Hideo Kojima’s Death Stranding is perhaps the videogame most deserving of the descriptor “flawed masterpiece” since people started using that phrase. It lurches wildly between eye-roll-inducing product placement and breathtakingly intimate moments and buries some of its most intriguing political ideas in emails the player can completely ignore. Conversely, the metaphorical purpose of each character is overexplained to the point of losing meaning. The story and world of Death Stranding are bursting with incongruous logic and messages but there is one constant: building and maintaining infrastructure with other players makes the game infinitely easier.
From the story’s very beginning, protagonist Sam Porter Bridges, played by Norman Reedus, is clear that he has no interest in propping up a nation-state or even working with others. He is only convinced to join the endeavor to reconnect America through coercion, and a desire to see his sister in person. Although there are individuals working for the United Cities of America that Sam connects with, they distrust the government they serve as well. The more Sam stitches together the idea of a country over thousands of miles, the closer he gets to seeing the lies at its foundation. Death Stranding doesn’t make a clear argument for government, or even for a world formally united against an apocalyptic threat. But it desperately argues for each of us as individuals to choose to work together.
Although Death Stranding is largely a single player game, it has multiplayer mechanics at the core of its thematic focus on reconnecting a broken society. Playing in online mode connects you to other players, so the structures you have built, upgraded, and repaired appear in their games, and vice versa. You never directly interact with these players. You never see their versions of Sam quietly hauling cargo in the distance, or compete with them for rewards. The closest you get to interaction is notifications that another player liked something you contributed to. If you play in offline mode, you’re on your own. It is unclear if Kojima was aware of the irony of how much harder Death Stranding would be for people who literally don’t have access to high-speed internet, but intentional or not, it serves to highlight just how difficult infrastructure is to build and maintain on one’s own.
There are a number of structures players can create in Death Stranding: shelters, postboxes, generators, and bridges, just to name a few. By far the ones that take the most materials and time to complete are the roads. To construct this network of paved roads across the central region of Death Stranding’s America is a monumental task, each individual section requiring more materials than you can get at any one UCA facility. The road-building mechanic is designed to be completed bit by bit, with players contributing what they reasonably can carry to the construction site as they go along their journeys. Unless one plays in offline mode, there is almost no way to avoid interacting with the fruits of voluntary collective labor and material contribution. A player can choose to not contribute to this infrastructure, and still use it, they're just delaying their own access to efficient travel. There is no punishment for not assisting in this effort; just as is the case with preppers Sam meets who are resistant to joining the UCA, but can still use the BRIDGES chiral network and porters. However, if the player chooses to help pave the roads, like the preppers who choose to join the UCA, the struggle to survive in a self-destructing world gets markedly easier. Why would anyone want to repeatedly slog on foot over steep slopes and deep rivers, through heavy snow and terrorist territory, and past apocalyptic monsters when they could carry more, faster, and more safely using the roads?
In this dystopian sci-fi epic, there are people who are old enough to remember the world before the Death Stranding—in the game’s fiction, a reality-altering explosion. In particular, a prepper called the Elder emails Sam repeatedly, criticizing BRIDGES and doubting the UCA. When he relents and joins, he sends Sam an email titled “Countries Are Bullshit But …” raging against the United States government he lived under, which isn’t unlike our own, modern version, and showing just how near the future presented in Death Stranding really is. It’s also the moment when Kojima fully tips his hand to show that the broken fictional world he created is a direct response to the rise of nationalist and isolationist ideology in global politics, and particularly in America.
“We had us a president said he was to build a border wall to protect the people. And guess where I was born? On the other side of that goddamned wall, that’s where,” writes the Elder. “And so I got to thinking, me being an immigrant and all, if something happened would I be first on the list for help from them in charge? Would I even be on the list? Reckon the answer was shit, no.”
The Elder isn’t the only character who resists joining the UCA; the First Prepper shares a story passed down from his grandfather, that the US government blamed terrorists for the Death Stranding, and their failure to respond to the real crisis is “why the country went to shit.” The Veteran Porter writes to Sam that he’s hesitant to put his faith in “another ‘united’ this or that,” and asks, “Do you really know who these BRIDGES guys are? Do you trust them? Are you even sure you want the same thing?” The Collector even has doubts about setting up a communication network because of how the internet was used to spread misinformation.
While some characters have doubts, The Elder is unique in his direct connection to the world of today, and in his explicit anger at the systemic oppression being suffered in the real world now. Through his memory of our present, any player who fully bought into the mission of the UCA is reminded of how often governments make promises they don’t keep. The Elder remembers what it’s like for political assurances of safety to implicitly place innocent people in danger, for the government to pick and choose who’s deserving of support, and what it’s like to be cut off from his real support network due to the actions of that same government.
Before joining the UCA the Elder derisively asks, “Rebuild the roads, and you rebuild the dream, is that it?” It’s rhetorical, but in the end, that rebuilding and connection is what pushes him to give the UCA a chance. But he’s clear that his support cautious and conditional. “Borders, countries, governments—it’s all bullshit,” he writes. “I’m taking a chance on you, BRIDGES, not because I believe in you and yours, but because I want to.”
The Elder isn’t willing to give the UCA a chance because of the president or any promises she made; he gives it a chance because he sees the progress that is being made by people who have actively chosen to work together to create a better world, even if they’ll never meet almost any of the people this better world is benefitting. This mirrors the players’ experience of contributing to the roads and using roads built by others; they are strangers, all trying to make the journey a little easier for themselves, and whoever comes after. This vision of voluntary collectivism shows that it’s ultimately not uniting under the flag of the UCA that is going to heal the world; it’s uniting without pretense.
The Death Stranding destroyed governments, communications, infrastructure—everything that facilitated global connection. The task in the beginning of the game is to reconnect America, and by extension the world, because no one even knows if there is a world left beyond this continent. When the UCA is connected, what place it will make for itself in the post-Stranding world is unclear. It could continue to bring people together, or it could regressively assert the borders of the old world. In his last email before passing away, the Elder shares one final unapologetically political statement: “You’re fixing to rebuild the country, and countries mean borders … But right here and now, in this world without none of that, I feel … connected. And I like it.” After a life of disappointment and fear under the United States and the post-Stranding collapse, it’s not the recreation of the American dream that makes the Elder finally feel connected; it’s the people who built the network and built the roads.
Alex Dalbey-Thomas is a writer and zinester currently working out of St. Paul, Minnesota. They write about LGBTQ issues, videogames, comics, American Midwest politics, and sex. Follow them on Twitter.