Imagine it, a world where the greatest danger one can face is to venture outside their shelter. Where the only people that do go out are those brave enough to take on the mundane labor of keeping the world in motion. Where the rest of humanity is forced indoors and can only communicate via a “network,” and being separated from that network means total isolation.
Death Stranding was released on November 8th, 2019, a full 4 months before any “stay at home orders” were put into place in the U.S. However, playing through it now it seems like this game was designed around the strife of working during a global pandemic. It should be noted that creator Hideo Kojima has copped to not being a prophet. He did not knowingly predict what COVID-19 would do to the world, but still the similarities are positively glaring.
As the player you control Sam Porter Bridges (brought to life by Norman Reedus), a courier in the age following the Death Stranding, a cataclysmic event that brought the world to the brink of apocalypse. Your job is to keep people connected, first by delivering much needed supplies such as medicine, tech, building materials, even the occasional pizza. Your second job is to bring everyone into the “chiral network,” this world’s version of the internet, all the while navigating difficult terrain and negotiating the dangers of a world still growing accustomed to what it has become.
The changes wrought by the pandemic have manifested in real and visceral ways for everyone, but more so for those of us without the option to work from home. Wearing face masks into work, social distancing from our coworkers, temperature checks upon arrival, these are constant reminders of the dangers we face.
Sam’s job puts him in plenty of danger as well. Chief among them are the Beached Things, ghosts of the dead that wander aimlessly, unable to pass on from the world of the living. If you so much as touch a BT, a voidout occurs — an explosion powerful enough to level a city. Stay six feet apart means so much more in Kojima’s dystopia.
Luckily the work you’re doing to keep the world going is truly and deeply vital.
The main questline is filled with important deliveries such as medicine and building materials — things people really do need to carry on. But if you allow your bosses to, they can ask some incredibly superfluous things of you. Was it really necessary for me to take 25 minutes away from the main quest to give this guy the pizza he ordered? Does it make sense for me to risk my life and the lives of those around me in order to bring “Early 21st Century Rock Albums” to this loner on the other side of a BT field? Is it really wise for me to pour beers for large groups of people as they pull down their masks to bark orders at me?
Wait. That last one is just real life.
As you traverse the world of Death Stranding, you never run across other players. A huge theme of the game is isolation, and the importance of keeping thin strands of connection to others intact. However, the game does allow for structures and vehicles that other players have left in their games to bleed into yours. Someone else’s bridge can help you cross a river, and you can give them “likes” as thanks. You can build a zipline to a hard-to-reach delivery location and get notified when others use and like your shortcut. These do more work at making me feel connected than maybe any Zoom call ever could. It’s reminiscent of coming in for your first shift and realizing the overnight guy has gotten you perfectly set up for your whole day. I love this mechanic, the message of it is clear and simple: Building connections makes the world a better place.
Having said that, it’s both simplistic and convenient to say the essential workers are Sam Porter Bridges, the intrepid deliveryman striving to keep the world’s strands connected in the face of danger. But being out amongst crowds in a pandemic is dangerous not just for those who go out, but for the world at large. Much like Sam, we can trigger our own voidouts. Super spreader events are not unheard of, and the damage they cause is real and lasting. Perhaps the essential workers are not the heroes of this story, perhaps we’re the victims.
Perhaps we’re the BTs.
The BTs float around the world, unsure of where they belong. Going about whatever business they have in the game aimlessly. The danger they bring can be felt as you wander close to them, and if they catch you it can lead to an outright game over. Is the purpose they serve in the game any more just than forcing essential workers to brave the terrors of a pandemic so that we can go to the department store? Grab a beer with friends? Watch a baseball game?
Maybe Kojima really did predict the future, even if he didn’t mean to. The apocalypse he predicted can be seen everyday in the isolation we’re all feeling, through the struggle to keep our strands connected, and in the BTs we’ve made ourselves into, forced to shuffle around this increasingly dangerous world.