Screengrab: YouTube/Game & Stream
Death Stranding is a game about unexpected terrain. But no matter how much you plan for every package delivery across an unforgiving, newly primordial American landscape as Sam Porter Bridges in the game's opening hours, nothing prepares you for that moment: suddenly, after hours of navigating the lonely expanse, a section of highway pops into existence and the game changes completely.It's an oh! moment where everything snaps into focus. You’re not just a lone courier navigating difficult terrain, drinking in the sights, and running around delivering packages for "likes" from NPCs, although that is fun as hell. All of that, in one fell swoop, gets wrapped up into a larger purpose: rebuilding the infrastructure of a collapsed country. Crucially, this isn't up to the individual player, but every player.
What this means, in practical terms, is collecting various materials to put into "auto pavers" spread throughout the world that each generate a new section of highway when full. Every player can contribute to this effort, which means you can feel good simply starting one off, donating some materials while on a delivery, or by taking the time to finish a highway section yourself. Other players will thank you.This wrinkle also introduces Death Stranding's central power fantasy. For a while, our willingly overburdened protagonist seems anything but powerful—intrepid, sure, and with a big appetite for punishment, but not powerful. While most games, especially big budget action games, entice players by continually making their character more powerful with new weapons and superhuman abilities, Sam never really gets that powerful despite having more tools at his disposal. But collaboratively building the world of Death Stranding introduces a kind of collective power fantasy that is just as enticing as a new gun in a shooter. What makes the game easier and empowers players is their collective work on infrastructure that serves them all.And you really do feel it: transforming a landscape that is, in a very tactile way, difficult to traverse into something you can zip across on a motorcycle feels incredible. And as the Waypoint crew expressed in their recent podcast episode on Death Stranding, it's a reason to keep playing this meditative (ok, slow) game. The many memes about being hooked on collaborative infrastructure building—or being grateful towards the players who are—popping up on the game's dedicated subreddit drive this sentiment home.The game's shift upwards from a details-obsessed walking simulator to rebuilding the infrastructure of society is disorienting at first, but soon I couldn't imagine the game without it. Not only is it a fun and addicting mechanic, but it is the gigantic cherry on top of the ice cream sundae that is this game's message: we can do amazing things if we work together in mutual aid. Road building is a crude metaphor, no doubt, but it mostly works.This isn't to say that Death Stranding's politics, insofar as they exist beyond "be nice to people," are perfect. This is a Hideo Kojima game, which means it's messy. But it is so uniquely satisfying to play a game that makes you feel good not just with audio and visual cues engineered to release a dopamine hit (though there are plenty of those; this game wouldn't work if it wasn't fun), but by doing good in a community of players who are tangibly helped by your efforts.Now it’s time for me to stack as many canisters of ceramics on my back as I possibly can and go build the next section of road, not just for me, but for everyone else, too.