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Death Stranding, One Year Later

It’s been a year since Hideo Kojima’s monumental comeback Death Stranding was released. Considering the current state of our pandemic stricken and politically anxious world, Death Stranding’s allegorical tale of human connection in the face of nationwide anxiety resonates especially loud on its one year anniversary. If 2002’s Metal Gear Solid 2 was Kojima warning us of a burgeoning surveillance state and mass disinformation campaigns, Death Stranding is instead Kojima at his most optimistic. By transforming the act of solo gameplay into a communal venture, Death Stranding reminds us that none of us are really alone, no matter how alienated the world may try to make us feel.

Special Delivery

After leaving Konami in 2015 due to internal disagreements within the company, Kojima embarked on a new partnership with Sony that would allow him and his old development team a level of financial and artistic freedom seldom seen in the industry. Anticipation for the first game by this newly rekindled Kojima Productions was at a fever pitch by the time Death Stranding was officially unveiled in June of 2016. But until review embargos were lifted, no one really knew what Death Stranding was going to be about. Its trailers were cryptic and gameplay footage was sparse. Even as the game’s final, 8-minute trailer came out just ten days before launch, we were left with more questions than answers. Fans were getting ready to pick up pre-orders for a game they knew next to nothing about. Death Stranding would have to speak for itself.

When we finally got to play it, we learned that Death Stranding casts the player as Sam Bridges, a “repatriate porter” — a kind of semi-immortal delivery man tasked with saving America/the planet. The game’s main enemies are the BTs, homicidal spirits from the afterlife that create nuclear explosions upon killing a human. Along with the BTs, all falling rain water is seemingly cursed, rapidly aging anything it touches, both biological and manmade. Most of humanity has thus been forced indoors by these invisible, life threatening forces in the air — a dynamic that now feel eerily prescient.

Sam has two main tasks in this apocalyptic world. The first is to reactivate the broken “Chiral Network” outposts across the country. The Chiral Network is the game world’s advanced version of the internet, in which digital data can be 3D printed into physical matter such as buildings, vehicles, and weapons. America’s surviving political leaders believe this will be the key to fighting the BTs and bring humanity back from the brink of despair. Sam’s other role is to deliver life-saving supplies to any of the isolated survivors you meet along the way. Communes are few and far between, many of them having lived in radio silence for years since the BTs ruined the Chiral Network. Sam’s supply drops bring medicine, protection, and hope. 

The game thus revolves around getting Sam from Point A to B and back again with little to defend yourself from the enemies and elements blocking your path. As the game progresses you slowly grow your arsenal of weapons and traversal equipment, helping you reach areas that were previously inaccessible. In Kojima’s hands, the fetch quest is thus transformed from unimportant side mission to the primary gameplay loop, rewarding you with narrative developments and new gear along the way.

death stranding structure

Strands and Things of That Nature

Death Stranding is the first game in Kojima’s self-proclaimed “Strand Genre.” But the only reference to the Strand Genre in the game itself is on the back of the physical edition’s case, which reads: “FORMING CONNECTIONS WITHIN THE WORLD AND BEYOND, [DEATH STRANDING’S] “SOCIAL STRAND SYSTEM” USHERS IN THE NEW “STRAND GAME” GENRE!” As I understand it, a “Strand Game” is any game defined by a prominent, asynchronous, online multiplayer component that holds a significant thematic and/or technical role in the game. Some games that could be said to have Social Strand Systems are Persona 5 with its Thieves Guild system, FromSoftware’s Souls series and its Message System, and Nier: Automata with regards to its final act. In all of these games, players share statistics, items, or simply messages (both positive and negative) to other players on the server without ever seeing these people in-game. 

The decision to market Death Stranding as a Strand game was obviously a controversial one, drawing the ire of purists who thought it too pretentious to suggest a new genre could be invented in the medium in 2019. But choosing to define Death Stranding in this way is justified early on in the game. What first appears to be a ladder left by the developer as a tutorial turns out to be an aid purposefully dropped by a previous Death Stranding player in your server. The game implies these were left by previous porters during a job, rather than multiple Sams across multiple dimensions. Thus, the developer’s hopes are that you’ll craft your own equipment, build shortcuts, and leave the gear behind for other less experienced players to get an advantage. This is the game’s most frequent implementation of its Social Strand System. 

Kojima’s decision to use “Strand” as a catch-all term throughout the game can be a little confusing at times. Strand refers to the name of the non-lethal lasso Sam carries with him, it’s the surname of America’s terminally ill president, it’s the name of the genre, etc. But Kojima’s liberal reinterpretation of the English language is by no means new ground. His last game, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain dealt with the concept of language as a tool that can both control and be controlled

Clearly, Kojima is acutely aware of how he’s twisting certain words to mean something different for the sake of his narrative. Sticks are improved to become rope, guns get referred to as keys — throughout Death Stranding we don’t only see words get deconstructed to their core etymology but also material objects have their physical attributes broken down into sets of symbols. These symbols then end up having a newfound physical usage in their world that relates to their symbolic meaning; a new object is created by acknowledging the word’s dual nature — not only its literal definition.

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Happy Trails

As a result of Sam’s unique role, delivering items needs to carry the same emotional weight to the player as it does to Sam’s world; the Social Strand System helps achieve this. I recall one particularly powerful mission that was devoid of dialogue but nonetheless left a deep impression on me.

I was tasked with reaching the world’s snow capped, BT-infested mountains for the first time, a trip that took me around 45 minutes to complete. My stamina and equipment deteriorated at an alarming rate in the snow, and I moved far more slowly. I was starting to get a little frustrated in my lack of progress when I found a shortcut left by another player that helped bring me to an angle where I better understood how to get around the terrain. From there, I walked until my boots had totally deteriorated. As I reached a large clearing, one of the game’s many Low Roar tracks slowly faded into the mix, drowning out the ambient sounds of harsh winds and Sam’s breathing. The moment felt cinematic. The journey was a reward in itself. 

Death Stranding’s narrative covers a wide array of heavy themes by the time the credits roll: the traumas of war, the dangers of nationalism, the struggle of the alienated worker in a late stage capitalist society. It’s a single player game that never lets you feel alone. Whether it’s your teammates who are just a short radio call away or the echoes of anonymous porters lending a helping hand, the game never lets a moment pass by where you feel as if you’ve been abandoned. Even when we’re apart, Death Stranding tells us, we’re in this together.

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