We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
— T.S. Eliot
A lone peak looms large in the distance, solely populated by a ring of cryptobiotic flora. Its majesty and mystery unwavering, it is simultaneously inviting and imposing in a way that resembles the Romantic sublime. Forsaken and forlorn, it stands as a beacon of beauty amidst the capitalist hellscape at the heart of Death Stranding, the brutalist and narcissistic unearthly forms planted by man to taint the earth.
The Romantics viewed mountains for the curious phenomena they fundamentally are. The aforementioned peak is actually tucked away to the southwest of Timefall Farm, one of the game’s more insignificant locations, with no narrative importance attached. Its monumental poise is unmatched in the natural world, and yet it is overlooked through a lens of polygonal familiarity.
“Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar,” Percy Bysshe Shelley writes in “A Defense of Poetry.” In Death Stranding, what lies beyond this veil is not always beautiful, but it is, without fail, magnificent: Airborne whales hover amid a maelstrom of wind and rain, as battered beaches oscillate between the serene scenes of a winter’s morning and sheer, war-ravaged delirium.
Shelley’s near-contemporary William Wordsworth describes the horror of mountains in his Two-Part Prelude. “No familiar shapes remained,” he writes. “No pleasant images of trees, of sea or sky, no colours of green fields; but huge and mighty forms, that do not live like living men, moved slowly through the mind by day, and were a trouble to my dreams.”
This dichotomy is integral to the meditations of Romanticism, and essential to understanding what distinguishes the natural from the man-made in Death Stranding. Sublimity, often misconstrued as a state of wonder, is derived from disinterested awe. And although the mountain in Wordsworth is a source of fear, its massive stature exponentially growing as he rows away from its base and into its shadow, it is, also, Romantically sublime.
Shelley too is fascinated by mountains, documenting their “unearthly forms” in Mont Blanc, but in the same poem assigns them authority over natural order: “Thou hast a voice, great Mountain,” he writes. “To repeal large codes of fraud and woe; not understood by all, but which the wise, and great, and good interpret, or make felt, or deeply feel.”
Wordsworth’s trepidation in The Prelude, however, holds no weight in Death Stranding—that is until you account for intentional fallacy. In Death Stranding, mountains like the peak mentioned above are places of respite. Instead, the horrific unfamiliarity of unearthly shapes exists in the form of the massive, sharp-edged BRIDGES buildings, erected alongside desolate, brutalist apartment blocks once occupied, long vacated.
This is where the Romantic juxtaposes with modernism. Consider Eliot's The Waste Land:
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many."
Like Eliot’s Unreal City, Death Stranding’s ghost towns are teeming with death and haunted by a pervasive fog of decay. The capitalist-branded structures that loom over them, however, are a gleaming testament to the bureaucratic corporations that drove America into the dirt. Claiming to be the last beacon of humanity, their razor-sharp protrusions are so ostentatiously pointed and precise that their artistic value is about as subtle as a cracked cinder block sat in a field. They are devoid of all meaning that is not immediately institutional—and thus become inherently hegemonic, interpellating the isolated splinter communities sporadically dotted across America.
This process is enacted by the cold, unfeeling architecture itself, as well as the infrastructure that surrounds it: if the BRIDGES facility is a beating heart, the motorways connecting it to preppers—or survivors-cum-misanthropes—scattered across a decadent country are arteries pumping livid blood to their extremities. BRIDGES is the sole Ideological State Apparatus left in America, meaning that it has monopolized influence for better or worse. As an extension of this, Lessig’s pathetic dot theory—which considers four forces acting on the eponymous pathetic dot, or person—is violently wrenched beyond the humane: there is no fixed law, no established social norms, no market to speak of—save a basic exchange of digitized credits for terminal-manufactured materials—and thus the fourth pillar enclosing the individual, architecture, assumes totalitarian dominion. It is the sovereign ruler of all, the architect behind it its puppeteer.
The result stretches beyond the conventional absurd. Psychogeographical absurdism is often labeled as Ballardian, but Ballard’s work focuses on familiar, functional buildings like the high rise—which, in Death Standing, exists as no more than bombed-out backdrop. But the same principles apply to remote, isolated preppers. Consider the opening to Ballard’s novel, High Rise:
Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months.
This doesn’t just juxtapose the absurd with the mundane—on the contrary, it normalizes, or at least attempts to normalize, the urban Weird. Kojima apparently decided to cut the convolution a hurdle or two before dog-eating, but again, the principle is present: in isolation, absurd behaviour can be internalized—see: Krapp’s Last Tape—and, as a result, absorbed by the interpellated individual psyche.
Death Stranding’s preppers exemplify this actionable absurdism. Refusing to leave their fallout bunkers, they vicariously experience the outside world through holographic avatars. A strict diet of tinned food and academic obsession by necessity absorbs them inward, to the point where they shutter off the outside world because the outside world asked it of them. Meanwhile, the structures themselves are deeply liminal: initially intended to be temporary, they are incapable of becoming permanent due to their original nature as makeshift and transitory. They are not a home, but a prison, surrounded by a vast, hell-scorched desert.
“Deserts possess a particular magic, since they have exhausted their own futures, and are thus free of time,” Ballard writes in The Atrocity Exhibition. This, too, is a product of the same liminality. “Anything erected there, a city, a pyramid, a motel, [a BRIDGES facility], stands outside time. It's no coincidence that religious leaders emerge from the desert … A future Rimbaud, Van Gogh, or Adolf Hitler will emerge from their timeless wastes.”
But there is no individual here—there is only the all-encompassing, world-defining BRIDGES. Thus the prepper’s bunker begins to transform the person as opposed to the other way around, and instead of the prepper’s identity being reflected by the structure, they become defined by the microcosm existing within it.
This is the paradox of BRIDGES: it connects people via the chiral network, but to no actionable end. A prepper may be excited to see you if your last three deliveries have arrived in immaculate condition, but the majority of them will still speak to you from behind blast doors. They have become little more than a branch—or twig—in the network, a conveniently clever AI capable of basic conversation while simultaneously, effortlessly, and involuntarily acting as a signal booster for a country-spanning network steeped in ambiguity and corporate jargon.
The sequential nature of such a network is perpetual within its own ephemeral framework, as evidenced by the decadent Edge Knot City seen towards the end of the game. Crumbling buildings bite the dirt, as urban paraphernalia spills out from their shrunken forms and into the scorched crater that smothered history in historiography. And yet the sombre haunt of this city is not enough to hide its former narcissism, the ruinous BRIDGES facilities sharing a nature with one Ozymandias. “Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!” Shelley writes, impersonating the pharaoh. “Nothing beside remains. Round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare the lone and level sands stretch far away.”
As with Ozymandias’ desolate monument, this is terminus—this is Tartarus. And no matter how many brutalist blocks are overshadowed by high-tech testaments to the contemporary billionaire complex, people will drain Strontium-12-laced skimmed milk while faraway mountains slumber sweetly on the horizon. To reiterate Shelley: a mountain has a voice “not understood by all, but which the wise, and great, and good interpret, or make felt, or deeply feel.”
This is the crux of the lifeless beauty of Death Stranding. It’s a world where you do not cease from exploration, where you can arrive where you started and know it for the first time. But you’re alone, with nobody to join you on the summit. For all of your feeling, it is impossible to make anything felt. Your job is to reconnect the world, but the dots are incompatible with one another—Rorschach blots too stubborn to compromise, too opaque to see the natural beauty of the world, too lost in the maelstrom to ever recognize that the sublime becomes tangible if you are willing to reach for it.
Cian Maher is a writer from Dublin, Ireland. Find him on Twitter @cianmaher0