“What does America mean to you?” It’s a question that comes somewhat late into Death Stranding, which spends its opening hours repeating that America is a fine place and worth fighting for. In context, it’s a question that emanates from a rather odd place, spoken as it is by a character, Fragile, who’s voiced by Léa Seydoux with her distinctive French lilt. And it’s asked of a man, Sam (Norman Reedus), who’s worshipped in much of the quote-unquote “real” America for his role in its most popular and unsubtly xenophobic television show on basic cable. Finally, it’s being asked in a game spearheaded by Hideo Kojima, that preeminent auteur game designer who will always come at such queries as an outsider. It’s a small, strange, and dissonant moment that would be off-putting and too on the nose if Death Stranding wasn’t a game that revels in strangeness and dissonance like absolutely nothing else in recent memory.
For this writer’s part, as a black man living in the America of the present, of all the complex thoughts I have about my country—good, bad, and indifferent—there’s one obvious and urgent image that instantly came to mind while playing Death Stranding: the moment, precisely three years before the day I loaded up the game, that Donald J. Trump was elected president of the United States. It isn’t all the nauseating factors, psychosocial and otherwise, that played into the country’s decision that most sticks in my mind. It’s not even my wife’s midnight anxiety attack at the idea of what was to come. It’s the map, specifically CNN’s map of election results by district. It’s about how every major metropolitan area showed up as a deep vein of blue pockmarking a vast, sparse, but undeniable ocean of red. Especially for a black man raised in urban areas, whose blood pressure rises when he’s the only brown face in a room, let alone a town or state, that map was a manifestation of my deepest racial fears. When Fragile asks what America means, my recollection felt inevitable.
It’s with all that in mind that Death Stranding’s version of that map—all in futuristic, neon blue, dotted by white sparkles representing the last remnants of America—is the most frightening thing in the game. But the connective tissue of Death Stranding’s America was devastated by something much more bloodcurdling and coldly efficient than Trump. A dimensional cataclysm—the eponymous Death Stranding—has collided the land of the dead with the land of the living, demolishing the very physics of the world we know. The soil is rotten, the ground has gone black, the sun no longer provides warmth, and the rain ages and kills anything it touches.
Most chilling of all, the dead no longer move on, but become desperate, clawing ghouls whose attempts to reclaim their own flesh can cause atomic explosions called voidouts. Peoples’ main line of defense against them comes from stillborn and premature babies kept alive in pods only because they get fussy when an attack is imminent. Those people who remain alive have huddled into underground cities called Knots, with a few stray doomsday preppers and weird loners still trying to make it out there in the wasteland all on their own, across an American landscape that more closely resembles the alien marshes in Ridley Scott’s Prometheus than amber waves of grain. And it’s all brought to life with a photorealism unparalleled in the medium of games.
Death Stranding represents a rather powerful and unique display of apocalyptic world-building. And yet it’s hard not to get the vague sense of it as a convenient excuse for Kojima to not have to truly build or recognize an America resembling what it currently is, at least not in the way that a game like The Last of Us uses American iconography as its backdrop. But then, unlike most stories of its sort, Death Stranding isn’t really interested in the shorthand verisimilitude of America Without People than the damaged soul beneath. The cursed Earth between cities is truly cursed in this game, and Kojima and his band of developers have evoked rural America as a very real visual nightmare. This is a half-crazed tone poem about an isolated and hostile nation, clinging to concepts of what life means that should no longer matter in the wake of disaster.
To wit, it’s an appropriate, yet still bewildering, choice in the current gaming landscape that Death Stranding is, with all the subtextual flesh boiled off, a postal-service hiking simulator. You play as Sam, a taciturn delivery man, or porter, whose job it is to brave the wasteland on foot, carting supplies, communications, and creature comforts to and from cities and settlements. This is no Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture or Gone Home, though, and as breathtakingly detailed as everything in this game is, that detail is actively the enemy when it comes to the core gameplay. This is a game of constant, real-world concerns: How much can you carry while still being functional enough to walk miles across uneven, ragged terrain? How should you balance yourself? What supplies can you strap on? Will you be able to climb a steep cliff, or should you risk carrying a ladder?
All of those problems are just what players have to deal with in the best of conditions. When it’s less than ideal, the aforementioned rain problem can cause the packages you carry to rust and decay. The dead still float around waiting to take Sam under in chiral matter-heavy areas, and the game’s pedigree as the product of the Metal Gear Solid studio shows here in tense, effective little stretches where players must stealthily maneuver the territory of the dead, while overloaded with cargo, and avoiding the ghosts that scream for your flesh.
Death Stranding is built on complex systems designed to do the sort of simple things that are taken for granted in other games. Unlike something like Red Dead Redemption 2, however, those systems aren’t getting in the way of the action; they are the action. Death Stranding is less about creating a fun experience so much as a gratifying one, a meditative and repetitive proceeding where the satisfaction comes from finding ways to make the process more efficient. The game is never harder than in its first few hours, where Sam is essentially defenseless, and players have no idea how their next steps might affect their cargo.
The more Sam travels, the more he connects and opens up supply lines around the country, and the more comfortable the journey becomes. Scientists and engineers constantly work on ways to help Sam carry more, move faster, and defend himself against the dead. Death Stranding is also a game with a social contract. Taking it online allows players to build structures, leave helpful items, and pour collective resources into infrastructure allowing people to move safely and rapidly around the country. Even more than your average Civilization title, it’s easier here to notice and appreciate how many hands make for light work in America.
Still, if Sam being, essentially, a one-man FedEx wasn’t so deeply tied into the thematic structure of Death Stranding, the man who made his career on military stealth games making his magnum opus based around one-day delivery would feel like the ultimate troll, and it’s a known fact by now that Kojima isn’t above such a thing. But Death Stranding is also forcing players to truly think about the sheer logistical effort involved in a real-world task so commonplace and ubiquitous, something first-world people don’t do nearly often enough. Probably the closest Kojima truly gets to straight-up commentary is a tribe of NPCs made up of former postmen, put out of a job by automation, driven hostile and bitter as the human element of their jobs become suddenly relevant again and the government comes asking for their help. There are big deliveries that advance the story, of course: One city may need medicine and vaccines, while another may need experimental data about the dead things to maybe synthesize weapons. One of the biggest deliveries early on has you secretly delivering an extremely important corpse to an incinerator before it can cause a voidout.
It’s the smaller tasks that give Death Stranding its poignancy. The Stranding resets the hierarchy of needs for America in a hurry, and every delivery has a story—a history, a future, or an immediate deep-seated need. Sam’s journey brings him into contact with an America boiled down to its most basic desires, and they’re quite often heartbreakingly simplistic. It’s simultaneously depressing to posit that we’d need this enormous scale of loss to reach these moments of clarity, but there’s power in the simple human beauty of them.
But, of course, this is a Hideo Kojima game, as the credits are none too shy about reminding us. Dotted across Death Stranding’s every minute are the hallmarks of a director, writer, and designer who hasn’t met a wild urge he hasn’t moved heaven and Earth to indulge. This is, in execution, a game of dissociative identity, one that has a bleak, mournful, and spiritual allegory to tell, but also has a main character named Die-Hardman (Tommie Earl Jenkins) who wears a skull mask. Sam must drink branded Monster Energy to keep his stamina up. The entire story of Death Stranding is represented in his private room by a tiny diorama of army men. And every big-name director that Kojima admires has a role in the game. It’s absolutely corpulent with explanations, backstories, overlong cutscenes, and granular deep-dives into the science of it all. It’s hard not to stand in awe of the bravado involved in including all that ancillary material, but the game works perfectly fine without it.
As per usual, much of the optional reading material and winking references come across as endearingly nerdy, a sign of sheer passion and enthusiasm for these things than anything else. Much like Quentin Tarantino’s love of anachronistic film music and casting actors long past their heyday in major roles, Kojima has no interest in fully removing players from the mindset that Death Stranding is still a video game, despite couching its presentation in the entirety of cinema’s toolkit, including an impressive and singular collection of Hollywood faces from both sides of the camera in the cast. It’s a game that still includes space for fun and joy within that framework—there are several low-stakes tasks to take on, like delivering beer brewed by hops aged by the rain, and trips to meet comic-relief NPCs, among them Conan O’Brien’s otter cosplayer—and also like Tarantino, Kojima knows when it’s time to put away childish things to lampshade the mood.
But perhaps the most important question that ultimately matters here is what exactly does America mean to Kojima? Death Stranding has no interest in trying to replicate an American viewpoint on the end of America. His is inescapably a Japanese perspective on the matter, a point that becomes more and more blatant as the game’s true plot starts to resemble End of Evangelion more than a Cormac McCarthy novel. The America that Sam treks across is more of an abstract watercolor painting than a photograph, and throughout, Kojima draws on America’s fury. He has minor characters voice the idea that the government screwed it all up, that men need to provide for their families, the foreigners and the robots took our jobs, we lost it all because we lost Jesus, and so on and so forth. He draws on its infinite need for progress, that science is necessary, that marginalized populations matter, and may yet save us, as long as we empower everyone to succeed, without exception.
There are tiny, impactful allegories strewn all over the place in the game, particularly in a running plotline involving a former soldier, Cliff (Mads Mikkelsen), who’s forced to relive every American war in the afterlife. But Kojima’s interest in the minutiae of these things is small, something most egregious in his continued inability to write women outside of staid archetypes. But to his credit, the main female characters here are more nuanced and fascinating than usual for him—something no doubt hammered home by featuring massive talents like Lindsay Wagner, Léa Seydoux, and Margaret Qualley so prominently. But it’s still apparently difficult for Kojima to conceive of women having the same range of involvement in the fabric of America as men, and that weakness is more and more noticeable as the game starts to circle in on its ultimate thesis.
That thesis, as one might expect, is the idea that Americans have more that connects than divides them, which might ring alarm bells about the game possibly being a “both sides” narrative at the worst time in history for that mindset to be valid. But this isn’t a story willing to let everyone off that easily. Despite its problems, Death Stranding is ultimately a game about toil. (There’s a famous Scottish quote about working as if you live in the early days of a better nation that comes to mind here.) This is a game that values your work. It respects the people that each tiny sparkling dot on that cursed map represents, the need of those people to connect with others to survive, and the fact that that space between matters as well. It posits life as crucial and ultimately in service to other life, whether we want to be indebted to others or not. For all of Death Stranding’s surrealness, the most powerful statement it winds up making is that this work is worthwhile, even at the bitter end.
This game was reviewed using a retail PlayStation 4 copy purchased by the reviewer.
Developer: Kojima Productions Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: November 8, 2019 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood, Intense Violence, Partial Nudity, Strong Language Buy: Game
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