Look at the news. Our planet is heating up. Americans are increasingly less happy and fulfilled. Automation threatens every industry across the globe and is no longer a question of “if” but “when”. Our tolerance for one another is dwindling with each passing day. We are bombarded with images of an imminent apocalypse and the ensuing existential anxiety is growing hefty and unavoidable.
A week and a half ago, video game auteur Hideo Kojima released his first game, Death Stranding, following his departure from his long-running and indisputably iconic Metal Gear franchise. The game has received a variety of mixed criticisms since its launch, in an era of already divisive polarization, Death Stranding, has both fans and newcomers to Kojima’s style alike fervently split. The game is unwieldy and more than mildly pretentious particularly during its lengthy cutscenes and weepy monologues. Despite the clumsy delivery of themes, Death Stranding, proves to be a uniquely optimistic experience despite confronting the annihilation not only of our species but of the grand social system in which the infrastructure of our daily lives rests upon.
To explain the lore of Death Stranding would be to make an obnoxious fool of myself, so I’ll keep it simple. America has been destroyed in a mysterious and massive explosion that has rendered the country somewhat uninhabitable, decimating most buildings and public structures, leaving behind ruins that decay under Timefall (rain that rapidly ages anything it touches) and made more dangerous by BT’s who are otherworldly beings stranded in our world. The players task is to reconnect the various survivors across the United States via the Chiral network (a more cerebral and mystical form of wifi), delivering them packages while traversing massive, stunning terrains. When a player is connected to the Chiral network they can view, and even utilize the creations of other players. While all this might sound a bit mundane, and it can be, it also instigates a tremendously hopeful adventure.
This past Saturday morning, I played an hour or two of Death Stranding, completing a couple of deliveries, crossing lethal terrain on foot with a backpack loaded full of survival equipment and several packages. My efforts were rewarded with gratitude from an aging man who simply needed his medicine. He expressed the timeliness of the medicine, if I hadn’t reached him in time, he fears he might’ve died. I chuckled at this. Whether he was an old man actually on the verge of death or just some geezer who is somatic and overburdening himself with health worries despite the fact he managed to live through an apocalypse was of little concern, it felt good to help someone.
After delivering the parcel to him, I exited his tiny shelter and emerged back into a vast space before me, I could see the creations of other players who had, like me, aided this man and accepted him into the Chiral network. There was plenty of junk: signs, dropped cargo, ladders that seemingly led to nowhere, bikes and trucks abandoned in cliff crevices. The world that was once so barren and empty, full of opportunity and unfulfilled expectations suddenly was loaded with stuff again, this is when an overwhelming feeling of dread settled in. Even if we were to hit the reset button on humanity, we are always going to be occasionally careless and thoughtless with our output because we effectively exist in our own present while posited between a past we cannot undo while no longer being it and a future which we cannot see. Especially in a virtual world without immediate consequences, our ability to litter ourselves over an area is dramatically exacerbated.
Later that day, in the real world, I was venturing to the library to complete some studies for my Bollywood cinema class. It was an especially cloudy day, fog rolled over the peaks of these towering green hills, obscuring the houses scattered across the hillside. With my backpack full of books and this gorgeous, ominous landscape before me, I recalled my experience with Death Stranding earlier that morning. The fog dissipated allowing me to view the expensive, luxurious estates atop the hill. I was overcome by a calm grief, knowing that, one day, probably long after I have ceased to exist on this Earth, those buildings would no longer stand there. Then I looked around at my campus, the apartments, the food trucks, the Saturday market and acknowledged that it would not all be there someday. The cause seemed irrelevant, a pathogen, super-volcano, nuclear war, unprecedented climate-change, any possibility that exists under our sun, which could release a solar flare so powerful it burns the surface of the globe, because regardless, it won’t be there someday and neither will we. Not a maybe or a might. It won’t.
That evening I arrived back at my apartment and loaded up Death Stranding again. A stream of green words popped up on the lower left hand corner of my screen in a small flurry notifying me that people had “liked” one my bridges. Following this flood of acknowledgment I was alerted that Timefall (rain that ages things very quickly for a reminder) had destroyed one of my ladders I’d built for myself and other players. A smile reached up across my face, hanging itself on both ears. Nature had done away with my creation, as it will do with all our creations, even the ones that help people. My ladder wasn’t going to help people forever, but it helped people when it did, and there was such immense comfort knowing that in that spot where my ladder had once stood, there was now nothing at all, just another empty space in a myriad of empty spaces. I thought about another player coming across this spot and thinking “maybe I can help myself and perhaps a stranger, I should set a ladder here”. Then I thought about no players at all, just allowing this spot to exist as I remembered it looking.
My greatest anxiety about mass extinction are all the items, relationships, structures, forms and ideals we will leave behind. Imagine a world without people but there are still libraries full of books. I can’t think of anything sadder; ideas, knowledge and wisdom with no one to experience it. All these items and constructs we’ve created: democracy, televisions, phones, nihilism, instruments, cars, trains, bureaucracy, video games, communism, music with absolutely no one to use, wield or experience these phenomena is depressing. Because ultimately we make material objects, concepts and things for each other. Man will perish and so too will our things. Death Stranding is a courageous piece of art willing to reckon with the weight of that idea without succumbing to pessimism, instead reveling in a supreme melancholy.
There are many humbling, breathtaking moments within Death Stranding where the player walks through a valley or across the tops of mountains while a somber tune begins playing on the soundtrack. The camera often pulls back slightly, giving the player a more comprehensive knowledge of their surroundings. These moments are eerie in their evocation of beauty in the absence of man. There is an elevated feeling of divinity, of touching eternity momentarily in the fleeting nature that surrounds you, that is enhanced by the idea that things once stood here but they no longer do and might again someday. This is the feeling of supreme melancholy, a deep unity with the past which once was and can no longer not be, the future which is not but will soon be and your present which in its current state is supremely, sublimely lovely while locked in between two states which it cannot presently be but has been and will be someday.
Death Stranding does almost nothing to convey these colossal themes in narrative because it desperately attempts to mimic cinema while growing profusely convoluted and self-absorbed in the process. The gameplay, however, whether it’s “fun” or not is radically effective in translating these heady and enormous concepts, distilling them into a playable experience. Death Stranding successfully “gamifies” the dread of living in a world without humans as we know it, and one where our long-term survival is an uncertainty with little more than a distant promise of redemption. Through this supreme melancholy, the game manages to approach our collective demise with a sense of wonder and mystery. Something haunts this desolate America, a memory of presence that lingers but is fading faster than it can repair itself.
If this analysis appears bleak and obtuse it’s because Death Stranding can be. There have been passages of the game where I’ve felt absolutely helpless as my boots rip apart miles from the nearest shelter, BT’s ruin my precious cargo or MULE’s (junkies addicted to stealing other peoples packages) beat me with electric rods for my packages leaving me debilitated and exhausted. Following these dire situations I am often rewarded not through simple items and upgrades, of which there are many, it’s still a game, but rather through the satisfaction at witnessing another vacant valley to traverse. My hope is manifested as supreme melancholy. I work for humanity’s proliferation and continued survival knowing unequivocally that the Earth beneath me will suffer as a result but that it will ultimately reclaim those things which have come from and belong to it.