The approximate midgame hours of Death Stranding will have you largely concerned with infrastructure. As the Story floats untethered overhead, light, in spite of its conceptually dense themes of trauma, existential dread, and conflicted parenthood, my Sam Porter Bridges busies himself mostly with building roads. I load up my pack at the distribution center with heavy metals and space-age crystals. I trek out to an uncultivated, boulder-strewn meadow, its natural expanse interrupted only by a monolithic depot into which I dump my ephemeral resources, and then I watch as the previously impassable terrain is wrapped in smooth, regular tarmac.
I feel a need to keep building these roads. I need to keep building roads so that I can deliver more things, faster. I must complete my contracts so that I can start new ones, strap new hard cases to my augmented chassis before the previous delivery has even cleared the conveyor belt. I flail about, increasingly fatigued as my treadmill runs its course. I can’t deliver everything, there’s no end to the orders which come pinging in from across the country. There’s always another job, some other siloed soul demanding something frivolous, something dear.
My mother spent more than a decade driving around the Bronx, delivering pizzas for Domino's, before it ruined her back. Nights of laboring up flights of high-rise stairs (to save time on elevator rides), racing against calculations of time over tips, shifted her vertebrae and compressed her sciatic nerve, forcing her to retire. Since then she’s found ways to enjoy life; to rest, to recover. But she remains restless in her retirement. She misses the feeling of being needed.
Walking down the streets of any major American city in these times of entrenched pandemic, it’s difficult to miss the two-toned blue uniforms identifying an Amazon delivery worker, part of the new porter class Kojima unintentionally predicted when he released Death Stranding a month before the first Covid case. Big rental trucks double park in front of fire hydrants as workers of all ages gather to check shipping manifests and load towering stacks of smiling-logoed boxes onto their individual handtrucks, to be dispersed out to each city’s inhabitants, tucked away in their tiny vertiginous apartments.
The role of this porter class in our new, more isolated mode of living is to embody the now-meaningless PR buzzword of “essential worker.” They connect us all, each of us eking out some form of existence within our isolated cells. Like Death Stranding’s porters, the interlinking delivery routes of Amazon’s delivery workers criss-cross the country and produce something resembling a society. Yet these workers are the ones forever left on the outside, working in spite of heat, or cold, to bring us our food, our pleasures, our dildos, too. Our network is built on bodies. Always has been, but it’s never been so impossible to ignore, so bright, so corporately captured, branded in blue polos and orange safety vests.
Games are good at representing labor, with their endless repetitive loops and quantifiable grinds. But they tend to extrapolate the labor from its real life hardship. They remove it from its very important context of pain and desperate necessity.
As such, the laborers of Death Stranding are in it, as we the players are, for the fun of it all, the game of it. We want the adventure, the space to meditate on the vagaries of existence while striding across pristine, untouched natural wonders. There is no physical dimension to our needs, only something epistemological, even ideological. We all buy into the message offered by Bridges, delivered in the same euphemistic marketing lingo as those real-life corporations who ask us to clap and bang pots to thank their minimum wage workforce for being held hostage to capitalist exigencies. Bridges asks us to overcome risk and danger so that we may help bring humanity back together, to bind it to a united purpose, in a strong-armed bear hug of good vibes.
But Bridges also provides for its porters in ways that its real-life counterparts staunchly refuse to. The future Death Stranding depicts is a death-filled dystopia where everyone happens to have universal healthcare. Whether it’s through the game’s ubiquitous private rooms, stocked up with energy drinks and blood bags, or through a transactional economy based on “likes” rather than hard currency, everyone’s physical needs are entirely met. Even in our twilight hours, we’re all cradled by this impossibly huge and smooth–running governing entity, serenely drinking its Kool-aid and delivering its packages, pampered infants in our funereal bassinets.
Death Stranding has plenty of forebears. The Stalker games in particular are also about largely barren wildernesses full of dangerous anomalies, traversed by men being dudes, stubbornly trekking out beyond the safe confines of the settlement. Stalker’s aesthetic sharply differs, however: its economy centers more around raw subsistence than Death Stranding’s neatly utopian system. But even the grizzled stalkers of Chernobyl and Pripyat, trading radioactive isotopes for handfuls of rubles and boxes of bullets, are still in it for the halcyonic dream of riches and adventure. They’re still, ultimately, slumming it in the Zone, as are we, who pilot them.
Death Stranding’s tech fetishism operates on similar principles. Your porter’s attire is perfectly cinched and cut into a flattering profile. Each gadget and extraneous ornament coheres into a deeply thought-out arrangement of quasi militarized peacetime high fashion made functional. Bridges is a government but it’s also a boutique, a post-apocalyptic REI, ensuring the sartorial refinement of every last member of its workforce.
This hyper-fixation on clothes and customization, this elaborate exercise in carrying featureless cubes in just the right formation, is a midlife crisis contained within the game’s larger life and death one. If I upgrade my climbing rig, prepare well enough, fabricate a cacophony of toys and high-tech bric-a-brac to string across my exo-frame, I can, surely, avoid death. You may start the game in a cutscene, naked and afraid, but you end it swaddled in blistering rigs, and all-powerful tools, generated from seemingly endless resources. Your Sam is ready to climb his own Everest, to symbolically overcome the creeping death of the outside world, if only by putting one foot in front of the other, bringing one more package to one more thankful recipient.
And hell, even when it turns out we’ve been working on Death’s behalf the whole time, it hardly matters. We’ve isolated the joy and meaningfulness in the endless routine of shuttling its moldering bones—secured in velcro and rain-resistant nylon—across the continent. This is what is demanded of all of us, all us late-capitalist strivers. Dissociate from the world, drape yourself in your company’s colors, and step out into the wild unknown, for the adventure, until it claims you.
Yussef Cole, one of Bullet Points’ editors, is a writer and motion graphic designer. His writing on games stems from an appreciation of the medium tied with a desire to tear it all down so that something better might be built. Find him on Twitter @youmeyou.