Death Stranding Explained: Story, Characters, Gameplay, and More
Death Stranding is the next big game from Hideo Kojima following his departure from Konami and the Metal Gear franchise, and ever since its 2016 reveal, it’s been a game shrouded in mystery. In the years following its announcement, Death Stranding has somehow become far more perplexing and off-kilter with every passing trailer and interview with the creator. With so many unusual characters and plot threads having been introduced, even by Kojima’s standards, it’s been especially challenging to keep up with the game’s unique narrative and style.
Fortunately, the recent showings at GamesCom 2019 and Tokyo Game Show 2019 treated fans to some of the deepest dives into the game yet. Along with laying out the stakes, Kojima revealed what’s driving Norman Reedus’s character, Sam, as he makes his way through the ruins of North America. We learned what the baby in the capsule is for, and just what the deal is with oddball characters like the masked Die-Hardman. We can now safely say that we have a better idea of exactly what kind of game this is. With its release coming up on November 8, we figured it was time to share our notes. Here’s GameSpot’s breakdown of what Death Stranding is all about–so far.
Hands Across America
Set 10 years after an event known as the Death Stranding caused large segments of the North American population to disappear, you play as Sam Porter Bridges, an agent of the organization known as BRIDGES. Sam is tasked by the President of the United Cities of America to help rebuild the nation and its infrastructure, and he must work with other BRIDGES members to explore the fractured remains of civilization and re-establish a connection known as Strands. These various Strands will bolster the Chiral Network, allowing more people to stay connected and leave their fear-induced isolation. During his mission, Sam will contend with supernatural entities and insurgent forces that now inhabit the land. In the aftermath of the Death Stranding event, the line between life and death has blurred, allowing creatures and individuals once thought dead to cross over into the real world–and the other way around.
The game’s title is a reference to the phenomena where aquatic animals–such as whales and dolphins–wash along shores en masse. During this bizarre event that only affects cetacean animals, the sea creatures die a slow death in places that are foreign to them. The game’s narrative evolves the concept, presenting a scenario where large portions of the human population are swept away and brought into the realm of the dead. All the while, supernatural entities start to roam about, corrupting isolated areas of the country to take the remaining humans back to the realm of the dead. Another side effect of their presence in the waking world comes in the form of Timefall, a supernatural rain that instantly ages anyone that comes in exposed contact with it.
“I make deliveries. That’s all” — Sam Porter Bridges
This strange approach narrative and the setting is not only a way to justify how Sam re-engages with a fractured world, but it also serves as the framework for Death Stranding’s exploration and social gameplay. By establishing more bonds with civilians and the isolated cities, which create new Strands, you will be able to progress further into the world and advance Sam’s capabilities in ways that weren’t possible with fewer connections. If he ventures too far outside of the existing network’s reach, you’ll get disconnected from benefits it can offer–which include map data, safe houses, and supplies. While this is a necessary part of Sam’s mission, it’s in your best interest to explore when most prepared.
According to Hideo Kojima in a post on social media, it focuses on the act of bridging the divide with characters and other players online. All set in a world where isolation is commonplace, and where the bizarre is the new normal.
“People have built ‘Walls’ and become accustomed to living in isolation. Death Stranding is a completely new type of action game, where the player’s goal is to reconnect isolated cities and a fragmented society. All elements including the story and gameplay, are bound together by the theme of ‘Strand’, or a connection.
As Sam Porter Bridges, you will attempt to ‘Bridge’ these divisions, and in doing so, create new bonds or ‘Strands’ with other players around the globe. Through your experience of playing the game, I hope you’ll come to understand the importance of forging connections with others.”
Much like Solid Snake from the Metal Gear Solid series, the ever-stoic Sam interacts with a variety of characters who have bizarre backstories and even weirder call-signs. The members of BRIDGES, in particular, deal with all manner of strange circumstances within the Death Stranding, and as a collective, they help Sam–in their own way–with making sense of the peculiar world he explores. Kojima has a well-known love of Hollywood films and TV, and that’s especially noticeable in Death Stranding’s cast.
Here’s a quick rundown of the key players in Death Stranding:
- Norman Reedus as Sam Porter Bridges, an agent of BRIDGES.
- Mads Mikkelsen as Cliff, a spectre from the past who controls an army of the dead.
- Troy Baker as Higgs, leader of the Homo Demens separatist group.
- Léa Seydoux as Fragile, company executive for Fragile Express.
- Tommie Earl Jenkins as Die-Hardman, the commander of BRIDGES.
- Guillermo Del Toro / Jesse Corti (voice) as Deadman, a BRIDGES scientist with extensive knowledge on Bridge Babies.
- Margaret Qualley as Mama, a BRIDGES scientist with a connection to the BTs.
- Nicholas Winding Refn / Darren Jacobs (voice) as Heartman, another BRIDGES scientist who repeatedly lives for 21-minutes before temporarily returning to the beach in the death realm.
- Lindsay Wagner / Emily O’Brien (voice) as Amelie, the daughter of the former UCA President. She began the westward expedition that Sam must finish.
Into The Wild
When looking at Death Stranding in action, it’s hard not to think back to Kojima’s previous work on Metal Gear Solid V. However, it leans less on stealth-action and more on survival-action. In order to outfit himself with the necessary supplies, such as a Bridge Baby, a power-loader suit to boost his strength, and weapons, Sam’s inventory will have to be used effectively while out in the wild. Sam also has access to gear that can help him cross rough terrain. These include extendable ladders and climbing equipment, and traversal options like a motorcycle and a cargo hoverboard–which Sam can jump on for faster travel.
The survival element encompasses a variety of different factors, including inventory management, tracking Sam’s health and stamina, and even crafting equipment. The power-loader allows Sam to carry large amounts of cargo–almost to comical levels. This also means you’ll need to be mindful of how many boxes he has stacked onto his back. Along with being mindful of carry limits, players will also have to ensure that Sam’s cargo is balanced evenly. Too many items stacked on top of one another can topple when traversing uneven terrain. Sam can also get injured, and his gear can whittle down after extensive use. His boots, in particular, can break down, which will affect his movement speed and health–sam can even end up with bloody, damaged feet if he doesn’t take care. To ease this danger, you can find various materials and supplies in the wild, which can net you crafting parts to create new items and gear upgrades.
When push comes to shove, Sam is a resourceful guy, and he can handle himself well. He can rest up while out in the field, restoring his stamina and the Bridge Baby’s sense of calm, while also saving his progress. Sitting down to take a rest also allows him to check himself and ensure his Bridge Baby is doing OK. It’s also as good a time as any for Sam to relieve himself when necessary. If you wait too long to urinate, it will cause Sam some discomfort as it builds up, which has some adverse effects on his performance. During the recent TGS gameplay demo, Kojima showed off Death Stranding’s unique peeing gameplay, allowing you to control Sam’s stream. In an odd move, Sam’s urine can be aimed at vegetation in the area to help them grow into usable items.
“I know not everyone shares our vision for the future. If we Americans don’t come together again, humanity won’t survive.” – Amelie
Sam’s mission to rebuild America hinges on his capacity to help others. By completing requests and minor goals from the various side-characters, you gain a set of rewards and additional likes for Sam. Similar to your presence on social media, the more likes you get, the more pronounced your footprint in-game will be, thereby attracting more attention from individuals out in the world. You can’t earn any dislikes from characters, but you can garner fewer likes if you turn in damaged cargo. In addition to earning kudos, some of the characters can give Sam special items. In one mission from the TGS demo, Sam was given a harmonica from a quest giver. When playing the instrument at a rest point, Sam will earn extra likes.
While the expedition to rebuild the nation can be lonely, you won’t be completely alone on your mission. Death Stranding connects players in a manner similar to Dark Souls’ asynchronous online infrastructure, where players can leave messages for others while exploring. If you have a particular delivery that seems too daunting, you can send it over to another player online to complete in your stead. In addition to leaving the occasional note or giving other players a positive affirmation, you can even build constructs for others to use–such as shelters or rampways extending over rivers. However, according to our interview with Kojima, the Timefall will erode player-made creations.
The Road Warrior
One of the more common enemies you’ll face are humans that roam the land or have set up base camp. While you can avoid them, you’ll sometimes need to defend yourself. Sam can use close-ranged attacks powered by his exo-suit, but he can also use his cargo as weaponized objects. However, using these objects as a weapon can damage them, putting a potential Strand at risk if you fail to deliver it intact. Sam also uses several firearms that come in lethal and non-lethal varieties. In addition to pistols and machine-guns, he can also use a non-lethal bola gun to ensnare enemies in an electrified wire. In a strange twist, Sam also has access to weapons that use human blood, which is a useful tool against BTs. In the TGS demo, Sam encountered a dangerous BT creature, but with special grenades laced with human blood (and among other biological materials like urine, sweat, and even feces), he was able to take it down.
Any fight, whether they’re with humans or BTs, can be a bit of a challenge for Sam, especially if he’s packing a lot of gear. Though the human enemies aren’t interested in stealing your equipment, wear and tear is bound to happen. Sometimes, the best course of action is making a clean getaway. In the recent TGS demo, Sam was able to steal enemy vehicles to run away. However, if there aren’t any vehicles, Sam’s own two feet–and his exo-suit–are more than enough to make a clean break. With your suit working at peak power, Sam’s running and jumping power become significantly enhanced. This allows him to leap great distances and run at high speeds. It can come in handy when fighting against roaming packs of insurgents, but they can mean all the difference between life and death when facing off against BTs.
The Beached Things
Following the cataclysmic event, entities known as Beached Things (often called BTs) have become a common threat. Taking the appearance of humans or large wild creatures, they’re incredibly hostile to the living, and they’ll immediately drag them into the death realm. This alternate realm is parallel to our own, however, colors are muted, and the only thing is sight is an ominous beach staring out into the void. The one thing that can help Sam against the BT threat is his constant companion in the daunting task to rebuild America–a Bridge Baby. In a narrative trailer focusing on Deadman, the BB is a living tool birthed from the womb of “still-mothers,” once pregnant women who are in a catatonic state due to the arrival of BTs. Their newborn children perceive both the living and dead realms, which is an invaluable asset for the members of BRIDGES. However, they don’t have a long life expectancy, and they must be cared for at all times. Sam’s BB is nestled on his torso, similar to a front-mounted baby carrier.
When Sam encounters nearby BTs, his suit’s systems–plugged into the BB–will alert him of nearby threats. In many cases, Sam can carefully avoid contact by slowly maneuvering around them and the afflicted landscape. The BTs that Sam encounters are often known as Gazers, who appear as floating dark ghosts that loom over the field, connected by their own strands to the realm of the dead. Getting too close will alert them of your presence. Once that happens, footprints will appear in the afflicted land as they approach Sam. If you’re unable to escape, then Sam will be dragged down into the toxic BT substance, and into the realm of the dead.
“My body may be present, but my soul is on the beach. I’m already dead.” — Heartman
Death Stranding has a very loose concept of life and death, and this also carries into the game’s respawning mechanic. While Sam’s death can spur some losses, it’s not the end, and you’ll soon find yourself back into the realm of the living. Why this occurs precisely has yet to be revealed. However, there is the possibility that it has some connections with the Bridge Baby in Sam’s possession.
Back at the BRIDGES base or in the various safe houses scattered around the world, Sam can recuperate and relax following a tough trek. In these safe havens, you can observe your current progress and check on your selection of equipment. This allows you to customize Sam’s appearance, his gear loadout, and even decorate his room. In the TGS demo, we saw some strange choices in how you can manipulate the room and let Sam unwind. In addition to letting him pose for pictures with a variety of different hats and sunglasses, Sam can also drink beer and listen to his selection of music. Staying in a safe house also presents an excellent time to let him shower up and relieve himself in the bathroom. Kojima also showed off the free-look option for the camera. If you let the camera’s vision linger too often on Sam’s groin, however, he’ll get annoyed and punch the camera.
Beyond Death Stranding
Death Stranding has yet to be released, however, it’s already inspiring a great deal of discussion online about the nature of what Strand gameplay is all about. In our recent interview with Hideo Kojima, the game director will rely a lot on player trust when exploring the land, which can lead to situations where you’ll have to put questions what’s in front of you, and likely put faith in complete strangers online. So far, Kojima is optimistic that players will be honest in how they play the game, and how they’ll communicate with others.
“We do a lot of playtests in the office. So sometimes there’s a bridge that crosses a deep river, and people feel grateful, but it only goes to the middle of the river. Of course, you don’t give that bridge a thumbs up, but it probably wasn’t intentional. I pretty much feel that there won’t be much intentional evil. I want people to think about that as well if they fall [off that bridge]…”I won’t do that to someone.” And you might make the same mistake. “
Kojima stated that he wants to continue exploring this style of gameplay, which tasks players to connect with various aspects of the game world, and with a community of players themselves. The biggest takeaway from his work on the open-world game is the Social Strand system, which he hopes to see evolve further in the years ahead. Whether he wants to continue pursuing this style himself with a direct sequel, or another game entirely remains to be seen. However, the game director has certainly prepared a game that features a dense amount of experiences therein to unpack, which will no doubt have people talking.