I think many in my generation share a sense of resentment about the predicament we are in. Young millennials and old Gen Z’ers are only beginning to enter places of power and influence, yet it seems we already have infinite problems to solve. The climate crisis, racism, sexism, and a colonial legacy top the docket, and that is just the bare minimum. Who will hold the previous custodians accountable for the state of our world? With nihilism only a few steps away, somehow we will have to solve these problems.
Despite the mounting pressure on all of us, the power dynamics are shifting and we have mostly old age to thank. Short of immortality drugs, the systems of power will have to secede to youth eventually. Youngish politicians are having the opportunity to influence policy. Children lobby against gun violence and walk out of schools to demonstrate for climate action. Our generation is slowly gathering the strength to rule the world, and I am fascinated by what we might do with it. From this perspective, I found Death Stranding to be an engaging reassessment of the way we live, and possibly a tool for understanding how we might shape the future going forward.
Like most science fiction, Death Stranding often attempts to be predictive. Writers, designers, and scholars of the genre stretch their minds out into the future to conjure some image of reality. Something believable. Despite their efforts, Sci-Fi creators usually fail to beat The Simpsons or Nostradamus for accuracy. Science fiction then is more relevant as a reflection of the present than as a mechanism for predicting the future, reflecting back at the audience a vision characterized by the hopes and fears of their time. In this way, I see Death Stranding as a new vision, reflecting a cultural shift in our demands for the future.
During the pandemic, the world grew more intimidating in theory, while often more mundane in practice. Invisible death threatens us at every outing, yet somehow the comings and goings of pandemic life are boring. Death Stranding became my place of refuge. I found solace there by briefly abandoning my work and my apartment. The dual power of Kojima Productions’ creation was in its ability to scare me with the flashes of dystopia, while comforting me with the commonplace nature of apocalyptic life.
In Death Stranding, the world as we know it has come to an end. An avoidable catastrophe has crippled the nations of yesteryear, leaving behind only underground cities of people who never meet. The standout feature of this horrorscape is the resilience and reliability of delivery folks. We play from this perspective, however, it is the fantastic tools and liminal spaces we play through that depict this game’s version of futurism.
Through its delivery workers, Death Stranding sets up a world of new ideals. A shared vision built on forward momentum that abandons the obsolete dogmas of the past. The game accomplishes this by asking us one rather obscure question:
What if society actually collapses?
This question is equal parts familiar and unnerving. On the one hand, Death Stranding asks us to suppose that our current understanding of societal collapse is way off the mark. The post-apocalypse that we are familiar with (think Fallout or The Last of Us) often feels chaotic and unclean. Instead the title’s America delivers a sense of normalcy that shrouds the desolation of the outside world.
On the other hand, Death Stranding considers how quickly humanity would return to routine motions after everything we knew was gone. The game charmingly presumes that the end of our current civilization would be beautiful, organized, and often comfortable. But how is this achieved? What changed when the world ended?
What happened to capitalism?
In Death Stranding’s America, familiar systems of organization have been lost to disaster. Yet life must go on, even in the apocalypse. People order pizza. They drive cars or motorcycles without much trouble. All houses have showers, futuristic poop receptacles, and large glass fashion cabinets. The world outside is dangerous, yet everyone seems rather comfortable. One person with a particular heart condition even has a mountain chalet equipped with a library, modern art installations, and plush Victorian flooring.
The odd thing out is capitalism. People here have everything they need, as well as jobs of varying complexity; however, the familiar monetary hierarchy of capitalism is absent. Power structures still loom large, with the player often reinforcing them (I guess Sam Porter-Bridges is a Narc); however, the essence of capital is gone.
In the world of Death Stranding, everyone’s time is put to its best possible use. Money is not necessary for survival, which itself is mostly accounted for by public planning. Here, the jobs that need to get done the most are done by those who have the skills and the will to do them. The piece thus inverts our current understanding of essential workers. The pandemic made it exceedingly clear that those who were “essential” had no agency in the matter. Our essential workers are not essential by choice, they work vulnerable jobs for survival. People in Death Stranding deify essential works, due to the unavoidable reality that life would not go on without them.
Even so, no one seems to get paid in this world. Road construction, medical research, and critical delivery all happens like clockwork without the need for a wage. One could easily chalk this up to video game logic, with skills and items arriving when they are most convenient for the player. Yet that analysis misses the forest for the trees. What would be the point of money anyway in a world with nothing to buy?
Resources in Death Stranding are shared among the community. People build homes, cars, and tools of all sorts; however, all the same resources are available to fellow players when not in use. Every house built into the mountainside becomes available to the weary traveler in an instant. Every road constructed represents the collective effort of players who wish to drive somewhere when it is done. Contrast that to the way we live today—the accumulation of private property being society’s main motivator, infrastructure (roads, trains, water, internet, heat) being reserved for those who can afford it. This point was hammered home for me when I boiled snow to flush my toilet in February.
In Death Stranding, capitalism is conspicuously absent from the whole infrastructure planning process. After all, options are limited and optimized. Housing is subterranean, far beneath the eroding rain on the surface, and everything is powered by readily available and highly mobile wind power. There is no room in this world for half-measures. No slow transitions or tempered progress. Survival is all or nothing.
This depiction is a direct critique of modern centrist attitudes about climate change. Even the wording (“climate change”) suggests a view of the environment as steady, predictable, unsurprising. It’s a subtle endorsement of a pernicious notion: that we can solve the climate crisis while keeping our current lifestyle. While the actions of a handful of corporations make up the majority of carbon emissions¹, it is still necessary for us to reckon with the fact that a sustainable society will omit many of the things that are common about everyday life today. This will likely include things that will be wildly unpopular, like decreasing meat consumption or shifting most people to public transit.
Many believe the things mentioned above are crucial to our happiness or prosperity, however, Death Stranding is a direct refutation of this idea, showing humanity’s survival of a natural calamity only through dramatic changes to ideology and lifestyle. The resulting civilization relies almost entirely on goods that can easily be broken down and recycled. Life goes on, lifestyle does not.
What does life look like at the end of the world then? The game challenges us to confront the absence of capitalism and see if we’re surprised at what we find. The futurism of Death Stranding is an absence of capitalism, yet what is left behind is not the communism of Stalin or Mao. I challenge you to consider if the ideas and systems that have come before are the only choices we have going forward. Consider the societies that preceded coal burning and print pressing. Consider hundreds of peoples before which constructed their societies around the welfare of their people. Consider the one who has everything they need.