Death Stranding in the Middle of the Covid-19 Pandemic



I played Death Stranding before the Coronavirus, Covid-19, pandemicized and completely changed the shape of personal interactions. And indeed, that’s the world it was made for, as Hideo Kojima designed the game in pre-quarantine circumstances. As I now write this, we’re in the midst of this crisis and it looks like the situation will be worse for a long time before it nears improvement, especially here in the United States where our government’s combination of incompetence and greed have contributed to the disaster. It’s hard to say what will come next, whether a silver lining of improvement will appear on the distant horizon or if this is only the beginning of a long, difficult period. I’m not here to speculate, though, and this is still ultimately a piece of game criticism and not a jeremiad on the state of the world. Though, given that this is in effect a large part of what Death Stranding is, I don’t know that this would be completely out of place.

Last week I noticed some observations, in major game outlets no less, that until now Death Stranding seemed like only an allegory, and that its relationship with reality seemed tenuous. Now, though, that’s no longer the case. My first thought was that this bad take shows a lack of imagination on the part of some players, which isn’t a sin, though it is disappointing. Hell, a version of Lost in Arcadia, my first and still occasionally-read novel, had a pandemic much closer to what’s actually happened than anything Death Stranding, though I don’t believe that’s the version that ended up getting printed. Alas. Maybe. I don’t even know. But in any case, it was weird for me to get into the mindset of someone who didn’t see this as possible, to put myself in the place of someone who hasn’t considered the likelihood of pandemics or the encroaching effects of climate change. With the prominence of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction out there, not just in games and films and books but swirling around us in every form of media we consume, it just hadn’t entered my mind that to some people this was all mere fantasy.  [Editor’s Note: Since Sean didn’t link to his novel, I did]


Maybe it’s that this is a game, and other people consider their fiction to be so divorced from reality that they fail to make the connection between the two. But Death Stranding gives us a fictional apocalypse not because a real one is an impossible occurrence, but because the real one is impossible to predict. One of the things to remember is that disasters are happening all the time, and always have been, it’s just that they’re usually happening to someone else. Civilizations have come and gone. Vesuvius erupted, Tenochtitlan was sacked, Easter Island was abandoned. Every period of time is momentous and tragic if you happen to be in the right location, but when you’re not the illusion of stability can be all-encompassing. The fantasy of the 20th century West that still lives on today is that nation-states are eternal and with them yesterday will always be largely the same as today, despite the fact that history tells us that this is anything but the case. 

Death Stranding took none of this for granted. In it, the United States imploded, and as for other nations we’re largely ignorant but they’ve likely suffered the same fate. Stability can only be temporary, despite (or perhaps even because of) the presence of contemporary and even futuristic technology. But what’s recognizable amidst all this change and chaos is characters’ humanity. Every institution has collapsed, but people are still as human as ever, and that’s what rings true about its world. Some are greedy and manipulative, others honest and selfless, but despite the situation people still act largely like humans always have, so like all good science-fiction the illogical and almost nonsensical premise still feels real. That the world we actually live in has come to feel so unreal probably helps, too. 


This may be the other aspect of why Death Stranding didn’t resonate with some of its audience: Big situations, particularly tragedies, still don’t feel real to us. Nuclear holocaust is a video game trope, not a real one. Global pandemics are something we can play with on a board game, but not something you actually have to quarantine from your own life. We’re used to larger-than-life scenarios in games, and what’s more we’re used to not treating them seriously. From Fallout to Doom, there’s always some insane disaster happening, but it’s not something worth thinking deeply about, it’s better just to shoot some demons and move forward. But Hideo Kojima’s games, as weird as they are, remain grounded in the real feelings of its creator. He transforms his fears into a playground for us to run around in, but that doesn’t mean they’re mere fantasy, or that they have no relationship to the world. Playing through the Metal Gear Solid series over the last few years, I’ve only been continually reminded of how prescient these games are, even if the main things people want to bring up about them online are the memes and throwaway gags. 


Even in the better criticism of Death Stranding, lost in the commentary about the game’s intentionally vacant and despondent dystopia has been one of the true focuses of the game: the actual physicality of living. Sam Porter Bridges is hard to move, at times a complete pain in the ass to get from Point A to Point B. This matters, deeply. Death Stranding comments on isolation and digital interactions in part by discussing how difficult it actually is to get out there and see someone. Sam must load up on supplies and venture across a deadly landscape filled with BTs, but this is still an easier journey than for me to, for instance, load up my own car and go visit Blake hundreds of miles away in the actual, physical America. Nonetheless, we can still maintain a connection between us. The physical difficulties of our situation can be overcome, it simply takes effort.

One of the things I consider most noteworthy about Death Stranding is that even when we’re making these connections, rarely do we meet with other actual human beings. The preppers we drop shipments off to never come upstairs to greet us, instead they wave to Sam with their holograms and we leave them supplies. We talk, we take orders and occasionally receive gifts, but the number of NPCs Sam comes into face-to-face contact with can be counted on with one hand. Yet, despite this we learn their stories and grow fondness for these characters. We “know” them, but physically it’s just the story-based NPCs, who are few and far between, Sam ever interacts with. It’s telling that in the game’s climax, the act that Sam must perform in order to save the world (at least, for a time) is simply an act of physical touch. For him, it’s a form of bravery. We’re not nearly there yet, but even for those lacking an imagination this future at least seems closer and more understandable. It feels real, even when it’s not supposed to be—Kojima, after all, brought us a metaphor. 

I scoured the Internet searching for the actual moment when Fragile says, “I brought you a metaphor” and had no luck. This will have to suffice.

By the end of Death Stranding, BTs and time warps and psychic powers feel normal. It’s a world influenced by science-fiction anime, pulpy television shows, and soap operas, so we can accept all of this without too much thought. This is, after all, the world of video games, so we hear the rules for the world and move on without thinking twice about how the Mushroom Kingdom’s government really works. But one thing I was struck by throughout Death Stranding was the lack of currency. Preppers need to live, we understand this. We all just need to live, and this means giving them supplies, whether it’s food or medical equipment or a form of entertainment that will help them deal with their endless isolation. Sam doesn’t ask for payment, and oftentimes you’ll carry things around simply because you come across them on your journeys and it’s better to help someone than not. To me, this was perhaps the boldest move in the entirety of Death Stranding. It’s arguable (poorly) that the game’s rating system is a form of currency, but it really isn’t. These ratings can’t be exchanged, and they can’t go down. Rather, Death Stranding shows us a gift economy, and Sam does what he can simply because it’s a good thing to do. He delivers because things need delivery, not because of what he can get out of this act. This is the subtle, revelatory bit of Death Stranding that I wish people would take more notice of—that in this world of isolation and fear, the most powerful thing the hero can do is to help others without requiring payment. To help those in need because that’s what it means to be human.


As I said earlier, when I write these words, we’re in the midst of the crisis. What’s worse, for every inspiring thing I hear, there’s half a dozen stories about senators profiteering off the pandemic and people hoarding warehouses of toilet paper in order to, I don’t know, have a monopoly on taking a shit. Kojima himself is easy to criticize—I’ve done it plenty myself—but the fact is he takes on big subjects, from nuclear war to social isolation, and he does so with compassion. Death Stranding ends up a counter to Sartre’s famously misquoted dictate, “Hell is other people.” Hell is a world without other people and without treating those people as fully human. Here, the only way of countering this world without hope is to help them, regardless of the impossibility of meeting them face-to-face. To literally embrace them in order to counter the terror at hand. 

Subscribe to our newsletter

Subscribe to get the latest Exposition Break articles sent to your inbox.