A Death Stranding ARG: Soul-searching in North Ossetia mountains

Why was Death Stranding so important? How did the game-related activities significantly influence the lives of certain individuals during the game’s development?

In the life of every one of us comes a moment when we face two “banal” questions: “Who am I?” and “What is my purpose?”. These questions find us at random, no matter the circumstances. Whether you’re ready or not, they just knock on your door when the time comes.

When this happens, you realize something went dramatically wrong, so you need to act immediately. At that exact moment, whether you are burned out mentally or have lost a sense of the importance of your deeds, you need to take care of yourself.

In an attempt to answer those questions, every one of us is wandering in the dark. We listen to other people’s stories, go to theaters, read books, watch TV shows and movies, listen to music. Doing it, we are in the same boat with the authors or others like us: viewers, readers, listeners. We are floating along the streams set by the creators, trying to fish out the ideas and emotions we need. We believe it’ll bring us closer to the cherished Answers.

It is just an approach among many others, but it highlights the fact that we consciously make connections with other people. Sometimes with those who have already passed away and left us, or others, who never existed at all. Without such contacts, without searching for answers in books, films, performances, people’s stories, and without our own lived experience and memories, we can only go screaming to the sky, begging for answers among a deserted field. There will be nobody to conduct a dialog with, but yourself and the Universe. The only thing we all have is us.

Playing a game or reading a book, we alter our coordinate system by introducing a plot, the author, his heroes, and ideas to its basis. Thus, we seem to reduce the search field, making it easier to see the desired answers.

In either case, we do not frequently search for answers to such ephemeral questions. More often, we relax and simply have fun by reading a book or going to the cinema. But life is changing all the time, and it always will. Burning questions keep on ripening inside your head. It overwhelms and finally makes you realize that you need a revelation. We are likely to find answers to some of our questions in literature and films, which is hard to say about video games. Projects like Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice or SOMA are released once in a decade at best.

All play means something.

— Johan Huizinga, Homo ludens

Death Stranding occupied this niche, pompously promoted itself. It could be the most significant game of recent times, an important cultural phenomenon.

The Game

Speaking about the ‘genius’ label, which was stamped onto the game long before its release, a ‘near-genius’ approach to the promotion of the game should be mentioned, especially in the early stages of its development. Keeping fans in almost unfailing stress for several years, accelerating the hype-train with each new trailer — that was cool. Kojima played a game with loyal fans, a lengthy performance in several acts — the players were permanently busy solving mysterious, intricate puzzles, although these weren’t always very difficult. Naturally, every “heated” fan infected his surroundings with his excitement: from the family members to the department heads in the office. As a result — a never-ending interest in the game led to the audience’s gradual growth. It was so effective that the outsiders have also joined the hype — for instance, Archillect. People drove themselves into a kind of trance, inflating the importance of the game itself, its ideas, and the creator as well.

Whether one is sorcerer or sorcerized one is always knower and dupe at once. But one chooses to be the dupe. “The savage is a good actor who can be quite absorbed in his role, like a child at play; and, also like a child, a good spectator who can be frightened to death by the roaring of something he knows perfectly well to be no ‘real’ lion.”

— Johan Huizinga, Homo ludens

Simultaneously with the activity of the Kojima Productions PR-machine, an ARG (Alternate Reality Game) suddenly appeared. The story begins on December 11, 2017, with the presentation of the allegedly official Discord-server of Kojima Productions and Death Stranding. Every user who entered the server was prompted to choose a role: Sapien or Luden. That was nice, but in fact, had no practical purpose. To select the role, one needed to enter the proposed commands: ?luden or ?sapien. A special chatbot was waiting for commands from users and assigning them an appropriate role. The next day someone decided to pretend to be a whale and sent out the ?whale command. The bot answered with an image, that’s how the first puzzle was found. The game had started.

It was obvious which command came next.

Players began to hunt for chatbot commands. The bot rewarded people with puzzles that contained the next command. The puzzles were mostly audiovisual. There were ciphers in the names of the files, and sometimes it was necessary to do some photoshopping. Almost all the puzzles and ciphers were based on frames from films, paintings, or passages from famous poems and stories. Every riddle was very well-made, and they all were linked in a huge puzzle tree that felt like great secrecy.

These are for you, the fans who have shown your tremendous ability to imagine, search for clues and wrack your brains to solve the mysteries. But the answers are still only a part of the mystery. Our game is still in play.

— Hideo Kojima, PlayStation Blog, June 2018

The clues-hunting process was immersive. It was the first wave of establishing relations between players since different skills were required. Someone knew something in algorithms and ciphers; someone was an expert on the works of famous writers, painters, or poets. The work was in full swing. Sometimes we got a piece of game-related information from the puzzles right before the next official trailer would appear, and it felt like a victory. Everything went well until the community reached a dead-end, unable to crack complex puzzles. It became harder and harder to discover new chatbot commands because remained mysteries couldn’t be solved. Server admins did hint-sessions via voice chats, but it was useless. People flocked together and asked questions. If the ceremoniously silent administrator stayed online — the answer was ‘No’, and if he went offline for a second — it meant ‘Yes’. By that time, the news and updates ceased to be published. The community became isolated. We still couldn’t figure out whether it was an official game or, maybe, someone just had fun with us out of boredom. We decided that it was an outsourced team hired to entertain us. Anyway, for us, they were the silent hosts of the mystical performance. They were respected.

On June 12, 2018, during the presentation of Death Stranding at E3 2018, a new phase of the ARG began, which was to search for data at real geographical locations. At first, the organizers decided to test the mechanics in the Loonse en Drunense Duinen park in the Netherlands. They buried a locked armored suitcase somewhere in the park. Having discovered the suitcase coordinates, the players realized that no one of them could physically reach the point. Someone had an acquaintance who lived nearby, and he found and dug out a suitcase. Alas, he could not find the key to open it. Another user went nuts and bought a metal detector. She went to the park in search of a key, following instructions made by the administrator of a Discord server, who kept sending her mysterious messages. It didn’t help.

The players were at a loss, but two months later the suitcase was opened by force. It contained: 5 envelopes with the following geographical coordinates; a gilded figurine of Buddha; 4 matches; 3 chatbot commands; 51 paper cards with number 51 on each; a stone; a dream catcher; 2 VHS tapes; a letter from admins.

7 months. It’s been about 7 months now… I can’t feel my skin as well as my eyes. But I’m still conscious. I look into the mirror and see nothing. It feels so surreal. I’m being watched by these things 23 hours a day. I wish I could stop it. Family, friends — when you read this — I love you and I’m sorry. It was not my choice. — Allan 9.9 [scribble]

Feel the atmosphere, huh? All riddles and documents, the hosts’ behavior — everything was sustained in the same mood of the dark illusion.

The following geographic objects were the five churches located in Italy, Spain, Germany, Denmark, and the UK. Having visited churches, people found coordinates that lured ARG-players to Austria, Denmark, Norway, Poland, Great Britain, Switzerland, and Russia. This time the new goals were famous touristic attractions or known geographical places. Among them were ancient architectural complexes and natural objects, such as lakes in the mountains where folders with documents were hidden.

The full map with all coordinates

The locations in Europe were discovered by players quite quickly. Every adventurer gained 4–5 pages of ciphered documents. If a traveler didn’t find anything, it was always possible to receive a digital copy from admins after providing proof of the visit. Posting a selfie to the chat was enough to prove you were on a location. Players shared the progress of their journeys online, and when they got documents, it activated the chats. Investigation and puzzle-solving processes started immediately. People asked the explorer to made photos of everything he saw around the location point to find possibly missed clues. Every strange sign or suspicious object was exciting for our crew.

After several trips, only two locations remained: in Russia and Norway.

No one knew how to visit the Russian coordinates (42°51'05.2"N 44°26'12.4"E, Dargavs, City of the Dead, North Ossetia). There were less than ten active ARG-players from Russia. All of them lived in the central part of the country, including me. Fortunately, I was crazy enough to accept this challenge.

I was damn right when I decided to visit this marvelous place.

I was exhausted and burnt out. I have been trying to convince myself not to go there for several months. And while I was struggling to step aside from my devouring routine, the others went crazy online, unable to get any help. Players explored Russian social networks and forums in search of locals who could tell them anything about the target location. In the middle of December 2018, I found myself mentally trapped. It was the day when I decided to break the deadlock.

My wife agreed to come along with me, so the two of us began all necessary trip preparations and research. In the Dargavs region, the snow melts in early March, and we managed to get a week off during this period. Closer to the date, all the required equipment and clothes were bought and readied. We didn’t have any problems with plane tickets, but the only accommodation we found was at a distance of 20 kilometers from the coveted coordinates — in Upper Fiagdon. The shorter way to Dargavs was blocked by an avalanche in 2002.

Late at night on March 9, 2019, we arrived in Vladikavkaz, where were met by the landlord and ushered to the mountain area by car. Since we love hiking, we proudly announced our intention to get to the City of the Dead on foot. After hearing this, the landlord suggested we take a listen to the sounds of the night — jackals were howling somewhere in the distance. Also, we were recommended to find a driver. Early in the morning, we found a man with a car, but he refused, apologizing for being busy and suggesting a different driver, who, in turn, was forbidden to lead us by his wife, who shouted from the balcony that his car would not pass because of harsh terrain. One of the neighbors, having heard the drama from the beginning, called out to her son, a huntsman — he said a sport utility vehicle could be required because of a still snowy road. Half an hour later, the villagers found a driver who owns a UAZ. All that time, we stood out there, wearing silly smiles, while locals were trying hard to help us not knowing about our goal. It seems we were the only tourists there because it was off-season.

The driver service was affordable, and besides, it saved our time and nerves. The driver was absolutely and sincerely surprised by our decision to hike and told us several stories about people getting torn to pieces by jackals, about avalanches, and missing tourist groups. All of these stories resonated with the atmosphere of the game we played. Later at night, I had a nightmare where I was fighting jackals off with trekking sticks while scary dark figures arose from the ground. On our way to the mountains, I was trying to come up with a convincing explanation of why we should first be taken not to the City of the Dead itself, but a certain point in its vicinity. As a result, I asked the driver to lead us to the location we needed because of our impulse to walk around a mountain and to take pictures. That was how we reached the place.

That place…

There was a low mountain before us, and we slowly began to climb it. The driver parked nearby and started smoking one cigarette after another while we were walking to the top. There we found nothing. No signs, no marks. At that moment I realized that almost a year had passed from the start of that phase of the game. So if something was there, it could have faded away under mud or snow, might be blown away, or got rot. The signal was weak up there, but we managed to get an official hint from the chat. It also was a puzzle — we had to find a triangle-shaped tree, or a bush, or just something triangle. We were thrown into confusion since there were no trees there. But we found a shrub. And yes, it resembled a triangle. Of course, there was nothing under that bush either. I hope the driver had binoculars and entertained himself watching us from the car with another cigarette in his hand.

The City of the Dead is a necropolis consisting of 97 crypts (XIV-XVIII centuries).

We took pictures of literally everything there: the surrounding views, mountains, ourselves against the backdrop of the mountains, every stone, and every shrub. But no one sent us any documents. Disappointed, we had to continue following our path to the City of the Dead itself — Dargavs. Approaching it, I took a photo of the crypts and sent it to the chat. A second later, the administrator dropped an archive with documents and an encrypted audio file in a private message to me. I can’t find words to describe how relieved I felt at that moment. It seems I was caught up in the euphoria. The players eagerly examined documents and the audio file as if locusts on a field full of harvest. The audio contained an encrypted reference to Tarkovsky’s Stalker.

An instant later, I found myself between the crypts reading the received documents. My wife wandered somewhere nearby, shocked by our deeds, but I immersed myself in the text describing the City of Death being visited by crowds of people who behaved much strangely. The author urged us to accompany him to this city to help him save someone, to try and find a way to protect people from Them. It seemed to him that people had already come up with many ideas of how to kill Them. He encouraged us not to risk lives in vain by fighting, but to instead try and establish a connection with the other side, although he did not know how. He suspected that we held knowledge of a new, proven way of communicating with Them. He demanded answers, begged for us to share the method of making those connections, to stop Them from chasing and killing his people who were living in complete silence and isolation. His dream was to be able to hear music again.

One of the pages found. I thought I would lose my mind when I checked the coordinates marked out in the text. It suggests returning to The City of the Dead on September 9, 2019, once again.

After reading those papers, I finally realized that we had done our job. The case was finally closed. It was high time to get back into reality and spend the rest of the trip like regular tourists. The charm of the journey remained until the end of our vacation, the feeling that we experienced something so enigmatic that no one else could imagine. We were pleased to return to the village. On our way back, we bought wine, fruits, an Ossetian pie with meat, and quietly celebrated the closed gestalt. The next day, we achieved the hiking goal, having walked nearly 35 km, sightseeing the fortresses in the rocks, monasteries, other ancient ruins, and necropolises. We spent a couple of days as ordinary tourists, then returned home to our routine.

Such an adventure will be very difficult to forget.

One of the main concepts of Death Stranding was the idea of indirect connections between players and characters. In this case, it was done through letters and objects left by someone, a long time ago, conveying the mood; laid down by someone who must be already dead. I didn’t know that when I was marching along the mountain trails. And after all these adventures, wandering in half-trance among the crypts and ancient ruins, beholding vistas of sky-piercing snowy peaks, after reading those texts — I felt it worked for me. It’s a pity that the Answers eluded me again, although it was incredible that I could feel their presence at that moment.

Compare one of the found pages and a screenshot from the game. The page found on March 10; The screenshot was taken from the Death Stranding gameplay presentation at TGS 2019 in September.

Dealing with the Norwegian location (61°47'52.5"N 7°06'25.9"E, Sætrevatnet Lake) turned out to be way harder than we expected. Norwegian players refused to go there because of the increased danger of the route. They told us stories about deadly blizzards and missing people. Those trails are really dangerous, just check the coordinates on a map. The story of searching the initiative locals repeated itself. Unlike Russian social networks, the Kojima fans were considered as urban madmen and were banned after each post in Norwegian resources. Nevertheless, after a month or so, players found a young man using Reddit, who went to the mountain lake alone (according to his words, he had been there more than once) and got the last missing pages to the community.

After collecting and decrypting all 55 pages of the document, admins closed the season, and later the game itself. On May 29, 2019, a trailer with a release date was presented, so all PR capacity was reconfigured in other directions.

Here’s Where the Story Ends…

Keep on keeping on

Burnout is something common we face all the time. We forget to fight it off, always shifting our focus to something else, which seems to be more important. We are too busy. Having told you my story, I wanted you to notice how game-related activities can not just entertain players but also distract people from possible stagnation in their lives. Positive stress, mind refreshment, pleasant emotional aftertaste would be your reward.

Right after the journey, I rethought my work, researched what else could inspire me, and how to live mindfully. Whether it was official or not, it just worked, and that’s it. Furthermore, Death Stranding itself and the ARG collectively were a complete and exclusive experience, from which I received an exceptional emotional benefit.

Take care, stay safe, and play games.

Keep on keeping on!

Software Development Team Lead at Game Insight