an exploration of the terminology — and the creator — of Death Stranding, by the Crow.
(One of the in-line links is not appropriate for all audiences. It will be marked in red.)
This post — and its successor — are not intended solely for people who play games. These posts are intended for those who like stories. Especially those who like weird stories. Explaining strange stories is — after all — what we do best on The Corvid Review. And Death Stranding is more than worthy of being viewed as a story, far above its status as a game.
After all, Death Stranding is the latest game by a man I consider to be one of the greatest minds working within the medium. It’s the first original concept he has worked on since 1994’s Policenauts, and ever since it’s announcement, the internet has been abuzz with speculation. Now that it is released, it warrants much discussion.
We welcome you to episode two — gamer and non-gamer alike.
Let us build bridges and explore this strange new world together.
(Click on the options below to skip ahead, this following section is quite exhaustive.)
ꜰᴀsᴛ ᴛʀᴀᴠᴇʟ ᴛᴏ
ᴘᴏsᴛ ᴏᴠᴇʀᴠɪᴇᴡ | ᴛᴇʀᴍɪɴᴏʟᴏɢʏ | sᴛᴏʀʏ (ᴄᴏᴍɪɴɢ sᴏᴏɴ)
Before we break Death Stranding down, I would like to take a closer look at the mind(s) behind the game. While not necessarily revolutionary, Death Stranding doesn’t quite fit into the current “standard” of games. If anything, I would argue that it qualifies as an example of “slipstream” within the medium of videogames. It isn’t one type of game or another. One cannot simply call it action, nor stealth (which is what its director is most famous for). It even falls in between the usual “genres” of gaming. In the context of electronic entertainment, the word “genre” is used to denote whether or not a game is a shooter, a strategy game, etc..
But it is so much more than that. It comes packaged with a story which is so typical of its creator that it’s impossible to discuss his work without discussing him. If you do not know who the mind I’m speaking of is, let me introduce you to Mr Hideo Kojima.
ᴏɴ ʜɪᴅᴇᴏ ᴋᴏᴊɪᴍᴀ ᴀɴᴅ ʜɪs “ᴛᴀʀɢᴇᴛ” ᴅᴇᴍᴏɢʀᴀᴘʜɪᴄ
Hideo Kojima is a director who can be rather divisive. He appeals to a large demographic, but it is not a demographic one would expect from a director of popular, big-budget videogames. His dream is — and has always been — to make movies. Because of these dreams of his, his games have served to greatly advance cinematic storytelling through the medium of games.
Keep in mind that there are examples of storytelling in games which far surpass the man’s work when it comes to uniting cinema and videogames. Interactive movies such as Heavy Rain and visual walkthroughs such as Bloober Team’s productions have arguably done more to advance the marriage of both mediums. Mr Kojima’s contribution is not an entirely technical one. He was one of the earliest directors to infuse “serious” storytelling into his games.
In the early days of the videogame industry, the story was simply an add-on to the main item on the menu: the game. Mario is off to save Princess Peach, the Orcs have invaded Azeroth, Doomguy and Ranger are battling through hordes of enemies because they happen to be there. The objective of a game was to deliver a gameplay experience. No more.
That changed near the end of the 90s. A number of games hit the market in quick succession. They were mostly Japanese titles, and they all showcased storytelling on levels which wasn’t typical of games. These were narratives more serious than those their peers told. They were actual fiction in a medium which was thought of as lowbrow. (Games still are. We are still in the pulp fiction era of the medium.)
Amongst these late-90s games was one titled Metal Gear Solid, and Metal Gear Solid (hereafter referred to as MGS) was perhaps the most unique of them all. The way in which MGS stood out from the crowd was that it discarded the gameplay experience almost entirely for the sake of its narrative. All of a sudden, you weren’t sitting down for a gameplay experience with a story draped on to it. You were sitting down for storytime with a game peeking through the drapes. And out of these new, “serious” games, MGS was by the far the most gritty (people love that word, these days).
Mr Kojima has only ever abandoned this ethic once since MGS, and because of it, few can boast to have created complete movies within games as Kojima can. He is first and foremost a storyteller. (It is also important to note that much of the MGSV‘s issues were not entirely his fault. There were certain other factors at play.)
A common complaint with any Hideo Kojima game is that there isn’t much to play, and that is an assessment I agree with. His games typically come with smatterings of joyful moments for the player. Joyful moments which are sometimes very clever (ref: Psycho Mantis). But these joyful moments are set between feature-length cinematic sequences. You may skip these cinematics, sure. Just keep in mind that I’ve long argued that anyone who does so on their first playthrough of any game — especially a Hideo Kojima game — may lack a functioning limbic system.
While I personally love these experiences, they are the reason why Mr Kojima will never be popular amongst a large subsection of the gaming market. Not all types of gamers care so much for a product they don’t get to actively engage with, and Mr Kojima’s works are built with passive experiences at their core. Even in MGSV, the only Hideo Kojima game with so much to be active with, the story was delivered through passive moments. To go with this point: Mr Kojima has also demonstrated a certain distrust of the player. With the exception of a certain point central to MGS2, he’s demonstrated a need to bash the player over the head with exposition to drive points home. He’ll do it through sequences akin to PowerPoint presentations, if he has to (I’ll address this later in regards to Death Stranding).
When heading into a Hideo Kojima production, it’s best to imagine walking into a theatre. It is a static experience — a static experience which allows you to sometimes be the hero.
I think it’s insightful that he told Mr Reedus that those playing Death Stranding would be him. Games sometimes flirt with the idea of the player projecting themselves into the main character’s shoes. Mr Kojima has always been against this sort of behaviour.
So much so, that he built an entire game around the idea.
It was the autumn of 2012 that I finally played Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty in its entirety (thanks, Gareth! I still owe you that drink.). While I had already vicariously consumed the game in every way I could, it was a game I needed to play. It wasn’t a very enjoyable game (following the first act); and yet, I continue to consider it to be one of the greatest pieces of media I have ever been exposed to. The cynicism which fuelled the game came from a form of intelligence I had never thought the medium would achieve within so little time. People throw “subversion” around as a buzzword these days. But the people who do so have no idea what true subversion is. One day, I may visit this idea in a more elaborate manner. For now, all that’s important is to know that this is a man who has no problem with slapping you in the face to make a point. He’ll steal your candy, too; then make you think about what the candy represented and make you question why he took it.
To break away from the fact that this is a man unafraid to explore dangerous ideas, there are a few things I must mention about his style. His games come loaded with cheese (the plastic American kind). They come loaded with crass toilet humour. They sometimes come loaded with unhealthy levels of pretention (I have no problems admitting that) and terrible writing.
Despite drawbacks such as these, Mr Kojima’s works find a way to strike at the heart-strings. No one who has “felt” Dom die — in whichever Gears of War game it was he died in — is ready for a Psycho Mantis or a Sniper Wolf. Mr Kojima finds a way to make even the worst examples of writing effective, silly names withal. Remember: these are blocky, pixelated characters clawing at your limbic system through clunky exposition. And when I speak of clawing, I’m speaking of feelings akin to those The Inner Light evokes. I say all this without mentioning the mother of all videogame characters. (There is only room for one Boss.)
I find him to be someone who creates works which transcend the limits of his medium. And it is for that reason that I argue that non-gamers should at least be aware of his works. He is a popular person, but he isn’t “that $ guy” when it comes to gaming as a whole. He’s no Cameron. That’s because I feel he resents the copy-and-paste nature of the gaming market as a whole.
Don’t get me wrong. He can be. It’s just that I feel his attempts at delivering his “vision” outweigh his need for money as a barometer. And I say that as someone who he could drop champagne on until I spontaneously burst into flames. (Side-quest: whoever finds the article I stole that line from gets a drink.)
There is a whole lot of garbage on the market right now. Thoughtless, meaningless games. Games which perpetuate themselves on market demands which may as well be fabricated. (Context, created: an argument which extends to other forms of media as well.) That is a whole other argument to get into, but the points stands that there is a great dearth of innovation in the medium which by its very definition innovates more than its peers. (And I say that as a nostalgia child who loved Quake Champions for a few months last year.)
As I’ve said before, there is nothing wrong with enjoying something. However, this is the difference between art and industry. Art leaves a mark (while it isn’t busy being useless). Industrial products rarely do. That is the difference between a piece of art such as our dignified lady the Boeing 747 (and her kind) as opposed to flash-in-the-pans I won’t mention here. And Mr Kojima’s works leave marks. Remember: “Form is temporary, Class is permanent.”
The reason Mr Kojima continues to be so popular, and yet the “kind of guy” who will never produce the most “widely-played” game of the year is because he innovates. He’s never cared about giving us what we want without a monkey’s paw in place. He’s not by any means the only one who does, of course. And he shouldn’t be thought of as the man behind it all. He has a loyal team behind him. Within teams, there are varying contributions, and we should always keep that in mind.
That said, his last few games (discounting the Silent Hills P.T.) have been a little cut-and-paste. I didn’t particularly enjoy Metal Gear Solid 4 or V, and it was clear that he was exhausted with the franchise. What Mr Kojima wants to do is tell stories that leave you with handprints on your skin. He’s a rebel — despite his high throne. And that is exactly what makes him such an interesting creator.
He’s achieved the kind of reverence where he can do what he wants for the fun of it, and the moment he was finally relieved from the MGS franchise was the exact moment everyone asked: what will he make next? While covering the sorts of ideas he’s flirted with in the past are beyond the scope of this blog post, it has always been clear that he’s been longing to explore stranger ideas.
He has made many mis-steps along the way. MGSV‘s treatments of Big Boss, parasites, Paz, Quiet, and the overall story were abhorrent, no matter the issues behind the scenes. But the moment he was freed from his duties to that franchise, it was only natural that he was going to strike out in a much more vicious manner. After all, this is not a person who is subversive within the genre. He is subversive without the need for genre.
In doing so, he sets himself apart as someone who targets multiple demographics. He targets lovers of movies, videogames, and experimental storytelling all at once. He loves the weird, but his brand of weird is far beyond what one would usually consider weird. (Those of you who caught the Easter egg in the first few lines of this post know exactly what I mean by the previous line.)
And this is why he is a creator worth your attention, whether or not you like videogames. He doesn’t care about genre trends, and that’s the best attribute a creator on his level could boast. He tries his best to give you something new whenever he can. Keep in mind that delivering something new’s not an option he’s been able to explore for a long time. We are in for a new era of Hideo Kojima, and you should be excited. Like his work or not, it’s something different. Given the current “standard” of videogames, we need innovation wherever we can find it.
Now that we’ve covered Mr Kojima, let’s return to Death Stranding.
(I assume that you’re in for the long haul if you’ve read this far into this post. I admit I’m a fan. Anyone who can slap people back into their shells as hard as Mr Kojima did deserves my respect. Pretentious, cheesy, and childish as he can be, I find him to be one of the better artists of our time.)
ᴡʜᴀᴛ ᴛʜᴇsᴇ ᴘᴏsᴛs ᴄᴏᴠᴇʀ
Kept you waiting, huh?
The goal of these posts is to provide you with a complete understanding of the game. As a matter of fact, there is so much to cover that I’ve had to cut this post into two.
After some debate, I decided that the easiest way to parse Death Stranding is by first explaining the terminology of the world. Of course, this requires an understanding of the world to go with it. This post will cover the terminology you need to start understanding the sizeable world of Death Stranding.
Once those bases are covered, we should be able to breeze through the story in the next post. However, I will not be explaining the story in the manner in which it unfolds. While I like the way in which Death Stranding weaves the strands of its plot (pun quite intended), I will instead be breaking it down into four large sections.
I will assign a character to lead us through each of these sections. We shall look at Higgs (Troy Baker) first, and end with Sam (Norman Reedus). Along the way, we will address the other characters of the game, as well as all of the ideas which the game flirts with. Options to skip sections of the post will be provided; but, as always, I will recommend reading both posts in their entirety.
There are a few things within Death Stranding which are left open to interpretation, and I will do my best — within reason — to explain those things. If you have any questions or need any clarifications, please let me know in the comment section.
The rest of our planned posts are outlined below.
- ɪɴᴛʀᴏᴅᴜᴄᴛɪᴏɴ ᴛsɴ
- ᴀɴᴀʟʏsɪs (ᴅᴇꜰɪɴɪɴɢ ᴇxᴛɪɴᴄᴛɪᴏɴ) ᴛᴄʀ
- ʀᴇᴠɪᴇᴡ (ɢᴀᴍᴇᴘʟᴀʏ) ᴀᴡᴍ
- ᴀɴᴀʟʏsɪs (ᴇxᴘʟᴏʀɪɴɢ ᴇxᴛɪɴᴄᴛɪᴏɴ ᴛᴄʀ
- ᴄᴏɴᴄʟᴜsɪᴏɴs ᴛsɴ
It would be best to remind you that I have not played the game myself. My thoughts are solely based on the cinematic sections of the game, in conjunction with gameplay footage I have seen from various YouTubers. In addition (because I know I won’t be able to help myself), this post will also serve as a vicarious review of the game. A review told through the lens of those people who’ve shared their experiences.
I do have a lot I want to touch on, after all.
By the end of next week, we will post a review of the game from a gameplay perspective.
Let us now repatriate ourselves into the strange world of Death Stranding. There is much to deliver.
SPOILER LEVELS at CRITICAL
Like with any Hideo Kojima game, Death Stranding is bursting at the seams with ideas, made-up words, and general strangeness. While the game flows surprisingly well through all these things, it’s only on reflection that the vastness of the world sets in.
Some of these ideas are carried through to fruition, where some end up being little other than simple Easter eggs or references. As I stated above, we are best served by establishing a firm understanding of the world of Death Stranding. To do this, we will first take a look at the game’s setting and the terminology we need to start navigating the convoluted plot of the game.
Please note that I will only be covering the terminology which is necessary before heading into the story.
sᴇᴛᴛɪɴɢ ᴀɴᴅ ʙᴀsɪᴄ ᴛᴇʀᴍɪɴᴏʟᴏɢʏ
The first — and most obvious — thing to point out about Death Stranding is that the events of the game take place in the future. In this future, a cataclysm — known as the “Death Stranding” — has devastated most of the world’s population. The event has left after-effects on the world. Invisible creatures from the world of the dead, known as B.T.s — Beached Thing(s) — are left stranded in the world of the living.
B.T.s. come in many shapes and sizes, with the most common variant being a ghostly approximation of the human form. B.T. encounters are infrequent, but their arrival never bodes well.
B.T.s of all types manifest a tar-like substance wherever they go, quite simply labelled “tar“. Tar isn’t very well explained within the game, but it is connected to another substance known as Chiralium. It’s possible that Tar is an alternate phase of Chiralium, but we must keep in mind that this is pure speculation. Chiralium manifests as golden “hand”-like crystals (how clever…) and is immune to the passage of time. The substance has averse effects on people — both physical and mental, and is speculated within the game to be the driving factor behind many characters’ irrational behaviour. Chiralium “Chiral” crystals are a resource which may be farmed within the game for various purposes.
Tar also manifests in corpses when the body begins to decompose. When the body reaches a “critical” state, the corpse sinks into the ground, and an explosion known as a “voidout” occurs, cratering the surrounding area. This process is described as a result of the strange matter of tar/chiralium meeting the “normal” matter of our living world. Words such as “dark matter” and “anitmatter” are thrown around, but they aren’t as relevant as the fact that the matter which makes up tar is different from ours. Any meeting between the two results in boom.
It isn’t only tar/chiralium which manifests in connection with B.T.s. Rain — known now as “Timefall” is also connected with these creatures. This rain accelerates the passage of time in whatever it comes into contact with. In other words: don’t expose yourself to timefall if you want to stay young and pretty. This applies to your cargo as well, as it does to your immediate environment.
Creatures known as “cryptobiotes” — which can travel between the world of the dead and the living — may be ingested live to ward off the effects of Timefall. But they aren’t the only thing which exist between these two disparate — yet colliding — worlds. In the wake of the Death Stranding, a place known as the Beach has been uncovered.
The best way to describe the beach would be to use a since-discarded snippet from something I wrote, but I’ll spare the details. The beach is a literal land between the world of the living and the dead. Everyone is said to have their own beach, but there are a few examples throughout the course of the game where it becomes apparent that bridges can be built between different beaches.
Think of it this way: When you are dying, you have the option of arriving in your “Beach”. If many people die under the same circumstances, their beaches may become connected.
And here, we come across our first important point of clarification. The Beach isn’t so simple. It and Chiral matter are tied together. In essence: the Beach(es) exist outside time, as does Chiral matter. No time passes on the Beach(es), and beaches could care less about time. Therefore: those similar circumstances I spoke of earlier? They don’t necessarily have to be circumstances which happened at the same time. If you died by stubbing your big toe in 1992, and I died by stubbing my big toe in 2019, our beaches may well become connected. (I can’t guarantee that an afterlife with a judgemental crow qualifies as any fun, however.)
There are a few more points of interest about the Beach(es), but I’ll reserve them for the “story” section of this review, as they will be more relevant there.
The “living spirit” in Death Stranding seems to be split between the “Ka” (soul, primary) and the “Ha” (body, secondary). These are approximations of ancient Egyptian ideas and are similar to the ideas carried forward by Mr Ishiguro in his 2005 novel Never Let Me Go, as well as the 2019 Jordan Peele movie Us. And speaking of the ka and the ha, let us expand our understand of the terminology to…
Repatriates. Our protagonist Sam is one of these people, and repatriates are a rare breed. Upon dying, repatriates have the ability to rejoin their ka to their ha, and therefore come back to life. This process plays out in-game through an environment known as the Seam. The Seam is a world stranger than the Beach, and is one of the things about Death Stranding which is left very much up to the imagination. The best way to describe it is as a stepping stone between the world of the living and the Beach, although that idea might be extended to it being a stepping stone between the Beach and what lies beyond it as well.
In conjunction with hs ability to repatriate, Sam also has DOOMS. DOOMS is an affliction which manifests both physically and psychologically. People with different levels of DOOMS have varying issues and abilities. Also known as the Extinction Factor, DOOMS is another example of an idea which is left to the audience’s imagination. Sam’s level of DOOMS is relatively low, and enables him to sense the presence of B.T.’s (to varying degrees depending on the circumstances). At higher levels, the affliction is also able to enable a sufferer to contol B.T.s — as in Higgs’ case.
Sam is equipped — for much of the game — with a bridge baby. The Bridge Babies (BBs for short) are premature children who are taken from brain-dead mothers (known as Stillmothers) because they can “bridge” the gap between the living and not-yet-alive/no-longer-alive/not-alive-at-all. I think the concept of bridge babies is a lot deeper than the game lets on. There are many arguments which can stem from the concept, and I find the concept to be quite a dangerous line to toe. Not only are the conditions of the Stillmother’s womb the factor which facilitates the bridge baby’s connection to what lies “beyond”, but there’s also the factor while that the baby is considered “born” by legal definition in the USA, where the game takes place, its growth has been (read: is supposed to be) halted at the point of evacuation. To add to that: Bridge Babies are usually treated by the general populace as the CPU for a piece of equipment.
The BB (BB-28) we spend time with in the game was taken from its mother at twenty-eight weeks old. By this point, the average foetus will have developed more than enough faculties to be defined as a living person, and there is no question that abortion at this point is potentially catastrophic. The reason I term this line of thought as dangerous is that all it will take is one idiot (I could say much worse) to turn this concept into an argument about pro-choice vs pro-“life”.
I have no time for such arguments, and I really hope that this piece of fiction doesn’t end up spun into some harebrained hot-take. Then again: I wouldn’t credit anyone who makes that argument with the ability to go through a piece of media as nebulous as Death Stranding.
All of that venom aside, I do have an admission to make. I despise persons under a certain age by default. And yet, I find myself making exceptions every once in a while. This is one of them. If I could keep BB-28 for myself, I would. Remember how I mentioned Mr Kojima’s ability to tug at the heart-strings earlier? His strange magic is at work once again. BB-28 is the most adorable thing I’ve seen in the longest time. I’ve never thought a virtual kid could make me feel so much. If anything, BB-28 is the heart of this strange story.
(More on that later.)
The last thing I should mention is the Chiral network. Much akin to the internet in our time, the Chiral network is a system of communication which uses the Beach(es)’ time-free properties to facilitate instantaneous communication. For all intents and purposes, feel free to think of it as the internet on steroids. Better, faster, stronger.
As far as I’ve estimated, these are the basic pieces of terminology one should need in order to understand the story of Death Stranding. The reason I say so stems from the fact that these are the terms which are dumped onto the audience in the opening moments of the game. Everything else is revealed over the course of the actual story of the game, which I shall address in my next post.
But before I get around to that, I have a happy announcement to make: our gameplay review is nearly done. Spotwoman has found a gamer who has completed the game, and review is scheduled for the 26th of this month. My wrap-up of the story will be posted following the gameplay review. With all that covered, I’ll see you once our gameplay review has been posted. We won’t simply explore this strange new world together. We’ll make our understanding of it whole.
— Crowman out.
Here’s one of the official posters for Death Stranding: