Death Stranding and the Flesh of the World

This analysis was born out of a desire to discuss the video essay ‘The Essence of Metal Gear’ on the La Croûtique channel. It turns out that over the course of its gestation, it gradually took on a different form, less directly dialectical and more creative. In the process, the immediate dialogical dimension gradually disappeared. This is why I felt it important to reiterate what was obvious to me but will not be obvious to the reader – all the more so given the high quality of the work with which I intended to establish a dialogue.

As an introduction

While I’ve always enjoyed playing Metal Gear, Kojima’s latest game has left me much more circumspect. Despite its fascinating and rich gameplay, I found the storyline deeply boring. Everything about it is a little ridiculous, a little too baroque and overplayed. The characters and their relationships are poison to anyone with an ounce of good taste… Need I mention the pretentiousness that seems to permeate the whole thing? If Metal Gear was always an obvious choice, Death Stranding is the scene of an ongoing relationship, in the making, the matrix of a problem that is constantly renewed.

Once, there was an explosion, a bang which gave rise to life as we know it. And then, came the next explosion. An explosion that will be our last.

Death Stranding beached thing

These are the first words to be heard. They are spoken against a black background, before the player even sees the slightest image of the game. As well as being scientifically dubious, the absence of any staging is intended to emphasise the weight of these words.

Basically, this opening sums up the abject failure of Death Stranding’s script: a story that moves from the metaphysical to the psychological to the political with a single line. A kind of total work. Some succeed, but not this one. Nevertheless, we will gobble it up over the tens of hours it will take us until the end of the adventure. Refilling our plates against our will, again and again. I’m constantly reminded of the endless ending of the title, accompanied by an unflattering emotion. It’s there, in my flesh.

Death Stranding‘s lore is mediocre and unnecessarily complex in many respects, its characters are caricatures bordering on the unbearable, and the script and endless emails never manage to convince. And there’s that clammy smell of pretentiousness – the kind that grows mould. For a long time, I thought that this was simply the result of Hideo Kojima’s now unfettered creativity – hindrances which, in the past, would have given the creator a framework.

I’ve never really moved away from that interpretation. But I do think that I’ve found a different possible relationship with this title. Does all this fit together? Probably not, but it doesn’t matter. I’m not one of those people who can’t live with contradiction – it’s not a burden to me, quite the opposite.

How serious is all this?

I’ll start with a question that’s not my own, but which helped to give this work its vital impetus. Should we take Death Stranding seriously?

Isn’t Death Stranding ultimately a game that doesn’t say what it says? – a game that looks down its nose at what its characters are saying: their good feelings, their naivety, their patriotic morality. Is all this talk about “connecting people” and “creating bonds” really serious? Does Kojima himself believe it? Like a modern-day Flaubert, doesn’t he observe his characters and his plot with the mocking, sometimes mean-spirited gaze of the author who overlooks them? And isn’t that what the game’s gameplay suggests, since it seems to contradict the narrative and the words of its characters in order to undermine their credibility? In fact, all our constructions (which we share with the other players) are ugly, aesthetically degrading the environment and at the same time destroying the pleasure of the game (that of walking slowly, of discovery, of this symbiotic relationship with nature through learning about it).

Leaving to rebuild

Sam’s mission – to work for the rebirth of the USA, to restore its political and economic power in order to “save the world” – seems at odds with Kojima’s approach to the Metal Gear saga, which he has been working on for over twenty years. Behind the American blockbuster scenario of dubious taste lies its meticulous destruction from within, through the game. In this way, it manages not to be what it claims to criticise. At the heart of Death Stranding is its gameplay, its relationship with matter, the matter you walk over, touch, hurt, tame and contemplate. A physical, carnal, even sensual contact that was already at work in Metal Gear. Gaming as a place of chiasmatic experimentation between real flesh and videogame flesh. In short, Death Stranding does a lot with its gameplay, but very little with its story. It makes you wonder about the frequency of these never-ending cinematics, with their nauseating overtones. All the more so given that Metal Gear Solid V had largely transformed Kojima’s forms of expression. Ubiquitous to the point of being uncomfortable, only to be swept away. Is that it?

Bodies and their flesh are the starting point from which we will approach this whole question.

Suffering

Symptomatic of hyper-excitability and excessive irritability, Sam and the gallery of characters embody a certain relationship to the world, and even more so to suffering. The slightest touch, the slightest caress, is experienced by the protagonist’s body as an aggression. Fleeing from reality, seeking a state of calm synonymous with a total absence of friction with the world, Sam embodies the exhaustion of the will in the midst of this devastated world. What he sees as his fault is the poison that makes life more insurmountable every day and makes it impossible to be in the world. This impossibility of living is embodied in the impossibility of any contact, any friction with what exists.

Death Stranding never simply tells the story of that torment and fatigue. It lets the player experience it as he moves through space. It’s an elementary, even classic mechanic, because it was already at the heart of Spacewar!, but it’s turned against the player. Firstly, because it’s put back at the heart of the game, to subvert it: walking, nothing but walking, that’s what it’s all about. But more than that, it turns the whole learning process on its head. Indeed, moving in a three-dimensional space requires assimilation: it requires the ability to manage both the movement of the avatar and that of the camera. Anyone who hasn’t tried this will tell you, and more importantly demonstrate by their actions, how difficult it is. The position of your hands on the controller alone is proof enough for the trained eye.

Suffering : man against the world

While an experienced player knows how to handle an avatar in a three-dimensional world, the game confronts us with the weakness of our acquired habits, their unsuitability for the world of Death Stranding. It uses the learning features against certain ingrained, hard-won habits. Sam comes across as a very weak character, exposed to his environment. A rag doll, shaken by the smallest stone, everything an obstacle, everything a potential injury. Stripped of consistency, toughness and inner strength, he is a soft dough that can be deformed by the slightest bump in the terrain. In fact, the game regularly shows us Sam’s damaged body as we pass through the shelters. A body that even needs… sleep! As you can see, the physics of the character, his primary relationship with the environment and the resulting gameplay have a symbiotic relationship with the characterisation of the protagonist. It’s no coincidence that Sam has to move from shelter to shelter. Shelters where the others are holed up, shelters where Sam can rest – the only place where his ordeal comes to a momentary end. Isolated from each other, the individuals protect themselves from any contact with a reality that has become too aggressive for them. In Death Stranding, the world and life are denied – Suffering! Suffering! It’s enough!

Nihilism

The suffering is too deep. A field of ruins without ruins, natural virginity regained but only pretended. Beyond good and evil, in the face of the forces of the cosmos, there is no sense. The imminence and inevitability of destruction resonate in our flesh, tearing us apart: “What’s the point? The scandal of evil is no longer relevant, it has given way to something deeper: the absurd, the scandal of a lack of meaning. The light has gone out. And this time there is no power either. The lies of the past have collapsed, but there is no will to rebuild. The value of what was before has vanished, leaving us orphans of any heritage; the value of what is yet to be built is struggling to emerge, and the generosity of giving is no longer the order of the day.

Kojima offers us a fascinating picture. Beyond the caricatures of the characters – which border on the ridiculous – Death Stranding paints a picture of humanity that could be swept away in a single breath. All of them, especially Sam, are nothing more than leaves ready to be blown away by the slightest gust of wind. There’s no need for an explosion, as the game is fond of reminding us, just the heat of a human breath.

UCA : the new empire

But a promise is emerging. It can be summed up in three letters: UCA – United Cities of America! The triumphant return of the United States of America, disguised by a change of name that deceives no one. A glimpse of “hope”: society under the renewed yoke of the United States. Rebuilding, extracting a “yes”, a consent to this soft despotism. It doesn’t matter which one, as long as a “yes” is reborn. A pretended assertion, but one that will ensure calm, that will push back a little the fear that is the last driving force behind the existence of these men who have become so small. And in a way, Sam is no exception. He accepts his mission reluctantly, out of weakness of character, incapable of saying “no”. Then, of course, there is his personal love for Amelie – a deplorable lapse of taste on the part of the creator!

In the face of desolation, a “hope” that sounds to informed ears like an echo of the words of the Grand Inquisitor to the returned Christ:

There are only three powers, only three powers on earth, that can defeat these stupid rebels and take them forever to their happiness – these powers are miracle, mystery and authority. You have rejected the first, the second and the third. […] We have corrected Your work and founded it on wonder, mystery and authority.

So be it. And once again they bowed to the authority that provided bread, a miserable vessel of meaning and peace of mind.

Hero ?

Death Stranding likes to use a trope that Kojima has been using successfully for years: anti-agency. As in Metal Gear, the protagonist is never, or at least never really, a hero. He’s a cog in an infernal machine, constantly deceived, unaware of what he’s doing, never saving the world. At best, his actions are indifferent to the higher forces that govern it; at worst, he is simply helping to accomplish something beyond his control – against his will. Although Sam manages to avert the coming apocalypse, he cannot defuse its inevitability. As the Oedipus of the end of time, Sam merely sets the machinery of fate in motion, bringing together the inevitable conditions for an inescapable end of the world. At most, he manages to wring out a delay with an unexpected gesture. Insignificant on the scale of the universe, it may provide the time to reinvent life. The Damocles of disappearance, like FoxDie for Solid Snake.

Upstream, the criminal alternative: the absurd or power – the power that raises its throne over the Dionysian entanglements of reality. Naïve and cowardly, we are deceived once again by the form of the alternative. A plan for a new beginning, an eternal return to the stranglehold of power over our lives and our flesh. Poison disguised as medicine, serpentine bridges and motorways like the apothecaries of decadence. Do you want more of my medicine? Each dose increases the lack, freezes life in need. Asymptotic, all-encompassing nihilism, synonymous with the plea to stop suffering.

Starting with suffering flesh, the universe of Death Stranding is first revealed under the auspices of existential fatigue. Sam’s, of course, and that of others. At times, it seems as if the world itself is expressing its weariness of being and its desire for nothingness. Submission to power, old and new, ancestral and renewed: the only escape that provides inner peace.

Time and territories

Death Stranding takes place in a world where the apocalypse has kind of ended time. An eternal beach, alien to becoming, gives rise to an untimely space. This time, Kojima plays with history and the conditions of our historical existence in a directly tragic way. Metal Gear has always done this, but this time the game does it in a new way. In its very structure, it forces us to embark on a new conquest of the West. A clear destiny, here it is again, the dazzling gold rush and galloping imperialisation. Faced with the danger of the Great Other, let’s keep moving forward, let’s make the empire grow and regain its supremacy. The political myth becomes metaphysical – it asserts itself with all its might and that of the entire universe. The grotesque spectacle of the new Frontier being pushed back is underway, but how far will it take us? Beyond time and space – on the beach – and for us mortals, no doubt tomorrow beyond the American border.

However, this new conquest does not only take place through spatial material, but also through a persistent historical material; an incessant repetition, both intra- and extradiegetically. The existence of the bomb and its uses, the matrix of existence in Kojima’s work, here takes the form of a post-bombing black rain. A recurring motif in the art of the hibakusha and the production of post-atomic memory in Japan, the black rain is hidden from photography, except for the marks it leaves on windows. The rain in Death Stranding is a force from another place, another time. It rains until it dies, accelerating growth until it withers. It speeds history to the point of annihilation. The ghosts of the bombing burst into our world, connected to this all-too-real beyond by these puppet strings, an almost perfect replica of the traces of black rain on the windows that withstood the deadly blast of the bomb. In a new and less direct way than before, Kojima re-enacts the presence that haunts modern humanity and threatens to wipe it out at any moment, with the difference that this time the bomb has become a metaphysical condition and event – once there was an explosion. At the beginning, at the end, in the middle; nothingness is constantly reminded pushed back into being. A new mnemonic image of nothingness, the memorial motif is repeated: since August 1945 the rain has never stopped, it never stops pouring.

Travelling trough the world no matter what it takes

Must we also recall the untimely uproar that Sam is subjected to? The wars of modern history return like ghosts. He passes through them at the frantic pace of a manhunt, prey of a father who has already disappeared. An agôn with the past that takes the form of a preservation of the future. Faced with the ghostly, threatening flesh of history, the question is what to do with it, what will remain of it, and for whom.

Not only is historical time distorted in this way, but geography itself is caught up in the game’s folds and twists. Obviously, you’ll be struck by this Icelandic-looking America, a transformation that serves no other purpose than aesthetic. In its visual dimension, the environment is purely atmospheric – it colours the flesh. However, no one will be surprised by the almost total absence of ruins in this virtual world. The player is confronted with a natural world that has almost regained its virginity. It’s as if the myth of conquest has encountered its greatest lie: that nature is available and ready to be conquered. It is only when beached things attack that these missing ruins reappear, vomited out by the black flesh of those who should no longer be here. Kojima plays with the effects of territorialisation, simulating an original (re)territorialisation in which the player is the agent, but in which the torments of a history spun in territorial flesh are constantly bubbling and pulsating.

Kojima has always made “children behind its back” when it comes to history, working the material, bending it, distorting it, wrapping events, places and epochs around each other. The material through which the flesh moves is also the one of history. It is not a different material, but the same, historical and territorialised in itself. It is the ground on which we walk, and it is this ground that makes us stumble, fall and lose our load. It’s what we kneel on, crawl on, or tackle in Metal Gear. It’s the virtual flesh of our avatars, whether in Death Stranding or Metal Gear. It’s what deals with power from without and from within. And it is what we encounter in this chiasmus-like relationship between real flesh and virtual flesh. It’s also the heart of the chiasmus itself – the bridge.

Sensitive Healing

The fundamentally sensitive journey of Kojima’s works takes on the appearance of a historical labyrinth as we walk along its walls, our hands sliding along them. Death Stranding pushes this sensitivity even further. It’s the same sensitivity that Sam obviously experiences: the walk, the grip of BB’s capsule, the elements that make us slow down and fall, that come into friction with our bodies. This untouchable body is relearning how to be touched. On the other side of the joystick, it’s the thumb on the joystick, the meticulous management of the walking speed according to the terrain you’re learning to navigate; the release of the pressure when you need to rest for a moment in the middle of crossing a torrent. And above all… the triggers! Death Stranding has perfectly understood and exploited the sensitive potential of these two buttons on the edge of the controller. The progressive nature of their depression, their opening by design to the tensing of the hands in response to situations. It makes you wonder if the first and fundamental idea behind this game isn’t the discovery of the sensitivity of these buttons.

Touching, loving the Other one. Learning contact again.

Death Stranding may not tell the story it tells, it may not be the grand narrative about the reconnection of humanity that the UCAs would be the means to achieve, but it nonetheless explores its mythic narrative from within, making it crack. The game doesn’t so much play against its narrative as it leaks away from its inside, along a line of flight drawn by the gameplay that runs right through the player’s fingers and flesh. Playing here means drawing a line of flight that tears the flesh away from itself, with and against itself, with and against history, with and against the territorialities in which the latter is played out and manifested.

EPIPHANY

Consequently, it is not possible to adhere to the thesis of a frontal opposition between narrative and gameplay. What’s more, it doesn’t seem appropriate to see the rejection of nature, through the use of constructs, as a rejection of gameplay itself. Death Stranding is not a game whose essence is distorted by constructs. These are not taking the gameplay over the scenario (taken at first value), quite the opposite. The multiplayer asset is at the heart of this title. It’s the fertile sticking point between a nomadic and edutainment wandering yet solipsistic, and a story that is, at first glance, very or too literal for its own good (UCAs as people reconnexion).

To say that the gameplay encourages us not to build or use vehicles because it would destroy the gameplay itself, along with the aesthetics dimension of nature, is not bearable. Many players have inactivated the online function to avoid their experience to be hampered by other players’ constructions. With some being ugly, absurd (objects randomly and insanely placed), and making the game too easy to play, other people’s constructions would be anti-immersive, aesthetically and playfully destructive.

Irruption of the other one in my world

But that’s not the main point. This is their problematic and sometime intrusive aspect that create the core of Death Stranding experience. Discovering the constructions left behind by other players is true bliss. Running into a rope along a cliff is encountering the mark of who have been here before us. Basically, the « like » are just a tool that enlighten the real question: how many of us have shared this path, have enjoyed what someone has left behind? This world changing form, as minimal as it may be (a ladder, a rope, a bridge…) is a stone of humanity left in one place. But more, it is the mark, a trace of a path. On another side, grasping that the first ladders and ropes left by someone called Igor have been placed by the creators (not by players) leads to a highly disappointing experience. It is hardly surprising then, that the game strongly embraces the notion of trace. Just as the dead who haunt the world are announced by the footprints they leave in the damp ground, so the players, through their constructions, leave the mark of their past presence. The trace is the sensitive vestige of another one passage.

This marking, this topography on the ground is also what can be considered as the most brilliant asset of the multiplayer game: drawing the paths on the ground as players take the same routes. Without even realizing it, we inseminate the world with our presence. Flesh on flesh, equivocal distortion. In the wandering, the travelling – the simple moving – the encounter!

Prints of the Other : irruption of another world

Experiencing the epiphany of encountering others is at the core of Death Stranding.

These indirect, delayed, even impossible encounters, that nevertheless take place. This is the fleeting and ghostly nature of this encounter that makes it all the more striking and credible. There is no need for meaning, no need to understand nor to interpret. No need neither for an asset simulating a credible non-player character, also no need for some so-called real and extra ludic direct interactions between players. No more voices, languages, genders, skin colors and so on.

This is through this undirect relation of the trace that lives the only paradoxical epiphany of the others past presence, of their fleeting flesh, in space and time. In all the modesty of its belated appearance, the other suggests the world it is on its own.

In Death Stranding the people presence is nevertheless not neutral, but has impact on the world, the nature and the global gradual humanization. That is unbearable for many. As for Sam, unable to endure the contact on clean flesh, as subtle as it may be. For us people, there is no pure nature, this is a mirage, this is naivety – the recovered virginity of Death Stranding world is just a bad joke; just as there is no such thing as a human world without people. Humanity only exists between people, in their intrinsic otherness and in their mutual strangeness. However, otherness and strangeness can only exist under the condition of a contact, of an encounter. Flesh on flesh. The world strangeness that is shaped with people voices and hands. A purely human world may imply a loss of individual agency. Here, Death Stranding plays out in a new way the tragedy of pure agency around which Metal Gear has always revolved around: those who hope to find it by freeing themselves from a particular power arrangement are deluding themselves and worshipping myths. The false natural virginity we are dealing with is merely the ideological image – turned inside out – of this myth. This is the fundamentally tragic dimension of Kojima’s work: we are never done with power, and we’ll never be done with the presence of others. Those fleshes rub against mine, sometimes to the point of hurting me, sometimes to the point of penetrating me and invading me to the core.

United States are back

The uncertain, brief and ghostly encounter of other along with the equivocal, undiscernible epiphany compel me in two ways: presenting me a world already transformed and an exteriority that is no longer just pure nature but is now genuine otherness; and by committing me to consider my own actions, my heritage to those who will be in my current position. Death Stranding is permeated by the legacy question and what it deeply implies on personal identity. The game masterstroke is the ability to turn this from a narrative perspective into a gameplay one. At crossroads of history, territory and others: a matter of position through space and time.

Petty bourgeois flesh, and then…

The playful chiasmus in which Death Stranding takes place has the appearance of a proposal for resistance: to history, to territoriality, to power. Through the play, the walking and the slow passing of time. The pleasure of walking, of wasting time against the urgency of the mission. Through the (non-)encounter with the Other: a riddle and a problem, a double question mark, a sign that we are at odds with power and at the same time – as much as we are – an offshoot of it. This absent but visible other is confronted by a power that is present but invisible; invisible in its over-manifestation, its over-presence, especially in its cinematographic one. If power wants to assert its obviousness, the other raises a problem that takes us beyond mere talk. Too many games are nothing but vulgar chatter. The Other is indeed a problem, because behind the epiphany of its passing there is always the inexhaustible source of power. The Other appears at the crossroads, both as a representative of power and as an anarchic force of creation. He graces us with his presence as much as he speeds up the game, practically reminding us of the urgency of the situation and bringing the cinematic sequences that crush us closer to the ill-disguised militarism of power. And so, despite the procedural selection of buildings in each player’s instance, they are always part of the fabric of the territory to be dominated, as if through the connection of dots.

Walking without stopping

The anarchic power to erupt is always given once and for all; it’s up to us to connect the dots. It can never be transformed into a real power to act. If it manages to stop the machine, it does so by creating renewed but temporary friction points. The revolt is in constant danger of collapsing into a nihilistic, petty-bourgeois, Schopenhauerian lament that seeks only consolation. Here the consolation becomes aesthetic and playful. Kojima is no revolutionary, and Death Stranding is clearly a marketing product. But to say that is to miss the way it stands on a crest, to miss what the game does to us – not in a face-to-face relationship, but in a chiasmus. It draws lines outside itself, it makes flesh diverge. But maybe that’s what it’s all about: not giving up, not collapsing, not settling for consolations. To wander through these territorial and historical lands, to move along the lines of the network, to map it, to see where the power is passing through. Forking a little spatially, delaying the urgency of a fleeting but essential instant. Like modern Penelopes, carefully undoing what has been woven. And so to arrange this cruel self-dissection. Accepting to be affected, even to suffer and be hurt, is the price of all freedom gained and the condition of all true joy, of all power of living.

Traveling on the edge of the world

Walking. For nothing, sometimes even against nothing. Maybe even to death. But at least that won’t be taken away from us. No more slogans – “en marche”! But the fresh air! We’ll have to get our lungs used to breathing its purity in order not to die, but here we are – let’s set sail and “whatever happens to us”.

The wind is rising !… We must try to live!

Paul Valéry, “The Graveyard by the sea”

Sources :

  • La Croûtique, “L’Essence de Metal Gear Solid” : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YwKoxnrb1bQ
  • Alexandre Taalba, Mnemonic image of nothingness (thesis), Université Paris 8
  • Fiodor Dostoïevski, The Brothers Karamazov
  • Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Eveil
  • Gilles Deleuze, Negociations
  • Paul Valéry, “The Graveyard by the Sea”

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