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It’s Just a Video Game, I Think

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Fractured Worlds: The Art of DEATH STRANDING Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for Sony Interactive Entertainment LLC

A few months back I purchased Death Stranding. I didn’t know much about it beyond it had good reviews and was created by Hideo Kojima, a game designer who is generally considered one of the best video game creators in the world. He created the Metal Gear series, which is one of the longest-running franchises in the world and is incredibly popular. It is also an intensely weird and intensely specific view of the world, or rather its own world as it has things like nuclear-armed tanks with legs in Vietnam, characters who have psychic visions, etc. He also has some unique game design ideas, like a sniper battle with a 100-year-old man where if you save the game in the middle of the battle and wait a week before playing the game again, the other sniper dies of old age. Oh and he loves cutscenes, to the point I wonder if he started designing games as a way to be a film director rather than because he loves games. He’s an unusual dude, but he takes a lot of time and care with his games and whether or not you ultimately like them, you can always see the polish applied to make things as cohesive as possible. Well, except for the plots, some of his games are nigh impossible to understand. I played Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater for weeks and at the end I’m still not sure what I fixed. I hid under a box a lot.

So yea, Death Stranding. The basic premise of the game (if you haven’t played it, I won’t get into major spoilers here) is that you are in a near-future America which has succumbed to a massive calamity; there was an event - the so-named ‘Death Stranding’ - where a series of simultaneous explosions around the country caused the dead and the living to both inhabit the same plane of existence. The explosions occur when a living being comes into contact with one of the dead, who most of the living cannot see. Suffice it to say, this is not a recipe for a functioning country, and the remaining citizens are driven underground into elaborate bunkers. Your character is a porter who is charged with transporting packages between the bunkers, or rather you are Norman Reedus who is a porter who is charged with transporting packages, because Norman Reedus is never not Norman Reedus, even when he’s Daryl on The Walking Dead. He can kinda? see these dead souls (known as “BTs”) due to something in his blood as well as being connected to a somehow-functional & responsive stillborn baby he’s carrying in an artificial womb on his chest. (I told you Kojima was an odd duck.) These babies are conduits to the other realm, and your survival is tied literally and metaphorically to their well-being. The game is part stealth, part Fallout, part QWOP simulator as you have to arrange your packages correctly to help you maintain balance over uneven terrain, through rivers, and so on. You are a one-man Oregon Trail, but with spirits instead of dysentery. Kojima is not subtle with his symbolism, your success is directly contingent upon caring for the next generation (of, uhh, stillborn babies, I guess). You have handcuffs you wear on one wrist as communication device and reminder of your responsibilities. He is not subtle with the naming, either; there’s a character named Mama who has a baby. (Her part does not sound weird, but I promise you in context it’s weird as hell.) There is a Bloodman and a Deadman and a Die-Hardman, who wasn’t voiced by Bruce Willis for reasons I cannot fathom; all of their roles tie fairly directly to their name.

Your character isn’t a savior, exactly; he is one man who is tasked with rebuilding America, but his role is more Kevin Costner in ‘The Postman’ than Superman. He is a porter, he carries packages between bunkers. The going is slow and the travel wears on your clothes; the rain accelerates the decay of the packages, so watching the weather matters. You are simultaneously able to do very sci-fi things like conjure a 10-meter ladder from a small box and also vulnerable to elements as simple as ankle-high rocks and a hill with wet grass. The juxtaposition is a reminder of how much we control as humans and how much more we do not. Especially when you’re being chased by a spirit and being drowned in tar, which happens when the spirits get their metaphysical-and-also-literal hooks into you.

Things are not hopeless in Death Stranding. The world knows some of its pre-stranding past; as you deliver packages and gain the trust of the underground cities, they start letting you link them together with a network which defies the laws of physics. (As a network engineer this drives me a bit insane, but I have a fetus in a bottle on my chest so I’m already in for a penny.) As you deliver more things to them, they share designs for trikes (think like a Polaris Slingshot without the mid-life crisis) and trucks and so on. There is a co-op multi-player component to the game as well; while you don’t directly interface with anyone, you can see their structures on the landscape and deliver lost cargo left behind by others where you share in the rewards. There have been many times where I have used a ladder left by another player, or driven over a bridge they built over a particularly nasty river. There is a certain spirit of community in these things, people helping those that come after them with a rope they can use to scale a cliff and save a lot of walking or avoid the turf of roving enemies. Or leaving behind a grenade filled with blood to throw at the spirits. (Kojima, man.) You pay each other in ‘likes’, which helps bump up the other person’s specs like cargo capacity or balance. There are also machines strewn throughout the landscape which will build a chunk of road if you fill them with the right ingredients. It takes time to fill them up, but you can do it if you keep your eye out for packages strewn about the landscape. Other players can kick in on your road pavers - I do not know how the game manages to share resources between games, but it’s an impressive feat - and there’s incentive to do so as it makes travel an order of magnitude easier. A route which previously took 30 minutes of humping it by foot now takes 5 by truck.

Those of you who have been here for awhile know some things about my non-BC life; I’m on the north side of 40, I work in IT, I care too much about cycling and/or tweeting and/or tweeting about cycling, and I am constantly ruminating about something or other. This rumination takes many forms, but in practice it means I’m constantly looking around and trying to quantify the world around me. Whether it’s buying a home, working on retirement, or figuring out if Rick Barnes needs to be fired, if it can go into a spreadsheet, I’ve probably put it there. One overriding question that likely betrays my impostor syndrome more than any is this idea of understanding where I fit in in this world. I look at my finances, try to understand if I’m setting myself up for a good life, if I need to make a move into another career or get a different house, the options spiral out in myriad directions. Some questions are easy to quantify, others less so. Over the years I have come to understand that I’m in a pretty good spot; I have a rainy day fund, the house is paid off, and I can go months without a job if need be. I’ve also come to understand that the seeds for a lot of these accomplishments are a result of privilege. My parents put a lot of time and effort to position my sister and me in the best possible place to succeed, as any parents should. These are laudable goals, the world needs parents who are actively helping their kids succeed, but none of these things were things I had any control over. They helped me get some of my summer jobs in high school. I paid off my college loans early because the loans were to them and they forgave them once I had a job. I paid off my house early in part because they helped me with the down payment, saving me thousands in interest. Without their help, I am not where I am today. That’s a fact, and it’s due to privilege; if I was born to a different set of parents, I might not have gone to good schools and my resulting grades might not have been good enough to get into college. If I grew up in a lower-income home, I might never have had a computer in my room to tinker with and spark an interest in IT. If I don’t get their help on the house, it probably takes me several years longer to pay off the house, which means I’m thousands of dollars behind where I am right now. None of this is meant to shame them or to negate the entirety of my life & career, but it is an acknowledgement that where and who I came from afforded me opportunities I would not have otherwise had. I did my best to capitalize on those opportunities, but those being opportunities in the first place were not of my making.

With this knowledge also comes a certain responsibility; those who have greater access to wealth & power face a fundamental choice of whether they’re going to use that position to extend a ladder to those below, or pull the ladder up behind them. If I have this position, what do I do to help those without these same opportunities? While I’m doing well, I’m not Bill Gates. I’m working for another couple of decades before I retire, assuming I can keep the ball rolling. I am not independently wealthy, and the problems we see in the world are so massive that they can overwhelm. It’s one thing to look at Jeff Bezos - who earned I don’t even know how many millions of dollars while I wrote about a video game on a sports blog - and say “yea that guy should do more”. It’s an easy sell to say he could siphon off a couple billion dollars and change the trajectory of thousands of people. I’m an IT nerd walking into the high roller game with a handful of twenties in my pocket. I ruminated for a long time on this, and I remembered a book my father gave me to read in college. (If you’re looking for another example of privilege, he paid me to read books one summer as I was laid out from mono and unable to work. For the record, mono was not a privilege.) Viktor Frankl wrote a book named “Man’s Search For Meaning”, which is, in part, a story of his experiences in the Nazi prison camps. It formed the basis for his therapy as a psychiatrist, which can be boiled down to basically: understand what you control, understand what you cannot control, and focus on controlling what you can control. Shaka Smart referenced this book multiple times last year (sports talk!) and I nearly let out a yelp when it happened. It is easily one of the most important books I have ever read. So I broke out the spreadsheets, figured out what I could afford to do, and started researching worthy charities. I started taking canned goods to a local food bank. I’ve been checking in on friends who are impacted by furloughs/layoffs and seeing what I can do, and I’m researching ways to help underprivileged kids in my area. I can’t solve everything, but I can help what is in my area of control.

This may be why a feeling of catharsis surrounds Death Stranding. I don’t really work on the main storyline that much, I don’t really care about the battles, and I don’t really identify with this supernatural ability Future Norman Reedus has. What draws me in is helping people; the reconnecting of small bunkers, returning an hourglass to a person who thought it forever lost, picking up cargo somebody lost and getting it closer to its destination. I’m pitching in bits of metals and ceramics to pave one piece of a long & winding road. Also I donate a blood grenade here and there. The dark sky is full of awfulness and terror, but I’m helping make it a little easier for other players to succeed. I don’t know how many people I’m helping and I don’t know if I’ll ever know, but it’s better than doing nothing. Control what I can control, one foot in front of the other, trying to make it another day until maybe the skies lighten up a bit. The baby seems to like the sun.