A theory on Death Stranding, its narrative arc, and its purpose.
Death Stranding is finished development. It will be released on November 8th, 2019, about two weeks from today. Plenty of people have review copies already, and small spoilers have been getting leaked online. There’s still one big trailer yet to be released, and it’s being hyped up by Kojima as his final amazing advertisement for the product. Who knows what that will include. In the meantime, a fair amount of speculation has been happening by fans, but most of it revolves around visual patterns, small details, and relationships between characters. I’d like to weigh in on the bigger picture and think about what the whole game could be about.
The Inversion Paradigm
One of the first things I notice when I look at Death Stranding is a conspicuous lack of “epic” on the player-choice side of things. Yes there are thousand-foot tall demon bosses who tower into the sky seem to have unlimited power. Yes you have ominous wizards summoning black goop beasts and harnessing the psychic energy of bottled fetuses. It’s all very heavy metal in its trappings. But the majority of the game looks like a droll experience of being a delivery boy. Take a package, bring it to a distant destination, and drop it off. Nothing epic about that.
But we have to keep in mind the inversion paradigm. This is something Kojima loves to do, and pulled off most beautifully in Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker. You begin the game concerned with merely staying alive, avoiding trouble, and trying to complete little tasks as you learn more and get the hang of your abilities. But there’s a distinct shift that happens in the mid-game as you begin to gain powers, customize yourself, and leapfrog ahead of your enemies in various ways. By the end of the game you’re a world power, commanding a legion of soldiers and dominating geopolitics with a nuclear-equipped giant robot built with parts you stole from the enemy’s best AI weapons. You feel the shift. Although you started as the legendary Big Boss, you feel under-equipped and vulnerable compared to the forces you’re up against.
We can go back even further in the series to see the inversion paradigm. Think about “prey vs. predator” paradigm of the whole Metal Gear series, going way back to the MSX days. You start with no weapons, sneaking into enemy territory, and are constantly dodging guards like a scared mouse. That is, until you find a pistol and a suppressor so that you don’t give away your position when you shoot and become overwhelmed by swarms of guards. Once you have some arsenal, you can confront enemies proactively and become the hunter. Stealth remains a strong tool, but it’s only the first of many options. I think Death Stranding will follow a similar pattern.
Strand and Deliver
What will the inversion look like in Death Stranding? We already know that you unlock vehicles and certain weapons, but I would guess that instead of escalating your arsenal per se, the concept of “strands” and making connections becomes the real end-game weapon. This could mean NPC recruits, drone technology, air strikes, traps, wards, and an interlaced continent of allies and abundance. This would, of course, send the message that friends and alliances are stronger than lone destructive power. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain obviously dabbled in this thematic realm with their balance-of-power nuke system, showing how building up a giant stockpile of weapons is fearsome, but also makes you a bigger target for a cycle of revenge and escalation. Death Stranding could provide a counterpoint. You win by working with strangers and building a decentralized defense network that protects everybody. Win-win.
If my guess is correct, the endgame of Death Stranding (and the whole reason Kojima is going as far as to call it a “strand genre”) will be the asynchronous multiplayer defense network management system. The “Homo Ludens” terrorist group will serve as the random, chaotic, destructive force that seeks to destabilize the nation and break connections between cities, while the Bridges team will be the opposite, trying to centralize and control everything like a political or military machine. You might be able to reject both of these factions, and maintain a stable, strong defense network without oversight or terror. This would probably have the most thematically resonant potential, as players fight and compete for their vision of what the balance of chaos-versus-order should be. I’m doubtful that there will be a simple “ending” of the game with a resolution, like a classic a single player story. Kojima seems very fascinated by the ability to maintain a game’s relevance by structuring competition and cooperation.
Let’s get into the character of Sam, “the man who delivers”, in the next page.