why Death Stranding: bridging gaps in a fractured world, and why I just can’t let go

why Death Stranding: bridging gaps in a fractured world, and why I just can’t let go

reading time: 5 minutes

the melodic appeal of a broken symphony

Pour yourself a cup of that bitter delight, dear reader. Yes, the one that, if it were to be personified, would feel like J.R.R. Tolkien and Depeche Mode bumped into each other at a clandestine nightspot, somewhere between Middle-Earth and a dim underground club. Sip on it, for we’re about to set off to a trip, one that starts with Hideo Kojima’s psychedelic masterpiece, Death Stranding.

Now, some might argue – why Death Stranding? Why not venture into the expansive terrains of The Legend of Zelda or gambol in the vibrant, kinetic worlds of Mario? Well, the answer is simple: just like an aficionado picking a 17-minute, progressive rock track over the 3-minute pop hit, there’s an allure in the complex, an attraction in the intricate. But let me spill the beans, and no, they aren’t jumping beans.

to Hyrule or the Mushroom Kingdom? – the gaming nexus and my choice

See, The Legend of Zelda, with its profound mythology and compelling tapestry of adventures, could be seen as the traditional epic – the Iliad of our digital age, if you will. A narrative focused on the archetypal hero’s journey, it’s what Joseph Campbell would probably play on his Switch during his coffee breaks. And then there’s Mario, that indomitable plumber. The world of Mario is more than just jumping on Goombas or saving princesses. It’s a return to the elemental – to pure joy. Like Chaplin’s “Modern Times” but sprinkled with stardust, Mario’s escapades evoke a nostalgia for simpler narratives.

So, why not dissect these iconic masterpieces? Because as inviting as the chronicles of Link or the jaunts of Mario are, they are, in essence, stories we’ve heard, seen, and even felt before. But Death Stranding? That’s like a curveball thrown by Dali in a 4D space – unpredictable, unfamiliar, and undeniably intriguing. Both Zelda and Mario represent the apex of their respective narrative styles, but I was not in search of a peak; I wanted to trek the unknown valley. Not to throw any mushrooms or master swords at our iconic game legends, but with Death Stranding, I was not just on the hunt for the triforce. I was looking for the very essence of connectivity in a world on the verge of disconnect. And that is a quest neither a rupee nor a super star could buy.

homo ludens, or how to play like a human

Death Stranding released during a time when the very essence of connection was under scrutiny. From Cambridge Analytica to awkward Zoom calls (remember the ‘cat lawyer’? Good times …), our sense of connection was transforming. And then comes this game, which audaciously asks: “What if connection isn’t about being present but about understanding absences?”

You see, I grew up during the era of the Tamagotchi, an era where you cared for a pixelated creature, nourishing it, watching it poop, only to ultimately … well, let it die. We then swiftly moved on to Facebook likes, thinking we’ve matured. The illusion of connection was at its peak! Now, juxtapose this experience with Death Stranding’s world – desolate, disconnected, but deeply longing for ties. Eerie, isn’t it? And, let’s be honest. As intriguing as Death Stranding’s chiral network was, didn’t it remind you, those of you who played the game, even if just a smidge, of Twitter (now X – or the other way round)? Bits of data, messages from unknown people, helping or hindering your journey. It’s like Kojima peeked into our world, saw Twitter trolls, and said, “Yes! That! But make it … more spectral.”

Ethnologist Richard Dawkins, in The Selfish Gene (1978), introduced the concept of the meme – ideas that propagate themselves, akin to genes. Now, if genes dictate biology, memes dictate culture. And what better meme in the modern era than “building bridges, not walls”? In this divisive era, Kojima’s magnum opus reminded me of the intricate web we saw in Matrix, where connections weren’t just physical or digital, but deeply existential. Isolation, in a sense, is a choice – an easy choice. Connection, on the other hand, with all its challenges and intricacies, is a courageous endeavor.

Cultural historian Johan Huizinga, in his groundbreaking work Homo Ludens (1938/1939), posits that play is primary to and a necessary condition of the generation of culture. So, here we have Death Stranding, which literally has “keep on keeping on” as a tagline, reminding us that we’re essentially playful creatures on a persistent quest for meaning. Sam Porter Bridge’s (a name Kojima was so on-the-nose about, it hurt) loneliness, his odyssey through fragmented landscapes, these are allegorical images of our own journey through a culture of fragmentation. To describe the unique position of humans between nature and culture, cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz, following Max Weber, coined the idea of man as an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun. Sam embodies this hybrid status between biology and symbolism in an almost archetypal way. Bridging the gaps between isolated cities, Sam was doing more than just delivering cargo. He was re-establishing the human spirit. And isn’t that what we all tried to do in the annus horribilis of 2020? Sam’s odyssey was our odyssey.

so why this game, why now? and why for a habilitation?

Because it’s a mirror. A beautifully cracked, multifaceted mirror.

Death Stranding is a reflection of our times, of our longing for connection in an increasingly fragmented world. As sociologist Zygmunt Bauman aptly analyzed, we live in times of a “liquid” modernity in which traditional ties and communities have become obsolete. At this point, one could become nostalgic and invoke the supposedly good old days. But that would not help us. Instead, we need to be aware of the dynamic nature of our sociocultural evolution – and accept that change is the only continuity factor. And just as Lewis Carroll’s Alice might argue, sometimes you have to step through the looking glass to truly understand the world you left behind. And isn’t academia, at its core, about understanding connections? So what better tool than a game that resonates intensely yet delicatly with the very human sense of connection and disconnection, and the very essence of relations, in a time when our reality echoes its virtual dystopia.

related references:
  • Bauman, Zygmunt. 2000. Liquid modernity. Cambridge: Polity Press.
  • Dawkins, Richard. 1976. The selfish gene. Oxford University Press.

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