“I brought you a metaphor,” quips a character named “Fragile,” as she hands Death Stranding’s protagonist, Sam Porter Bridges, a golden mask that resembles a human skull. Fragile is inheritor and chief executive of Fragile Express, a shipping company tasked with delivering supplies to human survivors of a cataclysmic event—the eponymous “Death Stranding”—that eradicated huge swaths of animal life on earth and collapsed the worlds of living and dead, flooding the former with the latter’s “stranded” souls. Sam is a freelance porter for Fragile’s onetime competitor Bridges, a shipper-and-manufacturer-cum-government-surrogate responsible for repairing infrastructure damaged by the Stranding and connecting America’s scattered populace to the “Chiral Network,” a massive internet-like communications technology whose instantaneous data-sharing capacities its creators hope will throw light on the Stranding’s origins and help ward off the “sixth mass extinction” the Stranding seems certain to bring on. Sam is also a “deathless repatriate in the land of the living,” a man whose death—most often occasioned by encounters with especially fearsome stranded souls known as “Beached Things”—transports him to “The Beach,” a watery interstitial reality where Sam can recover his body and return, intact, to the here-and-now. The game’s premises—of life and death’s horrific entanglement, of real and virtual infrastructures’ reparative values in the face of progressively fraying social bonds—are avowedly metaphorical. “It’s a metaphor,” says Death Stranding’s creator, Hideo Kojima, for modes of social connection that, unchecked, abet political phenomena “like Trump or the E.U.” Yet Kojima is quick to add that Death Stranding is more than just a metaphor for American or E.U. factionalisms ostensibly deepened by social media. As Sam struggles to “make America whole again,” slowly shuttling supplies, rebuilding bridges, and activating Chiral terminals, Kojima asks players “to not think ‘America,’ but ‘where [they] are.’ Because it depends on who is seeing it. And of course, it’s in the future, and everyone’s connected by internet, but everyone is fragmented. That’s kind of a metaphor as well.”
At first glance Kojima’s insistence on Death Stranding’s ranging metaphoricity seems a complement to Fragile’s. The mask Fragile offers Sam is exactly the kind of reflexively clever artifact Kojima offers his player: a game-world whose fables of identity and connection track readily with real-world political and existential crises. That tracking also unfolds as a specific form of social mediation, a matching of the game’s narrative premise to its multiplayer functionality. The story of Sam’s journey to connect survivors to the Chiral Network and make shareable their private data is reiterated by the game’s asynchronous online functions, which allow players to form one-on-one connections—called “bridge links”—that likewise yield shareable in-game materials and information. Specter-like, those players are never encountered directly. But when, for instance, another player builds a bridge or leaves behind a ladder, those materials become available for Sam’s use, as those built or left by Sam remain for others’ use. The “bridge links” formed as a result of these collaborative acts, in turn, amplify Sam’s “grade measures”: “likes” and “counts” for materials usage that stand alongside metrics pertaining to the volume, timeliness, and condition of delivered supplies. More than topical reflection on Trump-era polarization and the fracturing of the E.U., the virtues and vices of twenty-first-century network capitalism, or the broad imbrication of economic and ecological systems, Death Stranding motivates these contexts toward a complexly reflexive articulation of the video game’s capacities and limits as a social form. Discourses of political-economic upheaval and ecological transformation mediate Kojima’s thinking-through of a global culture industry increasingly centered by video games, where games’ intellectual properties now drive franchise development across a variety of converging media platforms, and where the internet-based models of production and distribution gaming studios continue to innovate have all but eclipsed older, more objectified platforms for culture’s individual and collective engagement—chief among them, film.
Kojima’s fetish for film is well remarked. “I’ve said over the years in interviews throughout the world,” Kojima wrote in a 2004 article enumerating the “all-time top thirty” films that influenced his Metal Gear Solid series, “Just like the human body is 70% water, I’m 70% film.” Elsewhere, Kojima admits that financial hardship wrought by his father’s early death compelled him to abandon the childhood dream of becoming a film director and enter, instead, Japan’s then-booming video game industry. (Having succeeded in becoming one of that industry’s most bankable auteurs, it comes as little surprise that Kojima has recently announced his intention to direct a film.) Manifested by his extensive use of “cutscenes”—nonplayable sequences through which Kojima’s famously complicated plots are advanced—such statements encourage Kojima’s critics to view the game designer’s relationship to cinema as a profoundly aspirational one. “I challenge you to find a review of Death Stranding that doesn’t mention how cinematic it feels,” writes engadget’s Jess Conditt, noting that the game’s eight hours of cutscenes feature Hollywood actors Norman Reedus, Léa Seydoux, Mads Mikkelsen, Margaret Qualley, Tommie Earl Jenkins, and Lindsay Wagner, as well as the likenesses of directors Nicolas Winding Refn, Guillermo del Toro, Edgar Wright, and Jordan Roberts—all rendered as stunning photo-realist simulations, their names “emblazoned across the screen multiple times, packed into the intro credits and appearing again with each character’s debut.” “Death Stranding offers a surreal, cinematic experience with controller in your hands,” adds Brian Tallerico at rogerebert.com, deftly “intertwining” filmic and gamic devices yet finally “deliver[ing] something that film cannot”: an experience that “brilliant[ly] replicate[s] the game’s themes within its gameplay—connecting you to other players as the world within the game becomes more connected too.” “Is it a film that you play? A game that you watch?” echoes Indiewire’s David Ehrlich. “At a time when video games can finally look like movies as much as movies have started to look like video games—when people like Kojima and James Cameron are working toward similar ends with many of the same techniques—Kojima has created a bizarre masterpiece that doesn’t just blur the lines between these mediums but also illustrates the power of knotting them together.”
Awash in cameras, projectors, holograms, and screens, Death Stranding celebrates a cinematic dispositif even as it realizes cinema’s dismantling and reconstitution at the hands of new digital technologies and internet-based modes of spectatorship—the “extinction” of cinema’s older machineries of audiovisual mediation, the phenomenological shift away from its individualizing and subject-oriented norms of perception and embodiment, and its collapse as an institution of shared reception. But rather than sharpen the divide between older and newer mediums—between, as Kojima has it, an increasingly marginal and objectified film culture and a newly ascendant, disintermediated gaming one powered by social logics of connectivity—Death Stranding’s vision of techno-cultural transformation points up the two mediums’ “chirality”: their studied aesthetic coherence amid the development of heavily branded intellectual properties and near-but-not-quite technical conformity across rapidly converging media platforms, and how that coherence and conformity in turn reflects the evolving conditions of perception and action, of social immersion and alienation taking place against the backdrop of epochal changes in global economy and ecology.
Keyed to cinema and games’ twenty-first-century chirality, Death Stranding consequently unfolds as an abstract theoretical exercise in thinking about industrial culture’s transformation in an age of unstoppable economic development and under new technologies of production and distribution (as so many poetic acts of “metaphorization” keyed to changing structures of social mediation). At the same time, it’s also a highly practical and self-interested negotiation of those changing structures (so many gestures of corporate-existential autopoesis aimed at prescribing games’ fitness to generate and synergize the intellectual properties that increasingly set the agenda for transmedial enterprise). The game opens with Fragile’s bid to recruit Sam as an independent contractor for Fragile Express, an arrangement that eventually transpires when Fragile merges her distributional facilities with Bridges:
fragile: Want to come work for me? Must be tough out here on your own.
sam: Yeah? I thought Fragile Express had plenty of people.
fragile: Plenty of traitors. Not much left of us now, save a few honest folks. And on top of that, not much of me left, either . . .
sam: I can’t help you with that. I make deliveries. That’s all.
Fragile’s nod to Death Stranding’s metaphorical availability—her seeming corroboration of Kojima’s ambition to deliver a salutary political-existential fable—begins to signal that fable’s pragmatic orientation. “I’m Fragile,” the character played by French actress Léa Seydoux puns throughout the game, “but not that fragile.” Metaphor reverts to literalism of a corporate kind. (And who better than Seydoux, granddaughter of Pathé and Gaumont film executives and daughter of Parrot Wireless’s founder and CEO to mark that reversion?) Like Sam, a “porter” for the “Bridges” foundation—Sam’s surname just happens to be Bridges, though the foundation is named for his adoptive mother and America’s first female president, Bridget Strand—Fragile embodies the identity between person and corporation in the manner most like Kojima himself, liberated from his repressive contract with Konami Studios and lavished with creative freedom as head of a reformed Kojima Productions. (Konami famously struck Kojima’s name from the final installment of Metal Gear, following his decision to partner, instead, with Sony Interactive Entertainment as primary distributor.)
Read in this way, Death Stranding’s core dramas of attribution, contracting, and distribution—both Fragile’s managerial gambits as her brand’s official custodian, and Sam’s contractual labor on behalf of the brand that only coincidentally bears his name—begin to describe Kojima’s self-understanding at the helm of the newly independent yet widely familiar Kojima Productions. “On 2015/12/16 I became independent,” Kojima tweeted shortly after his split from Konami. “No office, just a tiny room, no staff, no machines nothing. All I had was this KJP logo, notepad & pen and my own PC. I started to work on the concept [for Death Stranding] while recruiting staffs, finding office & game engine. Had dream and connection that’s all.” Critics have pointed out that Kojima had a great deal more than that. Yet here, as in Death Stranding, Kojima offers a vision of the intellectual property capable of building out a production community and, moreover, of legitimating a brand already possessed of such commercial viability and critical esteem that it needs only a network to thrive. That vision is ultimately one of meaningful cooperation between the creative talent contracted to generate high-value intellectual properties and the production partners entrusted to provide that talent with marketing and distributional support. But it is also a vision of talent and labor unbeholden to any partner or even any industry, of creative authority capable of arrogating industrial authority to itself, as a once-dominant regime—cinema—passes into extinction while another—so-called cinematic games—rises to remake the world.
At the precipice of that remaking, Death Stranding shuttles between video game and film, limiting the subjective orientations and upending the conventional pleasures of both. Routing film’s isolated and immersive modes of visual address through gameplay that underscores the viewing subject’s multiplicity and interdependence, Kojima simultaneously organizes modes of gamic identification oriented away from blunt, unitary physical identification with the “action hero,” and toward subtler emotional investments in the perceptions and actions of a clumsy, damaged, and vulnerable man engaged in drudgingly quotidian labor. So too are Death Stranding’s most rapturous moments located not in Kojima’s highly stylized cutscenes but rather in the slowly mutating vistas that chronicle Sam’s lonely, plodding journey across America, which Kojima sets to the plaintive ballads of American-Icelandic indie band Low Roar. Not coincidentally, it’s those moments when one is made to feel most external to the game—most like a spectator, primed for passive visual pleasure—that one is most internal to it, actively laboring to body that pleasure forth. These are also the moments when the game’s asynchronous multiplayer functions are most vivid and unsettling, as the promise of isolated aesthetic encounter gets broken by the traces of other Sams. “You never see your fellow porters, but their items and cargo litter your world,” writes Adam Frank in an NPR review from May 2020. “Other players’ emoji signs litter distribution centre entrances in the quest for cheap likes, and rugged landscapes start to resemble red-light districts. You start to crave undiscovered delivery routes for a reminder of the game’s unspoilt beauty.” That craving for “undiscovered routes” and “unspoilt beauty”—for cinema’s privileged vantages rather than multiplayer games’ complex imbrications, for isolation rather than connection—speaks to Kojima’s ambivalence about connectivity’s social, political, and environmental yields. Extolling the formal possibilities of connective gaming technologies, Death Stranding remains profoundly critical of increasingly mediated forms of social relation, which Kojima narrates as fundamentally compensatory, attenuated, and spectral, if not outrightly belligerent, polarizing, and chaotic. In this sense, the game compels not, as critics like Tallerico suggest, because its gameplay replicates its themes, affirming, as Frank puts it, the power of “connection amid isolation.” Rather, Death Stranding compels because its fundamental ambivalence toward connection captures the contradictory experience of living in a world-system integrated beyond historical precedent yet keener than ever to “disconnect,” jostling to reduce economic interdependencies and heighten comparative advantages at a moment of profound social and political dysfunction.
Critics including Frank tend to note that Death Stranding was released just months before the COVID-19 pandemic prompted a wave of government-mandated lockdowns that elevated freelance delivery personnel like Sam to the heroic status of “essential workers.” Equally prescient as Death Stranding’s vision of global lockdown, then, is the game’s functionalist—we might say banalizing—account of what it takes to keep society running under conditions of environmental hazard and mass quarantine. In his quest to reunify America, Sam delivers everything from lifesaving supplies and medical equipment to household ceramics and sausage pizzas. To be sure, the urgency of those routine deliveries, not to mention Sam’s alternating boredom and anxiety in carrying them out, resonates with life under lockdown. But what makes Death Stranding prescient—and what that prescience ultimately grasps at—isn’t, or isn’t only, the game’s “perfect . . . synchroniz[ation] with our new pandemic life.” If Death Stranding is uncannily “synchronized” to the social withdrawals brought on by the pandemic, it also anticipates something at once vaguer and more decisive about an unraveling world-system’s “asynchronous” nature and effects, out of which springs neither the uncomplicated desire for connection (as some hopeful re-enchantment of globalization) nor the unencumbered thrill of isolation (as some species of autonomy from an increasingly volatile and uneven global order). Death Stranding isn’t just a “metaphor” for a progressively fragmenting world-system, but an industrial artifact carefully primed to that system’s contradictions. Kojima’s talent—and the reason his game deserves the many disquieting hours it demands—lies in the feat of that mutual complexification, the gift of a “chiral” metaphor: the system we play, and the system that plays us.
Death Stranding. Created by Hideo Kojima. Tokyo: Kojima Productions, 2019. PlayStation 4.