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Watch Dogs Legion is ensemble comedy trapped in a dystopia

When I first started playing Watch Dogs: Legion, the game gave me the opportunity to pick who I wanted to help to rebuild DedSec, this universe’s inexplicably large and suspiciously benevolent hacker collective. Naturally, I selected a wet noodle of a human being named Gavin or Steve, who’s defining characteristics were that he had failed his motorcycle license test, and that he spoke like he was always five seconds away from a well-actually. He really sucked; like, as a person, he was a lousy example. This set the tone for everything that came after in that particular adventure, given that he was doing the recruitment. I found a middle-aged man with irritable bowel syndrome, a street hypnotist who couldn’t stop flirting with everyone, an esports champion. These were not the best and brightest London had to offer, but it was the best Steve (or Dave, or Mike) could do on short notice.

All of this was very funny and ridiculous, but the problem is that Legion isn’t trying to be funny. It’s not a comedy, and the story is arguably the furthest from comedy you could imagine, what with all the fascism, murder, corporate overreach, fascism and government corruption. So there’s a bit of a disconnect between what the game does, and what it is; what tools the player has at their disposal does not fit with what they are asked to immerse themselves in.

What’s worse is that the emergent comedy of Watch Dogs Legion is—despite being very secondary—what the game is best at. It is genuinely and unexpectedly hilarious that the game’s procedural algorithms decided to give Dave his own personal motorcycle, but also make it canon that he failed his license test, as if he so disagreed with the test result that he went and bought a fancy racing bike out of spite. It’s very funny to watch a man in a purple dinner jacket take time out from saving London from the oppressive jackboot of fascism to earn a few extra crypto-dollars playing his trumpet on a street corner. In comparison, it is aggressively uninteresting to break into a gang base to steal files for some reason, again. There is nothing at all exciting about making sure the bad guys can’t do that horrible thing they want to do with technology, or guns, or whatever else. Legion’s systems are bristling with the potential for comedy and emergent gameplay, but its story and world are less interesting than a Netflix Original Film.

They also clash, badly. Despite the well-meaning intention by the narrative to create an evolving cast of ordinary people who rise up to save the city from evil, the goofy characters are often at complete odds with the story being told. Marceline the construction worker who likes gambling should not be thrust into the centre of a human trafficking conspiracy, where organs are being cut out of the corpses of immigrants. She’s going to lose her goddamn mind. She’ll have nightmares forever, and be unable to relate to her friends and family due to the darkness she witnessed and the lives she took. You can’t just focus on how fun it is to have a remote-controlled spider robot and electric knuckles when a scientist is threatening to upload humanity into the cloud, or the government is putting people in prison camps. Legion jumps the shark twenty times an hour, flipping madly between deadly serious fate-of-the-world business and the frankly nonsense people who are supposed to fix it.

Despite the narrative intentions, Watch Dogs Legion wants to be an ensemble comedy; and it would be better for the change. Exceedingly boring main characters like The Woman Who Gives You Missions, The Deeply Annoying Computer Voice, Angry Fascist Man and Powerful Hard Lady Who Runs a Gang want your attention, but never really do anything to demand or deserve it. Every story mission feels like an interruption, and they’re all painfully rote open-world busywork.

Imagine what this game might look like as a real comedy, for a moment. Currently you can do all sorts of tiny, silly things to disrupt the fascist society around you. Distract police officers* who are interrogating innocent citizens and watch the citizen beat the hell out of them; use hacking powers to control army vehicles and cause havoc; steal from authoritarian jerks and then make them look stupid chasing after a housewife in a pig mask. These should be the core of the experience, rather than side activities. When you have systems as potentially interesting as Legion, the narrative should be about those systems. As it is, the story feels like a corpse at the centre of this dynamic world.

I’m not saying you can only tell a happy, fun tale filled with rainbows and robot butterflies, the meal just needs to match the ingredients. Part of the reason a guy whose farts alert the enemies to his position is such good comedy is the contrast between the seriousness of the situation and the ridiculousness of the outcome. But wow, it does not have to be so unrelentingly edgy and dark. If the Ubisoft writers need some assistance, kid’s animated shows are practiced experts when it comes to pairing light, fun times with serious topics. An episode of Justice League Unlimited or She-Ra is undeniably skewed toward a young audience, but they also manage to balance the talking horses with references to war crimes—without ever resorting to literally showing a surgeon about to cut out someone’s heart.

It’s frustrating, because Legion is very clearly a game that doesn’t know what it wants to be, hamstrung by what it thinks the market wants. The narrative is about the evils of absolute power, but it creates a third-party villain and mostly absolves the real government of responsibility. Unchecked technology is supposed to be a villain, but your partner is a perfect AI who gives you infinite access to autonomous robots. For every serious moment there are a hundred ragdolls flying comically from bikes or characters wearing hot pants and skull masks. Ubisoft wants to tell a story about fascism that mirrors the current rise of similar movements in various countries, but it also wanted to advertise that story by showing everyone how hilarious it would be to see an old lady do a stealth takedown. Discussing anything about Legion feels complicated and difficult precisely because it cannot pick a damn lane; every part of it is messy, it’s difficult to see what the purpose of one idea could be without catching a dozen other ideas in your peripheral vision.

All of these problems could have been solved by making it a proper comedy. Giving it a real focus. Lightening up the tone would have given the game more freedom to tackle more serious issues without the cognitive dissonance that infests the experience now. It would have strengthened the concept of a group of ragtag nobodies attempting to overthrow the government, because they genuinely would have come across like underdog weirdos instead of superheroes with the equivalent financial backing of a hundred James Bonds. Being less beholden to the false idea of realism and more free to build a world that suited a tone—any tone—would have given the universe a direction, context, the space to use subtext instead of painfully blatant text all the time. And it would have been truly funny, instead of a very boring, ordinary story punctuated by farts.

*Yes, I’m going to refer to the Albion troops as “police” even though Ubisoft is too cowardly to have the police be the bad guys.

Quickhacking Cyberpunk 2077: ACAB

I spent the early part of my first full day in Night City punching cops in the face. In my defence, it was the direct result of me trying to be a good person; I found a woman being assaulted in the corridor outside my apartment, so I shot the guy in the head. The woman thanked me, then started screaming because I had a gun out, and that’s what NPCs do when you have a gun out. Anyway, somehow my frankly heroic action alerted the cops, and when I went out onto the landing two of them started shooting at me. Naturally I punched them until they were unconscious, which takes 3-4 punches, in case you’re curious.

More cops came, more punching. Suddenly I realised exactly how easy it is to bottleneck the police and keep beating them until they pass out. Uh oh.

Eventually they stopped, I’m not sure why. Perhaps they just ran out of police, or they realised it wasn’t worth it to lose thirteen police officers to a mad redhead in the slums. A few minutes later, when I accidentally used a poison gas grenade on a food stall vendor, I discovered something horrible and sinister about why the police kept coming until they stopped coming: they don’t actually exist. Rather than walking in from some pre-approved outside location or being dropped off by cybercar, they spawn in from nowhere, pre-filled with sound and fury signifying fascism. Four armed officers and two NCPD drones manifested from the inside of a pile of boxes. In a more metafictional environment this would almost be a clever interpretation of the relationship between the police and civilians, cops representing an omnipotent force that watches your every move and isn’t beholden to the rules normal people are forced to follow. Like physics. Here it’s more of a shortcut to avoid coding in a more complicated solution to getting the police to harass you. Still, the end result of this—and the fact that apparently LOOKING at cops for too long makes them angry enough to shoot you in the head—is a fear of the police that I’m far too jaded to experience in a more realistically-coded setting. These officers are moody, unpredictable, chaotically violent and duty bound to cause harm. I’m going to do my best to stay away from them.

The inconsequential, unnamed NPCs in general have a similar transient quality. Like Schrodinger’s Citizens, they only have form when you look straight at them. When I ran from that merchant I poisoned, he fled his stall while suppressing the urge to vomit; when I backed up, his stall was already being looked after by a brand new procedurally generated gentleman. NPCs are swiftly removed and replaced as you walk around, which is, I’m sure, a technical boon, but is also a big kick in the nuts for my sense of immersion. Nobody you meet matters, even by the standards of a video game nobody, because they’ll be wiped and reformed anew before you can say Creepy Watson. Again, this would be a pretty cool setup for a story about reality being a simulation, and the world of Night City even has its own virtual reality system, but in our reality it’s just a curious quirk of the code.

Since we’re moaning about NPCs, it really bugs me that Cyberpunk 2077 keeps up the grand sci-fi tradition of portraying poor people as hunched, miserable losers, huddled in their garbage slums and trying not to be too oppressed today, thanks. Most folks in this first area (inside the Judge Dredd-style apartment block) mope around like someone took a big shit in their cereal, or sit outside literally begging. It may come as a surprise to developers that low income folks, even in a dystopia, are perfectly capable of having a normal, happy day.

On a more positive note, I did run into a loud man spouting conspiracy theories in the street, and not only could I engage him in a bit of conversation, but after a minute or so some California-accented tourists came to get a selfie with him. There are brief moments where the world of Cyberpunk 2077 feels very alive, and they’re very appreciated.

V goes to the Ripperdoc—one of Cyberpunk’s cyberdoctors—and gets some new eyes, a new hand. We get dragged into a big new job that will set us up FOR LIFE. It definitely won’t go horribly wrong. For one half of the planning process we need to go visit the woman who requested the heist. I kind of like that we have to wait until night time because it’s a bar. She gives us a briefing in a room with a very naked hologram and then we get our first taste of a BRAINDANCE, which is a fancy way to say “virtual reality tape recording.” These sections allow you to walk or float through a recorded event and pick up little details that give you necessary information. In this case, we get to case the top floor of a fancy hotel so we can get around the security later. It’s fancy and I like it. Reminds me of the memory breaking bits from Remember Me. Remember that game? Probably not. It was fine.

I’m getting distracted because there’s a LOT going on in Cyberpunk now. These sequences really bring into sharp relief how linear the prologue was; V can chat to various NPCs, decide in what order to do things, go off to check out a few side missions rather than advancing the story. It feels more like the game it wants to be now. A corpo woman named Meredith wants to help me get a thing for the thing we have to do as long as I let her upload a virus to the gang who currently have the thing. I speak corpo back to her with a special dialogue choice and she gets angry and drives off. It feels good to have a little control, and to see the shape of my V emerging. Now all I have to do is head to this gang hideout and get a machine from them as efficiently as possible.

Okay, I can explain. See, Jackie didn’t want to sit down and I wasn’t paying attention to my responses so… anyway we had to kill them all.

They seemed like they wanted to rip us off anyway, and now we have the thing! But I had to destroy a lot of lives to get there. It turns out that my V is a big fan of swords and shotguns, and specifically the pleasing effect of switching between them while running around like the world’s clumsiest ninja. Didn’t need to sit down afterwards. Particularly liked that the end of this section gave me the option to sneak around the boss to escape, then it gave me the option to not brutally murder him after I refused the first option. Anyway he’s dead.

Before the big damn heist section, I was contacted a few times by a cop with an eyepatch who wanted me to do cop stuff. In Cyberpunk 2077 you can trip over crimes in progress (assaults, robberies, people not filling in their tax returns correctly) and intervene to gain a reward and the respect of the police force. No thank you. The woman on the phone will also send you bounty jobs, the first of which is to literally kill or otherwise neutralise a “good” cop who wants to expose corruption in the force. I cannot for the life of me figure out if this is supposed to be irony, or satire, or completely straight-faced villainy. Suffice it to say, I’ve been deliberately ignoring any possible way to assist the police. It’s perhaps unintentional, but refusing to do anything they want me to do actually instills a weird sense of pride, as if V was shouting FUCK THE POLICE from her car window.

Act one snowballs pretty quickly towards this big job, which requires a lot of hacking and sneaking and includes a bunch of enormous plot reveals I’m not going into here. It was a lot of fun and the writing here is pretty solid. I may have even felt some emotions. Also the robot cab driver is a good example of how to do fun AI characters so take note every other game that isn’t Fallout New Vegas.

It does get a little prologue here for a while, in the sense that it throws a big plot reveal at you every 30 seconds for what felt like an hour. This explodes, that character dies, this character dies, this person was really this other thing, betrayal, emotions, you get dumped somewhere terrible, you come back out, a car chase, another explosion, a crash, a blackout, a montage of being incapacitated, more talking. It’s all good, mind you, but there’s a long time when you’re just watching interesting things happen to a character you’re supposed to be controlling. There appears to be a struggle the narrative designers had with working out how to tell the story and allow any sort of player choice at the same time. It makes me think of the Hades approach, where every story tidbit is isolated and fed to the player while they go about their actual gaming business. Here, the story sometimes feels arbitrarily walled off from the flow of the open world, actively working against the pillars it’s built around.

Somewhere in this maelstrom of CONTENT, the actual title card comes up, now we’ve been playing for hours. Welcome to Cyberpunk 2077, I guess.

SPEED ROUND: Don’t Threaten Me With A Mixed Time

  • RIght at the start of this act you find out that there’s a fight club in the city. Why is there always a fight club?
  • All the advertising and posters in Night City still feel like they come from a different game with much stupider writing.
  • I came across a minor accident scene where one guy had rear-ended another and they were on their phone trying to sort it out, and that felt pleasingly authentic.
  • There was an unexpected instant death moment in the plot maelstrom and I am here to tell developers DO NOT.
  • Don’t put musical instruments in your video game if you won’t let me play them.
  • I still don’t know why you’d bother going non-lethal in this game, nobody has explained it to me.

After what seemed like a very lengthy prologue, we finally get into what Night City is actually about: accidentally causing huge amounts of violence and telling the cops to get in the sea. I may have missed the point, or maybe the game isn’t making any points. Next I hope to get more involved in the sidequests of Cyberpunk 2077 and put even more points into sword powers.

Quickhacking Cyberpunk 2077: On rails through Prologue City

Here’s something weird about Cyberpunk 2077: You’re not allowed to be ugly.

That’s ugly by the game’s very narrow definition, mind. You can’t have one wonky eye, or fish lips, or unusually large hands; you can’t be overweight, underweight, muscular, shorter or taller than average; your skin must be one of the eight-or-so approved human colours; you can have rude bits, as long as they are big, small or default. Characters must be symmetrical, they must conform to some variation of the two genders, their scars must be aesthetically pleasing.

Some of these are likely design limitations (everyone being the same height makes it easier to program character interactions, a small range of model sizes prevents collision detection issues, etc.), and NPCs get to select from at least one other body type, but when you start creating a character in Cyberpunk there’s an immediate feeling of being constrained. Invisible walls erected to keep you from making anything unacceptable, anything that isn’t cool enough to let you hang with the many cool NPCs in their cool future clothes, standing in overwhelmingly cool neon-soaked environments.

Welcome to Cyberpunk 2077. We’re in the bathroom, and we just threw up. For my class… uhhh background? Upbringing? Oh right, LIFEPATH. I’m a Corpo, which basically means one of the bad guys by all logic of the cyberpunk genre. Arguably the bad guys by present day reality as well. Please enjoy this biting social commentary I’ve just made, which surpasses anything you might spot in the opening of the game.

“Corporates are the Armani-wearing, Machiavellian mega-yuppies you see in the RoboCop films. Being wealthy and persuasive, they can muster favors and resources beyond what most people can even hope.”

That’s what the wiki for Cyberpunk 2020, the pen and paper tabletop game 2077 is based on, has to say about Corporates. Their special ability in 2020 is RESOURCES, using their vast reserves of cash and influence to get things done. In 2077… well, let’s have a look.

What strikes me about this is how it says… nothing. It feels like it was written for someone who already knows what being a Corpo entails. Be either a winner or a loser, something about secrets, be a bastard of some description. But it also reads like a knowing wink to the fact that this high-flying corporate lifestyle won’t be a concern for very long. Maybe something awful is going to happen that renders our character’s background choices mostly meaningless. I don’t know, just a feeling.

Anyway we were in a bathroom. The Arasaka building, where our V works in their role as part of counterintel, looks exactly like you might expect. All clean lines and soulless interior design. It’s a little too cool, to be honest. Like, it seems like an interesting place to work, if you’re an asshole. Which sort of ties back into what I mentioned earlier about the character creator: Cyberpunk 2077 is a game that wants to be cool, and wants to give you the opportunity to be cool. You do not have a choice in the matter. You’re going to look awesome and say clever, pithy things; people will want to be your friend; your office will have futuristic cyberwalls and you’ll stick glowing USB sticks into your cyberhead. So of course the bad guys (this particular set, anyway) work in an outrageously stylish mega-skyscraper. It feels too nice. Too inviting. My head expects an environment as repellent and dead inside as the corporation. Something like the TV station from Detroit: Become Human, Neo’s office from The Matrix, or the distressingly clean and bright dystopian interiors of Mirror’s Edge. Empty, emotionally draining; dark and oppressive capitalism, rather than dark like the inside of an expensive liquid-cooled PC. Much of cyberpunk as a genre is concerned with the idea of rebellious elements dragging themselves out from under the boot of crushing capitalism, but this makes the space under the boot seem pretty comfortable. Maybe that’s part of the point, though, that it gets comfortable under there; or maybe I’m giving CDPR too much credit.

V heads upstairs, her boss is angry about something, her boss’s boss is a bad person. Blah, blah, blah. He kills a bunch of people with remote computer powers while you watch, because he’s evil. He complains about his boss, and of course that means you have to kill her. Or facilitate her death, at least. 

The NPCs, in the prologue at least, are not particularly reactive. They tend to offer one piece of information or flavour only once V pays attention. This person discusses the disasterous job in Frankfurt, another talks about how the media will react to the aforementioned computer assassinations. My boss asks me to take a seat, and if I refuse he pauses for a while before asking me politely to take a seat. And if I still don’t then he really loses it and asks me to take a seat. Sir you are willing to murder half a dozen human beings to make a few cyberbucks, I don’t think you should accept this sort of employee behaviour. Characters just sort of… stand around, like participants in an amateur production of Waiting for The Main Character. There’s no sense of life to the world in here, everything is happening for my benefit. In fact, the only people you properly meet in this opening sequence are folks directly related to V in some way: her assistant, her coworker, her boss, this guy called Frank. We met during Icefall.

Side note: running is a lot of fun in this game. The combination of the sprint animation and the satisfying pounding of my expensive shoes makes me want to run everywhere. I noticed this while sprinting past Frank as he repeatedly called me rude.

Sorry, Frank.

The whole prologue is on rails like this. Conversations pop up as if we’re a movie character turning on the TV at the exact moment the news is discussing our brother’s arrest. It’s fun, it just feels staged. An odd choice, forcing the player through a very linear opening to introduce a game that purports to be all about choice and living your dream cyberpunk lifestyle. A good opening sets your expectations for the rest of a text. Think of pushing the broken-down car with your boyband friends in Final Fantasy XV, navigating a guard-filled dock at the start of Metal Gear Solid, or dashing straight out Peter Parker’s window and swinging across the city in Spider-Man. The start of a memorable game is often a microcosm of the game itself, and players are subconsciously aware of this.

Cyberpunk’s Corpo prologue mostly means being told what to do and then doing it. You get told you can use the car outside so you go and use the car outside, you head to a bar to find your friend because your friend told you to, you get betrayed by the corporation, of course, and forced into a life of cool crimes for cool people.

Not that you care about losing your job, of course, since you only found out about it 10 minutes ago and V already hated it. The lifepath deal feels like a stab at the Dragon Age: Origins style of bonding a player to their character by investing in their past, but it’s so fast! When I played a city elf in Dragon Age I was given a whole district to explore and a complex mix of intrigue, racism, sexual assault and forced marriage to pick through; in Cyberpunk your boss asks you to do something and then some goons tell you not to do that thing.

Oop, hold on, we’re doing crimes now. Or stopping crimes, I can’t tell. Mainly this section is designed to teach you how the action sections of the game work. We need to sneak up on this guy and decide whether he lives or dies. Then we have to kill everyone else, which is a little confusing. Why are we given the option for a non-lethal takedown on this one poor shirtless mook, when the game knows full well we’re about to murder six men in the next room? As teaching moments go, it’s poor. Despite being a tutorial, it says nothing about WHY you might want to use a non-lethal option, what the benefits might be versus the downsides. The only upside of keeping this one alive seems to be the idea that he’ll wake up later inside a freezer and quickly discover all his friends are dead.

The shooting feels good, so far. Weighty enough, and enemies don’t quite take so much damage that you wonder whether they’re immortal. There’s a decent flow to battle when you use your hacking powers to distract people, lob grenades and make use of cover. It’s just a taste, anyway. A sample. A dead body did lodge itself in a doorway, which doesn’t seem planned. Also, a still-living enemy flew out the window and kept shooting at me from inside the window frame. And if we’re talking about bugs, I feel obliged to mention that my breasts burst out of my shirt for a while.

At this point in the story we find the infamous woman in the bathtub and save her life, the ambulance-cops turn up to lift her away, and we’re left to drive home. This is absolutely just a chance for the game to show off its fancy city at ground level and tease some new things you’re likely to come across later. There’s a car chase which ends with an explosion, some people get gunned down by Cyberpunk 2077’s equivalent of SWAT, there’s rain, there’s more neon. And you arrive home at your apartment, which is entirely too big and too nice to make sense for your character at this point in their lives but HEY, gotta be cool. Narratively, the prologue ends at a weird point where the start of something has happened but there’s no indication of the shape of things going forward. Basically you’re just this badass who was betrayed and now you… do jobs. Nothing says punk like agreeing to carry out tasks for folks in positions of authority.

SPEED ROUND: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Have Even More Thoughts

  • I like that you can shower in your clothes for that true Overwhelmed By Life feeling.
  • Tutorial via holograms is a strangely common technique in video games these days and it’s a really boring design choice. Then again, at least they let you skip it.
  • The TV so far comes off like it’s trying to be GTA-style satire but it’s not wild enough to be funny so it just feels like a satire of Cyberpunk 2077.
  • Making it so you can only look into mirrors when you log into them is actually a neat and sneaky way to avoid having to render reflections constantly.
  • You can buy an extra-large burrito from a vending machine in this future so how can it be bad?
  • When you look at a sink it says “flush” instead of “activate” or “turn on” and that means every water source in 2077 is a toilet.

My goal for this playthrough was to stretch the game by playing contrary to the rules on purpose. Sadly, the prologue doesn’t offer much opportunity to do this, and wants you to stick to the path quite rigidly. Hopefully that becomes less of an issue now I’m headed into the open world. Now excuse me while I lie down sideways on my cyberbed and have some cyberdreams.

Re-experiencing Death Stranding in the middle of a pandemic

Tomorrow is in your hands. This article contains mild spoilers for Death Stranding, as well as discussion of COVID-19. Click here to be taken back home.

You may not believe this, but there was a time when the COVID-19 global pandemic did not exist. Mere months ago, folks were going about their business, blissfully unaware that the established world order was about to be upended, laying bare the inadequacies of particularly hubristic tin pots and oligarchs. It’s possible, in this utopia of ignorance, that one may have heard about a video game called Death Stranding, which is a walking simulator designed to show off high-end rock technology and Norman Reedus’ buttocks. While we may never know exactly what Death Stranding means according to its creator—because Hideo Kojima is an AI construct sent from the future—it’s easy enough to loosely interpret the experience as some amalgam of commentary on a modern lack of human connection, the encroaching shadow of climate change, and the dangers of putting psychic children in bottles.

Now, we’re all worried about the virus. Some of us have been shut in our homes for weeks, others will be stuck inside for much longer. This isn’t the world into which the game was originally released. In some ways, it seems a lot closer to Kojima Productions’ fiction than before. What better time to turn back the clock and live through the first couple of episodes, with the benefit of hindsight and from inside our very own Death Stranding. How does the game feel, when played in these unprecedented times?

Lonely. As I begin a new game, the opening cinematic presents a screensaver-worthy slideshow of beautiful-yet-empty environments. Cliffs and hillsides and rivers, all devoid of life, and serving to highlight the familiar but oddly alien nature of Death Stranding’s setting. These are elements we’re used to seeing, but put together in an unusual way; landscapes familiar to Iceland or Scotland, perhaps, but the game tells us this is the remains of the United States of America. Now that strangeness, present before, takes on a new meaning. The quiet feeling of isolation isn’t unusual because it’s at odds with reality, it feels odd because it fits better now. As we watch Sam Porter Bridges speed across a rocky landscape on his future bike, it seems obvious that he would be alone, that there would be nobody around to witness. People are supposed to stay indoors, after all, it’s dangerous to go outside. Walking around the streets of Wellington, New Zealand right now feels far more surreal than a trip through the bleak majesty of Death Stranding; it’s hard to look at people out in public and not subconsciously judge them for making the choice. Surely they should be staying home, and not just strolling down the street as if there weren’t 300,000 dead from some nightmare you can’t even see.

There’s the other thing that’s immediately striking about the game now: the ever-present menace of an invisible threat. BTs are ghostly entities that roam the land, only manifesting as inky hand prints until it’s too late; connection with the unseen danger of a virus—particularly one that can be carried many times over before it reaches someone who becomes symptomatic—is inevitable. The beached things of a stranded universe cause immediate loss, and permanently alter the way society functions, just like an uncontrolled disease. They craft a feeling of fear that is only made worse by the uncertainty about their nature, their form, and how to deal with them. Viruses are, in many ways, terrifying because we don’t really know what to do with them when existing systems fail; we lean on vaccines and the concept of pushing through an illness, but beyond that there’s really nothing in place. So we end up locked away, just like the population of every Knot City, stuck between believing the problem will be solved eventually and preparing to be trapped in a new paradigm indefinitely.

Early on in the game, we get to see the first signs of Sam Bridges’ aphenphosmphobia, his fear of being touched. When I first began playing Death Stranding, it was refreshing to see something superficially similar to my own anxiety portrayed by the main character, someone who clearly seeks out human connection while also being repelled by it. In the present day, of course, we’ve all been burdened with a sort of artificial touch phobia: increased hand-washing and the looming threat of invisible germs necessitates a cautious approach to other human beings. I felt an increased connection with Sam during his first visit to the beach, his desperate clutching of the mysterious baby to his chest reading as a cry for the physical attention he (and all of us in various stages of crisis management) can’t access in the real world.

Flashes of other thematic puzzle pieces litter these opening chapters, and hold their own altered meanings from within the pandemic. Rain in the game has transformed into timefall, a strange phenomena that causes the raindrops to age whatever they touch. This deadly rain forces everyone inside, and the way it steals time, life and any sense of progress from those trapped in it warps into a kind of twisted metaphor for the months COVID-19 and its associated effects have stolen from millions. Interactions occur through holograms and radio transmissions out of necessity, much like the video calls currently becoming the norm for businesses, families and students. The sick, injured and dead are a liability in Death Stranding and much is made of the need to deal with or dispose of them as quickly as possible; the parallels with current political discussions—mainly on the right—about how valuable the aged and infirm really are to society, and how many deaths are an acceptable sacrifice, gave this player some pause.

The way Sam and the other couriers are elevated to heroic, near-deified status is also disturbingly familiar. The game places Sam Porter Bridges very much as a sort of front-line worker in this universe, forced to endure the huge risks of his profession and stay at work so that others may carry on with their lives, uninterrupted by the realities of the situation. Death Stranding is replete with this sort of figure: everyday people who need to keep doing what they do so society continues to function. Instead of hospital workers and supermarket employees, we have porters and distribution officials. Most of our experience of the world of Death Stranding is through the eyes of these working class people, no doubt very deliberately. The population of Capital Knot City, for example, is 42,187, but we never see any of the ordinary citizens of this, or any other, population centre. The only time Sam interacts with people who don’t have to struggle with this new world order is when they’re asking him to retrieve buckets of paint or carry them over a hill so they can see their boyfriend. Sam is frequently referred to as a hero in the game, and given various legendary monikers to demonstrate exactly how amazing his work is and how much he has done for America. People constantly infer—and often outright state—that only Sam can do what needs to be done. However, much like the current situation in our universe, it isn’t always true. Most of his deliveries could easily be completed by someone else utilising the same technology; Sam’s ability to ‘repatriate’ and come back from the dead is a useful safety net, but it doesn’t make him as indispensable as those in charge would have him believe. The only thing preventing Die Hardman from putting on some overalls and making deliveries is that he’s the boss. The class divide is as real in Death Stranding as it is in pandemic-ravaged 2020.

Most encouragingly, what playing through the start of Death Stranding mid-pandemic reveals is the importance of the smaller things, those moments and activities which were perhaps lost in the bustle of normal life. Much like our own world problems, the issues that Sam Bridges’ universe faces are vast, bordering on cosmic; there is no useful way to comprehend or impact them at an individual level. So we find joy in the minutia of smaller tasks: retrieving a box that fell into a nearby river, reorganising our sock drawer by colour, walking over a nearby mountain without falling over. We focus on the parts of our life that we can control, and build routines around the familiar aspects of the day. Sam can’t rid the planet of the dead, beached nightmares which stalk every known location; he can’t unravel the political machinations of masked powers or terrorist organisations. But he can take an order for six printers over the waterfall and deliver it without a scratch. It is perhaps the nicest thing about playing Death Stranding now, amid all the reminders of a broken world, that you can find satisfaction in simply doing what you can to make the world a better place.

While there are plenty of games that provide respite in tough times, either by allowing players to escape or simply giving them something to distract themselves while the world grinds to a halt, playing Death Stranding now is a surprisingly thoughtful experience. I was intrigued to find that the game takes on new meaning and significance just by virtue of my own altered perspective. Kojima reportedly set out to make a game that provided positive interactions as an allegory for what the interconnected, but very separated, modern world could become. It’s rather poetic that as the world drifts apart—temporarily or otherwise—Death Stranding provides a more encouraging message than ever. Tomorrow is still in your hands, even if it looks a bit grim.