How Death Stranding revolutionises open world game design

Death Stranding was perhaps one of the most divisive games to release in 2019, if not the entire decade. Hideo Kojima’s long-awaited return to the game industry following his departure from Konami was met with a diverse pick-n-mix of hot takes and controversial opinions. The feedback somehow ranged from the best game ever created to the most disappointing release of our collective lifetimes. Such a wide spectrum of reactions doesn’t just happen to any game, so Death Stranding is, if nothing else, clearly bringing something wholly original to the table. The main split that arises when arguments inevitably break out about this game is the gameplay, which mainly consists of slowly traversing a vast, empty open world delivering packages from one place to another. This has been criticised by some as boring and repetitive, while others praise it as a unique challenge that makes the simple act of walking enjoyable. Since I assume you’ve read the title of this post, it should come as no shock that I fall in with the latter group, but I can’t exactly deny the problems this game’s critics have raised. However, I would like to suggest that the people who accuse this game of being a tedious, dull experience are actively ignoring some of the downright genius design decisions on the part of Kojima Productions. Death Stranding‘s open world is unlike anything I’ve experienced in my life, and I wanted to take a moment to draw attention to how goddamn good this game is at its peak (I won’t be touching on any story spoilers but if you want to experience this game completely fresh then I’ll understand).

So, what makes a compelling open world? If we look at some of the more popular titles in this genre, we get something of an idea. Whenever reviews come out for the latest blockbuster open world smash hit, attention tends to be drawn to the worlds feeling alive. This can be achieved in a number of ways. The Witcher 3, Skyrim and Red Dead Redemption 2 tend to manage this through their carefully crafted environments and NPCs who walk around, perhaps following routines, blurting out generic dialogue whenever you’re within a two mile radius of their position. Games like Breath of the Wild (and, in many ways, Minecraft) approach this from a different angle, favouring the power of dynamism, wherein the world has a particular set of rules which allow the environment to react believably to the player’s actions (e.g. setting fire to a tree will cause the entire forest to go up in flames). However, this power isn’t necessarily exclusive to the player, as creatures or enemies could interact with one another, like in Far Cry or the newer Assassin’s Creed games. This is supposed to give the sense that this world you’re so rudely occupying operates outside of the main character’s omniscient realm of influence.

However, what’s really curious about Death Stranding is it doesn’t neatly fit into either of these categories, and yet the world remains profoundly engaging. The open world is essentially a dead, empty void of nothing. You’ll very occasionally stumble across NPCs delivering packages like you, and the station’s you’re delivering to have human characters within them, but for the most part, you’re tasked with walking from A to B across this vast, mostly unoccupied wasteland. Many open world games in the past have been criticised for this exact problem, and in those games it certainly is just that: a problem. So how does Death Stranding succeed where so many others have failed? Something which often goes unmentioned in games is the absurd amount of walking we often have to do, and how exceptionally uninteresting it tends to be. This is especially noticeable in open world games, which has led to developers implementing the fast travel mechanic; a clear confession that they couldn’t quite figure out how to make the process of going from one place to another anything more than a chore. Walking is treated as a necessary evil in a lot of open world games, and the player being forced to use fast travel on many occasions often serves only as an immersion breaker. I understand why it exists, but it can’t help but feel a little lazy at times. Death Stranding solves this problem handily by making the terrain itself the primary antagonist of the experience.

Of course, I don’t mean that in the literal plot sense; Troy Baker, as you’d expect, makes for a very entertaining villain. There’s even literal enemy NPCs in the form of BTs – lost souls trapped between the worlds of the living and the dead – and MULEs – groups of crazy people intent on stealing your cargo just for the thrill of having it in their possession (if that’s not an obvious parallel to Disney suing that family who put Spider-Man on their dead child’s grave, I don’t know what is). These enemy encounters are enjoyable in their own way, but they’re nothing particularly special or even massively well made. BTs are extremely easy to avoid once you realise how restrictive their presence in the world really is. If you are caught by the BTs somehow, it spawns in a dynamic boss fight, which could’ve been really cool if it simply running away and ignoring it entirely wasn’t by far the most sensible option. MULEs never quite surpass the mighty heights of ‘somewhat engaging third person shooter scenarios’, although these guys become a lot more fun to navigate as the game progresses. Both of these simply feel underdeveloped – good ideas not given the right amount of time to be truly fleshed out beyond surface level entertainment. They’re mild inconveniences blocking your progress first, and interesting situations worth negotiating second.

However, what is much more interesting to me is everything surrounding these encounters. In the game, you are given two set locations: where you are, and where you need to be. This seems fairly straightforward, but the direct path to your objective is often blocked off somewhat by parts of the world, such as large hills or giant bodies of water. However, these aren’t necessarily disguised invisible walls designed to force the player down a particular path. Rather, in most cases, the game is offering you a choice of which path you believe is the most sensible. Will you cut through the mountains, risking the perilous heights, falling from which would result in heavily damaged cargo or maybe even death? Or perhaps you would rather play it safe by walking around the hazard, which would take longer, allowing for more potential smaller hazards to cross your path along the way? Every journey into brand new territory is dense with prediction and planning, which makes overcoming these obstacles and successfully delivering your cargo feel like a much more personal victory. Similarly, every bad situation you find yourself in tends to be your fault too. I was expecting the BTs to bring the spooks to this game, but since they proved to be a somewhat underwhelming enemy, a different event filled that void. Easily the most genuinely scared I was playing this game wasn’t slowly manoeuvring through ghosts or hiding from cargo addicts, but rather it came during a surprise snowstorm as I desperately attempted to reach my destination. Stuck on top of a snowy mountain as wind billowed around my ears, barely able to see five feet ahead of me as my cargo slowly deteriorated in the timefall snow (it makes sense if you play the game I promise) might be the most stressed I ever got playing this game. Sound design and visuals came together to create this exceptionally effective atmosphere eliciting a strong fear of the unknown, not unlike the feeling of wandering through a dark basement with only a small torch to light your way. I am not exaggerating when I say that this moment genuinely terrified me, and it only happened because I didn’t have the foresight to look ahead at the ominous snowstorm on the horizon. Powering through that storm felt like winning against all odds, a true victory against a hostile world throwing everything it could to stop me, and it was a tremendously rewarding experience. Blazing your own trail like this isn’t simply a matter of making your own fun though; it is abundantly clear that these areas, as shockingly photorealistic and authentically natural as they appear, are very carefully designed to give the player as many options as possible, while also not overwhelming them with choices.

When I first started playing the game and getting to grips with this aspect of the game and the freedom it supplies, I came across what I perceived as my first problem, and it’s a problem I have with a lot of games that gift me finite resources. As a full-time qualified neurotic idiot, I tend to use non-renewable items as little as possible, for fear that I’ll pull out a buff at the wrong time. I do this with every game that gives me the option, particularly the Souls games since the difficulty only amplifies that anxiousness. However, this is where the genius social system comes in. The way multiplayer works in Death Stranding isn’t by encountering other players in the world like you might expect, but rather you’ll sometimes come across equipment left behind by other players traversing the same area as you. Sometimes it’ll be a ladder giving you a path across a river, or a rope allowing you to scale a thirty-metre wall, and so on. These little pockets of help saved my skin on more than one occasion, so they are far from a needless inclusion. Having players helping each other out, even unknowingly, lends this wonderful sense of comradery to the world. If you help someone out with a bridge or whatever, the game will inform you that it happened, allowing the player a real sense that they’re enacting positive change on the environment. It’s dynamic, like a Breath of the Wild, but in a subtly different way that I’ve never experienced before. The social features meant I felt less of a need to be preservative, since even if I make things harder for myself later on, there’s a safe bet that the generator I just placed down will be just what some other player needed at that exact moment. These little decisions operate on many layers of reward, and it removed a common frustration I personally have with games similar to this, which I think I pretty incredible.

The last thing I want to touch on is this idea that an open world game only succeeds when the world itself feels alive. Jacob Geller made an excellent video talking about this idea, using Red Dead Redemption 2 as a case of study, and I’d highly recommend giving that a watch by clicking here (but after you read this please it’s almost done I swear). To vaguely summarise, Geller touches on this idea that a game world feeling “alive” is about so much more than simply how realistic the moustache hairs on Old Man MacGucket are. Sure, games like The Witcher 3 are impressive for what they achieve aesthetically and technically, but suggesting that all open worlds should aim for the exact criteria set by CD Projekt Red is narrow-minded in many ways. Perhaps the effectiveness of an open world has less to do with whether or not it acquires the arbitrary number of “alive” points, and it’s more important to establish a feeling that’s relatable and deeply empathetic. The world of Shadow of the Colossus could not feel more dead if it tried, but very few open areas have been as absorbing to me as that one because of the context surrounding it. The point of having such a huge empty space in between Colossus encounters is to allow the player time to ruminate on their actions, and it is perfect for that purpose. Similarly, Death Stranding‘s open world is very empty, almost entirely devoid of friendly faces. For most of your time in the world, it’ll just be you and your BT-sensing companion, BB (a baby in a pod attached to your suit yes it actually makes sense in context just play the game please). The relationship between the player character, Sam, and BB is incredibly important to the story, and having the two of you be alone together for such long stretches of time allows your bond to grow organically, which is a sensation only really achievable in the medium g video games. Furthermore, you’ll come across people in bases dotted across the landscapes. They appear as holograms, and despite the fact that few of them were actually interesting as characters, I couldn’t help but love being around most of them just because it was lovely to have some company in between the long stretches of alone time. This ties nicely into Sam’s character arc throughout the game as he slowly learns to trust and rely on others, and this is expressed not just through cutscenes, but through gameplay. I think is really cool, and that specific sensation of loneliness would not have been possible without the use of a wide, empty open world.

Death Stranding is not exactly the most accessible game I’ve ever played, and I can totally see how many would find playing it so tedious. I hope that if you are one of those people and you’ve read through this entire rambling post, thank you for doing that, and I hope you understand somewhat better why so many people, myself included, fell head over heels for this dumb, weird game with such iconic lines as “I’m Fragile, but I’m not that fragile” and “You’re Mario, and I’m Princess ‘Beach'”. This game gets a fair amount wrong, but I genuinely believe there is a lot to learn from what Death Stranding gets oh so right. The era of open world games might be nearing its conclusion by now, but if there are more to come, this game shows the potential of such a setting. You hear that, Days Gone 2?? Takes notes!