Sam Porter Bridges, the reluctant star of Death Stranding, is a classic Western hero. His role is to mediate between society and the wilderness. While the remaining population of America is holed up in cities he never gets to visit, Sam braves the eerie land beyond.
There are two conflicting schools of thought about Westerns in film theory. The first says the genre is defined by its signifiers: big hats, horses and stagecoaches. Their endless possible combinations allowed the genre to remix itself and dominate Hollywood cinema for decades, while still retaining its essential character.
The second way of looking at it, and the one I prefer, suggests that the Western's DNA runs deeper. That it can be detached from its original setting, leaving the Old West for another wilderness where the jutting buttes of Monument Valley are replaced by blackened Icelandic stubble. It’s funny: Death Stranding is nominally about setting out west across an American frontier, but doesn’t resemble the US at any point in its history. It has none of the Hollywood genre signifiers. Yet, in its bones, it is a Western - perhaps more successfully than any videogame before it.
There’s no big hat; only a baseball cap, embroidered with the logo of a shipping company. The closest thing to the stagecoach is a futuristic floating carrier piled with cargo, a fragile vestige of civilisation in need of protection. And the horse? Well, that’s you.
The outside belongs to the beached things now: the dead who were trapped on the wrong side after a catastrophic existential event. They drag the living down into the oily earth and the impossibility of the act triggers huge explosions, a form of protest on behalf of reality. Cursed with a rare and poorly understood condition that allows him to see the BTs, Sam is able to fight them, which makes him a hero. But it’s also the very thing that distances him from the people he protects.
“You chose the dead over the living,” says Mama, the scientist behind his gadgets. “Why else would you be here?” It’s a choice Sam has in common with Death Stranding’s BT-manipulating baddy, Higgs.
In John Ford’s last great Western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the director drew a clear line between John Wayne’s hero, Tom Doniphon, and the highwayman villain of the title. Both believe in a form of ‘Western law’ rooted in self-defence, and their shared ideals mean there’s no place for either of them in the rapidly oncoming future.
“Doniphon, like Valance, has no business in the new Shinbone, with its telephones, paved sidewalks, and irrigation projects,” the academic Thomas Schatz wrote. “Two self-consciously mythic figures are consigned to the realm of memory and legend.”
This same tension is at work in Death Stranding. As Sam goes west, he clears the way for stability and infrastructure. He lays down bridges and motorways, and connects the places he visits to a shared network. And in doing so he ushers in a world he doesn’t belong to.
Just watch Sam as he sits in his private room. This place is his one respite from the cold and the wind, a place of ritual where he can wash away the mud and blood. Yet he can’t wait to leave. He sits on the very edge of his bed, nodding towards the door.
Sam resents the people who cage and watch him, prodding at him like a specimen, taking his blood and pee for further study. He resents the camera, too, sometimes shaking up his drink and spraying the contents into the lens. When he takes a shower you can see the faint handprints that cover his body - chalk-like impressions left by the BTs - but whenever the living come close, he shrinks back. Sam suffers from a phobia that renders him unable to bear human touch; just the sort of loud symbolism Ford liked to indulge in.
This is a man trapped. The device that connects Sam to the network doubles as a cuff that clamps him to the bed. Bridges, the organisation that runs him, often speaks of strands and connection. But while a rope can pull things closer together, it also ties them down.
If you’ve played Death Stranding, you’ve probably felt the same way. There’s a satisfaction in bringing faster means of travel to other players. But once a region fills up with helpful signs and climbing ropes, it does feel a little like the rugged challenge of the frontier has been flattened, and you yearn for the next unconquered territory.
In a classic Western, this is the moment when the hero rides off into the sunset - staving off his inevitable obsolescence for a little while longer. But it’s coming for him eventually. In Liberty Valance, Ford breaks from form by offering a glimpse of what happens afterwards. The railroad comes to Shinbone, the stagecoach is mothballed, and so is Doniphon, who dies in obscurity.
Sam, too, is destined to become a relic, and sometimes it seems as if his clients can’t wait. They mythologise him as the Great Deliverer, a title that gives away their fear of a man who navigates the dead. In their praise, they’ll often say they need Sam “for a while yet”. They are eager to replace him with automated postmen, reminiscent of the Boston Dynamics bot, even though the idiot machines regularly smash their precious deliveries en route.
Death Stranding has a fascinating point of comparison in Red Dead Redemption 2, an out-and-out Western with a similar emphasis on the transformative arrival of infrastructure. But Red Dead wears its Western inspirations, ironically, like the hellish parade of apache warriors in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian - magpie and stripped of past meaning. It invites you to ground yourself in its world, to sit around the campfire and make yourself at home. In that sense, it’s no Western.
There’s isn’t any home waiting for the Western hero, except for the fleeting one he finds in the wilderness among the horrors. “Ah,” Sam will sometimes say as he steps outside. “That’s so much better.”