Death Stranding and Pacing
StoryScan: Weak Point
StoryScan: Weak Point highlights specific aspects of individual game narratives that don’t live up to audience expectations. In this essay, we’re covering Death Stranding (Kojima Productions, 2019), the ‘strand-type’ action game. This essay will cover content from the entire plot of Death Stranding. Players who have not completed this game may want to set this article aside until later, as it contains substantial spoilers for the main storyline.
Death Stranding is a difficult game to define. As Metal Gear developer Hideo Kojima’s first game since his 2015 departure from Konami, the game was met with monumentally high expectations. Defying those expectations, Kojima stepped away the ‘tactical espionage action’ that had defined his previous games for Death Stranding. The rest was a slower, exploration-driven game focused on building connections, an experience Kojima dubbed ‘a strand game.’1 The result was met with mixed reviews; the notoriously picky Famitsu gave it a 40/402, while the historically lenient IGN gave it a 6.8/103. These reviews reflected the larger reception, as fans spoke highly of the graphics and the sound design but found the gameplay lacking. The story also received criticism for its pacing issues, both on scene and structural levels. While symptoms of those issues pervade all of Kojima’s work—the hyper-reliance on exposition, as well as the act lengths—Death Stranding‘s ‘strand-type’ gameplay leaves it uniquely disconnected from the story it’s trying to tell: a tragic irony in a game about making connections.
Death Stranding‘s pacing issues stem in part from its basic story. In Death Stranding, players take on the role of Sam Porter Bridges, a delivery man who transports packages across the ruins of the former United States. When Sam gets a delivery request from his dying mother, former U.S. President Bridget Strand, she contracts him to cross the ruins of America and reconnect the isolated cities. It’s a tall order even for Sam, as the countryside is crawling with half-dead monsters and half-mad terrorists, but the more cities Sam connects, the more help he’ll find along the way. These goals and threats form the basis for Death Stranding’s narrative, but they barely scratch the surface of the absurdities and horrors waiting for Sam in the ruins of America. He meets skeletal soldiers, ghost babies, psychic twins, and a self-described Frankenstein’s monster all within the progression of the base narrative, and they each have something to teach him about human connections. Unfortunately, they do so through a disjointed series of cutscenes mired with expository dialogue and split up by hours of gameplay, which reduces the story’s impact as a whole.
Problems With Pacing
Like some of Kojima’s earlier works, including Metal Gear Solid IV and Snatcher, the story of Death Stranding is divided into distinct chapters. Each of Death Stranding’s fourteen chapters is named for one of the games’ characters, and that character is often the subject of the chapter’s scattered cutscenes. These chapters vary wildly in length, with some lasting minutes and others lasting hours. Such irregular sizes can work if the story beats still fall in a natural rhythm, but Death Stranding’s major beats don’t fit a standard pattern. There’s no obvious Crisis moment where the protagonist loses everything, nor is there a midpoint marked by significant failure or success. While it’s true that not every story has these beats (see: the Kishotenketsu structure), they’re common because they’re good guideposts for rising and falling tension. This dynamic is all but absent from large chunks of Death Stranding’s story. Sam’s journey across America is largely bereft of conflict until he reaches the other side, at which point everything falls apart in a cascade of dramatic confessions and confrontations. Had these events been spaced out better, they would have given the story a more natural rhythm, but even then, they would have hit against another obstacle: the gameplay.
Much like its story, Death Stranding’s ‘strand-type’ gameplay is nothing if not divisive. Derided as a ‘walking simulator’ by some4 while praised for its asynchronous multiplayer by others5, Death Stranding is a game that isolates players for long stretches to demonstrate the value of human connection. It’s an intriguing concept, but the reality is a game where players can spend hours hauling boxes up a hill without engaging with the story whatsoever. These gaps in the narrative are exacerbated by the uneven distribution of deliveries-per-chapter, which results in a story that disappears for hours at a time, only to come roaring back in chapters with minimal gameplay. The most egregious examples of this occur in Chapter 3, with less than thirty minutes of story for over five hours of gameplay, and in Chapter 14, with less than fifteen minutes of gameplay for over an hour of story. These examples are representative of how the story abandons players for long stretches only to overstay its welcome when it returns. Unfortunately, this pattern repeats itself on a smaller scale in Death Stranding’s other source of pacing problems: its individual scenes.
Death Stranding’s chapters each have their unique quirks, especially towards the beginning and the end, but most chapters follow a similar pattern: Sam arrives in a new city, meets a new person, helps them with their problems, and forms a lasting connection. Each new story element requires some degree of explanation, whether it’s a set-piece of a character, and that explanation often comes through exposition. Fans of Hideo Kojima’s work are no strangers to his love of expository dialogue, but Kojima takes this tendency to an extreme in Death Stranding. Every time players meet someone new, that person will explain, in no particular order: who they are, what they do for a living, what makes them strange, and how that strangeness is reflected in their name (and rest assured, they do have a strange name). These details, while often entertaining in a vacuum, follow a repetitive pattern and rarely have any conflict to keep the player engaged. These conversations limit Sam’s growth as a character, too, as he can’t say much when he’s being bombarded with new information. Whether he’s learning the life story of Die Hardman, Deadman, or Fragile, he just has to sit back and absorb it all. And those are the scenes where he’s allowed to sit.
Like the Metal Gear games before it, Death Stranding allows players to receive calls on a radio-like system called the Codec. They can also receive holographic messages on the chiral network, which is the inter-continental network Sam connects throughout the game. These two communication methods become glorified exposition delivery systems (as they often were in Metal Gear), which adds to the volume of scenes in which neither Sam nor the player can take any action or make any choices. Without the ability to make decisions, Sam’s opportunity for character growth is limited, which limits the usefulness of the calls. They don’t have any narrative momentum, so they don’t function as scenes, and they don’t engage the player mechanically, so they don’t function as gameplay. They’re dead weight in an already troubled story, one that manages to be both bloated and sparse due to its unfortunate pacing.
For all its faults, Death Stranding tells a story with many positive qualities. Its themes of isolation and connection in a time of global crisis were remarkably prescient in the months leading up to the COVID-19 outbreak, and its outrageous character concepts prove Kojima still hasn’t lost his sense of fun. Unfortunately, the intriguing themes and absurd characters were let down by poor pacing in both the overall structure and the individual scenes, and the entire game suffers as a result. Writers and game developers who wish to explore similar themes in open settings can learn from Death Stranding’s missteps to create smoother, tighter stories that keep audiences engaged from start to finish.
StoryScan: Snatcher and Influences
Snatcher combines its cinematic influences with original ideas, resulting in a story that could have only come from Hideo Kojima.
Narrative Analysis: Influences & Inspirations
Artists find inspiration in other creative works, both inside and outside their medium.
Narrative Analysis: Exposition
Different ways to dispense must-know information without losing the audience’s attention.
1 @Hideo_Kojima_EN. “As I’m getting similar questions so I shall re-post. DS is not a stealth game. Could move subjectively but not a FPS shooting game either. By incorporating with the concept of connection(strand), it’s totally brand new genre called action game/strand game(social strand system).” Twitter, June 4th, 2019.
2,3 “Death Stranding: Reception.” Wikipedia, 2021.
4 Vincent, Brittany. “Is Death Stranding a Walking Simulator?” Shack News, 2019.
5 GameSpot. “Death Stranding’s Online Mode Is Perfect If You Don’t Like Multiplayer.” YouTube, 2019.
* Reference Footage: Daktyl. All cutscenes with Emet-Selch | FFXIV : Stormblood & Shadowbringers. YouTube, 2019.