Tackling anxiety in Death Stranding

By Brian Wells

So to preface this article, a little background on myself: I was diagnosed with moderate anxiety and depression back in high school. Some days, it doesn’t take a lot to trigger my anxiety, and at times it feels like it’ll never go away.

Especially lately, with the COVID-19 pandemic, which is already being proven to cause anxiety and resurface past trauma in individuals.

Right before my state went into lockdown in March, a coworker let me borrow Death Stranding for my PS4. I was somewhat reluctant to start it because I knew it was going to be a giant time-suck, and I was still fighting my way through Red Dead Redemption 2.

But eventually I jumped into it. I’m not going to spend much time reviewing the actual game, because that’s been hashed out elsewhere. But I will say that the story is wonderfully weird and complex, and the soundtrack, atmosphere and graphics are phenomenal. 

Instead, I’m going to talk about how this game affects my anxiety in both positive and negative ways. Keep in mind, this is based solely on my experiences with the game. Everybody’s different.

For the most part, throughout my life, video games have had a positive impact on my anxiety. They give me an escape — something to focus on besides the real and made-up problems I’m facing in the real world. I can focus on the trials and tribulations of whatever characters I’m following.

Death Stranding feels, at times, like it’s entirely too complex. There are way too many moving parts, between fabricating, controlling your BB (if you don’t know, this is basically a fetus in a jar that lets you connect to an alternate dimension), carry weight, hydrating, maintaining your health and stamina and cargo’s condition. You even have to pay attention to Sam’s bladder and urinate from time to time (there was a funny rumor circulating that you could pee on corpses — sorry to disappoint, but it’s false).

The game also has a really, really awesome passive-co-op system, where you can utilize tools and other things left behind by some other player, while at no point actually having to compete against them.

Here’s where I’m going to start focusing on the aspects of the game that have a positive effect on my anxiety.

Every single person is different, and the game might have a different effect on different people. But for me, when I start feeling anxious, I need something I can focus on. Something that’s going to take all of my attention, but also not add copious amounts of stress.

At its core, Death Stranding is an incredibly relaxing walking simulator. You can spend time planning what you think is going to be the safest route and organizing how you’re carrying your cargo to make it as uniform as you want. 

While you’re exploring the environment — which is huge and desolate and expansive, but doesn’t induce any real sensory-overload — you’ll have to control Sam’s balance at times. This is done by alternating between the left and right triggers. To me, this helps me to zone-in on one aspect of the game instead of the 19,482 other things I need to be focusing on. Just like the rhythmic actions of sucking on a cigarette, it brings my attention in on one little thing.

I’d be lying if I said there weren’t tense moments in this hyped-up walking simulator, like sneaking through a MULE camp, or dealing with a cluster of BTs while simultaneously getting pounded by timefall. But unlike most other games, when these events happen, you aren’t met with loud, pulsing music and flashing lights and a million warnings on your screen. At least at the point of the game I’ve reached, there might be a bit of a jump and a loud sound, but to me, it isn’t overwhelming in the slightest.

But it lacks the high-adrenaline chase and fight scenes that other games have, which can easily trigger my anxiety. In so many games, there’s so much happening and it all happens so fast, and I can’t keep up and that just starts to fuck with me. In Death Stranding, everything feels like it happens in such a way that you know what to expect.

But with that said, there are a few anxiety-triggering aspects of the game.

To start, the menus are hard to navigate at first. Over time, I’ve gotten used to them, but the commands and options in them can be subtle, and the button combinations are weird. For instance, what does something in one menu doesn’t do the same thing in another; it might be on a different button, or just gone entirely.

The story is interesting and intriguing, but there’s definitely a lot going on. I’m still somewhat early in the game (which is weird to say at almost 15 hours of gameplay), but I have no idea what the hell I’m doing.

What if I miss a critical scene, or some kind of little fact gets dropped that really completes the story, and I miss it?

As I’ve mentioned before, there are a lot of different mechanics at play at any time during the game. You have to be constantly focusing on the condition of your cargo, your health, stamina, hydration, and a few other things I’m sure I’m forgetting. There are so many different health bars that pop up, and they’re all color-coded, and for me it’s hard to keep them straight.

Some of them even change colors.

Maybe as I keep going through the game I’ll start to get used to these and figure them out, but right now, whenever a different health bar pops up, there’s that quick jolt of anxiety — Shit, what do I need to fix? I don’t recognize that color, can I let it go? Ah, hell.

Lastly, let’s touch on how Sam’s Odradek Scanner contributes to everything. 

The game doesn’t have much of a heads-up display, or a mini map. I really like being able to activate this to see dangerous terrain, or obstacles or my planned route, but whenever I’m traveling and I get the mini-scene of it activating, it can be a little anxiety-inducing: Trouble is near. 

But, I’ve almost started looking at it as being a friendly reminder, like the device is saying “Hey, there’s danger nearby, but we can get through this.”And when you do successfully circumvent danger, or make that delivery or craft something awesome, or when a random internet stranger sends you a Like for something you left behind that’s helped them in some way, it’s a pretty badass, triumphant feeling.

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