Runnin’ Up That Hill- Death Stranding and the Absurd Hero

Wow, what a year, huh? One thing happened, and then suddenly another thing, then wham-o– even more things. The things never stop coming, do they?

Speaking of “things,” let’s talk about Death Stranding. Even if it is sOo 2019 and you didn’t even play it.

“Remember two things: i. that everything has always been the same, and keeps recurring, and it makes no difference whether you see the same things recur in a hundred years or two hundred, or in an infinite period; ii. that the longest-lived and those who will die soonest lose the same thing. The present is all that they can give up, since that is all you have, and what you do not have you cannot lose.”

– Marcus Aurelius, Meditations.

In the Playstation 4/PC game Death Stranding, you take on the role of Sam Porter Bridges- a delivery man trying to connect a post-apocalyptic world via (what’s essentially) the internet. He’s getting people to trust each other again; making a cold and desolate world feel a little more unified. There’s also ghosts and terrorists, you carry around a baby in a bottle, and another apocalypse may be on the horizon. There’s a lot going on here, but that’s not what this game is known for.

Jokingly referred to as a “walking simulator,” did you think you should just be able to just walk in a game without ever tripping and falling on your face? Well, you’ve been playing your games wrong. In Death Stranding, literally every step matters. So you’ll need to take the weight of your deliveries, your boots, the terrain, and other factors into account to make it to your destination.

Plenty of people who played this game gave up due to sheer boredom. What bored them out of playing this? Well, all the walking, of course.

There’s any number of videos featuring Sam simply walking, running, and riding across the map to make it to…the end of the map. There are various ways to travel, but eventually, you’ll come across an incline too steep or a gap too wide for your vehicle to traverse and you’re back to walking again. And a lot of people hate that. For good reason, if we’re all being honest.

But that prolonged, isolated difficulty is the point. Life is hard. What are you gonna do about it?

A distinguished story out of Greek mythology features the clever and deceitful King Sisyphus of Corinth; whose arrogance got the better of him and he was punished by the gods after his death. He was condemned to roll a boulder up a hill only to have it roll back down to repeat the process all over again- for eternity. His fate often represents the actions of anyone whose undertakings are strenuous and fruitless.

Sisyphus by Titian, 1548-1549

French philosopher Albert Camus developed the philosophy of the absurd in his essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus” wherein he uses the story of the censured king to illustrate the apparent pointlessness of existence and how strange it is that so many of us can face the day with the knowledge that we will- sooner or later– die. Maybe not this second, but it can come at any point. And to not give into this knowledge by breaking down or choosing to end our lives altogether is a kind of miracle in and of itself. Were our default mode of living to focus on nothing but the inevitable end, what kind of life would that be? A deer-in-headlights look until lights went out permanently.

In Sisyphus’ story, the final straw for the gods was after Sisyphus chained Death himself, so that no one would ever have to die. It might have seemed like a good idea at the time, but after being freed by the gods, Death’s first victim was- of course- Sisyphus. Whups.

In Death Stranding, your character Sam, is a Repatriate; meaning if he dies, he can come back to life. When you die, you go to a different dimension in the form of a beach. Everyone has their own, but Sam has the unique ability to go back and forth.

This used to look weird.

In most games, death isn’t part of the story. You’re going to die, but restarting is just a given rather than an aspect of any thematic element. And given that death and re-birth ultimately have the same consequence here that it would in say, Super Mario Bros., a similar effect is achieved, and death is trivialized. You’re coming back no matter what.

When you fall off a cliff (and you will at some point), you’re more annoyed about the possible damage done to your cargo than your own body. Because your body will make it no matter how many times you die- but that cargo is precious. The Junkman, the Doctor, the Photographer- they’re all waiting on you.

“The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

-Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and other Essays

In Death Stranding’s uncaring world, once you reach your destination and offload a few hundred kilos of “special underwear” for the Veteran porter (the term used for delivery men) or maybe take medicine to The Old Man, you may feel as though you’re ready to toss the controller into a trashcan after having frivolously-wasted forty-five minutes going from one location to the next. Who cares about these people? I want to kill things.

No, really- I get it.

But you’re actually ready for more.

Seconds ago, you needed a break. You were dirty, tired, and supplies were low. But after taking a shower, a nap, and a dump (I’m serious), now you’re ready to strap on a new pair of boots, load up any available cargo you can carry, and head out for another lonely trip to help further the goal of “reconnecting America;” a message that became even more relevant just a few months after this game’s November 2019 release.

None of this is to tell someone “Oh, you didn’t understand it” to anyone who didn’t finish the game or never wanted to start. In fact, the most accurate summary of this game is as follows- “This isn’t for everyone, but I loved it.”

How can you explain it to someone to someone who just isn’t interested in this?

The answer is you can’t. Much like you can’t genuinely pass on your enjoyment in life to someone who just isn’t willing to work at something if there’s not a quick and easy solution to a problem they haven’t even properly diagnosed.

It’s strange that even in describing this game, a person who loves it has to acknowledge how easily unappealing it could all sound. But when you play it for yourself, and you’re making your way up cliffs or through canyons and rivers, you just want to keep going. Why? Because the recipients of the deliveries were so excited to see me? Because as Sam, I really want to “reconnect America”? I don’t know. Sure. That could be part of it. Mostly, I just liked doing it.

You should see the looks on some people’s faces when you talk to them about this game when they already “know” it’s pointless and boring. How can you like a game that isn’t about scoring points, winning or killing everything around you? You just walk? You deliver pizzas? You like doing that?

“Man stands face to face with the irrational. He feels within him his longing for happiness and for reason. The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world.”

-Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and other Essays

Have you ever had a job when at some point, a co-worker confusingly asks you something along the lines of “Do you actually like this job?”

It’s not an honest question, but one with the intention of gaining the social upperhand; wherein they ascertain superiority over you for believing that while you are content and perhaps even seem excited to be in the workplace, they look around and see this place for what it actually is- a grave you’ve dug for yourself. And you’re smiling about it? You’re overworked, underpaid, and the grass is definitely greener on the other side. How can you possibly be okay with this? You’re deluding yourself. They’re not, but you definitely are.

Or are you? You’ve got bills and a number of responsibilities. There’s the “things” the material universe is pushing on you and that’s much different than the problems you unintentionally create for yourself. Maybe you don’t even like the job but don’t know where you’ll go if you leave. Maybe you hated the idea of working there when you even applied. You’ve got problems.

But that’s not going to stop you from treating the job like it’s what you live for while you’re there. Because if you treat the job like it’s as frustrating as it feels all the time (as some are intent on doing), what does that say about you? And can you live like that?

Every second of what you do could be clouded by the thoughts that you’re losing precious seconds at a time to make pennies doing something you hate.

Some think like this, and we see the result. We hear the result. They never stop complaining about their results; their way of doing things. They’ll do better when they have a “real” job.

Higgs, one of the main antagonists of Death Stranding would seem to fall into this line of thinking. He has the knowledge that another apocalypse is just around the corner and the only thing that gives him meaning is to have a major hand in helping speed up the process. Nothing means anything- so acknowledge that and die. Hate your job, but stay there being miserable. Be disgusted by a friend, but never say anything to them and keep your frustration a secret.

“Game over, man!”

But Sisyphus wasn’t sentenced to stay at the foot of the hill with the boulder. He has to push. He has to work. He has to struggle. And so do you.

It seems the way to be a satisfied Sisyphus is to recognize the possibility of futility while treating your situation as though it will lead to a higher purpose. The irony and even absurdity comes into play upon realizing that living as though there’s a higher purpose is a kind of higher purpose. Sisyphus can’t escape rolling that boulder up that hill like Sam delivering those packages. Like you doing…whatever it is you do.

Someone with less competence wouldn’t make it where you are now. That’s how you made it here, no matter how close to the base you are. And someone with greater competence isn’t here. Just you.

So will you take a step? How about another? Can you make it up that hill? Would you even try? Persistence in the face of absolute struggle is necessary for anything close to resembling a fulfilling life. So you may as well make the attempt. You’ve got nothing better to do.

“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”

-Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

See you on the beach.

2 Responses to “Runnin’ Up That Hill- Death Stranding and the Absurd Hero”

  1. cyborgJimja Says:

    Where my brain goes next from your point is to contemplate what day to day occurrences or social patterns lead people to arrive at this “when I get a real job” perspective.

    I imagine it’s something that could be explored indefinitely. Since it seems to have been a prevalent phenomena long before this awesome(imo) walking simulator came along.

    All in all, the pattern strikes me as a loss of ‘presence’.

    I think ‘being present’ is one of the more spiritually healthy qualities an individual can possess… So I sincerely see value here.

    Anyways, thanks for sharing your thoughts!

    I always look forward to reading them.

    • McCutcheon Says:

      The question of where “When I get a real job” ultimately comes from probably falls into the “nurture vs nature” question. Were they raised to be lazy and/or bitter? Or were they just going to be that way regardless of their upbringing? In any case, yeah, “loss of presence” is a good way to put it. You’re either too in-the-moment or you have your head in the clouds thinking of how things will be even though you’re not working toward it. Thanks for readin.

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