December 15, 2019

Immersive Hiking Experience over Virtual Mountains in Death Stranding

The journey uphill seems to go on forever. I can still see the town from where I started far away in the distance near the sea level. Using a topographical map I had tried to find an optimal route to avoid the steepest incline by aiming to cross the mountain range through a gap between two peaks. Continuously, I need to hold on to my backpack straps in order to maintain my balance on unsteady boulders. Eventually there will be some scrambling required. Just when I stop for a quick bite and a drink, the unborn fetus in my artificial womb starts to cry, which foreshadows invisible dead spirits somewhere in the vicinity. 

Plotting a route to the source of the river.
My latest hiking trip took place in the virtual world of Death Stranding the video game. During 40+ hours I ended up travelling vast distances across the desolate landscape of post apocalyptic America. As a real life hiker, I felt that the game beautifully captured the meditative trodding across majestic scenery. In this blog entry I wanted to give my homage to some of the hiking related highlights of this game. 

Here’s a very short introduction to Death Stranding for non-gamers out there: This is the very latest game by Hideo Kojima, who is nothing short of a rock star in the video game industry. A new game by him & his team is always a phenomenon and Death Stranding is no exception. Kojima is practically creating a new game genre of parcel delivery. Typically in games it is the most boring and unimaginative type of a mission to bring an item from point A to point B. In this game, that’s practically the only mission there is. The davidlynchian story is way too complex and weird to describe shortly, but suffice to say that it involves carrying cargo across America while cutting invisible umbilical cords with handcuffs at the behest of a skullmask wielding character called Die-Hardman (yes, really). By a sheer coincidence there was a postal strike going on in Finland when the game was released, so I was practically working another shift after my regular office work to carry the packages, which were not being delivered due to the strike. 
You can almost feel the heat from the fumaroles.
The very first thing that blew me away was the photorealistic landscape that is very reminiscent of Iceland. A few years back I completed the most famous hike in this country of glaciers and volcanoes and therefore I felt right at home during the first hours of Death Stranding. The black volcanic rock, dark green moss covered boulders, majestic waterfalls, earth's crust broken by earthquakes and movement of tectonic plates, geothermal pools and cold torrents flowing from the nearby mountains all felt very familiar. The first time I was wading through a river while fighting against the current, I was convinced that Kojima and his team must have been visiting Landmannalaugar, Thórsmörk and other Icelandic locations to be able to capture this level of authenticity. 

There are several individual features small and big, which reflect real life hiking very accurately. When an artificial wind is blowing against my virtual alter ego, Sam Porter Bridges played by Norman Reedus, the level of immersion is tangible. The way how air exhaled condensates the higher up the mountains you go. The way how unforgiving rain (which in the game lore is called Timefall, which expedites ageing of everything it touches) dampens your mood. The way how heavy backpack leaves sore marks on your shoulders. The way how you can risk falling over when your backpack load starts to push you too fast downhill. The way how long exposure to snow storm can cause snow blindness. And so on. 

Just a tad bit more cargo than what I would haul in real life.
The game has been positively received in general, but there has been also those, who have not enjoyed the experience. I can understand some of the issues mentioned: a bit clunky combat controls, long cut scenes and repeating mission structure. However, for me this has been easily the game of the year -- perhaps of recent years -- partly due to my fondness of hiking. One of the repeating signature moments of Death Stranding are the sequences of hiking when the camera zooms out into the distance and a perfectly matching eerie songs from American-Icelandic band Low Roar surround me. Forward trodding Sam is still fully controllable by the player. Very powerful experience, which no other medium can conjure! Also the pacifist in me appreciates how other players can only be assisted and appreciated rather than competed against. I thoroughly enjoyed the pacing of the game, continuous introduction of new mechanics and sheer creative storytelling and new intellectual property in the times of repetitive movie sequels and game series. Truly a 5 out of 5 game. 

My final statistics at the end of the story were 43 hours of playtime, 3+ tons of cargo cargo delivered, 180 kilometers travelled and 10 dumps taken. I know other players who have been clocking many more hours. There is still clearly plenty of side missions for me to keep on revisiting the virtual hiking grounds. Those parcels do not get delivered by themselves. Strike or no strike.
 
I wish some kind soul has left a few strategically placed ladders for this next ascend. 



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