Why the Unexplained Unreality of Death Stranding’s America Is So Frustrating
This is Not A Definitive StatementGames Features Death Stranding
In the face of uncertainty “hot takes” provide us with a sense of stability and legibility, but what if we refused aggressive interpretations without grounding?
I love hiking in Death Stranding.
It’s not something I thought I’d be interested in. Death Stranding, that is. Sometime around Metal Gear Solid IV’s second forty-five minute long cutscene, I thought I’d severed my connection with Hideo Kojima’s Bullshit forever. Threshold exceeded. I’d all but written off Norman Reedus and his Throat Fetus.
60-plus hours later and I’m still thinking about hulking out down a carefully plotted mountainside course. Bunkerfolk gotta have their Monster Energy, preserved copies of EGM, and minerals, right? I’m all too happy to deliver them.
This might be my favorite “walking simulator.” Because the walking is fucking fantastic. My ankles instinctively flex and pivot, seated on my couch as Sam mountain-goats his way down a patchwork of rock and moss. My body knows these gestures, intuits the validity of where I’m placing Sam’s feet—a kind of uncanny valley of mirror neurons. There’s care and attention to hiking in this game that urges me to give myself over to it. And I did.
I loved it so much, I made a seven-part video sequence of just one trek. Each 15 minute segment (a full PS4 video buffer) is a chronological touch point of just me guiding Sam along an excruciatingly detailed series of waypoints. Sure, we stumbled sometimes—it’s craggy out here. And we lost packages that we had to scramble to recover, slowly because we were 45kg over our carry limit. But we had so many video discs (fansubs of Saber Marionette J and Dragon Ball GT, no doubt) to deliver to Hot Coldman—no, wait, I’m sorry—I mean, of course, Die Hardman (he really loves him some 1996 anime). You can see how I got confused there.
I’m joking about the extremely on-the-nose character names and the items I’m carrying on Sam’s back as we crisscross “America” because they actually don’t bother me. The ridiculous names are fine with me, as are the ludicrously regurgitated plotlines and themes of basically every sci-fi adjacent anime ever made, and any number of classic and cult movies that Hideo Kojima has fully internalized. Because honestly, it’s not the Kojima Bullshit that arrests me here. That’s all entirely coherent. It’s silly, but intelligible. I’ve played all of Kojima’s games. I know what to expect. And like…you know…I’ve watched Evangelion. I’ve watched more than Evangelion. I know that, thematically, this game can be fully summarized in friend and colleague Jackson Tyler’s meme.
What’s fucking me up is what’s going on with Hideo Kojima’s American Biome.
It’s simple, really. I can’t make sense of it.
Death Stranding is intellectually infuriating. I can make sense of the plot, the themes, characters. I get Kojima’s nods to the media and people he hero worships. And even if I was unsure, Kojima is so proud of his transparent metaphors that he can’t wait to explain each one to the player, and then explain them again. But try as I might, when I boulder and hike my way across Kojima’s vision of a post-disaster America—I don’t know why he sees it this way. And for once, he’s not explaining it.
This is Iceland. It’s Taiga. This is an America in name only. A place where boreal forest and volcanic rock shoot up (sometimes phallically) from tundra and subarctic hillside.
It’s alienating. But no matter how much close reading I do, it’s never invigorating or elucidating. There’s no real supportive, definitive readings to be made here. The characters don’t comment on the landscape in a way that explains how this topography is so vastly different from any existing one within the continental United States signaled by the game. There’s no mechane-like appearance by Kojima, either.
As a general rule, we are entirely too reliant on making brash, definitive claims about media, especially videogames. It’s partially the market, or our perception of the market. I’m not referring to “clickbait” or even a sloppy, intellectual process. The world is chaotic, often unknowable or indefinite. Finding assurance in specific meaning is soothing, and it feels good to write. Media has become too broadly important to our sense of identity, to making ourselves legible, finding legibility for ourselves. Sketchy outlines of the self in times of instability are uncomfortable. Readers look for commentary that makes them and their worldviews coherent. Digestible.
As a result, our responses to media indicate a need to see, to be seen, and to show explicitly. This is meaning. Even as we push against canonicity, we insist on establishing an even stricter canon. Questions in response to interpretive probing can be unsatisfying, anxiety-inducing.
Investing in a media property and being left with no answers and no room to maneuver can be hellish.
It’s partially why Death Stranding’s America is so frustrating. History, society and politics have tied me up in this landmass called “America,” left to unpack what is happening in the game. And with no trails or waypoints or breadcrumbs—it’s unnerving. I can’t find myself in this America. There’s no grounding. Just a dreamcatcher and an edict to push westward with infrastructure.
Even Red Dead Redemption 2 offered me an understanding, a vision of an America that I could push against.
Evangelion gives us a rationale for the constant drone of cicadas.
Hideo Kojima can’t even have characters comment on the weirdness of this apocalyptic manifest destiny. Here, there’s nothing.
And there’s plenty of readings I could make. I could make brash, definitive statements that Hideo Kojima’s vision of America is an expression of his own anxieties of America in the 21st Century.
Or that Death Stranding’s America is a wild and alien place because it is a game about manifest destiny and colonization, and it uses a wholly foreign understanding of these biomes to destabilize players who would expect a landscape like Red Dead Redemption 2’s. Or maybe he just doesn’t know what the hell America looks like.
I could write those articles. It might even feel great to pick one, arbitrarily, to write it, and wash my hands of this whole quantum. To create that definitive legibility of self in relation to this text.
But I can’t. For all I know, given the pieces that have been presented both in and outside of the text—Kojima might have just thought it looked cool.
In the end, all I can say is that it has destabilized me. As a player, a critic, a Native. I don’t know why Hideo Kojima has made these decisions, and he won’t tell us. It could be his greatest, most brilliant trick—to leave the most crucial facet of his first independent game unexplained. It would assuage my anxiety if I could say that with certainty, but I won’t. I can’t.
Instead, I’m trying to find the joy in the anxiety of unfinished endings, of illegibility. Of packing up all of these unsupported readings onto my back and trying to carry them across an unknowable terrain.