[Game Theory] Death Stranding’s Symbolism and Ending Explained

The long-anticipated Death Stranding is an almost impossible game to summarize. Doing justice to the many trailers that were launched beforehand, this is a cinematic and ludic experience. Death Stranding is a wonderful, surreal game about fatherhood and care-giving, as well as about a comment on modern life. Hideo Kojima takes us to a desolate, postapocalyptic world. The main character Sam is a delivery man that brings parcels from east to west in order to connect America again. Sam sets up a network that creates strands, builds bridges, and makes society whole again. In Death Stranding everyone has a private beach which reflects their ideology and psychology. In other words, this is a game about connection, but also about getting stranded in your own mind or a very individualistic afterlife. The power of the game also lies in its commentary of Western culture. Social media, the gig economy, climate crisis – the game references all these things and more. The wholesome indie soundtrack contributes to its unique atmosphere, and sets the tone for this cult experience.

In Kotaku, Heather Alexandra words it well: ‘Every inch of Death Stranding teems with meaning or implication. Even the stupidest and most pretentious developments build to create a multi-layered game, one with numerous potential points of attack to analyze. It is a story about fatherhood. It is a broad dig at the gig economy. It is deeply concerned with upcoming environmental disaster and American politics, old and new.’

In this Game Theory, I explore a few questions that I struggled with when playing Death Stranding. I philosophize about the nature of babies (BB’s) in this game, mother/fatherhood, queer theory, the gig economy and more.

How The Concept of Beaches and Souls References Egyptian Mythology

At first sight, Death Stranding is a fairly empty game in which you mostly do repetitive quests as Sam. Rich cut scenes are interlaced to outline the plot, and give some weight to this virtual world. But there is an otherwordly mystery to Kojima’s work. The idea of Beaches is central to this. Everyone has their own Beach, a quasi-heaven or alternative universe that reflects one’s personal beliefs. This is a heaven of sorts, though some characters have become apt at exploring the beaches of others. Beaches are liminal; both literally and figuratively. They are between water and land, sometimes sea, sometimes sand. But figuratively, they are between life and death, and function as an individual connection to another plane of existence. Throughout the game you visit Sam’s own beach, among others, as well as the Combat Veteran’s (Cliff Unger) beach. The latter is quite fascinating and casts the player in different war zones, echoing Unger’s trauma.

The idea of death, life, and alternative worlds is deeply ingrained in Death Stranding. It is not a good thing. Different worlds are collapsing on your own. The membrane that seperates ghosts from America, for instance, has become porous. The world is run awry with “Beached Things” or BTs, the main antagonists in the game, and the essentially the ghosts of those who have died. BT’s have become common since the disaster “death stranding”, which is actually caused by Bridget. Through her experiments, she turns America into a post-apocalyptic world.

Beaches are neither here nor there. The same goes for the Beached Things. They represent the life force (“ka”, explained as soul in the game) trying to return to the body (“ha”). These concepts go back to Egyptian mythology, and the idea that the soul/body are divided by death. In actuality, the soul in Egyptian mythology is layered and multiple. The life force, ka, is just one part, other parts  include the heart (“jb”), the shadow and the name among others. A snippet from Wikipedia: ‘In the Egyptian religion, the heart was the key to the afterlife. ‘It was to be carefully preserved and stored within the mummified body with a heart scarab carefully secured to the body above it to prevent it from telling tales.’ Hearts are a crucial symbol throughout Death Stranding, from Heartman’s story line to the beating heart of BB. Similarly, the soul is shaped by its shadow, which we see in the game through ominous BTs.

But equally important for the “ka” is your name. Names (“rn”) have deep meaning in Egyptian mythology, and we see this importance back in Kojima’s game. Each name is a symbol in its own right, sometimes overtly so. For instance, Death Stranding‘s characters have archetypical names Mama, Papa and Death Man that reveal their most essential character traits and role in the story to the player early on. They are similar to Quiet from the Metal Gear series. Their names are unpacked in their respective chapters which explain their back story. Heartman, for instance, literally changed his heart by his experiments with the beaches and resides near a heart shape lake.

This emphasis on names as symbols is sometimes very overt in the game, like when Amelie explainsh er name is Amen + Lie. But even this very explicit scene gains importance read through the Egyptian tradition, where a name is a true name, a secret name, given to us by the Gods. It gives control over a person, and thus the fact that Amelie reveals her name in such detail implies control, power, and the potential to commemorate her and assure her afterlife. Related to this, please consider the fact that many characters do not have a real name, but that we rather see their job or function as paleontologist, cosplayer or other. What are their “true” names? What is their rn/ren? In Egyptian mythology names had to be spelled out contineously after a person’s death, or they would lost. Names reflect one’s identity, soul and memory. Are these holograms even real characters or humans, or just tropes or left-overs?

Beyond the Egyptian conceptualization of the soul, Death Stranding presents us with myths of extinction and creation. It can be read as a cosmic ocean, an archetype common in creation myths. Gods and worlds were often created from dark and mysterious waters, whether we consider Genesis or Egyptian lore. For instance, Egyptian God Atum (after which atoms are named) was the first God who created himself from primordal waters and shadow. Water in Death Stranding has a similar function, as both a beginning and an end. As Bridget/Amelie explains, extinction is often the beginning of a new paradigm, of a new world. It is a  hard reset.

The game flirts with Egyptian symbols more broadly, for instance when Mama’s body does not decay because she is exceptional and connected to Lockne. It is no wonder that Mama is described as “a perfect mummy”, literally. Water also surfaces in the depiction of different sea creatures in the game, most importantly whales. They riddle the Combat Veteran’s beach as decayed bodies. One of the most impressive boss fights is against a monstrous ghostly whale. Still, this theme is not just about the soul and afterlife, but interlaces with the contemporary themes. The beached whales are a strong metaphore for the climate crisis, the polluted oceans, and the whale hunt which is so present in Japan, Kojima’s country.

A Simulation of the Platform and Gig Economy

By delivering parcels through tedious repition and fetch quests, Death Stranding presents a comment on the gig economy. It evokes the contineous cheap labor of Amazon, Uber, Deliveroo that specialize in transportation, among others. It reminded me of the time that I had a cheap part-time job as a child, delivering newspapers from door to door, with only some mix tapes to district me. But Death Stranding is even more boring. It is a struggle to go past some mountains and rivers the first time. Sam trips and stumbles. Without tools or vehicles, he is slow. There is something meditative about this repetition though. And just like in the gig economy, there are enough apps to guide you and distract you.

But delivering parcels again and again is not enough to stop America from changing, or even from being wiped out entirely. Extinction is a key theme in the game. The idea that societies are wiped out, that nature runs awry, that unknown ghosts infiltrate our land and wipe out entire cities with their “voidouts”. Similar to our current climate crisis, it is about preserving and connecting a world that might be beyond saving. The idea of extinction is most clearly reflected in the Extinction Entity that is revealed near the end of the game. Can the earth still be saved, or is humanity stuck in a climate nightmare? Death Stranding‘s world is a lonely and barren one. There are few exceptional plants, other than the mushroom’s of other players, and no animals. The last humans survive in cities and the snow. Most of them we only meet as avatars, as holograms.

Still, there is some hope even in the worst of times, Kojima suggests. Only connection – standing together, fighting together – can make us whole again. This is not just reflected in the game play, and the active connection of the world map, but also by the many bridges, ladders, and ropes (strands) that players leave as they traverse America. And once they are connected to the network, they leave these ladders for others to climb on and “like”. Through the help of others, and these subtle multi-player qualities, we succeed in even the toughest hikes in the game.

This is not just a world, but a platform, an interface in its own right

We help each other. All of us lonely delivery men work to as efficiently as we can, as if this whole game is just a big Amazon warehouse or city full of Uber drivers. There is something essentially  algorithmic and data-driven about this game, even if it seems like an analogue hike through nature at first sight. Still, this is not Shadow of the Colossus or Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Our hikes are augmented by how we are networked to other players. This is not a world, but a platform, an interface in its own right. Players receive likes from each other that value their signs (literal signs which almost function like text messages), their bridges, their ladders. As Sam connects different characters in the game, from a cosplayer to a paleontologist, the network grows. In other words, metaphores like connection are not only narrated in the game, but simulated. That’s the power of digital games like these.

There is something wholesome about the message of connectivity, which is intimately connected to new media in Death Stranding. It’s a big reference to the internet and modern technology. Heather Alexandra (Kotaku) writes: ‘[Death Stranding] insisted on a simple idea: that we are made strong by the grace and, more beautifully, the chance of others. That we travel on the roads of those who went before us, leaving our own marks that ultimately affect the path those behind us take. We walk alone more often than we walk together, losing ineffable things along the way like so much fumbled luggage.’

Unlike Shadow of the Colossus, Death Stranding is not lonely. On the other side of the screen, there are other players, and they leave subtle impressions in your game world. They send help during boss battles. I was saved multiple times by their generous donations. Death Stranding in that sense has more in common with Journey, where other players join us in beautiful ways, and communicate with us – within limits.

A Powerful Representation of Care and Fatherhood

What struck me most about Death Stranding is that it is one of the best games that I have played about caregiving. The way that Sam takes care of BB touches me. The little cries that I needed to sooth as a player the way that I could rock her artificial womb. It was a deeply affective experience that culminates at the end of the game in the heartbreaking chapter Lou.

BB, later dubbed Lou, is an exceptional baby, of course. Kat Bailey explains the concept of Bridge-Babies (BBs) well in US Gamer: ‘Bridge Babies are technically unborn children taken from mothers who are in a persistent vegetative state. Their unique circumstances give them a connection to the afterlife, making them a useful tool for sensing BTs. Their connection to the afterlife also makes them an integral part of the chiral network needed to rebuild the United States.’

In other words, Lou is a weaponized baby. They start out as a tool, a piece of equipment, and slowly become a character. As you progress in the game, BB becomes more alive, important and meaningful. They even receive a name, which is when they become a person. And read through the concept of Egyptian mythology, which Kojima loves to reference, BB becomes Lou, a person with a name and thus a soul.

This is fascinating case for me as a character/media scholar, to be honest, because BB is an interesting companion character, similar to ICO’s Yorda or the monster from Papo & Yo. But Lou has less agency and cannot move outside of the “womb”. In this sense, Lou always is partly technological and a tool, like any baby in a womb or incubator. There are no puzzles in which they shows their own will or in which the player has to guide them. Instead, the player nourishes the baby, hears them laugh, and makes sure that they reach a facility in time when the baby is ill. Your own fatherhood can be contrasted to the figure of the Combat Veteran. We witness the memories from BB about their biological father, which build up to an amazing twist. These cut scenes are quite touching, from The Combat Veteran’s conversations to his ill wife, to his lullabies and stories about the moon. Still, they feel less meaningful than the caregiving that I performed myself as a player, cast in the role of a caring father. 

Lou starts out as a tool, a piece of equipment, and slowly becomes a character.

While Sam cannot give birth, his embodiment is highly important in this sense. He carries an artificial womb that he constantly takes care of, and a baby that he nurtures and rocks. He throws his own urine and blood at BT’s. In this sense, everything is a tool, even his waste. His body is covered with hand prints that are like imprints or scars. When he showers, we see that he was touched by BTs many times. Like scars, these prints reflect trauma. But there is also something affectionate about this concept that Sam has been touched by many people. The subtext is deliciously non-binary and queer.

In its symbolism, Death Stranding is very explicit. It over-explains some things, and that sometimes made the game feel less surreal for me. The final chapters are a good example of this. Sitting an hour on the beach to hear Amelie’s backstory which I partly pieced together myself… it was overkill. I would have loved it if more was not explained, left up to my imagination. It doesn’t take a very critical perspective either to see that whales are important in the game, or dolls. But the way in which these symbols are sometimes explained in the narrative (for instance the dolls) leaves little room to the audience to fantasize. I would have preferred a touch of David Lynch here. Just keep it implicit and see what resonates with the players.

Notifications of likes and emails make this game feel less lonely. But I was most pleased when I got messages that Lou was happy. This was the most satisfying for me, more so than delivering yet another parcel and connecting yet another piece of the map. The laughing of BB meant a lot to me during the game. I would take zip lines again and again to make the baby feel good. While this game has a lot to offer, and is a powerful critique of our society and history, I cherished the small things. I felt the most when a tiny rock nearly made me fall, when I stumbled upon a plant hidden in the snow, or took a long shower after a difficult hike. But of all things, small text messages about BB mattered to me, and when they were absent in the game, I felt incomplete. For me, the unique relationship between Sam and BB is what I will cherish most about this experience.

2 thoughts on “[Game Theory] Death Stranding’s Symbolism and Ending Explained

  1. This is an awesome write-up! I’m shocked at how little valuable analysis there is online about Death Stranding outside of “Ending Explained” and “What are the BT’s?” type Youtube videos. I came to a lot of similar conclusions (beaches and whales specifically) on my play-through but was left wondering about the significance of a few other things. I really love how your brought the Egyptian stuff together. I knew there was something there form Higgs’ outfit and Chrvches outfit at the game awards but didn’t see the connection. I also like your note about water being both the beginning and end. Something that I’ve been wondering about is if there is any significance to the design of some of the large BT’s like the lion creature, and the squid-like creature. I don’t know if there’s anything about those animals that ties into the themes of connection, death, and care-giving. I’d love to hear your thoughts!

    1. Thanks Collin, so happy you find this short essay useful! ^_^ Indeed, the game deserves much more analysis; it’s so rich!

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