You may not believe this, but there was a time when the COVID-19 global pandemic did not exist. Mere months ago, folks were going about their business, blissfully unaware that the established world order was about to be upended, laying bare the inadequacies of particularly hubristic tin pots and oligarchs. It’s possible, in this utopia of ignorance, that one may have heard about a video game called Death Stranding, which is a walking simulator designed to show off high-end rock technology and Norman Reedus’ buttocks. While we may never know exactly what Death Stranding means according to its creator—because Hideo Kojima is an AI construct sent from the future—it’s easy enough to loosely interpret the experience as some amalgam of commentary on a modern lack of human connection, the encroaching shadow of climate change, and the dangers of putting psychic children in bottles.
Now, we’re all worried about the virus. Some of us have been shut in our homes for weeks, others will be stuck inside for much longer. This isn’t the world into which the game was originally released. In some ways, it seems a lot closer to Kojima Productions’ fiction than before. What better time to turn back the clock and live through the first couple of episodes, with the benefit of hindsight and from inside our very own Death Stranding. How does the game feel, when played in these unprecedented times?
Lonely. As I begin a new game, the opening cinematic presents a screensaver-worthy slideshow of beautiful-yet-empty environments. Cliffs and hillsides and rivers, all devoid of life, and serving to highlight the familiar but oddly alien nature of Death Stranding’s setting. These are elements we’re used to seeing, but put together in an unusual way; landscapes familiar to Iceland or Scotland, perhaps, but the game tells us this is the remains of the United States of America. Now that strangeness, present before, takes on a new meaning. The quiet feeling of isolation isn’t unusual because it’s at odds with reality, it feels odd because it fits better now. As we watch Sam Porter Bridges speed across a rocky landscape on his future bike, it seems obvious that he would be alone, that there would be nobody around to witness. People are supposed to stay indoors, after all, it’s dangerous to go outside. Walking around the streets of Wellington, New Zealand right now feels far more surreal than a trip through the bleak majesty of Death Stranding; it’s hard to look at people out in public and not subconsciously judge them for making the choice. Surely they should be staying home, and not just strolling down the street as if there weren’t 300,000 dead from some nightmare you can’t even see.
There’s the other thing that’s immediately striking about the game now: the ever-present menace of an invisible threat. BTs are ghostly entities that roam the land, only manifesting as inky hand prints until it’s too late; connection with the unseen danger of a virus—particularly one that can be carried many times over before it reaches someone who becomes symptomatic—is inevitable. The beached things of a stranded universe cause immediate loss, and permanently alter the way society functions, just like an uncontrolled disease. They craft a feeling of fear that is only made worse by the uncertainty about their nature, their form, and how to deal with them. Viruses are, in many ways, terrifying because we don’t really know what to do with them when existing systems fail; we lean on vaccines and the concept of pushing through an illness, but beyond that there’s really nothing in place. So we end up locked away, just like the population of every Knot City, stuck between believing the problem will be solved eventually and preparing to be trapped in a new paradigm indefinitely.
Early on in the game, we get to see the first signs of Sam Bridges’ aphenphosmphobia, his fear of being touched. When I first began playing Death Stranding, it was refreshing to see something superficially similar to my own anxiety portrayed by the main character, someone who clearly seeks out human connection while also being repelled by it. In the present day, of course, we’ve all been burdened with a sort of artificial touch phobia: increased hand-washing and the looming threat of invisible germs necessitates a cautious approach to other human beings. I felt an increased connection with Sam during his first visit to the beach, his desperate clutching of the mysterious baby to his chest reading as a cry for the physical attention he (and all of us in various stages of crisis management) can’t access in the real world.
Flashes of other thematic puzzle pieces litter these opening chapters, and hold their own altered meanings from within the pandemic. Rain in the game has transformed into timefall, a strange phenomena that causes the raindrops to age whatever they touch. This deadly rain forces everyone inside, and the way it steals time, life and any sense of progress from those trapped in it warps into a kind of twisted metaphor for the months COVID-19 and its associated effects have stolen from millions. Interactions occur through holograms and radio transmissions out of necessity, much like the video calls currently becoming the norm for businesses, families and students. The sick, injured and dead are a liability in Death Stranding and much is made of the need to deal with or dispose of them as quickly as possible; the parallels with current political discussions—mainly on the right—about how valuable the aged and infirm really are to society, and how many deaths are an acceptable sacrifice, gave this player some pause.
The way Sam and the other couriers are elevated to heroic, near-deified status is also disturbingly familiar. The game places Sam Porter Bridges very much as a sort of front-line worker in this universe, forced to endure the huge risks of his profession and stay at work so that others may carry on with their lives, uninterrupted by the realities of the situation. Death Stranding is replete with this sort of figure: everyday people who need to keep doing what they do so society continues to function. Instead of hospital workers and supermarket employees, we have porters and distribution officials. Most of our experience of the world of Death Stranding is through the eyes of these working class people, no doubt very deliberately. The population of Capital Knot City, for example, is 42,187, but we never see any of the ordinary citizens of this, or any other, population centre. The only time Sam interacts with people who don’t have to struggle with this new world order is when they’re asking him to retrieve buckets of paint or carry them over a hill so they can see their boyfriend. Sam is frequently referred to as a hero in the game, and given various legendary monikers to demonstrate exactly how amazing his work is and how much he has done for America. People constantly infer—and often outright state—that only Sam can do what needs to be done. However, much like the current situation in our universe, it isn’t always true. Most of his deliveries could easily be completed by someone else utilising the same technology; Sam’s ability to ‘repatriate’ and come back from the dead is a useful safety net, but it doesn’t make him as indispensable as those in charge would have him believe. The only thing preventing Die Hardman from putting on some overalls and making deliveries is that he’s the boss. The class divide is as real in Death Stranding as it is in pandemic-ravaged 2020.
Most encouragingly, what playing through the start of Death Stranding mid-pandemic reveals is the importance of the smaller things, those moments and activities which were perhaps lost in the bustle of normal life. Much like our own world problems, the issues that Sam Bridges’ universe faces are vast, bordering on cosmic; there is no useful way to comprehend or impact them at an individual level. So we find joy in the minutia of smaller tasks: retrieving a box that fell into a nearby river, reorganising our sock drawer by colour, walking over a nearby mountain without falling over. We focus on the parts of our life that we can control, and build routines around the familiar aspects of the day. Sam can’t rid the planet of the dead, beached nightmares which stalk every known location; he can’t unravel the political machinations of masked powers or terrorist organisations. But he can take an order for six printers over the waterfall and deliver it without a scratch. It is perhaps the nicest thing about playing Death Stranding now, amid all the reminders of a broken world, that you can find satisfaction in simply doing what you can to make the world a better place.
While there are plenty of games that provide respite in tough times, either by allowing players to escape or simply giving them something to distract themselves while the world grinds to a halt, playing Death Stranding now is a surprisingly thoughtful experience. I was intrigued to find that the game takes on new meaning and significance just by virtue of my own altered perspective. Kojima reportedly set out to make a game that provided positive interactions as an allegory for what the interconnected, but very separated, modern world could become. It’s rather poetic that as the world drifts apart—temporarily or otherwise—Death Stranding provides a more encouraging message than ever. Tomorrow is still in your hands, even if it looks a bit grim.