"Oh, The Places You'll Know:" Death Stranding's Landscape of Data
~~Cross-posted to the Serious Play Blog, (2020/10/23)~~
Several weeks ago on the Coffee Break stream, I played Kojima Production’s Death Stranding. Watching back that stream, I’m struck by the amount of on-screen data that the player is tasked with parsing at a glance. The game’s environment shows players information on the items lying about, information about other players and the structures they’ve left behind, information about their avatar on the HUD (that consists of at least 4 colored bars, depending on context), and even topographical information such as depth of water and steepness of cliffs at the press of a button. And if that feels like a lot, the menus have even more information: a map with an icon for every point of interest with lines that represent player paths interconnecting them; numbers representing the current weight of your load and the maximum weight you can carry; a summary of the current mission; the number of likes you’ve received; the number of unread emails in your inbox; weather forecasts; a legend that relays extra-diegetic information about how to manipulate the map (Zoom in/out, scroll, center on Sam, etc.) and so much more. And that’s all just on the first page. There’s also a page for your rankings as a Porter, a page with details on the cargo you’re carrying, a page with mission briefs, and, ah yes, a page full of emails! As it had been several months since I last played the game, you can understand how I might feel a bit overwhelmed with all that was thrown at me.
This got me thinking about another claim I’ve made about Death Stranding’s Bridges as an allegorithm (See: Galloway, 2006) for the kind of economic and political platform Srnicek describes in Platform Capitalism: a company built on the production, accumulation, and/or analysis of data to generate profit. I describe on stream the diegetic source of all this information is Bridges. As Sam delivers more packages and connects more regions to the Chiral Network, Bridges collects the data generated and feeds it back to Sam to make his labor more efficient, more effective. As Sam (and the player) proceed, they become faster, stronger, and better able to do their job, but that empowerment is only on loan to them. It exists only so long as they are “on” the platform; once a player leaves the Chiral Network, many of these advantages fade or disappear altogether. To finish a thought I might have left hanging on stream, this is an example of the ways precarity can be institutionalized. Porters (and players) only get the benefits of their labor from this platform so long as they continue preforming the labor that the platform is predicated on. We also see a TON of heroic language used by the NPCs concerning Sam and his job. What to us on the outside may look like an exaggerated, speculative version of Uber Eats to the society of the game is nothing sort of the stuff of myth. All at once, the porter is venerated as the backbone of this society while being kept at arm’s length of its benefits. In our world, we call these people “essential workers.”
As I write this, I am teaching a course in digital information literacy as part of a First-Year Writing program. In it, I’m asking students to first become mindful of the ways they come into contact with information online, and then teaching them strategies for parsing through it, such as analyzing a given source's credibility or to read a given text’s rhetorical situation to get at its intended purposes. We talk a lot about space, too. Public and private, real and virtual – and thinking about what we can learn from one and apply it to the other.
Death Stranding, as an instance of virtual space, seems to place quite a bit of trust in its player to be able to quickly distinguish between useful information and visual noise, and maybe even more interesting is how those two categories are always contextual to the player’s situation or need. In my (very humble) opinion, the sheer amount of information thrown at the player is one of the game’s weaker points. It’s very tempting, or it was to me anyway, to ignore most of everything except the bare essentials for moving the game forward. Eventually, of course, one begins folding the other information in, but there are still several features, like the weather predictions portion of the map, that I never got around to caring much about. All of this is to ask: why inundate the player with data, the very thing that gives economic and political power to the entity that (diegetically, at least) exploits their (play)bor? It's not something I have an answer for yet, but Death Stranding’s ostensible technological utopianism may provide a starting point to a critical interrogation. Is the world of Death Stranding, knowable and controllable as it is, to be read as an endorsement or a critique of the technoliberal fantasy? What do those endorsements or critiques look like when levied at Facebook or Amazon?