Sam Porter Bridges is Staying with the Trouble
Death Stranding, a video game by Hideo Kojima, tells the story of a devastated USA and humanity on the brink of falling victim to the sixth extinction. The outside world has become a dangerous place, with toxic rainfall and ghouls and terrorists. The main character, which you control, is Sam Porter Bridges. Defying danger, Sam’s (and your) task is to deliver cargo to the survivors sheltering in underground buildings throughout the landscape. By doing this, you create connections between people, rebuild roads, and bring joy to the preppers receiving their packages.
The game was released in autumn 2019, but commentators have noticed the eerie resemblance to the 2020-2021 pandemic, where essential workers had to confront the infectious outside world to deliver goods to those staying inside. Admittedly, the world depicted in the game is vastly more broken than ours is right now. Nevertheless, the pandemic has made us reflect on humanity’s ability to deal with catastrophe and has urged us to reconsider our fragility and responsibility in the light of global collapse.
Writing a philosophical piece on Death Stranding seems like knocking on an open door. The game is steeped in philosophical reflection and speculation. Hideo Kojima has created a game that reflects on trauma and healing, on connection, on the nature of biology. It raises questions related to ectogenesis and male pregnancy, the nature of sexuality, and experiments on fetuses. The back story is filled with ponderings about the origins of life, the universe, and the links between life and death. It may be a bit too much for some, and one may wonder why an academic philosopher has spent 177 hours of her free time to platinum the game. In what follows, I shall try to explain why I thought this game was brilliant and why I think it offers a playable example of Donna Haraway’s idea of staying with the trouble, as she described it in the eponymous book. Specifically, I will focus on our relationship with technology and nature, the importance of play, and the possibility of taking up responsibility in the wake of catastrophe.
Possible answers to the nearly unavoidable and destructive consequences of climate change can be subdivided into two big categories. First, there is the ecomodernist idea that technofixes will save us. Technology and science, so it is thought, will find a solution to present-day wicked problems if we invest enough time, money, and energy. This can either be done through geoengineering the climate or devising C02-neutral means of clean energy production. We may even genetically engineer ourselves, our plants, and our animals to be less resource-intensive or better able to withstand climate change’s consequences. Second, there is the idea that we must return to a more pristine and natural way of living. Adherents of the latter stance believe that technology has led us towards the situation we are in now. It has led to alienation and hubris. In this view, we humans are the scourge of the earth, parasites that need to find their proper place again.
In the first view, technology is the solution, and nature is what is to be overcome. In the second view, technology is the enemy, and nature is what we should revere. Both approaches seem to be opposed to one another concerning the solutions they propose. But it seems that both approaches share one common assumption about the position of humans in the wake of catastrophe and their relation with nature and technology. It seems that both nature and technology are, for the present-day human being, realms situated external to ourselves. In the technofix approach, technology is to be used to manipulate nature. Admittedly, in the return-to-nature stance, it seems like our proper position is to be part of nature at first sight. However, somehow, we have been able to leave nature behind and look at it and manipulate it from a distance. You could not return to something if you were not able to leave it in the first place.
In Death Stranding, the world is a hostile but still beautiful place. The apocalyptic landscape is rough, few trees remain, and as a player, one cannot but feel relieved when stumbling upon a small forest or idyllic meadows and creeks. Most of the time, you plough through rocky or even snowy terrain. As for apocalyptic landscapes, Death Stranding sits between the total desolation of The Road and the bucolic landscapes of post-apocalyptic movies like The Quiet Place, which seem to convey that although the world has ended, we have found our more pure, natural self. The relation of human beings with nature and technology in Death Stranding is far more complex. We are on the verge of the sixth mass extinction, which will inevitably include humans and most non-human animals. Devastating events have already happened. Technology could not prevent the disasters that have occurred, and it may even have caused them. At the same time, it is technology that helps Sam connecting the different settlements again, and with technology, he can make his journey somewhat more manageable. Nevertheless, he has to work with the environment, not against it. If you build too many structures, such as ziplines, resources are saturated, and you have to destroy some old ones to make room. Eventually, structures decay under the toxic rain that accelerates time and destruction.
To me, Sam is the incarnation of the cyborg figure, as Donna Haraway described in her seminal essay A Cyborg Manifesto. The cyborg figure challenges the dichotomies that haunt Western thought. It is a boundary figure, in between organism and machine, man and woman. The cyborg is neither good nor bad. It is not the enemy of humankind, nor is it necessarily its savior. Sam uses several prosthetic gears such as exoskeletons to increase his speed or allow him to carry more weight. At the same time, he has very organic needs, such as urinating and sleeping. His fatigue becomes tangible through the technology of the PlayStation controller and sound: as a player, you feel your character ploughing through the snow and struggling through tricky waters. When arriving dirty or covered with blood in his shelter, Sam begs you to shower him. Sam Porter Bridges is portrayed by Norman Reedus, a bearded muscular man. He carries with him, on his chest, a pod with an unborn baby. This baby is considered a ‘tool’ that can warn you when there is danger nearby. At the same time, the analogy with pregnancy is obvious: the baby feels Sam’s every move, and you can soothe her by playing a song on your harmonica.
The reality in which Sam operates is harsh, and the sixth mass extinction is imminent. At the same time, there is much playfulness, joy, and humor in the game. It is not a multiplayer game, but you are connected with other players, and you see their structures appear in your game world. Some of them are useful, but some are signs containing hearts and smileys encouraging you to go on. Players send you likes for your constructions, and you can send them likes as well. Even your pod baby and the monsters you have to fight can send you likes. The enormous number of likes you can get in the game may be considered a critique of social media addiction. At the same time, the likes also make the game funny and even lightheaded. It seems that Kojima is telling us that we can only rebuild our world if we do not take ourselves too seriously. Ziplines become available at some point in the game, and they greatly enhance your efficiency in delivering packages in snowy mountains. The ziplines are a sheer joy for Sam and the pod baby as well as for you, the player, who can almost viscerally experience the giddiness of speeding through the landscape. As Sam, you can pee, provided you have drunk enough water. If you pee on the ghosts, they disappear. Who could blame them? On the spot where you pee, mushrooms spawn, and you can even pee on other players’ mushrooms to make bigger ones. If they have been peed on sufficiently, mushrooms become large structures attracting or generating tardigrade-like macroscopic creatures that you can eat to restore your vitality. The choice of combination of mushroom, urine, and tardigrade is no coincidence: organic waste is part of the humus that will rebuild the world. Tardigrades and mushrooms are resilient creatures, which can grow, to use anthropologist Anna Tsing’s words, in capitalist ruins.
Death Stranding is a shameless and blatant allegory for our near future. The prospect is dire: there are no magic solutions that can stop the inevitable. Nevertheless, it is also a game of hope. It is true, it seems to suggest, that the sixth mass extinction is inevitable and that our time in this universe is limited. Humans are just one episode in the succession of deaths and possibilities that have come and will come with each extinction. However, it may still be worth it to try to postpone it “for a few hundred thousand years”. America is still in ruins at the end of the game, although people have been reconnected through the Chiral network. Sam, who does not like company, has made friends. He has learned to live with the landscape, work with it and enjoy it. The America of Death Stranding is Donna Haraway’s Chthulucene, “a kind of timeplace for learning to stay with the trouble of living and dying in response-ability on a damaged earth.”
Sam stays with the trouble: there is no going back to a time before, there is no technofix. Instead, we use technology entangled with the possibilities of the landscape, but we have to do so responsibly. Sam finds comfort walking the landscape, jumping over cliffs, ziplining, talking to his baby, and soaking in natural hot springs. We discover what makes humanity worth saving through playing, and it is not necessarily grand ideas. It is joy and connection that inspires responsibility. In the light of total annihilation, seriousness is the biggest vice.
Kristien Hens is a Research Professor at the University of Antwerp, Belgium. She teaches bioethics and media ethics. She is the PI of the project NeuroEpigenEthics http://www.neuroepigenethics.com in which she and her team investigate the ethical issues related to neurodevelopmental conditions. She has a special interest in the normative implications of concepts of biology and in qualitative research.
D. J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Duke University Press, 2016).
D. Haraway, A cyborg manifesto, New York , 150 (1991).
A. L. Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (Princeton University Press, 2015).