I’m by no means the first to note the spiritual connection between Death Stranding and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. They’re both games of expressive traversal across vast, spectacular, mostly-contiguous postapocalyptic landscapes. They both stress inventory management, and more generally an entrancing, compulsive relationship to stuff. And they both rely on interlocking systems and emergent misfortunes to create their most dramatic moments—while also both involving a hell of a lot more level design in their environments than a casual player will probably realize.
And the connections aren’t just aesthetic and mechanical, but also thematic. The games are both about societies piecing themselves together after catastrophic failures and unfathomable setbacks, and they’re both concerned with the mundane, slow-burn heroisms that rebuild ruined worlds even more surely than derring-do does. (Whether we’re talking about Zelda’s research or Sam’s deliveries, we could probably just call this form of heroism labor.)
The contrasts between the two games are, of course, just as striking. Tim Rogers put it most succinctly when he pitched Death Stranding as “What if Breath of the Wild were boring, on purpose?” (That among other things, like “What if Assassin’s Creed hated you?”)
In actual play, the contrast is clearest at the top of a mountain. Breath of the Wild lets you drift down gracefully on a hang glider. Hidemaro Fujibayashi has said that this felt like a natural extension of the game’s freeform climbing: Once you’ve climbed something, you naturally want to leap off of it. Death Stranding makes the descent as grueling and dangerous as the ascent, if not more so. Chance your way down footfall by footfall, or else use a rope, a ladder, a vehicle.
The difference isn’t just that Breath of the Wild wants exploration to be pleasantly rugged, whereas Death Stranding wants it to be unyieldingly rugged, like hiking a real mountain (though, yes, that). Just as importantly, Death Stranding is a love letter to infrastructure. You rely on the rope and the ladder and the armored truck because being able to rely on those things is what makes human survival possible.
Death Stranding argues pretty forcefully that what makes a nation isn’t a shared ideology or even a government so much as connectivity, whether that means shipping lines or lines of communication. Connection in a more abstract sense is only meaningful or sustainable if we’re first connected in a more literal way. We’re a nation precisely inasmuch as we have a reliable postal service and some manner of internet. As such, Death Stranding understands the appeal of the wilds, and equally, the appeal of taming them.
When you—and other players with you, thrillingly!—manage to connect two cities with a proper highway, you’ve rendered the trip between those two points boring. That’s not to deny the satisfaction of driving along a freshly completed road for the first time, or even of hauling an otherwise-infeasible truckload of cargo along a reliable old road for the tenth time. It’s a hard-won boredom, and indeed a deeply welcome boredom. But it’s mindless and safe in a way that traveling by foot never is, even in the endgame, even with every possible tool at your disposal.
Sam and Link are both itinerant, solitary sorts. They revel in long hours alone in the wilderness, and the player revels with them. Link wears the trappings of a knight errant, while Sam is bedecked in tacticool chic, but they’re two sides of the same coin. At heart they’re both able travelers, experienced survivalists, and hearty John Muirish naturalists.
It feels odd to call Sam a naturalist, because Death Stranding’s landscape is so resolutely unnatural and alien. It doesn’t look anything like the places it’s purported to represent, and supernatural cataclysm has made its ecology go all Jeff VanderMeer. But these are things that alienate us, not Sam. For Sam they’re just facts of the world, of his job. They’re as natural as anything, even if they’re wrong in deep ways. They’re just the sorts of infinite strangenesses to which humans have always adapted so damn well. And we do adapt. Sure, we’ve rendered the world a nightmarescape of restless ghosts and time-distorting rain, but that’s no reason we can’t all get our packages on time.
Breath of the Wild has an utterly different relationship to the natural world, and the game’s brief secret ending is more or less its thesis statement about that relationship. If you recover all of Link’s memories before defeating Ganon, then the game ends with an image of a field of flowers—a field of a specific, thematically important flower, the Silent Princess. If you’ve read all of Zelda’s journal entries, which you naturally have, you’ll know that the Silent Princess is a flower than can only grow and thrive in the wild. Every attempt to cultivate it in a garden or a greenhouse has ended in failure and waste.
So the image means that Hyrule is coming back to life, but equally, it’s a different way of articulating the philosophy behind the game’s free, confident, unfussy design: There are truly beautiful things can only happen if you let them, as opposed to forcing them.
If the mountaintop example and the John Muir analogy didn’t do it for you, then let’s talk about naturalism in a different sense, in the sense that sometimes gets called realism. In some obvious ways, Death Stranding is clearly striving to be the more realistic game. Its graphics attempt to approximate rocks and blood and tar—and famous actors and directors!—in a visually credible, faux-photographic style. Breath of the Wild doesn’t, opting instead for an impressionist aesthetic of waving grass and bloom-heavy sunrises.
Beyond that, Breath of the Wild has a sort of cartoon physicality, where Death Stranding aims at an amped-up vision of real movement, real gravity, real weight. And of course, where Sam has to apply intense expertise to arranging and balancing the load on his back, Link can carry an infinity of (certain) items invisibly and indefinitely.
But on the other hand, Link eats. He cooks and consumes things that aren’t Monster Energy Drink. That’s got to be worth something, if we’re keeping score, realism-wise.
Unlike Link, Sam gets exhausted and has to sleep. But unlike Hyrule, post-Stranding America has no apparent cycle of day and night. Sam has to pee. Link has to dress for the weather.
I’m not arguing that Breath of the Wild secretly adheres to hard realism more faithfully than Death Stranding does. What I’m arguing is much weirder, and more liberating—namely that holding these two games in your mind at once, considering them side by side, trying to fit them both into the category of open-world action-adventure game, breaks something open. It makes it impossible to think of games, or even more narrowly of massive AAA games, as teleological. If you ever imagined that there was some end point to the practice of game design, some platonic ten-out-of-ten toward which every great game (each greater than the last) has been a definitive step…
You know what? Nah. Breath of the Wild and Death Stranding each feels like the breaking of that idea, that there’s any one thing games should strive to be. Taken together, the two games make that notion laughable.
We’re out in the wilds now, where untamed things can thrive and we can build something altogether new, and compelling, and boring, and moving, and perplexing, and strange.
And it’s tempting to leave it there. That would be enough, if Death Stranding and Breath of the Wild had simply expanded the design vocabulary of open-world action-adventure games. But these two games are exciting and invigorating (even when they’re boring, or grindy, or obtuse) specifically because they’re not just goofy, navel-gazing meditations on what video games can be. They’re resolutely about things other than themselves.
Any game design convention that becomes dime-a-dozen, as the sprawling “map game” has, will inevitably find itself leaden with unexamined assumptions. Much has been made of the interchangeable nature of Ubisoft’s numerous, numinous map games, but less attention has been paid to their politics—like the way Assassin’s Creed flattens history into a dumb-as-fuck abyssal foreverwar of Dan Brown symbologies and David Icke conspiracies.
Or the way Far Cry 2 teases out the uncomfortable connections between cultural tourism, gritty realism, and making war gladly. Or the way Far Cry 3, 4, and 5 run with that theme while also sort of disavowing the very existence of themes, like an ouroboros that mumbles the word “satire” as it eats its tail. (A political position doesn’t become less political simply because it’s an incoherent one). Maybe that’s the heart of the problem: When these games insist that they don’t have any politics to speak of, there’s a silly tendency to try and believe them.
How refreshing, then, and how liberating, for Breath of the Wild and Death Stranding to show up wearing their themes on their sleeves, with clear intent embedded in what’s simulated and what isn’t. Of course a story about the valor of labor and logistics is going to have different concerns and focuses than a story about making peace with the past and regaining harmony with nature, even if both stories are also about starting over after an apocalypse (and even if both games largely involve walking and climbing and picking stuff up).
These games leave me with something akin to what Sasha Chapin has called the “gift of sight,” that phenomenon by which a perfectly chosen word or especially apt metaphor in a piece of literature “slightly transforms the reader.” In his example, David Foster Wallace used the world “leonine” to describe the sound of a public toilet flushing, and for the reader struck by the vividness of that, “public toilets have roared like lions ever since.”
Breath of the Wild and Death Stranding are like that for me, but with spaces and places and vistas more than with words or sounds. Beaches are weirder now. Swaying grass is even more beautiful, especially in bright moonlight, and hills are more mysterious. Rocks on a hiking trail feel a bit more treacherous. A palatable meal cooked while camping feels like heroism. Roads feel a little more like a miracle, albeit a dull one.
There’s a lingering effect. There’s a renewed vividness to the world around me. There’s a little extra magic in the mundane. It gets me excited to play more video games, sure, but it also just makes me feel awake in a way that’s hard to put to words and harder still to put a price on.