Together, alone: the radical promise of pathfinding in Death Stranding

Hauling DNA samples and pizza through the desolate America of Death Stranding, I found myself thinking of the paths that wander in amongst the hills of my birthplace in Yorkshire. The best-known of these is the Dales Way, an 80-mile stretch of moor and meadow that follows the River Wharfe up past its headspring to the shores of Lake Windermere. The Way was officially added to British maps in 1969, following the establishing of our National Parks, but the path’s origins go back a lot further. It is formed from a multitude of much older paths, trodden into the resonant, well-rooted soils and glaciated rock of the Yorkshire Dales by generations of travellers. Walking down the valley between Dent and Ribblehead, you can feel all those aggregated footfalls echoing in your very bones. Ancient artisans bearing flaked greenstone from the Neolithic axe factories in Langdale. Monks journeying to and from Bolton Abbey, and mourners from outlying villages carrying loved ones to the cemetery. Wanderers and the lost. Deliverers of one kind or another.

Paths like these at once unify and divide. They represent the collective, fossilised labour of thousands, all engaged in the same act of thinking and feeling their way through geography, aiding (and, at times, misdirecting) each other with every fresh trail pushed through stacks of goldenrod and cow parsley. They are a kind of on-going conversation, a long, straggling sentence written and rewritten by different hands. They are also an argument of sorts with the landowners and lawmakers who would design and divide the world from on high – an argument perceptible in every sharp turn to evade some thrusting expanse of private land. You are always talking to somebody as you follow a path. But for the most part, of course, these are people you encounter only through their remnants. You experience a sense of kinship with them, of shared effort and purpose, by virtue of the fact that they are no longer here.

Death Stranding captures this strangely mingled sense of isolation and camaraderie like few games before, though we shouldn’t ignore the precedents set by other virtual odysseys, such as Where the Water Tastes Like Wine. Set on a continent ravaged by time distortions and the malingering dead, it is a game about beating paths through the end of history, plotting routes and erecting structures which are then discreetly shared with other players online. It is about passive, automatic but not unthinking solidarity with people embroiled in the same, arduous trek from coast to coast. These players are everywhere around you as you play – you can call to them if they’re in the same location, but for the most part, you’ll notice their presence because they have already moved on, leaving hillsides decked with climbing rope and forked zipline posts glowing like church spires on mountain summits.

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