In Death Stranding, a Bridge Baby—not to be confused with a breech baby—is a prenatal fetus rescued from its braindead stillmother. The infant is delivered via cesarean, confined to a pod simulating its former home, and then fashioned into a piece of equipment its wearer straps to their belly to establish a trance connection. Because of the baby’s connection to its mother—who is kept on life support in an unseen ICU—and your character suffering from DOOMS (a tortured link to the other side and also an allergy to chiralium, or supernatural residue), you are able to spend the entire game in a paranoid state, keeping an eye out for Beached Things, blind ghosts who want to consume all lifeforms. You hook into the BB, which is also hooked into the odradek—a shoulder-mounted scanning device that kind of looks like a mechanical flower—and are able to go on your merry way, avoiding what would otherwise be unseen hostile horrors. BTs float high above the ground, tethered to our world by an inky umbilical cord—and though the game leaves this uncertain, Death Stranding’s novelization makes clear these things were all once human. Only humans become BTs because we’re the only creatures on this planet who have conceived of an afterlife. The Death Stranding occurred when the Beach—the planes between the afterlife and our world got somehow jumbled—and…
Got all that so far?
Death Stranding is a fucking weird, very special game that’s all too happy to pump you full of lore and backstory. There’s so much it has to tell you, every character you meet will persist in emailing you their every thought through to the game’s conclusion, even though you’re unable to ever write back. You play as the stoic, though obviously grumpy, Sam, an exhausted and somehow immortal deliveryman in what’s essentially the most grimdark version of Futurama imaginable. But it doesn’t matter how many packages you drop off or how quickly and carefully, because the baggage the game’s really saddling you with is quite literally too much information.
Alone, you schlep back-breaking loads to survivors, preppers, and hermits—braving haunted locales, unforgiving terrain, the elements, and cryptic mythology. There’s a sense to be made of the things all these people tell you. What it’s all really communicating is something that’s never found in words—urging you to bend more towards abandoning our dependence on reason, and relax into whatever the moment at hand offers.
How is this different from any other Hideo Kojima game? Maybe it isn’t. Despite Death Stranding’s imaginative new world, as in the entire Metal Gear saga, you’re cast in the role of a surly and gruff-voiced dude who patiently listens as colorful characters deliver lengthy monologues. Unless you’re a reckless masochist, stealth and treading lightly will again be your default mode of getting around. And while the marketing copy proclaims Death Stranding is “genre-defying,” what’s novel here is the game’s commitment to letting you loose and reminding you that, really, all you have to do is head west.
In this cursed world, you cross paths with lots of people who have been blunted by the trauma an apocalypse would bring. Instead of shepherding infrastructure-reviving goods like you, they sit around on their fat asses. Via hologram, they ramble and debate whether—if—the old United States is revived, can we and our old-fashioned American know-how really somehow forestall our inevitable extinction? As a humble porter, and man of few words, the topic is above your paygrade. Your job is to sacrifice your body and soul, repeatedly, if necessary—not ask questions.
After making it to what possibly used to be Colorado-ish, you meet Heartman face-to-face for the first time. Kinda-sorta your co-worker, he’s a researcher with a medical condition and a personal stake in understanding how the rivets to reality have unfastened such that the afterlife has decoupled from our shorter, mortal existences. Heartman, too, is trying to claw his way back to the past—but only so he can die in the “right way.”
He has his reasons. Long ago, while having what turned out to be unfortunately life-saving heart surgery in a remote hospital, his wife and daughter were killed at home in an explosion. For a moment, the three were united in the Beach, a sort of limbo before whatever’s on the other side of that. But, Heartman was ripped away from them when the hospital’s back-up generator kicked in, enabling a defibrillator to restart his heart—and sparking an absurd Marie Kondo-like reorganization of his life so he can safely die again and again, to hopefully be reunited with his family.
In sharp contrast to nearly everyone else you spend time and hold still with throughout Death Stranding, Heartman opens up his home to you. And what a home it is. Although deeply wounded and his life a wreck, he has built the ultimate man cave deep inside a mountain. If Rick Rubin dedicated his life to celebrating and experiencing art, and not supporting its creation, it’d be something like Heartman’s cushy live-in facility. There’s a hot spring outside, mountain view, extensive library of all media imaginable, and an eye for interior decorating that tells visitors “let’s make the best of this hell we call life.”
The other crucial detail to note about Heartman’s home is that its floor, walls, and other surfaces are covered in a thick layer of padding. You don’t know this until you meet Heartman and he explains his damage, but the apocalypse has not been kind to him. He has become so obsessed with finding his family in the Beach that he wears an external automated defibrillator on his chest—necessary to resuscitate him 60 times a day, after being clinically dead 60 times a day roughly every 24 minutes. The padding is to reduce the likelihood of bodily injury while his pulse stops; his near-death experiences are mundane. When you meet Heartman, he explains that he’s died 218,549 times and only has a few minutes to speak before that figure climbs. He then spends more of his limited time explaining that every 21 minutes, he dies for three—visiting the Beach, searching for his family—and then is once again back among the living for roughly the length of an episode of Friends. If you stop and crunch the numbers—or go by the novel version spelling it out—you learn that Heartman’s already spent a decade visiting the afterlife when you first meet him in person.
Everyone in Death Stranding has a batshit sob story, and barely has to be scratched to tell it. When you’re still firmly in the tutorial phase and getting a handle on the game’s control scheme, Sam is tasked with gingerly bringing the nation’s last president/his mother’s time-bomb corpse to an incinerator on the other side of a mountain somewhere on the East Coast. Things only go downhill for him from there. No wonder he’s so grumpy.
Heartman has it pretty bad, too, but maintains a sunny disposition. He’s soft spoken and determined to make the most of the very small amount of time he has. There’s far too much world-saving going on to sit still geeking out with Heartman about his library, but the implication is that he’s trying to experience as much of humanity as possible in between each death. He’s isolated and lonely, but still devoted to understanding the ways that others make sense of life based on what they create. (Or, you can also read his deaths as a comment that while games and devouring pop culture can be fun, they shouldn’t overtake relationships.)
Like the rest of Death Stranding, it’s hard to know what to make of Heartman. All any of us really know about life is that at some point, death awaits. Heartman is the least able to hide from this hard truth. Whereas Sam’s DOOMS lets him sense ghosts via BBs, Heartman’s DOOMS connects his Beach to where other people go when they die for about three hours, everyday. As a result, Heartman’s research progresses slowly. And because the game’s story is so gloriously thorny, his final bow arrives in an email.
“I have decided to give up my quest,” writes Heartman. “I have come to realize it will change nothing. I must move on with my life. And as a matter of fact, I already have.”
Then, he adds, he’s met someone: A, uh, “spirited Hispanic woman” named Samantha Spade. Although a dashed off post-script that’s worded somewhat regrettably—perhaps a clunky reference to the character Yaritza, from director Nicolas Winding Refn’s Too Old to Die Young (Refn lends his likeness for Heartman)—it still demonstrates that, in the end, Heartman decides life is for the living. He abandons his existential crisis, and pursuit of unanswerable questions. For Heartman, death becomes a fact of life, no longer a fixation or window of opportunity.
The game never spells it out in these terms, but Heartman’s life and story is a twist on shinjū—or “double suicide.” It’s a Japanese belief that if people die together, they’ll be together in the afterlife. This is Heartman’s goal, and it’s noticeably a departure from the Western belief that regardless of when you or I die, we will catch up with our lost loved ones later. Heartman’s circumstances have shaken out to where he could figure out how this really works, but ultimately decides that’s no way to spend your life. There is no guarantee Heartman’s afterlife is connected to his wife and daughters’, and no way of knowing they are waiting for him.
There’s an ancient aphorism credited to the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, misquoted or bungled by pretty much everyone since—this was before audio recordings and the internet—that goes something like: “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”
In Death Stranding, you spend a lot of time wading through rivers. It’s also a game that alternately explores death for us all, sometimes as a process, and sometimes as an event. There’s a lot of “wait, what is going on here?” and “wait, how can both these things be true?” payloads embedded within its dialogue, story, and world. The game is a compelling mess, and helping Sam do what’s physically asked of him is guaranteed to result in a comedy of errors. You’ll lose your balance. You’ll fall. You’ll carry too much. Still, you have no choice but to put one foot in front of the other.
For all the corrosive wear and tear Death Stranding’s inhabitants and setpieces endure, it is ultimately an optimistic story. Although its conclusion—“well, humans still get to have a future”—is a dim final note, it’s far sunnier than the alternative. You can choose to read the game’s story literally, and try to digest an ungodly amount of data about its many, overwhelming details. But that’ll take you many lifetimes. This is a videogame world with unexplored implications where America is a distant memory, Facebook is long gone but “likes” persist in determining social worth, the ancient Egyptian conception of the soul is embraced and casually discussed by nearly everyone, and—most discouraging—Monster Energy is still in production.
Those are all specifics that distract from the texture you’re really trudging through. Deep down, Death Stranding is about coming to terms with coming into this world through no choice of our own—and the lengths we will go to make things better for ourselves and others. Forget about tracking what’s seemingly going on. The power of its mood will carry you.
David Wolinsky is the creator and curator of Don’t Die (2014–present), an interview series preserved by Stanford about videogames, the internet, and the hairy re-negotiation of power made possible and inevitable by our new systems for socializing, working, and interacting. He is the 1995 Blockbuster store champion at Donkey Kong Country and author of the forthcoming oral history All The Rage: Conversations Processing Gamergate.