Inland Empire is David McNeill’s column about world building, CRPG’s, love, loss and many other kinds of literary vulnerability.
My first experience with Death Stranding was for our defunct podcast, Art For Artists. We had about two weeks to play and cover the game - pretty normal during our prime days of the show. As you’d imagine, this engenders a particular style of play. The goal was to understand the ins and outs of the mechanics, and try to ‘finish’ the game within the allotted window to facilitate a decent discussion on the show.
My thoughts at the time were muddled and incomplete. My then partner would go to bed at nine thirty or so, and I, eyes already lidding, would pour a whisky, migrate into the living room and play two hours of Death Stranding. I enjoyed the world foremost: the universe of BBs and DOOMs and Repatriates is compelling. The proper nouns felt canny at times, certainly, but the confidence to never flinch on them is what makes the story work. And that’s what I cared about: is this new thing, you know, a good Kojima story. But the gameplay dragged at me. After the first few delivery missions there’s no variety, exactly. Instead, I was just waiting for the next story beat so I could take notes and collect my opinions.
If my initial experience with the game was rushed, addled by a lack of definition and time constraints, returning to Death Stranding Director’s Cut was like answering the phone at six pm, blinking, and realising it’s midnight and you didn’t notice, lost in the conversation. I fell into Death Stranding Director’s Cut, hard, and it hasn’t let go yet.
Having a relationship via a telephone wire (or via a video call) is hard. Because of the obvious reasons, sure. When they’re being cute you can’t be close to them. You can’t read their body language. But more than the obvious, the inability to share silence is the crux of it. Almost every interaction is active - you’re talking about your day, flirting, staying up too late talking about your feelings, lying in bed with your headphones in, eyes closed, talking to her about things you’ve never told anyone else, desperately trying to stay awake, reluctant to hang up because that means she’s gone. When you both finally relent and the line goes quiet, you lie there and think about the way her hand fits in yours, the way kissing her is fireworks and her eyes. Those big, sad, caring brown eyes.
In the most “humans are pattern recognition machines” moment, Death Stranding returned to my life at a time when I can’t travel to see someone I desperately want to: human connection made challenging because of a global event. In Death Stranding, BT’s and Timefall make journeying between bunkers treacherous, even lethal. In reality, the pandemic prevents me from crossing state-lines, the fear of spreading the virus too great for those that legislate our best interest. The reason the game dragged me into its inky, vacuous depths of monotony is more than the simple parallelism: Death Stranding is in no rush for you to do anything, really. It’s about taking your time, doing the next thing right, and living the day to day, making incremental progress. And, playing it, waiting for case numbers to go down so I can go to another city to find out, well, everything, that’s why the game finally clicked. I’m not in control in Death Stranding. I wake up, take on a delivery, cross the wasteland, collect materials, add a few hundred ceramics to that build I’m working on. Then I go to the bunker, crash for the day, and do it all over again.
Like so many post apocalypse stories, Death Stranding has a storytelling problem. A quiet sort of problem that percolates in the background of its world. The problem is simple: in a story where the world has ended, we want to fix it, somehow. That’s our natural human instinct. We want to return to the status quo. Make things as they were.
But Death Stranding carries on the tradition of The Stand, Fallout and The Last of Us, concerning itself instead with how humanity might carry on, rather than trying to reverse the damage and bring back the old world. The focus is on accepting the situation, long as it may last, and make things work. Or make things better. Even if better means a coffee machine, or a fresh pizza. Death Stranding places you as a post-apocalyptic delivery man, providing necessary goods. And to be clear, the game views all goods as necessary. Material to repair a generator or a sweet slice of pepperoni are both worthy pursuits. The act of conducting humanity through the little things, through the things that someone else might scoff at and say “that’s a waste” is the point. The world does not owe you your version of reality.
Sam Bridges, our protagonist, is tasked with reconnecting America via a chiral network. A fancy, awesome, time-travel internet thing that allows people to video call, recover information from the old world, and 3D print all kinds of equipment. What fascinated me most about diving back in, and becoming lost in the game, is that no one, at any point, talks about getting rid of BT’s entirely.
How do we best live in this environment and use the tools we have to better ourselves, rather than: how do we save the world? The world, or at least America, is beyond saving. There is something deeply honest about this kind of story. Accepting that bleakness and decay are part of the world is the first step in doing something to improve one’s life. And the BT's are horrific. Invisible, lethal monstronsities whose dead souls are stranded in the world of the living with no purpose other than to destroy the living. But the BT’s are a fact of reality. Like gravity. Like pizza.
Having a really bad day, and wanting to come home to someone and experience pure, inarticulable acceptance is a hard emotion to suppress. Knowing there’s someone you’d like to fill that role, but the universe has conspired to prevent that can make it even harder. Inflection points (hanging up the phone, work events where everyone’s partner is invited, Tuesday mornings and Friday afternoons) are when the distance aches onto your shoulders. The feelings aren’t preventative, to be clear. You can still function. Do the day to day. But knowing there’s a potential alternative: another version of reality where you’re not doing it alone, where you can lie on the couch, hand upon hand, head upon chest, heart upon heart. Aye, there’s the rub.
Meta-culture has a certain obsession with positivity. Positivity in the face of all, to the point of parody, toxicity at times. Death Stranding is refreshing. Sam’s only job is to strap on a backpack, and wander across a blasted wasteland, knowing that things are bad, and that’s how it is. All journeys are potentially dangerous, sure. But mostly they’re mundane. Like real life, you know what you’re supposed to do, what to look out for. Wake up, shower, put on the right kind of clothes. Do the job, don’t offend the people you’re supposed to change your personality for, eat two meals on a good day, try to exercise. But all the while, you’re slightly aware of that thing you’re not supposed to think about.
Achieving your goal of connection will not eliminate the BTs. They’re always there in the background, waiting in the rain. So you go about the little things, because you can’t not. You have to deliver the package. You have to make dinner. You have to go to work. But you’re always thinking about her, just a little. But doing those other things: the monotonous shit is satisfying. Brushing your teeth is as satisfying as bringing a bunch of ceramics to The Artist. The mundanity is the point of Death Stranding. You don’t have to save the world to make a difference, sometimes you just have to get up in the morning and put one foot in front of the other. And accept that things are not the way you want. You can’t undo the end of the world. You can’t magic yourself to a different city. You can’t fix things with grand gestures. But you can wake up and move the dial a little each day. That’s all any of us can do: put the weight on our shoulders, secure the package, and get going.