“Sam Porter Bridges. The man who delivers.” In a videogame that teems with double meanings, this, on the face of it, is one of its more straightforward lines. Sam Porter Bridges is a lone wolf courier who ferries goods to a scattered population in apocalyptic America. But he doesn’t do this alone. Strapped to his chest is BB, a baby in a jar, who, according to the game’s cosmic fiction, is a “bridge” between the world of the living and that of the dead—a “bridge baby” if you will. By the end of Death Stranding, after many hours of slugging across pristine, moss-covered wilderness, Sam removes BB from the jar. The child fills its lungs with air and breathes for the very first time. This is BB’s birth. Sam has delivered a baby into the world.
Death Stranding, created by Hideo Kojima, is an open world epic concerned with, amongst many things, the gig economy and the lack of value we ascribe to delivery workers. It is also a game about environmental crisis, what happens when we ravage a planet to the point that its dead fauna haunt our collective imaginations. It deals in the broadest of strokes with politics, the need to stay connected, and technology, which can facilitate this. At its very core, though, Death Stranding is a game about fatherhood+, specifically the idea of bringing a child into the world that is seemingly beyond fucked, one in which there is a near-total absence of hope.
We quickly learn this is because of a cataclysmic event called the Death Stranding. It is described as a great explosion, one that has caused the dead, trapped in a limbo-like state, to reappear within the earth’s biosphere as BTs or “beached things.” If a human comes into contact with one of these BTs, ghost-like beings intent on wrecking havoc in the land of the living, their encounter can trigger what the game calls a “voidout,” an explosion smaller than the Death Stranding but scarcely less devastating. Entire cities and their inhabitants can be leveled in a single moment, etching the landscape with vast craters of nothing. Alongside the dead, a supernatural rain referred to as “timefall” descends from the sky, rapidly aging anything it makes contact with. The future has all but vanished in Death Stranding; it has become a luxury of the past.
BB helps Sam navigate this hostile world. They enable him to sense the BTs which appear as nebulous particle assemblies in the air. Early on, Sam is told by Deadman that BB is a tool, like the ladders, climbing rope, and zip wires elsewhere at his disposal. This hints at the strangeness of their relationship, on the one hand parasitic (Sam relies on BB to live) and, on the other, caring (Sam is responsible for BB’s wellbeing). When BB becomes stressed and starts crying, the result of either gunfire or the marauding BTs, it is up to Sam to soothe them. When Sam is tired and decides to rest, he cradles BB in his arms. An emotional bond is cultivated in these moments, one that intensifies throughout their journey together.
On July 13th, I saw what will hopefully become my child for the first time. It was an early scan, only seven weeks into the pregnancy, because my partner had bled the evening before. The cold gel went on; the nurse pressed into my partner’s abdomen; the monitor flickered. There, amidst little more than a jellyfish-like blob, was a tiny, beating heart. I felt relief at first. Then, within a few seconds, I was taken utterly outside of myself, dumbfounded by the kernel of life in front of me. A few hours before, I had been sat at home peering into the depths of the universe thanks to the Webb telescope. Now I was looking at something infinitesimally small, but no less profound. In this moment, these two images—of space and fetus—crashed into one another, inducing a kind of deep, cosmic vertigo.
At other moments, while wrapping my head around the idea of actually having a child, I’ve felt involuntary swells of dread. Some of this is the result of my own anxieties about work and money, but mostly, the dread has risen in conjunction with the UK’s record-breaking summer heat. If 40C is now possible, and extreme temperatures of the high 30s are increasingly the norm, what does the future hold for my unborn child? Furthermore, as wildfires and drought have ravaged the country, so has news of the economy’s deepening woes: The spiraling cost of living and soaring inflation, all while a dismal, depressing, Conservative leadership race has played out across the airwaves. I have felt fear and, at times, a kind of hopelessness, for the tiny being inside my partner, a sense that suffering will occupy an outsized presence in their life.
Tom Whyman, a writer and academic, grapples with similar thoughts in Infinitely Full of Hope: Fatherhood and the Future in an Age of Crisis and Disaster. His litany of anxieties is longer than mine, encompassing job-threatening AI, surveillance technology, and Brexit, alongside the failings of a financial system that has helped expedite climate change (described as an “Apocalyptic force… [that] “looms with a power once reserved for the second coming of the Messiah, or nuclear war”). In light of this evidence, and the birth of his newborn child, he is confronted with a problem: That his decision “to bring new life into the world might seem baffling, even cruel.” Indeed, if someone looks at the world and sees something as bad as Whyman does, “then how could they possibly justify bringing new life into it?”
You would imagine that Sam asks himself the very same question at the end of Death Stranding, just before he ushers BB into the world. However, Sam, unlike other characters, isn't fatalistic, nor could he be, judging by his actions. With the help of the player, Sam has spent the past 40 hours building, connecting, and, more than anything, grafting. It’s unclear the extent to which the protagonist buys into the jingoistic political project at the heart of the game: “Make America whole again,” but his implied personal aim of simply creating a sustainable future is no less ambitious. To riff on two illustrations from Whyman’s book, the hope Sam demonstrates is less that of Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign poster, an image that seems to tell us that “hope is enough just by itself.” Instead, it is closer to that of Lenin reading the Russian newspaper Pravda, “eyes fixed on the ephemeral everyday, yet turned simultaneously to the future.” In this writes, Whyman, “Lenin is pictured doing the work of hope.”
All Sam does in Death Standing is the work of hope. He trudges between outposts, delivering packages that contribute to a mission many times bigger than himself. He becomes flecked with brown mud, black tar, and his own shit, washing away the toil of the day with a smooth, cathartic shower animation. While directing Sam, we see and hear his effort, both through the motion capture that fetishistically relays the bulge and strain of each muscle, as well as Norman Reedus’ relentless groans and grunts. In the marriage of these audio-visual elements with the feedback of the controller, we feel this work, too, Sam often slowing to a treacle-like crawl when weighed down by his pack. What our hero becomes is the physical embodiment of hope, a “transformative force,” as Whyman writes, writ large on the landscape.
This is a potent fantasy of videogames, albeit one oriented, more often than not, towards destructive ends (the sandbox carnage of the Grand Theft Auto series, for example) rather than creative++. Another videogame fantasy is that of essentially meaningless labor, the therapeutic crossing off of items from a checklist, à la Untitled Goose Game. When it comes to the payoff of this fantasy, Death Stranding delivers satisfaction in abundance. End-of-mission screens are a blur of numbers and shapes, chimes and congratulations, distributing dose after dose of endorphins throughout the nervous system.
Still, rather than other videogames, what the game resonates with in my mind, in its foregrounding of both hope and labor, are the novels of Kim Stanley Robinson. In books such as Red Mars and The Ministry of the Future, the writer forensically describes the work involved in building better worlds, be that a Mars colony or indeed an entirely decarbonized earth. It’s worth remembering that Death Stranding was frequently criticized for being boring but this, I’d suggest, is precisely the point of not only world-enhancing work but any work. As Robinson told The Nation, “the story of work is the repetition of things that ultimately go right, and only when things go wrong do you have a plot.” In Death Stranding’s midgame, the plot (which “floats untethered overhead” writes Yussef Cole) is secondary to the mundane gameplay which consists of building roads, bridges, and post boxes—the infrastructure of a country.
With these images, Death Stranding consciously evokes the great infrastructure projects of the twentieth century, those that occurred following the upheaval of its most devastating wars. Through BB, and their biological father Clifford Unger, we experience flashbacks to precisely these terrifying historical moments: The horror of trench warfare in the First World War; the bombed-out streets of World War 2; the stifling jungles of Vietnam. In such moments, BB functions almost like a vast, metaphysical umbilical cord, cutting through the space-time continuum to catapult the past into the present. These scenes serve as a portentous warning to the player: What happens when we repeat the mistakes of our parents? What are the potentially horrifying repercussions of failing to exercise intergenerational responsibility?
Of course BB, by simple virtue of being a baby, also symbolizes hope. They are the fragile embodiment of the future that Sam is actively working towards. As the grizzled courier treks through snow, river, rock, and grass, he comes across signs that other players have left. “Keep on keeping on,” goes one ubiquitous phrase, a note of encouragement to BB’s adoptive father. As Whyman crucially notes, the hope we instill in our children goes beyond mere biology: “Over and above the act of reproduction, what seems important is that we stand with children in whatever way we best can, rather than despair of their existence.” Keep on keeping on, then, if not for your future then BB’s, and everything that strange baby in a jar represents.
+ As Harper Jay notes in her excellent review for Kotaku, Death Stranding is a game about fatherhood at the expense of its women and themes of motherhood. This is demonstrated most starkly by BB’s mother, a “Stillmother” who lacks brain functionality yet is kept alive in order to facilitate the baby’s life. We never see nor meet BB’s mother. She lacks a character model. BB’s mother is exposition only.
++ City-builders are a notable exception to this generalization.
Lewis Gordon is a writer and journalist living in Glasgow who contributes to outlets including The Ringer, Vulture, The Verge, and Wired.