I’m braced, holding ‘L2’ and ‘R2’ to grasp tightly to the straps of my futuristic backpack, despite the fact I’m not walking yet. It’s a habit from the real world leaking in, testing the weight before the off. Sam Porter Bridges exists no longer, this is me on the wild frontiers of broken America. Standing on the edge of what is left of civilisation I’m preparing my route, analysing the peaks and troughs of what looks more like Scottish Highlands, than East Coast America. I’ve meticulously planned the points where I’ll stop, craggy cliffs where I’ll plant an anchor, throw a rope and slowly drop to the earth below. I want to be precise. I’m carrying vital supplies for an outpost hoping to connect to the network and reunite the country.
For now, the story matters very little. All I’m concerned with is the balance of my cargo. Most of the load is on my back, some attached to my thighs which I feel will give me a better centre of gravity. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t. The ground beneath my feet is my greatest obstacle. On my last journey, after wading a shallow river, I absently pressed the ‘X’ button at the wrong time and jumped instead of climbed; frantically I reset my balance, saving the cargo from a watery grave.
I know that the Timefall rain will be an issue, as will the mysterious BTs, which I’ll admit scare me more than I thought they would. I’ve spotted that another courier has marked a good place to wait out the rain. Another has signposted the presence of BTs. I can’t yet work out if I enjoy this element of Death Stranding or not. Part of the exploration for me is discovery, yet I’m still thankful of the advance warning.
Everything is double and triple checked, it’s time to leave.
I’ve developed a habit of tapping my scanner, checking the route, keeping an eye out for big red ‘X’ markers which warn against impossible terrain. But on the horizon, there’s a dropped piece of cargo. Then I spot another and a third. It doesn’t matter to me whether this is placed there by a member of Kojima’s team or whether a player dropped it, I must return it to the owner. I must deliver this found item. My first instinct tells me I am Frodo, determined against all disaster to deliver a promise. My sense of humour tells me I’m already better than any Hermes delivery driver, but really, it’s my fatherly instinct which pushes me on.
This black and orange box nestled in the grass is now a child’s lost teddy. A scruffy bunny, with half-chewed ears, one of its button eyes missing and the child will never get to sleep that night without this soft toy in their arms. I know this is ridiculous, but I’ve been in this situation many times as a father of three children. I’m determined now to take on the extra weight – physically and emotionally. I scour the surrounding area looking for extra lost items – connecting America can wait, these people have lost something valuable.
For me, this is the most interesting aspect of Death Stranding. It’s entirely optional, the electronic ‘likes’ I’ll garner on delivery mean nothing, but the sense of closure drives me on. I yearn to find the owner, though I know it will be a faceless terminal at the end of the route. I have a responsibility.
Now, nearing my carrying capacity I decide that I will carry these precious lost items in my hands, rather than on my back. It will help prevent some damage, but there’s a danger that should I lose balance or find myself on a steep hill, I won’t be able to brace myself and take care. I’m plodding along, barely nudging the left stick, walking almost painfully slowly. I take a break from the Timefall rain in the cave the other player pointed out to me. I consider rearranging my cargo load, thinking I might find a better way of carrying them, but instead opt for continuing as I am.
It’s not long after that my Bridge Baby (BB) cries out through the speaker in my hands. The glow of the controller flares from the peaceful blue to a glaring red and my scanner flaps wildly. The sounds assail my senses, I immediately crouch down low, holding my breath with the ‘R1’ button. I’m watching my stamina deplete as my breath runs low, alternately scanning the area to ‘sense’ the invisible BT monsters. I know I have to move. I have to continue on, or the inevitable creep of death will be upon me.
The scanner keeps clacking away, my BB is crying – a whimper that again taps into my fatherly reactions. I want to soothe the BB, but there’s no time. I forge ahead, feet skidding slightly on the gravel underneath me. The only route away from danger is through a river, but the scan tells me it’s quite deep and I can’t steady myself while my hands are carrying the lost items. I’m panicked. I must escape, so I wade into the river.
I’m desperately trying to alternate between haste and a slower pace, a fragile balance of getting to the other side and keeping my cargo safe. The water really is quite deep, and my BB is submerged, also panicking, crying constantly. The black ooze of the BTs swirls through the river, grasping onto me. I can’t make it to the other side, frantically I turn back, hoping to find salvation. But it’s too late, they have me. I begin hammering the buttons in an attempt of loosing the grip when a black whale breaches from the river, splashing down beside me. It’s a nightmare world suddenly; the lush greens are gone, all that exists is fear, crying and the blackness of death.
Then I misstep. There’s no graceful way to say that I fell onto my arse on the edge of the river. The current pulls at me, I can use the shoulder buttons to guide my drift as the water carries me along. There’s a crash and my cargo breaks away from my back, the cases all crash onto the shore and the rocks beside it. The BTs are gone, fading into the other realm, but I’m wet, distraught, out of breath, worried about my BB and my wrecked cargo.
I wasn’t even that far from my destination. I take a moment to rest. I breathe. My BB can’t be soothed, it’s wailing with emotion as I slowly pick up the boxes I can see. Everything is damaged, even the lost items I’d found along the way. I had failed.
This sense of failure, which comes from so many aspects of what occurred is like nothing I’ve experienced from a videogame before. It’s truly devastating – I shouldn’t have panicked, I shouldn’t have taken on the extra weight, I should have taken more care to wait out the BT attack. Head hanging low, I walk the rest of the way. Voices come through the comms to tell me my BB is ill from the fear. I’ve reached my destination and I put down my controller. I turn away from the screen and I breathe.