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Learning to Cheat

Review date:

Review by: GDLP

I’m standing in the world after the apocalypse. It’s raining again, it’s always raining. And there’s something wrong with the rain. It burns the skin and it pulls the body through time, ageing wherever it hits. It’s getting heavy now. I should get out of here. My shoes are falling apart, my stamina is low, and all the packages I have with me are getting wrecked by this dull, poison sky. I’ll get a bad reputation if I turn up to deliver damaged goods. No, I’ve walked far enough, I should drive from here instead.

I check out a trike from the garage in the nearest distribution centre. Two wheels at the front, one at the back. It has slots for crates so I can give my back a break while I make these deliveries. I speed out of the building, riding out of the lights — and I slam straight into a rock. The wheels are big so I bounce back, fine. But I had forgotten how rough the ground was in these parts. I look out over the land ahead of me and I grip the handlebars, bracing for what it is I have to do.

Between here and my next delivery, the route is bleak. It’s volcanic. It’s not even a route, really. There’s no path exactly. Thick, hexagonal columns push up from the ground, reaching different heights. All broken wet stones. It’s a strange formation. Uneven and rolling, it’s like the earth is caught in some hard, geometric wave. It looks like an impossible place but I know I can beat it — it’s just hell on the suspension once I get up over the crest. The back wheel and then the front ones fall into the pits between the columns, dropping and rising my body in a horrible rhythm. It feels bad. I push on but the trike catches the edges of the rocks over and over again, enough times that the whole thing starts to smoke. Sparks twitch away from the engine.

I have to carry on. It’s not like there’s a road around here that can just fly me over this mess. Can’t think about what I don’t have right now. It’s rough- going but it’s like a puzzle, in a way. Something to figure out. With enough force, I know I’ll find the right way through. And time is ticking, I have goods to move, and I’m the only one who can do this. No, I force it through, force it over, force myself out onto the other side. I have a job to do. I have to deliver.

I never Google anything when I play games. I don’t think I’m allowed! I don’t allow myself the luxury is what I mean. I don’t even ask friends who’ve played the game before me for answers. If I get stuck trying to solve a problem or beat a challenge, I might ask someone for a vague hint but never the straight up answer itself. That’s too much. The reason is that, to me, looking things up feels like cheating; cheating feels like losing the game; losing the game feels like I’ve done a bad thing; and that makes me feel like I’ve failed at being a person. This is a terrible, dramatic perspective but unfortunately it’s also honest. I don’t even believe in this when it comes to other people, only when it applies to myself; and I can easily trace these feelings back to a dark place in my chest. It’s that I never feel like I’m good enough, like I’ve done enough. I’m always chasing a feeling of enough-ness, whether it’s in work, relationships or gaming, anything. I think success will complete me. So, if I win a game without any help at all, then I really win. I have value, I’m good. I’m safe. But what a brittle way to live!

It’s ableist, for one. It’s unnecessary too; I’m not in school anymore and there isn’t an exam invigilator in the corner of the room while I play a game making sure I don’t do anything naughty. I want to release myself of this belief for many reasons, not just because it means that when I play something, I have to contend with my own arrogance. I get so convinced that I am up to the task of playing a game without any walkthrough support — and it’s funny because that is literally never the case. And even if it is, if I can finish a game without help, I have almost definitely missed hugely important or interesting elements by refusing to read anything about it. The 2019 release of Death Stranding proved that to me in a big way, big enough that it changed how I have felt about games ever since. Basically, it taught me that it was okay to cheat.

The game is a dystopia set in an America that has become a toxic, ghostly place. The landscape is now so dangerous that nobody leaves quarantine anymore, only the postmen. The protagonist we play is one of them. He has to deliver important packages such as medicine and technology to outposts of people that can’t get this stuff for themselves. The game requires you to navigate a lot of difficult terrain on foot, by motorbike or in a truck because there is no infrastructure anymore. Everything’s gone. Cue me jamming my bike across places that were not even close to bike-friendly. I spent too many hours brute forcing my way across the game’s own Giant’s Causeway while I tried to deliver packages in 3-5 business days; all because I was so desperate for the game’s external validation, even if that means absolutely nothing. Honestly, I pushed those bikes beyond their limit, leaving a wake of burning wreckages behind me. So many exploded in my care.

Except, the thing is, I didn’t need to struggle like that. I didn’t need to force my way through anything. I was making heavy weather of it — Death Stranding has a whole host of mechanics through which the player can build things, most notably roads. You can build literal flyovers to quickly whip across the map. There are even zip lines! You can set bridges down to cross rivers and canyons, generators that recharge vehicles, and shelters so you can stay safe from the rainfall… and yet, I got to the credits without building a single one of them. To think, I could have been zooming over those rocks, doing next day delivery… except I didn’t know even know roads existed in this game. God help me. God bless me. God forgive me. What a mess. It’s not even the game’s fault that this happened. It’s the arrogance I was talking about. I was so convinced I could organically learn everything I needed to know from the game itself, that even when the game did try to teach me important lessons for my own benefit (building the start of a road is a main quest-level order, for example) I still dismissed it because I didn’t think I needed any help. As if the game didn’t know best.

It’s a miracle I still enjoyed Death Stranding as much as I did. I enjoyed it so much, in fact, that once I’d gotten to the end of the story, allowed myself Internet access and realised what I’d done, I kept on playing despite my weird shame — or to overcome it, maybe. I decided to do a Trophy run to get my first Platinum, this time with the Internet’s help. Games on Playstation come with a special list of tasks you can complete for bronze, silver and gold trophies, and once you complete the list you get a Platinum one to celebrate. This clearly fulfils the need I have to do things well, but it’s not something I could do on my own. So I made a decision. I read tips, looked at annotated maps, read online guides and watched whole videos made by fans. I followed their lead and it ended up being the most enjoyable way to play the game. Like, I felt all the love and care of the other players who had grafted before me to pull this information together. I realised how their knowledge could help me play the game in the fullest way, too. I admitted that it was information I wouldn’t find alone even if I spent hundreds of hours playing it; and when I let myself off the hook, when I let myself be helped, I learnt that I could enjoy the game even more.

This text could end there, but just to take a quick step back: isn’t this kind of fascinating? I never finish a book and think about how I read the book. I just forget the contents and move on. When I read, I am an invisible entity, just a brain computing words. I never get to the ends of films and reflect on how I performed my part as its audience; I just know I was a witness and a fidget on the couch. At exhibitions, I mill in silence, I regard, and I leave. Games, more than any other media, seem to end with this palm reading that tells me who I am. There’s some kind of reflective sensation that comes from the interaction and activation of playing something. It’s like being an actor in the wings and controlling myself on a stage, careful with my body as I act; as I play. When I play a game, I cannot help but see how I’m playing, and that brings myself back to me. Death Stranding taught me that I was arrogant, too much of an individual, and then it showed me that I definitely prefer being a part of a fandom of other people who care about something as much as I do. Open book; notes passed in class. It’s ironic — and it’s also perfect — that this game is all about connecting with people who feel far away from us. When you build structures, they appear in other player’s games to help them on their way. It’s a game about connection but it’s also a game about pitching in and helping out. Playing it wrong taught me to cheat so that I could play it right; I learnt who I was and I learnt who I would prefer to be.

I read a walkthrough that explains the process of building roads. Check the landscape for lost packages that might contain metals, ceramics, and pick up the flowering chiral crystals wherever they grow. Insert these into the pavers and out comes a road, fabricated through the air with unreal technology. It’s slow-going to find all the materials I need but it’s worth it. Each section of road joins together to create a highway, and soon I’m riding the right way through the game and seeing more than I ever would.

I carry on cheating. I learn that there are hot springs hidden around the mountains, and if you bathe in them, your stamina is slowly restored. I go to all of them for a dystopian spa crawl. I learn that if you find the Musician and deliver him the sheet music he lost down the river, he gifts you with a harmonica that you can play whenever you sit down to rest. I carry on. I read lists of easter eggs: did you know that if you chug all the Monster Energy cans in the Private Room, Sam gets drunk? Did you know that if you log into the game on your birthday, Mads Mikkelsen appears in a special cut scene to present you with a red glazed cake? I did it on my birthday and I was flustered. I was more excited about my cake from Mads Mikkelsen than the real one I got. I am so glad I cheated. I am never not cheating again.