Podcast Episode: Human Connections in Death Stranding

“[We] grew stronger through interpersonal connections. By creating what came to be called ‘society’.” This is a thoughtful consideration of human connections as presented in one of the deepest and most allegorical story-based video games of the last five years. I’m talking about Death Stranding, designed by Hideo Kojima and novelised by Hitori Nojima.

Let’s get these books (and game!) undone.

Hello everyone, and welcome to Books Undone. I’m your host, Livia J. Elliot, and today we will be discussing the novelisation of one of the most groundbreaking story-based videogames of the last five years—Death Stranding.

Death Stranding is a video-game released in 2019 by Kojima Productions. It became famous because of the renown director, the unique story setting, and the layers of hidden meanings that enveloped every single aspect of the game. It had a very positive reception, and was nominated (and won!) several awards, including Game of the Year1. In 2021, the studio released a Director’s Cut with additional scenes… and also a two-volumes novelisation written by Hitori Nojima.

Although I played the game and loved it, I had no idea that the books existed until I found a video by BookTuber BiblioTheory, and ended up ordering the books as I watched his video. I’ll leave a link in the description, because BiblioTheory’s content is great.

That said, and going back to Death Stranding, the author of the novelisation is Hitori Nojima… but that is actually the pen name of Kenji Yano, who co-wrote Death Stranding alongside Hideo Kojima. The novelisation was written originally in Japanese as a duology, and translated to English by Carley Radford. At least in my case, the first book’s translation was abysmal, and I ranted about it in my Goodreads review2; the second one was incredibly better… but it was a different edition. So if you get the books, mind the editions.

Something else to mention here is that both books copy the dialogue bit-by-bit from the game, but add a lot of context that actually helped me understand some of the allegories and intended meaning of the game. The books also include several scenes between secondary characters that are not in the videogame, and that I found enriching.

However, the prose was not up to the challenge of conveying the unusual visuals and imagery of the game, so I wouldn’t recommend to read it if you didn’t play Death Stranding; but, if you did and want to understand it… then go ahead and get the books.

Before we move forward, let me make some disclaimers.

  • First, Death Stranding, both the books and the game, are incredibly packed with meaning… and I can’t fit all here; thus, some themes will be left behind.

  • Second, there are spoilers for the story, but they only pertain to the first game and its novelisation duology. At the moment this episode was released (May 2024) we only had a cryptic trailer for the second game—so this podcast does not speculate on it. Likewise, although I’ll focus on the content provided by the novelisations, I will do some references to the game mechanics.

  • Third (and finally!) what you will hear is my subjective interpretation… which may not align to what Kojima intended, nor to your own interpretation. That’s fine, you’re allowed to disagree.

To help listeners understand the central theme, let me do a brief summary of the world-building in Death Stranding.

The game is a near-future sci-fi located in the USA. In this setting, the barrier between the world of the living and the world of the death is called the Seam; at some point during current timeline, the Seam began blurring, and that brought the Beach closer to the living world. The Beach is like a limbo, a place in-between both living-and-dying that those recently deceased have to cross. However, some people remain stuck in the Beach and become Beached Things (or BTs), coming to the living world to haunt life…

However, when a BT touches a living person the contact causes a massive explosion called a voidout. Voidouts are also caused by non-incinerated human corpses; the explanation given is that the attachment of the “spirit” (or ha) of a person to their body (or ka) converts the corpse into a BT, and that shift creates the explosion.

At some undisclosed point, several large-scale voidouts happened across the globe, wiping out entire cities and decimating the population. In turn, this created more BTs, and brought the Beach even closer to the living world. That proximity converted regular rainfall into what’s known as the timefall—a downpour that ages everything it touches, from human bodies to structures and buildings.

Fast-forward several years (about 30-40 years since that moment), and the countries have vanished. There is no internet or services because there is no infrastructure for it, and people are now living in small and isolated communities… while many are outright on their own in bunkers. There is no overarching government, and those small settlements rely on couriers to send and receive parcels.

There comes our main protagonist, Sam Porter who works for an organisation called Bridges—and the name is clearly intended, because Bridges aims to connect people by sending packages, but also by connecting them to a new type of internet called the Chiral Network. The Chiral Network leverages the Beach to access past and present knowledge and send messages, without relying on any physical infrastructure… which effectively helps to counter the eroding effect of the timefall.

As I see it, a cross-cutting theme within Death Stranding is the value of making, maintaining, and lacking human connections. However, what is a human connection?

Let’s analyse what real-life professionals say. Katie Style and Dr Lori Lawrenz stated that human connection is “the sense of closeness and belongingness a person can experience when having supportive relationships with those around them”3, clarifying that connection is “when two or more people interact with each other and each person feels valued, seen, and heard. There’s no judgment, and you feel stronger and nourished after engaging with them.” Gareth Cook, wrote in Scientific American that “The things that cause us to feel pain are things that are evolutionary recognised as threats to our survival and the existence of social pain is a sign that evolution has treated social connection like a necessity, not a luxury.”4

Therefore, social connections are a necessity for our survival, and Death Stranding explores this at length while also making a point that we are always, constantly connected to our past.

This is not clear in the games, but the books (especially the second volume) have a very interesting conversation between two characters, Deadman and Heartman, which concludes that their in-book world resembles that of the original and primitive homo sapiens. I will touch on this exchange as we dive deeper, but that chat helped me realise that the plot and the overarching quote-on-quote stages of the mechanics within the game actually reflect five stages of evolution in human connections.

Think of real history and the primitive tribes of homo sapiens. They began isolated, violently communicating boundaries; then, they gradually evolved to trade and commerce, bonded to create trust, developed a set of values to unify larger groups (like a society or country), and finally understood that difference are intrinsic to society. We can divide the entire story of Death Stranding into these five stages:

  1. First, you begin the game in a disconnected country. People live alone or in small groups, isolated in bunkers. Travelling is hazardous, and as Sam carries the parcels, he is often met with violence. That, unusual as it sounds, is the first stage of human connections—violence as a way of communicating and establishing boundaries. Conflict as a way to make a statement, to draw a line.

  2. Second, once Sam begins reaching these bunkers and smaller settlements, the characters (or NPCs in the game) keep Sam at hands’ length. To demonstrate they can trust Sam, our unsung hero is forced to go back and forth carrying parcels and slowly restoring the commerce between bunkers and groups. The second stage of human connection is trade; an impersonal yet useful connection that allows the exchange upon which human evolution is grounded.

  3. Third, because people trade quite often (goods, information, and knowledge) the consistency helps them develop trust, and so these characters slowly tell Sam the story of their lives, and how past events influenced them to be who they are. By knowing their past, their reasons, fears, and hopes, trust is slowly regained and people begin grouping themselves. This is the third stage of human connection, bonding between smaller groups to satisfy the need of being heard.

  4. Fourth, after connecting most of the bunkers and cities, the leaders at Bridges realise that something else is needed to actually unify a group of people—the infrastructure they laid out is not enough. That “missing something” is identity, and being part of a country at an ideological level. The book refers to it as a quote-on-quote “common fiction”; namely, a social construct in which everyone can believe in, thus leading to the fourth stage of human connections.

  5. The fifth, is the realisation that such “common fiction” or social construct is not perfect. To no one’s surprise, disagreements define an identity as much as their shared beliefs do. Therefore, the fifth stage in human connection is learning to live with those differences.

Those five stages quote-on-quote segment the plot, are reflected in the mechanics of the video game, and explained through many conversations in the books. Now, let’s dive deep and study Death Stranding stage by stage.

Think of the world thousands of years ago, when the largest group was an isolated tribe, when there was no concept of society and not even that of family. In that time, tribes would kill each other because (a) they had no way of determining whether someone was friend or foe, (b) they needed the others’ resources, or (c) they disagreed vehemently with whatever the other group represented.

In a way, that violence wad a way of saying: I don’t trust you or I’m scared of you or you may be a threat to me when no other means of communication was available.

At the beginning, the world of Death Stranding is pretty much like that. Bunkers with isolated groups or individuals (aka “preppers”), a high level of distrust, and no way of knowing whether someone is friend or foe. There are two specific threats attacking porters and threatening the bunkers:

  • First, MULEs, humans who were once porters and are not irrationally obsessed with their profession. I’ll come back to them later.
  • Second, Homo Demens an isolationist group. These terrorists actually nuked a city when it agreed to the first efforts of reconnection.

When reflecting upon that event, one key character within the Bridges organisation, a coroner called Deadman, thinks that,

“If people like that were going to reject any form of connection, then Deadman wished they would just live out their lives and keep to themselves. But since violence and terrorist acts were also a kind of communication, didn’t it mean that they also craved connection?"

What Deadman thinks is interesting, especially in the light of the definitions of human connection mentioned at the start; namely, a sense of closeness and belongingness, leading people to feel valued, seen, and heard. Remember, even if the story is a near-future setting, the context is more akin to the primitive tribes, so Deadman is not validating modern-day terrorism, but comparing their in-book world to the initial violence among clashing tribes.

In that sense, conflict is derived from a lack of trust caused by the lack of a meaningful connection… which, in turn, leads towards a mutual understanding. Mind my words, I’m not saying agreement but understanding; there is a difference there, and we’ll get to it in stage five.

The poignant nuance is how Bridges named this group of isolationists as homo demens. According to LatinDictionary.net, “Demens” is a latin word that means “demented, mad, wild, raving, reckless, foolish”5. A fancy name, you may think… but the truth is that such names derives from the lack of mutual understanding. Upon first encountering them, Sam thinks that homo demens “[…] thought and acted in the opposite way to however homo sapiens would” also defining them as “deranged” and “delusional”.

Of course, while travelling across this vacant hellscape, Sam sensibly wonders,

“Was there really such a need to reconnect people who showed such resistance? Destruction and restoration. Even though they existed in completely opposite vectors, it was always those major forces that were vying to change the state of this world."

What Sam posits here, is a somewhat healthy and reasonable doubt. Think of the tribes of yore, and imagine the world of Death Stranding. Bunkers of preppers, people afraid to go to the surface not to touch a BT, people terrified of being killed by MULEs or Homo Demens… the violence reshaped them, it became their language, directing their fears, lowering their trust and forcing people to remain alone because that isolation was outright safer. During his first travels, Sam acknowledges this by thinking, “With the exception of the Homo Demens, all humans shared the fear of death.”

After all, fear and violence are two languages all of us, humans, understand very well.

It is in this violence-clad situation when Sam talks to Amelie regarding the reasons to reconnect people through the Chiral Network. Amelie is Sam’s quote-on-quote “sister”, daughter of the recently-deceased president, and figurehead of the country’s reconnection. Amelie understand the lack of trust, and states that, “No one’s expecting [the preppers] to say yes up front.”

So, here is where the first mechanic of the game comes in. Sam is a porter, in other words, a glorified postman that walks across the land to deliver parcels. Whenever Sam gets to a shelter, there is a very clear and repetitious mechanic. Sam knocks on the door, brings the packages to a deposit, and is met by the holograms of the dwellers who refuse to quote-on-quote “open the door”. Over and over, Sam interacts exclusively with holograms.

One of these preppers, a guy called George Baton, thinks that the prohibition to go up and meet the porters in person was set in place because, “there was always the risk of viral infection or an attack by someone with malicious intent”… which, again, is a sensible fear. However, George also states that “[…] there was also another underlying reason”, which he implies to be custom. George explains that, “[…] once people became used to only maintaining human relationships with the others who had been isolated with them, the introduction of someone new could cause incredible stress.”

He is talking about something known, in modern times, as social anxiety. The National Institute of Mental Health defines social anxiety as “an intense, persistent fear of being watched and judged by others. This fear can affect work, school, and other daily activities. It can even make it hard to make and keep friends”6.

To no one’s surprise, isolation leads to social anxiety, which in turns leads to further isolation, and so on. This creates a vicious cycle in which people lack human connections, and are afraid of taking the steps needed to create such connections. Remember, lack of trust and fear are the underlying factor, exacerbated by the first step of a connection—the violence all around them.

Of course, quite quickly Sam gets fed up, and points the fruitlessness of his quest to gain trust in order to connect bunkers to the Chiral Network. He vents his frustration in a conversation with Amelie, who explains that such isolation is not a natural state, and is actually detrimental to us humans. She says that, “Humans aren’t made for living alone. They’re supposed to come together—to help one another. And if we as a population can’t do that—if we can’t reconnect…”

Amelie leaves the consequences unspoken but if you know the ending, you can infer what she’s implying. Mighty spoiler here, but Amelie is actually an Extinction Entity; namely, a living being whose existence triggers mass extinctions. She is the cause of the Death Stranding (as an in-book phenomenon), and it is her purpose… and this being is implying that isolation will lead humankind to extinction.

After that fateful conversation between Sam and Amelie, the books take us to a conversation between Deadman and another researcher at Bridges—a guy called Heartman. This is exactly the exchange that made me realise the quote-on-quote stages of connection.

Heartman explains to Deadman that,

“The neanderthals even had larger brains than us. Normally, one would think that would mean the neanderthals would outlast us homo sapiens. But they didn’t […] perhaps because these simple-minded beings favoured small family units, so that even if a breakthrough occurred, it was unlikely to be shared with others. This isolation, more than any other factor, seems to have led to their decline."

Basically, Heartman was stating that people needs to move past that stage of being isolated due to fear and violence, in order to survive. And more clearly, Heartman is clarifying (with evidence of the past!) the next stage of human connection: trade and the exchange of goods, knowledge, and services, needed to evolve.

Trade is where the game mechanic takes us next—and the book explains it. To gain the trust of those people who only meet Sam as a hologram, Sam is required to go back and forth bringing parcels to demonstrate that: (a) Bridges is serious about providing help, and (b) that the trade is actually beneficial. Let’s break this down.

Given our current society, we understand that trade is fundamental. For us, commerce in a large-scale, across the globe, and as fast as possible, is a daily occurrence… but at the beginning of the story, the books imply that only people over the age of forty remember the world before the Death Stranding, and thus we can assume that there are generations already born isolated within the bunkers and shelters.

Therefore, that initial in-book world is so akin to primitive tribes, that during his trips, Sam thinks that, “Deals were no longer cut using economic principles. Ever since the government had fallen, people were no longer motivated by money.” Why? Because a society is needed for money to be accepted as a currency, and societies are stage four of human connections.

Sam even clarifies that, “Money may have connected people as a sort of lingua franca, but it also relied on a collective backbone.” That quote-on-quote “collective backbone” refers, plainly, to infrastructure— which is fundamental to enable exchanges at a large scale… but the in-book world, at this point, has none of it. Sam continues to think that, “Once that [the collective backbone] had gone, connections reverted back to a more primitive form: people and resources. Things you coul d see. Things you could touch. That’s how people began to trade again.”

Regardless of its simplicity, the repetition and consistency of the trade builds trust.

To the preppers in the bunkers, Sam shows them the existence of a common interest that is actually beneficial to them; namely, the access to resources and knowledge the preppers may lack, which is obtained by giving up something they have in excess or can produce. In other words, the primitive connection of trade; people and resources.

Understanding the benefit is fundamental, because the trade Sam enables also demonstrate what, in modern terms, we express as “we are all in the same boat.” That is to say, all the preppers are equally isolated, all of them are struggling like the others. That understanding is foundational to build into the next two steps—bonding by sharing personal stuff, and developing a common fiction or shared social construct.

Something interesting of this game is that Kojima, the creator, referred to Death Stranding as the first “strand game”, an original genre characterized by the incorporation of social elements. What do I mean by this? On the one hand, it’s an open-world (a virtual world in which the player can approach objectives freely), but it also had asynchronous online interactions… meaning that every single person playing Death Stranding could alter the world by leaving pieces of infrastructure, resources, and even markers.

You could be playing as Sam, trying to cross a cliff, and suddenly, there is a bridge, or a ladder. Or there are fancy markers indicating where a zone with BTs would span, or where enemies lurked. When I was playing, I suddenly came across this huge highway that crossed and entire section… I picked a vehicle that was left there, and literally blazed through miles instead of trekking across inhospitable territory.

Do you see where I’m going? The game mechanics, and in particular the async online components in an open world, where meant to make you, the player, experience what the shared interest is, and the benefit of helping each other.

The books don’t really convey this as well as playing through it does, however, Sam does come across a road made by other porters, and thinks that, he was “[…] more relieved to stumble upon this simple trail than when he saw the big, artificial buildings like the stations. […] Such signs of all the human life that had passed through there, and the layers of time they depicted, eased Sam’s feelings of solitude.”

In that conversation between Deadman and Heartman, the latter explains the benefits both for the current in-book timeline, and for humanity’s real past. Heartman says, “[…] As millennia passed, homo sapiens learned to create tools and hunt in packs. […] Strength in numbers also made their communities more resistant to famine and other calamities.”

So, we get the point, trading is beneficial. However, that statement from Heartman clarifies something else about the errands/training mechanic—that humans cannot be alone because, besides being a weak species and needing help, we also need to share whatever troubles us. We need to bond, to feel heard and seen.

Heartman, after meeting Sam for the first time, thinks that, “If someone only talked about their own story to themselves, they’d go nuts. They’d withdrawn into themselves, becoming the king of a kingdom they were the only inhabitant of. That’s why we all need someone to share our story with.” Do you know why? Because this is the third stage of human connections, as presented in Death Stranding.

Bonding and interpersonal connections actually makes us feel heard and seen. Motivation, trade, and scant communication are not enough. The links between people keep us safe.

Again, this relates to the overarching mechanic of how people accept to be connected. Once Sam delivers enough packages, the preppers in the bunkers, and even the high-ranking Bridges researchers end up telling Sam the quote-on-quote “story of their lives” and how they came to be who they were. It seems repetitious, but it is making a point; that what unites people is not just a shared material interest, but the feeling of being part of something.

Do you remember the MULEs I mentioned very early when talking about violence? In gaming terms, these are the quote-on-quote “mobs” present in the world and meant to encumber Sam. MULEs steal Sam’s parcels while he delivers, and sometimes attack him. However, the MULEs are so much more, and the books explain them.

MULEs are defined as homo gestalts, humans who were once porters and are now irrationally obsessed with their profession.

If you played the game, you can imagine the landscape—predominantly greyish, hazy and misty, with only a dusty, rocky soil for miles on end, no trees or animals, and a vast expanse of nothingness. Very soon, carrying parcels becomes boring. This setting, besides conveying the effects of the corroding timefall, is literally putting the player in the shoes of a porter, so you can experience the boredom, the loneliness, and how everything narrowed down to a very single-minded goal—delivering more packages. Amidst that nothingness and loneliness, finding the banners from other players and meeting NPCs becomes a highlight of the gameplay. Soon you want to get quicker to the bunkers, deliver more, meet more people.

Do you know what this gameplay is doing? It is forcing the player to (a) suffer what the porters suffered, to (b) generate empathy, so that (c) you can understand why there are MULEs. That why is very simple; the lack of human connection has an impact in someone’s mind, in someone’s sanity. As Amelie said, we cannot live in solitude.

In the books, Sam makes the intent of this mechanic very clear, by explaining: “MULEs had once been porters, but had become addicted to the high of delivering the goods that would rebuild society.” This is somehow implied by Heartman, who confesses to Sam that, “I find the thought terrifying. Spending eternity alone.” Loneliness is worse than anything else; it can have an awful impact in human beings, it can drive us mad.

We are not built for loneliness, neither from the perspective of physical survival, nor from a mental health standpoint. Further into the storyline, Sam meets Fragile (a fellow porter and owner of Fragile Express) and explains that he was on the verge of becoming a MULE. Sam confesses that:

“Back when we met at the cave, the only thing I cared was about making it to the next sunrise. […] I was broken. But somewhere along the way, I started changing. Started meeting people who made me think that maybe, it wasn’t all bad. People who put their faith in tomorrow and me."

What Sam told Fragile is very simple—interacting with people gave him hope, and the understanding that quote-on-quote “they were all in the same boat”, helped him carry on.

Fragile answers with another valid point, thinking that “Connections are fragile, but it is no good just making them stronger. They need to be treasured and treated carefully.” This is because, on the one hand, we need to put effort into those relationships. We need to keep talking, keep sharing, keep discussing, keep bonding as we grow and change through life. But at the same time, relationships and connections are fragile because they depend on infrastructure.

In the story of Death Stranding, Sam ventures west with the purpose of building the Chiral Network, that type of in-book internet that will allow for a real-time connection across the continent, bringing not only better comms, but also access to past records, and to Chiral Printers which could actually print objects. The purpose here is still trading and communicating (thus, stages two and three) but it is evolving… and infrastructure is the only thing that allows for that evolution.

Let’s make a pause and think of the real world to see how we are all connected. Medical workers keep everyone healthy, while software people will develop services that are used for a number of things, then financial staff will use the software to complete payrolls, while drivers in public transport allows others to commute to work… you get the gist. We are, one way or another, doing something to benefit someone else. This loop of help is very nicely approximated by that asynchronous social cooperation aspect masterfully interwoven into the game mechanics.

After all, even without the broader aspect of society (which is stage four of connections), we humans survive because of the constant trade. We are, effectively, interwoven. This is where the book and games play with the concept of being a “strand game”. After meeting a number of people, Sam thinks that, “Bridges wasn’t one thick rope, but rather numerous fine threads bundled together, each with their own motivations. Sam was one of those strands, too.”

Yes, the quote “being a strand” is clearly why Kojima called the genre “strand game”, but it also links back to the idea that we are all individuals (strands) interwoven into something bigger (a thread), enabled by infrastructure. The things that we achieve are never because of an individual, but because of all of those strands—of the thread. That is why, on the eve of preventing Amelie from triggering the extinction, she tells Sam, “You and the others came together—connected.”

But once we are past the violence as a mean to communicate our fear, once the trade and commerce has established truth and demonstrated a shared interest, and once small groups of individuals begin understanding each other at a personal level… what is left?

Let’s go back to the exchange between Deadman and Heartman. At that point in time, the Chiral Network (aka, the infrastructure) is laid across the entire region… but people remain isolated. Deadman thinks that, “Perhaps the meta-level law that would integrate [people] was that kind of understanding. Maybe some kind of symbol that connected people. Something that made it possible for them to understand each other.” When Heartman wakes up from his scheduled stroke (I won’t explain that), he actually correlates Deadman’s realisation to humanity’s primitive history. Heartman explains that:

"Homo sapiens, meanwhile, conceived religion, with which large numbers of individuals could be bound together in service to a common cause. […] In other words, homo sapiens grew stronger through interpersonal connections. By creating what came to be called ‘society’. The meta-level law we talk about could be referred to as ‘common fiction’."

Heartman is implying that, past the bonding between individuals, the fourth stage of human connections is the development of societies. And what unifies societies? That quote-on-quote “common fiction”, which I interpreted as a colloquialism to refer to social constructs. According to philosoher John R. Searle, a social construct is “an idea that has been created and accepted by the people in a society”7; namely, things that are made real by convention… for example, money, the meaning of words, the name of the colours.

Therefore, the characters here are making a clear point. Infrastructure is akin to a basic trade; it covers the physical part of the connection, without satisfying the emotional part of a bond. In turn, social constructs (aka, Deadman’s “common fiction”) allow large-scale connection because, otherwise, we cannot connect. As Heartman explains to Deadman, “But when everyone believes in something, it gives that thing meaning and a fiction in reality. This is another example of the meta-level law of fiction.”

In modern times, we could even argue that our passion for specific hobbies is the “common fiction” that, by using social networks, allows us to broadly connect with other people with a shared inclination for the same hobbies. In the books, Viktor is another porter, and was a child before the voidouts began happening; he thinks that “[…] access to any information that they wanted lay at their fingertips without them even having to step out of the door. They could even interact with other people from their own homes via social media.” However, while these created connections, it also created estrangement.

Likewise, that excessive connection lead to something else—contradictions, disagreements, and subjective opinions. Another prepper, a man referred to as the Elder, thinks that, “While the amount of information that he heard had increased, he hadn’t failed to notice that the information itself was but fragments, mixed in with plenty of bullshit, rumours, and gossip.”

Nothing is perfect. The more connected we are, the more exposed we are to the myriad of social constructs and common fictions that are available… and because we humans are thoroughly subjective, that infrastructure for communication also exposes us to opinions about everything. This co-existence of opposing and juxtaposed social constructs leads, in turn, to disagreements… yet it is the fabric of society. A society (or a country!) are not composed of a single social construct, and thus, cannot be unified under a single “common fiction”.

Another prepper, a woman referred to as the Evo-devo Biologist, tells Sam that,

“No matter how much we struggle, while we’re human we’re never going to be able to build a perfect country on this earth. We can spout whatever grand ideas we like, any country we create will be nothing more than a sham. […] if we really want to make a perfect country, then we have to stop being human."

Do you know why? The answer is simple—because the fifth stage of human connections is tolerating disagreements. In modern terms, agreeing to disagree.

Regardless of the importance of human connections, of groups, of shared values and ideas… there will always be some level of disagreement. Very early on the first book, Deadman acknowledges that, “Humans were humans, and such, no perfect freedom or ideal collective could exist. People wouldn’t be able to go on living if they didn’t shut their eyes to things sometimes.”

As I see it, Deadman is implying that everyone has a set of social constructs to which they agree. However, finding others that are a perfect match (namely, who agree and disagree with the exact same constructs) is rare and difficult.

If finding a single person so like-minded is difficult… imagine how challenging it is to find a group! Or enough perfectly-matching people to form a country! This is exactly what the Evo-devo was worrying about—we can’t find perfect matches because we are humans, because we have opinions. Therefore, we are going to disagree… and if we disagree, nothing is ever going to please everybody. Something can please a majority, of course, but never everyone.

Towards the end of the book, and after everything he went through, Sam thinks that, “Humans lived by interpreting the world based on their own experiences. […] There was no need for every person to see exactly the same thing from the same perspective and place.” Do you know why? Because empathy is essential to form connections and bonds. Empathy allows us to see the world (or a matter) as a specific person sees it, even without agreeing with them, and while retaining our own views. We have a very common expression for this, you probably said it once—“yeah, I can see where you’re coming from.” Meaning, we can understand the train of thought, follow the argument, we can comprehend the emotions… even though we may not share them.

It is fitting that Heartman is the one to explain why empathy is the key. Heartman states that,

“It doesn’t matter if there are a thousand interpretations of what a country means or what people want from [it]. It doesn’t matter if people embrace it or reject it. Acceptance and rejection both require the existence of [the country] as a concept."

In other words, the existence of a disagreement validates the existence of a common fiction, and the ‘disagreement’ thus becomes another social construct (hence, another “common fiction”) that coexists, juxtaposed, with the original. To simplify that mouthful, disagreements are inherent to agreements, and a society cannot exist without both. The only thing that can help us survive such concurrence is empathy.

Now… there is an underlying factor beneath these five stages of human connections; something we cannot deny. We are, entirely and wholeheartedly, connected to our past. That connection is perennial and irrevocable, and exists between individuals (past and present), and between societies, also past and present. As Fragile often says, “the past won’t just let go.”

This connection exists at many levels.

First, because we can learn from the past to change our future. The Evo-Devo Biologist, recalls a conversation with another porter, in which he argued that, “Humanity goes around recording and sharing our past to help us predict our future, and because of that, we assume that we can change our destiny.”

Second, because even when we haven’t seen someone in a long time, their memory lingers in us. Whatever our interactions with them were, they marked us, shaped us, taught us. When Sam walked away from his adoptive mother, president Bridget, she confessed to Deadman the sorrow and guilt she felt at the departure; Deadman tells Sam that, “All I know is that she was sorry to see you go. She used to talk about how you didn’t have to cut ties and walk away.” Even the breaking of a relationship is another strand in our identity; prior connections become part of us, because “the past won’t just let go.” It mark us; the people we met, even briefly, mark us.

Third, our past changes us. Whatever we go through in life changes who we are; we are not the same person we were ten years ago, and sometimes not even one year ago. When alone, Heartman thinks that,

“Humans perceive the passage of time not as the changing of events along a timeline, but as the switching of phases. Each individual event is not washed away by time to disappear, they remain intact as a perceived phase. That’s what we call the past."

However, that change and maturation, those quote-on-quote “phases” Heartman refers to happen both at an individual level, but also at a societal level. This is the fourth type of connection to the past—large-scale events that mark and change a society forever. I’m recording this in 2024, so the pandemic of 2020-2021 is a clear-cut example.

Death Stranding connects to a poignant event of humanity’s past; World War Two. Granted, Deadman and Sam talk about it in terms of how the deaths may have led to the existence of new BTs, but the important point is that everything that happened during WWII created a breaking point in humanity’s history, and completely changed its workings.

Large-scale war was no longer possible, economical treaties were preferred and arranged, countries had their governments changed forever, entire regions had to be reconstructed, people was displaced, specific social constructs became a reason for alarm. It is not the point of this episode to argue about the goodness or wrongest of such changes, but just to state that a past event changed humanity’s course, and now, even eighty years after, we are still heavily influenced by that past event.

Fifth, and last, we are always someone’s child and, therefore, even if we met our parents or not, their actions bleed into us. In the books, Sam thinks that, “The children always carry the baggage their parents leave behind. Whether it’s debt or fortune, the parents force them to bear it whether they like it or not. Parents liked to preach that this was the baton of life and the succession of history.” We, as someone’s child, are always marked by their decisions—even when that decision may very well have been abandoning someone.

All of these connections to the past are unavoidable. And regardless of the role we played in life, even after death, each of us will live on in someone’s memory, even as a consequence of the simplest action. Perhaps the mother you gave your sit in the train will remember you, or the child you smiled at in the street, or the receptionist you were kind to.

Late in the books, that prepper called Elder dies, and whoever takes over his shelter, tells Sam that, “[…] there was a record of him. Someone knew. He was a part of someone’s memory. And that was all down to the connection you made. And for that, the Elder was grateful.”

Therefore, before we close in, remember that wherever you are, whoever you are… you may have found someone needing that human connection. Your classmates, your siblings and parents, your work colleagues, your neighbours, random strangers you may have crossed in the public transport—and even yourself. We, as humans, need that human connection to make us whole… so please, be kind to others, listen to them, because a single smile or nod, or even a few words can change someone’s life.

That said, as I mentioned before, there are other themes within Death Stranding that I left out for the sake of having a reasonably-sized episode.

  • Some of those were death (of course), and its implications for people… but also for concepts such as ideas or beliefs. Related to it, there are several references to the idealisation of past concepts, and how they convert into beliefs.

  • Likewise, there is so much imagery that references Egyptian myths, especially those surrounding death. Within this, the naming of characters (e.g., Deadman, Heartman, Mama, the Elder, the Geologist, among others) may be a reference to the importance of names for Egyptian mythology.

  • There is also a plethora of references to America’s founding principles, and how it expanded east-to-west. This includes references to what America is as a concept.

  • There is also some commentary pertaining to the gig economy—namely, a labour market characterized by the prevalence of short-term contracts or freelance work.

I’m pretty sure I’m barely scraping at the tip of the iceberg in this episode, so you can see why I couldn’t cover everything. This episode is, so far, the largest I have written. Regardless, feel free to continue the discussion in the episode’s comments, since I always try to answer!

Furthermore, this was my first time discussing videogame novelisations in this podcast, so I hope you have enjoyed it. If you did, like the episode and subscribe or follow on whatever platform you are listening to—it’ll mean a lot to me!

Finally, if you want bite-sized deep-dives, prose analysis, cat photos (because yes, I’m a cat owner), and updates on my own writing, please subscribe to my newsletter. I’ll leave the link in the description.

Thanks for listening, and happy reading~

  1. Death Stranding was nominated to several awards and won a bunch of them. [There is a good list in Wikipedia](Death Stranding - Wikipedia) about it. ↩︎

  2. My review of Death Stranding 01, and review of Death Stranding 02↩︎

  3. The Importance of Connection by Katie Stiles, and medically reviewed by Lori Lawrenz, PsyD. ↩︎

  4. Why We Are Wired to Connect by Gareth Cook, in Scientific American. ↩︎

  5. LatinDictionary.com, and its definition of ‘demens’↩︎

  6. Social Anxiety Disorder: More Than Just Shyness by the National Institute of Mental Health, NIMH. ↩︎

  7. The Construction of Social Reality by philosopher John R. Searle. Non-affiliated link to Amazon Australia. ↩︎