A DeconRecon Special Feature
Editor’s note: Hideo Kojima’s Death Stranding is not shy about telling a grandiose political story, but its strength is in telling small, human ones. This is Entry Three of our ‘Death Unstranding’ series. If you have missed the previous entry, click here. SPOILERS AHEAD.
Connecting the Knots
By: C Nge
Game chapters completed: 7
Death Stranding is a game that wears its politics on its sleeve.
In an industry where game developers and publishers routinely shy away from explicitly talking about real-world politics and current affairs in their games, it is refreshing to hear Hideo Kojima openly declare, in a BBC documentary, that DS was made in response to Trump, Brexit, and our current climate of cyber violence and online negativity.
There is a lot of overlap between our real world and the world of DS. For one, the game map is a close replica of the map of the United States of America, only the USA as we know it is no more. After a post-apocalyptic event called the death stranding—set off by a series of colossal blasts that caused giant craters and disabled all forms of communication—American states disintegrated, giving way to a vast, borderless country."#DeathStranding is a game about a near future well within our grasp." Click To Tweet
This is no longer a world where borders matter because humankind has a new enemy now and they are called BTs (more about them in future entries)—supernatural entities who can kill us but are impervious to conventional weaponry. People stay indoors in bunkers to shelter from the BTs, but because they have no way of connecting to the outside world, many develop agoraphobia over time.
America’s last president before the apocalypse is none other than Donald Trump. There is no mention of his name in the game but The Elder, the most senior of Sam’s many clients, refers to a president who “wanted to build a wall along the whole border—stop anyone from coming in” just before the death stranding. From this bit of data, the timeline for the world setting is easily deduced—this is a game about a near future well within our grasp.
A company called Bridges was formed to rebuild the USA into the UCA = United Cities of America, a new nation-state to emerge from the demise of the former one. The president of Bridges is a woman, Bridget Strand (Lindsay Wagner), whose son is Sam Bridges (Norman Reedus), our protagonist. Not much is known of President Strand because she dies shortly after the game begins.
Bridget ran Bridges
Bridget’s final request to her son at her deathbed is that he travel across America to unite the country by connecting its people to the chiral network, a new communications web eerily similar to the internet. This network is so called because it is powered by chiralium—an invisible substance similar to dark matter, which was detected after the death stranding.
From my progression in the game thus far, there seems to be four categories of survivors of this cataclysmic event: ordinary Americans (often called preppers, who are mostly holed up in bunkers); porters like Sam Bridges, whose job is to deliver cargo among citizens; MULEs—essentially porters gone rogue—whose raison d’être is to steal and hoard cargo; and terrorists, people who want nothing to do with the UCA due to strong ideological differences about the need for a government.
Not much is known about the terrorists at this stage of the game, but DS clearly labels them as separatists: residents who reject the concept of nation, dispel any need for a national identity, and who are willing to fight and die for their freedom. Ironically, these terrorists abound in the Western region—in real life, a locale often perceived to be the home of pioneers and renegades thanks to myths perpetuated by Hollywood Westerns and more recently, start-up culture.
Your goal in DS is clear: connect disparate cities—called knots, in the game—and various bunkers—named after their owners—as you traverse this new American landscape. As more strands are connected, the chiral network expands, thereby enabling larger groups of people to link up with one another.
The future is blue state?
It is ironic that Sam is someone who does not like to be touched—he suffers from a condition called aphenphosmphobia—yet his mission is to connect the disparate individuals who pepper the landscape. He touches their lives without touching them physically, much as gamers connect virtually without physically meeting.
What is ultimately unique about DS is how the game intersects its objectives with an in-game interface called the Bridge Link. Since DS is a networked game, you can connect with other real-world players and befriend them in-game via “strand contracts”. These contracts are neither legal nor complex; all you have to do is to randomly click on another player’s name in the Bridge Link UI and you can establish contracts instantly. Additionally, they are one-way contracts that do not require anyone to counter-sign the agreement.
The most intriguing aspect of this form of linking is that the game does not encourage connections with your real world buddies. With no search function in the Bridge Link UI, I had trouble finding friends whom I knew were playing DS because the scrollable player list is insanely long and the font incredibly tiny. In the end, it made practical sense to forge contracts with strangers; also, the more you expand your chiral network, the more contracts you can make.
The Q-Pid that joins you up with others. Romance not guaranteed.
The friendships you forge through such ex parte arrangements are fundamentally utilitarian. Once you have strand contracts with other players, the structures they have built are visible to you on your map; you can use and like their structures, or even dismantle them in your game world. It’s a very unobtrusive form of virtual community, requiring zero maintenance. If I break my strand contract with my stranger-friends, they would never know, and vice versa.
Even though these strands have aided me immensely to reach my delivery destinations in DS, the more satisfying forms of connection reside in the NPCs that dot this desolate new America. They are my clients to whom I deliver cargo and I can track the strength of my relationships with them based on the number of stars next to their names, which correspond to the number of successful deliveries I make. To be accurate, these clients do not have names in the conventional sense. They have monikers tied to their professions: The Engineer, The Mountaineer, The Cosplayer, etc.
Once I have delivered their cargo, some clients gift me with useful items that can assist me on my subsequent missions. The Cosplayer, for instance, gave me a hilariously goofy-looking otter hoodie that miraculously saves me from drowning because it gives me an otter-like ability to paddle swiftly whenever I fall into treacherous rivers—which tends to happen fairly often now that I know how to channel my inner otter.
Some clients also write emails to thank me or to update me about their lives. Typically, the ones who live alone tend to write more frequently than those who are married or attached. I can read these emails whenever I like: when I am mountain hiking or on the road or chillin’ in my crib. Frankly, I relish reading every email because they give me much needed narrative fulfilment.
When my clients regale me with stories from their childhood, or share memories of their life before the death stranding, I can relate to them because these stories and memories form the fabric of the world in which I currently live, outside the game. In a bizarre and beautiful way, reading these emails about the past opens a window to possible futures, whilst firmly ensconcing me in my present.
The emails also lend my DS gaming experience a strong sense of reality. Even though I know these pieces of digital correspondence are from characters in the game, they still feel like intensely bona fide pieces of communication to me. This could be due to the generic DS email UI, which easily resembles my work email UI. So, for a moment, I forget that I am controlling Sam Bridges and think I am at work, dutifully checking my emails.
Still waiting for the email that explains TikTok
During such times, DS loses its cloak of fictionality and I find myself being overly invested in the lives of certain clients, The Chiral Artist (Mala Morgan) being a good example. In the only romance-tinged delivery mission of the game thus far, I transported The Chiral Artist—my first living human cargo—to reunite her with her long lost boyfriend, The Junk Dealer.
This was also the very first time my client emerged from his bunker to meet me face to face; he was not just a chiralgram (the DS version of hologram) that I interacted with at the delivery terminal. His physical presence infused my mission with a palpable emotional weight and made my delivery all the more meaningful because by then, I knew the act of leaving one’s bunker is a rarity in DS.
As I witnessed The Junk Dealer hugging and carrying his lady love in his arms, I felt a rush of sappy happiness. I had brought a pair of star-crossed lovers together and it felt great! Later emails informing me that they got married reaffirmed my Cupid role and gave me further spikes of joy."Sam touches their lives without touching them physically, much as gamers connect virtually without physically meeting." #DeathStranding Click To Tweet
Much later on in the game, however, the happy couple buckled under the strain of cramped shelter living; they wrote separate emails to tell me things were not working out and that marriage sucked. When The Chiral Artist eventually wrote to lament the end of their union and to notify me that she had returned to her art studio to resume living with her adopted mother, I was crestfallen.
What about all the hundreds of kilograms of childhood memorabilia, books, furniture, and art materials that I carried to and fro to help her start her new life in her husband’s abode? Why can’t they give their marriage another go by moving to her picturesque studio on the hillside instead of living atop the junk heap they now call home? I felt cheated, to be honest. And to think I built four zip lines—and almost broke my neck doing it—just so I could more quickly deliver more cargo for her new life!
The future of e-hailing rides
Ironically, it is stories like these—replete with such human drama—that hook me and make me relish my job as a porter. Oftentimes the main story feels too distant, too cerebral, and too complicated for me to sink my teeth into with any real sense of contentment. I know DS is a long game so delayed gratification is par for the course, but I am also heartened that Kojima did not forget the Everyman and Everywoman who populate his game world.
As a humble delivery guy, I have more in common with these ordinary folk than to the Bridges staff who assign me grandiose tasks in the name of nation-building. My larger mission does not supplant these smaller, more intimate ones that afford me the space and time to digest and appreciate the diversity of human connection—yes, even the failures.
Ultimately, for a game that is all about cargo delivery, these are the connections that carry the most weight. And as much as I am aware of politics writ large in DS, I am also mindful that a nation cannot exist without the inclusion of its average citizens. To include them so self-consciously in a game is surely also a political act.
End of Entry Three. Read the next entry here.
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Also published on Medium.