Death Stranding: Women, Weirdness and America

When Death Stranding’s review embargo went up, the critical response was very divisive, which was a big surprise both for fans expecting another critical darling and jaded skeptics who saw the first-party AAA title as a new golden calf the games media could put on a pedestal. What had been assumed to be a cinematic action game full of Kojima’s trademark plot twists was revealed to actually be a very labour-intensive hiking game that sidelined combat in favour of exhausting travel and the building of infrastructure across untamed wasteland. To say people were confused was an understatement. Yet beneath the contentious opinions Death Stranding is a truly interesting title worth talking about for its themes, ideas, flaws and strengths. Whether you think it really nails its goals is up to you, but I think the way it reaches into new areas of gaming and story is really cool and absolutely a good topic to discuss. Note- I will be spoiling a lot of plot details because I want to talk about them.

Many many years ago on 4chan I remember seeing a post saying that Metal Gear Solid’s philosophy was bad. The poster went on to elaborate that they actually liked that because they thought the ideas and concepts the characters in the game came up with seemed like the sort of thing soldiers on the battlefield would think, and even if they didn’t think the philosophy was “solid” (heh), it fit the scenario and characters. I think about this to this day as something that can be applied to a lot of fiction- we don’t need to agree with a story’s messages 100% so long as we understand where they came from and can accept their genesis. Something like Gurren Lagann has morals I don’t think are very good but I understand what they mean and where they come from in the show, so I’m fine with it. Additionally I think this is tangentially related to the idea that we shouldn’t assume that everything characters say in a story represents the author’s views- Metal Gear has plenty of characters with conflicting opinions, and many of the protagonists (Raiden mainly, and also now Sam) are shown to be wrong or change their perspectives over the course of the game.

The reason I’m bringing this up is because Death Stranding is very focused on reinforcing a central theme, mission, and purpose for the first 2/3rds of its story. Now I have to explain Death Stranding’s setting, so bear with me. *ahem* In the future, an event called the Death Stranding occurs. It’s described as a series of matter-antimatter explosions across the world that kill millions and dramatically alter the landscape. At the same time, particles of chiral matter appear and jam the world’s communications, and invisible entities called BTs  begin to wander the land. As it turns out, humanity discovers the existence of The Beach, a sort of personal pocket universe all humans have, which stands on the border between this world and the afterlife. BTs are essentially ghosts of dead humans that are trapped in our world, and drawn to attack humans. Since they’re antimatter, if they drag a human down they’ll cause another massive explosion, so they’re incredibly threatening.

Humanity in America survives in reinforced bunkers and cities, living apart from one another in isolation. Figuring out how to exploit chiral matter despite it being related to the whole supernatural stuff, humans develop technology to protect themselves. The world of Death Stranding is dour and alien- any human who dies of old age is immediately rushed to an incinerator far from their city because it’s the only way to prevent them from creating a new BT. This actually serves a gameplay purpose- instead of abstract morality meters, a player who kills a bandit or thief will simply have to carry the corpse on a perilous journey to be burned, lest they cause a new BT to spawn in a previously “safe” area.

In this environment, the former president of America and currently leader of the Bridges organization, Bridget Strand (yes her name is that on the nose, get used to it), organizes a cross-country trek led by her daughter Amelie that begins building a new network to reconnect America into one nation. The chiral network will allow humans to talk via hologram, exchange information and 3D-print supplies and tools and is said to “make America whole again”. This sounds pretty amazingly centrist, and it is absolutely that sort of milquetoast story at first. The enemies are separatist terrorists who kidnap Amelie and cut off the far end of the country for themselves, and the protagonist, Sam, a deliveryman by trade, is sent to rescue Amelie and activate the network she laid the groundwork for. what this physically entails is delivering packages of supplies, medicine, building materials, weapons, food, and so on across the map, from waystation to waystation, city to city, and individual bunker to individual bunker. Some people join right away at the promise of access to the network, others test Sam to prove his sincerity. The end result is an incredibly physical game that beats into you its goal of rebuilding America through blood, sweat, and roads.

So the obvious response to this is that this concept is very on the nose and superficial in its understanding of a nation. When you’re out “making america whole again” what you’re actually doing is undertaking a political campaign- the goal, after President Bridget passes away, is to hook up the country to the network and install Amelie as the new president. By accepting the network, people are in essence voting for her as their new leader, and you’re out here doing the neighbourhood door knocking campaign. This interpretation re-frames the whole quest as less about fixing the country and more about taking control of it. While the game does indicate that this is good for the isolated individuals (more on that later), it’s a sense that something’s not quite right, and that continues the further you go into the game.

Sam as a protagonist is initially very hostile about the mission- he reiterates several times he cares little for the country or the goal, explicitly saying that he only wishes to save Amelie because of their prior relationship and personal connection- as a child, she would visit him in the Beach of his dreams. As you travel, it becomes clear that there’s more going on- nobody you meet has ever met Amelie in person, and the leader of the separatists, Higgs (THE PARTICLE OF GOD), seems to know your location all the time and constantly hounds you. Higgs is supposedly keeping Amelie prisoner but she’s able to visit Sam via the network unhindered, and the language Higgs uses suggests he may not have a good grasp of her.

And then there’s the baby.

So okay, at the start of the game, the protagonist is introduced to BB, a baby in a jar that is able to detect BTs. The explained origin of the BB is that it’s from the body of a woman who is braindead, thus connecting the child to the “other side”. The BB is the product of a project from America’s past believed discontinued for ethical reasons- the only reason it was brought back was because Higgs’ group was spotted using them, and Bridget thought it the only way to compete with Higgs. Or so you’re led to believe. Over time, BB seems to generate memories of a laboratory where Cliff, Mads’ character, rests with his comatose wife and tries to educate and keep his child (a BB in a jar), company. The flashbacks suddenly become relevant in the main story three times when Sam is sucked into a mysterious Beach world that resembles the battlefields of WW1, 2 and Vietnam, where he faces off against an angry Cliff. Cliff wants his BB. Wants it reaaall bad.

Anyway, once you finally reach Amelie and defeat Higgs in an exciting boss battle, The truth is revealed- Amelie was never in the real world in the first place. She’s always been on The Beach, and in fact was directing Higgs in the first place. The BBs that Higgs and his men were using? Dolls, fakes. They were merely channeling Amelie’s power to give the impression that the BB project had been revived. Bridget then used this as a pretext to revive the project, and then…she used it to build the chiral network. So hey, you ever heard of “Immurement”? It’s a term for bricking someone up inside a wall or bridge or other enclosed space, and in the past was used as a form of human sacrifice to make sure a bridge didn’t fall down. What you’ve been doing as you went around turning on the chiral network was essentially sacrificing BBs that had been locked up in the nodes, and using the explosion of chiral matter from them to link all of America together under her control for nefarious means on a higher level than just infrastructure.

So yes, Amelie is essentially the antagonist, her goal, while beneficial for her citizens at first, was ultimately one about sacrificing innocent lives for America’s gain. Hmm.

There’s more to it, but this plot thrust, one where the protagonist is manipulated and betrayed by a woman they trust, is something Kojima’s done multiple times before. Let’s talk about Metal Gear Solid 3. In that game, set as a sort of pastiche of James Bond and Cold War movies, the protagonist is initially betrayed by The Boss, his mentor and a female soldier that was a WW2 war hero. Snake travels through Russian Jungle to confront her and try to figure out why she did what she did, teaming up with a pretty blonde girl named EVA to stop a Soviet superweapon in the process…In the finale, once The Boss’s reasons for betraying her country are revealed, it turns out that in fact EVA was also tricking and misleading Snake, and leaves him betrayed and alone. Metal Gear Solid 3 ends with the protagonist literally in tears as he realizes he’s lost everything.

So… when you think about it as a systemic concept, it’d be natural to assume that such a story would be trying to paint mistrust of women. Hideo Kojima is a male director, he was emulating James Bond which is a franchise that has often in the past featured abuse and domination of women and violence directed at traitors. I’m not going to say this is 100% the case but here, both within the text and without it, I don’t think the intention or result of Kojima’s depiction of these female characters was to direct the player’s hatred at them.

The first reason I say this is because in the game itself Snake never really seems to wish for revenge or vindication- he understands and comprehends the reasons why the Boss and Eva acted as they did. The reasons in the story are clear and in fact Snake’s grief and anger and pain are not directed at the women but at the system of government that led to their decisions- this informs his behaviour in later games where he goes rogue. There are other female characters in the franchise who are antagonists or turn on the player, but again, most serious fandom discourse and in-game presentation does seem to absolve them of being painted as evil and instead presents the mastermind or the system under which they were forced to do what they did as the true evil. You can argue this isn’t specific to women characters but due to the way the script tries to present all the characters as tragic victims in one form or another. At any rate, I mostly have seen over the years that reasonable game discourse hasn’t really blamed them, or if it has it was because of elements of the story said characters were unaware of. There are people who will wail and call Rose or Naomi “bitches” or whatever, but they’re not people worth talking to.

This brings us back to Death Stranding. It’s generally the same here. Without going too far into the spoilers of Amelie, she’s a sympathetic villain whose actions and behaviours are clearly explained and presented as things she was driven to do because of circumstance. She’s not a saint by any stretch and her actions are in the wrong, but the game goes to elaborate lengths to explain what she was going for and why. As above, once the protagonist Sam learns the truth, he simply understands her actions and reaches out to her regardless, his feelings expressed not as anger or rage but simply of sadness and a desire to “connect”, cheesy as it may be. Death Stranding as a game is redundant in its writing- it constantly, endlessly hammers home its themes and ideas through dialogue because it really doesn’t want to be subtle, but that has the interesting effect of creating a mood that feels deeper than what it reads as. Sam’s quest as a political campaign, the constant empty praise from NPCs who don’t know you, Amelie’s pretty little messages urging you on that are actually manipulative lies. Sam rarely talks to anyone except himself for most of the game, grumbling and swearing as he trudges alone through the ruined world. This leads to a small moment of catharsis during a late-game bossfight where he starts muttering the same empty phrases he’s been hearing from others under his breath as he bashes Higg’s face in. As a character, Sam’s motivation was originally to rescue Amelie, but as he travels he meets new people and comes to rely on them- once Amelie is gone he is able to pull through because of the friends he met along the way. They’re the people he now cares about, in his own way- most of all, the baby in the jar he carried along on the entire game.

But what about the other female characters? Let’s talk about them, because I think the first one is where the big problem with Hideo Kojima’s works appears. Fragile. While initially looking a bit weepy and weak in trailers and with a name that screamed sexist conceptions of women, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that Fragile in the game was fairly independent and strong-willed. Her backstory is that she’s a freelance delivery worker who runs a company that was founded by her father, and really believed in her job. As her work got hectic she teamed up with another guy (Higgs) and they worked together, but unbeknownst to her Higgs was an evil bastard and secretly used her delivery network to smuggle bombs into cities. Fragile found out about this too late to save the first city but arrived to stop the second’s destruction, only to be captured by Higgs. He gave her a sadistic choice- carry the bomb through time-accelerating rain at the cost of your own body’s youth to toss it into a pit and save the city, or run away. Bravely, Fragile takes former choice and saves the city, though people blame her anyway. In the present day, she teams up with Sam to help him defeat Higgs, and in return she gets to finish him off with his own gun. Higgs refers to Fragile as “used goods”, which is a horrible term to denigrate non-virgins, which leads to a questionably-cathartic yet also problematic moment before Higgs’ death where Fragile tells him that in fact Higgs, being the one who was manipulated by Amelie and abandoned after his usefulness was over, is the true “used goods”. I mean yeah it’s a gross term but I kinda loved it, sorry. She just lets him rant a bit then points the gun at him and is like “u done child” and he pisses himself, it’s great.

Now on paper this seems… fine, Fragile has a sad trauma and overcomes it and gets revenge on the man who wronged her. Though admittedly it’s funny to compare this to Sam who doesn’t really give a fuck about revenge or getting even, though that’s because it’s framed differently- Higgs is a bastard, Amelie is sympathetic. That said, the problem with Fragile is just that: framing. When written, Fragile’s story seems okay but when it’s actually shown you notice a big problem- Hideo Kojima as a visual director is very very horny. See, in Death Stranding people wear time-accelerating-rain resistant clothing like raincoats or bodysuits. So when Fragile runs through the rain, she’s been stripped to her underwear by the terrorists, complete with creeper Higgs licking her face in a super gross way (admittedly he does lick a dude’s face later but that doesn’t fix the issue, see below). The camera watches her “tragic” run in slow motion as the rain glistens off her curves, etc etc it’s absolutely pervy and gaze-y and it’s something Kojima’s definitely done before. In previous games multiple female characters have been shown in their underwear or getting wet or posing in gratuitous 3D model viewers. Proponents often point to the depictions of male nudity and homoeroticism as a counterpoint but while the series is full of that too (to its benefit), but the issue of framing comes up again- naked men in MGS appear often backflipping about or rising up from the ashes in a powerful pose or stripping off their shirts to have a manly fight. In comparison the women’s sexualization occurs in a voyeuristic manner most of the time. I think Death Stranding is better than Kojima’s previous works on this subject, or at least better than recent offerings, but it’s still here and still feels detrimental and I hope its place in his games continues to shrink.

On the positive side, I think the handling of the second major female supporting character, Mama, was actually quite well-done and interesting. I was initially very skeptical of her from her first intro- Mama is the tech geek but also is introduced as living in a ruined hospital connected to her invisible ghost baby child that she looks after. Her backstory is that she was in hospital for delivering a child but an accident left her trapped there and her child dead yet turned into a BT, so she’s essentially stuck with it. My assumption was that her story was the usual selfless, sacrificing mother who’s so attached to their child they’ll do anything or whatever, you know, like all those dead mothers from AAA western videogames and beyond. But I was actually surprised as more story came out. See, Mama has a twin sister and it’s revealed that she never actually wanted kids- her sister wasn’t able to conceive with her husband who passed away but his sperm still existed on ice, so Mama offered to carry the child to term for her- the baby ghost isn’t hers. When the disaster happened, she became upset that she was unable to give her sister what she wanted and that was far more important to her than the ghost child’s wellbeing. In the arc’s story, she has your character use a new weapon she designed to sever the umbilical cord connecting her to the ghost and allow it to pass on- yes, she chooses to abort her ghost baby. This leads to her being able to leave the ruined hospital and go to who she truly loves and where her life is- her sister.

So to me this is really interesting because I interpret it as a rejection of the sacrificing mother archetype. Mama was lost after making a sacrifice of pregnancy that didn’t work out but chooses to cut the child away in order to live- you can see it’s got a lot in common with the whole abortion debate. The child chains her down physically and mentally and she breaks free of it using her own will. It’s not depicted as a negative, the child and any other ghosts that are cut free of the mortal realm are shown to be happy to go on (literally, cutting the cord causes the ghosts to give Sam a “like” on his social media counter, this game is nuts). Even at the end when you get Mama to her sister Lockne, Mama seemed to die, which I thought sucked, but actually it’s revealed that her mind enters into Lockne’s body and the two sisters merge into a single entity with two selves. They’re both alive and happy and together. I like this a lot, because it jumps over the two most common hurdles that writing women seem to fall into- gender roles and sacrifice. Mama kicks her way out of her archetype, gets rid of the baby she didn’t even want, and finds happiness. It’s good IMO. Am I reading too much into it? Maybe, but the fact I can is good in itself.

As to the rest of the game there’s a lot more…stuff. Letters from all the NPCs, articles about sexuality in the setting, there’s a lot of things that can be interpreted to see what Death Stranding, and Hideo Kojima, think about women. Of particular note is an article written by an in-universe researcher about asexuality and other ideas of modern sexual thought and tries to link them to the imminent arrival of the Death Stranding event. This article is very awkward and can be read to say that asexuality is bad because it’s a sign of societal depression over the future. I don’t agree and it’s very boomer, which is to be fair what Kojima is. I’m not 100% sure if he wrote it or if it was just some story writer, and it’s entirely possible it’s actually just a weird translation of Japan’s herbivore men thing? I’d like someone who’s played the JP script to tell me. I do think it reads like whoever wrote it got the terms from a shitty news article or wikipedia skim and had a bad idea of tying it into the game. If that was Kojima himself he made a mistake. UPDATE: I got a link to some tumblr discourse on the JP text and it seems to be that this uses western terms but likely was the product of news and wiki skimming.

Additionally, it’s worth mentioning that a bunch of characters have dead wives who died offscreen. The protagonist, Madds’ character, and Heartman are all sad men who lost their loved one. It’s true that Mama’s sister Lockne lost her male love interest and Die-Hardman dearly loved a male character (implied to be romantically? they weren’t an item tho) but the balance is clearly skewed and it’s a sign of a bad trope that needs to be ended. There’s also some really corny and icky romance drama between NPCs that isn’t needed, too.

If you ask me what I think Kojima’s worldview is, I’m honestly skeptical if he has one. If you look at everything he’s made they’re very clearly informed by media he’s consumed. If you look at his twitter he’s constantly watching all sorts of movies and his personal history is that he was alone a lot as a kid and got attached to film and TV. Everything he’s produced is derivative from something and the reason he’s interesting as a creator is that he interprets material that can be seen as mundane and normal and filters it into something weird and crazy and always fascinating. I’m sure he’s egotistical and an auteur and self-indulgent, nobody can disagree with that. But I’m fine with feeding him money because he spits out things I like.

Death Stranding is one of those things. It’s a weird, expansive, fun and exhausting adventure across a dying world with celebrity actors and silly monsters and gameplay mechanics that irritated critics who can’t handle anything that isn’t easily definable and broken up into gameplay chunks they can digest and put a video out for their viewers ahaha i’m not bitter- It’s just good to have things like this we can talk about and mull over. Death Stranding’s writing interests me a lot and I think it has a lot to say about things but not necessarily in a direct, “here’s the message” manner despite all the repetitive phrases and buzzwords. Instead, the ending of the game features a world where everything’s still uncertain and nothing’s really solved. The ghosts are still around, Amelie is gone, and the protagonist is left unsure of what to do but with a group of people he met along the way he can count on as friends if nothing else. It’s a small victory focused on Sam himself being able to move forward after everyone else has done so.

I think Death Stranding is a good game, and beyond that a good story about farcical systems that overlay a moral core that very simply wants people to be happy with each other, whatever that entails. I hope that the little steps Kojima makes towards modern, progressive choices get larger in future and he doesn’t backslide further. But who knows.

1 thought on “Death Stranding: Women, Weirdness and America”

  1. I’m pretty sure I’d never find the time and patience to deal with Death Stranding, but I enjoy reading about it. With all its issues, it sounds so much more interesting than the usual output of the AAA game industry, even (or especially?) when it tries to go all narrative-focused and profound. Maybe I’m just too jaded, but over time I grow to see many mainstream games, even those I enjoyed narratively-speaking (eg. Telltale stuff), as vapid, formulaic nonsense… And seeing one that takes some chances with both its mechanics and its narrative, and is not some obscure indie project? Preposterous. We need Ubisoft to buy the IP and remove this disturbing anomaly ASAP. :p

    I’m also always impressed how Kojima is able to insert such gross and obvious fanservice in the middle of stories this loaded with serious themes and generally grim atmosphere… But it’s also a very Japanese thing to do, isn’t it?

    Liked by 1 person

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