Death Stranding Is Best Played Offline
Every time I load up Death Stranding, I'm essentially spitting into the face of its creator, Hideo Kojima. Figuratively, of course. Before I walk across its vast stretches of desolate land, I go into my PlayStation 5's network menu and disconnect my console from the internet. I'm flying directly in the face of the creator, defying one of the core design tenants. And I wouldn't have it any other way.
The most prominent theme in Death Stranding is reconnecting disconnected people across a fractured land. The only way out of the messes we've made – global warming, rising political tensions, and the like – is to join forces. This is done by connecting people to the chiral network, which is essentially the internet*. This allows people to pass information along the United States, as well as 3D print necessary goods. This job falls on one man: Sam Porter Bridges, who must literally walk from coast to coast connecting people to the chiral network.
Death Stranding's theme of connectivity is represented mechanically in its online mode. You never encounter another real-world player, but you frequently come across the structures they've built on their own journeys. For example, in a particularly tough part of terrain, you may find another player's bridge, which helps you get to where you need to go. If you're so inclined, you can leave likes for that player. This asynchronous multiplayer creates a sense of camaraderie and blind appreciation for the work of other people. As a marriage of narrative and mechanics, it's a genius way to represent the game's themes of "Make America Whole Again."
However, when I play Death Stranding, I don't want any of that. To me, the game is best played offline.
I love the walking part of Death Stranding. Loading up my cargo, planning my route down to every step, and embarking on a new adventure in a dangerous, unforgiving world is the most exciting part of the game. I especially like the way Death Stranding makes me think about my own balance and the terrain I step over, forcing me to (quite literally) think on my feet, accounting for gravity, the wetness of the ground, and a thousand other tiny details. When I get to an impasse and have to use one of my many tools – ladders for climbing up sheer cliff walls, ropes for climbing down, bridges for crossing chasms, the list goes on – I feel like a true explorer. I’m not bending the environment to my will, but accepting the environment at face value and figuring out how I can use that to my advantage.
But I find it immensely deflating when I set out on a new area of Death Stranding's map, only to find its online connectivity has populated my game with a lot of the structures I expected to build myself. Overcoming Death Stranding's challenges is most rewarding when you discover the right routes and tools for any given situation. When the option to overcome the environment is taken away from me, it removes the thing I like best about playing Death Stranding. It eliminates a lot of the challenge. My job has been done for me.
I firmly believe you should play games however you want; that authorial intent doesn't matter if it gets in the way of your enjoyment of a piece of art. And in this case, I reject the creator's core intention. I appreciate Death Stranding's online mechanics, but as far as I am concerned, they're at odds with the challenge and satisfaction ingrained in the moment-to-moment gameplay. While I wish there were ways to better tailor your online experience to how you want to play, completely cutting myself off from other players’ creations is my best and only solution. I'm happy to reject Kojima's thesis in order to better enjoy his game. I've done this twice now, both in the game's original release and the brand-new Director's Cut on PlayStation 5.
All that said, if the online connectivity works for you, by all means, keep it on and play to your heart's content. I'd also encourage you to play it offline for a while to experience the other side of the coin; it's a more challenging experience, but one I find far more rewarding. Again, enjoy games how you want to enjoy them, not how you think they should be enjoyed. Death Stranding is a special and great game, and I hope no matter how you choose to play in its world, you do so in the way you enjoy most.
*As an aside, I find Kojima's faith in the internet a bit odd. If not shortsighted and naive. Personally, the internet has done little good in my life. Especially the invention of the comment section down there.