Death Stranding: what can the play that inspired it tell us about Kojima's game?

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Image credit: Kojima Productions

“In this short story, Abe states that the first tool mankind created is a stick,” Death Stranding creator, Hideo Kojima, told IGN in 2016. The story in question was The Man Who Turned Into A Stick, a one-act play by Kōbō Abe, which Kojima cites as the inspiration for his eagerly anticipated but still mystery-shrouded upcoming game.

“The stick is the first tool that mankind created to put distance between himself and bad things – to protect himself,” Kojima went on. “He states that the second tool mankind created is a rope. A rope is a tool used to secure things that are important to you.”

"A stick remains a stick, no matter how it is used...."

The Man Who Turned Into A Stick

When humanity discovered fire using sticks and stones, the world advanced a million aeons. Food could be cooked, caves could be warmed, and the darkness could be illuminated by meticulously-tamed flame. But fire became as much of a weapon as it was a tool. For every blazing hearth, infernos rained on some unfortunate village, doomed to be consumed by the twisting tongues of the sweltering blaze.

As a character in the play explains: “In short, the stick is the root and source of all tools … A stick remains a stick, no matter how it is used.... You might almost say that the etymology of the word faithful is a stick.” 

Sticks and stones

Image credit: Kojima Productions

Image credit: Kojima Productions

The Man Who Turned Into A Stick pits a couple of agents from Hell against a pair of hippies discussing whether a stick fell on or was thrown at them. Unbeknownst to the hippies, this stick is a man who has transformed into a piece of wood after attempting to commit suicide in front of his son, who proceeds to look down from the roof, hopelessly confused - you probably would be too if your dad turned into a stick.

Because Kojima has explicitly stated that Death Stranding has something or other to do with sticks and ropes, and that the game is emphatically based on Abe’s play, it’s important to consider what sticks actually represent in The Man Who Turned Into A Stick. According to Man From Hell, “98.4% of all those who die in a given month are turned into sticks.” These sticks are forced to live out their days hearing everything around them without ever being heard themselves. 

However, even without words, there are strands that link us to others. Although Stick’s voice is unheard, Hippie Boy drops it, exclaiming, “It twitched, like a dying fish.” Even with the strands of communication severed, the stick is still connected to the world in a mysterious way. Given that Kojima has said that Death Stranding is tied to an entirely new genre, called “action game/strand game”, it’s likely that this is the part of Abe’s play that the game will focus on. 

Kojima has explained on several occasions that Death Stranding is thematically concerned with the idea of strands connecting people, interwoven and invisible links that allow us to communicate in a wonderfully weird way. 

Although we can’t explicitly speak with the dead, we can still communicate with them, which we can perhaps attribute to the creaks in the floor you hear at nighttime, the whispers of the wind quietly crashing against the roof tiles, or the bloodcurdling phenomenon in which something is momentarily felt, but not through any traditional kind of sensory perception. 

Like Hippie Boy’s ability to sense the stick’s twitch in The Man Who Turned Into A Stick, in the Death Stranding trailer, Sam says, “I can’t spot BTs. I can just sense them.” Perhaps this is linked to what Kojima has described as a “social strand system,” which connects us to one another in a mysterious way that seems to have the ability to transcend death itself.

The key to a riddle...

Image credit: Kojima Productions

Image credit: Kojima Productions

The key to understanding the links between Abe’s play, strands, and Death Stranding lies in the strange throat babies we've seen in previous trailers, one of which Sam-- the protagonist, played by Norman Reedus - is tasked with escorting across desolate and deserted plains for reasons currently unknown. 

The denouement of Abe's illustrious play places an emphasis on death - which happens to be its subtitle - but death is what begets new life. In the words of another Japanese author Haruki Murakami, "Death is not the opposite of life, but an innate part of it. By living our lives, we nurture death."

For example, if a man turns into a stick, but the stick is wielded by his son, he becomes defined by the way he shaped those around him in life. As an extension of these people, he lives on, as a tool, a weapon, or something in between. 

In Abe’s play, Hippie Boy refuses to sell the stick, telling the man, “Me and this stick, we understand each other.” Later on, he adds to this train of thought, saying that, “Once a human hand grabs something, there's no telling what it can do.” 

Interestingly, Death Stranding’s most recent trailer shows Sam using ladders and ropes - connective objects, designed to bridge gaps that would otherwise be uncrossable. While sticks are separated from the trees they were once a part of, there are other things in this world designed to reconnect the broken and to rebuild the fractured. And, as Kojima said in his interview about Japanese plays and sticks, “A rope is a tool used to secure things that are important to you.” 

While other people may have already succumbed to the violent nature of Death Stranding’s dying world, there are still a select few who opt to eschew sticks for ropes - to forego conflict in order to promote connectivity, to promote stranding.

A forest of sticks

Image credit: Kojima Productions

Image credit: Kojima Productions

Death Stranding is still incredibly ambiguous, and likely will be until it ships. However, the space between life and death is ambiguous by nature. When Hippie Girl opens up about the death of her late sister, Man From Hell asks what happened, to which Hippie Boy responds, “She became a corpse, naturally.” (Interestingly, it’s more likely in this scenario that she became a stick.) 

“That's why I don't understand anything anymore,” Hippie Girl tells Hippie Boy. “Everything is wrapped in riddles.” 

In her book, Fake Fish, Nancy Shields includes a statement made by Abe in relation to the purpose of theatre: 

“Unless the theater regains the power to realize on stage those more abstract things which are impossible to see in everyday reality, audiences will find theatrical productions more and more boring ... In performance it is essential that the style, rather than the words, be emphasized.”

Stories like The Man Who Turned Into A Stick and Death Stranding aren't necessarily supposed to be clear. They’re not even supposed to be realistic. The stage directions for The Man Who Turned Into A Stick literally include the line: “Crowds of people passing back and forth. (It is best not to attempt to represent this realistically.)” 

By the same logic, Death Stranding is a game in which Kojima has been given the freedom to design whatever weird and wonderful things he wants. He’s unrestrained by budget or prospective player interest, and so he has been allowed to emphasize style over words, and to realize his most abstract ideas in a visual form.

The man who sold the world

Image credit: Kojima Productions

Image credit: Kojima Productions

At the end of The Man Who Turned Into A Stick, Man From Hell comes back to the stage post-exeunt and exclaims that the audience consists of “a whole forest of sticks.” In fact, earlier in the play, after Hippie Boy sells the stick to the Man From Hell for $5, the latter warns him that some day he’ll face the consequences for demanding such a high price. 

“But I'll tell you one thing, my friend,” Man From Hell says. “You may imagine you've struck a clever bargain, but one of these days you'll find out. It wasn't just a stick you sold, but yourself.” 

"Once a human hand grabs something, there's no telling what it can do."

The Man Who Turned Into A Stick

Hippie Boy, destined to be one of the 98.4% of people who turn into sticks, will one day be picked up by another agent from Hell, and confined to a world in which his voice is forever drowned out. However, it is only at this point that he can truly access the intangible strands that bind us to the world and to each other. As Sam “Porter” Bridges says in Death Stranding:

“Covering the world in cable didn't bring an end to war and suffering. Don't act surprised when it all comes apart if you try to do it again.”

However, despite his nihilism, it’s important to recognize that Sam is trying to do it again. Even in a world populated by sticks, there will be people left who are trying to bridge the gaps, connect the dots, and reinstate the kind of stranding that unites people as opposed to pitting them against one another.