Published August 15, 2023 | Version v1
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META-STRAND: Exploring Death Stranding and Rethinking Knowledge Discourse –

  • 1. ROR icon Freie Universität Berlin


Imagine a scholar branching out beyond the familiar forests of philology into unexplored digital wilds. Embarking on my own uncharted passage, my project META-STRAND as it manifests on the website explores the mainstream video game Death Stranding through a fragmented, living cultural critique. Having long studied Arabic texts, an ongoing intrigue with aquatic metaphors and seascapes flows into this digital territory of Death Stranding with its beaches, isolation, liminal states, metaphysics of life and death. I aim to embrace this interactive cultural artifact to  indulge my expanding curiosities of interdisciplinary studies which my training in cultures and languages of the Middle East and paths radiating from there can no longer satisfy. Teaching in Interdisciplinary Studies of the Middle East (ISME) has let me wade into perspectives such as environmental humanities, emotion research, or meta-science and more specifically biopolitics, hypermasculinities, or flexible citizenship, stirring fascination to engage contemporary cultural concepts.  Now I want to immerse the approaches I've accrued over years drifting beyond my formal background and into cultural studies with a new medium: gaming. Much remains to be discovered in this process as I chart an unconventional course. I welcome the unpredictable insights that will emerge through an adaptive journey across this provocative piece of culture.

Death Stranding is a cinematic video game created by game auteur Hideo Kojima. The game is set in a post-apocalyptic world on the brink of oblivion, where players step into the shoes of Sam Porter Bridges, a courier tasked with reconnecting a fractured society. The game's narrative and mechanics are tightly interwoven, with the act of delivery serving as a metaphor for connection and human relationships. Traversing the vast and perilous landscape demands players to meticulously plan their routes, manage their equipment, and carefully consider the weight of their cargo. Within this unforgiving terrain, players encounter a myriad of challenges, from confronting enigmatic spectral creatures known as "Beached Things" or "BTs" to braving the Timefall, an eerie rain that accelerates the aging process of everything it touches. These elements are consequences of the cataclysmic event called the Death Stranding, which unleashed the return of the deceased as BTs and the enigmatic Timefall from the skies above.

The haunting beauty of the blackened soil, rugged terrains, and moss-covered mountains amplify the sense of desolation and foreboding that envelops the world – even more so with the otherworldly sound textures, oscillating between ambient, orchestral and choral, composed by Ludvig Forssell. Death Stranding's narrative, like a film you play, its mechanics of walking and building structures to aid in deliveries, its setting that merges the real with the surreal, and its philosophical and humanist themes such as isolation and technology, plumb the depths and breadths of cultural examination.

Key aspects of my habilitation project META-STRAND include:

- Fragmented publication: Rather than one comprehensive work, the project provides a fragmented, meta-critical analysis of Death Stranding, producing a series of distinct analytical pieces. For example, the analysis will be published in pieces like "Timefall and BTs: Symbols of Ecological Distress", "Death Stranding and the Aesthetics of Ruin", "The Emotional Toll of Isolation: Insights from Social Neuroscience", or "The Metaphor of 'Stranding' from Marine Biology to Game Narrative". This format challenges the academic convention of publishing works as cohesive, self-contained wholes and allows the analysis to evolve organically over time.

- Living publication: The fragmented structure subverts traditional publishing norms that value completeness and linear argumentation. By eschewing a singular narrative in favor of dispersed, iterative publication online like a dynamic database, the project can adapt, grow, and incorporate new perspectives fluidly rather than remaining fixed and restricted. This freedom from conventions of cohesion and completeness allows the analysis to develop more dynamically.

- Multidisciplinary and multiconceptual analysis: Each fragment offers a unique perspective, weaving together cross-disciplinary theories spanning critical theory, cultural studies, psychology, literary analysis, anthropology and more.  For example, theories like ecocriticism, trauma studies, and posthumanism will be integrated to examine topics like landscapes, grief, and human-machine relationships in the game. This provides a richer, more comprehensive analysis.

- Contemporary insights: In addition to drawing upon the wisdom of renowned scholars such as Foucault, Butler, Spivak, and Bhabha, this project embraces unique and contemporary insights by engaging with the work of various modern thinkers. For example, the exploration of disaster studies and resilience in the context of Death Stranding will be guided by scholars such as Rebecca Solnit, Anthony Oliver-Smith, and Kai Erikson. Or the emotional resonance of Death Stranding will be explored by drawing upon the work of scholars such as Stuart Hall, Ien Ang, and Radha Sarma Hedge, who have made substantial contributions to reception studies, affective engagement, and emotional response.By considering the perspectives of these and other contemporary theorists, the project aims to utilize fresh, modern lenses alongside traditional frameworks to shed new light on the game.

- Deconstruction of analysis: The project critically examines its own analyses and interpretations, questioning assumptions and biases. For example after an analysis like "The Hero's Journey Reimagined," the project will critically reflect on its own narrative trope examination. Such deconstruction encourages ongoing reflection.

- References to other games: After an analysis such as "Examining the Portrayal of Grief in Death Stranding", the project will reference games like What Remains of Edith Finch and Spiritfarer not for comparison, but to highlight related concepts and avenues that readers could explore further. This provides contextual grounding while resisting definitive judgments.

- Didactic aspect: The project serves as a masterclass in critical game analysis, with a goal of instructing readers on theoretical integration and application. For example, one fragment will demonstrate how to interweave narrative theory and game studies by examining the narrative structure of Death Stranding using frameworks like narratology, ludonarrative harmony, and cybertext theory. By moving through the concrete application of these theories to analyze Death Stranding's narrative approach, this fragment aims to equip readers with skills to blend narrative analysis into game scholarship.

- Open collaboration: Scholars, gamers, and readers will be invited to contribute perspectives to create a collaborative, evolving document. For example, they may analyze mechanics through a ludology lens, provide reception studies data on player experiences, or critique certain narrative aspects. They could also explore how concepts from the analysis may be re-examined in relation to other games, such as applying the exploration of human-machine relationships to a game like Detroit: Become Human. This collective contribution of insights and analyses from diverse experts and enthusiasts reimagines knowledge production as a participatory, crowdsourced process.

By using a mainstream video game to push boundaries in game studies and cultural analysis, this project reimagines the forms scholarly engagement can take in our networked society. It highlights the potential of participatory, digitally-enabled research methods and unconventional formats. The project's cross-disciplinary perspective and meta-critical stance provide an exemplar for more agile, evolving models of humanities research fit for the 21st century.


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