Death Stranding: Decoding the latest trailers

One of the things I’m enjoying the most about examining the Death Stranding trailers is that every new bit of information re-contextualizes previous trailers. So it is with the latest 2019 trailer. Check it out for yourself.

Finally, some answers

First of all, we’re finally getting some really clear answers on some long running questions.

The eponymous Death Stranding (note: if those words are italicized, I’m talking about the game - if they’re not, I’m talking about the supernatural events within the game) is a series of supernatural events set off by a series of explosions. I’m guessing these explosions are void-outs, which we saw in several earlier trailers.

Those floating ghostly monsters? They’re called BTs or “Beached Things” which makes that whole beached whales visual from the 2016 trailer make a lot more sense. Also, the image of these monsters is significantly softened by this title. They aren’t marauding horrors that hate all life. They’re powerful creatures from elsewhere washed up in our world.

Those babies that have figured prominently in every trailer? They’re “bridge babies” that connect to the “other side” (more on that later) and allow users to detect BTs using those flashing, flapping lights (which I still contend is a form of polarimetry used to detect the BTs’ chiral molecules).

There’s no game over state - when you die, you go to an upside down world (which we’ve seen in several trailers). You must escape it to continue the game. Guillermo Del Toro’s appearance in one of the early trailers makes a lot more sense; he’s “Deadman” and maybe he’s one of the only people (other than Norman Reedus’ Sam) who’s made it back from the upside down world.

The marketing copy claims “every death has a consequence” - I’m guessing anyone you kill will end up here and you’ll have to deal with them. The more people you kill, the rougher your periodic afterlife fail states will be.

Also, forget the nomenclature wackiness of yesteryear. This ain’t your dad’s Kojima game! Gone are the days of Revolver Ocelot, Decoy Octopus, and Venom Snake. Now we have Die-Hardman and Deadman and Heartman and more evidence that Hideo badly needs an editor, or at least some serious localization assistance.

I’m going to hazard a guess that Amelie is dead or at least stuck in the upside down world, based on a few shots in the trailer, including seeing her walking around in nothing but a nice red dress in a timefall, while Sam gets swallowed up by BT oil. Or she’s a hallucination.

These answers aside, as we’ve come to expect with Death Stranding, we get a pinch of answers and a truckload of new questions. We’re going to go over a whole bunch of stuff, so hold onto your bridge baby!

Strands, connections, bridge babies, shaking hands, and post-death entities

In a semi-cryptic Playstation blog post, Kojima said this:

People have created “Walls” and become accustomed to living in isolation.

Death Stranding is a completely new type of action game, where the goal of the player is to reconnect isolated cities and a fragmented society. It is created so that all elements, including the story and gameplay, are bound together by the theme of the “Strand” or connection. As Sam Porter Bridges, you will attempt to bridge the divides in society, and in doing create new bonds or “Strands” with other players around the globe. Through your experience playing the game, I hope you’ll come to understand the true importance of forging connections with others.

To Kojima, strands represent positive connections between people. Bridges, the last name of both the protagonist and the company that he works for are connections between two places. (In this post-apocalyptic America, are people named after the companies they work for? “Hi, I’m Mike Amazon! Nice to meet you, I’m Wanda Wal-Mart!” Shudder.)

However, Mads Mikkelsen’s Cliff, who has appeared in other trailers, uses black strands to control dead soldiers. Strands, in this case, connect a warlord to his soldiers and empower him to inflict vast amounts of suffering and death. In a distinctly science fiction setting, these undead warriors are decidedly retro, particularly evoking World War I and II. These soldiers can’t stop fighting, even when their wars are long over. This feels like a metaphor for both PTSD and the way that governments re-litigate and re-imagine the wars of the past to manufacture consent for the wars of the future.

Also the prevalence of WWI imagery seems significant - that war marked the beginning of the end of monarchy and traditional empires; some historians see WWII as a tragic continuation of WWI, and, taken together, these conflicts helped give birth to our modern world. Their consequences haunt us as root causes of much of today’s strife. Like Cliff, we are still unable to escape an upside down world.

Like Troy Parker’s Higgs, Cliff is connected to “the other side” - probably the source of the BTs and timefall. “A good connection” to the other side is what seems to allow the re-animation of dead soldiers. This also seems to preclude a connection to other human beings - “It’s so hard to form connections when you can’t shake hands.”

Kojima’s previous oeuvre has anti-war messages, and these sentiments fit with his body of work: if you deal in death rather than human connection, you can become a destructive force in the world.

It’s also interesting to consider bridge babies and their umbilical cords (another strand) in this light. Babies receive nutrients or poison via their umbilical cords, depending on what their mothers are consuming.

It’s interesting to consider that we only see bridge babies being carried by men. Is Kojima suggesting that the next generation is in the hands of men, or that men are poisoning the next generation with endless warfare and capitalism? It’s not hard to posit Cliff as a warmonger and Sam as a glorified post-apocalyptic Amazon deliveryman.

In the latest trailer, instead of a belly button, Cliff has a glowing, horrific cross-shaped scar over his midsection. This is admittedly a big reach, but perhaps the bridge babies artificial wombs are initially connected to men via their belly buttons? Was Cliff forcibly separated from his first bridge baby? Is that why he’s on the warpath?

We also see Cliff in happier times, talking to a bridge baby. He cared about something once, before he was covered in black goo and drove around ancient soldiers like stolen cars (did the creation of the bridge babies help initiate the Death Stranding?).

In earlier trailers, it’s stated that Sam has a “chiral allergy.” The word “chiral” comes from the Greek word kheir, which means hand. This allergy allows him to sense BTs, but does this allergy also allow you to utilize strands the way Cliff does? Maybe Bridges has a lot in common with Higgs and Cliff. He’s certainly no stranger to violence, but like a certain reptilian individual in previous Kojima games, uses his martial capability to promote peace. Or at least two-day delivery times.

Homo Demens - “mad man” and the complementary antagonism of human nature

Things get very interesting when you start talking about Homo Demens, the separatist organization dedicated to killing people and creating void-outs. They also appear to be able to initiate Timefalls. Homo is Latin for “man”, and is most familiar to us in the term “homo sapiens” - meaning “wise man” - which is the scientific binomial nomenclature for modern human beings. Homo demens means “mad man”, and this is an appropriate term for weird dudes with gold masks who summon BTs and cause massive explosions for fun.

However, it goes far deeper than that. A few quick Google searches on the term turns up the philosopher / anthropologist / sociologist Edgar Morin, a Spanish-speaking Sephardic Jewish philosopher who grew up in France, joined the Resistance against the Nazis during WWII, and went on to become a prolific thinker popular in Europe and Latin America.

He is lesser known in the Anglophone world and so English language search results on homo demens specifically were uncommon. I’m pulling a lot from academic papers about Morin using Google Translate. Please forgive any errors.

Morin’s seminal work is La Méthode, a six-volume, 2,500 page tome about complex thought (pensée complexe) - a school of thinking that encourages transdisciplinarity. To be deeply reductive, Morin’s work encourages people to decompartmentalize different academic disciplines in order to better understand the world (this isn’t a bad way to describe how Kojima approaches game development).

Specifically, he talks about the “dialogic principle” wherein concepts can be both complementary and antagonistic. As an example, he cites European culture as a fusion of Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman cultures.

Homo demens is a complementary antagonism to homo sapiens. Humanity is both mad and wise. Morin himself says it best (via Google Translate):

“We cannot continue to impute disorders and errors to naive inadequacies or incompetencies of primitive humanity that would be progressively reduced with civilized order and truth. The process to this day is the reverse. It is no longer possible to oppose substantively reason and madness. On the contrary, we must superimpose on the serious, hard-working, applied face of Homo sapiens the semblance, at the same time another and identical one of homo demens. The man is crazy-sane. Human truth brings error. Human order entails disorder.”

Morin’s philosophy opposes the idea that man is a purely rational actor. He is suspicious of the idea of man being ruled by pure reason, and contends that pure reason can lead to madness and catastrophe, which is inherently unreasonable. Spoilers: Homo demens is Thanos - the guy with a brilliant solution who ends up killing half the universe.

However, Hideo Kojima is not the Russo Brothers, and I don’t expect that Sam Porter Bridges will be able to punch his way to victory (even though we see a decent amount of that in the trailer). If we see destruction (in the form of BTs and void-outs) and creation (Sam and Amelie’s attempts to re-connect people) not as mutually exclusive concepts, then perhaps the goal is not to eliminate your antagonist, but to exist in parallel with them.

The Metal Gear Solid series managed the “complementary antagonisms” of war as violent, destructive madness to be avoided at all costs, but a soldier like Solid Snake as a worthy protagonist; a world wherein war should be avoided at all costs, but sometimes violence is necessary to ensure this. The first Metal Gear Solid made a point of showing you the humanity of your opponent right after you had dealt lethal damage to them. They were trying to kill you. You were trying to prevent nuclear proliferation. You were right to kill them. They were still human. Their deaths are still a tragedy. This was shockingly cutting edge for the PS1 era. (This series also had half-naked stripper snipers rolling around in the rain, so please don’t mistake my praise for a claim of perfection).

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Kojima points us in the direction of a French Resistance member who became a philosopher who questions nationalism, capitalism, neoliberalism, Marxism, and all the insufficient political philosophies of the twentieth century, and then fills his game with the reanimated dead soldiers from that same century. How many human beings died from the madness of “purely rational” philosophies in the last hundred years? I believe Kojima would answer, “Too many.”

In Death Stranding, we are forced to confront the results of centuries of violence. The upside down world is full of prop planes, ancient WWI tanks, trench warfare, and violent madness. To quote Viet Nguyen, another great philosopher, “Nothing ever dies.”

Morin also questions technological advancement as evidence of the advancement of humanity. He believes that “political models have lost sight of the human being” and that technological progress has resulted in “consumer automatism.” Sam says this himself in fewer words near the end of the trailer: “Covering the world in cable didn’t bring an end to war and suffering. Don’t act surprised when it all comes apart if you try to do it again.”

In Death Stranding, America has collapsed. The president, its head of state, the embodiment of its ideals and history, is on life support, dying from what appears to be cancer. In fact, her hospital bed appears to be connected to black wires that look similar to the strands that Cliff uses to animate his soldiers (is this meant to signify that she too is being controlled?).

She begs Sam Porter Bridges to “make America whole” because “alone, we have no future.” But he calls this out as the folly that it is. “We don’t need a country, not anymore… you’re the president of jack shit.”

The Bridges company logo itself is a spiderweb connecting Washington DC and the rest of America. But Sam Porter Bridges wouldn’t be the first person to work for a company but refuse to believe in its overall mission.

Through Sam Porter Bridges, Kojima demands human connection while rejecting the belief that the nation-state is the solution to this problem. His previous work on the Metal Gear Solid series questioned the necessity of war and the machinations of nation-states; it appears that his current work goes one step further and questions the need for the very existence of nation-states, particularly America.

We also see Cliff at the center of his own web of death, in what looks like a WWI trench, which appears to reinforce the point that maybe the nation-state isn’t the solution for human connection.

However, later on in the trailer, Amelie says that re-creating America will bring hope. Then again, right after she says that, Smurf Sam puts a gun to his head. Is he trying to enter the upside down world? Or is this meant as a visual rejection of Amelie’s statement? Are we meant to reject the American nation state, or find a way to balance its complementary antagonisms? It’s hard to say, and we’ll probably have to wait til November to find out.

It was in the poem all along

The very first trailer also quoted a William Blake poem, The Auguries of Innocence. It’s fascinating to note how much of what we’ve found out about Death Stranding is contained in this poem. We see imagery of babies and hands, justice and death. Another word for auguries? OMENS! BOOM!

God Appears & God is Light

To those poor Souls who dwell in Night

But does a Human Form Display

To those who Dwell in Realms of day

When Blake wrote the lines above, he was talking about how God appears in “Human Form” as Jesus to the faithful who “Dwell in Realms of day” but for the purposes of Death Stranding, he could’ve been talking about Sam Porter Bridges.

Auguries is an intensely Christian poem and Sam, as I suspected, is a Jesus figure that dies, enters the land of the dead, and returns as part of his quest to save the world from annihilation. Samuel means “name of God” while a porter is someone who carries heavy burdens. Norman Reedus is playing a dude named “The name of God carries the bridge.” If that isn’t Jesus imagery, I don’t know what is.

The Auguries of Innocence discusses how even the tiniest injustices can have massive cosmic and moral consequences.

A dog starved at his Masters Gate

Predicts the ruin of the State

A Horse misused upon the Road

Calls to Heaven for Human blood

Blake was concerned about injustice with a similar intensity as Morin, and both believed that these injustices could lead to the ruin of countries and even the whole world. You hear echoes of Death Stranding’s shattered America, and you can’t help but imagine our country’s centuries of sins piling up and finally shattering the country, and perhaps all of reality. Kojima’s work on MGS concerned nuclear proliferation - man-made weapons with world-shattering consequences. It wouldn’t be surprising to see him revisit those ideas here.

In Death Stranding, death is not permanent, and you may have to face the people you kill every time you end up in the upside down world. Most video games reward you for becoming a mass murderer. This game seems to want to punish you for it. Blake would’ve been pleased.

While Blake and Morin were not contemporaries, Auguries discusses the complementary antagonism of joy and pain.

Man was made for Joy & Woe

And when this we rightly know

Thro the World we safely go

Joy & Woe are woven fine

A Clothing for the soul divine

Under every grief & pine

Runs a joy with silken twine

To Blake, these are undeniable elements of the human condition, but they also balanced one another out. This is important because of the following lines:

Every Tear from Every Eye

Becomes a Babe in Eternity

This is caught by Females bright

And returned to its own delight

This bit is hard to parse without help (thanks Shmoop!). Essentially, Blake is saying that when someone feels sadness or sympathy and sheds a tear, this sadness becomes a reality in the spiritual world, and whatever made you sad will be righted. The “Females bright” are positive mythological figures that keep reality balanced between joy (Babes) and pain (Tears).

The characters in Death Stranding trailers are constantly crying - both from emotional distress and as a result of (I think) chiral allergies and DOOMS, which allow them to sense BTs. Are bridge babies made of our empathy and pain, which help connect us to the upside down world? Are our hopes and dreams manifested there as well as the ghosts of the people we’ve slain?

Perhaps if Amelie, Sam, and friends suffer and struggle enough, their dreams will become reality, the Death Stranding will end, and a better, more just world will be left in its wake. A world reborn, like Jesus himself. 

Or maybe emo Jesus Reedus will just cry on a beach surrounded by bridge babies.

I guess we’ll find out in November.