Read Ursula Le Guin's The Beginning Place over the past couple days. It's a fantasy novel that starts in real life and follows two lonely characters who somehow walk into a fantasy world. A lot of fantasy like this works on two level, the literal, a fantasy world and an adventure story, and the metaphorical, a story about growing up or friendship or power. In this one makes the metaphorical story, two lonely characters finding each other, the foregound, and fails at the literal level. The fantasy world and the sort of quest that they undertake feels almost completely unnecessary, under developed, and underexplained, which is odd as normally Le Guin is really good at the world building and tying that into a broader theme. The interactions the two protagonists have with the people in the fantasy world, and the sort of quest they go on, all seem to be hinting at something else going on, some deeper mystery, perhaps even some kind of manipulation of the protagonists by the towns people who send them on the quest, yet none of it every plays out. Nothing is revealed about the world or what is going on. The characters leave it. End of story. For me, this was just a pleasant but unsatisfying novel. I don't need narratives to answer all my questions, but I also want to feel like major elements of the narrative are serving a purpose.
Still thinking about Death Stranding and why in the end it really failed for me. I think the sense that the interactivity was completely divorced from the narrative is one of the major elements. A lot of games I really like tell a good story with an involved narrative and a decent number of cutscenes, but they also manage to allow for interaction both during the cutscenes and to shape, in at least some ways, the course of the narrative &em; which really is what a game is all about, at least those that have stories. For instance The Witcher games, the third one in particular, have a really involved story with backstory and tons of characters and all kinds of things going on, but by giving you dialogue choices and action choices at different moments it lets you shape the narrative and also makes it feel like you're interacting and playing in the non-action parts, rather than just watching. Particularly in the beginning and the very long end of Death Stranding, I only felt like I was watching and that any interaction I had felt like a token bit of controller use that had no stakes and was completely pointless: things like walking on an endless beach while credits roll or controlling a character to run from one place to another that you have already visited that had no real obstacles of any kind just to play out another cutscene. And as a whole it was not helped by the narrative being kind of silly and obscure and frequently logically incoherent. So much of the narrative interacting with the gameplay felt arbitrary and design to limit what happens in a very structured manner (you have to walk, despite walking right past some vehicles, because the game wants you to do that before giving you access to vehicles). Also, throughout the game there was no sense of customizing the player character you had even at the barest of levels. Your average adventure game will at least give you something like choosing skills or being able to solve problems in different ways. I never felt like I had too many choices about problem solving in this game other than which direction I took and whether I walked or drove a vehicle or something like that. And that will be the last I talk of that game, I think.