The more you try to dive into the complex universe of Death Stranding
, the more questions keep popping up. It’s no wonder: this is a Hideo Kojima game, after all.
While there’s still a lot that we don’t fully understand, we’ve been able to piece together from what’s been shown so far a pretty good picture about what Death Stranding actually is — let’s dive in.
The World of Death Stranding
Death Stranding takes place in the “United Cities of America,” a future version of the United States, that appears to be on the verge of collapse. A series of mysterious explosions, which Sam references as an unexplained global disaster akin in scale to the original Big Bang that created the universe, have rocked the planet, causing “supernatural events” to dramatically change the geography of the Earth. With legions of these supernatural monsters roaming the country, humanity faces its own extinction.
The UCA is made up of several cities, tied together by what’s known as the Chiral Network — built and operated by a company called Bridges. The cities that have been revealed (so far) in Death Stranding all have the word “Knot” in their name – Capital Knot City, Lake Knot City, and Edge Knot City – indicating that this theme of strands, connections, or threads is something actively acknowledged within the world and among its citizens. Much of the space between the cities appears isolated, apart from the bandit-like Mules who’ve taken advantage of the collapse of civilization, particularly by stealing cargo from vulnerable travelers.
The environments of Death Stranding appear to be sprawling landscapes that range from the rocky steppes to snow-capped hills of the eastern and central United States; while the world may appear relatively peaceful in initial forays, it’s not without its dangers. Presaged by the rain, shadow-like Beached Things (aka BTs, allegedly named for their situation: like whales, stranded on land) are tied to the ground by vaporous umbilical chords, and will swarm Sam if they detect him. The key to survival against these deathly spectres is his link to a BB, or Bridge Baby: a technically “unborn” infant in a womb-like vessel strapped to Sam’s chest. These BBs, which are taken from brain dead ‘stillmothers’ located in Capital Knot City, can sense the monstrous creatures from the land of the dead.
This Land of the Dead has what’s called a “chiral” connection to the living, a sort of asymmetrical version of our world – like how two hands are mirror images of each other, but can’t be superimposed since they’re not identical. Based on what we’ve seen so far in the trailers, it seems that this mirror “Chiral” world is somewhere between purgatory and Hell, where the earth’s dead waging an unknown, endless war. We see Sam come across monstrous World War I tanks and soldiers of the dead marching through battle, but we’ve also seen soldiers from other eras as well, so it’s not clear if time works differently here (similar to how Timefall rain accelerates time with the living) or if the Land of the Dead is set in a different time period.
While our knowledge about the World of the Dead is limited so far, we do know it has more than just trenches and Lovecraftian monsters. The president’s daughter (and one of the leaders of the UCA) Amelie, apparently hasn’t aged in ten years and refers to her body still residing in a mysterious beach full of beached whales, deceased crabs, and dead fish. While it’s not clear if it’s her actual body or her consciousness that’s trapped, she tells Sam, “I don’t get to grow older,” suggesting again that time works differently in the Land of the Dead, or perhaps that, once you cross over, time no longer affects you.
We see people wandering on a beach, assumedly on the other side, but it’s not clear what their souls are doing there, but we do know people can return. Heartman, a character who dies every 21 minutes and returns after 3 minutes, seems to be looking for something or someone there. “My body may be present, but my soul is on the Beach,” says Heartman, who can be seen clawing at the black sands to try and stay on the other side.
We don’t know how other characters are able to traverse between the two worlds yet, and how a BB facilitates contact between the dead and the living isn’t clear. But we do see in another trailer that Sam’s BB’ pod is marked red and he rushes to Deadman (Guillermo del Toro) in a panic, who explains that the pod must be synchronized with their stillmother’s womb. That necessary sync facilitates the connection between the world of the dead and the Bridge Baby. At the same time, Deadman reveals there’s still a lot they don’t know and the deception that the pod is the womb can only last for a year. In a nod to Blade Runner, the BBs are euphemistically “retired” once their year is up. “Try not to get too attached,” Deadman warns Sam, then offers the carrot of more knowledge about them as the Chiral Networks expands.
The Plot of Death Stranding
Protagonist Sam Porter Bridges’ job is to try to unify the disparate cities that make up the UCA, along with the isolated Preppers who live in remote survival bunkers, by linking them to the Chiral Network. We’re not sure of the exact nature of Sam’s relationship with Bridges yet, but it appears that the Bridges company hopes the additional links will help them retrieve data that can help them solve the mystery of what’s known as the “Death Stranding” — the supernatural phenomenon that’s so changed the world of the living. Figuring out how to bring outliers into the fold seems to be at the heart of Death Stranding’s story. In some instances, Sam appears to serve as both postman and ambassador, trying to convince them to join the rest of the UCA.
Delivering essential cargo, like medicine packs and Anti-BT weapons, Sam will also use his USB-like Q-pids to form a bridge and expand the chiral network (which appears to function somewhat like the towers in Assassin’s Creed, or the Tallnecks in Horizon Zero Dawn, on whose Decima Engine Death Stranding is built). Goods can also be of a more personal nature, like when you deliver a lost sound system to a former pop star-turned-prepper. Players familiar with Kojima’s oeuvre can probably expect these side missions to provide some light relief from the heaviness of the main plot, with off-kilter characters like Geoff Keighly/Matt Mercer’s “Ludens Fan”.
However, not everyone agrees. The problem with Bridges’ goal of unification is that not everyone wants to join the party. As Amelie confesses to Sam, further in the Briefing Trailer, many of the past attempts at making connections have beenmet with resistance. The Homo Demens, a military separatist group that wants to keep Edge Knot City (located on the west coast of America) out of the UCA, have been adamantly uncooperative with Bridges’ efforts. Their extremism means they’d choose death over unity, even destroying cities via voidouts — massive antimatter explosions caused by BTs that eliminate huge chunks of the world, leaving behind only craters.
One of their leaders, Higgs (who wears a golden mask), previously appeared to be working with Sam, but in later trailers he’s set up as a more antagonistic character. Higgs appears to have the ability to summon BTs, which suggests he has a deeper connection with the dead (and may help explain why he’s so against unification), as well as an ability to teleport from one location to another — “We can always tweak the rules a bit,” he playfully states. Whether Sam has the same abilities, or if these are specifically limited to Higgs, isn’t clear.
We don’t know why exactly the Demens are so set against Bridges, but Kojima has hinted that it’ll make us question whether the organization is as altruistic in its pursuit as it would like to convey. Even Sam appears distrustful of Bridges at times. “Covering the world in cable didn’t bring an end of war and suffering,” he argues. “Don’t act surprised when it all comes apart if you try to do it again.”
Death Stranding: Every Confirmed Character So Far
A woman known as Fragile runs a separate delivery company, Fragile Express. Both characters possess something called known as DOOMs, which may be connected with their ability to detect BTs and something known as “chiral allergies,” possibly a physical reaction to the other side. Fragile offers Sam a job, which he declines, but it appears her company also stands in opposition to the Homo Demens since Fragile gets taken captive by Higgs during a mission.
Sam himself is something of a mystery. We know little about his past, aside from seeing a photo of his younger self together with the President and an apparently pregnant woman whose face is blurred out. Sam has his arm affectionately around the woman, so it wouldn’t be a far leap to conclude she’s important to him, though we know next to nothing about her beyond that. He does have a cross-shaped scar on his stomach (eerily similar to the one on a plastic baby we see floating in the land of the dead), though it hasn’t been revealed why (or if there’s a connection between the two). It may be an old combat injury – we know Sam was part of the ill-fated Corpse Disposal Team 6 that was decimated by BTs in the past.
On a separate track from Sam’s journey with Bridges is Cliff (Mads Mikkelsen), who Kojima described as “the overall antagonist/rival”. We don’t know much about him, though he appears in the Land of the Dead, apparently able to control soldiers through black tendrils similar to the umbilical cords seen on BTs. He appears to possess a similar cross-shaped scar to the one that Sam has, suggesting a deeper connection between the two. Although Death Stranding’s specific chronology is unclear, it’s possible that he could be one of the researchers who investigated the Death Stranding and its link to the BBs. There are also theories that he’s from an earlier point in history, before mankind traveled to Earth’s moon.
Of course, that’s just one of many fan theories out there — like the idea that Death Stranding takes place in a series of colliding alternate realities, or that time travel is somehow involved; or the community’s musings on whether this is a meta-commentary on social media and gaming and the whole world is part of a virtual reality simulation. There are plenty of other questions that remain unanswered, like how do characters like Fragile and Cliff fit into the overall picture, how exactly do the BBs sense the BTs, and what other silly selfies can we take in the safe houses?
Death Stranding’s Gameplay
As with many Kojima games, there appears to be a lot of depth to Death Stranding’s systems, some of which are more unique than others. For example, while Sam has many standard video game skill stats such as health, movement speed, carrying capacity, and stamina, he also has to manage his ability to maintain Balance when loading up to make deliveries, represented by a yellow circle that indicates where Sam’s center of gravity is based on what he’s lugging about. Sam carries all of his luggage of his back, which affects his movement and speed, though this doesn’t appear to necessitate inventory micromanagement with every new weapon or armor purchase like in some other open-world adventures. Based on the gameplay demo from TGS 2019, you’ll be able to spot imbalances visually and adjust it so the center of gravity is in the right place, or use the optimize option to balance everything automatically.
105 Gameplay Details from Death Stranding
To make these deliveries, Sam navigates the world of the living by using topography sensors that provide information on the types of terrain you cross: green means it’s easy to traverse, yellow indicates the path is slippery, and red will mean you’ll likely fall. When Sam crosses a deep part of the river in a patch marked red, he’ll slip, dropping parts of his cargo and damaging them or getting swept away by the current. Bringing extra boots is essential to preserving the health of your feet, which affects your ability to walk (fortunately, you can level up shoes to make them stronger and less resistant to breaking).
Walking isn’t Sam’s only mode of transportation, though, since that would require a whole lot of Monster energy drinks (which are an in-game item). A floating tractor cart can carry additional cargo (and also double as a BTTF-esque hoverboard), which allows Sam to carry more – or heavier – cargo. Sam also gains a battery-powered motorcycle at one point, which may or may not summon a murder of crows to accompany you. Sensors help navigate the path and there’s a lot of adversity along the way, including the time-morphing-rain that accelerates time for anything it touches. Power exoskeletons, which can be found in the world, can augment Sam’s abilities and make him a lot stronger, and speed skeletons likewise make Sam faster. Kojima has also mentioned vehicles like an official Bridges truck will be available.
The combat sequences that we’ve seen so far against the various Homo Demens and Mules feature a variety of Kojima’s trademark action and stealth elements. Player choice is still a key component as well; strand weapons like the Bolan Gun (the equivalent of Metal Gear’s tranquilizers) give player a non-violent option to tackle enemies. Some weapons can be upgraded and ammo can be swapped out for different types of ammunition like those made up of your own bodily fluids; Sam can use his blood and urine to fight off the BTs.
Of course, this all begs the question: what does Death Stranding actually play like? Based on everything we’ve seen so far, it’s likely that the gameplay loop will start with a mission being assigned to Sam at the delivery terminal. He’ll prepare his equipment and balance his packages (and pick out his favorite fashion accessories!), then determine the path he wants to take to his destination in compass mode or the map screen. On his way, he can engage in side quests or extra deliveries for preppers that can provide additional gear. He also has to fend off Mules who’ll try to take his packages, either by avoiding them, engaging them in combat, or sneakily taking them out before they can run him down.
BT regions will be the major threat out in the world, and entering them can trigger a confrontation with the deathly specters — which appear to range in size and deadliness, from human-sized creatures to the massive, lion-esque Catcher beasts (boss battles are a staple of Kojima’s games, after all). If Sam can survive his encounter with the BTs without getting dragged down to the Other Side, partly by holding his breath so they don’t detect him, he can move on. But if the BTs overwhelm him and successfully pull him down into the land of the dead, he’ll have to fight his way out to return to the world of the living — unless he gets swallowed by them, in which case a Voidout will occur.
Interestingly, Death Stranding doesn’t treat death like a fail-state. Rather, it’s another bridge where each action in the other world has an impact on the other chiral existence. Kojima has mentioned different players might have “a lot of craters all over the place,” potentially meaning that depending on how successful you are in avoiding becoming BT-food, you’ll have access to different parts of the country, suggesting everyone could have their own unique version of the UCA.
Another big focus in Death Stranding is the Social Strand System, which we recently saw in effect during the TGS demo. Sam can use a communication button to interact with other players and get notifications back, like a more advanced version of notes in games like Dark Souls or Bloodborne. He can leave helpful items for others (and they can leave items for him), such as a conveniently placed ladder at the base of a steep cliff, or beacons that restore Sam’s stats and cargo condition. There are also lockers where players can leave items for one another, or appear in other players games to provide assistance in combat.
All of these “strand” interactions are treated like a form of social media, where the kind acts of strangers can be given a “like” in gratitude. Roads, bridges, and safehouses can be built to aid other members of the community, and players can contribute parts to structures still under construction, though it’s not clear yet if it will be instanced for each player, or they will appear for everyone. We do know cargo stolen from other players in the community by Mules can be recovered from post boxes and returned or kept for yourself. Well-trod paths turn into roads with more usage by other players, making it clearer where they should go, while also warning players to avoid areas where BTs lurk. The United Cities of America’s struggle for survival becomes less onerous thanks to player participation — Kojima described his hope that as players experience the game, they’ll “come to understand the true importance of forging connections with others.”
Players who are seeking definitive answers to some of the game’s bigger mysteries can apparently rush through to the ending and skip much of the side content — but, I wonder, for those that actively take part in the Social Strand System, will they be able to get a more comprehensive understanding of the universe as they “strand” together their experiences? As players can communicate with other players via emojis and custom safe houses, it’ll be interesting to see how deep this system goes.
Hopefully this clears up some of the mystery surrounding Death Stranding. For more, be sure to check out a deep dive into 105 gameplay details, or see why Kojima says that it reflects modern-day politics.
Peter Tieryas is the author of Mecha Samurai Empire and Cyber Shogun Revolution from Penguin Random House. He has had his work published in places like Boing Boing, Kotaku, and the Verge. You can follow his Twitter here.