In Andrei Tarkovsky’s classic 1979 sci-fi movie Stalker, three men embark on an expedition into a mysterious, cordoned-off area referred to as the Zone. Their journey starts in a small town overshadowed by a giant power plant presented in suitably dreary monotone. “The world is ruled by cast-iron laws, and it’s insufferably boring,” one of the party members says before the trip. As the trio venture into the restricted region, such rules begin to mutate before their eyes, accompanied by a shift to vivid color and lush, overgrown vegetation. At first, these changes appear small, and subtle. “The flowers are blooming again but they don’t smell for some reason,” notes the Stalker who guides the Writer and Professor through the odd, ruinous space. Deeper in the Zone, time stretches into surprising shapes while space loops in illogical ways, disorientating and amazing the explorers by equal measure.
Tarkovsky, adapting Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s 1972 novel Roadside Picnic, created a Zone in which possibilities literally expanded, and slippery ideas of faith, guilt, and desire could be contemplated. Its opening poses two origins for the elusive region: a meteorite or aliens of the “cosmic abyss.” Not that it really matters; the Zone is a vessel for the fears, anxieties, and hopes of those who visit. Other Zone-like constructions with similarly obscure origins have emerged, like the pristine Area X in Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach trilogy and Alex Garland’s subsequent adaptation, 2018’s Annihilation. In those works, ecological beauty and horror coexist while time and space take on their own psychedelic properties, posing fundamental questions about the nature of life itself to its own group of travellers. Bleaker is HBO’s recent Chernobyl whose entirely man-made Zone is the result of the all-too-real 1986 nuclear disaster, but its tragic story also pulses with the energy of similarly upended truths. Comprehensible physics, not to mention the flesh of victims, disintegrate in its moment of cataclysm. Reality’s very fabric is shredded.
Death Stranding, the latest video game from Metal Gear creator Hideo Kojima, effectively turns the entire United States into the Zone. As a space, it is more beautiful than Tarkovsky’s dream-like realm but less fantastical than Vandermeer’s teeming Area X. Green moss carpets its world, sometimes transforming abruptly into red, dust-soaked terrain; dark rock scrawls across the landscape, like the topsoil has been stretched too thinly. Kojima describes it as a “newborn Earth,” but look to Iceland, Greenland, or the Scottish Hebrides and you’ll find such places already exist in fruitful albeit precarious abundance. Still, Death Stranding’s future America is a site of death as much as renewal. What the game calls “voidouts” — think mini-nuclear explosions — have literally and metaphorically fractured the country, leaving it a series of isolated, walled cities while barely visible ghosts (called “beached things,” or BTs) haunt much of the land in between. The very atmosphere is suffused with spectral afterlife, amounting to a Zone-like change as profound as it is inescapable.
Players control Sam Porter Bridges (voiced and portrayed by Norman Reedus), a delivery person ferrying packages back and forth between the country’s remaining cities and scattered outposts. At the game’s outset, he’s ushered into the fold of the United Cities of America, an ambitious administrative project to “make American whole again,” and directed to connect settlements using the “chiral network,” a trippy kind of internet which enables instantaneous holographic communication and 3D printing of crucial goods. On the face of it, the mission is simple, not dissimilar to the game-like set-ups of both Stalker and Annihilation whose characters embark on the oldest narrative device: the quest. Over the course of its 40-plus hours, Death Stranding’s grueling journey poses questions of ecological and societal collapse, love, and even the cost of war, certainly more than its endgame can ever hope to answer.
Sam’s own quest begins at Central Knot City, a fictitious metropolis (of sorts) on America’s east coast. I push him forward through the deserted streets (because everyone lives underground), and out into the panoramic world. Everything is big and Sam is small, the camera pulling back from his hunched body to both drive home the point and ensure we notice the vastness of the world Kojima and his team has created. At first, the landscape appears almost normal, apart from the eerie ghosts, but strange anomalies begin to crop up. I come across pink, coral-looking specimens seemingly transplanted from the ocean. Hovering above are strange, grub-like creatures called “cryptobiotes,” which upon ingestion help Sam and another character called Fragile (Léa Seydoux) stave off the effects of bizarre meteorological conditions. “Timefall,” a type of corrosive rain, rapidly ages anything it touches. Crows unable to escape its downpour drop dead from the sky, old in an instant.
Unnatural phenomena in this world is the result of the game’s titular world-breaking event, the “death stranding,” whose origin, like the Zones of Stalker and Annihilation, remains tantalizingly out of reach. Like the climate crisis, we can only really see its effects, including the worldwide manifestation of “chiralium,” a substance which soaks both the air and bedrock, and helps power the “chiral network” Sam is establishing. Chiralium also causes acid rain, the proliferation of the hostile BTs, and powers the wondrous technology (designed by longtime Kojima collaborator Yoji Shinkawa) enabling humanity’s ongoing survival. In the game, it’s described in terms comparable to “antimatter” but the substance also resembles another vital cosmic element: carbon.
Chiralium appears in its scariest, most heart-pounding form during encounters with BTs. After failing to evade the ominously hanging ghosts, an oily gloop floods my screen. Rasping bodies pull me into its tar-black center and I hurtle hundreds of meters towards the “Catcher,” a Lovecraftian-esque lion with mutant tentacles flailing where its mane should sit. Yet more viscous black stuff spills across my television, flattening trees, moss, and anything it comes into contact with. Derelict apartment blocks rise out of the dark substance like a nightmarish inflection of Stanley Robinson’s cli-fi thriller New York 2140 whose own future Manhattan is flooded by violent rising waters. I pummel the supernatural animal with a flurry of grenades and bullets made from Sam’s own blood until eventually, it collapses in a heap and transforms into a mound of crystallized chiralium, a precious, gold-like resource. The inky matter seeps away and a sudden calm washes over the world, all except for the thousands of dead fish which lie upturned on the ground: shocking, still, and eerily quiet.
Extinction courses everywhere throughout Death Stranding. From the literally named Geologist and Paleontologist, we learn of five previous extinction events, including the death of the dinosaurs, while survivors in its apocalyptic America are living through their own extinction event, the sixth in total. It feels like a distorted reflection of our own ongoing “biological annihilation,” but Kojima’s apocalypse is perpetrated by a personified force known simply as Extinction Entity. Like Stalker and even Annihilation, ambiguity is sustained through occasionally blunt symbolism, invoking the language and iconography of environmental crisis without offering direct equivocations. Cars appear half-submerged in earth, their rusting skeletons overtaken by resurgent nature, while highways, like those found in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, slowly crumble into nothing.
“The Zone is a very complicated system of traps, and they’re all deadly,” says the titular character in Stalker. While not all of Kojima’s reborn America is life-threatening, much of it is certainly mission-ending, which is one and the same in video games. The game’s meat comes from hiking across its immaculately rendered environments — from towering mountains to soft grassy plains and gushing rivers — in a loop whose unhurried metabolism, much like Tarkovsky’s “slow cinema,” is pleasingly relaxing. Scrambling across the terrain, reconfiguring Sam’s weight, and problem solving routes becomes an exercise in meditative mindfulness.
More than once, my brain is emptied by just focusing on the path, carefully reading the environment like I was walking through the much realer and desolate Cairngorms national park in Scotland. I tell Sam to chug on his Monster energy drink (one of the game’s bizarre branding stunts) and before long tell him to stop for a pee. A toadstool sprouts where I take aim, which makes me think of the matsutake mushroom that somehow thrives in environmental adversity.
Survivalism isn’t new for Kojima. 2004’s Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater pits the gruff action hero, Snake, against dense Russian jungle and a series of nature-themed foes with allegorical names. The Pain controls hornets, The Fear resembles a lizard, The Fury plays with fire, and The End, an elderly wheelchair-bound sniper, is sustained by water and sunlight alone because, wait — this is genuinely cool — his body is photosynthetic. It’s worth noting how deeply, weirdly gendered the game depicts just staying alive: In order to replenish his stamina and health, Snake chews through snakes, crocodiles, and whatever else he can find in the Russian wilds. In Kojima’s eyes, pitting oneself against nature is a solitary, alpha-male activity, much like the YouTube survivalists of recent years. Death Stranding, too, is a man’s world first and foremost, less obviously sexist than Kojima’s previous work yet one which still fails to imagine women as anything other than supporting roles. Certainly, it’s a far cry from the all-female team which charted the depths of Area X.
Masculinity underpins Death Stranding’s closest video game analogue, 2007’s S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Shadow of Chernobyl, a bleak first-person survival adventure which fuses Strugatsky’s A Roadside Picnic with the 1986 nuclear disaster. Players control yet another nameless character, the Marked One, in a Zone hostile with gravitational anomalies, ravaged wildlife, and stalkers competing for scraps of loot. Its environment, like Area X, is full of what cultural theorist Mark Fisher describes as “that which does not belong,” the defining feature of the “weird,” a feeling which permeates cultural texts including Lovecraft and the new weird fiction movement (spearheaded by Southern Reach author Vandermeer himself). But Death Stranding’s Zone also resonates with what Fisher terms the “eerie,” a feeling which manifests in “landscapes partially emptied of the human,” like 2005’s Shadow of the Colossus and its single avatar grappling with a mysterious land. If Death Stranding’s hiking conveys a lonesome eeriness, it results from an alien weirdness, each aspect reminding us how fundamentally altered this place is.
As I traipse through Death Stranding’s lonely world, the threat of monstrous terror never really disappears. But signs of restoration begin to take root. Roads dripping with oily chiralium sprawl across the difficult terrain. Bridges and zip-lines constructed by unseen players materialize, too, because the game is designed for other worlds to bleed into mine. (The chiral network is a metaphorical internet, but it’s also enabled by the actual internet.) Trucks and bikes litter the environment alongside holographic emojis dispensing surprisingly affecting motivational soundbites; “keep on keeping on,” dispensed by a clenched fist, still echoes through my head. Death Stranding’s Zone becomes less eerie as it starts to fill up. The collective spirit Kojima fosters reminds me of the writer and artist group known as the Dark Mountain project. Its 2009 manifesto Uncivilization writes of the need for figurative “bearers, sherpas, guides, fellow adventurers” in a time of ecocide. “We need to rope ourselves together for safety,” it continues. But the text also refers to “the myth of civilization” and changes more radical than Death Stranding’s mammoth rebuilding operation.
Ironically, ecological crisis and its rising death toll has imparted the Zone a new, twenty-first century lease of life. While Stalker and the Chernobyl disaster emerged during the throes of Soviet crisis and the regime’s declining power in the 1970s and ‘80s, the Southern Reach trilogy and Death Stranding function as spaces to reflect on nature’s death, humanity’s destructive potential, and, crucially, our resolve for survival. Crisis generates new questions where old knowledge fails; the Zone offers us a space to work through the tumult. But just as Chernobyl made the fictional Zone frighteningly real, it feels like more real-life sites are appearing as a result of environmental crisis, albeit in mutated forms. Water contamination in Flint, deforestation in Brazil, and even a toxic lithium lake in China offer just a few scenarios where nature, and by extension reality, cease to function predictably.
In the game’s latter stages, Kojima — perhaps revelling in the creative freedom he’s gained since departing from Konami, the gaming studio where he worked for most of his life before a bitter falling out in 2015 — mulls over the biggest concepts of life, death, and even faith. The finale is ambitious, but less emotionally resonant than the ideas which unfold gradually through Sam’s relationship with BB, the game’s other main character. Short for “bridge baby,” and functioning as a link between the human and ghost world, Sam develops a fondness for the incubated infant strapped to his abdomen, which helps him detect BTs in the wild. However bleak, scary, celestial, or downright mundane Death Stranding’s eco-horror becomes, the game is anchored by their connection. At first glance, Sam and BB symbolize the rule-breaking weirdness of Kojima’s Zone where grown-ups rely on strange, bottled babies for survival. But at their core, the duo represent intergenerational responsibility and Sam’s own earthly duty to his dependent. Death Stranding’s most fundamental, surprisingly heartfelt question asks us what we want to pass on: a world of life and possibility, or a darker future entirely.