Death Stranding Is About the Fracturing Soul of America
It foretells a future where the country's institutions can no longer hold its fabric together.
Hideo Kojima had infamously made it a point not to show any gunfire in Death Stranding’s E3 2018 trailer and was quite proud of it. To make a grand statement on the gratuity of violence in video games from the get-go was bold enough already, but it seems as though Kojima is well-intent on putting the screws further to an idea a plethora of jingoistic military shooters are historically courteous towards–that of American imperialism.
Think of the Bush presidency and what it did to radically alter the cultural makeup of Western entertainment. The foreign policy positions taken by the Bush administration came to define an entire generation of jingoistic self-critical pieces of media that either aggrandize the failures of America abroad and vilify the supposed savages they were to civilize, or put it under fire scolding streams of fire for being the heinous crime against humanity it was. The latter approach tells us there was always resistance to ideas of hatred when the elite put their own self-interest before people, and the former is an ever-persisting reminder that patrons of an oppressive government will always be there no matter how much of a moral dilemma supporting them is.
That’s the story of American-targeted media. It’s one where the circumstances around it shape its reception and taint its reputation for the remainder of its lifetime. So when Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare came out, critical and audience reception were equally split about its propos–was it ingeniously clever by having you play out jingoistic fantasies and realizing their potential to full-scale destruction, or was it yet another US Army recruitment tactic thinly veiled as a fun multiplayer shooter with a mildly engaging story on the side?
The struggle continues to rage on when interpreting these games before, and after they come out, but none I could’ve quite expected to see was Sony’s upcoming exclusive “Death Stranding”, courtesy of Kojima Productions. This game speaks more about the fracturing soul of America in 8 minutes of trailer than entire narratives I’ve watched and interacted with in entertainment and especially in video games ever did before it. And it’s not for understanding it clearly that I was able to gather that impression–it’s more so the ambiguity of it all that made it all the more appealing.
To dip briefly back into the Iraq can-of-worms, I think it could be confidently said that the American public’s support for the war efforts was not unanimous. There were small reverberations of a proto-resistance within America’s human make-up, but none if it even after it was all said and done really did clear much of what we knew to be fact, versus falsehood as American troops toppled the Saddam regime and subsequently fought against an insurgency group of Islamist extremists to terrorize the region well after their departure. The lines of the conflict were left to be roughly defined, and as anti-war narrative became the one predominant, Americans still reckon with the possibility of yet-another terrorist attack of 9/11’s magnitude that could send their whole entire political system in limbo. If it took a reading as widely-popularized as Islam being reinterpreted as inherently violent, what’s to stop authorities for milking yet another narrative of fear against another group were they so to hold an undue grudge against it?
This is already happening as Trump’s zero-tolerance policy against Central American asylum seekers is taking hold. The American Right speaks of a threat so ominous, its intangibility defines much of its parameters, and its narrative across the media and an ill-educated majority white suburbia prevails across the political spectrum. Those who beats the drum of an invasion from a demographic so powerless, are about as morally-corrupt of war-mongers before them were, their tragedy just takes on a more emotional tone than a physical one. Its toll are the feeble minds of an impressionable youth, and its actors are an upcoming generation of youth whom brim with an unimaginable hatred against the hypocritical ideas of an America once-just, once-free-for all. The land of the free is seemingly, devoid of all possibility to exercise any freedom without unsavory retaliation.
Death Stranding is looking like it will be one of those games where the gameplay is but a mere dressing for a much more ideologically involved theme. Gamers are notoriously bad at reading subtext–you need not to look further than Witcher 3 being interpreted as a triumph for white culture when it so actively tries to make point on how horrible cultural homogeneity is when oddities take the major brunt of it; so Death Stranding taking a jab at something as all-encompassing as the “soul of America” really tells me its subtext will be mostly lost to the sight of incredible visuals and engrossing performance, but I think what it does do in mere 8 minutes just says a lot about what Hideo Kojima intends this game to be, and what impact he’d ideally want it to see do in our global culture.
Norman Reedus’ character is constantly referred to with the duty of restoring the long-lost glory of America. What we can see him do in most of it is carrying a baby — which knowing Kojima, that could be a metaphor for basically anything — but what’s most interesting in this trailer, is how he keeps mentioning the threat of BTs. What are BTs? Well we don’t truly know, but the key to restoring America is to put them back whence they came. But Sam keeps rejecting it as a silver bullet to America’s woes, and says as much about the president’s apparent lack of interest in what has become a wasteland for forces unwieldy to conquer.
The baby, seemingly created by Cliff — played by Mads Mikkelsen — is being placed as a beacon for such change. Sam is seen carrying it forth as a vehicle to his own advances as the recuperation of America is sought, and you can see as the trailer unravels how the game moves from locale to locale, and even from time era to another, how so incredibly in-tune it is with its themes. There’s about as much fog blinding the passage of unsuspecting innocents as there is in our understanding of the conflicts within Death Stranding, but what little it lets on, it most definitely looks like an indictment of the sitting president in office. Not because it makes it staunchly clear his fictional counterpart is just as inept, but because it truly showcases why longing after an ideal of America by looking to defeat a threat of unknowable proportions is a quest most foolish.
Fragile — played by Léa Seydoux — is serving some kind of corporate/government-assisting role that nudges Sam in the direction of fulfilling America’s restore. Her tone resembles that of American corporations who sought uttermost compensation in war efforts–oil companies and weapon manufacturers did echo many of the same concerns about an unknowable threat in the Middle-East, and the resolution to the aftermath of 9/11 was portrayed as being the invasion of these societies even when it looked like taking flu medication to cure Malaria. She’s so solidly convinced that Sam’s journey will be the key to bringing order back, even when he expressed explicit dissent against authorities’ intent.
The rest of the cast’s role in the game’s narrative machinations are still a great unknown, but none would not doubt they’d play an integral part in further fleshing out what looks like a fairly convoluted emotional set-up. The challenge will be to make players invested in the internal struggles of characters and their motivations as they look to make sense of a world populated by supernatural threats as the common man looks to reclaim a semblance of a more familiar life.
After nearly half-an-hour of unique footage published about the game, we still haven’t gotten the least idea about what is this threat to society aside from the facade of the land which looks to be deserted as any could be, but I’ve the feeling that’s not about to clear up as the game launches. Simply put, Metal Gear Solid is hailed as a gaming landmark for masterful storytelling, and it was one of the very first produces of interactive entertainment that truly dealt with issues war as the catastrophic threat to a thriving Democracy they are. Players were just too caught up wowing over its narrative make-up and inventive approach to level-design and gameplay to really pay much attention to any of what it says. Death Stranding poises itself to be as much-misunderstood — if not more — than Metal Gear Solid ever was as an oeuvre of political critique. If Metal Gear’s metaphors were very shoddily-masked, Death Stranding’s are far harder to spot, and even harder to exactly spell out.
Video games have brought up politics as a central theme of their conflict before. Of these games, Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 notoriously portrayed Chinese monopoly over manufacturing of consumer electronics as one of the ways it rivaled America’s dominance over the world following the Cold War, but it also showed how the murder of a single war lord unleashed this unstoppable hell of opposition to the US when it once was near-impossible to accomplish; Spec Ops: The Line also made light of senseless murder and used it as a mechanic to make the player deeply question the flawed narrative of war; Watch_Dogs deconstructed the prospects of a surveillance-led, morally-corrupt democracy where the worth of individuals is measured in solely capitalistic gradings; the Wolfenstein series did not shy away from a viciously-critical depiction of Nazi ideology while making fun of American exceptionalism; and the Witcher 3 did break down conflicts at the racial level as a way to sway interest from the corruption of authority, well into the innocent hands of refugees from the firm grim of the Nilfgaard empire; but all of those examples’ cultural impact remains largely tame due to there being a lush gameplay — and sometimes — multi-player component to cope. Whenever I played one of them, it did not constantly cross my mind that I was doing something bad by any measure of the game’s internal rationale — it’s not like I have any control over it — but developers often infuse their own sense of political sensibilities into the games they make, and that became readily apparent as I got more into politics not just as an ideological battleground for a better future, but as a vehicle to organize, and enact change.
As E3 looms around the corner, there’s about no doubt Death Stranding will be swallowed by the conversation Microsoft exclusives will engender, and there may be as equally of a visual mind-boggle at the show to compete for attention, but what Hideo Kojima and his accompanying team of developers at least did, is show with excellence that volume of information does not equal greater understanding of any narrative. As much as we know a fair bit more about the game than we did even two days ago, the fact is, the fun of discovery is still preserved for those who’s adventurous and wish to remain unspoiled until the game comes out.
What will be interesting, is seeing how Trump supporters will feel about this game. I don’t say this as a way to berate them — I’ll sit down with a cup of coffee and talk with them if they’re willing to reciprocate respect — but it truly demands knowledge of their intentions as pieces of entertainment have done in the past to deconstruct the political impulsivity of an American populace so driven by fear. The battle for the fracturing soul of America is one of pluralism, versus that of exclusivity. Which one prevails will be one of the most pressing questions upcoming generations will have to wrestle lots to answer.
This game will have a lot to answer for. It’s a reflection of deep-seated grievances Hideo Kojima has with the current Trump administration, but it’s also a symptom of a much larger discontent within the global populace with whom America chose to elect as its most-powerful. Here’s hoping the game delivers on its promise, just as much as Kojima did so in the past with the Metal Gear series.