Death Stranding is the Backpacking Simulator I Never Knew I Needed
While it might be dismissed as a “walking simulator,” Death Stranding is the closest I can think of to a backpacking simulator in games.
While it’s only been out for just a few days, there is already a lot that I’ve had to unpack from my time with Death Stranding. Like anyone else that’s played it, I’ve noticed that there is a lot to wrap your head around at the beginning of the game, from the 10 hours or so that I put into it over the last weekend. That all starts from trying to unravel the game’s opaque story and characters, to deciphering its numerous acronyms and phrases, to figuring out how the hell Monster Energy Drink is still a thing in the post-apocalypse.
Of all the different aspects of Death Stranding, what’s really kept me coming back to it the most has been its gameplay. Given the fact that you don’t appear to do much other than just, well…walk, I (among many others) went into Death Stranding with a little hesitation of what to expect from its gameplay. Kojima’s latest project already roped me in with its intriguing world and bizarre premise. But from what we saw of it in-game during past demonstrations, it didn’t really seem like there was much going on gameplay-wise to balance against its incredible production values.
I’ve tried to go in with an open mind for what Kojima is attempting to do with Death Stranding, even with all the Kojima-isms that I would expect from it. Though I initially bought in to the jokes of Death Stranding quite literally being “a walking simulator,” I’ve come away from my early hours with the game struck by the fact that it isn’t really a walking simulator: it’s a backpacking simulator.
For context: I’ve hiked, camped, and backpacked for the majority of my life, from when I first started experiencing these activities as a kid to going out on much larger outdoor trips in my adulthood. For the past few years, I’ve gotten together with a group of my closest friends for an annual week-long camping trip where we’ve gone to several national parks in the US. This includes the most recent trip that we took this past summer to Rocky Mountain National Park and even a few international excursions. We went to Iceland last year which, ironically enough, was speculated to be the setting of Death Stranding leading up to its release.
During our camping trips, we always plan for one extended backpacking trip. These by far are the longest hikes that we take on during the week, with our backpacking trips typically going for 15-20 miles (sometimes longer) and involving at least one or two overnights. Though they’re strenuous for sure (and brutal on the feet), the backpacking trips we’ve done over the years have been some of the most memorable outdoor experiences that I’ve had in my lifetime. One notable example is a trip we took along the coastline of Olympic National Park in Washington, that was filled with stunning views as we trekked along the beach in the Pacific Northwest for miles on end.
This is all to preface the fact that when I first started playing Death Stranding, its gameplay almost immediately clicked for me when I started to approach it as a “backpacking simulator.” Granted, I have never had to wear anywhere near as much gear as Sam does (nor will I ever). But when I first started experimenting with the gameplay in Death Stranding, I found myself applying nearly all of the principles that I’ve learned while backpacking to how I approach traversal in the game.
In backpacking, there is a careful balance at play between bringing what you absolutely need for an extended trip while also ensuring that you’re packing as light as possible to make the trip easier on you physically. I’ve always tended to be an overpacker and bringing every piece of gear I could imagine having “just in case” I needed it, only to burden myself with unnecessary weight in the process. Whenever Sam bears the brunt of being over encumbered, I immediately thought of the times where I’ve had a too-heavy bag on my back, making each step that much more arduous on a hike. It managed to capture that feeling all too well, as I had to be mindful of what I was packing and how it would get me through the course of a two to three-day long journey.
This stood out to me while playing Death Stranding for the fact that managing Sam’s cargo load and center of gravity isn’t just a feature of the gameplay, but a crucial part of being able to make deliveries and getting to your destination more efficiently. Whenever I’ve taken on one of Sam’s orders in Death Stranding, I’ve usually spent a good amount of time just in the pre-mission menu in the same sort of mindset that I’ve had while prepping for a backpacking trip. Everything from what I’m bringing, to where I’m placing it on Sam’s pack, to equally distributing the weight and layout of his gear is a feeling I’ve known well while managing my own pack and gear for a backpacking trip. It’s an odd sensation to see how well a video game–let alone a major AAA game–managed to capture this very specific sort of experience so well.
Another thing that stood out to me in experiencing Death Stranding from the perspective of backpacking was the fact that I was paying so much attention to the environments I was traversing and how to get around them. When you’re carrying a backpack that can easily weigh 30-40lbs, it’s a different sort of experience compared to a simple day hike, especially on a more rigorous trip on difficult terrain. Far more attention is paid to where and how you are moving up terrain, from where you’re planting your feet, to how you are centering and adjusting your body when going up to highly-elevated areas.
In most of the time that I spent in the beginning of Death Stranding, I’ve found myself controlling Sam in a lot of the ways that I would instinctively move as if I were backpacking. I have been paying extra caution when going through rocky areas and always have to carefully adjust my pack to keep it as balanced as possible. I have felt that rush the most whenever Sam runs down a steep incline with the pack and accelerates his speed, all while trying not to topple over. More often than not, I’ve been all too careful going down hills to brace Sam as much as possible to prevent him from for lack of a better term, “eating s***,” much like I’ve done in the past while backpacking myself.
It would be easy to dismiss Death Stranding as merely a walking simulator, whether ironically or literally. Yet, from what I’ve played so far (I still have a long way to go, having just hit Chapter 3), I can’t help but find myself approaching it from the experiences that I’ve had while going on backpacking trips. In the moments that I’ve simply walked as Sam through the ruined United Cities of America, I’ve felt that same sort of relaxing, meditative state that I’ve experienced while trekking through the wilderness or working my way up a mountain: slowly, but surely, getting to my destination one step at a time.