It's not something I do very often, but she loves walking, and every once in a blue moon I'll take one for the team and go on a walk with her. Obviously, I love spending time with my wife, but I find walking - for the sake of walking - a bit sort of, y'know, dull. Regardless, I was determined to prove how devoted I am by doing the walk in full, all the way up to Ivinghoe Beacon, whatever that is, from Tring Station, and back. A distance of just over 10 miles, up and down hills.
I can't say I enjoy the act of climbing a hill, but I do quite like the view from the top of hills. Frankly, it's a shame that escalators are not a natural feature.
Unfortunately, a mile or two from the end of our walk, something popped in my knees, and I shuffled through the remainder in searing agony, stopping every few steps to wail and shriek, and complain. It must've appeared that I was attempting the equivalent of breaking a dish while doing the washing up, and consequently my wife has sworn off ever going on a walk with me again.
Which I wouldn't be able to do anytime soon anyway, as my knees still haven't recovered.
The point of all this is to preface this review of Death Stranding: the new game from heralded "genius" Hideo Kojima. Much has been written about its origins - and it has been fun (for "fun" read: "aggravating") to see games journalists attempting to up their game, and deliver a verdict/thesis that they feel is worthy of this work of high art.
A work of art which is full of product placement for Monster Energy Drink, where the only show on TV is Ride With Norman Reedus, which features a character called Die-Hardman, and co-stars talk show host Conan O'Brien.
Strip away all the eggy guff around Death Stranding - and there's a lot of guff of the eggy variety - and at its heart it's a silly open world game in which you play a sort of postman, who must deliver packages to remote communities in a post-apocalyptic America (which looks like Iceland, and where the only notable company still operating is Monster Energy Drinks). Thus: reconnecting the shattered country.
Yes, it's a walking simulator. And a balancing-packages-on-your-back simulator. And a lot of it isn't even a game at all, but a CGI movie.
Death Stranding isn't what I expected it to be, but then I'm not sure what I expected it to be.
The core gameplay conceit is keeping your balance as you cross the country. The more packages you carry on your back, the more off-balance you'll become. Rearranging the packages, finding gear to help you carry it, and shifting your weight... this is what you'll be doing for most of the game. Plus toppling over, and tripping over rocks, and scrabbling around on your hands and knees.
Over time, it becomes... not quite second nature, but certainly something you tolerate, for the sense of satisfaction at having climbed a seemingly impossible peak (often with the aid of equipment left behind by other players - giving it a sort of Journey feel). It's a game where the rewards truly feel deserved, where they're not simply a new set of skills, but something more personal and - dare I say it? - borderline profound.
There's combat, but it isn't encouraged - and opportunities for it are few and far between. Just as well, because it's clunky and chaotic. For the most part you'll be walking, and climbing, and delivering (you get paid in social media likes), and making use of other players' climbing equipment and makeshift bridges. And, from time to time, avoiding the invisible monsters which now inhabit the otherwise desolate countryside.
Furthermore, because that's not weird enough, you're also carrying a baby in a jar, and you need to monitor its welfare. The baby is there to warn you when the monsters are near, but sometimes the baby will get upset, because you've fallen over too many times, and you'll need to rock it to sleep, by literally rocking the PS4 controller. Like most things in Death Stranding, it's a chore.
Indeed, everything here is sort of almost wilfully dull, a test of the player's patience serving as the key challenge. Not least in the cut-scenes, which in typical Kojima style seem to go on forever, and it's never entirely clear what's happening, or why, or who the characters are. The main protagonist is portrayed by Daryll out of The Walking Dead, and his mum and sister are both played by the original Bionic Woman; all the actors lent their likeness to the characters, though I'd love to know what they thought of the story.
It's all very lush-looking, it's a beautiful game in its own dreary way, and there are moments of real beauty - but the sheer, overwhelming, oddness, challenges you to connect with any of it (ironically, given the central message it's trying to convey) because it's so deliberately, obtusely, almost self-consciously, strange; a daytime soap opera on acid.
Much to my surprise, I didn't hate Death Stranding. I found the walking - given that it placed no stress upon my battered knees - relaxing, once the game found its rhythm. I would get annoyed by the constant supernatural rainstorms, which age whatever they hit, or whenever I had an encounter with the invisible monsters, and died... only to end up in the game's netherworld/continue screen.
Even if, like the rest of the game, the imagery was striking.
And it's that imagery - that weird, never-before-seen, panorama depicting a beach full of dead whales - which sells Death Stranding as a game that's more than just a game. And it's that which has resulted in the gaming press bending over itself to prove it's worthy of a game this esoteric and philosophical.
I sometimes despair at the lengths critics will go to in order to justify something as art. Remember the fuss over that Banksy painting recently, which showed Parliament... except all the politicians were chimpanzees? I mean... really? That's the best you can do?
Yet Devolved Parliament sold for £9.9 million, and was labelled a "masterpiece", because it was "art" and Banksy is an "artist". I always got the sense that Bansky himself is in on the joke, and laughing all the way to the - ahem - bank(sy).
What next; an office, except all the workers are ants? Kerching!
That's also how I feel about Kojima. People argue over whether he should be considered a genius or not, while I sort of get the feeling he views it all with a wry detachment, and is trolling with his work. He's clearly a frustrated movie director, judging from the hours and hours of (admittedly, absolutely stunning, especially here) cut-scenes in his games - and Death Stranding takes it to a whole new level. It takes a solid ten or so hours of scene-setting before the game even really gets going.
Yet the pseuds in the gaming community froth over him, because he presents his games as if they are something more than games. They suggest a level of depth, but I'm not sure that depth is ever really there. His visual language is second to-none, but his storytelling - the glue that holds those visuals together - is like an 8 year-old's fever dream.
Drink more Monster!
By the same token, I appreciate that his games are unique. I love that Death Stranding exists - a major game that is like nothing else, displaying a sort of indie sensibility. In the way it's presented, it doesn't play anything safe... but when you strip away all the trappings what you're left with is a very simple sort of game.
And yet... even within that... there's something more going on here, which left me questioning whether I enjoyed Death Stranding, or simply experienced it.
SCORE: £9.9 MILLION out of £13.4 MILLION