New Article: Sharing Silence – Death Stranding and Video Gaming During the Pandemic

Sociology Lecturer Marcus Maloney has written about gaming during the pandemic for [lock.on] a Gaming Journal vol. 1 (reproduced here with permission).

Writing for The Age newspaper during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Australian sociologist, John Carroll, observed of Melbourne’s especially harsh lockdown that it had reduced his city to a ‘colossal vacancy… the buildings and streets dead, like the set of an eerie science-fiction film about the end of the world, but this time it’s real.’ Emptied of the taken-for-granted social interactions and cultural activities that constitute everyday life, to quote Joseph Conrad, ‘the brooding stillness of the world seemed sensitive to the slightest sound.’ Carroll was certainly not the first commentator to reflect on the isolating effects of lockdowns, nor on the need for us to summon ‘a new discipline’ in response. But in his analysis, the unprecedented experience also offered an unexpected, potentially once-in-a-lifetime, opportunity: ‘With life shut down outside the front door, the spotlight turns to the big questions… everybody should conduct a searching intimacy with their own self.’

digital sketch showing a small figure with a backpack walking in a green landscape. The figure is very small compared to the cliffs and river they are walking besides.

Carroll’s reflections got me thinking about video games, and the increasing role they’ve played in people’s lives during the pandemic. Much has already been made of this. The industry itself has thrived over the period, with people stuck at home looking for new ways to fill unwanted time. Gamers have been gaming more, and people normally less likely to engage in the pastime have been taking it up, or returning to it. The appeal of the media – elevated over the period for obvious reasons – is commonly attributed to the virtual social interactions offered by certain genres, and the proverbial ‘escapism’ offered more generally. True as these explanations may be for any number of people and the games they play, neither adequately captures the appeal of the kinds of games I’m generally drawn towards and found myself needing to play to during the pandemic.

As a gamer whose principal platform is PlayStation, no game better exemplifies what I want to discuss here than 2019’s Death Stranding. Published by Sony Interactive Entertainment, and directed by legendary Japanese developer, Hideo Kojima, Death Stranding is set in a post-cataclysmic America ravaged by an otherworldly environmental phenomenon, and fragmented into a landscape of individuals sheltering in underground bunkers. The specifics of this setting and plot are as convoluted and bizarre as those in Kojima’s preceding Metal Gear Solid series – and thankfully don’t need recounting here. Suffice it to say, the developer’s future vision of an evacuated America, with bunkered down individuals unable to come out for health and safety reasons, would prove startlingly prescient mere months after the game’s November 2019 release.

Death Stranding is an isolating video game – and by conventional measures, not a particularly fun one either. The player is placed in control of Sam Porter Bridges, a lone courier on a mission to reconnect society back into a wider network by travelling across the country delivering goods to all the people ‘sheltering in place’. And aside from the intermittent (and half-hearted) gestures towards combat and other conventional gameplay, that’s basically what you do for approximately 50 hours: you walk around and deliver stuff to people. Or to be more precise, you deliver stuff to holographic projections of people who remain safely inside their respective bunkers. I am, perhaps, exaggerating the ostensible dullness of gameplay here. There are the abovementioned opportunities for combat, and you also gain increasing access to various vehicles, gadgets, and the like. But if the chief purpose of Death Stranding is to provide commercial entertainment, then its core experience throughout of being an on-foot courier seems an odd way to go about it.

And this is the point: Death Stranding isn’t really meant to entertain. Indeed, the game’s true intentions can be found in a combination of its two most fundamental design aspects. First, there are the complex mechanics of traversal across the game’s vast and beautifully desolate landscape. The term ‘walking simulator’ is often used these days to refer to a genre of indie games in which the player does little more than wander through virtual environments and bear witness to an unfolding narrative (occasional puzzle and input prompt notwithstanding). Death Stranding, on the other hand, is quite literally a walking simulator in that it requires the player to remain cognisant of, and carefully manage, every step of the hero’s journey.

Even the smallest variations in terrain which, in other games, would normally provide aesthetic realism to an otherwise frictionless virtual plane can prove treacherous here. Take one ill-conceived step onto slightly raised ground, maybe walk too casually over a small boulder or through a shallow stream, and Sam will tumble to the ground, potentially losing all his precious cargo. For the average gamer accustomed to simply pressing forward on a control stick to walk effortlessly over ‘texture mapped’ landscapes, it’s frustratingly tedious at first. Over time, however, a satisfying rhythm emerges, something akin to a zen-like mindfulness: a sense of being present in the immanent minutiae of one’s actions and surroundings. To quote Vietnamese peace activist and Buddhist monk, Thích Nhất Hạnh, ‘smile, breathe and go slowly.’

The second crucial aspect of Death Stranding is the ‘asynchronous’ way in which it communicates to the isolated player that she is part of a vast web of other, similarly isolated players. Indeed, while ostensibly a solitary experience, the game implements a range of means through which players can make their presences felt to each other on their respective journeys. Ladders, climbing ropes and other tools of traversal can be left in the environment after use (rather than dismantling them to conserve resources) and these will then transfer at random into others’ versions of the game. Players can stamp onto the environment holographic notes of support which then similarly materialise for others, often providing minor and transient boosts to things like walking speed, stamina, and so on. And then there are the larger shared projects, such as contributing resources to the building of a road or bridge across some or other intractable piece of terrain.

By the time I came to play Death Stranding, my own version of its landscape had become replete with such evidence of others’ presences and efforts, and it counterpoised the game’s otherwise ‘colossal vacancy’ with a more implicit, and altogether poignant, sense of belonging. Viewed together, these various aspects of the game’s asynchronous design essentially serve as a larger mechanism for building between its many solitary players what the French sociologist, Émile Durkheim, referred to as a society’s ‘collective consciousness’. Indeed, writing in the late-19th Century – and troubled by the fragmenting effects of his own modernising world – Durkheim’s description of this intangibly binding moral force as a ‘determinate system with a life of its own’ suggests he might very well have appreciated what Kojima was trying to achieve here over a century later.

Tweeting before the game’s release, Kojima extravagantly described Death Stranding as a ‘totally brand new genre’. The famed developer can be forgiven a degree of hyperbole at this point, but this is not strictly true. While the game does push at the boundaries of what’s feasible in commercial video game production, Death Stranding represents the culmination of design elements, and a broader sensibility, nurtured by Sony across three generations of PlayStation. The asynchronous elements have their origins in Hidetaka Miyazaki’s Demon’s Souls (2009), the Western-Japanese hybrid fantasy exclusive for PlayStation 3 that would go on to spawn the hugely successful multiplatform ‘Souls’ series. They function in Demon’s Souls in much the same way as they do in Death Stranding, and they’re just as essential in the former to alleviate its notoriously unforgiving gameplay and even bleaker world-building.

With respect to the broader sensibility, Death Stranding inherits its reflective solitude from four other iconic PlayStation games: namely, Fumito Ueda’s Ico (2002), Shadow of the Colossus (2005), and The Last Guardian (2016), and Jenova Chen’s Journey (2012). Indeed, Ueda’s work is defined by precisely the same solitary ‘brooding stillness’ as Death Stranding. While all three of his games see the hero accompanied by a supporting AI character – an ethereal princess, trusty steed, and giant feline-griffin hybrid creature, respectively – they are each more daemon than companion. It’s worth noting that The Last Guardian is comparatively pessimistic in its similar engagement with themes of self and belonging. As the little boy hero, you and your giant monster friend spend most of the game trying to escape a vast cursed ruin and its occasional golem inhabitants. When you’re finally reunited with the boy’s human tribe, they promptly try to kill the creature with whom you’ve formed such a close bond. ‘Hell is other people’, as Jean-Paul Sartre famously observed. I would probably cite The Last Guardian as the game that has most deeply affected me – were it not for Journey. Beyond sharing in the sensibility I’ve been trying to articulate here, the impression left by this brief and intensely beautiful experience is one that I’m still not quite able to put into words.

In Death Stranding, Kojima essentially takes these influences and, with characteristic ambition, elevates them into the video game equivalent of a 1970s Francis Ford Coppola epic. And just like Coppola’s seminal work (or great art generally), the purpose of Kojima’s epic isn’t to provide an entertaining ‘escape’ from the humdrum, or worse, of ordinary life. Rather, it’s to provide a heightened narrative frame for making better sense of life. This, then, leaves the question of what Kojima is trying to tell us. The most basic advice he offers lies in Sam Porter Bridges’ workaday occupation as courier: that is, to live in simple service to others. But beyond this age-old (some might say trite) message, there are the two much more intriguing ones I have tried to sketch out in this essay.

Both seem eerily suited to the pandemic that swiftly followed Death Stranding’s release. The first relates to the game’s traversal mechanics: if the player is willing to surrender herself to this repetitive set of mundane actions, the frustrating tedium will gradually give way to an orienting mindfulness, a sense of being fully present in the here and now. And then there are the game’s asynchronous social elements, a mechanism for conveying where true belonging resides. Indeed, as nice as it is to attend a music festival, sporting event, or just go to the pub, social wellbeing ultimately depends on nurturing a much deeper set of ties between strangers. As principles to live by, it’s all easier said than done, of course. But there is value in even the most incremental steps we take as individuals – ever hopeful that, to borrow one of Death Standing’s endless in-game notifications, ‘a path you laid was used by someone else.’