In Search of Narrative Within Death Stranding
As a writer and avid film (and occasional TV) watcher, I’ve developed a keen sense and genuine hunger for all things Narrative. In reading Jonathan Gottschall’s The Storytelling Animal I have also learned that our brains are specifically wired for story; we tell ourselves and each other stories everyday, even for the most mundane tasks like going to store or what happened when we went to the dentist, we always set the stage with characters, backstory (if needed) and details if we can muster them. In other words, we cannot escape the enterprise of constructing Narrative. In keeping in line with books, and since this is a bookstore, I want to extract a fundamental component from its construction and talk about Narrative.
In what will hopefully be a series of essays concerning Narrative, I want to explore different mediums, other than the traditional platform of perfect binding constructed through linear paths and the ubiquitous structure of Freytag’s Triangle. Narrative does not always fit into these neat little figures, graphs and circles, and more importantly, does not belong only to a page, even though all great narratives can be built from it. It’s why I study every movie, dissect a scene, or listen to a song over and over again, to get a sense of how it would look on a page, not so much out of a desire to make a living, but to find new ways in which to express what it means to be alive.
Video games offer more than just mere button mashing and unique game play mechanics. With every new game that premieres, gamers, serious and casual alike, have the opportunity to immerse themselves in an interactive Narrative. Complete with characters, plot, environment, the player embodies the protagonist, gives them agency, and shares in the struggle to reach an end.
In our current social consciousness, the platform for Narrative has spread to unique and more interactive mediums, i.e. Video Games, Online Streaming, and Music. This allows writers to explore much broader and more expressive mediums that still utilize all the basic components of Narrative. So to begin this series of essays, I want to touch on the recent release, Death Stranding, by the great Hideo Kojima. I think his name speaks volumes to his extensive resume, so I will only focus on this game and its unique Narrative.
Death Stranding takes a more nuanced and slower approach to telling a story. In about 15 to 20 hours of game play, I have begun to notice the minute detail and large scale symbolic exploration that is Kojima’s genius. I will offer as much expository information as I can, without spoiling too much, as well as focus on the various symbolic meanings that Kojima employs with the unique world he has created. Symbolism and theme are the primary emphasis for this essay, and exploring the depth of which metaphor and symbolism can achieve through action is what I intend to discuss. As far as plot development, characterization, or other techniques that comprise Narrative I will not go too far into them unless necessary.
Carrying the Weight of the World
Sam Porter Bridges is a Porter, a courier that carries cargo from one isolated community, or Prepper, to the next. He is also a Repatriate, a rare human with the ability, that should he die, his soul will be able to reconnect to his body, with the help of a BB. The world, having experienced near obliteration because of the Death Stranding, a para-normal apocalypse with literal manifestations of the dead, who, when having consumed the living, create a Voidout, whose effect is that of a small nuclear detonation. No one knows what keeps death stranded,what’s keeping them here, but what does remain clear, they are not friendly. Needless to say, the United States is no longer in existence (or any other nation-state) and what remains are isolated centers of communities whose population ranges from 1 to 50 + thousand inhabitants, all living underground. The major centers are referred to as Knots (a symbolic and metaphorical reference to a community woven together with your help) tied to the greater UCA. Only those brave enough, some with the unique DOOMS (the ability to sense BTs), and/or a BB (Bridge Baby), a fetus still connected to its comatose mother through the Chiral Network, venture outside to deliver cargo.
The first 30 minutes or so of the Narrative are mainly cut scenes that give an introduction into the world and provides a bit of the obligatory expository dialogue between characters. You are given very little control, and when you are given autonomy over the protagonist, it is a struggle. Sam’s first real task is to carry the corpse of the last living president of the United Cities of America, a woman who raised Sam, to be incinerated, because all corpses now have to be disposed of properly, otherwise what remains will necrotize (pop), summoning a BT, and destroy an entire area. This means killing anyone becomes a massive risk and unless Sam disposes of the bodies properly, there will be dire consequences. Sam’s first defensive/offensive measure against MULEs (those porters who became addicted to collecting cargo by any means necessary) is a strand, piece of rope interwoven with his DNA, which merely seeks to incapacitate than obliterate, so it becomes essential to take different approach when fighting, leaving Sam to take more of a peaceful warrior role a la Dr. Kyojo Niide in Kurosawa’s masterpiece Red Beard. Should you kill, it becomes your task to carry those corpses into the nearest incinerator, which are never around the corner.
As I began to give Sam agency, I understood this Narrative is about connecting the remnants of the world together. Utilizing various tools at your disposal, tools like your odradek, a scanner that relays topographical data, location of lost cargo, enemies, and destinations, and when connected to a BB, can point Sam to the location of a BT. When you scan the environment, you can see Sam’s footprints, and should you be connected to the internet, can witness other players’ footprints, holographic signs,and hear their calls, and much like a defining quality of social media, you can offer ‘likes’ to structures others build, signs placed and other tasks accomplished. Even your tiny BB can send a few ‘likes’ your way if do you fun things like sprint for long distances, speed on your reverse trike, or take a goofy picture in a mirror in a private room.
For the BB, it is highly suggested that Sam not grow attached or think of it as a living thing. But how can a piece of equipment send you ‘likes’? Or start crying when you fall down or submerged in water, or chased by a BT? The moniker Bridge Baby is not just an alliterative ploy Kojima employs to rhyme or use word play to sound cool or smart, everything within this world is utilized to build up some higher purpose that effectively expresses some deeper symbolic meaning. Characters embody their name, become a living metaphor to their personal experiences and as you connect them further, become inextricably woven in their lives. The people you meet are named after the very occupation or location they inhabit, i.e. Film Director, Junk Dealer, Chiral Artist, etc. The figurative bridge across the UCA are the Porters, like Sam, delivering simple everyday objects like old magazines, books, furniture, all strapped onto their back or on the back of a truck – though driving is not always the best option as roads have long since been destroyed – but also more important things like oxytocin, the love drug, because isolation is a very real threat to humans, and humans need to feel connected. With Sam, he also is under the web of the UCA (the symbol for which is a literal spider’s web spun across the country) and its last government agency aptly titled Bridges, named after the eponymous president Bridget Strand, and with him not only comes cargo carried over long distances and difficult terrain, but the Q-pid, a key to the Chiral Network, the informational web that shares all data, knowledge, and the figurative progression forward.
With the BB, they are bridges between the living and dead. By retaining their connection to their comatose mother, still fronting their umbilical cord, they reveal the location of BTs and allow our protagonist, and others like him, the ability to evade or fight the enigmatic Beached Things. Strapped to Sam’s chest, these tiny humans react to the physical and other-world in which BTs reside, waiting to consume any unsuspecting Porter or passerby. There is a reason why no one steps outside as the true terror of the world are not the MULEs or Terrorists still wreaking havoc upon the isolated communities, but these enigmatic shadow figures that wait silently to grab Sam, and the only thing to aid him is his trusted Bridge Baby.
As the title suggests, Death Stranding focuses on strands, both literal and figurative. For the BTs, there are literal strands,umbilical cords, that anchor these other-worldly beings to the corporeal world and for Sam, and other Porters, they must evade or fight off these creatures(with the help of Repatriate blood that kill BTs) at all costs. With BTs come the cataclysmic horror of the world, and should you be pulled into the protoplasmic tar pool, with literal human shadows pulling and reaching for you, images of whales and crabs swirl around you as you are dragged through the black pool and must contend with one of several massive BTs that give chase, seeking to consume you, causing a Voidout. While Sam may not die, due to his being a Repatriate, anything and everything else will not be as fortunate. Upon examining a map of the U.S. we see there are craters that resemble the surface of the moon. The BTs, in their simple human like form (or the small floating fetus form), are aberrations that leave their physical mark upon the corporeal world in the shape of glowing orange hand prints, but unlike Sam who leaves blue footprints everywhere he goes. If connected to the Chiral Network, you can retrace these footsteps. These hand prints and foot prints act as warning or signal to other travelers to find a way forward or around, a literal ‘road most traveled’ or avoid.
When engaging in a fight against a massive BT, Sam is dragged into an arena like central location, where cars and buildings rise and sink like ships swept up in a turbulent sea storm. The destruction of the past comes bubbling up and acts as platform for Sam to find stable footing and mount an offense, should you so choose and are capable. Upon defeat of a massive BT, the timefall stops, and what remains are a sea of dead fish and the crystalline-flower-like chiralium.
With The Beach, this personal and private space people can visit, the theme connects the idea of a strand to mean stranded as well. The Beach is meant to be a bridge into the next life, a place we all visit when dying, but for some reason people get stranded, stuck on their beach, the midway point to the afterlife, and become anchored to the corporeal world in which the rest of humanity now hides from.
On beaches you find the occasional whale or dolphin washed ashore and with these large mammals, it becomes a communal task to remove them. Our own private beach is symbolic of the space in which we visit to get away from the world, but in here, it seems that death takes the form of ghastly human shadows and the symbolic washed up whale. We can look at our world today and still find stories of whales washing ashore, or the infamous ‘red tide’ of annual algal bloom in which most sea life that comes in contact with it cannot survive. This death washing ashore also implies the idea of something not belonging, something lost, something alone.
The Chiral Network
Chiral is derived from the Greek word kheir , which simply means hand. It is meant to evoke the similar, if not a mirror image of an object, take for instance your hands, when placed side by side they are a mirror image. But this dichotomy is indicative of not only the living and living-dead, but also the isolated reflection of oneself. While we explore the world alone (this is a single player game after all), Sam is introduced to other people who are just as lonely, experiencing that isolated promise that still manages to function due the slow and arduous gathering of community. But it’s also reflective of Sam’s penchant to be alone, and bringing people into the Chiral Network, is one of the many tasks important to this Narrative.
With connecting each new isolated community or Prepper, individuals that survived the destruction of the world and built their own bunkers, to the Chiral Network, Sam, along with everyone connected to the network, are given more knowledge and equipment to make life easier; more weapons against BTs, Terrorists, and MULEs. The more cargo you deliver to each location, the more ‘likes’ you’ll get, the more they’ll admire your work and the more they’ll trust you. With trust come community and the opportunity to give more and share knowledge, schematics for newer more resilient vehicles, weapons to deter or protect Sam and other Porters from harm. But connecting people takes time; Sam is literally on foot most of this journey and it is reflective of not only how difficult his journey is, but our journey as well, in relation to the game and to each other in the world. You cannot speed through this game without tripping, falling, or bumping into things that will upset the BB and damage precious cargo. The game forces you to slow down and much to our discontent in the onslaught of informational deluge that is our present life, it teaches you to take your time in developing relationships and how difficult and treacherous they can be if you’re not careful.
The Chiral Network isn’t just about connecting people to each other: it is about connecting everyone with the past. In order to figure out the current predicament, we have to see what was before and much like the literal footprints that Sam leaves, we have to examine what has happened to give us a sense of where we are going. It is a link to share current knowledge and past knowledge, and with connection comes communication and the sense of isolation slowly dissolves. The Musician will send mail through the network to talk about the origination of music through our two feet creating a steady rhythm, or share his new work with the rest of the Chiral Network. The Elder will talk of the time before and what has changed. The Collector will talk of print magazines and their influence on his life. The Film Director will speak of movies and other pop cultural historical artifacts. The history of the time before becomes a shared experience as these individuals begin to reach out with their acquired tastes and knowledge.
Within the Chiral Network, Sam can build structures like bridges, watchtowers, generators,postboxes, safe houses, and timefall shelters. With each connected area, the bandwith expands, increasing the amount of structures that can be maintained or built, so building too much and randomly will effectively hinder Sam. Improving relations to each community will also strengthen the bandwith.
NPCs (non-playable characters)within the game will send you a like for making their journey a bit easier by having built a bridge across a deep river or chasm, or placing a ladder to help them scale a treacherous cliff, or rope to scale down; the sense of community is insular within the game, but not having the internet (the real-world Chiral Network) I noticed that all the structures I struggled to build (collecting resources and getting them to where they need to go isn’t easy) began to deteriorate. If connected to the internet, you can add resources and upgrade structures that other players have built, or repair them due to timefall. The idea of community takes a different meaning because even though we are playing this game alone, we can still reach out and connect to others to help one another along in their own respective journey.
From a distance you can see the inverted rainbow, reflected in its chirality, with the missing color blue band from the spectrum, and the black threads, or strands, which signal BTs. With timefall comes the expedited process of decay and ageing.Everything it touches begins to deteriorate, fall apart and become weaker. With the timefall comes the possibility of BTs. When rain becomes timefall, Sam’s DOOMS triggers, the rain becomes thicker, black, and we see plants shiver in an expedited growth spurt and quickened decayed withering. It is the entire life span within a few seconds.
All that cargo you are carrying now begins to rust quicker and ultimately becomes useless. All that work required for transport is threatened by a natural phenomenon that forces you to consider how far you want to travel to get where you are going, what to carry, and makes you aware of the condition of cargo due to the fragility of what needs to be carried. If it touches your skin, your skin ages, your body becomes weaker, so Sam and others are constantly covered to prevent this. This is a deterrent for intimacy, again reinforcing the theme of isolation. When removed, we see that Sam is scarred by BT hand prints all over his body, which is one reason why he is haphephobic. Something as simple as a handshake will cause a stir within Sam as he recoils from the ultimate signifier of connection.
As I connected a Weather Station to the Chiral Network, I gained the ability to track the weather – the timefall – and allow Sam to choose where to travel, and whether or not to avoid the timefall, a possible BT encounter, and take a longer route. With more connection, the remnants of humanity become masters of their destiny, amidst the unpredictability of a desolate landscape, and arise as a community struggling to reconnect not only with the past, but the present and make plans for the future.
Communicating with each other through the Chiral Network can be controlled by handcuffs. The first time we witness them, Sam is handcuffed to the bed and it is quite the unsettling feeling because with the government entity Bridges, it seems like Sam is restrained against his will. But the handcuffs act as a HUD and communication device to Bridges and everyone else on the Chiral Network.Instead of imprisonment, or restraining, it is repurposed to connect. But it still acts as a sort of bondage to the government, as we all know that freedom comes with a slight removal of other freedoms, and it shows that community itself is a type of bondage, that to be connected requires us to relinquish solitude.
With Sam,he is given the task of connecting the rest of the country together. In a symbolic gesture, the binding link to everyone is the bracelet/handcuffs that not only act as reminder of the eternal bond we share, and coercive power governments have, but as a tool for literal communication. The UCA is a last attempt at rebuilding the world by connecting humanity, or rather, the United Cities of America. Whatever happened to the rest of the world due to the Death Stranding no one knows, but the only way forward, to find out, is to connect as many people as possible.
Tomorrow Is In Your Hands
Hideo Kojima simplifies the complicated species that is humanity by enriching the Narrative with this concept: we are all connected. It takes time to do this though. Running around on foot, scaling treacherous cliffs and avoiding conflict with BTs, MULEs or Terrorists, it all takes time and willpower.
Something happened to me as I began playing in this open world. While this is not strictly a linear game, the world is open for you to explore, but in a limited capacity. So I explored. I carried only a few weapons, an extra pair of boots, and a few other items and I traveled off the grid, out of the Chiral Network. I was alone. Because of this,I learned the real value of what this Narrative is trying to teach me: that survival is extremely difficult, almost impossible to accomplish without anyone to aid you. Over time, Sam begins to tire and needs to rest, but without any resources or supplies or community, there was only me and a defenseless BB. His boots will wear out and the harsh terrain will begin to rip apart his feet,he’ll bleed out, become anemic and pass out from literal exhaustion. Sam will also be unable to replenish any ammo that was used and I ran into a few heavily armed terrorist groups that exhausted what little supply Sam had to defend with. And any offensive measures Sam had against BTs were quickly utilized. It was slowly becoming a desperate situation as every distribution center or Prepper I found was closed off, there being other tasks that needed doing before I was to make the trek out that far. I realized that with Sam, I was not only connecting people to this network for some ideal, but for real, tangible materials to push on further. And not being connected to the internet, with all the effort I spent on building bridges, generators, watchtowers, roads, everything began to deteriorate. In another facet of the Narrative, because I am not connected to the internet, I am alone in repairing the environment by rebuilding roads or bridges, connecting people via the vast database of knowledge and objects that assist in making life easier. The internal engine of the Narrative is insulated but attachable to the external PSN (Playstation Network) and for that, I feel a slight disconnect to the deeper, metaphysical bridge that the Narrative is seeking to develop.
Kojima reduces the social media aspect of “likes” into an actual reward system that benefits players; the more likes you have, the more respect you acquire and have an impact on your stats and abilities in the game. The more connected you are to a location or Prepper, they will equip you with fancier and more resilient gear to assist you. It is also a way of the game connecting you to other players when you are connected to the internet. But it isn’t so much about your status or the trivial aspects of your life, but about the efficacy and functionality of helping others move forward, because in the end, it’s not just about connecting, but helping each other. It strips away the façade of constructing an image that we want to show the world, the false idealized version of who we want to be and reduces the basic function of ‘liking’ something to the greater scheme of community, of assisting, of making this treacherous journey ever slightly easier. While you can alter Sam’s clothes with hats or sunglasses, and change their colors, take a picture in the bathroom mirror, it doesn’t matter what you do, the BB will like Sam for who he is. In the grand scheme of things, the social media juggernaut that functions to connect us, in its primal state, is meant to uplift each other, to make the difficulty of living something less monstrous and a burden;by knowing that others ‘like’ our actions, our deeds, whether good or bad, it validates us, it shows us recognition in the face of a lonely and hostile world. Kojima strips away the fuss surrounding social interaction inherent with‘likes’ to reveal its base function, namely that we are not alone amidst the terrors of our past.
The past is literally haunting the present, preventing any possible future by keeping everyone separated. It is a monumental task of footing across the continent and reconnecting people. The phrase “Tomorrow Is In Your Hands” speaks not only of the meta cradling of a controller to move your protagonist around, carrying of cargo to build trust between each location, but also the hands of the various narrative devices such as BTs, who reach out to the living, who seek Sam out by touching the earth and burning their print into whatever they touch; it is the past that seeks to consume us all, and when you defeat a BT, a chiral hand sprouts from the earth,reaching upward for Sam to collect and further develop the Chiral Network.
The term chiralium is the resource in which the whole network operates and connects people, but also is the very fabric of BTs and the timefall, and certain equipment or structures. It is a unique material discovered after the Death Stranding, the massive event in which the world went dark, disconnected and fragmented due to the rise of BTs. Like a flower, the chiralium will reach upward with its gnarled and jagged hand, waiting to be collected with Sam’s hands to be used in building structures and contribute to the Chiral Network, further spreading knowledge and the very basic human endeavor of community. The hands are literally threaded into the world and network Sam is trying to broaden.
This Narrative is more than just a game in which you run around delivering cargo, fight off MULEs, Terrorists, para-normal ghosts, in its fundamental premise, Kojima is trying (literally and figuratively) to show us what it takes to connect to each other, because although we experience this world alone, we cannot ever manage to move forward without each other. It is equally terrifying to be alone and throughout most of the Narrative, Sam, and his BB, are footing across the great expanse of a hostile and unforgiving landscape without the aid of anyone. It takes a long time to get from one point to the next and with each addition to the Chiral Network,and subsequent appeasement of each inhabitant, Sam can print out upgraded vehicles to travel, but even that’s not enough as some of the terrain is inhospitable for wheels and require the physical effort of Sam to carry on. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried racing through a timefall storm and ran into a BT and had to fight my way free so that the cargo would not be destroyed. It became a desperate fight or flight situation in which I had to reevaluate my approach to the game. The game forces you to slow down due to the treacherous terrain as running recklessly through will cause Sam to lose his footing and potentially stumble, fall or run into obstacles, thus damaging precious cargo. The game literally forces you to balance cargo by shifting the weight either right or left by holding R2 or L2 respectively, and should you fail, Sam will stumble and fall.
It is a lonely Narrative and while some of the landscape is breathtaking in its beauty, with the occasional interaction between NPCs, it doesn’t stray too far from the reality that you have to do it alone. Most interactions with other characters come in the form of holograms as most people are still too afraid to venture outside the confines of their underground sanctuary. But even when presented to another character up close and personal, Sam is afraid of being physically touched, even through a simple as handshake. This fear of being touched, coupled with the lonely journey of connecting the rest of the known world, the fear of the literal past stranded in the present, makes for a Narrative that speaks to our own demons,our own Beached Things, that haunt us from ever connecting to each other and creating a future. It is a long and difficult road, but someone has to do it, but we don’t always have to do it alone.