A few weeks ago, I was replaying The Last of Us, and while I had a pretty good time with it, I did have a few criticisms that didn’t occur to me back in 2013. One thing in particular that struck me was how the traversal sections that make up much of the game weren’t especially good. Typically they’d involve walking around an environment with the left stick, and occasionally overcoming environmental obstacles. These would often take the shape of walls to scale or heavy doors to lift. Push a crate to climb over, tap triangle to lift the door and wait for Ellie to wedge it open from the other side. It’s simple stuff, and The Last of Us is not unique in approaching traversal this way. It’s basically industry standard.
In The Last of Us, these sections largely exist to drive story by facilitating dialogue between characters, to add contrast to the louder moments, and to depict a journey. It is, after all, a game about a journey, and you can’t have a journey without traversal. The mundane obstacles I mentioned serve to appropriately highlight that you’re travelling through a broken and dangerous world where improvisation and cooperation is key to survival and progress. They also have a much more mechanical purpose in that they break up the otherwise simple walking and talking, so that you’re not just holding the left stick in a direction until the next fight happens. The trouble is, it’s not that much better.
The Last of Us is this way because it inherited its core structure from Uncharted, Naughty Dog’s previous action adventure franchise. Uncharted had similar traversal sections that (at a basic level) similarly broke up the action, facilitated dialogue and depicted a journey. However, Uncharted had athletic treasure hunter Nathan Drake at its core, and a world built to contextualise his shenanigans. Obstacles for Nate typically include walls to climb, ropes to swing, grapples to grapple, and unfortunately also crates to push. While the linearity, ease, and near-automatic nature of these sections is often levelled against the series as a criticism, the appeal of these moments were actually comparable to getting a close look at an intricate and beautiful diorama. Nathan climbs, something breaks, the path you thought you’d be taking is now unavailable, but a new path reveals itself as a result. Watching the environments change at your touch to reveal themselves is a novelty regardless of how much agency the player is given. It’s much of the same appeal that Monument Valley has, but presented in a very different way, of course.
But The Last of Us isn’t about a jumpy, charismatic action man, it’s about some hairy, grumpy arsehole named Joel. So when it came to lifting these sections from the structure of Uncharted to serve many of the same purposes but in a much more grounded context, there’s not a lot you can fill them with. Walk. Path blocked. Find crate. Push crate. Climb crate. There’s not a lot of variations on this to be seen in The Last of Us.
This evidently doesn’t stand as a particularly strong criticism of the game in the face of critical consensus, with its acclaim still holding strong several years after release and with only the occasional cyclical twitter discourse to challenge it. However, it did get me thinking about the problem with walking in games, and wondering if there are other ways it could be approached. Walking is often the weakest component of any given game, including many of the most critically acclaimed of the past decade. It’s the glue between the game bits, it facilitates other, stronger components. The story, characters, themes, environment art, music. It is what it is, and maybe it doesn’t need fixing. But if we never fixed things that weren’t broken, we’d just be playing the same five games every year (lol).
So let’s talk about Death Stranding.
Similar to The Last of Us, Death Stranding is about a long journey through a broken and dangerous world. It has traversal, it has action, it has story: everything the body needs. The key differences, at least for the purposes of this discussion, lie in how it’s all weighted. First, the walking in Death Stranding is not there to break up the pace of the action and horror elements like it is in The Last of Us. In fact I’d argue it’s the opposite here: walking is the point, and the louder moments simply punctuate it. Second, the walking is not there to facilitate spoken dialogue or the development of any character in any explicit ways. You are usually alone, and if you’re not, you probably want to be because most other people carry cattle prods or are literal ghosts.
Death Stranding places walking front and centre. It’s a fifty+ million dollar budget experiment in making what is usually the least interesting part of any game engaging enough to fill fifty+ hours with. Those are the stakes. Luckily, this game has a few interesting ideas far as traversing is concerned.
It starts off much like any other game, you point the left stick in the direction you want to move and your character will move in that direction. Push it a little and you walk, push it a lot and you run. But in Death Stranding, the faster you move, the more likely you are to lose balance, especially on slopes or uneven surfaces. You almost always have cargo on your back, and the taller it stacks or the heavier it is, the more likely you are to become unstable. Keeping upright is a matter of identifying when you’re losing your footing, and pulling either the right or left trigger to recenter your weight in that direction by gripping the straps of your backpack. Failing this, you may fall over and damage or even drop cargo. Pulling both triggers while moving allows you to hold both straps, and this is a good way to keep your balance better as you try to move faster. The game teaches you through experience to look at the terrain as a challenge and obstacle. You may eyeball some rocks and decide to go around them along a clearer path, or perhaps you’ll hold onto your bag, slow down, and mind your step as you scale them carefully.
Across social media this past weekend, I’ve seen this micromanagement of movement compared several times to QWOP, a game by Bennett Foddy about an athlete trying (and mostly failing) to run. You have 4 buttons on the keyboard that each control individual muscles in the runner’s legs, and the aim is to run 100 metres. It’s almost impossible to make even a metre of progress, but it’s quite comical to try. Even successful runs look utterly absurd, an awkward flailing of limbs in an attempt to approximate the act of movement. But while QWOP serves as a design experiment demonstrating why games typically don’t give you micromanagement over your character’s movements, Death Stranding serves as a compelling argument for why we should sometimes.
It doesn’t go to the same extremes as QWOP, of course, instead operating much like games as we know them with the added challenge of considering your centre of gravity as if you were performing these precarious deliveries in real life. It’s incredibly successful at replicating the simple act of balancing into a game mechanic, only as harsh as it ought to be and about as forgiving. Much of what we’d consider second nature about walking in real life remains automatic here, and the layers of complexity it lays on top are only applied to the parts that would not be automatic, such as maintaining a centre of gravity on jagged rocks while carrying 135kg of emergency supplies.
The mechanics make a small puzzle out of the world, forcing you to make tiny decisions every second, considering the world and your physical presence in it in ways other games would never ask you to. This achieves a uniquely tangible sense of place. When I walk across Death Stranding’s bizarre and beautiful version of Icelandic America, I feel rooted in that world in a way very few other games achieve. Where the Assassin’s Creed series empowers you as a fully capable free runner, automatically hopping between the optimal points of jagged terrains, trees or rooftops, Death Stranding empowers you by making every tiny victory feel like yours, and it follows that every failure is yours too.
This has resulted in some of my favourite moments in games this year, such as the time I arrived at my far flung destination only to discover that the one piece of cargo I’d watched topple from my pack earlier as I hastily crossed a river to escape a man with a cattle prod was in fact the package I was supposed to deliver. I knew it to be lost, so I had to make my way all the way back to the facility to pick up a new one. So I set off, making my way back via a safer route, anchoring ropes to take me down sheer cliff faces and circumventing the cattle prod gang. I’d later be reunited with those ropes to make my way back up to my destination when I’d return with the delivery. Though I’d initially failed, these paths I’d built for myself felt like a reward in themselves, building familiarity with the world I was tasked with traversing, and meeting my own needs with tools where the environment is at its most stubborn.
While I believe Death Stranding’s walking and traversal mechanics bring a lot to the table, I don’t necessarily think you could apply much of what works here as standard across other games, nor would I want to. For example, The Last of Us probably wouldn’t have benefited at all from this approach to traversal, despite some broad similarities in content. Perhaps the problem The Last of Us had wasn’t one with a solution, which is why it is what it is, but I am curious to see if they do something better in the sequel. In the meantime, I would encourage fellow designers to try approaching old things in new ways from time to time, interrogate the industry standard, so that we might be surprised more often.
When you fix what isn’t broken, you might make something new.