Wandering the Icelandic States of America

Note: This post was originally a bonus issue for the Nothing Here newsletter. They usually stay locked for a year, but I decide to unlock this one early for the 1-year anniversary of Death Stranding‘s release.


Life imitates art

Death Stranding was originally released for PlayStation 4 on November 8th, 2019. In the world of Death Stranding, a near-Extinction level event (called “the Death Stranding”) has forced survivors to live confined indoors, relying on porters to deliver most of what they need to survive and thrive. What was meant as a weird and unique sort of post-apocalypse ended up paralleling the way many of us have spent large chunks of 2020.

Playing as Sam Porter Bridges (yes, the character names in Death Stranding are consistently terrible), I have delivered food, booze, books, medicine, and even fresh hot pizza to lonely survivors…all of which I have also had delivered to my house during lockdown, by invariably underpaid delivery drivers wearing masks. (While Death Stranding has a number of hat and glasses options, they missed out on including face masks. This inclusion would have surely cemented Kojima’s status as an actual prophet*.)

And while the porters in Death Stranding couldn’t exactly be called “gig economy workers” they are literally paid in Likes, further cementing the link between the game world and the lives of app-based delivery workers who run the risk of losing income if their rating (or, how well liked they are) drops too low. Not only that, but after moving into the game’s second area you become a contractor for a second courier company, which is reminiscent of the way precarious app workers need to sign up for multiple competing apps just to ensure they have enough work coming in. In Death Stranding though, Bridges is happy for you to work with and for Fragile Express, but in the dystopian (possibly apocalyptic) setting that we call “the real world,” workers are forced to run competing apps on separate phones, thanks to Silicon Valley arrogance and its anti-competitive nature, leading to dashboards that slowly look more like something from the cyberpunk oeuvre. (And don’t get me started on the waste of rare minerals, energy, etc.)

But while Death Stranding might seem a little close to home in some ways, there’s another way that the developers entirely missed the mark.

http://www.kojimaproductions.jp/uploads/works/406c15773522db206a8ecda30f1d5e9fd6409868.jpg

Hindsight is…

I began playing Death Stranding on its PC release, on the 15th of July, 2020. By the middle of July we’d watched America war with itself for close to 2 months following the murder of George Floyd. We saw police continue to murder and brutalise people (especially people of colour) even while under the heaviest scrutiny they have possibly ever experienced, demonstrating exactly how far beyond reformation these gangs in blue really are. We saw the National Guard deployed, and we saw the President threaten to deploy the US military in cities across the country. We saw faceless, nameless, identification-less agents from a variety of federal agencies black bag US citizens and threaten others at gunpoint. (We also saw a mass protest movement, and we saw people willing to stand against a corrupt state in numbers never before witnessed in the USA.) We saw far-right militias on the streets and police ignoring (or fraternising with) them, we saw police committing and allowing violence, just as long as it was wielded against the people standing up for the rights of Black people not to be killed in their homes and on the streets.

I don’t need to remind you about all this (if you were keeping up with the news and/or the newsletter during that time, you know exactly what I’m talking about), but I mention it to provide some context. Because it was against this real-life backdrop that the characters of Death Stranding begged Sam Porter Bridges to help rebuild America by trudging across the continent on foot and reconnecting a series of bunkers and underground towns to the chiral network (think sci-fi internet). As I’m sure you can imagine it’s an incongruous message for 2020. These people – the President, her daughter, and her advisors – begged Sam (ie me) to help rebuild America, but all I could think was “Why would I ever want to do that? It’s a failed experiment.” That introduction to the game, at that point in time, was almost enough to make me stop playing. And indeed, it’s odd that after finishing with Metal Gear Solid, a series that was often critical of American militarism and particularly the corporatisation thereof, Hideo Kojima opens his next game with what can only be read as pro-America propaganda.

So while delivering goods to people, ahem, stranded in their homes made Death Stranding feel very of the moment, in other ways it feels like a relic of 2007 – a time when America was bolstered by war and post-9/11 nationalism, and when American people, the government, military, and Hollywood could all believe in the idea of America as an unqualified force for good. It was a time when it was easy to buy into this rebooted form of the American Dream (powered by a housing market racing toward collapse); before the wars in the Middle East revealed themselves to be quagmires, and before the Global Financial Crisis tore a veil from our eyes. The veils have continued to fall, with the acceleration of mass shootings, far-right violence, police violence, racism, ur-fascism, and a continued degradation of conditions for your average American while the elite continue to gain wealth and power, even as their truly disgusting predilections (Epstein, etc) and corruptions (the Panama Papers) are revealed. All told, in 2020 Death Stranding feels both timely in the context of our global pandemic and completely anachronistic in its view of America**.

I guess one of the reasons why I was able to look past the American Exceptionalism on display in the game’s opening hours is because Death Stranding is obviously a global product, despite its story. Hideo Kojima is Japanese, as are most of the people who worked on the game, the cast includes the French Léa Seydoux and the Danish Mads Mikkelsen among others, much of the game’s music is provided by the Icelandic dream pop band Low Roar, and the geography of the game is obviously (and painstakingly) modelled on Iceland, even if the writing wants to convince us it’s the landscape of the former United States of America.

It’s almost like Kojima et al felt they needed to set the game in America because the mass cultural export of the idea of America has made it into a sort of de facto setting, even if (or perhaps especially if) the story is about a global event. Besides Norman Reedus’ accent, very little in Death Stranding feels American at all.

Fully automated lockdown communism

It seems pointless to offer a spoiler warning for a game that is so singularly odd and fragmented and that really needs to be experienced, but here it is anyway:

SPOILER WARNING

Toward the end of the game it’s revealed that the President of the United States is herself an Extinction Event. It seems like I could make a pretty lazy joke here (something that rhymes with Ronald Grump spook-clear footfall), but that’s baby-brain centrist bullshit, and we can do better than that. Instead I’m going to suggest that POTUS = EE is a comment on the onrushing/unfolding climate change apocalypse. The POTUS is, after all, the head of state and the embodiment of the United States, so with such a sparsely-populated game it makes sense for the President to stand in for the nation as a whole. And the USA is the epitome of the Western world with all the consumerism, waste, and environmental damage that entails (not to mention the massive and massively environmentally damaging US military, which refuses to let itself be in any way curtailed by international climate change agreements). The President brings about the Death Stranding in the same way that the brand of consumerism America has been exporting to the rest of the world since the end of WW2 is bringing about our own slow apocalypse.

SPOILER WANING

So, the titular Death Stranding is a metaphor for climate change apocalypse (making this piece part 2 in the ongoing series Corey Sees Climate Change Everywhere). What’s interesting then is that the game offers up socialism as our only way to face this threat.

(Now I’m realising the Iceland-America displacement was entirely deliberate: suggesting that America’s only chance of rebuilding after its inevitable collapse is to model itself after Scandinavian countries with healthy social welfare systems. [I’m being facetious.])

Now we get to the multiplayer portion of the game. Beginning with Demon Souls (if not before), we’ve seen a sort of asynchronous, parallel, or ambient multiplayer movement coming out of Japan (the Souls games, Journey, Nier: Automata, and Death Stranding are just some examples I’ve played – I’m sure there are plenty more). In the Souls games you can call other players into your game world for jolly cooperation or brutal combat, but you can also leave messages on the landscape that might bleed through into other player’s worlds. Taken from a predefined selection of messages, players found ways to be helpful or funny, or even lure unsuspecting players to their deaths. A similar message system is in place in Death Stranding, and while it might be possible to trick another porter into jumping or driving off a cliff to their death, it’s quite unlikely. Instead you’re far more likely to find earnest suggestions, requests, hints, and even tiny buffs, with some of these messages imparting Likes, BB happiness, stamina, and speed. Help in the form of structures and vehicles constructed by other players can also seep into your world (and vice versa), and you could spend hours delivering packages lost or deposited by other players, earning you both more of those precious Likes. These systems change what is a deliberately slow and solitary game into something that feels subtly communal. Your progression is never significantly helped or hindered by these other players, but seeing the strands of them reach into your game reminds you that there are other people out there, experiencing what you’re experiencing, and sharing your struggles and victories.

(In this way the multiplayer aspect also reminds me of the religion of Mercerism from Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? With Mercerism, a person uses an empathy box to connect to a figure known as William Mercer as he struggles up a hill while being accosted and assaulted by unseen assailants. These attacks can even manifest real-world wounds. But while a person is connected to Mercer going through his cycle of pain, death, rebirth and more pain, they are also connected to everyone else who is using an empathy box at that same moment, sharing the pain, but also encouragement, love, joy, and all the rest. It could even be read as the platonic ideal of what the internet could have been…)

So the multiplayer elements of the game encourage cooperation and mutual aid through these ambient connections between players, but these connections are also literally the point of the game and the foundation of its story and themes.

I came across a long review of/essay about Death Stranding*** in which the author complained at length about the economics of the game not making sense. On the contrary, I’d suggest the game’s economics are best summed up by Karl Marx: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs. Earlier I mentioned that the game’s porters are paid in Likes – this isn’t because they’re a downtrodden class in some sort of dystopia, but rather because Likes are the only form of payment available to a person. You deliver a massive variety of different items and materials all over the Icelandic States of America, but there is never talk of any payment made or received – not even bartering. The couple growing wheat send bread and beer to other settlements because they have the resources, equipment, and experience necessary to do so. The doctor provides medical equipment, the staff at the weather station provides data to help porters navigate the dangers of timefall, the engineer provides schematics for his latest creations, and the spiritualist provides magic rocks and homeopathic medicines (okay, okay, it’s not a perfect system). The chiral network that Sam Porter Bridges (ugh) is rebuilding helps everyone across the continent remain in contact so that they might share pooled resources, and also lets them share knowledge, including designs that can be 3D printed at every connected bunker or settlement. It could be seen as a partially automated lockdown communism facilitated by 3D printing crossed with a sort of library socialism built on the (muscular and no doubt extremely sore) backs of the portertariat.

Don’t be so serious

In those opening hours of Death Stranding I was certain I would be able to write about the game. It turns out this piece is a little disjointed and fragmented, much like the game it’s about.

I’m almost certain it’s not really a game about socialism, but it earnestly believes that connecting with other people in a spirit of love and generosity may be the highest human calling and might just help us survive the disaster we find ourselves in. For all the games terrible character names, dumps of exposition, and other assorted weirdnesses and minor failures, it still feels like something special because of its utter dedication to this message of connection and the genuine moments of contact and love shared between delightful characters.

There’s another Philip K. Dick story that comes to mind, called War Game. The story is about a couple of customs inspectors charged with ensuring nothing dangerous crosses the border from the nefarious Ganymedians. The inspectors are suspicious of a citadel game that they fear could be a bomb, and while by the end of the story they’re pretty sure it’s just a therapeutic toy, they still don’t let it through just to be on the safe side. What they do let pass is a Monopoly-style board game, but its revealed that the true purpose of the game is to teach Earthling children the value not of accumulating resources, but of surrendering your holdings (say, to an invading alien force). The vast majority of multiplayer games are competitive, usually violently so (both in terms of the games requiring players to interact with one another through the language of violence, and with the violence spilling over into the real world with swatting), but we can’t compete our way out of the coming troubles. Our best hope is cooperation and connection, and we need a culture that recognises and reinforces that. Kojima has talked about Death Stranding possibly being the first of a new subgenre of Strand-likes, and I would really like to see what else Kojima and others could do in the space… I’d especially like to see a deliberately socialist and leftist game, instead of a massive corporate product that seemed to get there much by accident.


*Already, throughout the Metal Gear Solid series, Hideo Kojima has proven his prophetic gift. The most obvious example comes at the end of Metal Gear Solid 2 where Kojima had predicted the current state of social media, and the way it has inundated our lives… even though the game came out back in 2001. That was two years before even Myspace was founded. He extrapolated everything about our social media lives from looking at LiveJournal and similarly small blogging sites.

**To be a more accurate simulation of the current American experience, there would need to be people leaving their bunkers in order to protest the lockdown measures, carrying placards that read “Timefall is a hoax” and “Have you ever even seen a BT?”, and threatening the clouds with their AR-15s while wearing sweaters stained with pasketti sauce.

***It’s only because of this same reviessay that I know Diehardman (yes, you read that right) is named (ugh) Diehardman, because his real name was John McClane.

Kentucky Route Zero

‘Kentucky Route Zero’ Pays Off on Nine Years of Hope and Doubt


I bought Kentucky Route Zero years ago, played through the first act and loved it, but never went back to it. I always told myself I would, and the release of the fifth and final act last week was a good excuse to return. The above, by Austin Walker, is as good an essay/review on the game as you’re likely to find, but you’ll want to play at least until the end of Act IV before you read it. (And yes, I do recommend you play it if the aesthetic appeals. It is a weird and compelling story told in fascinating fashion.)

On twitter I saw someone say about Kentucky Route Zero, “What if the next great American novel wasn’t a novel?” And whilst I understand what they meant and even agree as so far as it goes, I also think it diminishes the role of the language of video games in helping craft the story of KR0. The final moment at the end of The Entertainment is so shocking because you’re the one turning your head to look. For all the reams of text contained within KR0, this isn’t a novel masquerading as a game, this is one of the best arguments yet made for video games as art (assuming that debate is still ongoing).

Which is a funny thing to say when I would also describe KR0 as less of a game, and more of an experience. Usually only RPGs have this much text, and this many dialogue choices, but as you play through KR0 you get the feeling that the choices you make don’t really matter. You can perhaps control the tone at times, and decide which character’s story you want to explore further, but ultimately the developers have a story to tell, and you are simply along for the ride. You become the mechanism by which the story can be told.

It’s at times melancholic, at times hopeful, obtuse, beautiful, Lynchian, touching, and on at least one occasion, tedious. It’s about people, and the ways we are used as fuel for the capitalist systems that dominate our society. But for every tragedy touched on in the story, there are also connections being forged, friends being made, family being found. The final act centres around the potential of a new community separate to the capitalist structures, and for that reason it feels important. Looking forward, more and more it seems like collective action and community engagement will be our best hope, and that’s where the game will guide you, if you let it. Also, in the last act you play as a cat and you get to meow at people. What’s not to love?

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk

There’s a refrain repeated throughout the book, aimed at its main character: You care about more about animals than people. That resonated with me, partly because of how I’ve felt my entire life (I’m unable to watch nature documentaries because I can’t stand to watch animals suffer), and partly because of where my current fiction is going as I try and use it to grapple with climate change and our culpability in mass extinction and destruction of habitats.

The narrator doesn’t really see animals as something different to or lesser than people, something demonstrated by the way she will give names to animals and people, ignoring a person’s given name because she feels they rarely match the person. She even rails against her own name. By denying these human identities it’s as though she diminishes the sacred aspect that we hold for ourselves and our own. None of these people is more important than these animals, and every animal killed in the forest near her house deserves a proper burial in her cemetary yard.

So what we see through her eyes is a community of humans and non-human animals who are simply neighbours. And thus she sees people hunting and poaching in the area as murderers, and bothers the local authorities endlessly to try and get them to do something about even the legal hunting activities. The book does a great job of showing how her fellow villagers might see her as “just” a crazy old lady – constantly writing letters and working out people’s astrological charts – whilst also convincingly arguing her point of view.

It’s a slow burn of a book, but worthy of your time.

No Friend But the Mountains, by Behrouz Boochani

I recently finished reading No Friend But The Mountains by Behrouz Boochani. I previously mentioned Behrouz last year in the nothing here newsletter when he won one of the most prestigious literary awards in Australia. He’s a refugee who was trapped in Australia’s offshore refugee prison for years, and is still stranded on Manus Island even now. He wrote reportage about Manus and this entire novel via text message on a phone he wasn’t even supposed to have in the prison. The logistics behind the writing, translating, and editing of this book alone demonstrate Boochani’s drive to get this story out into the world, and we should be thankful for that, because it’s a story that needs to be told.

The story starts with his first attempt at crossing the ocean and continues on from there (ironically/sadly if this first boat hadn’t sunk he might have been able to settle in Australia because with his second attempt he arrived just a few days after the fucked up “no one coming by boat will ever be allowed to set foot on Australian soil, regardless of the validity of their status as refugees” law was passed). It’s poetic while remaining grounded in the systematic horrors of the prison and the situation all the refugees find themselves in. It’s an important read for many reasons, not least of which is the fact that governments all over the world are taking inspiration from Australia’s offshore detention regime, and as time goes on, and climate and ecological pressures cause more people to need to flee their homes and homelands, we will see more countries establishing similarly barbaric prisons – sorry, “processing centres” – cropping up all over the world. These refugees will find themselves locked up in prisons like the one at Manus Island for the simple “crime” of seeking asylum.

I want to see every politician who has served since the (fabricated) child overboard “scandal”, and hasn’t publicly condemned Australia’s refugee policies, be locked up in Manus Prison, indefinitely. I want their wealth taken from them, I want their exorbitant fucking pensions stripped from them and used to provide all our tortured refugees the kinds of lives they deserve here (and the therapy they will no doubt need after all that we have inflicted on them).

The book opens with a long introduction from the translator, and one of the (unrelated) things from it that really caught my eye was this:

His use of metaphors related to wolves is exceptional and haunting … I once heard that in Iran when a sheepdog fights off a wolf to defend its flock it aims for the jugular. In most cases the wolves are too strong and ferocious for the dogs. But there are times when the sheepdog manages to lock its jaws around the wolf’s throat and remains clamped onto it until the wolf can’t withstand the pressure anymore; the dog persists until the wolf submits. The sheepdog emerges from the victory with an extraordinary self-realisation – the experience transforms the dog, the encounter empowers it. The sheepdog develops a new sense of self beyond self-confidence – it re-identifies as a wolf. The shepherds know the dangers of this phenomenon; they know that when a dog’s identity morphs in this way it is no longer controllable. They put it down.

The Ascent to Godhood, by JY Yang

(I had to trim some reviews out of the nothing here newsletter to get it to send, so here’s this.)

The Ascent to Godhood

With The Ascent to Godhood, JY Yang continues weaving together the disparate threads of the Tensorate world. Instead of a simple, linear series, these books slots together like a jigsaw puzzle, with each piece illuminating more of the whole.

Not only is each beautifully written, filled with unique worldbuilding, and populated with fully fleshed-out characters, but with each Yang has pushed themselves to explore different narrative styles to great effect.

I hardly read fantasy, but I love these books.

Square Eyes, by Anna Mill and Luke Jones

(I had to trim some reviews out of the nothing here newsletter to get it to send, so here’s this.)

Square EyesI was put onto this comic thanks to the About Buildings + Cities podcast, and the series they did on Katushiro Otomo’s Akira. For the final episode of that series, Luke and his co-host, George Gingell, also had Anna Mill on, and they talked a bit about Square Eyes, and the influence of Otomo on Mill’s art. (You may have also seen it mentioned in Orbital Operations, because we can’t go one issue without referring back to the President of the Republic of Newsletters.)

The Akira comparisons aren’t obvious or immediate, but that hardly matters because Mill’s art is phenomenal. The characters, clothing, buildings, and assorted ephemera of city life are exquisitely rendered, and the colours almost glow on the page, soft but vivid at the same time.

The story concerns a software designer/engineer/superstar who has dropped off the grid for a few months, forcibly interred at a sort of digital detox facility. The book starts with her return to the city, desperate to be reconnected to the digital realm. The digital and physical facades of the city are shown subtly, the ways the digital has come to usurp the real (similar to my upcoming Repo Virtual). As Fin tries to regain her memories and her old life, we see images of overlaid memory and reality, blurring together in hallucinatory moments, multiple layers of art pressed down on one another as the disparate bleeds together. And in one section we see Fin and her friend George navigate parts of the city hidden from the digital realm in a way that could only be done in comics.

I’m not entirely sure what I think of the story, but artistically and aesthetically, Square Eyes is unparalleled. Just the lettering alone is fantastic, and I hope other letterers take notice of what they’ve done here. This style won’t suit every project, but with a setting like this, where layers of reality are laid one atop the other, the see-through word balloons add another subtle layer to the whole project.

American War, by Omar El Akkad

American War Cover ArtAmerican War by Omar El Akkad was the Restricted.Academy Book Club pick for January, and I didn’t give my thoughts on the book in the newsletter at the time, but it has been on my mind often in the time since. Sometimes you put a book down and instantly forget that you’d ever read it, other times they linger for months or years.

American War tells the story of a Second Civil War taking place approximately 50 years in the future, across an America altered by rising sea levels, climate change, and related political upheaval. The war is being fought over fossil fuels – the people of the Free Southern State are determined to continue burning them in a stubborn and suicidal show of defiance against the north and the march of progress/ecological catastrophe. But American War doesn’t take a big, broad view of the conflict, rather it follows Sarat Chestnut from her childhood until her death, and in doing so shows us refugee camps, resistance groups, radicalisation, torture, murder, and the many ways that war can crush people until all that remains is hate. Despite that scope, in a lot of ways it’s a small and slow story – made up of detailed glimpses of events both mundane and life-altering.

El Akkad is doing a lot of interesting things with this book. I want to say that he’s both retelling the Civil War and combining it with the War on Terror, but I’m not sure the first part of that is entirely true. One of the things a few of us in the Book Club were iffy on was the complete lack of discussion about race in a book about southerners fighting a Second Civil War. American War was first published in early 2017, which means it was likely written in 2015 (or earlier), so perhaps it’s just an unfortunate side effect of when it was written, but reading it today, post-Charlottesville (and post- so much else), the lack of racial context seems like a glaring oversight. As a writer, I understand that sometimes you might leave something out of a story because you want people to be able to read it without being reminded of their own past trauma. For instance, most of Void Black Shadow is set in a prison, but I knew from the start I wasn’t going to explicitly detail sexual assault (which, come to think of it, El Akkad also avoided in the refugee camp section of the book when real life tells us that it would have been rife with it). Avoiding sexual assault is one thing, but leaving racism out of a second civil war is almost like taking the white supremacist viewpoint on the first civil war at face value – that it was “about state’s rights” not slavery. (If you haven’t listened to the Uncivil podcast, I highly recommend it. They do a fantastic job of deconstructing the Southern mythology surrounding the Civil War.) So I get it, but it was an odd choice. Even so, El Akkad is doing so much with this book, and almost all of it is great, so that omission isn’t a dealbreaker.

Transporting a war that looks an awful lot like the War on Terror into the American context is a huge task, and El Akkad does it so well that I didn’t even realise that’s what he was doing until I read some of the review blurbs. It should have been obvious, but I was so caught up in the texture of the world he was creating that I got lost inside it.

One of the most interesting things about the book is the way it instills empathy in you for people even as they’re preparing to do horrifying things. There was one point in the book (fairly late in the piece, to be fair) where I began to wonder if the suffering being inflicted on Sarat was beginning to get gratuitous, but it’s not at all. It’s El Akkad taking us by the hand and guiding us through her life of constant hurt so that we can truly understand her.

I can’t help but draw parallels to my own work (because I’m a writer and/so I’m self-involved), but at the end of Void Black Shadow Mars does something huge and heinous, but the only way I could make it work was to give the situation a sense of immediacy and desperation. She did it because she was certain it was the only way to save her friend. But I think that’s part of why the ending to American War works so well – there’s no immediacy, there’s just the pit inside Sarat that can only be filled with other people’s pain.

So it’s a book not without its issues, but it is also so big (yet intimate) and compelling, multi-layered, beautifully written, and expertly constructed. I highly recommend it.