GUEST POST ABOUT QUARANTINE!! Stranded in Quarantine: How Hideo Kojima’s Surreal videogame explores current ideas of connection.
Guys, today my good friend (and cousin) Dan Bariani brings us an important text about how Death Stranding talks about CONNECTION in the current world. It’s even more relevant now, at the quarantine. Enjoy!
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Stranded in Quarantine: How Hideo Kojima’s Surreal videogame explores current ideas of connection.
Last year one of the most anticipated videogames of all time was released: “Death Stranding”, the first title from legendary game designer Hideo Kojima since he was fired from his old job at Konami. Many gamers had very high expectations for the game, but mostly because of Kojima’s stellar track record, as what was shown of Death Stranding was way too cryptic and weird for most mainstream audiences.
When the game finally came out, in November 8th 2019, the gaming world was drastically divided: Half of the audience loved the game for its wildly experimental nature, while the other half found it boring and nonsensical. Not only that, but it also seemed like “the world was split into two — east and West”, as the game had sales that were not so expressive in the west, while in its homeland of Glorious Nippon it became the biggest new IP launch since Dark Souls back in 2011. (https://www.playstationlifestyle.net/2019/11/13/death-stranding-japan-sales/)
After playing Death Stranding, I could do nothing but place endless comparisons between it and not only other Kojima videogames, but also some of my favorite films, manga, and anime from the 90s and early 2000s. Chief among them is the ground-breaking anime juggernaut “Neon Genesis Evangelion”, and the Cyber Psychedelic Trip “Serial Experiments Lain”. Therefore I decided to write an article about such similarities, in both superficial and thematic terms, and explain why I felt those stories were so unique and profound.
Then It happened. And it could not have been more horrifying and fitting.
An event altered the entire world seemingly overnight. All people were advised to stay home and wear masks. All major concerts and sports events were canceled. Any situation where people can get together to see one another in person is out of the question for the foreseeable future. And so most people decided to go deeper modern technologies to still interact.
The moment that really got to me was when my mother and I started talking to my grandmother though video-call. That was when I realized that a call like that could be a lot more meaningful then what it seemed at face value: My 74-year-old grandmother was having to learn how to do video-calls because that was the only way she could see her daughter in while talking to her. A few weeks later, I had to send a video to my grandfather as a birthday gift, because I couldn’t even see him in person to wish him a happy birthday. The people who used to live around me are now as far away as the entire rest of the world.
In Death Stranding, Protagonist Sam Porter Bridges (yes, the name is silly, and there are a lot of those) is constantly interacting with people from a distance. His job is to deliver packages and reconnect people in a world torn apart by a cataclysmic event known as the “Death Stranding”, which caused several unexplained explosions around the world, and as a result, the government and all other institutions have fallen.
Not only that, but now ghosts roam the face of the Earth and cause more explosions, and the rain makes time run faster, causing anyone who is left out in it to die of old age in less a minute. As the outside world has become incredibly hostile, most people start living inside bunkers, completely isolated from one another, communicating only through holograms and depending on deliveries to survive. Not only that, but the entire world starts being affected by a toxic substance called “chiralium”, making it necessary for people to be decontaminated before entering any building.
As the trailers for the game promised, a lot of strange stuff does happen, but the core of the game is truly just going from place to place, making deliveries and connecting people to the “Chiral Network”, an advanced, Sci-Fi version of the internet where people can talk, share cultural and scientific works, use 3D printers, and work together towards a better future. In the game, you even deliver “Silly” packages, like underwear, pizzas, and action figures, which at first seem prosaic and pointless, but now most people’s perspective on stuff like that may have changed drastically.
So, ok, a lot of our lives right now are really similar to the world depicted in Death Stranding. Cool, let’s make some memes, maybe a Buzzfeed article, have a laugh, then carry one with our lives, right?
No, I actually have something to say about this.
Death Stranding is about Connections. That much is made clear by the often painfully on-the-nose and melodramatic writing, and all of the interviews with creator Hideo Kojima where he kept going on and on about the differences between a stick and a rope (yeah, that’s a whole thing). But the real theme is actually the conflicts inherent to such connections. After the chiral network starts to take shape, terrorist attacks are made using the mail system, and, on a more abstract note, the entire extinction of mankind is said to happen after the completion of the network.
Even the more esoteric concepts in Death Stranding all center around this theme of connection. The “Chiral Network”, much like the “Wired” from Serial Experiments Lain, is a semi-spiritual realm of transition between the world of the living and the world of the dead, the world of knowledge and the world of darkness, of the conscious and subconscious: all opposing ideas that must the reconciled in order to reach a harmonious life, according to many philosophies and religions. And so is life and extinction.
And much that vain, there are no true villains in the Story (Spoilers ahead): the most powerful antagonist, Higgs, is revealed to be merely a puppet of Amelie, who was supposed to be just a “Damsel in Distress”. In reality, she is the main figure behind the extinction of the human race. Even the “Ghosts” that roam the Earth are just souls that never reached a true afterlife and are just seeking desperately for something to connect with. Nothing is just black or white at the end of the world.
Yes, that got a bit weird. But to me, Death Stranding showed how challenging ideas, even messy and convoluted ideas like these, can bring people together. Huge communities were formed online trying to dissect every single detail of the trailers, desperately seeking for small details that could work as clues for unraveling the strange fabric of this world, and running off to tell everyone about it. If everyone immediately understood everything that the trailers were showing, there would be no real reason to discuss it in depth.
And so, even before the game came out, people were encouraged to talk to one another online, but when things got really special was in the actual gameplay. The game is mostly about traversing terrain fast and efficiently and not letting the packages get damaged. So, avoiding the “ghosts” is imperative, and you have many tools to assist you in this endeavor, but you are not alone. All of the ropes, ladders, shelters, and any other resources that you build in your game are also shown in other people’s games (random strangers, there are no “Connect with your friend’s list” feature). So, intentionally or not, a lot of the progress you make is shared with complete strangers through the internet, and so all players make each other’s journeys a little easier.
One example might help illustrate this: One of the tools is a zipline. You can build one in a spot, and the second one in a different spot, and travel between them very fast. After several hours of suffering through one of the harshest terrains of the game, I finally got to a shelter. But the victory didn’t last long, as I realized I had to find my way back from where I came from, and the terrain wasn’t easier even on the way down. So I decided to use one of the tools, and I noticed there were already other ziplines, build by other players, close to the place I was.
So I searched meticulously for the perfect placing, and when I found it, I placed my zipline, literally connecting my construction to the ones of two other players, and creating a bridge that made traversing that harsh terrain a lot easier. And, of course, the connection that was created would also be there for the players who build the other lines, and for many other players that I never knew even existed.
One of the major criticisms of Death Stranding is how empty it felt. Throughout the story, the protagonist only meets about six or seven other important characters in person, while you only interact with everyone though holograms, audio chats, and emails. It made all the other people you were working for seem really distant, and somehow less real for it. It felt pointless to go on. And such a feeling is reflected in the story. It is made clear that the “Death Stranding” is only one part of a larger event, and that humanity will definitely end soon, but no one knows when.
But still, if you decide to, you can continue making deliveries. One of the people you deliver packages to is an old man known only as “The Elder”. You don’t know who he is, or how he ended up on that bunker, but you know that he doesn’t trust this “advanced Sci-Fi version of the internet”, and why would he? It’s clear that he’s already seen so much pain and suffering, and that he has made several mistakes that he doesn’t want to repeat. But all you can do is to “keep on keeping on”: Delivering his medication, reading his email, passing by whenever he asks for something.
And if you insist on it, “The Elder” decides to make one last mistake: He decides to trust someone else again.
To me, the most touching moments in Death Stranding are the scenes with the Character called Cliff Unger. Throughout the game, you meet this soldier on abstract recreations of battlefields, specifically World War 1, World War 2, and The Vietnam War. These are some of the few parts of the game focused entirely on combat: You meet Clifford Unger and you shoot to kill, but he keeps coming back again and again.
By the last moments of the game, it is already made very obvious who Cliff really is, or rather, who he was: Clifford Unger was a soldier who served the United States on several armed conflicts but was ultimately betrayed by his country. In one last violent act, he decides to sacrifice himself to make sure his son would live. Years later, his son grew up to be Sam Porter Bridges. It’s a very Hokey plot twist, definitely, but the way how it ties together the core themes completely sell it.
While creating connections and helping the world to move towards a better place, Sam must fight the sins of his father, confronting the bitter legacy of conflict and war. Not only that, but he must not repeat Cliff’s hatred for the people that profited from all of the death and destruction he, himself, caused. Sam must see those very people, and still bring himself to love and trust others. His father is the reason for his existence, for his survival, and also his greatest challenge, even if he was never there physically.
After all of the fighting is done, Sam has a vision in the spirit world where sees the moment of Clifford’s Death. Before being shot to death, Cliff who spills out a great summary of his difficulty connecting to other people:
“When I found out I was gonna be a father, I was so scared. Scared of what it would mean. I had to be there for you and your mom… no matter what. I couldn’t just go off and get myself killed anymore, I couldn’t leave you all alone. I couldn’t. I had it all wrong, all wrong. Being a father… didn’t make me scared. It made me brave. I’m sorry, sorry it took me so long. Don’t make the same mistake. Be yourself…
And from the Lullaby that Cliff used to sing to his son comes the most beautiful piece of music in the entire game: BB’s Theme, by the brilliant composer of the game’s original soundtrack, Ludvig Forssell.
“See the sunset
The day is ending
Let that yawn out
There’s no pretending
I will hold you
And protect you
So let love warm you
Till the morning
I’ll stay with you
By your side
Close your tired eyes
I’ll wait and soon
I’ll see your smile in a dream
And I won’t wake before you go
And I still hear your heartbeat…”
When it comes to movies and novels, the story and themes are presented to you, and you either like them or you don’t. But games are different in the strangest way. Death Stranding hammers on the point about connections and stuff infinitely, and it’s really easy to get tired of it, but then you take the controller. And once you are free to roam this world, you see in practice all the things that the characters are talking about. You connect with other people you’ve never seen and helped them just by carrying on your own path. You get into trouble, only to have their helping hands return you the favors you didn’t even know you were doing.
Along your journey in Death Stranding, you encounter a pregnant woman who needs to have a remote surgery done on her. So, you hike through a steep mountain during a blizzard to deliver a heavy, yet highly sensitive, piece of medical equipment so that a doctor can do the operation. Next time you visit, you see her, her husband, and their child together. You also meet and connect people in less dramatic situations: Movie nerds, videogame nerds, engineers, farmers, Conan O’Brien, a retired delivery man who is also Max Payne, and many more.
And somewhere along with them, in the middle of all that overcomplicated story, I like to believe that I helped some other dumb kid to see his grandparents again.
George Weidman’s (Super Bunnyhop) Video Comparing Evangelion and Metal Gear:
“Hideo Kojima Games & Epidemics”, a video essay by Futurasound Productions
Polygon – Neverending Evangelion – How Hideaki Anno turned obsessions and depression into an anime phenomenon
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