Death Stranding and the Power of Empathy

Games Features Death Stranding
Death Stranding and the Power of Empathy

Death Stranding is unforgiving, and rarely fun, but I love it.

With every step I can feel myself pushing against the game’s systems, wobbling slowly towards my objective with way too many kilograms on my back. At its worst, the game can feel uncomfortably isolating as you take to the mountains by yourself, trying to manage orders through a tiny, overcomplicated menu and please every NPC. But shortly into the game you realize you’re never really alone, and that makes the experience way less taxing.

NPCs who have been cut off from society will send you emails talking about their lives, what snacks they like, and thanking you profusely for your help. They give you a lot of likes if you deliver their orders quickly, and they exchange some banter whenever you drop off a load. These little things make you feel more connected to Death Stranding’s strange world and its inhabitants, and give you more incentive to do your job. Everything sucks, but you’re helping, and that’s a fantastic feeling. Empathy is what powers Death Stranding. And you can especially see that with the way players can interact with each other through the game’s subtle online features.

I’ve played a lot of competitive multiplayer games online and the communities are usually a cesspool of the worst minds in gaming. There’s no getting around it. Text chat doubles that toxicity, and voice chat triples it. A couple of days ago I was playing Valorant, a shooter, and I was listening closely for my enemy’s footsteps so I could get the jump on them. It’s a game where paying attention to sound is crucial to winning, so I was focused. But just as I thought I heard my foe drop down from a platform, a player on my team decided to shout a slur over mic and then start blasting Crazy Frog’s rendition of Axel F at a volume which left me confused, made me take off my headphones, and proceed to get my character shot in the face.

It’s sad that it’s so easy for players to spew out hate speech and abuse communications systems, but that’s just how people are. I don’t think it’ll change soon, so I prefer to play with my friends. But Death Stranding does something cool and completely bypasses this common toxicity. It does “multiplayer” in a way where nobody can be an asshole. All you can do is help others and thank them, which is honestly the ideal online gaming experience.

When you’ve fallen into that hiking rhythm, walking across the beautiful post-American landscape and listening to some premium melancholic indie music, you might stumble upon another player’s lost cargo. You could leave it there to slowly decompose, but if you have some extra space, you can deliver it for them and split the reward. I delivered almost every piece of lost cargo I saw, through the snowstorms, the ghosts, the bandits, because I know what it feels like to be a mildly-pissed off Death Stranding player. I’ve been in that spot before. Although a few times it was out of my way, I did it all for my fellow players, and it felt worth it.

In combat with certain enemies, players will show up as these mannequin-like angels, tossing you supplies to make sure you’re suited up for the fight. It feels like a huge “You can do this!” They’re cheering you on when no one else is, and the odds are stacked against you. It takes the pressure off persevering through all the bullshit that Death Stranding throws at you, another reminder that you aren’t on this mission by yourself. Teamwork is truly what’s gonna make the dream work.

Players can also drop gifts into other people’s games in the form of things like ladders, ropes, or reverse trikes that help you traverse the land easier, and whenever you encounter these you can press a button to leave a couple of likes and let the gifter know you appreciate them. When I logged on to play the game recently (in anticipation of next week’s PC port) I was greeted with a flurry of notifications letting me know how many people I helped out with all the tools I left back in November. It was a sweet thing to open up, and left a beaming smile on my face. The acknowledgement of other players is low-key; it forces people to be nice to each other, or simply to not interact at all. That’s why I play Death Stranding. It reminds me that online gaming doesn’t have to be all shouting, harassing, and muting other players. It can just be smashing that like button, making someone happy, and moving on with your day.

Funké Joseph is a non-binary black writer and artist. Check out their goofs @funkefly.

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