Warning: this article contains major spoilers for the end of Death Stranding.
Death Stranding may be an unpredictable game, but I was still sure that it wouldn’t get to me. Nice try Hideo, but I can see through your tricks. Crying? At a game about this gruff-and-tough stereotype? Please. Yet thirty minutes later I was shaking, huddled over the controller. Not a few tears, either. Ugly cries. Real nasty stuff. And that’s what’s so remarkable about Hideo Kojima’s games, for all their faults. They can suddenly turn the audience’s understanding on its head, taking strange moments that may have been dismissed and tucked away as weird asides and recontextualizing them, imbuing them with layers of new meaning.
Some have claimed that Death Stranding falters in its final act, that its sudden focus on subterfuge and separation contradicts its stated message of uniting a divided nation, of “making America whole again.” But with Hideo Kojima games, things are never as simple as they seem. He likes to play tricks. This is, after all, a game which pretends to be a relaxing open world akin to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, only to morph into a surreal anxiety trip closer to S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl. The game’s thematic shift isn’t a contradiction—it’s an expansion. And through this elaborate fake-out, Death Stranding elevates its narrative to a place among the medium’s finest works.
It’s interesting that Kojima asked the staff working on Death Stranding to watch David Lynch’s revival of Twin Peaks. While both create bold, stylish abstractions within their respective mediums, their approaches couldn’t be more different. Lynch’s art comes almost entirely from the subconscious. Dreamlike, trailing off in the middle of thoughts. It asks the viewer to, at least for the duration of the viewing, turn off. To let the images wash over the audience, and leave the explanations for later.
Death Stranding, on the other hand, couldn’t be more turned on. It’s totally hyperactive, incapable of settling down on any one idea, instead jumping from one place to the next with manic energy. Kojima, like always, slips and falls when painting details onto this canvas: some of it is ludicrous. But he excels at packing his games full of big ideas. And the delivery of those ideas has a surprising level of nuance for a story that too often slips into painful expository word-dumps.
If anything, Kojima’s work resembles pulp sci-fi pioneer Philip K. Dick, whose nervy prose—the basis for films like Blade Runner and Total Recall—lacked subtlety, but always burst from the page with its ambitious, perceptive, out-there concepts. One of the more frustrating criticisms of Death Stranding that’s emerged is at times more of a sneer than a critique: oh, so you think a game with Norman Reedus peeing and Monster Energy Drink is smart? Well, yes. It’s possible to be thoughtful about some things and dumb about others. Not everything is so binary.
Death Stranding’s final act launches a thermonuclear warhead at its themes—and then delivers it to the wrong location, forcing you to restart, to reassess the situation, to reevaluate what this game is, what it means, what you think you know. Suddenly, what seem like an exercise in hippie-dippie platitudes (we need to come together, man…) mutates into a soul-crushing meditation on toxic human connections, how they’re made, and how they’re broken.
Sam spends the entire game building bridges, but their usefulness is called into question. “In this game, we use bridges to connect things,” Kojima explained in a recent BBC interview. “But destroying those bridges can instantly turn them into walls. So bridges and walls are almost synonymous.” Sam assumes he is healing a divided nation, but the Chiral Network hastens the end times. Is it really worth connecting people if it contributes to an eventual wipeout? Though he paused the extinction event, it’s made clear that it is still coming, sooner or later.
When the new president tells the tale of the heroic Amelie’s noble sacrifice and the man who made it happen, Sam recognizes it as hero myth, not history, and storms out in disgust. America played him for a sucker. It wanted pre-fab movie stars it could sell as an image. Not a porter, but the Porter. Not Amelie, but America. It seems so inviting, like the friend and guide to the dispossessed, the agent of positive change, a benevolent force for bringing the world together. But it carries death with it.
Those two chiral images line up, but fail to match. Climate crisis, nuclear fallout, war. Beneath the facade of exceptionalism (“reconstructionism”), there is a void that consumes everything it touches. When the new President breaks down, and begs Sam for forgiveness, there’s no telling if his tears are real or constructed, an innate, allergic reaction to shredding the vaporous umbilical cord with his own hands, of deleting the ghost, a hollow shell, a body with no soul. An imperfect connection. A pool of tar spilling out from the throat.
And Sam’s own separation from his father confronts a similar tragic reality. It shows how much the human experience is about the missed opportunities that haunt us. The connections severed before they could grow, the craters they leave, the voidouts, repelling us from the site of the wound, even when we’ve returned to the other side. The scars of what could have been.
What at first seems like a trite statement of so-called “American values” of plurality, decency and gung-ho togetherness transforms into a scathing critique of imperial power and the dishonest hero narratives that prop it up. Uncle Sam building bridges he no longer believes in. The new President sworn in, but a proven liar, knowingly selling snake oil to the people who will still listen, but privately broken, unable to fully accept his own narrative, shaken, haunted by guilt.
And Sam’s final act is civil disobedience: ignoring the executive order to knock down another vulnerable domino in the imperialist parlor game. In this world, violence against the vulnerable is normalized, against the marginalized, against women, who are kept brain-dead and datamined, and against children, who are tools used by a state to wage war against an enemy they themselves created. Kojima touched on child soldiers in Metal Gear Solid V, and in a sense, BBs are another angle of approach to the same subject.
Death Stranding isn’t misleading the player when it claims to be about creating something larger. But that isn’t the UCA. Its ending succeeds because it ultimately rejects the UCA— it rejects the powerful, in favor of the powerless, the marginalized, the vulnerable. Lou. A remarkable inversion of the classic tale: Abraham, tasked by a jealous, vengeful God, instructed to kill his own as a test of faith, and spared the task after demonstrating his devotion. Sam, assigned the same fate, casts aside the false God to recapture what remains of his humanity. A fresh start, yes. But not a future born of new connections: a future made by breaking them.