repeatedly slamming into rocks in the hopes of getting a wheel on top of them. Driving offroad is frustrating but also non-punishing. Short of driving off a cliff and blowing up your ride, you don’t have to be careful with your handling. This defeats the entire point of the game — prudent, deliberate USPS work — far before you’ve dotted the landscape with Y-shaped teleporters.
“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.)
What comes across in these bosses is the developer’s inability to conceive of boss fights outside the model of contemporary action and shooter games. It’s a shame, because a boss fight that involves delivering packages would be an astounding feat of game design. Instead, the game hops away from its core mechanics to something woefully less involved, due to (what appears to be) a lack of imagination on the part of its developers.
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.
The fact that this occurs is strange when we take a look at the final movement mechanic in the game: Fragile Jump. This mechanic allows you to teleport between safe houses you’ve visited, but doesn’t allow you to take any items. It’s explicitly designed to avoid trivializing the hiking, which is why I wouldn’t call it fast travel: you can’t use it as a replacement for slow travel. You can never Fragile Jump through a quest, but you can zipline or highway through most. What kind of lapse of judgement led to the creation of movement mechanics with such contradictory philosophies? That is, regrettably, a question I can’t answer.
Thanks for reading.