BB’s Delivery Service invites the player/viewer to journey with the protagonist, Boromir Bridges, as he is chased across the territory of the former United States of Alleged’merica by the ghost of Caprica Six, so he can plug a nuclear baby into a magic telephone and print a better future. Along the way he has to dodge slimy Nazgûl, irate members of the Postal Workers’ Union, a strange plague which turns everyone’s name silly, and the occasional narrative crater left by an unwise attempt at symbolism.
In case you were still wondering, I thought the story of sci-fi/fantasy walking simulator Death Stranding was a bit of a mess. The narrative is contrived where it is not laboured, and clumsily obtuse where it is not redundantly explicit. Running alongside that is often-painful dialogue (I can hear the actors doing their best with what they have, but it is not enough in most cases), an attitude towards women even more bizarre than the naming scheme employed for the characters, and attempts at symbolism that are so shallow – or just simple reference to symbol, rather than real use – that it felt more like I was being bamboozled into believing that any given subtext was intended, when it could just have been my own semi-conscious desire to play something better than what I was experiencing.
In some respects, Death Stranding (hereafter DS) is almost worse than the sum of its parts. The gameplay is fine, if lacking in universal appeal. With better direction or editing, or even just paring down some of the ideas and focusing on a few themes, it could have been a good story as well, whereas what we have is a bad story with some good moments.
Take, for example, “Mama’s” plot. Given all the truly weird things which the Death Stranding left in its wake, the tragedy which Mama endures is relevant to the themes and surprisingly effectively delivered (for that, I think a great deal of credit must go to Margaret Qualley and her very moving performance): trapped in the ruins of a hospital during the eponymous Death Stranding, she miscarries and, as a result of Death-Stranding-weirdness, gives both to a Beached Thing/ghost. On its own merits, Mama’s story is ghoulish and compelling.
However, the added twists – that Mama’s dead baby is, in some sense, Lockne’s; and that Mama and Lockne combine into one person – do little to augment the story, beyond a rather facile way to provoke a reconciliation between the two and further the plot (continuing – but not ending – the trend of Sam’s story being served by the sacrifices of women). Likewise, given the suffering inflicted upon Fragile (prematurely aged), Bridget (cancer), Amelie (kidnapped)*, and the anonymous still-mothers (brain-dead BB-creators), by this point in the story, it becomes much harder to appreciate the good points in Mama’s story because it looks suspiciously like the narrator just likes doing terrible things to women in the name of ANGST and SYMBOLISM.
DS’s real strengths actually come through in the more pedestrian side of things. As I was taking Bridget’s body and the BB up to the incinerator at the beginning of the game, I thought to myself, ‘If the game does not end with me making this same trip to dispose of someone else, or this very BB, it will be a tragically missed opportunity’.
Lo and behold, sixty hours later, as Forssell’s BB’s Theme rang out from my speakers, and I saw the sunrise warming the mountain trail where, days earlier, I had carried the corpse of my adoptive mother, I confess that I felt my breath catch with the approach of
MANLY TEARS chiral allergies and a real sense of poignancy, entirely at odds with the melodrama which had plagued most of those sixty hours.
Then I walked into a cluster of neon lollipops and a little, squeaking text pop-up informed me, ‘You liked ColonelGaddafi420’s sign’ and the moment was somewhat spoiled.
DS reminded me of Metroid: Other M (which I am reluctant to call M:OM hereafter because that feels like sanctioning the worst conceit of the game, somehow) in that both were highly anticipated and both had stories which were messes in eerily similar ways. Likewise, although their gameplay is not for everyone, and is clearly lacking in certain areas, it is still serviceable, and crucially, both had evocative and immersive game worlds.
Unlike Other M, DS’s world opens up before the epilogue, allowing for greater, although not entirely unrestricted, movement. Because the player is allowed, even encouraged, to poke about and investigate the large environment – one rendered naturally interesting because of the “post-apocalyptic” setting – there is a psychological channel on which the game can build an immersion in its world. The scenery alone would be effective, but the careful use of sound, and even the inclusion of Mr Kojima’s favourite iTunes mix, augment the evocative world which he has built (although I cannot help but wonder whether I would still think that if I could make out anything that Low Roar et al. were saying).
Unlike Kojima’s use of symbol, the world-building is not shallow. It is not especially deep, but he has clearly thought about such diverse aspects as: the logical place of American preppers in the wake of a real global catastrophe; the importance of logistics; the approach to energy generation and application; the absence of religion in the wake of a scientifically provable afterlife; and the effects of timefall on aerospace and maintenance (even if the lack of aeroplanes and aerial drones is only technically addressed in one of innumerable logs, and not very convincingly at that). Even the product placement of a certain energy drink is entirely understandable when it is recalled that its taste is in no way worsened by the passage of time.
There are, to put it mildly, a few
voidout craters plot holes, chief amongst which is how does the BB survive death, given that it is never established to be a repatriate? Or, if it is established and I forgot due to all the SYMBOLISM hitting me in the face at the time, why are people worried about the BB dying/ceasing to function given that it can repatriate? The obvious answer would be that it is DOOMS-compatible, and so when linked to Sam gains his ability, but then this is probably the sort of thing which the characters should discuss, rather than explaining to me for the nth time all the different meanings of the word strand. The first cautionary lesson we can learn, then, is this: when presenting world-building, make sure to spend the right amount of time on what is important to the story. In a story about the dead coming back to life, the mechanics of that should probably take up more space than, say, essays on the virtues of a particular, non-essential foodstuff.
The way in which society can only be revived through a logistical network is also interesting world-building: it gives rise not only to the core concept of the game, as goods and services have to be transported often without the benefit of a vehicle, but also the importance of compact, renewable energy sources and wireless energy transmission.
The supernatural elements are also interrogated through the world-building: the hazardous timefall is harnessed to facilitate rapid agricultural development (although why said development has to happen in an isolated spot, and how the plants avoid absorbing the time-accelerating chiral matter and depositing it in whoever eats of it is not discussed). Likewise, although the BTs are mysterious in many ways, by the beginning of the game, what is left of humanity is already trying to understand them and has developed strategies for dealing with them (although, again, which human observer first correctly identified the causes of a voidout and how is left entirely unexplained). Nevertheless, other things are done which make no sense in the context of the game’s world, but only as a tool of surprise (which some people might confuse for subversion). The two most egregious offenders in that regard are, firstly, how did BBs come about in the first place? The gloss “experiments” does not quite cut it. Into what, and how, were these people experimenting? Because Let’s plug this baby of a woman rendered brain-dead during childbirth into a bright yellow whirligig and see if it can see ghosts does not really strike me as consistent with the scientific method. The second most egregious offender is the use of bottled dolls by Amelie, which only makes sense because of Kojima’s narrative decisions, and completely ignores the very real, and incredibly dangerous, mystical qualities inherent to those creepy plastic monsters.
The BTs, too, are interesting, although they highlight, in many ways, the missed opportunities for the game as a whole: they are introduced as formless and invisible, revealed only by the hand-prints they leave behind as they move around. It is a shame that the themes of touching and holding are not drawn out more: at first, I thought the BTs were, in a sense, trapped “under” the world, trying to reach through, and it is only when they touched someone alive that they burst out of the ground. The hovering ghosts, I assumed, were something else entirely. In the first of three endings to the game, Sam is led to the water by similar hand-prints: a shame that it could not have been footprints, or that his feet did not leave hand-prints in their wake, showing that he was trying to reach the other side. This is the problem with having too many ideas, and not enough attention to the ramifications of the symbols one wants to use. It is primarily an issue in media aiming for a lofty concept: the resulting “mind-screw” is, all too often, not a result of the convoluted genius of the author, but his inability to make all his symbols and themes correlate.
Speaking of symbols, the meanings of words are a big thing in this new world. In what might be a nod to Jennifer Government, people’s names are defined by their employers/residences. On the other hand, it may be more a reference to the way in which pre-modern surnames were also derived from occupations (Miller, Smith, Taylor etc.). Equally, it could just be a happy coincidence: the writing is so weak in so many other areas, that it is hard to know whether any given positive attribute is intended or not. Nevertheless, assuming that it is indeed intentional, this form of nomenclature as a device, far more so than the belaboured strands and knots, is quite interesting world-building, a device with a diverse array of uses and ramifications.
Deliver your Darlings
For all the good that these world-building elements do, though, they are not enough to rescue the story. One of the problems that plagues writers and would-be writers alike is those phrases and ideas which we love, but only hinder the story we actually want to tell. Hence Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch’s injunction to ‘Murder your darlings‘. When it comes to world-building, especially when we want to integrate it into a symbolic narrative, the writer must be prepared to cut out anything which just takes up space. The more symbols and concepts one wishes to juggle, the more vague and jumbled they become. Imagine if DS had focused on the concept of hands alone: their capacity to harm and heal, to carry and caress, to seize and surrender, to punch and point, to express desire and detestation. Hands alone could have carried this plot if every aspect of them had been considered within a coherent framework of symbology.
Likewise, the fact that the game wants us to accept the deeper meanings of names as important cannot be realized when those same names are only treated in the most superficial way (and given to characters in such clunky ways). Take, for example, Clifford, who laments that, whereas Sam is a bridge to a future he will never know, a cliff only divides things.
Of course, a cliff joins as well as divides: much like the wall of a semi-detached house both joins and separates two houses, so a cliff joins the sea to the shore, or the beach to the coast. A cliff, in some senses, protects the coast from the sea (and Cliff is always at least partly motivated by a desire to protect). Moreover, a ford is a shallow crossing-place in water: a substitute for a bridge. Hence, for all that the world-building does to prepare us for a game of symbol and subtext, the game cannot even get the obvious meanings implicit in Clifford correct.
Kojima is full of ideas, but being a good writer is not just about having good ideas, it is making the best story possible from those ideas, and knowing which ones to put on a shelf for another day. The warning for us world-building enthusiasts is this: ultimately, even the most original world-building is not enough to save bad writing.
There were lots of things I wanted to write about regarding Death Stranding, and I hope to do so, soon. In particular, I think it raises many questions and ideas surrounding the notion of games as art, a topic which I have occasionally mentioned but not yet found the time to explore more fully, but for which I hope soon to have a window. In the meantime, dear readers, please accept my thanks for your continued attention, and do consider sharing your favourite article with friends, or leave me a message in the comments, telling me about games that you think are art, or what qualifies a game for artistic status.
*Remember, the player does not at this point know the truth behind “their” identities: from said player’s perspective, as indeed for Sam, every named woman encountered thus far in the story has been whisked away by death, terrorists, or hologram.