When Death Stranding released in early November 2019, I, like many others, picked it up. The hype around the title was strong, defining it as a once-in-a-generation game; legendary creator Hideo Kojima\u2019s latest epic, his first as head of his own studio. And the mystery surrounding it \u2014 what, exactly, was it about? \u2014 only helped. Then I played it and, like many others, I just didn\u2019t get it. It didn\u2019t click. It was too weird, too obtuse. Beautiful, intriguing, definitely unlike anything I\u2019d played before, yes. But I resigned to myself that it just wasn\u2019t for me. After about 6 hours, I put it down and never really thought about it again. Besides, a real once-in-a-generation game that was much more my speed was, at that time, just around the corner: Cyberpunk 2077. Now, here we are in early 2021. Cyberpunk delayed, delayed, delayed, and finally released, and it was\u2026 not the game we\u2019d hoped for. 2020 itself was not the year we\u2019d hoped for, either, with an unprecedented, international pandemic ravaging the world, and, here in the States, an exhausting pre- and post-election cycle that often felt more like a Shonda Rhimes show than reality. As the new year rang in, my disappointment with Cyberpunk and overall fatigue from waking up to more bad news every day had put me in a mood for something slower-paced, introspective, and otherworldly. That\u2019s when I remembered Death Stranding, or maybe when it remembered me. I felt it calling, and I craved it in a way that surprised me since I\u2019d spent so little time with it in the first place. Over the New Years holiday weekend, I booted it up. And this time, I got it. The world of Death Stranding is that of an America torn apart. A cataclysmic event in the semi-recent past wrecked the nation, leaving its landscapes unrecognizable and the majority of its population dead. Worse yet, those dead now haunt the land. Rain called Timefall ages and, with enough exposure, kills anything it touches. The remaining people huddle together in small cities of 100,000 people or less, or choose to live on their own in small shelters, communicating mostly via hologram. Repopulation is at a standstill. Society has taken on an asexual nature, nearly everyone is cut off from one another, and most are too scared to venture outside the city walls. When a person dies, their body becomes a ticking time bomb, and within 48 hours, a crater will replace what was there before, so a fear of death permeates everything. Concept art by Kohei Hirose; image courtesy of Sony Interactive Entertainment As Sam, you are one of the few porters, glorified couriers who are willing to make deliveries from place to place in an attempt to keep the world connected. And you\u2019ve been given, against your will, the biggest connection job of all: To set up a virtual network that links the East Coast to the West Coast, a cross-country journey by foot to restore the nation. It\u2019s a hostile world, but it\u2019s a beautiful one, too. Using your natural inclination to sense when dead spirits, called BTs, are near, as well as what\u2019s called a Bridge Baby, an actual living fetus that somehow straddles the line between the living world and that of the dead \u2014 one of those typically Kojima oddities that makes people on the outside tilt their head and squint their eyes when you try to explain it to them \u2014 you\u2019re able to traverse the land and largely avoid harm. You walk, run, climb, trip, fall, ladder, rope, float, and zipline all over the landscape, with just the sounds of your footsteps and composer Ludvig Forssell\u2019s brilliant, subdued score, plus occasional giggles from your BB, keeping you company. You meet the occasional other humans, sometimes other peaceful porters making deliveries and sometimes hostile MULEs or terrorists who try to steal your cargo or just flat-out murder you, but most of the time it\u2019s just you, alone. This is a world devoid of connection. Except, in one of Death Stranding\u2019s most impactful design decisions, it\u2019s really not. The goal of your first venture through a region is to hook various places up to what\u2019s called the chiral network, which must be stretched from place to place as you move from east to west. On your journey, the landscapes are barren and empty. But once your destination\u2019s network is activated, it\u2019s filled with signs that you\u2019re actually not alone. Other porters are out there, leaving signs of encouragement, ladders, climbing ropes, gear, vehicles, and safehouse structures for you to rest in. They work with you to contribute materials to rebuild roads and install zipline networks for faster traversal. They even warn you of dangers, steep slopes, and difficult terrain, or alert you to spots with beautiful vistas or hidden healing hot springs. All the while, you\u2019re awarded \u201cLikes\u201d as a sort of currency, and you give them to others in return. You never see another player, but their influence is felt. And yours is, too; you get frequent alerts when someone else, a real player somewhere in the world, just like you, uses something you laid down. You can even press a button to have Sam yell out, \u201cHello? Anybody out there?\u201d and, every so often, from out in the distance \u2014 or perhaps from another fold in the multiverse \u2014 someone will answer back, offering words of encouragement. The sense of connection is real, and that theme permeates all aspects of Death Stranding\u2019s story and the gameplay. Over time, you start to love Kojima\u2019s bizarre cast of characters. You develop a bond with your BB. You begin to care about the lives of the holographic figures you make deliveries for, especially through their long emails and interviews, which are unlocked as optional reading as you play the game. As time passes, you do connect. Image via Sony Interactive Entertainment, from the book "The Art of Death Stranding" And there are the BTs themselves, the frightening spirits that haunt sections of the landscape in some of the game\u2019s tensest moments. Through gameplay, you learn that despite their actions and appearances, these spirits do not have malicious intent; instead, they long only for connection, and they\u2019re stuck between worlds, desperately trying to link up with one side or the other. \u201cKilling\u201d these spirits, these Beached Things, is not an act of violence, but an act of mercy, allowing them to fully pass on to the realm of the dead, where they can fully connect with their kind. As creepy and stressful as navigating these otherworldly minefields can be, there\u2019s a bizarre beauty in it. Like all of us, these BTs are just misunderstood and seeking validation from others. Much like the real world, though, this isn\u2019t one without conflict. MULEs are essentially \u201cLike\u201d addicts who want to steal your packages so they can feel the high of delivering them themselves, a thinly veiled reference to toxic Internet communities and trolls. And there are terrorists, who just want to watch the world burn, killing innocents and setting off \u201cvoidouts\u201d \u2014 the explosion that occurs from a dead body \u2014 just because they can. A happy-go-lucky place this is not. But in its straight-forward, usually non-fatal combat, Death Stranding offers a jolt of excitement. Using a bola gun to wrap up your human enemies and then taking them out with a kick to the head is somehow far more satisfying than murdering hundreds of NPCs in a normal video game. And later, when they regain consciousness (or, technically speaking, they respawn), it doesn\u2019t feel like a dirty gaming trick. So much of the game is like this, where the design intent and the gameplay link up in a way that makes the whole thing feel real. There are infinite ways to get from here to there, immeasurable routes to take over or around a mountain or a river. Many tools have more than one use or purpose, like a floating carrier you can use to deliver more packages that you can also ride like a skateboard. You can use a grenade offensively with a direct hit or throw it at your feet to obscure your enemy\u2019s vision and escape. Every item, structure, tool, building, bad guy, and character has been brilliantly designed in such a that you look at something anything in the game and just go, well, yes, that does make sense. Image via Sony Interactive Entertainment Death Stranding is a slow burn, which makes it perfectly paced for the tumultuous year we\u2019ve had. In my 70 hours, I\u2019ve found a new favorite, a game that has had a real impact on me and how I think about what gaming is and can be. About what hype is and isn\u2019t. When Kojima came up with an idea for a video game that took place in an isolated world, he had no idea that mere months after it released, we\u2019d all be cut off from each other. That a sense of longing for the world to move on from divisive and difficult times would be more relevant now than ever. If nothing else, Death Stranding serves as a warning, or perhaps a signal: We, as a people, must come together. We need to reforge and retain our connections, lest we wind up in a world that\u2019s been ripped from the things that really matter, where reality is blurred. Getting through tough times takes perseverance and work, but in the end, like Sam and BB and the others, we\u2019re all seeking just the satisfaction and fulfillment that comes from truly connecting with others.