As the holiday season comes to a close and I dive into my endless backlog of unfinished gaming material, I’ve had a chance to reflect on the busy gaming season that was Holiday of 2020. I played a lot of great games, including Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order and The Outer Worlds, but the game that has stuck with me longest and has ingrained itself deepest into my psyche is undoubtedly Death Stranding. Hideo Kojima, director of Death Stranding, famously said prior to its release (in what would later become a meme) that Death Stranding is the first “strand”-type game. No one was sure what this meant, but it became apparent to me through hours of play and many late-night sessions on my couch exactly what Kojima intended. Death Stranding is a game about forming connections and bonds, being able to shake off social isolation and anxieties to accept the help, compassion, and friendship of those around you. Even the online aspects of this game lean forcefully into this mold – you never see other players, but you see their influence on your world, in bridges, ziplines, and holograms. Even calling out into the void will occasionally result in one of their voices greeting you back. Say what you will about Death Stranding, but it dealt with social issues and tensions that so few games have the boldness to tackle.
Fast forward a few weeks, and I found myself sitting on the same couch that I played Death Stranding on, but with a four-and-a-half year old sitting next to me. Gaming is such a keystone hobby of my life that I’ve taken measures to instill the same healthy habits into my son; namely, moderation and social interaction, combined with critical thinking skills derived from gaming that I feel shaped the person I am today. Each of us held a DualShock 4 in hand, diving into a charming indie title released in mid-December known as Wattam. Created by Keita Takahashi, better known as the progenitor of the Katamari Damacy series, Wattam follows anthropomorphic everyday items and shapes over small contained “worlds”, or platforms, each representing a season. The characters (and even the platforms on which you play) in Wattam bear the same silly faces and expressions familiar to fans of Katamari, as they explore their different abilities to help bring back their friends from lands unknown following some sort of vague apocalypse-style catastrophe that left their lives in fragments. You can control nearly any character in the game at any point, but only through utilizing each of their talents individually can you forge friendships between them and reform the society you once knew.
I joked on a recent episode of The Max Level Podcast that Wattam was the second strand-type game I’ve played recently, but not without at least a little conviction. It didn’t take long for me to draw the connection (or “strand”, as it were) between Death Stranding and Wattam, albeit a significant gap in the target audience. The particulars of the games were quite different, but the themes remained the same – this land destroyed bears no resemblance to what we once knew and loved, and the only way to reassemble the pieces is to come together and act as one. In Death Stranding, bunkers scattered throughout the landscape house “preppers” of varied ability, and bringing them back online rewards you with the fruits of their labors and intellect. In Wattam, much the same happens, but with mouths that chew, seeds that grow, fans that blow and bombs that explode. The speech bubbles even come in different languages depending on which “land” the item originated, and you see glimpses of English, Korean, Japanese, and Russian sprinkled throughout your journey. The collective effort of the many brings joy and reward to the one.
But beyond that – beyond uniting the four seasons under a common sun, beyond linking the waystations of remnants of the death stranding – I found that other links were being formed that I hadn’t entirely anticipated. My four-year-old played the entirety of Wattam by my side, nestled gently under his favorite fleece pizza-print blanket. From the moment we purchased the game to days after the credits rolled, he petitioned me daily to dive into the world of silly shapes, requests that would be hard to deny for even the busiest of fathers. But I discovered that he and I played games with different goals in mind and with different degrees of success. Most shocking, however, was that I think he had more success with Wattam than I did. My goals were as follows: complete an objective, identify the next objective, and discover the method of either completing it myself or explaining to my son how he should complete it. There was little difficulty in completing most of the objectives, with pictographs and speech bubbles abound to direct you towards your goal, but there was some variation in how you could actually complete each goal.
The boy’s mission differed from mine. While he shared some of my enthusiasm for completing objectives and finishing tasks, he also savored the free-play, limitless aspects of the game. He took his time exploring the different personalities, seeing how their abilities interacted with each other, and, of course, chewing food and pooping it out. He would frequently spend ten to fifteen minutes at a time roaming through the different seasons, climbing obstacles, and holding hands with other citizens and dragging them to his next act of whimsy. He found the greatest delight in gathering as many townsfolk as he could in a single place and lifting the hat of the mayor, causing an eruption not only of explosive material but also of laughter from both the characters and my son. To me, an aging father with increasingly limited recreational gaming, this seemed a waste of time, but to him, and seemingly to the inhabitants of Wattam, there may have been nothing so satisfying and enjoyable.
On not just one occasion did my child disobey my instructions to bring a certain character to a point in order to complete the at-hand objective. Instead, he would meander about with the character of his own desire, eventually making his way over to my location. “This is not the way”, I would think, in my counter-Mandalorian pragmatism, until, usually to my gape-mouthed surprise, he would solve the puzzle in a way I had never thought of. The combination of my forced efficiency with my aging mind of decreasingly playful antics had blinded me to solutions that were clear as day to the 4-year-old blossoming brain.
As our play sessions progressed, I found myself becoming more relaxed. I allowed more exploration of each character’s motives, but most importantly to my son’s own ambitions. We discovered things together that I surely would have never known about had I solitarily completed the story, and in the process, I learned more about how his mind works, what he thinks about when given freedom, and how his much younger eyes experience the world we live in. In creating the bonds within the game, transcending languages, uniting efforts, combining talents, I was somehow able to create a deeper bond outside of the game, a bond in some ways more sacred than any other; that between a father and his son.
The dawn of 2020 doesn’t bring just a new year, but it brings a new decade, and a lot can change in a decade. If the Kyle of January 2010 could see the Kyle of Today, I doubt he’d hardly recognize me – healthcare professional, part-time gamer and blogger, and married father of three. I don’t know how much of me will change in the coming ten years and what I personally will look like (hopefully maintaining my health and stability, happy in my forties, still doing what I love), and it’s hard to imagine it will change nearly as much as it has in the preceding ten, but I know that my son is entering some of the most formative years of his life. In ten years, he will grow from four to fourteen, in some ways the largest jump in age, maturity, and intellect a human can make. He will be a young teenager, probably learning to drive, entering high school, developing relationships and young romances, learning new languages, reading novels and writing essays. If the Kyle of Today could see my 14-year-old son of 2030, I may hardly recognize him, but in the meantime, I plan on giving earnest effort to deepen the bond we already hold and relish in the hobbies he and I share.
In 2020, you are going to have a lot of opportunities to form bonds with other players. If you read this, I urge you to take some time to select carefully those players you connect with. Open dialogues with family and friends and examine whether or not they would be interested in joining you through a co-op or competitive game session. Aside from the usual Minecraft I play with my son and the frequent Jackbox Party Pack game nights I host in my home, I plan to continue disappointing Bryan and Sean (both of leveldowngames.com and The Max Level Podcast) in our Dead by Daylight sessions, as well as Capcom’s Project Resistance multiplayer modes of Resident Evil 3. I intend to finish leveling and gearing a 49 twink mage in World of Warcraft Classic to relive the glory days of PvP with some of my closest and oldest friends. Most importantly, I aim to continue improving my son’s reading skills so that he can enjoy Lego Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga and create new friendships with the townspeople of Animal Crossing: New Horizons. My end target of this adventure will be to watch him, with my assistance, create new virtual relationships, hoping these memories last in his mind and our own, familial bond will be fortified in the process.