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Constructing Meaning: The political economy of Death Stranding

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With the release of Death Stranding Director's Cut, I find myself once again plunging into this game's strange and starkly beautiful world. There is no game quite like Death Stranding. At once a hokey arthouse epic, chill delivery sim, and collective infrastructure-builder, it is one that seeks to present itself as something grander than its peers. Like many of Sony's blockbusters, it can give off the repellant self-satisfied air of prestige that some gamers probably view as unearned. But unlike the typical Sony-flavored prestige action romp, the gameplay in Death Stranding is subdued – quite literally functioning as a walking simulator. That may be an automatic disqualifier for some, especially factoring in its clunky narrative which serves to beat players over the head with heavy symbolism and dopey dialogue, but I insist there is good meat on these bones.

There's a good chance you already hate it. What's so fun about walking anyway? Well for starters, good traversal mechanics are a foundational element for any game and Death Stranding makes a meal out of them. But as much as I love the spontaneously playful zen of hiking through a beautiful and desolate America, it's Death Stranding's themes that compel me to love it.

Above all, Death Stranding is deeply concerned with the current and future state of the world. Before you go back to writing off this bizzare and corny walking sim as the preminent botch-job of Kojima's career, it's at least worth taking a look at what he was trying to convey. This is after all, the man who released a game about the deep state just months after 9/11. Several years later, Metal Gear Solid 2 would continue to prove its prescience when it was thrust back into the zeitgeist as many began to re-evaluate its imminently relevant commentary on the nature of truth and the coming disinformation age. Great art finds a way of staying relevant.

That same prescience seems to have struck again with Death Stranding, and this time at a greatly accelerated pace. Perhaps intended as a somber rumination on post-2016 political and cultural shifts, the world of Death Stranding nigh-immediately took on renewed meaning with the cataclysmic viral outbreak that was soon to follow. In a matter of months this impenetrable game about tackling the threat of human extinction became eerily close to reality. As the COVID-19 pandemic upended our lives, individualized consumers with little social obligation were suddenly faced with a serious threat that demanded a collective front in response, notably one which has yet to be fully realized.

This is no fluke. MGS2 was the product of a cultural moment that Kojima had viscerally tapped into. It's a phenomenon I've likened to cyberpunk fiction in the 80s and 90s, when in a time of relative neoliberal prosperity, filmmakers with a countercultural bend were sending up warning signs for the shitty future by way of pulpy sci-fi fun. These days, that dystopian vision of surveillance, hypermilitarization, consumer excess, and corporate dominance of society and institutions has come to be accepted as the de facto diagnoses of society's ills. In Death Stranding's case, its own distinct spin on impending societal collapse might be well on its way to manifesting into reality. Please Kojima, I am begging you to just miss once!

What then is there to make of Death Stranding's clumsily sincere exercise in hopepunk; its call to collective action in the face of catastrophic collapse? For the remainder of the piece, I'm going to attempt to examine the game's world through multiple lenses. Let's see what there is to unpack and whether we can make anything of this odd duck.

Death Stranding's main narrative thrust presents itself as something of a new American Reconstruction, rewriting the country's origins of genocidal expansionism into a new society born out of solidarity, co-operation, and human connection. The player is given the agency of being the driving force for this new America, but not as a means to place faith in the exemplary rugged individual. No, we are not here to passively witness Sam operating within an individual savior narrative. Instead Death Stranding opts to use Sam as a vessel for the collective playerbase. We are all Sam, connecting with one another on a spiritual journey bonded by the shared human experience.

Likewise the economy of Death Stranding appears to be one that is post-capitalist and even post-scarcity. One text log early in the game states that war and famine are essentially things of the past. That prior to the Stranding event which solidified a life of unending isolation, no one was fighting over oil or water. It is instead supply chain logistics that determines whether or not people's needs are met. There's something eerie about the parallels to our current predicament where the supply chain is the primary bottleneck for scarcity. This is what makes Porters the be-all end-all essential workers holding the seams of society together.  So the next time you find yourself casually ordering fast food or groceries on some wage theft committing app seeking to remove all human interaction from the equation of day to day life, don't forget to submit a few Likes to your noble Porter.

So yes, society is still heavily dependent on Porters, but it's worth noting that in Death Stranding the singularity came and went. The automation revolution meant that humanity was freed from the burden of work. Drones and robots fulfilled all of society's logistical needs, but crucially, humans rejected them. They were left craving the human element of the service industry for the same reason we as a species crave social connection – it's what we're wired for. There is something spiritually deadening about interfacing with machines in lieu of other people, as if it robs you of your very humanity. Death Stranding's text logs dub this as "drone syndrome," a condition altering brain chemistry and causing hormonal imbalances. In the end humanity demanded to be placed back into the workforce, and so new laws were enacted to allow them back in.

The economics are never made quite clear, but one thing is for certain: this labor is reciprocated not with money, but with Likes. The main enemies in the game, MULEs (not to be confused with MILFs), crave this validation so much that they developed a physical dependence on obtaining likes. So much so that it drove them into a frenzy of making constant deliveries to chase that sweet oxytocin high, much like how the player could easily get swept up in the feedback loop of making deliveries, receiving likes, and increasing your Porter level while the hours slip by. Indeed, MULEs are a metacommentary on the player's inherent addiction to social validation and also to the game itself. It's all very very stupid stuff from a narrative standpoint, and I happen to think it rules.

There is a lot in Death Stranding that makes it ripe for Marxist or Anarchist interpretation, as you're essentially constructing a co-operative state through mutual aid, but there is not much left to go on from there. Profit is seemingly out of the picture. Do we even pay for goods and services with currency in this world or is the entire economy run on Likes? One thing we know for sure is that Porters are given room and board in the form of the Private Room in exchange for their labor. That alone hints toward a class system undergirding the whole thing.

There is something cold and dead about that private room. Whenever Sam visits one, he just sits there with nothing to do other than make goofy emotes at the player, with all the Kojima flair of breaking the fourth wall in the stupidest of ways. Perhaps everything is operating on a perfectly horizontal axis, with everyone doing their part to make the whole thing work. I like to think that Bridges is in the process of building a utopian social framework rooted in mutual aid, the irony of course being that extinction is right around the corner, just as humanity is getting its proverbial shit together. I truly think that's what Kojima is going for here. The promise of harmonious utopia struggling to emerge right as humanity is faced with the threat of inevitable extinction. Maybe it was that very threat which caused us to start getting our collective ass in gear.

It could also be read as a much darker reality. Perhaps the Porters are de facto slaves, a replacement of the wage slavery system with Bridges as a stand in for the omnipresent feudal corporate overlords of the ruling class. Throughout the game, exactly what sort of society is being built is left up to the player, as Kojima doesn't seem concerned with teasing out these sorts of materialist questions. He is far more interested in the social element. Because of how much is left open about the nature of Death Stranding's economy, I find a neoliberal reading to be compelling. Here we see Sam as the neoliberal subject, our Homo economicus, the gig economy grunt grinding it out at the order of Madame President Mommysister Bezos. What if all this rhetoric about connection and unity is fundamentally empty, that these damn Likes are meaningless (well, aren't they?), and it's all smoke and mirrors backed up by the deceptive forces of Big Strand?

OK, so there might not be much to actually gleam from this reading, but having Bridges exist as a private corporation is at the very least an interesting decision. Here we have essential functions of the state being offloaded into private hands. Does that alone tell us that the profit incentive structure still exists? And does this spell doom for the new world struggling to be born? Probably not, but I believe since we are operating under a neoliberal framework in the real world, some elements will bleed in and inform the logic of the game world to a degree even if it undermines or contradicts the message. It's hard not to think of Amazon for example when using the Buddy Bot delivery drones, or when simply recognizing the fact that the wage system was usurped by a gamified social incentivization scheme that leaves you performing labor in exchange for likes.

Death Stranding would be a very different game if it further honed in on these aspects of gamified labor and blurring of the lines between work and play. It always fascinates me how this game is constantly threading the needle between utopian and dystopian. Fun as it may be to consider the true hellworld scenario, it's not quite what the game seems to be going for in thesis.  Actually now that we're this far in, what the heck is this game going for?

Well what better way to define what the new society stands for then to define its opposing ideological force? The social forces of reaction at play in Death Stranding are represented by the Homo Demens and Higgs, who I see as the ultimate anarcho-capitalist douchebag. While their roles are not terribly well-defined, I sense them to be scratching towards a representation of fascist resistance to social change.

The Demens are said to highly favor decentralization and independence in opposition to the Bridges vision of a unified collective whole. They are the nihilistic element of society that wishes to be fully independent from it; perhaps this could serve to represent the ideological strand of American yeomanry throughout history. America just can't seem to rid itself of its past despite repeated attempts at reconstruction. To really hammer the point home, Higgs himself seems to be operating out of malice and contempt for humanity, vying to accelerate the 6th Extinction Event upon learning of Amelie's true nature. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that the esteemed Mommypresident Sisterboss CEO of America is actually a supernatural extinction entity here to rid the Earth of humanity once and for all. Spoiler moment.

Again, this is all very stupid stuff.

So maybe this exercise only raises more questions than answers, but that's part of the fun of Death Stranding. And remember, despite all the kinetic background noise, this is ultimately a game about walking. Wherever we wind up in the end is beside the point. I find comfort in that. See you on the trail, Porter. 👍 

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About Sweaty Dungusone of us since 1:09 PM on 10.26.2011

My name is Tayne. I live in a shack with my large son Roy.
Xbox LIVE:Sweaty Dungus
PSN ID:HatSammooch


 

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