Building Bridges for Strangers in Death Stranding

~ essay on Hideo Kojima’s Death Stranding (2019/2021).

Welcome to Death Stranding.

Game dev auteur, cinephile, and visionary mastermind for the 21st century — Hideo Kojima — has constructed yet another masterpiece. Related yet separate in its ideas and gameplay to past work in the stealth action genre his teams practically originated, Death Stranding leaves its own mark as a next generation title that truly feels like it.

~ I played through the 2021 Director’s Cut version of Death Stranding, at long last.

~ Relaxing Death Stranding music ~

First things first, Death Stranding is a weird, weird game. In a good way. It’s described by Kojima as a “Strand” game — a new type of experience centering human connection not just as a narrative hook but as a core gameplay element. Strands form between players through the open world paths they walk and the buildings they construct. These interconnections are solidified with a legacy of ladders and lost cargo, bolstered by “Likes” and shared upgrades and digital holograms that vocally encourage (“Keep on keeping on!”) and remind (“Rest is advised.”) everyone passing through.

Death Stranding is indeed part “walking simulator” — and can feel like a challenging chore to play at points. Have you ever tried to walk over a mountain while carrying a shitload of boxes on your back? It’s hard, grueling labor, involving the real work of adapting to a harsh environment. And that is what this game is all about at the end of the day. Though not a particularly difficult game, Death Stranding’s mixed critical reviews are definitely the product of its ambitiously unorthodox style as a novel type of game. This is not a third-person shooter, or a stealth game like Metal Gear Solid, though it definitely carries such DNA. It is a traveling game, with horror and action elements alike. You are a superpowered mailman with weapons training and it is your job to deliver packages, build roads, and survive. It’s weirdly cool.

The first independent development (of hopefully many) from Kojima Productions after their messy break with Konami, the experience blends the realism and tightly-controlled 3rd-person action from the venerable Metal Gear series they left behind with a whole new core gameplay objective: moving earth. In Death Stranding, you are a porter — someone that moves packages across the now-devastated landscape of America. Your character — Sam Porter Bridges — is ultimately tasked with trying to help the surviving people get the resources they need while both rebuilding vital infrastructure such as roads and bridges AND socially reconnecting their private enclaves to one another via a new kind of Internet — “The Chiral Network.” Sam freelances for Bridges, a logistics company committed to reforming a fractured USA.

Sam and BB
The Bridges logo of a spiderweb covering the US was always a bit unnerving…

Death Stranding provides a vast open world of complex geography. You will walk over steppes, rivers, and mountains full of isolated bunkers, through bases of Mad Max-ian raiders and zones of daemonic beings that haunt the dystopian afterscape from beyond the veil of death — and are the secret source behind the apocalypse itself. Sam, your player character, is equipped with special “DOOMS” powers that allow him to combat these threats on his own. You are essentially what I have coined “a cosmic mailman.”

Somewhere along the way through my 60-odd hour playthrough, I arrived at the conclusion that the game is a masterpiece. Death Stranding is detailed, refined and utterly *cinematic.* It expresses a vital narrative centering themes of reconnection and hope amidst environmental destruction and social collapse. Much like its Metal Gear predecessors, the cutscenes are long and fantastical and beautifully melodramatic. The gameplay itself is tight and *eventually* quite satisfying; there are some gnarly boss monsters that are a joy to fight. Your long travels over the wastes and in between the small pockets of civilization will lead you across gorgeous landscapes and into surprising philosophical realms. Thought-provoking memes about technological automation, the prospect of human extinction, and what it really means to be connected in an increasingly divided world are transmitted over the course of Sam’s harrowing journey through what is left of America.

I enjoyed seeing where each mission would take Sam next, and what the delivery would mean for this world.

Here are the most important memes Kojima and co. have communicated to me in my playing of Death Stranding: Director’s Cut (2021).

My Steam review of Death Stranding: Director’s Cut (2021)
~ Kojima interview on Death Stranding, Metal Gear Solid 2 and predicting the future.

A Mystic Apocalypse

Death Stranding is a science fiction story about living through an extinction event.

The titular “Death Stranding” itself describes the apocalyptic phenomena that made the ruined world we see at the start of the game. It was “the series of supernatural events in the world of the eponymous game. Beginning with simultaneous explosions around the world, the Death Stranding resulted in the world of the dead and living becoming connected, with drastic consequences for human society and the ecosystem.”

title drop!
Evangelion vibes.

The resulting world that Sam Porter Bridges traverses is rife with the violent — and downright spooky — aftereffects of this interconnection between the realms of the living and the dead, with large swaths of the environment and basically all former civilization wiped out. Remnants of humanity live in locked private enclaves, in warehouses and research stations and little remote bases where the few remaining people pursue independent projects and only speak through holograms.

Invisible “BT” (Beached thing) creatures made of antimatter haunt the landscape and threaten to snatch the souls of the living they can detect via sound; ironically, BTs are the ghosts of human beings that died post-Death Stranding and are now trapped between worlds. Necrosis and annihilative voidouts are the constant remaining threats of this hollowed out world — and they make every life lost a potential nuclear event. Sam is aided in his quests over the dangerous lands by a cute little experimental fetus called a “BB” (Bridge Baby), that can detect BTs via its own ambiguous psychic connection to the underworld where they spawn from.

Lou becomes a valued companion as you venture together across the dangerous landscape.

Sam is a “Repatriate” (i.e. he’s effectively immortal). Whereas others are transformed into BTs when they voidout — he’s returned to the world of the living unharmed and with his soul intact. But that’s not to say death has no consequence; in the gameplay, if Sam “dies” the subsequent voidout still nukes the surroundings where he fell, destroying everything there and making an impassable crater in the area.

Kojima asks: What if a human soul could be split like an atom?

In sum, our apocalypse was *mystic* and now cosmic mailman Sam and sexy jumper Fragile and others must try to pick up the pieces. Using nifty, customizable weapons and 3D printing technology and your own supernatural DOOMS powers — you are up to the task. Over this apocalyptic afterscape, rebuilding the USA as the “UCA” — the United Cities of America — comes as the core narrative arc of Death Stranding. Your mission objectives as Sam will include walking and running and driving and span stealth to action to survival horror in scope.

~ Sam Meets Fragile For The First Time
~ Sam traversing the elemental landscapes of an America returned to nature. There are no trees left, only craters and lakes of black tar and snow that can melt your skin.
~ Past Kojima themes such as the threat of a sentient A.I. are disregarded in place of more paranormal perils and metaphors for climate apocalypse.

Paralleling Kojima’s prior obsessive fears of nuclear apocalypse, Death Stranding takes the conception further and spiritualizes it, with heavy climate metaphors to boot.

What if the realm of the living and dead were brutally antagonistic toward one another? What happens if the veil between living and dead souls were broken, or melded? What if human beings shared a lucid, unconscious under-realm — The Beach — and we could actually go there to draw knowledge and power from it, bringing such energy back into our world to use for good or ill? What if there were living, breathing “Extinction Entities” borne to bring about the end-times for each era of the planet’s history?

(Sci-fi technobabble, who cares?)

Maybe. Most relevantly, in Death Stranding’s gameplay, such precarious physical x metaphysical circumstances make it clear that killing human enemies is off the table. Every lethal maneuver could trigger an annihilation event in the form of a nuclear kaiju being birthed within seconds from the perished human soul. Sam’s weapons are mostly non-lethal as a result — shock and bola guns, stun grenades and assault rifles that shoot your special blood instead of bullets, your fists, etc. They are all quite satisfying to use and you will need to be smart enough to deploy them efficiently as you deal with both your human and shinigami-esque enemies. BTs, on the other hand, can be safely killed with Sam’s DOOMS-blood-infused guns or ‘hematic’ grenades — but it’s not so easy a task and requires the careful preparation befitting a boss fight.

With the world and monster design, Death Stranding makes clear real world comparisons to human-caused climate apocalypse; the pitch black liquid-filled BTs literally look like they are made of oil. The symbol of the beached whale — a clear and tragic sign of environmental degradation — makes its chilling appearance throughout the game as a motif. And some of those “beached” whales will even try to kill you!

The concept of a Sixth Extinction is enthusiastically spoken to by the villainous Higgs, a certifiably doompilled DOOMS user that opposes your quest of civilized reconnection and does everything in his power to bring about such an extinction through strategic terrorism.

Extinction-level stakes and world-shaking philosophical inquiry? Ah, then it’s no wonder that Death Stranding takes place entirely in the United States of America — the center of the Universe according to every major movie of the last 100 years. Remember how much Kojima loves movies?

In classic Kojima fashion, he both critiques and glorifies the United States in Death Stranding. As a symbol — to him, to its citizens, to the world — the U.S. signifies democracy and Hollywood, imperial might and charismatic power. The USA is the paradoxical hope of advanced civilization — a still-young, rebel breakaway nation founded with liberty as its cornerstone that nevertheless wallows in blood, exploitation and conquest. Like in the Fallout universe, the perceived survival of the President into the post-apocalyptic land carries real, absurd emotional weight for the remaining citizens trying to rebuild and unable to forget the pull of the Commander-in-Chief’s propagandized cult of personality. Though the rest of the world’s fate remains uncertain, Sam’s journey of rebuilding and reconnecting America with information and resource sharing seems to hold the all-inclusive promise of “saving the world.” Oh Kojima, you freakish Ameriboo.

Ultimately, with Death Stranding, Kojima and his co-creators beg insightful questions like: the forces of nature’s revenge may overpower humanity, but can we come together with resin, metal, ceramic, chemical — and social — technology to combat such extinctive pressure?

Can we reverse our self-imposed apocalyptic path and save ourselves?

After all, more than anything else it was our tech and our ability to cooperate en masse that separated Mankind in the animal kingdom, enabling our evolution into apex organism on the planet.

Death Stranding says “yes, we can save ourselves” — but only through heartfelt reconnection pairing with that righteously innovative spirit that has taken the species this far.

Strands and Samaritans and Interconnected Experiences

Now, please enjoy the latest Death Stranding trailer.

As much or more than the graphics, the hyper-real in-engine physics, the mocap cutscenes of painstaking human and technical performance, or the real-time weather environments — to me, what makes Death Stranding such a next generation statement of a game is the “Strand” system. Intuitive and quite satisfyingly laid out over the course of the game, it truly does allow for a new kind of experience for players.

In effect, Death Stranding is a single player game with unique and ever-relevant passive multiplayer elements. Importantly, it’s an artistic vision that can only be experienced within a video game environment.

This is a hallmark of Kojima’s career and, from my perspective, the impetus of ALL his games. An impressive level of creativity was applied to each installment in the Metal Gear series so as to never retread the same ground with regard to mechanics or systems; though similar in genre, narrative themes — and certainly fun factor — Kojima’s games always provide uniquely strange sensations for a player, often via never before conceived mechanics (and accurate future real-world predictions).

With a well-informed read of Metal Gear’s tumultuous development history, you find this sense of novelty in each game within the saga was as much a result of fan expectations as it was from Kojima’s own frustrated tedium in being called back to remake the game again and again by Konami, his then commercial overlord.

It should thus surprise few that Death Stranding is no different in its originality. This is especially true given the game is Kojima’s first *independent* production, apparently freed from limiting beliefs and market-directed restraints. For all intents and purposes, Death Stranding would be Kojima’s most imaginatively free production. And there’s no better symbol for that than the many gameplay mechanics centering the interconnections between players.

Though you play alone as Sam in this dystopian landscape, primarily using your back and legs to complete package deliveries of everything from metals and medicines to anti-BT weaponry, old PlayStation consoles, and live, experimental insects — you have indirect help in the form of the “Social Strand System.”

An asynchronous multiplayer feature — not that unlike the messages and ghostly apparitions of other players in FromSoftware’s Souls series — Strands make their presence known through foreign assets left behind from other players’ experiences and past paths over the landscape. Loose cargo, ropes and ladders, inspiring holograms and music, and tons of functional infrastructure upgrades to your world’s environment are all in play and titled with usernames and profile pics. They get left behind, or consciously constructed, in your world by other players doing their own concurrent playthrough in their own game worlds.

The Strand system provides a bridge between Death Stranding experiences, ultimately building a collective shared world between discrete groups of players. In gameplay terms, it means your travels become more effective and efficient by way of your fellow players’ previous paths; in narrative terms, it means you are not the only one out there trying to rebuild and reconnect the world.

Our paths through the world are proof we exist.

Roads and bridges, power generators and the oh-so-precious “timefall shelters” are shared between worlds, along with every other kind of structure that eventually becomes available to you as Sam. Dotted across the countryside, you’ll find other players’ packages lost to raging rivers and BT encounters, or stolen by MULEs or shook loose from mountain falls. Your Death Stranding experience will bleed into other worlds too. The core infrastructure of your UCA will be shared from the beginning to end of your playthrough, continuously contributed by a small community of fellow Sam’s.

This reciprocal shared experience eventually becomes commonplace but is never unwelcome. I’ve never seen anything quite like it in a game.

For example, you arrive upon an unfinished road, with more than half the materials already invested by others and then decide to finish it off for everyone with your own stores of metal and ceramic, continuing on your mission afterward. Elsewhere, you sneak your way through a BT-infested rocky outcropping to reach the weather station and deliver a package, drenched in time-accelerating rain, and come across a timefall shelter to take refuge in, instantly restoring your deteriorating package coverings to full strength while some mesmerizing post-rock plays. Pre-built zip-lines going up and down a snowy mountaintop feels especially good, with other players’ past work instantly making your journey more efficient, saving you the arduous climb.

Such instances as those described above abound from my experience. With every road and bridge and shared locker filled with obtainable boots, weapons, and vehicles given by others — Sam is, in fact, never truly alone in the American wastes.

Sleepy Joe!
Mountain graffiti and a shared ladder in Death Stranding.
~ My 268-like and counting strategically-placed power generator with a hologram of a cyberpunk-duck.

You can show your appreciation for these Strand structures, gifted cargo, and hologram messages by hitting select on the controller to “Like” it, ala the well-known social media economy. You can do it as many times as you want during a short timer. Your own stuff will accumulate likes that you can proudly view from the start menu; the number of structures you upgrade — whether you made them or someone else did — along with the lost packages delivered back to base for other players to pick up will contribute to your overall Porter Grade, marking you further and further as a master of your craft of cosmic mailmanhood.

Every loose package picked up even restores some stamina, a morale boost for choosing to help someone you don’t know and cannot see.

~ My Overall Porter Grade and endgame statistics from my Death Stranding playthrough.

The Strand system achieves what Kojima set out for by making the player part and parcel of a greater whole that you can feel, experience, and use. Just by playing the game and traveling the world, you will feel uncannily connected to other Sam’s by utilizing their structures and listening to their chosen music and viewing their Horizon Zero Dawn hologram they set up to play upon your approach. There’s a well-defined incentive to work together, with every building aiding yourself and others. Such interconnected cooperation is paramount to the goal of the game; thus, the practice of “Good Samaritanism” becomes a practical principle shared by every player of Death Stranding.

This is an apocalypse after all. You’ll need all the help you can get.

The game’s core flow and challenge — rebuilding a shattered world — means building bridges for strangers becomes second nature. On a deeper level, I believe an experience like Death Stranding shows that humanity’s core instinct is to help, especially in times of crisis. And that’s a beautiful thing indeed.

Sam suffers from “Aphenphosmphobia” – a fear of intimacy, of being touched.

Next Generation Kojima Cinema

By design, Kojima’s games have always felt like movies.

A lover of cinema more than any other art form (probably even video games lol), Kojima self-describes as a cinephile whose body is made up of “70% movies.”

Death Stranding is no different. And more than ever, perhaps due to his freedom from Konami’s clutches and an enhanced budget borne of legendary successes past, Kojima goes absolutely ballistic with this game. In the design of characters, technology, and worldbuilding for this story, Kojima and team illustrate unparalleled imaginative force.

I think I can say with confidence that Death Stranding is the most *cinematic* game experience I’ve yet seen.

(Unsurprisingly — some of its only rivals in my book are from the Metal Gear series, namely Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots and Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain.)

Despite the weighty, apocalyptic themes, Death Stranding’s narrative is supremely character-focused, just like every Metal Gear game. Intriguing characters with strange names and stranger proclivities are met by Sam and provide some of the best cutscenes in gaming history.

Hollywood superstars (and bonafide sexgods😍) like Mads Mikkelsen and Léa Seydoux play principal roles, with the lovely Margaret Qualley, the animated Troy Baker, the solid Tommie Earl Jenkins, and the dramatically beautiful Lindsay Wagner rounding out the main cast. The digital puppets (but not acting or voice work) of serious film directors Nicolas Winding Refn and Guillermo Del Toro also play vital roles. Norman Reedus, the badass archer from The Walking Dead, is the face and body you spend the most time with, the cool, strong, nearly silent type with a grim voice that will make you feel like the lone wolf you are.

~ Behind the Scenes — Death Stranding [Making of]

Altogether, the cast of Death Stranding delivers true acting performances via motion capture (mocap) technology, with Mads and Léa standing out the most as your primary antagonist and ally, respectively — Clifford Unger and Fragile.

From left to right: Bridget Strand (played by Lindsay Wagner), Higgs Monaghan (Troy Baker), Sam Porter Bridges (Norman Reedus), Fragile (Léa Seydoux), Heartman (Nicolas Winding Refn/Darren Jacobs), Clifford Unger (Mads Mikkelsen), Die-Hardman (Tommie Earl Jenkins), Målingen “Mama” (Margaret Qualley), Dr. Rougeot “Deadman” Melillo (Guillermo del Toro/Jesse Corti)

Honestly, the less that is said about the characters the better — this is a game and story truly meant to be experienced.

I think it’s clear that Kojima has mastered gaming as cinema. Incredibly, every cutscene and gameplay moment of Death Stranding provides worthy cinematography; another innovation marking it as a true next-gen experience is the robust photo mode, similar to other transcendently cinematic experiences such as 2018’s Spider-Man and Red Dead Redemption II.

Excellent graphics round out a complete presentation, including a great soundtrack of Kojima faves that fit the gravely melancholic mood of the game. Tunes from LOW ROAR and Silent Poets and Apocalyptica mark your journey over the landscape, instilling your steps with the cinematic weight only this kind of music can deliver.

Death Stranding OST

All this means that Death Stranding is quite pretty to look at — and screenshot. Look upon my works and rejoice!

Death Stranding and Extinction vs. Evolution

I’ve never seen anything like Death Stranding before. But it reveals a world and tells a story as old as time itself.

Extinction versus Evolution.

The mere prospect of Extinction automatically implies the possibility of Evolution. Thus, Death Stranding, in the end, is a game as much about adaptation, the ability of the human race to adapt to apocalyptic conditions and reorganize the direction of the species’ action on the planet to survive. The people of the UCA have survived to rebuild more than a modicum of civilization.

These ideas from the game — about the world as we know it “ending” and changing — put me into Today. Right now. In the real world and reflecting on the very serious change and chaos that seems to be coming our way. We are talking climate disasters, accelerating capitalist crises with the stock market funny money and supply chains and work forces starting to starve, religious fascism and violent state-sanctioned backlash against gender freedoms, increasing political polarization with action behind it, stochastic terrorism, racism, sexism, school shootings, etc. etc.

The days and the hearts in our chests are each getting hotter. Unhealthily so. We are in trouble. I don’t know if we can learn to cooperate as a society. We are ready to tear each other apart; the rich are prepared to let the poor die and betray the world to flooding and fire. I don’t know how we are going to turn this around.

When will we wake up and DO something, to fix the problems at their source? What will it take to start to use our resources – profits be damned – to help people survive and build a future for the next generations?

How many people see what is happening and are ready to change course, to reconnect and engage with the reality that we need each other!

We can’t get through the crises without the labor and the fight and the creative spirit of one another. As communities and nations, of scientists and porters and the builders of the world, as workers and thinkers and community leaders — we must unite to see a future. Compassion and Connections not only make life worth living, they allow us a chance to live at all.

Stand together or die alone. This is socialism or barbarism, Communism or fascism.

Hope versus despair.

The eternal battle between Evolution and Extinction rages on, as of yet undecided.

So yeah, the premise of human life persisting on planet Earth after human souls turned to nuclear bombs means Death Stranding gives Evolution its due in the duel against Extinction. The creators of the game seem to believe we can make it after all, at least for a little while longer.

Thus, a proper conclusion to this essay would be to say: Death Stranding is a game carrying deeply meaningful messages about evolution and social interconnectedness and the power of the human spirit.

But also, writing this — while listening to the low-roaring music from the game — has made me realize how much the creation of art redeems humanity.

Music and movies and gorgeous motion capture cutscenes in an open world survival game where you can’t kill people and must fight chimeras made of oil with a baby hugged to your chest for a future that is as uncertain as your own.

^ This is the good stuff. The beauty.

And it makes me want to rebel, to survive, to fight for a future with my own two hands and as many words as I can muster. It makes me want to help my species Evolve; it makes me want to build bridges to strangers because that is how we do so.

We build a world and try to fill it with beauty. That’s what art is. And we have to hope that side of us wins out in the end and avoids Extinction. At least for a little while longer.

Anyway, that’s what I thought of Death Stranding. These were some of the memes I received. Thank you Kojima Productions.

Tomorrow is in our hands. ~

Life rebelled … evolved … to survive.
~ art by Braven燃鸦