On Death Stranding and depression

Just over a year ago, Hideo Kojima’s first project after infamously leaving Konami was released to the world — Death Stranding. Before its release, I was excited to try it for its promising story, exploration-focused gameplay mechanics, and the hope that it would contain all the weirdness I’d come to expect from Kojima. Death Stranding is arguably one of his most straight-faced pieces of work, but aspects like the focus on a baby companion and time-accelerating rain match up to his earlier quirks like memory card-reading boss fights and a villain with politically named swords.

What I found after playing was much more surprising than I expected. I found an escape, social-connectivity when I was avoiding it most, and a sense of hope for my own future, one that seemed more unlikely and uncertain as each day went by. Death Stranding ended up being so much more than just a game for me. This weird, baby-in-a-jar-obsessed walking-simulator really did change my life.

Leading up to Death Stranding’s release I had just entered my third and final year of University, an experience that I had been enjoying a lot, but definitely struggling with. The stress of trying to meet school deadlines, being broke, and having my fair share of reviews to do started taking its toll on me. Halfway through my first term, I wasn’t showing up to all of my lectures, my sleeping pattern was reversed to an antisocial degree, and I spent any time I was awake out at clubs drinking to try and pass the time. I was still working hard, but my University work was being side-lined for gaming and writing about gaming, and I was clearly spiraling towards some sort of meltdown.

“It’s just typical University stress. Everyone goes out and parties at this point in their life. How I’m feeling will go soon enough.” I thought.

In the middle of that spiral, my long-awaited copy of Death Stranding came. I wasn’t too impressed with what I played at first, finding the story convoluted and far less interesting than the numerous fan-theories surrounding it, while also being daunted by the massive map and slow pace. I quickly shelved it for later, and instead poured my time back into partying and hoping I’d drink myself out of my worries.

As you can probably imagine, that eventually led to the foretold breakdown. One trip to the hospital at 2 am later, and it turned out that pushing back all of my serious thoughts and feelings wasn’t doing anything. I was diagnosed with depression, which was something I’d considered many times before but didn’t want to think about, lest I willed it into existence.

At first, I had hoped to keep going to University amidst getting used to antidepressants, but within a week I found it all too much and had to go home to adjust. I jumped out of all of my games writing to get better, said goodbye to my friends & any chance of drinking, and isolated myself from as much social contact as possible. With weeks of necessary healing time ahead of me and a huge lack of physical energy, I turned back towards games to try and get back to the happy spot I knew they could provide.

Having ran out of things to play, I decided to honour my purchase of a stupidly big collector’s edition and jump back into Death Stranding. At best, I expected to enjoy it more than before, at worst it could kill off some time and give me something else to focus on than just sitting in a house trying to get better.

I soon realized that Death Stranding is a game all about exploring the beautiful environments of a disconnected world whilst the emotionally-damaged main character struggles to connect with others, and learns to open himself up once more. In many ways, that was exactly the way I was feeling and, because of the anti-depressants and time alone, exactly what I couldn’t do.

If there’s one word to sum up what you do in the game it’s walk. Although you occasionally have to deal with BTs and boss battles (the weakest part of the whole game), what you’re mostly doing is walking from point A to B, planning your route carefully, and delivering packages. The latter managed to scratch that itch of having a constant stream of things to do, but it was really the exploration aspect that captured my attention.

Thanks to the Decima engine, every grassy hill and cascading waterfall looks absolutely stunning. The world presented here feels genuinely real like nothing else I’ve played before, and there’s a real thrill to exploring the whole map, even if there isn’t always something to find. Whether it’s trekking through a forest on foot, finding a quiet moment of rest on a beach, or driving a bike desperately through the snow to reach shelter, the way that movement and exploration is presented here is a class unto its own. In its own unique way, having to keep your balance as Sam whilst exploring felt like meditation thanks to its rhythmic nature and slow pace.

I was leaving my own trace in the world for other players

One of the main hooks of Death Stranding’s gameplay is the social elements surrounding the chiral network, and it’s another big link to exploring as much as you can. What that essentially means is that as you progress through the game and reconnect the world, you’ll start seeing items and signs from other players across the world popping up around you.

To someone who was stuck on their own and was far away from his friends, seeing a ladder when you need it most, or a sign telling you to “keep on keeping on” as you struggle up a mountain is surreal in how much it can affect you. I felt connected to the other players in a way games had never made me feel before. I was leaving my own trace in the world for other players, and there was a chance that my grappling hooks and resting points were helping folks out just as much as they did for me.

The effect of the game’s soundtrack can’t be overstated either. The music of Death Stranding is ordinarily a pretty somber experience, but in this state, it almost felt targeted straight at me. Songs like Low Roar’s “Give Up” about not giving up on someone in their worst days and “Patience” about being in a different place and struggling were almost too close to home.

Reflecting on all these elements together; the rolling fields, the poetic music, the slow reconnection to society, it truly seemed like Death Stranding was doing more to help me than anything else. Maybe it was a combination of many factors, and maybe it had nothing to do with the game at all, but when I look back on a year ago, that’s most of what I can remember feeling. 

Kojima promised a lot of things about Death Stranding, and whether or not it lived up to those expectations is completely subjective, but I believe the overwhelming themes of the power of human connection and surviving through difficulty were purposeful and entirely successful. It’s actually kind of funny to see other people’s reactions to the game and how they remember Sam Bridges drinking Monster Energy whilst running around with a baby in a pod against my own. For me, it was as close to a life-changing event as a game can get, and one that felt fine-tuned for how I was feeling at the hardest struggle in my life. 

Finishing Death Stranding didn’t magically fix my life, but it certainly pushed me back into the real-world at a faster pace than I expected. Those friends I missed and that outside world I experienced through the game were suddenly much more visible. One year later, the world is a much weirder, scarier place, but one I feel like I’ve become stronger through. I finished University, kept on writing and kept on playing more than I’ve ever done.

Funny thing though — I’ve since tried to play through Death Stranding and found that I can’t ever experience it in the same way again. That first play-through was just for me, but not the me that I am now. But when that initial forty-hour adventure was all over? I went to my favourite beach for a long walk.

By George Foster

George Foster is a gaming journalist living in Brixham, Devon. Ever since obsessively watching Kingdom Hearts 3’s reveal trailer at 0.25 speed, he knew he needed to write about the things he was most passionate about. You can regularly catch him at RPG Site, Nintendo Insider, and on Twitter @gepugg

Leave a Reply