I’ve become obsessed with Death Stranding lately. When it initially released, I bounced off of it due to a combination of burnout and not a lot of free time. But given a few conversations with folks about it, I was prompted to pick it back up. And it got its hooks into me. Deep.
This isn’t the first time that during the pandemic I became obsessed with a game about delivering packages. When Lake by Gamious first came out, I similarly couldn’t put it down. Turns out, when I’m more isolated from friends and community, I deeply crave experiences that are about connecting and rebuilding via driving around and delivering the things that people both want and need. Who knew.
So let’s start with Meredith.
Lake is the chillest game I’ve ever played. This isn’t to say there isn’t conflict or drama, it’s just that it’s an example of a game that is exploring internal conflict instead of external conflict. You play as Meredith, a programmer for a big tech firm in the ’80s, who after missing her company’s labour day party to meet their major milestone, returns to her small hometown to take over her father’s delivery route for a week. Meredith is all too happy to spend her vacation by taking on another job, and what enfolds are the quiet, calm moments of a character taking a breather while deciding her next steps.
What really clicked for me in Lake was the very predictability of it. Each day is rigidly segmented: you get your delivery list for the day, and as you go about delivering mail and packages, cutscenes play out with specific characters. Then, when the day’s over, you go home, and either have a choice about how to let Meredith relax (or not), and choices made via interactions with characters earlier determine what your night’s plans are. It’s simple and it’s the routine-ness of it that makes it really enjoyable. I know what to expect and when to expect it, which let me focus on what I really wanted to do: turn on the truck’s radio and try and get better at remembering the names of streets and addresses as I went about delivering the mail.
Narratively, what I really appreciate about Lake is also how the character relationships become moments to reflect back Meredith’s own internal conflict. Reconnecting with her childhood best friend, Kay, is an avenue for Meredith to see and appreciate what life in the small town could be like for her, and how, just because it’s different, doesn’t mean it’s any less full or important. Similarly, Meredith’s relationship with Angie provides Meredith the opportunity to just eschew either option and pursue a more spontaneous, less predictable life. The characters that exist in Lake don’t just exist for Meredith, either. They’re going to do what they’re going to do, and what Meredith decides is right for won’t change that. And I like that. I like that these are characters with agencies who don’t just exist for Meredith, but rather provide her opportunities to understand herself — and what she wants — better. She isn’t changing anybody’s life, because that’s not the point: the point is to decide her own life.
And, of course, there’s Sam Porter Bridges.
Then there’s Death Stranding, a game absolutely about changing other people’s lives.
Death Stranding, a game that is the equivalent experience of taking a long train trip, putting on a good playlist and zoning while looking out the window. It’s relaxing in a way it really shouldn’t be, but that comes from how deeply methodical it is. In the same way I did with Lake, I’d start each delivery by planning by route. But instead of relaxing with the radio, I then got to hone my skills in overcoming the challenging landscape, avoiding or defeating BTs, and never backing down from a fight with the MULEs.
And also unlike Lake, which revels in internal conflict, Death Stranding’s story is absolutely about external conflict. Every single type you can imagine, on every level you can imagine. And it’s good and it works because Death Stranding is about grandiosity, about big ideas in a big place, and performing your role in service of these things. It’s about Sam’s story, absolutely but it’s also about everyone else. This game isn’t just about Sam; it’s about how one person has a role to play in something even bigger. It’s purposefully grand, just as Lake is purposefully small.
My issue with the story isn’t that it’s absolutely bananas (although it is absolutely bananas), but that it doesn’t let itself breathe with the story. Characters are always talking to you, prompts are always being surfaced, and these bits, while fine on their own, add up to a lot of interruptions that detract from what the game is really, really good at: letting me plot my route and deliver packages. I don’t need to be told I’m helping connecting people whenever I add another station to the chiral network, because by gating the asynchronous multiplayer gameplay behind expanding the chiral network, I’m actively experiencing those connections, one by one. Every time an otherwise barren area lights up with player’s signs, ladders, discarded packages, and bridges, I can feel the connections growing. It becomes easier to traverse areas I’ve been, and that’s the point. The gameplay is doing such a good job of delivering on the themes and the story, that I don’t need as much dialogue telling me as such. All of that to say is: the gameplay is so tightly tuned to the story that every moment is working for and with the themes, and that’s part of what makes it so good.
That and I really, really, really like delivering packages from one destination to the next. It’s just the best.
Whereas Lake is about taking your time and delivering packages as a means of reconnecting with yourself and what matters to Meredith, Death Stranding is about reconnecting others for a purpose that is so much larger than you. I love these two games in contrast because Lake is micro: you’re one person, trying to figure out what you want next for yourself, and you do so by deliberately slowing down and taking the time to just think. It’s so intensely micro that it almost feels passive, but it’s not. Meredith struggles with her high-powered tech job and whether or not that’s the life for her anymore. She struggles with rebuilding old friendships, potentially starting new romances, and letting these internal conflicts drive her toward understanding who she is and what she wants. Other people are key to this for Meredith because observing what her life could be like here is crucial to deciding if she wants to remain here or not.
And Death Stranding, on the other hand, is defiantly macro. It’s about Sam, yeah, but it’s more about Sam’s role in rebuilding America, helping reconnect people across a fractured land to survive against a daily apocalyptic threat. Even the small parts (delivering toys or books to stations) have a grand significance in that they increase the happiness of station inhabitants which thereby increases the station’s effectiveness which in turn increases Sam’s efficiency in his greater goal. Whereas Lake is about how the people she is delivering packages to influence Meredith’s decision for her life, all of people in Death Stranding are the point, the ones who are changed and saved.
I really like how the same mechanic (package delivery) can be envisioned in two completely disparate ways to tell two vastly different stories. And both work. Whether it’s Meredith finding herself or Sam saving America, it works, because, somehow, the same gameplay is used to provide the necessary space and obstacles that both characters need to contend with.