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Death Stranding’s Strange Yet Unique Appeal

How DS Rethinks Open-World Game Design

Gone is the PS4, came the PS5. Standing at this juncture, I find it a bit amusing to ask myself the question: why is Death Stranding the only last-gen game, and the only game, that I come back to on a regular basis, a year after its initial release.

I know for certain that I come back to Death Stranding not for its stellar graphics, or replayability, in the sense that: though graphic wise, Death Stranding is indeed a fascinating technical achievement, but so many other titles offers similar, or even better graphics on the new console; replayability is almost nonexistent in Death Stranding in that the players, after finishing the story in the first run, are locked in the infinite loop of re-delivering old packages, going through old “fetch quests” and whatnot, nothing short of the Sisyphean torture of pushing the rock to the top of the mountain, only to see it rolls down jubilantly to the bottom. In plain gaming language, there is no end game or a great sense of achievement however longer you play it after beating it the first time.

Yet I still love playing this game, more than a year after its release. Why? To understanding my own obsession of Death Stranding, I will first analyze the game’s moment to moment gameplay, and then delve into how Death Stranding creates player motivation differently from other open world titles.

Compared to other AAA open world titles, and especially how missions/quests are structured and staged, Death Stranding completely reverses traditional structure by putting all the gameplay between point A and point B, namely the location a quest is given and the destination of that quest. The so called “fun” of the gameplay lies in successfully conquering the peak of an intimidating mountain, in not toppling over treading waters and rivers, in avoiding MULE’s detection or raiding. What most open-world games ask the players to do, however, is essentially receive the quest at point A, walk, and simply and merely, walk to point B, an arena or destination, fight a bunch of enemies, and then complete the quest. Think of Horizon Zero Dawn, think of Red Dead Redemption. The vastness of the open-world is there only to put the players in awe for the first 5 hours to so, only to be forgotten or never paid attention to the rest of the game, except during the sporadic uses of photo mode when the landscapes are momentarily appreciated. Death Stranding not only puts the the player in a mind set to constantly, at every moment, pay close attention to the landscape (or suffer the dire consequence of toppling over and ruin your delivery) and naturally appreciate the grandeur of nature. But most importantly, the concept of “open-world” actually starts to make sense, not merely as a beautiful backdrop to the story unfolding on screen, but also as part of the gameplay. Death Stranding’s map is not the largest compared to many other open world games, yet it is by far the only map where I know how to traverse without looking at the actual map by pushing the option button. It is a map that players get to grow closer with through the journey, thus immersing the players in the fictional world of USA. Gameplay, for the first time, is actually tied into every inch of the map the players traverse. The effect of this design choice brings about is that the player is no longer fumbling and rushing towards the destination like a mindless fly, feeling anxious about doing more things or completing more missions all the time, and slow down and truly appreciate the journey. We all say that what matters is not the “end result” but “the journey”, yet Death Stranding is the only one game, to my knowledge, to showcase this phrase perfectly.

The unique gameplay emphasizing “the journey” brings us to my next point on Death Stranding’s unique appeal: player motivation. Death Stranding’s map is indeed littered with all kinds of icons, not unlike many other open-world games, but they never give the anxiety attack of the urge to complete checklists as many other do. Icons on Death Stranding’s maps are structures, either built-in or player-built, that never lure you to them like a “mischievous” question mark. In other words, you already know what a settlement or a distribution center offers you in terms of quests. It is entirely up to you, the player, to decide which delivery mission to initiate. This system obviously does not reward a player as does the “question mark system” found commonly in Ubisoft’s open world title, but don’t we all know that a question mark in the assassins creed title, more than often, hides only a lame equipment or lackluster side quest you either throws away after a few trials or completely forgets 20 minutes later. Death Stranding’s quest design is better for the long run: players are not fooled into, or willingly fooled into believing that discovery of question mark rewards, they create their own motivation, their own deliveries. Delivery quests in Death Stranding are not there, hidden under question marks to lure players to complete them. Players instead are treated as adults, motivated by internal likings, choosing what they want to do at the moment, completely free of the urge to completing “checklists”. The benefits fo this design choice, at least to me, is that I could relax, sit back and forget about unlocking a trophy. I return to the game, to delivering packages because I choose to, not because there are so many question marks I need to clear on the map. I do not feel stressed.

Some may say that the strange appeal of Death Stranding is simply a contingence: the onset of Covid-19 is not that different from the context of the story in Death Stranding, and that the social resonance, albeit coincidental, was what contributed mostly to its success. I do not deny that Death Stranding did get lucky in lining up its release with a future at that time the dev team at Kojima Productions knew nothing about, but what is truly unique about this game, and its controversial success, is its dare to rethink and reinvent a genre, from the fundamental pillars of game design, that many other take for granted as a canonical formula.

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