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Low Culture

Low Culture 4: Death Stranding
Charlie Frame , April 30th, 2020 08:48

This week's cultural essay by one of our locked down writers is Charlie Frame's ramble through Hideo Kojima’s Death Stranding, seen through the prism of Coronavirus. All screenshots courtesy of Rezwan Chowdhury

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Since the lockdown began, I’ve stopped wearing my good clothes. My routine has been reduced to a handful of socially-distanced activities. I run or walk as part of my daily government-mandated exercise, negotiating kerbsides, uncollected recycling boxes, dog-poo, and the odd nuisance path-user whom I’ve come to detest as much as the dog-poo.

Then there’s the weekly dash around the death-maze that is my local big Tesco. Armed with a checklist of phone, wallet, keys and hand gel, I grab and load as many essential items as my backpack can carry before making a hasty getaway.

My working day is structured around online meetings over lousy Wi-Fi, in which I strain to make-out colleagues’ words, their faces blocky and stuttering like a bad Max Headroom knock off.

In the evening I retreat into the weird world of Hideo Kojima’s, Death Stranding, launched late last year. Call it a bit of ‘light escapism’. I bought this video game on a whim, just a week before Covid-19 hit the UK and the world got turned upside down.

An indulgent purchase at the time, the reported premise of Death Stranding felt faintly ludicrous: A delivery man carries an unborn baby across a barren, post-apocalyptic America, throwing his own blood, piss and excrement at cetacean ghosts covered in tar while avoiding rainstorms that speed up the ageing process of anything they touch. The narrative escalates from there.

As well as the cryptic premise, much has been made of Death Stranding's lengthy, often wilfully tedious, gameplay, with early reviews describing up to twenty hours of trudging around before anything exciting happens. In short, it’s a slow-burner. A Tarkovsky movie as a game with a special hat-tip to Stalker, except instead of two-and-a-half hours’ screen-time, I’m currently on around ninety. Don’t judge me, we’re in lockdown.

Of course, last November’s release date was a hundred years ago now. Today, Death Stranding can only be described as an absurd game for absurd times, and strangely apposite too. Many of the game’s more far-fetched elements now seem eerily prophetic of life under lockdown.

My daily, solitary outdoor excursions have come to reflect the long, featureless slogs around Death Stranding’s barren open world, largely free of people or landmarks. The big supermarket I mentioned earlier, now echoes the monolithic waystations and depots which act as delivery points in the game. Most in-game characters have retreated into underground bunkers, communicating only via fuzzy, spectral holograms reminiscent of my workday Microsoft Teams meetings. This all suits the game’s protagonist, Sam Porter-Bridges, (Walking Dead's Norman Reedus), who suffers from a morbid phobia of physical human contact; a condition to which many of us can relate.

Along with the uncanny Covid lockdown parallels, Death Stranding’s other themes are many and varied. It is, at once, an allegory for the internet and social media; a contemplation of life, death and rebirth; a comment on masculinity and family; a Japanese perspective on American society; and, as many have derided, it is a ‘walking simulator’, albeit the strangest walking simulator ever made.

But it’s the theme of man’s relationship to work and labour that particularly interests me about Death Stranding. Continuing in the tradition of the workplace novel, the game can be seen as a meditation on physical labour. Sam lugs back-breaking amounts of cargo over miles of terrain, to-and-from outposts populated by various preppers and waystation officers. It is gruelling work that brings to mind a sci-fi analogue of Henry Chinaski from Charles Bukowski’s novel Post Office. Like Chinaski, but unlike most other third-person video game protagonists, Sam Porter-Bridges is neither a pretty boy, nor a muscle-bound hero. He’s an everyman with unkempt hair and facial blemishes who drinks and swears and pisses and shits (yes, you can do all of these in the game). But ultimately, neither Sam nor Henry are stayed by snow, rain, heat or gloom of night from the swift completion of their appointed rounds. Something keeps them going. Indeed, a motto repeated throughout Death Stranding is ‘Keep On Keeping On’ - an American motivational slogan of the late 60s; quoted from Len Chandler's song of the same name cited in a famous speech by Martin Luther King Jr but now an echo of the undestroyable and ever-ubiquitous ‘Keep Calm And Carry On’ posters which seem to have become re-energised since quarantine.

Playing Death Stranding raises questions about the differences between work and play; and why we even bother to play video games in the first place.

Since the early days of gaming, we’ve been wearily keeping balls from dropping to the bottoms of our screens; shooting endless rows of space invaders; jumping from platform to platform, all in the name of entertainment. Even modern games like Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt, with its lush open world and expansive storyline, boils down to a series of fetch-quests which have to be performed in order for progression to occur. One online friend told me about how he dedicated nights to building a strategic empire in Sid Meier’s Civilisation only to realise that what he’d been doing was filling-out a particularly colourful spreadsheet.

There is even an online game, Universal Paperclips, where, as the name suggests, your only goal is to generate paperclips. It has won awards. Frank Lantz, the game’s designer is quoted as saying: "When you play a game – really any game, but especially a game that is addictive and that you find yourself pulled into – it really does give you direct, first-hand experience of what it means to be fully compelled by an arbitrary goal."

My first few hours playing Death Stranding are as bewildering as the first few weeks in a new job. I don’t know who anyone is. I don’t know how anything works. Even knowing what I’m meant to be doing is a mystery which has to be solved piecemeal via the obscene amount of jargon thrown at me: ‘BTs’, ‘BB’, ‘Odradek’, ‘cryptobite’, ‘chiralium’, ‘auto-paver’.

I’m introduced to a cavalcade of characters arranged in an arcane hierarchy which makes no sense to me. I’m even shown a clunky admin system accessible via electronic handcuffs. This has its own frustrating quirks which took me several hours to get my head around. It’s an information overload. Meanwhile, all I’m trying to do is walk in a straight line without falling over.

While Sam does work for a company (the Bridges corporation), the economy of Death Stranding appears to be post-capitalist (but not post-scarcity). Rather than working for money, Sam’s efforts are rewarded by a system of ‘Likes’ from the people he meets. If Sam completes a mission satisfactorily, his recipient will give him more ‘Likes’. Online players can also give ‘Likes’ for helping each other out. For example, if I lay down a bridge or a road to help me traverse a tricky section of the game, it will also appear to other players on my server, who can ‘Like’ it in turn. It’s similar to the ‘Star’ system employed in Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror episode, ‘Nosedive’, except ‘Likes’ are generally accumulated and only rarely deducted.

Okay, so you play the game and you get points. This is not a new concept in gaming by any means. But Death Stranding is a stats fan’s dream. There’s an unusual thrill each time I see my ‘Likes’ go up, as I’m rewarded for speed, length of journey, condition of packages etc. What’s more, as I receive ‘Likes’, I am able to connect deeper to the in-game ‘Chiral Network’ (like the internet, but with real-world applications such as 3D printing of structures, weapons and tools), thus making my journeys quicker and easier. A big part of the game is about making the experience less torturous for myself. To quote a scene from the 1970s workplace sitcom The Rise And Fall Of Reginald Perrin, it’s "hours of fun for all the family trying to work out how to have hours of fun for all the family".

As well as ‘Likes’, the game is constantly affirming my hard work. Recipients are always so grateful to receive their packages, often to the point of sycophancy. They laud Sam as a hero, a saviour. They acknowledge my efforts with a stoic cheerfulness, constantly cheering me on and commenting about how tough and gruelling the work must be. When my porter grade went up, I received a message saying: "Your dogged perseverance has pleased a lot of people." As such, the game acknowledges its own laboriousness, while encouraging me to keep going.

Early on in the game, I am warned about the possibility of developing ‘Delivery Dependence Syndrome’, an affliction where porters become addicted to the dopamine hit of delivering cargo. So obsessed with their occupations, gangs of these so-called ‘MULEs’ (or Homo Gestalts) will try to take Sam’s cargo by force so they can deliver it themselves. How could someone get addicted to delivering? The concept of the MULE seems like a logical quirk in an otherwise well-realised world, that is, until one takes into consideration things like the gig economy, where freelancers vie for business by undercutting each other, often working for free. Even more so, MULEs seem to parallel the Stakhanovite movement, named after the Soviet miner, Alexey Stakhanov, who was said to have mined 227 tonnes of coal in a single shift, and was held-up as socialist cause celebre. The addictiveness of delivering might also explain why I nearly missed a morning conference call because I’d spent the whole previous night lumbering around collecting raw materials in order to build a section of 3D-printed road. Later in the game, players will find themselves actively pinching cargo from the MULEs themselves. So the idea of becoming one of these maniacal, workaholic porters is very real.

Death Stranding also brings to mind David Foster Wallace’s unfinished workplace novel The Pale King, about life in a mind-numbingly dull tax office in Peoria, Illinois. Like Death Stranding, the book uses tedium as a device to reflect upon the subject of work and focus. There are lengthy passages describing the minutiae of the office car park’s rotary system. Employees lose their minds cross-checking tax return after tax return, worrying themselves to distraction about their own failings through lack of focus. And yet in one scene, a college stoner has a near-religious experience after wandering into the wrong class and witnessing a pristinely dry lecture about US income tax systems.

Death Stranding takes fastidiousness to similarly transcendent levels. A major part of the game involves making sure Sam’s cargo is arranged properly so that heavier items don’t throw him off-balance. There are buttons for left and right shoulder straps which must be constantly adjusted to keep Sam from losing balance or tripping over. It’s more like packing for a festival than being at the festival. And yet once I got good at it, I found myself revelling in these ostensibly trivial details, to the point where it became central to the game.

Upon completing a delivery, Sam has the option to rest in a private room, where he collapses onto a bed and blood samples are sucked from his veins. I’ve been known to spend long periods in these private rooms. I can take a shower, go to the toilet, pull faces in the mirror, drink a beer or energy drink and even check my emails. It really isn’t too different from my in-real-life weekday evenings. Hauling my cargo back on after these moments of respite really can feel like getting out of bed in the morning. There are days when I don’t want to play Death Stranding at all. As Hermann Melville’s titular character in Bartleby, The Scrivener says: "I would prefer not to." And yet I feel compelled to carry out these duties night after night.

But let’s not forget that Death Stranding is a game. It’s there to be enjoyed. At one point, I’m given some colourful glasses, called ‘Ludens Mask Sunglasses’ which appear to serve no purpose other than to encourage wearers to "never forget their playful side". Ludens is the name of Kojima Productions’ mascot, and later I’m introduced to the concept of Homo Ludens: "Those who play." Homo Ludens is a concept taken from the cultural theorist Johan Hulzinga, whose 1938 writings on game studies argue that play is a primary necessity in society, and that first and foremost play has to be fun! One such example is the idea of the judge’s wig worn in otherwise dry, procedural British courts of law. This fancy-dress play-act which elevates the wearer into something more than a human being, is much like a witch doctor’s mask, or the Ludens Mask worn by Sam Porter-Bridges in Death Stranding. When we play games, the appeal is that we get to become someone else.

From The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist to Moby Dick, culture has long been reflecting on both the tedium and passion of the workplace by placing the audience in the mindset of the worker. Death Stranding, as far as I am aware, is the first video game to express and embrace this so bravely. To my fellow porters: "Good luck and Keep On Keeping On."