At the moment, Hideo Kojima’s upcoming project Death Stranding is less a video game and more a series of weird art films that he trots out once a year with the clear intent of prolonging his friendship with Norman Reedus and Mads Mikkelsen for as long as humanly possible. That being said, between the game’s initial E3 announcement in 2016 and two consecutive trailers at the annual Game Awards—the latest released last night—we’ve now got more than 15 minutes of Death Stranding to analyze and agonize over, so we thought we’d look over everything we’ve got on Kojima’s latest opus and try to come up with a grand, unified theory of this game about emphasizing “ropes”—i.e., human connections—over “sticks”—weapons—once and for all.
Admittedly, it didn’t go well, but we tried. Nevertheless, here it is, our best-guess effort at what Death Stranding is actually about:
In a future where all the crabs are dead, Good Daddy Sam Porter (Norman Reedus) is a member of a corpse disposal team for BRIDGES, the public works force for a government known as the United Cities Of America. (That much we can tell from the markings on one of the character’s arms.) Corpse disposal is an important job, because humanity is under attack from a group of extradimensional threats known (in our minds here at The A.V. Club) as the Oil Baddies and their dark masters, the Bad Floaters, who are drawn to human corpses and pull them into their dark oil world. (For food? Who can say, except that the Oil Baddies’ oil seems like it’s whatever exists as the membrane between our world and theirs.) The only defense against the Oil Baddies are Magic Babies, which are kept in a glass womb that, if connected to a Good Daddy, allow them to detect and mimic some of the powers of the Bad Floaters and their terrifying Dark Umbilicals.
Unfortunately for Sam, his team of corpse cleaners is attacked in an explosion, sending many of their health-displaying handcuffs into the red, and drawing the attention of the Oil Baddies, who can’t see into our world but have excellent senses of hearing. Sam’s friends are killed and/or devoured, but he manages to escape with the team’s last Magic Baby, who metaphorically lodges itself in his throat to give us all a cheerful thumbs up. (Naked metaphor Sam also has a major scar in his stomach, suggesting he might have been subjected to a metaphorical C-section at some point.) After coughing up a little bit of Oil Badness—which crawls away on structures neither Sam nor we can see—he awakens at the edge of a crater, only to find the Bad Floaters doing what they do, floating badly. Understandably, this makes Sam sad, and he sets off on a journey to repel the Oil Floaters—who might be the next rung on some sort of floatation-based evolutionary ladder, treating all of us pathetic no-floaties the way we treat “lower” life forms—while keeping his Magic Baby safe.
Meanwhile, celebrated film director Guillermo Del Toro—who, given the American-flag-style lapel pin he’s sporting of the BRIDGES logo, might be some sort of political leader in this world—uses his own Magic Baby in an attempt to avoid capture by humans collaborating with the Bad Floaters and led by former Hannibal star Mads Mikkelsen, who has truly embraced the Dark Umbilical lifestyle. In the end, it will turn out that man was the real monster all along.
Holy crap, William. That… actually makes sense. There’s no way I can top that analysis, but I would like to build off some your ideas a bit. First, I think you’re spot on with the “extradimensional” aspect. As the trailers trickle out and bring more shreds of context with them, one of the things we see over and over again are invisible or barely visible entities—the baby that disappears and leaves handprints on Reedus in the debut trailer; and the things that attack the crew in the new trailer, which also might be the same ones that were leaving oily handprints around Reedus and the baby in the first trailer. But rather than just being some strange invisible monsters, it seems Death Stranding is going with a premise that has parallel universes colliding and some seriously bad consequences for humanity.
That’s probably what Reedus’ narration from the opening and closing of the trailer is referring to. He’s talking about “explosions” that led to the creation of the universe, Earth, and finally life “as we know it.” But the final line—“And then came the next explosion”—is an ominous little hint about the state of Death Stranding’s world. I’d wager that some sort of explosion, whether literal or figurative, is what brought our reality and the Stranger Things-like mirror universe of the Oil Baddies together, thereby changing the very concept of “life as we know it.” Given the upside-down rainbow we saw in the second trailer and all the floating bodies and upside-down fish we saw in the latest clip, we might actually be dealing with a very literal “upside-down” alternate plane. Also, knowing Kojima and how his prior work often carried strong anti-nuclear proliferation messages, it’s probably safe to guess that the “explosion” was a literal, man-made one, which would imply Death Stranding is exploring some of the same conceptual territory we saw in Twin Peaks: The Return.
It seems these transdimensional beings, while physically present, aren’t visible to humans from within our current reality unless we tap into the power of the Magic Babies, much in the same way the members of the corpse disposal team could only be heard and not seen by their attackers. I read the babies to be a sort of conduit between the two realities, maybe allowing whoever they’re connected to (there’s more of that umbilical cord symbolism) to see stuff that’s bleeding over from the other world. Once Reedus activates his suicidal buddy’s baby, for example, he’s now able to glimpse the giant hand-headed thing that’s seemingly causing gravity to freak out (or rather, adhere to the upside-down principles of its reality). It’s also worth noting that those cool robotic arms the disposal team wears on its back only spring to life when the person is holding a baby. That could even be a clever little in-game indicator of when players are looking at the world through, well, let’s just call it “Baby Vision.” If these insane ramblings I’m taking away from the trailers are anywhere near accurate, it would make a lot of sense that Death Stranding is a stealth game, just like Metal Gear, where you’re using Baby Vision and sneakiness to evade whatever the hell the Oil Baddies and their bosses are.
I also think you’re right on the money about Mads Mikkelsen’s character. If we assume this latest trailer takes place before the Guillermo Del Toro clip, I think he could be the badass, Baby-having cloaked figure that shows up and directs the disposal team as all hell breaks loose. Maybe he eventually betrays humanity and becomes some sort of military leader for the other side? It would make sense, then, that the skeleton soldiers he’s ordering around in the second trailer are repurposed human corpses that the Oil Baddies absorbed. Mads and his skeleton army, including all those seafood-covered tanks and airplanes, would also give the game a more familiar foe to have you sneak around while you try to survive in this world full of extradimensional predators.
Death Stranding still doesn’t have a release date and neither Kojima nor any of his famous friends seem like they’ll be talking any time soon. I don’t know about you, William, but for now, I’m more than happy to accept our vision of this bizarre game as the truth. I for one can’t wait to use Magic Baby power to save humanity as we know it from the Bad Floaters.