Summary: As Sam Porter Bridges you must reconnect and rebuild a broken America following a cataclysmic event known as the Death Stranding, which merged the worlds of the living and the dead.
There has been much said and written about how our society is more connected than it has ever been and yet somehow it can feel like we are more fractured and uncivil towards each other than any time in history. The information age has broken down barriers through the advent of social media to allow a never ending engagement among all of us in the world. One would think that this would benefit all of us, and yet as humans we’ve managed to twist such a gift into a platform to push each other away through ugliness, selfishness and rancor. Could it be that the closer we are as people the further we push each other away as a society? How can we turn this around? How can we turn the page and use these connections to each other again to make the world a better place for us all? This is the foundational thesis for Hideo Kojima’s Death Stranding, and while it may take a lot of looking to find this message, it is indeed there throughout the entire game. You just have to look a little bit deeper to find it.
As Death Stranding begins you find yourself in the role of Sam Bridges, a porter who travels the desolate landscape of a broken America on a mission to deliver goods and materials to a series of subterranean cities in an America ravaged by a cataclysmic event known as the Death Stranding. This event shattered the divide between the living and the dead and now stranded spirits known as BTs roam the world tethered to the land of the living and pose a grave threat to those who still remain. In addition to the BT threat, the Death Stranding brought with it a dangerous weather fallout known as Timefall. In the world of Death Stranding, rain itself has become a life threatening hazard. Anyone who comes into contact with rain experiences rapid age acceleration. Anything Timefall touches is affected by this accellaration including the cargo that Sam carries and even the land itself. This explains why there are no cities, streets or remnants of civilization remaining in America, as the Timefall has washed away the world of yesterday and overgrowth and nature have rapidly reclaimed anything that man built before the Death Stranding.
With the world in ruin and civilization scattered, sheltered and afraid, the game tasks you as Sam Bridges to travel from the East coast of America to the West, establishing connections with whatever life is left in an effort to rebuild America and unearth the secrets of the Death Stranding all while trying to survive as the souls of the lost push further into our world threatening everything we know.
So how does this all translate into a video game? Death Stranding’s mechanics as a video game are quite simple actually. The main principle of gameplay revolves around traversal of the world’s environment and it’s hazards. The game experience is a series of deliveries that you must make on your journey to the West. At the outset of each mission you are given a delivery request at a terminal. Someone at your current location needs you to bring something to a point (typically further West) and upon arrival you will hook that destination terminal up to a network which will continue the link across the country. While this sounds fundamentally simple, the challenge lies in optimizing your load out so that you are prepared for the journey ahead.
Sam is able to carry a heavy load of cargo on his back, on his shoulder and leg mounts, and even later in the game on a floating trolley that you can tether to your waistband. The puzzle of it all however comes in the fact that while more cargo and equipment aides you in your journey, it also weighs you down and makes traversing some landscapes incredibly difficult and can also make fighting or running from enemies much more challenging as well. As your load increases in weight Sam will react appropriately as gravity works against him. Too much weight on your back will cause your balance to be thrown off and will make traveling up steep slopes an active challenge. While you may think that bringing extra health and weaponry in your cargo will be beneficial, you must take into account the area in which you are traveling.
In addition to this mechanic Death Stranding introduces the Social Strand System. As Sam connects more cities across America to the network, the game itself opens the doors to other players of Death Stranding and merges their game world with yours. What this means is that any structures or tools you may place in the world, whether it’s ladders, climbing anchors, or even power generators will populate in other players’ games to assist them on their journey and vise versa. This not only introduces a cooperative game mechanic, but also is another manifestation of Kojima’s ideology that we as people can truly benefit from our connections to one another.
At the core of Death Stranding however I find myself drawn to the story Kojima is telling. Connections are everywhere, both in obvious and often blunt ways such as the connecting network, your key tool being ropes and bridges, but also in subversive ways as well. These subversive story elements hit me the most. The idea that we are not only connected to the people we know and the world we see, but those that we have left behind. Death Stranding’s world is grey and somber and there are many character moments and themes that convey the feeling of being tied to those we lost both in good ways and bad. We never truly say goodbye to those we lose, but what would happen if not saying goodbye actually tied you to the souls of the lost? Memories of our loved ones lost can make us stronger but can also anchor us to a past that we ultimately need to move on from.
There is a lot to learn from this game and a lot of beauty to be found in the tragedy of life and death. We are all connected, in this world and the next. It is up to us to choose which of these ties we should strengthen and secure, and which knots we should cut free. Video games like this stand tall in the medium as they take a bold stance and use every facet of their being to say something. This game has a voice unlike any I have heard before and it is truly something to behold. This is the beauty of Death Stranding.