Death Stranding — Level Design Tropes

I have been playing Death Stranding for the last few days and I’ve been struggling to find a way to articulate what it does differently from other open world games, mostly because it’s very different then the “traditional” open world formula. It targets something else.

The difference doesn’t come from conventional factors. If we went by conventional factors we can extrapolate that DS is no different then Breath of the Wild, Watchdogs, Assassins Creed, Ghost recon or any other open world game out there that favor these factors:

  • Systemic Game-play
  • Environment that informs player choice

But obviously DS is not like Breath of the Wild, in spite the fact that both games offer environments that the player has to scale in order to discover more of the environments.

Player scales a cliff to get a better vantage point over an game-play zone (outpost, city, objective area)

Of course we could go as far as to define the differences between DS and BofW as such:

  • DS -> Env is the Offender
  • BW -> Env is helping the player

And that’s definitely true, the environment is a big deal in DS and it influence player decisions, however so does the environment in Ghost Recon Breakpoint. In both games we have a set of terrain types that facilitate different types of behaviors and the player will default towards going where it’s safer. Right?

Death Stranding
Ghost Recon Wildlands.

Yes and no… mostly because it’s a discussion of affordances.

In Breakpoint it’s about being in control. The Environment augments your capacity for camouflage and not being spotted, basically staying a “ghost” and stalking your pray, or hiding from your stalkers.

But it’s also about not taking necessary risk and causing injury.

In DS terrain types dictate aggression toward the player. You want to pick the most optimal texture set to walk on in order:

  • No to trip
  • No to damage your gear
  • Not to startle your BB
  • Not to lose your delivery boxes.

Because every one of these events will trigger more unexpected events that are more then often in your detriment.

This is done to raise tension.

So the entire thing about DS is that it uses all the classic open world conventions to raise tension.

The player doesn’t feel like a bad-ass when he completes his objective, he feels relief.

All systemic interactions in every systemic video game are there to generate emotion.

For BT the emotions are:

  • Panic, Tension
  • Sometimes cleverness
  • Most of the time relief

This happens for a variety of reasons:

  • Player is not overpowered
  • He is at the mercy of the elements
  • Has no ability to see the ghosts, has to rely on BB. BB is moody.
  • Mule Camps are like Outposts, but the player can’t fight, so upon detection becomes about how fast can you escape and hide?

The Environment is the connective tissue. It’s rough and will not help you overcome your enemies, it will however help you escape/hide from your oppressors.

There are several types of terrain that the player is introduced from the tutorial map:

  • Grass land — Safe/Green Surface that is the least aggressive to the player
  • Rocky Land — Causes Boots to break faster
  • Large Rocks — Causes heavy stamina drain when climbing or running over it
  • Shallow Water / Slow or Fast — Slows down the player/Causes stamina drain
  • Deep Water / Slow of Fast — Same as above but the player can trip and drown.

In most of the cases these terrain types get combined causing various tapestries of terrain:

The composition is organic and you will always get more rocky ground next to river beds.

Everything is also color coded and easy to read and remember.

There is an additional type of terrain and that’s concrete, but concrete is the only “Safe” type of terrain and can be encountered only inside settlements, towns and stations.

So from this perspective the game is basically a horror game:

  • The Environment is aggressive
  • The Baby (BB) is Crying
  • The Forest is Haunted
  • You are being hunted by robbers

From a level design standpoint the game-play revolves around avoiding large groups of BTs by using BB’s ping ability and controlling the amount of sound you generate (cover mouth).

BTs are pretty stationary and will not move allowing the player to wiggly around trying to find a way trough or around them, something along the line of this diagram here. You can force them to move (but spoilers).

But in addition to the avoidance game-play the player has to also deal with the environment. Basically every change in height is a danger factor that generates tension and makes the player recalculate and re-plan on the fly.

If we would use a topographic map it would look a little like this:

We can then add a arbitrary objective where ever we find it agreeable with our goals:

Next we will need to accentuate the safe areas around the objective zone:

Coincidentally the safe zones are probably the hardest areas to go trough from a traversal perspective. It’s important to try to exaggerate the dangerous bit. The world of Death Stranding is very warped and dangerous:

This accentuation should take place along the same level of height for each layer .

But at the same time there should be some way of breaking the safe baths into smaller bits using big rocks that will force the player to use climbing, ladders and ropes to traverse the space.

After this the player paths need to be illustrated

Based on this predefined paths we can now determine where the BT Should be placed and we can also created some intermediary paths between the main lanes to allow for more freedom of movement between the main paths.

Here’s what’s going to happen:

  • Using BB, the player will be gently nudged into the safe paths while trying to reach the destination, and avoiding the BTs
  • The Paths on the side will be safer and will have less BTs but the trek is going to be harder and more dangerous because the player can trip, unset BB and attract BT attention.

So discover-able multi-path design that offer different two different options with two risk factors. High Path, With high risk of tripping, but less BTs? Or Low path, lower risk of tripping, but more BTs?

Mule outposts are a bit more standard.

You need to sneak into their camp and steal their stuff. There’s a huge risk of being discovered but you can rely on the traditional tropes:

  • High Grass
  • Watchtowers

The difference here is that since there is no tactical element besides those elements there is no way for a higher security tropes embedded in the layout, so all you get is a but of huts that are still in the middle of dangerous ground that you need to traverse.

However the danger factor that the game attributes to the NPC’s in this location funnels the player in state of mind where he will try to sneak, choke and steal or get discover and run.

The strand is no match for the power sticks the Mules use

I think the game is a testament of how far you can push a concept if you have start from a very clear and unique vision of what you want to achieve.

The overall structure of an open world game doesn’t have to be reinvented. What needs to be done is to attempt to design the experience to target a different type of emotion then most games.

Death Stranding is not about the power fantasy. It’s about the struggle, the hard work, the fear, the persistence, even parenting at some levels.

I think it’s an unique experience and it’s worth being studied if you are interested in open world video games.

As a level designer I am not a creator, I am a facilitator. Senior Open World Designer @MassiveEntertainment. #Leveldesign #Open World #Design @notimetoulose.