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Death Stranding (2019) – Kojima Productions

This article is a slight deviation from the norm for us here at Rebind, the few times we’ve written about ‘AAA’ games we’ve generally done so through a retrospective lens, there’s a reason for this: a lot of mainstream cutting edge releases get enough attention as is. With that said, I’ve observed a trend in contemporary discourse to converge on a handful of common narrative focal points- we have more to say about these titles through a critical lens, but still get stuck on the same key points in our collective analysis.

The Discourse, you see, is like a rocky riverbed where we have a tendency to lose our best small thoughts along the way, foregoing them in pursuit of retrieving our most valuable ontological cargo: our core thesis.

So wade into the thick of it with me, dear reader, as we examine the unusual things recent releases have to say.

Sam Bridges is a personally relatable character for many reasons- a seemingly selfless anti-hero on a quest he has little vested interest in and sees little benefit from. He’s also fairly uncharacteristic for a ‘AAA’ protagonist- soft spoken, quiet, sensitive, and dislikes being touched, he has little interest in being near other people either emotionally or physically.

Those that know me in person likely have the impression that I have little personal space. As the one in charge of business development and networking I’m regularly put in the position of reaching out to people, shaking hands, and putting my personal thoughts out in the open to establish trust, to build relationships for the groups I advocate on behalf of. Like any labor, especially emotional labor, this hyper-exposure can lead you to develop a sort of psychological allergic response. The way in which this personally manifests is that my relationship with myself as an extrovert and emotionally open book has rapidly changed over the last eleven months.

In Sam, I can see parts of my own preferences and identity reflected back at me- he talks to people extremely frequently, it’s a part of the physical and emotional work he has to do in order to accomplish his goals. He is a purveyor of goods and of information, and it is his role within BRIDGES to establish trust with individuals and organizations all across the nation. He is, in many ways, a janitor, a diplomat, and someone who puts their own personal desires on the side lines in order to accomplish the objective no matter what discomfort it may bring him on an intimate level.

At it’s core, Death Stranding is a thesis on the modern atomization of the individual and how our increased thresholds of non-stop inter-connectivity has polarized us towards one another. We’re not the first generation to recognize this- as much as popular memes shared amongst the older generations has placed the blame on the rise of smart phones, we often respond that the increased density of urban locales and the nature of public infrastructure has long since played a more pivotal role in how we interact with our compatriots. When we travel alone, we tend to do so with headphones on, scarves over our faces, thick puffy jackets, layers of synthetic fabric serving not just to insulate us from the elements but from each other. We put distance between one another in order to shield our psyches- as if the over-stimulation resultant from the density of other souls in our vicinity were a form of inclement weather.

How many of us who use public transit do so packed to the gills with cargo, like a mule hauling goods across the plains? We traverse artificial landscape of concrete, railroad tracks, and ruins of dilapidated urban facilities that have fallen into disuse to reach our destinations, and those with personal transport wind up falling down an entirely different rabbit hole of their own isolation: vehicles represent a sort of shelter, sanctuary from the possibility of having to compromise our personal comfort for the sake of participating in transit hubs.

Sam feels like kin- a stranger with a recognizable pain in his eyes that feels deeply relatable to me. As a young adult, I’d often haul everything I could possibly need in a messenger bag or backpack, it was a way to maintain my agency in a chaotic world; I found it reassuring to keep everything I could possibly require on me at all times if I needed to spend the night somewhere unplanned if I was unable to procure a ride from a friend or the trains had stopped running. Likewise, as someone who grew up in the atmosphere of the hard labor of the working class, Sam’s back breaking determination to defy the limits of his body’s physical limitations is an easily identifiable struggle to over-extend oneself in pursuit of getting work done.

He is a nomadic workaholic- a proxy for all of us who work within the gig economy sector to provide last-mile transit for the logistics that serve as the lifeblood of consumer goods and services. He is the rideshare driver, the garbage man, the custodian, the construction worker, the food courier, the postal worker, the back of house kitchen worker that brings their own cutlery to work, the exhausted bartender, the tired nurse, the worn-down bus driver, the puffy eyed Barista opening the cafe at 4 AM to provide life-sustaining elixirs to their comrades-in-arms. We contort ourselves into laborious pretzels not for the sake of monetary compensation, or even the bosses who profit off the fruits of our labor, but the sense of duty we have to those just like us, and it is this motivation that serves as a driving force for Sam Bridge’s quixotic quest to unify the broken society that Death Stranding is set in. And like him, every night, we limp to the shower, clean the day’s tears and sweat from our bodies, and collapse into our beds before doing it all again the next morning.

As he climbs across rocky terrain, bridges and highways forged through the collective effort of himself and those like him, his lonely struggle is anything but. What keeps him going through it all is the notion he is providing a way to connect his fellow workers in spite of a cause of unifying a nation he no longer has any faith in. Every piece of public infrastructure built by the tired hands of porters like him is a reminder of the role he plays in the greater good, one not in service of wealth but rather in service of the people. Nobody likes paying taxes, but many of us in the working world would eagerly raise them in favor of public transit and social safety nets, equalizing the playing field for those like us, and those who lack the means to provide for themselves. Sam is emblematic of those of us who work ourselves raw not just to earn a living, but to work slowly towards the better world we daydream of.

Death Stranding is a game about displacement, of viewing ourselves as a part of a larger ecosystem, of making do, of hauling our own emotional and physical baggage and those of others who rely on us when they cannot fend for themselves, of literally pulling our weight. It’s a refreshing portrayal of socio-economics, Sam himself owns very few personal objects, and any resources he generates are poured back into his equipment and the infrastructure he leaves in his wake.

As an increasingly inhospitable environment unfolds for us in this new century, we begin to realize how inter-dependent we are on one another, we have a renewed understanding that without each other, we’re all stranded on the beach. While we prop one another up to greater heights, Death Stranding echoes a sentiment familiar to all of us, of mutual support, a familiar cheer throughout every mission: “Keep on Keepin’ on” “Rock On Brother” “Stay Strong”.

Sam Bridges is a 21st century nomad, sprinting across the sprawling American steppes with medicine, food, and gear strapped to his weary back, motivated only by the solidarity of every person he encounters.

And like him, we’re all gonna carry that weight.

Emily Rose is an indie developer who writes for rebind.io and resides in the pacific northwest. She’s often seen in the local VR arcade and developer community participating in pushing the medium’s horizons. You can find her on twitter @caravanmalice