Photo: “Death Stranding,” Hideo Kojima, 2019.

‘Death Stranding’ and the Oldest Lie in America

WARNING: Death Stranding spoilers ahead. Seriously, if you intend on playing the game, do that before reading this. If you don’t, enjoy the ride.

In Hideo Kojima’s 2019 game Death Stranding, the main character Sam goes on a grand odyssey across a post-apocalyptic America — a quest to connect as many people as he can, encouraging them to join the newly-formed United Cities of America, or UCA. In this particular apocalypse, undead beings called BTs roam the Earth, triggering massive explosions called “voidouts” when they attack humans. These BTs are connected to a supernatural plane called “the Beach,” which acts as a sort of purgatory — a liminal space between the worlds of the living and the dead. The UCA has figured out how to channel the Beach in order to transmit goods and information instantaneously using something called the “chiral network,” and plans to use this technology to rebuild America. Of course, someone has to physically go to every major American city in order to connect them to the chiral network, and people brave enough to resist the fear of voidouts are in short supply. Enter our protagonist, Sam Porter Bridges. The man who delivers, tasked with reconnecting everyone in America. With making America whole again.

Now, if that didn’t come across to you as a bunch of nonsense propaganda, you might need to get your eyes, ears, and brain checked. For the first few hours of Death Stranding’s core gameplay loop — prepare your gear, deliver packages across hazardous terrain, try not to fall flat on your face, do it all over again — you get the sense that the game’s intent is, in fact, to sell you on the idea of rebuilding America. Some disconcerting stuff starts to pop up almost immediately, though. Sam’s mother, who dies in his arms at the beginning of the game, was the President of the United States at the time the titular “Death Stranding” broke out, nearly eliminating civilization as we know it. America lives on, however, and President Bridget Strand continued to be the president in secret. The timeline of events in the game’s lore is tenuous at best and nonexistent at worst, but it is implied that Bridget completely ignored term limits and remained president for decades. Upon her passing, Bridget passes the presidency down to her daughter, Amelie, and the presidency is later passed down to Bridget’s right-hand man Die-Hardman, so it seems that elections don’t even exist anymore. Less democracy, more divine right of kings.

Beyond the game’s obvious musings about the apocalypse, extinction, and human nature, Death Stranding is the story of America. More specifically, if America still exists or will ever exist again. And I want to explore this aspect of the game, because it ties seamlessly into the other stuff. You know, the extinction stuff.

Does America still exist in Death Stranding? The characters would sure like you to believe as much. Sam, and subsequently the player, spends the game traveling westward across the country connecting people to the network, until he eventually reaches Edge Knot City, where his sister Amelie is being held hostage. Along the way, Sam brings more and more people into the chiral network, and subsequently the UCA, until eventually the entire country is connected again. But does America really still exist? Hard to tell. Like I said, the constitution has been thrown out the window, and it seems as though the UCA bears more in common with a corporation — the shipping company Bridges that Sam works for — than any country. What exactly ties Sam’s quest to America, if not… well, America?

Well, duh. The American dream. One nation under God and all that. By connecting everyone together, Sam is rekindling the American dream by allowing everyone to prosper. With the chiral network, goods and services can be shared instantaneously across space. Even in a world where everyone lives in underground bunkers, America will still be one united country. People will have everything they need, and no one will be left behind.

Except that’s not really how it works. Across the game, you meet several NPCs who are hesitant to join the UCA. One such NPC, the Craftsman, believes that joining will make him a bigger target for the terrorists roaming around the game world. Another, the Junk Dealer, is disillusioned with America after he believes his girlfriend died in a bombing. For these people, togetherness is less of an ideal and more of a liability. And really, they’re right. They only become convinced to join the UCA when Sam does something for them — going to their old house to collect lost goods while avoiding BTs, or physically delivering the Junk Dealer’s girlfriend, who is very much alive. Their allegiance to America is not based on a love of America itself, but a respect for things Sam has done. In fact, that seems to be the main reason people join the UCA— because Sam delivered something to them.

The mission of connecting America creates the backdrop for the gameplay. Sam delivers packages from one shelter to another. The player is encouraged to build structures like roads and ziplines to expedite travel and minimize damage to the packages. Despite being a single player experience, playing the game online allows you to use other players’ structures, and see signs that they have left which are often helpful and encouraging. There is even a system of social capital, where you can give and receive likes on your structures and signs. The game pitches these online features as a direct consequence of your chiral network connections. Any sense of community or development that you feel is all a direct consequence of reconnecting America. Feels good, doesn’t it?

Well, guess what? Turns out that you actually caused the apocalypse. You see, your sister Amelie, the president of the United States, is what’s called an Extinction Entity, or EE for short. The purpose of an EE is to connect the world of the living to the Beach, causing a Death Stranding. Amelie does this inadvertently, although she tried to prevent it and make America a better place. However, humanity is on its last legs, and she begins to reconsider. Remember how the chiral network is connected to the Beach? Well, there are actually multiple Beaches, some belonging to one person and some forming to house a whole army of dead people. Amelie’s Beach exists on a higher plane than everyone else’s since she’s an EE, but thanks to Sam running around connecting everyone to the chiral network, he’s inadvertently connected everyone’s Beaches as well, including Amelie’s. This gives Amelie the power to trigger the Last Stranding — a true apocalypse that will wipe out all life on Earth once and for all. So thanks for that, Sam. Way to live up to the American dream. Now we can all be connected in Hell.

All that the player does, all that the player is told to believe in, is revealed to be a lie. I thought we were rebuilding America, not careening towards its destruction. Well, the hard fact is that the people in power have always acted against the best interest of the citizenry. It is an outright fabrication to suggest otherwise. Even if they seem to enact positive change, the means taken to get to that change are often abuses of power. The President of the United States, in a world where power has been stripped from the supposed greatest nation on Earth, is more powerful than ever, whether the people like it or not.

This mentality gives us, in my opinion, one of the strongest characters in the entire game: Clifford Unger, portrayed by Mads Mikkelsen. Cliff was a Special Forces soldier who got into an unspecified tragic accident with his pregnant wife Lisa, rendering her brain dead. In a desperate bid to save her life, Cliff gave up her comatose wife and unborn baby to Bridges, who promised to treat the two with experimental medical procedures. Unfortunately, although they were technically telling the truth, Bridges manipulated Unger’s conceptions. Bridges placed Lisa on life support, permanently trapping her in a state between life and death, and placed the unborn baby in a pod, stopping him from aging. Cliff’s baby, as it turns out, was the perfect candidate for the Bridge Baby (BB) program, where unborn fetuses are placed in pods that prevent aging and a wireless connection with their brain dead mothers is established, allowing users who connect to the baby to be able to detect BTs.

Look, I know this all sounds needlessly complicated, and you’re right to believe so. But here’s the main thing you need to understand: Clifford Unger was lied to by Bridges, and subsequently the United States government, and this cost him his wife and his child. Consumed by anger, he took a furious ownership of his child (whom he affectionately called BB). He would visit him often, along with his comatose wife. When BB was set to be taken away, he was so protective that he kidnapped BB from the care of Bridges, but was quickly found and shot dead. The President of the United States gave the direct order to kill him.

Cliff’s undead spirit causes massive storms during the events of Death Stranding, causing Sam to be whisked away to special Beaches — ones reinforced by the trauma of war. Think of them as special purgatories specific to soldiers who died in each war. Sam visits the spirits of WWI, WWII, and the Vietnam war. While Cliff was a Special Forces operative, it is stated many times that he never participated in any of the wars Sam visits. Instead, Cliff’s undead spirit seems to be manipulating the souls of the dead to fight for him, accosting Sam in an attempt to reclaim his lost BB.

WWI. WWII. Vietnam. These are some of the most needless losses of life in human history. And for what? What were those soldiers fighting for? According to Death Stranding, those soldiers died in vain. Cliff is able to command them, it seems, because they share a sort of cognitive dissonance — a mix of intense hatred and blind loyalty for the United States. They march on in death, blindly accepting orders, because it’s all they know. The government has conditioned them.

Cliff’s anger is directly tied to these tragedies — the original sin of America. You have to kill a couple thousand people to make a great nation. You have to tell a couple thousand lies to justify your immoral actions. Is it any wonder why Sam’s westward journey across America perfectly mirrors colonial westward expansion? The people in charge want to rebuild America, sure, but it was never about helping people — it was always about accruing enough power to kill the people they don’t need. At that point, who gives a shit about them? After all, we’re the greatest nation on Earth.

Death Stranding takes this idea to its logical conclusion by making the president an agent of destruction — by making her ultimate goal to enact extinction. America is built with blood, and it’s about time everybody shed some. With all that power America has accrued, it’s just going to end up destroying humanity. Sure, it’s a far-flung, heady sci-fi plot littered with contrivances and eccentricities, but is the core of it really all that dissimilar to the effect late capitalism is having on us today? Climate change and warmongering increasingly come to a head as a result of government/corporate entanglement, leaving regular people powerless to do anything about it. Pretty soon, the Earth will be an inhospitable nothing, rendered so by the very people claiming to protect us.

We are being systematically killed and told that we are being protected. That is the oldest lie in America.

Filmmaker-ish. Critic-ish.