Ghosts That Will Never Go Away
This is an essay about ghosts. It is — incidentally — also about Death Stranding and couriers.
I watched Cameron die seven times. He raced the train, it won. He didn’t see the train, the train (and its sixty tons of unthinking steel) didn’t care. He tried to stop, the train didn’t. I’m not certain which assessment is correct although it doesn’t matter. I rewound the news clip and watched Cameron die for the eighth time. He was younger than me. I didn’t know him well. I could write far more succinctly about someone I did know well. I know he called his dad Big Ho. I know he loved his little sister. I know how proud he was of her. I know he was going to be a designer. I know he is why I became a better designer. I didn’t know him well. I knew him enough to remember every interaction we had. I didn’t know him so well as to have them blur together.
The footage was cut short, just long enough to extrapolate the train and cyclist’s next positions and make the inevitable conclusion (if the accompanying news story were not enough). Of course there is nothing tasteful about it. The footage was included to excite and entrance; we can’t help but stare at disaster. I didn’t watch it that way. I watched it because I knew him and I had to.
I heard about Cameron’s death in the freakishly modern way: Facebook. One day, my feed was filled with his name, again and again from people I barely knew. It was this that led me to his parents’ message, which led me to the news story, which led me to the video in which I saw him die eight times in a row.
Cameron was the last courier I trained before I stopped being a courier. He was the first courier I trained that didn’t quit the first week — maybe I was a bad teacher. He was eager and quick and had a bullheaded happiness that was downright unnerving. I distrust people that appear so happy, I’m not often wrong to. I was wrong about Cameron. Whenever we trained new couriers, the dispatcher would make the day miserable. No efficient routes, all rushes, sometimes they would contrive a fake delivery up a series of vicious hills just to see if the trainee would put up with it. It worked alright. Most people had their minds made up after the first day.
I met Cameron on a Monday morning. My cleats thumped up the carpeted stairs to the dispatch office, I shouted, “Hey,” as I reached the landing.
Two “hey”s. I turned the corner and saw a lanky kid perched on the couch. He had his feet up, his knees reached the top of his head.
“This is Cameron, he’s training today,” the dispatcher shuffled papers around his desk.
Cameron unfolded upwards, his face the spitting image of any first-day-of-school photo. “That’s me. I’m stoked, man.” He looked stoked.
“Yeah? OK.” I grabbed my bag and radio from the closet. I was tired and not prepared for excitement in the morning.
We left the office heading west on Broadway. Bags empty, we scooped up the first parcels of the day. He followed me, I didn’t check on him. Training was mostly there to weed out people who couldn’t keep up with the work. He paid attention to what I did. I never had to teach him something twice. I warmed up to him. We talked in elevators.
We attended the same university, we were in the same faculty. I’d never seen him before. Meeting him flipped the bit, there wasn’t a week I didn’t see him on campus after that.
Before noon on his first day, Cameron followed me through a perpetual construction site and yardsaled into the intersection of State and second South when we hopped the curb. I don’t know if yardsaled is a regional thing, please exchange it for “ate dirt” if that makes more sense to you. I heard him crash. I turned around. This was not a good time to fall over. I grabbed the strap of his bag and dragged him out of traffic then went back and grabbed his sunglasses and radio. He sat on the curb, blood pooling from somewhere and mixing with the oil and auto-guano in the gutter.
“Y’alright?” He grinned wide. I handed him his orange Oakleys. “Yeah that was sick.” I nodded and got back on my bike. I knew he’d come back for the next shift. He was already hooked.
We never talked much outside of work. He made me feel old, like I was lacking some essential energy that got passed around when I was out of the room. I liked him. He was the only happy person I knew at work. We talked racing; he was more into mountain bikes, I preferred the roads We talked design. He was making a backpack for rock climbing photographers and asked for my input. We talked straps and buckles and Velcro and pouches. It was a cool backpack, the kind of thing conjured up for a cyberpunk outdoorsman (I mean, Yoji Shinkawa would probably have looked at it and gone, yeah, that’s a pretty swell rucksack. If he’d ever sold the bag it would have shown up in William Gibson’s next novel).
Like I said, I didn’t know him that well. That much was proven by the fact that I only indirectly heard about his death over five thousand miles away.
After we quit we would still brush by each other. The occasional email asking if we thought this typeface was just right, whatever new design gig one of us was working on. He was good, it made me work harder. I’m glad I was a courier. Why was I a courier?
I was a bicycle courier for a couple years. I aways hurt, I was broke. It was the best job I ever had. It was going to get me killed. I got the job for several reasons: I was reasonably fit; I liked riding bikes; I had bought in to the romance of it, the air of rebellion, pretending to live outside the traditional box. I was also in college, had few marketable skills, and saw the help wanted sign nearly every day. It was a way to get out, make money, and turn my body so thoroughly into jelly that by the end of the day I could collapse into bed without thinking about whether I was happy.
For those who don’t know, being a courier is simple. You collect a parcel at point A and deliver — with some haste — to point B. Usually, a signature is required. The size, shape, weight, and contents of the parcels may vary and it’s up to you to make it work. You’d be surprised how many moving boxes can be Tetrised and Jengad onto a bicycle (Death Stranding made me drool a bit at the prospect of stacking boxes twice or thrice my height). Most deliveries were between law firms who found it easier to hire a greasy kid to lug reams of case files than to have an intern spend the day scanning them. Some law firms objected to these same greasy kids using the main elevators and would call the dispatch office if we ever stepped more than three feet out of the maintenance elevator.
The work never stopped. My company was based in a city that saw several feet of snow each winter. I would leave my apartment at seven AM and remain wet and shivering until I clocked out at seven PM. Here’s a trick: wool socks, plastic bags, more wool socks. My feet would be soaked with sweat instead of auto-grease and snow, but at least it was warm. Surgical gloves under winter gloves keep the heat in. Taking them of at the end of the day smells like room-temperature ground beef. In summer, I had a crisp tan that transitioned so immediately into pure white just above my knees that you might burn a cornea if you stared too long.
We would tell new couriers, with a wink and a nudge, that they needed to follow the rules of the road. Of course, what we really meant was that they needed to follow their rules for the road. There is a lukewarm thrill to a job that only works if you flaunt traffic laws — call it a quiet rebellion — but the net effect is unmistakeable: you feel separate from the traditional system. Not a complete outsider, but a byproduct — a necessary result of commerce’s demand for speed and disinterest in legality. Fortuitously, most cops in the city were either too lazy or too fat to pursue you over minor violations.
I knew every building in the city: front doors, back exits, service elevators, hidden stairwells. I knew every pothole and curb, when to cut the corner, where to hide from underworked bike cops. The topological density of a city is staggering, and learning every nook and cranny makes you feel like a modern cartographer (In Death Stranding, this is accomplished by tapping the R1 button until you learn to read the terrain yourself). Optimised routes would be passed between couriers, building a mental network that’s lines only loosely correlate with roads on the map. Some people were stingy about what they considered “their” routes.
At the end of each day, we’d put our route sheets into the dispatcher’s book, neatly summing up the miles and pounds of work completed. In times of increasing alienation to one’s work, that was a strong tonic that offered concrete proof of effort and contribution.
The real joy was being told — over crackling radio — that someone had called in a Priority Order. These were expensive, and it meant that we had to drop anything else we were doing and collect the order now and it needs to be there five minutes ago. For just above minimum wage, we would thread through traffic, wave towards honking and yelling motorists, and squeeze between oncoming light-rail trains just for the privilege of making a courthouse delivery that an attorney had left to the last minute.
I once received a call about a priority order coming from 2XX South Main. The caller was waiting in the lobby, holding a standard manilla envelope that sealed with a button and length of string. They had a completed order form to go with it.
“Deliver to 14XX South State and have the agreement signed and returned.”
I slipped the envelope into my bag, went out the revolving doors, turned left, and skitched on a red Chevy pickup down State Street.
The delivery address was a squat ranch house with linoleum siding. I leaned my bike against the mailbox and rang the doorbell. A mid-forties man with a wrinkled white button up and beige slacks opened the door.
“Delivery from XXXX & XXXX”
“Oh great, thanks, one second.”
He unwrapped the thread and tipped the manilla envelope into his hand, several stacks of cash plopped out and stared up at me while I tried to avoid eye contact.
He took the envelope and signed his name across the back in sharpie. He handed it back to me.
I returned the signed “agreement”. That didn’t feel one-hundred-percent above-board. But then again, nothing is when money is involved. Every courier has stories like this. Bite-size morsels of other people’s lives. Not too much — just the newspaper headlines for me please — the details would only spoil the story. This is, I think, another facet of the courier addiction. It doesn’t catch everyone, but when it does it settles into the marrow. Death Stranding features a shocking reproduction of this with the curiously blunt stories the bunkered-up preppers divulge every time you make a delivery. Even stranger is that people actually do that. A paralegal that worked the mailroom for a top-floor law firm always felt inclined to explain to me the details of the latest affair she was taking part in. “Yeah,” “Huh,” and, “Wow,” were the most insightful responses I could muster. I mean, she snuck me free drinks from the staff fridge so I guess my listening was the equivalent of a couple quarters.
As a rule, people who came in to apply as a courier would either quit within a week or be there for years. The reasons for this are numerous and simple. You had to be willing — for seven-seventy-five an hour (hey, that’s fifty cents above minimum) — to play chicken with multi-ton motorised steel animals. Most people did the math and realised they could make the same money working at the local deli-chain owned by a refugee from the Bosnian War. Most people also realised that the delis were air-conditioned and they got a free sandwich for lunch. That’s not a bad deal.
Every courier I knew who stuck with it complained constantly, but couldn’t do anything else. They were compelled by something more fundamental than air-conditioning to exchange their bodily safety for the right to ride bicycles for work. If you asked us we could tell you it was a bum deal and you should probably look for work at a coffee shop where you might even get tips. On the other hand, we didn’t have a say in the matter. We had to be couriers, and that was it. There was some greasy, pulsing lump of flesh somewhere in our brains telling us that we weren’t allowed to do anything else, and unless that lump of meat was removed or shaken loose we couldn’t get out.
Like most work, you end up taking it home. You meet other couriers at the closest cheapest bar. One street up, two streets over, the bartender only knew how to make a drink if the ingredients were in the name. Rum and coke, gin and tonic. I saw someone order something that came with a maraschino cherry. The bartender — a woman in her sixties with long, distinctly not-acrylic nails — reached into the jar with her bare hand and stirred the vat, her fingers teasing and pinching the various cherries, “Making sure you get a good one,” she said. I love that bar.
We would sit and divulge the minor (or major) traffic infractions made throughout the day. This wasn’t bragging, we were not sharing stories to impress one another. For the ones I knew, this was therapy, a way of recounting the numerous ways we had almost been run over for seven-seventy-five an hour and laugh about it. It was a shared illusion we worked to maintain: This isn’t that bad, and anyway you have to be fast if you want to make it in time and isn’t it fun to juke traffic and laugh when someone lays on the horn?
One woman I worked with had been there for seven years. Seven! She didn’t show any inclination towards quitting, couldn’t imagine doing anything else. One day, she got run over by a red Ford F150. She was fine, it rolled right over her without leaving a scratch — hallelujah — but she quit the next week. She couldn’t do it anymore, that little grey lump of meat in her brain that kept her in must have been rattled up and reshaped and now she had to get out. The trick was up: that long cultivated apathy for life. That apathy wasn’t always the same shape. Some thought they couldn’t get hurt, others didn’t care if they did, I knew a few didn’t much care one way or the other.
I was getting paid. Not much, but I was a kid, I didn’t think about how much. I felt both within and without, passing through the ecosystem without truly being a part of it. I didn’t want to feel a part of it. I wanted to feel separate.
I took my life into my hands in order to prove how little it meant. Of course I can always beat the train, even laugh at the driver’s panicked horn. And If I don’t beat it? That’s not a question we would ask.
It is, in oh so many ways, the perfect job for those who don’t care if they live or die. You are given the chance to poke at the limits of your ability / mortality. On the second day I trained Cameron I told him, “If you do something stupid at least do it fast,” before weaving between oncoming trains. Our office had a whiteboard listing the fastest route times between common pickup / drop-off locations. It was a game, one that rewarded quick reflexes and keen eyes without a care for the long term, just the next delivery (I still love racing games). Never further than the front door, never more than pleasantries, and in the background all the white noise and rush of the city. It is in many ways the best job I ever had. I would never do it again.
Enough about couriers, let’s talk about porters and Death Stranding.
The world of Death Stranding is one of existential horror. In a crisis, we are meant to pull together, to cooperate, and overcome. Kojima envisions an un-mendable schism that can only drive people apart. Following the death stranding, other humans become an ever-present threat to your own survival — they are time bombs that could detonate at any moment. In doing so, he evokes the deep dread of the cold-war — the fear that at any minute bombs could fall and eradicate civilisation. In Death Stranding, however, the threat is internal. It is the elderly neighbour, it is your own ill child, it is every cough, fever, fall, or accident that could metastasise into a thermonuclear warhead.
For many, the threat posed by other humans becomes too much and so they flee the confines of society, eking out an existence in isolated bunkers. They enter a self-imposed exile that only replaces fear of the other with fear of the self. In total social isolation, the human mind ceases proper function. The myriad systems we have developed for understanding and interpreting social data from our peers become turned against, fuelled solely by the feedback loop of our own thoughts and feelings. In this way, there is no escape from the ongoing apocalypse, only an inevitable slide into nothing. The end times have come, we’re just kicking around until the final bang.
The nature of the crisis has created a seismic shift in the fabric of our communities, and like many others, Sam Porter Bridges finds himself adrift, unable to move forward or go back, the shore equally unreachable in every direction.
His own past is irretrievable, lost to the void-out explosion that took his wife, child, and home. The survivors did not find sympathy in their hearts, instead making Sam the locus of their fear and anger. Had he caused it? Could he have prevented it? These are questions Sam asks himself as well. To complicate matters, Sam is perfectly unable to die (or rather, stay dead), a fact that engenders deep antipathy in the surrounding world. He finds himself forced to keep on living, unable to overcome his loss while simultaneously being vilified for his failure to prevent the calamity. His own mind and body vehemently reject the world; he develops a severe case of Aphenphosmphobia which manifests as an extreme fear of physical touch and emotional connection, going so far as to result in bruising his skin at the lightest touch of another person. I would guess that this condition only developed after the death of his wife and child — a psychosomatic manifestation of his newfound fear of attachment and connection.
Robbed of the chance to die, what is left? His phobia would make living in the tightly regulated and claustrophobic safe cities nearly impossible, so he takes to the wilds. He becomes a porter, a ghost, never anything more than a holographic spectre that makes silent deliveries to isolated shelters inhabited by people waiting to die. I’ve seen a lot of people say that Sam is the bravest UPS driver of the end of the world, but I don’t get it. I mean, he’s got a certifiably sweet backpack. — I’ve never seen a UPS driver with a backpack. I would have killed for a bag like that when I was a courier. I spent three-hundred-and-fifty dollars on an indestructible bomb shelter of a bag. I still have that bag years later and it barely looks worn. The first time we see him, he is on a bike. That you can later drive a truck shaded closely to the notorious UPS brown is more of an Easter egg than anything else. I said that I would never be a courier again. If someone offered me the job of trekking across Iceland with a custom jumpsuit, extendable scaffolding bag, and a gorgeous electric trike I would say yes and then fall dead on the spot from excitement. Point is, Sam is a courier — a good one. Too good for his own good.
Rather than confront his past he chooses to drift, performing a task that he excels at but brings him no fulfilment. Sam does not work as a porter, he becomes one, makes it the only way in which he defines himself. The goals are tangible, the rules are clear, his work takes little thought and he can push himself to exhaustion every day. He forbids his mind time to think about more than the next footfall. He didn’t need to choose this life: every other avenue was closed to him. One foot in front of the other. One more delivery. He only has to think about the route over the next hill, then the next. He exists solely in the next moment and escapes the endless dreadful possibilities of the past and future without having to anchor himself to anything in the here-and-now.
He purposefully chooses a vocation on the outskirts of society that never brings him closer to another person than the front door. He exists in the spaces between, a beautiful but empty self-imposed purgatory.
This is the part where I say that porters and couriers are the same. Let’s not be so dramatic, no courier I knew was ever so explicitly on the run from themselves. Usually fewer oil-wet umbilical ghosts. For so many of us though it was a way to put the world on hold. I did it because I didn’t know what else to do at a time in my life when doing anything felt equally absurd. Couriers I knew did it because it was the only thing that kept them acutely aware of and entranced by their own mortality. It is a job that demands you do not think about the long term.
There was a contingent of veterans that came and went through the years. One woman I was lucky to work with had first picked up her radio in the eighties. Like visiting distant family, she would drift back to the office every few years and work a brief stint in between other jobs. She’d bought a house. It had a wine cooler basement. She didn’t need the money, she needed the work. Some pricking of her brain brought her back time and again until she had her fix.
It’s an addictive job that almost demands it become your lifestyle. It has an allure of frontiers and rebellions. It is Something To Do in lieu of Something Else. It can be an extended indecision. For Sam Porter Bridges, it could on forever. He’s perfect for the work — no attachments, no worries, no death. That he is forced to carry a Bridge Baby — a literal baby in a jar that can spot the terrifying ghosts that stalk the remnants of the USA — is almost a perverse joke. First he lost his own child, now he has to carry another designated as equipment that will have to be disposed of once it has outlived its usefulness.
Sam is mirrored by Heartman, a scientist using his every free moment to search for his deceased wife and daughter. Before I speak about Heartman I need to make one thing clear about Death Stranding: it is not subtle. Heartman has a heart-shaped heart caused by a unique heart condition and he lives overlooking a heart-shaped lake. He stops his heart every twenty-one minutes and uses the time to search for his lost wife and child. This process is accelerating his degenerative heart condition. He is literally dying of love.
The obvious response to this, the gut instinct twitch that somehow places subtlety on a pedestal, is to smirk and muse, “That’s a little on the nose.” It’s snide and proud: you’re so smart, you don’t need to be fed the author’s intent like a baby strapped in to a high chair. Only dumb babies would need to have things explained so clearly to them and you’re not a dumb baby, you’re a smart boy, you’ve played Bioshock. Subtlety is overrated. I’ve seen people think Rage Against the Machine is an apolitical band. Buddy, there aren’t enough Gerber brand baby foods in the world to shovel into someone’s mouth if they heard Bulls on Parade and thought it was just a catchy tune. There’s subtle and then there’s subtle. Subtle isn’t bad, but when most people say subtle, they really mean they like that something made them feel smart. Subtle writing is usually akin to a video game. It’s an artificial challenge. It was only put there in the first place to give you the thrill of figuring it out. Guess what, almost every single video game or novel wants you to figure it out, to get to the end, to solve the puzzle. They are designed so as to carefully tease you through so you can get to the end and smirk about how clever you are for “getting it”. Good job, you understood something that the author carefully arranged each and every piece of to helpfully triangulate the exact position of the story’s meaning. You’d probably also be able to follow a paint-by-numbers book.
Let’s stop complimenting things for being subtle when we mean approximately anything else. It’s a nonsense word that’s mostly used as a stick to beat down anything considered too low brow. “It’s a good story but lacking in subtlety.” If you’ve ever said that you have my permission to vomit in self-reflection. Nine times out of ten when people say something was subtle they mean it made them feel clever. Subtlety is the art of pandering to your audience by making references to things they probably know in a way that makes them feel like they put together a puzzle. That’s OK, it feels good to be pandered to, but don’t mistake feeling clever for being clever. If you think something is subtle then it’s probably just hidden by layers of cultural artefacts that you’re lucky enough to have encountered. People who eulogise over how subtle something is probably also put a lot of stock in IQ tests. Nice, you knew the things anyone would know if anyone grew up with your cultural background. None of us are better than any of us because of it. Stories can be rich and nuanced and clever and thrilling without ever having to rely on obfuscation through arcane references (OK, but usually they’re not even obscure. If you know them you know and if you don’t you don’t and that’s all there is to it. Some people think Ready Player One has niche references despite being an amalgam of every pop-culture sci-fi and fantasy pastiche of the past thirty years).
Some people say that subtlety is important because it lets the reader / viewer / player / whatever-er experience the sublime joy of figuring something out without being explicitly told. We need to back that notion up and keep going until it falls off a cliff. If your story is only good because it lets people “figure it out themselves” then it’s not good. Again, that’s pandering — the art of making someone feel clever without making them any more clever than they were in the first place. If the story is solid it can (and will!) survive the erasing of its subtlety. This is why people say Dark Souls shouldn’t have difficulty options. They think having them devalues the experience. “It’s a game about struggling,” they exclaim. An easy option would completely ruin the game. Well, uh, first of all I don’t see what’s wrong with letting people ruin a game for themselves. Of course, for a lot of folks, it’s not that it ruins someone else’s experience, but that an easy option would ruin their experience. There is a cult of elitism around Dark Souls: once you’ve beaten it, you’re a Real Gamer. You’re in the club. You Got Good. If the experience was easier, then that club might not seem so exclusive. It’s silly though, I mean, have you ever played any game ever? You do know that they’re carefully crafted experiences designed to be overcome? They are, objectively, fake obstacles because there is always a solution and you can always walk away. Overcoming a challenge that was made for you to beat it isn’t a wild thing. An easier difficulty only makes bare what every Real Gamer fears in their trembling bones: none of this matters. None of this is real. And that’s OK, because games are both sweet and awesome and you don’t need your ego stroked by card-carrying Git-Gooders to enjoy them. (Also it has to be mentioned that if the Dark Souls should have an easy option article instead said that Dark Souls should have a hard mode then the volume of complaints would never have even reached gentle murmuring. My only evidence for this conjecture is the group of people who think it is “cute” that Dark Souls is an easier version of Demon’s Souls and are not treated like toenail clippings for it.) “Subtlety” is too often a way of stratifying your audience by rooting your story in such a particular cultural milieu that it becomes indecipherable to outsiders. Like gaming difficulties, what’s just right for one person is going to be trivial for others and insurmountable for many more. Subtlety can be great, but don’t pretend that it’s an intrinsic good.
A good story isn’t good solely because it is subtle and Dark Souls isn’t only good because it’s hard. People have made a sport of ultra-fast no-hit runs of Dark Souls where they streak through the game, laughing as their underwear-clad meat puppet makes dirt-clowns of all the bosses. Even when it’s easy, the game is still good. Wow, what a roundabout way of saying Death Stranding is not subtle and that’s OK.
Returning to Heartman. He has lost his wife and daughter in a terrorist attack that should have claimed his life as well. He was undergoing surgery when the power went out. He was on the beach — a metaphysical in-between for life and death — with everyone else that had been vaporised or crushed or burned by the explosion. Most importantly, he was with his family. He saw them walking out into the waves and would have joined them if not for the hospital’s backup generator and the work of the surgeons who revived him. Heartman was dragged kicking and screaming back from the brink of death, robbed of the chance to follow his loved ones into whatever came next. As a scientist, Heartman knows that individuals possess unique beaches. It follows then that if humans have unique beaches they may also have unique afterlives. He is driven mad by one question: what happens when he dies? Will he find his wife and daughter again? Will he be eternally alone, trapped in a solitary purgatory? These questions spur his sojourns into death. Over and over again he dies controlled deaths that allow him to explore the boundaries of the other side, but he never gets closer to an answer. After all, he can only go so far and without truly dying he will never know what lies further down the beach.
Answering his question would require doing the one thing that he fears more than any other, but he is also fighting time. The constant deaths and revivals are further wearing on his beleaguered, malformed heart. Heartman can’t keep doing this forever. He’s just stalling. While Sam is a man who wishes he could die while being unable to do so, Heartman is terrified of death while diving in again and again and again. Their traumas are similar, yet opposite while being intrinsically linked to the past.
Each and every character of death stranding is a person whose traumas have come to define them (mind you, they have not allowed their traumas to define them. No, people aren’t complicit in their traumas).
Fragile is a woman living in the wilds as a courier, much like Sam. She tried her best to bring some semblance of normalcy to the stranded wasteland and was betrayed. Her body is irreparably damaged and her name stained by its association with the terrorists who tricked and used her. She is feared and vilified, not unlike Sam, but she maintains hope. Fragile’s refrain, “I’m Fragile but I’m not that (f)Fragile,” is said several times in the game. Sometimes she puts a French pronunciation on the second “fragile”. What does that even mean? It’s corny as heck and boy do I love corn. She is sensitive but not weak. She’s her own person, not the terrorist others believe her to be. Yet in the aftermath of the end of the world it seems to be nothing more than a small comfort, a pleasant lie told by a dead-woman-walking.
Kojima (and Shuyo Murata and Kenji Yano) could have told the stories of a people trapped by their own pasts in a world that has accepted its decline into the inevitable. And yet it is hopeful. The journey is hard. Impossible. Necessary.
The message is clear: You cannot go around. You have to go through. This is true for the player as well as the characters. This is a platforming game where each footfall feels just as impactful as a jump across a spinning saw à la Super Meat Boy. No character gets a free pass to Go. No character gets left behind. Sam, ever so slowly, ever so surely, allows emotion and attachment into his life again. He is first forced and then later chooses to live for himself and those he cares about rather simply exist in a slow suicide. Heartman comes to accept that the unanswerable questions are truly unanswerable — he has to embrace ignorance and let go. Die-Hardman, a man torn between competing loyalties all his life, quite literally drops the mask and exposes the raw self underneath. He has never lived as himself for himself. It won’t be an easy transition, but it will be better. Fragile clears her name and confronts her abuser, proving that she is in fact more resilient than her name or her past.
None of them are freed from their traumas. The things that shaped them will always shape them, but they become agents in their own growth rather than stagnating in the roles forced upon them.
Our pasts are burdens, make no mistake. We have a wake of ghosts formed from each and every decision and indecision of our lives and they weigh us down. We can choose how to carry the weight. Sam carried his BB across America and back, but only in the very end did he hold her.
And here I am five-thousand-two-hundred miles from something like home and I’m carrying everything a lanky chance-encounter ever told me and in my ever-ungrateful life I never even thought to think about what I was carrying until its epicentre was erased by physics and timing.
I showed him an infographic I was stumbling over once, and he told me, “You know, I think it would be better if….” and that has been laser etched on the back sides of my eyelids. Everything I do I remind myself to think about that “if” and see if it really would make it better. And somehow what he said made me prickle in my life. It made me so uncomfortable, that ever present skulking “if”, that I first moved across the ocean to a country where I did speak the language and then later across less water to a country where I didn’t (yet) speak the language. I still couldn’t get rid of him. I could have been a better friend if.
If I had any critique to offer Death Stranding it would be of the BTs — beached things — ghosts that are tethered to our world and desperately seek the touch of everyone they left behind. They are lost, aggressive, and tireless. That’s not what ghosts are. Ghosts are ghosts, and they are, of course, dead, and we are left behind with the knowledge that when they left they took something as surely as they gave something back and we will never — until we die — get back what they have stolen from us and we can never — as long as we live — repay what they have given us. When they go they cut new forms into us that we cannot immediately recognise. We are left to discern the edges and establish new patterns within. We are shocked to find that in their wake we no longer understand ourselves. It is humbling (horrifying) to perceive the power that others have over us. The only ghosts left are the ones we construct. The only BTs in Heartman’s lab are those cast from plaster. The ghosts that haunt him are gone, it is only the hole left by their passage that causes him pain.
There is one other fact about ghosts: They will never go away. We each carry many people inside of us and they will never ever go away. We take this for granted when it is possible to mediate this through physical distance; we reconcile the tension between ghosts and bodies by allowing them to share proximity with us. I knew Cameron for six months. I have thought about him every day for six years. I think to myself, “It would be better if….” We are all so bound. I think about his parents. I think about his little sister. I think about every sister that has lost a proud brother. I think about how much he did with so little time. I think about my time that is always running out and I can never give back enough but I have to try. You have to try.