Death Stranding, beyond its Timefalls and Bridge Babies, is a game about fatherhood in an age of social, political, and environmental upheaval.
Its allusions to America’s current climate (in every sense of the word) are unashamedly bullish and all beg the question: are we capable of being there for one another when every institution is falling to ruin? What does it mean to be a father in America?
Death Stranding and the questions it asks enter a larger conversation about gruff daddies that has beset video games for the past decade. Bioshock Infinite, Telltale’s The Walking Dead, The Last of Us, God of War 2018, and now Death Stranding center their narratives around a man’s relationship with a younger person who depends on him.
Video games have so readily embraced the themes of fatherhood, perhaps because the journey of fatherhood spans the entire spectrum of human emotion. Joel in The Last of Us develops an emotional dependence on Ellie, a girl he is responsible for, and as the game progresses he puts his tendency towards emotional reclusion behind him as paternal fondness takes its toll. Kratos in God of War erupts with disciplinary anger when Atreus disobeys and swells with fear when Atreus stumbles. The frequent, rapturous violence Kratos enacts toward his foes is justified in the player’s mind because there is now a kiddo to protect.
It is easy to sympathize with a father; it is easier to crush an enemies’ skull inward when they come at your videogame-child. Western culture sees fathers as protectors bound by instinct to do right by the innocent. And in games, that usually means a whole lot of killing.
Death Stranding is unique in that its fatherhood narrative never is used to justify or excuse violence. Combat is nearly non-existent throughout the game’s campaign, and killing is actively discouraged. Corpses threaten “go necro” and explode in a gooey swirl of cataclysmic might when left out in the open air.
The game’s protagonist, Sam Porter Bridges, enters the canon of Grizzly Gaming Daddies when he is handed his BB (Bridge Baby), a jarred baby used as a “tool” to detect BTs (Beached Things), the game’s supernaturally rooted ghoulies. Forty hours of game time later, the player is given a final mission: incinerate your child. This thing is a tool, a means to an end that has nothing left to give.
Sam, once bent on emotional isolation and callousness, violates American law to spare the child’s life. Fatherhood is, like in many games before it, portrayed as sacrificial. But Sam gets something from it too: Sam gets a chance at true human connection, at being more than a tool for America’s perpetuation.
Sam, like the BB he comes to love, was once a Bridge Baby bound to a similar fiery fate for the good of his country; these BBs were to be the literal foundation of a reunited America. Sam’s father, Clifford Unger, spent every ounce of emotional and physical might to save then-fetus-in-a-jar Sam from military exploitation. He had no choice; fatherhood, as depicted in this and many other games, rewrites the emotional core of its host.
These releases about fatherhood are power fantasies in their own right. Even past the violence inherent to many games’ gameplay loops, the fantasy of fatherhood is one that rings truer and truer in an increasingly fatherless America.
The task of fatherhood is grueling. It demands. It comes to collect. We aren’t all capable of it. I have lived much of my life without a father because those before me weren’t up to the task, but it is something worth preserving, and something worth depicting in games as a job that doesn’t require spilling blood.
Death Stranding, despite its fantastic setting, comes closer to telling the story of real fathers than any major game before it. Sam didn’t want to reunite America, didn’t want to trek across its many states, and only comes to love his jar-child through the grit and work that comes by just sticking around. But he had to stick around; it was his soul-bound duty. And he becomes a better man because of it.
On his bleeding deathbed, Clifford Unger (Sam’s father, remember) summarizes the journey that all fathers are forced to take. This is a journey that begins with an ocean’s worth of reluctant fear. I hope its a message our version of America can come to relearn.
“When I found out I was gonna be a father, I was so scared. Scared of what it would mean. I had to be there for you and your mom… no matter what. I couldn’t just go off and get myself killed anymore… couldn’t leave you all alone. I couldn’t. I had it all wrong… all wrong. Being a father… didn’t make me scared. It made me brave. I’m sorry… sorry it took me so long…Don’t make the same mistake.”