When Sam Porter Bridges, the protagonist of Kojima Productions’ Death Stranding, comes home after a long hike, he tends to his battered body. The room he wakes up in, copied across locations spanning the entire game’s squeezed depiction of the continental United States, is austere aside from the items he needs to get patched up and return to his gruelling trek across the continent. Follow button prompts and Sam will down entire cans of beer or energy drinks to satiate his thirst, snatch a floating bug from the air to ward off hunger, or head over to a combination toilet/shower where he can relieve himself (polite euphemisms describe urination and defecation as “standing” or “sitting”) and get cleaned up. These actions often result in one or several vials being filled up with his bodily excretions and dirtied shower water. Along with containers of blood drawn from his sleeping body, these vials can be packed up for trips across the post-apocalyptic wastes and thrown at shadowy ghosts called Beached Things (BTs) to injure or kill them.
The stuff of Sam’s life, even his bodily waste, works to defeat death. His very existence is creative, generative, and eventually messianiac in how his organic self helps save humanity.
Sam will toss a lot of his bodily fluids at spectres as he hikes across Death Stranding’s volcanic sci-fi landscape. He’ll hurl shit grenades and shoot blood-filled rounds from rifles as he links up isolated settlements into a kind of super-internet dubbed “the chiral network.” Haunted by ghosts, alone except for run-ins with raging hyper consumerist bandits who attack him on sight, Sam and his magical body must endure against a fractured graveyard world in a seemingly vain attempt to triage the apocalyptic disease that ravages it.
The destruction is twofold. What few Americans are left following a supernatural calamity—the eponymous Death Stranding—hide away in bunkers, terrified of terrorist attacks and suspicious of government attempts to unify their scattered micro-polities into a proper nation. Outside their metal homes, the sky opens up to rain a time-accelerating water that rapidly decays all it touches, human flesh included, and the aforementioned BTs crawl across the landscape, emerging from pools of tar or splashing out of the ground like cancerous leviathans to smash and drag their victims into a dismal afterlife.
Against all of this is Sam, a preternaturally resilient man whose flesh is marked with irremovable smudges of Ash Wednesday handprints—a man of Christlike provenance whose death, thanks to appropriately biblical metaphysical explanations, results in an almost immediate rebirth onto the physical plane.
Sam is special. He is, as explained in convoluted terms by the game, a nearly divine being; capable of living through a deathly world that kills so many others without his qualities. A different game would employ Sam’s lonely perseverance—his dogged work to deliver materials from one shelter to another despite the dangers surrounding him—as an example of individualist grit. He does, after all, take enormous amounts of abuse on his journey+. But Death Stranding never allows Sam to exist as a lone hero. Other characters in the game supply him with valuable information and high-tech supplies. An online game connection means that real-world players help out, too, by reaching across the internet to offer the in-game tools and aids they’ve built. Without their ladders, climbing ropes, ziplines, bridges, energy generators, vehicles, and paved roads, Sam’s tireless work would be next to impossible to carry out. Even though he’s an outstanding individual, the game always centres his fallibility—the flesh and blood humanity that leaves him vulnerable to physical pain and, no matter how steadfast, unable to accomplish the monumental work entirely on his own. It's this balance of human vulnerability and supernatural power that gives Sam's character an importance beyond the usual action game hero.
His role is coupled with Death Stranding’s similar portrayal of post-apocalyptic America. In it, the former nation continues to exist as both a globally significant entity and a wounded but still living body whose various organs must be rejoined with their companions in order to revive as a greater whole. Once each "node" in the chiral network is reconnected by Sam, blood pumps through the great body politic, the reborn government's giving back to its citizens through the ability to transport and print the kind of supplies needed to survive a dangerous world.
The moral and political thrust of this kind of design is pretty clear, especially when viewed in the context of plot points that rope in references to populism, 20th century warfare, the atomic bombings of Japan, 9/11, and the American westward expansion. Understood through a specifically American framework—one put into place by a Japanese studio that understands the frightening global influence the country holds++—the religious implications of the above aspects become significant, too.
Death Stranding stages its depiction of global collapse as the latest instance of a process of continual extinction and rebirth, drawing from theology beyond the confines of any one tradition. But its most persistent and obvious reference points are Christian, especially when it comes to Sam’s role as a messianic figure whose supernatural import is paired with a decidedly human willingness to endure physical torment in a sacrifice meant to save the rest of the species.
His physical agony is centred through constant reminders of the toll his journey across the continent takes on him. Sam is splattered with gore and thick oily muck after fights, staggers into his safe room with blood loss, and stands under the shower with angry red marks on his shoulders from his backpack straps. Once in a while, he’ll rest on the shower floor or reach down to remove a dead toenail from a battered foot. His legs occasionally give out when he’s exhausted and he grips his knees, doubled over, before sitting heavily on the ground to catch his breath. His skin is windburned and chapped after returning from a trip that stretches across snowy mountain ranges. All but the lowest stakes cargo deliveries require him to hurt himself in service of others.
Kojima Productions has always been unusually attentive to its characters’ bodies as living things. The Metal Gear series includes, to mention just a few examples, protagonists who get sick from spending too long in the cold, strain their lower backs from crouching for extended periods of time, and frequently receive battle wounds severe enough to result in lasting, noticeable injuries like missing eyes, permanent scars, and amputated limbs. Death Stranding takes this focus even further, coming to the natural conclusion that a videogame protagonist who withstands so much abuse over the course of a game must naturally possess a cosmologically significant ability to sacrifice his body in the name of the greater good+++.
If Sam doesn't persevere, humanity goes extinct. Because of this, the extra abuse heaped on him takes on metaphysically profound levels. His partial martyrdom is Christlike in the ramifications of its impact. Other aspects of Death Stranding reinforce the comparison. In brief: Sam possesses a unique ability to return from death; he descends into hellish mental battlefields to rescue his tormented father in a kind of single-serve harrowing; his supernaturally consecrated blood and bodily waste, like weaponized communion wine and wafers, vanquish the ghostly dead in a reaffirmation of his divine corpus.
The storytelling, in this regard, isn’t particularly subtle. During a crucial moment somewhat near the story’s conclusion, Sam connects the last “knot” on his journey by ascending a structure of intersecting metal scrap lying stark against the Pacific coastal horizon. Open his map and the overhead view makes the cross he climbs onto impossible to miss. Just after this ascent, faced with a seemingly impassable expanse of liquid tar, Sam is attacked by grasping BTs before finding himself miraculously walking atop and across what looks like a black lake just afterward.
Sam's exceptional status gains him a following as Death Stranding's story plays out. His Bridges team rallies to him based on both his supernatural powers and willingness to continually subject himself to the bodily torment of his mission. He receives "likes" from non-playable characters and online players, strengthening himself through a kind of encouragement that reads as prayerlike devotion made tangible. In this, there's a reinforcement of the idea that individual sacrifice isn't enough. Sam, again, would be lost if it wasn't for the help of unseen strangers leaving tools along his path or the assistance of Bridges and the shelter dwellers who provide him with useful equipment and information. By giving of himself, he attracts the support required for him to continue his work.
Death Stranding is a game about humanity at large, but it centres America specifically as the locus of the world's fate. Sam's journey and biblical associations take on greater weight within this framework. If America continues to officially invoke a Christian worldview as essential to its national fabric, it's only fair for the world that lives under the country's influence to ask it to reexamine what that worldview ought to entail. In Death Stranding's allegorical terms, the question is posed in simple terms. Does American ideology ask its citizens to be like the nihilistic terrorist Higgs, a servant to destruction, or like Sam, who combats alienation and despair to work with others and try to repair a damaged world?
All of this is wrapped up in enough proper nouns and twisted through labyrinthine expository monologues that the game avoids coming off as entirely prescriptive (in this sense at least). But the message is obvious enough: If America, a country that considers itself the world’s policeman, wants to lead with governments that cite Christianity as a guiding principle, it could benefit from looking to the agonizing, self-sacrificing essence of the faith as more of a beacon than the individualist myopia that’s actually at the heart of its culture.
The modern myth that Death Stranding offers—its blending of foundational religion with contemporary politics and future technology—is ultimately a fable that, like the Metal Gear series’ larger-than-life search for ideological grounding in a postmodern haze, is searching to make sense of the times we live in. It detours and distracts on its path toward the conclusions it draws, but Death Stranding does come to an unambiguous end. It explains power to itself in the hopes that doing so will cut through the noise, and communicate a message of hope and necessary sacrifice.
+ One of his first proper missions sees Sam deliver his mother’s corpse—the late president of the game’s reformed American government—to an incinerator kilometres away from the hospital room in which she died. He grunts while climbing mountains, skids down slopes, crosses perilous canyons, and wears away the soles of his hiking boots while silently preparing to burn a parent’s body on his own.
++ At one point in the game, a character mentions that nobody in the new American government really knows what’s going on anywhere else in the world—or if there’s still anything left beyond the nation’s borders. While we can wonder how Canada and Mexico lost all communication with their neighbour, the detail works to show both the United States’ outsized influence on global affairs and an understated critique of the sort of American myopia that often sees its citizens forget that a world exists outside of their purview.
+++ When players mash a button to encourage an aging, sick Solid Snake to crawl through a tunnel blasting him with microwaves in order to avert global catastrophe in Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, we’re given a memorable example of the self-annihilating action hero archetype that Kojima traces from bloodied ‘80s movie protagonists through to Sam Bridges.
++++ Higgs’ former partner, the unfortunately named Fragile, is also defined as heroic in opposition to his inability to care about others. Her backstory deserves more examination than this note has space for, but, in summary, it sees her sacrifice her body by willingly exposing herself to a time-accelerating storm so she can thwart a nuclear catastrophe. This torturous plot was devised for her by Higgs.
Reid McCarter is a writer and a co-editor of Bullet Points Monthly. His work has appeared at The AV Club, GQ, Kill Screen, Playboy, The Washington Post, Paste, and VICE. He is also co-editor of SHOOTER and Okay, Hero, co-hosts the Bullet Points podcast, and tweets @reidmccarter.