I don't think Death Stranding and Red Dead Redemption 2 are easy games to get into. Both games offer their own unique web of gameplay mechanics and, at times, obtuse systems, and this can initially make them seem boring, frustrating, or convoluted. It's easy to say that any game isn't for everyone, but I think it's particularly accurate when discussing these two titles. They share an obsession with mundane actions and odd details that will likely never be appreciated by most people holding the controller. I'm about ten hours into Death Stranding, and while it's too early to say that it's a masterpiece (or a game that I don't like), I know for sure that it's hitting a lot of the same notes that Rockstar's open world Western did.
For what is a very mainstream and hugely successful release, Red Dead 2 embraces a lot of weird stuff that we just don't see in other big budget titles. I'm not necessarily talking about horse testicles that contract and expand with the weather, but all the nods to realism and everyday life that filter through large swathes of gameplay. When you're not robbing a train or gunning down bounty hunters -- or both -- Red Dead 2 takes the time to remind you that it's a solemn, contemplative journey through a vast, detailed, and ultimately quite lonely world. Ring any bells?
Basic movement in your typical third-person action game is just that -- basic. You push the analog stick in the direction that you want to go, and if gaming is one of your hobbies then you probably don't even think about doing it. In both Death Stranding and Red Dead 2, basic movement genuinely matters. The single most mundane action in gaming is utilised as an actual mechanic that you have to consider. In turn, terrain genuinely matters. In turn, the world around you genuinely matters. Locations etch themselves into your memory because of the time your tripped over that one rock and all of your cargo went tumbling down the side of the mountain. I'll always remember trying to push Arthur Morgan up a slightly muddy slope, only for him to slip and slide back down to the bloodthirsty cannibals at the bottom of the hill. This ain't Assassin's Creed.
Both games anchor you to their worlds by constantly reminding you that you're not playing as some kind of superhero. Of course you can dead eye five guys in a row and feel like a gunslinging god, or you can kill supposedly immortal otherworldly beings by flinging your own fluids at them, but there's gonna come a time when you unceremoniously slam your horse into a tree or watch in horror as your bike leans just an inch too far over the edge of a cliff.
I don't think the comparisons end there, either; both games love contrast. In Red Dead, you can spend hours just wandering the wilderness, hunting the odd animal and staring at those glorious sunsets -- but the illusion of peace is completely shattered when you're jumped by a bunch of bandits just off the beaten trail. It's the same in Death Stranding -- so much walking. But when you stumble into the hive of BTs that block your only path back to the city, the game's intensity skyrockets. If both titles weren't so enamoured with peace and quiet, these comparatively brief moments of panic, struggle, and violence wouldn't be anywhere near as impactful.
It all comes back to embracing the mundane. When you take a look at Ubisoft's open world games, they're designed to oppose this idea of potential mundanity. The maps of Assassin's Creed Odyssey and the much less fortunate Ghost Recon: Breakpoint are built to keep you busy. Every 30 seconds or so you'll come across a base that needs cleared out, an enemy patrol, or a procedurally generated side quest. It's an entirely different approach to open world design that strings you along with loot and treasure chests -- the endless promise of more in-game power. God forbid you stop for just a few minutes and appreciate the artistry that's gone into this gigantic virtual space; your engagement is all that matters -- even if said engagement eventually takes the form of a trance-like state in which you're repeating the same actions over and over and over again.
Repetition is also a part of Death Stranding as you move cargo from one spot to the next, but the difference is that Death Stranding encourages you to appreciate the journey. There is no legendary weapon at the end of the road -- just a pat on the back and the memories that you made along the way. Some may call it boring, and I can absolutely appreciate the sentiment, but I think there's so much to be said for absorbing the world and its atmosphere through the simple act of peaceful exploration -- and this is coming from the guy who's spent an obscene 300 hours playing the aforementioned Assassin's Creed Odyssey.
When you watch Arthur Morgan kneel down to skin a deer for the hundredth time, there's a certain satisfaction to be had in watching the meticulously made animation play out. It's slow and, some would say, boring, but it's there for a reason in the same way that Death Stranding has you watch as Sam takes a shower or drinks another can of Monster Energy. These characters are forced to be just another cog in the machines that are their respective game worlds. They're important cogs, sure, but these small, intricate moments give the impression of a virtual world that's tangible -- perhaps a world that would go on existing even without its main characters.
Red Dead Redemption 2 and Death Stranding offer very different experiences on a surface level. One of them lets you live out your wild west fantasies while the other puts you in the rapidly degrading shoes of a post-apocalyptic Amazon courier who somehow has it even worse than the poor bastards doing the same job right now. But gaze deeper into their design and the common ground is incredibly clear to see. Not many open world games here in 2019 have the balls (or audacity, depending on your point of view) to let players just wander around for minutes at a time without throwing numerous opportunities for action at them. I'm not saying one approach is better than the other, but the world of Red Dead 2 and all of its perceived mundanity remains fresh in my mind a whole year after finishing the game -- and I have a feeling that Death Stranding will eventually be the same.
Again, I don't think that these two games are easy to penetrate. There's nothing at all wrong with coming home after a long day at work and not wanting to worry about carry weight and the condition of your equipment in Death Stranding. After all, one of the main reasons we play video games to begin with is because they allow us to reject mundanity and embrace escapism, even for just a couple of hours. It's a little strange then, that there's an odd satisfaction to be found in carrying out the most mundane of tasks in titles like Red Dead 2 and Death Stranding. Perhaps subconsciously we're compensating for the fact that we're playing a game instead of attending to our own chores in real life. Or perhaps it's simply a case of these banal tasks being relatable. The only thing I know for sure is that my brain seems to enjoy the peace and quiet just as much as it does the inevitable action.
Do you think there's something to be said for the much more mundane moments of games like Red Dead Redemption 2 and Death Stranding? Try not to grow bored with your thoughts in the comments section below.