As if terrified of what he discovered in the duodenum of Arsenal Gear, Hideo Kojima has never returned to the themes of Metal Gear Solid 2 in quite the same way again.
Probably for good reason. Metal Gear’s first sequel foresaw the identity crisis of the digital decade and reduced its protagonist to a naked fool doing cartwheels in imitation of older heroes, engaged to a woman who doesn’t exist, fighting for an ideal which was handed down to him by shadowy masters, and who lastly was forced into combat to defend a monstrous artificial intelligence who intends to fjord the amniotic fluid of the memes of the modern noosphere to sculpt and preserve human history when we inevitably drop the ball and forget everything that matters. In MGS2, A.I. exists to prevent the human brain from being rotted to a pulp by SpongeBob memes and viral marketing. A.I. is a hedge against the human capacity to generate such infinite junk that it swallows the rest of human culture in its unbelievable girth, crowding out all human achievement with the name “Trump” repeated eternal for all time.
Later entries in the Metal Gear Solid series played with some variety of identity crisis, but forsook the technological angle of MGS2. MGS5 saw the player taking the role of another imposter, but the timeline went back to the 1980s, not into the startling heart of the 2010s. MGS4…well, let’s just ignore that one. It’s as if Kojima stepped upon the bloated porcelain corpse of Lilith strapped to a cross in the underworld of Tokyo 7, made one game about it, then forgot about his vision of horror entirely.
When the first trailers came out for Death Stranding, ambition and confusion were all that were invoked. It’s become a meme at this point that no one knew what to expect from the game, but when all is said and done, despite the ghosts, Extinction Entities, and the BBs, Death Stranding is a naïve piece of fiction about a world that no longer exists.
Within the first few hours of the game, the player is assaulted by the overbearing (and deeply enjoyable) cheese and maximalism of names like “President Bridget America Strand” and a quest to make America whole again – the resurrection of a lost nation in the hands of Sam Porter Bridges, a man named after his occupation and his company. The mood, as gameplay commences, is of gloom and tragedy, and the score of Low Roar compounds the beauty and haunting emptiness of the unconnected world. The greatest moment in the game was jogging lightly down a grassy kneaded hill toward a waterfall while I’m Leaving played joyfully in the background, stumbling gradually down the hill into an abandoned farm eroded by a time-accelerating rain, a cozy abode at the foot of the waters where mindless threshing machines continued to harvest wheat for a world that no longer exists.
The objective of the game is brilliant. Sam Porter Bridges must travel from coast to coast to stitch up invisible strands of connection, rebuilding the digital infrastructure of the modern world, bringing a dormant nation online as part of the United Cities of America. After the apocalypse, our hero is tasked with restoring the internet. Humanity, in this world, is stashed away in bunkers deep underground, and as Sam Porter Bridges passes the landscape with 400 kg of suitcases stacked on his back, these sorry NEETs are gradually being stitched back into the ‘chiral network’, which is essentially an Internet of Things where objects lost in time can be brought back into existence, such as highways and trucks, and information can flow once more from shore to shining shore.
And yet, never once in the game is the irony of restoring instantaneous information flow evoked. Never once does the mission of connecting America engage with the reality of America today, where insight is choked and formatted according to the requirements of memetic communication, and the only politicians demanding the wholeness of the nation are the most hollow, with nothing to stand for.
America, despite her grandeur, is deeply underdeveloped. There is one particular data log in the game, widely panned by its least insightful critics, wherein the collapse of the world before the apocalyptic Death Stranding is recounted. According to this data log, the human species gradually became asexual, and touch and connection faded from human existence in a time of great material decadence and overwhelming consumer supply. I inevitably found myself wondering – as Sam restores a network that evokes past and future objects resurfaced into the present moment, isn’t he weaving back into existence the sorrowful wail of yesterday?
The chiral network, or the Internet of Time, will restore the highways and the ports and the memes that created a fragmented America. It will also restore incoherent and shattered values, as is revealed at the end of the game, when Sam [SPOILERS] is commanded by the United Cities of America to destroy his BB unit. He has brought back connection and the law, and these are the very strands today which strangle us. Instead of seeking a new America, Sam Porter Bridges has worn down his boots in the snow to build the totalitarian boot of the UCA and restore the useless communication of products and memes with no end goal for Americans but to consume them once again, and to sculpt their identities in the image of heroes, like Sam Porter Bridges.
But Sam Porter Bridges has already connected America. There is no future for porters as such now that the highways are back, now that the phones are ringing. No, all the young NEETs climbing forth from the underground will not get to become Sam Porter Bridges. They will become the inaugural operators of the Amazon fleet, from Pennsylvania to California, the networks of consumption and useless information will resume and the UCA will centrally control the transfer of all data and all goods.
The UCA, of course, is never really examined in Death Stranding. Like the Extinction Entity who drives the story of the game, America is merely empty clothing for what Kojima really wanted to tell, a story about people. At an emotional level, the main pieces of the story succeed, although side characters such as Fragile as especially Higgs amount to dead end and disappointment. Kojima used the fragments of the cosmic order (time, love, the afterlife) to tell the tiniest story imaginable, a story about a family. On its own, this is fine. In fact, it’s kind of brilliant. But this is a game about the internet and America from a man who created arguably the best single piece of art in the early 2000s about the internet and America. Now that his predictions have become a reality, is it right to simply abandon those themes altogether and move on? Maybe. But what has Kojima moved onto?
Kojima says that we have to connect, even in a totalitarian world. We have to connect, even when all interactions are faceless, whether affection is delivered through likes slammed down on the center of a controller or great heaving boxes laid on a conveyer belt for delivery deep in the bowels of the Earth, porno mags to be handed to clowns resting farther down, clowns whose makeup we will never see. There is something about the Last Man in Sam Porter Bridges. His own personal family drama motivates the story, but he is gifting the world a hollow opportunity. He isn’t restoring what D.H. Lawrence once called “the democracy of touch, the resurrection of the body”. Not really. He’s allowing you to get back on LinkedIn, and to experience election failure on apps in real time.
What are the values of the new United Cites of America? There are none. Bureaucracy and showing up, those are the values of a society with nothing left. Those are the values of Mayor Pete, of Joe Biden, of Amy Klobuchar, the American candidates in whom Kojima’s theme of wholeness and unity would undoubtedly most fully be incarnated. The ultimate outcome of the infinitely connected world is blandness, and a brain full of junk data, random memories interspersed with Simpsons memes as the foundation of cognition, the manic tide that the A.I. from Metal Gear Solid 2 birthed itself into existence to control. The plans of the UCA are never articulated in any meaningful way, not even in rhetoric more sophisticated than “making America whole again” and “survival”. This random stitching together of haphazard identities out of digital goo does not inspire enough confidence to have children, because what will you teach them? What will we pass down? A self composed of random information, a psyche populated by cities of recycled garbage infused with nihilistic laughter, without a metaphysics to support them when the trek to the corner store is no longer intrinsically worthwhile?
After Death Stranding, we have a task that is far more uncomfortable than merely the need to connect. We are left with the need to examine the means by which we connect, and what kind of identities they create, what incentives they have, and what civilizations they form. In the real America, if the internet were to collapse and the flag fragment to pieces, it seems a forgone conclusion that the faction working to unite the whole under a centralized banner of unity and soaring rhetoric would be the most craven actors in the whole scenario, terrorists included. Sam Porter Bridges sacrificed his spinal column for our sins. To honor him, we come up from the underground and make Monster memes.