Death Stranding & The Fears of Imminent Parenthood
MASSIVE SPOILERS FOR DEATH STRANDING AHEAD.
At 2am, I was guiding Sam to the Incinerator, carrying his BB unit there to decide the lifeless child’s fate. At 10am, I would learn if my own unborn twins faced a similar fate.
Death Stranding somehow managed to be a horror game that didn’t scare me all that much, but also made me face terror beyond anything I’d felt in a game before. You’d think that being dogged by invisible ghosts (Beached Things, or BTs), dragged through murky oil by the hands of monstrous, liquid beings, and then set against titanic ethereal beasts would at least unsettle a bit, but spamming the jump button and running for the hills was usually enough to get you out of danger.
Except you’d likely lose the pizza or paintings or books or whatever junk you were supposed to lug across the countryside when you got grabbed by the BTs. That got annoying. These horrifying beings – creatures that could destroy whole cities if they killed you – were little more than a mailman’s inconvenience once you learned to just run away from them.
Luckily, I’d always know where the invisible jerks were hiding thanks to the tiny, cheerful baby Death Stranding had me lugging around with me for the entire game. The BTs can’t be seen or perceived by just anyone in this game’s world, and for protagonist Sam, he needed the help of a Bridge Baby (BB) in order to visually detect where the BTs were. These tiny babies are contained within a glass pod that’s connected to your chest (a terrifying idea considering how often you fall on your face while making deliveries), and make use of an antenna-like device that can indicate where the BTs are at.
This was a strange mechanic, to say the least. Having an infant tied to my chest while I blundered across the countryside of Death Stranding, occasionally giggling and cooing to herself, made for a bizarre companion. When she whimpered in fear, though, you’d best believe I noticed. For me, those terrified sounds cut deep. Likely much deeper than the developers intended.
A little while before the game came out, my wife found out that she was pregnant. It came as a bit of a shock, but a welcome one. We were all too happy to bring another child into our home. Just before I got my review copy of Death Stranding, we also found out that, incredibly, we were having twins. Identical ones.
It’s a unique kind of happiness that comes with having two new babies enter your life. It’s something immediately overwhelming, seeming to separate you from reality as you try to grasp just how much your life is about to change. The mind hums and swirls with what’s to come. You love them the minute you see those blurry, black and white images of murky forms.
However, while pregnancy can come with a lot of joy, it also means a lot of fear. Babies bring warm family events, baby showers, and happy surprises, but there is always a danger lurking behind these. Many, many things can go wrong during pregnancy. Many people can lose their children in the first few months after inception, and for very little reason. Many more can lose them to various growth defects and cruel turns of fate no matter how far along they are. Parents may find themselves having to push out the still remains of their lost child.
They call it “Born Sleeping.” I can’t even look at these words without feeling something inside me crumble.
And if your child survives all of this and makes it to childbirth? The birthing process can kill them if something goes wrong. They can make it through the birth, only to pass a few hours later. If they survive that, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome can strike at any point during the first year of your child’s life, taking them away.
Those were my fears for my first child. But twins meant even more things could go wrong, especially in our case. Twin-to-Twin Transfusion Syndrome (TTTS) comes from two babies sharing a placenta, but with disproportionate blood supply based on where they connect to it. Basically, one twin gets too much flow and the other too little, and in a lot of cases, it kills one, if not both babies. The survivor will also likely suffer from catastrophic health problems if they somehow make it.
The syndrome has five stages, with almost all of them meaning we would likely lose both babies. Procedures exist that could likely save one of them, and possibly both, but we were likely looking at the loss of one child. And even if nothing went wrong, we could also just show up to an ultrasound and find that one of the twins was simply…gone. Consumed by a cruel reality for no reason anyone would know.
They print you a picture of the babies at each ultrasound. I remember the thin, flimsy paper they printed the baby pictures on. How frail it felt in my fingers. The small blurs, Baby A and Baby B, that we came up with names for that night. And when we named them, they became ours, to protect and care for forever.
And, at any moment, something could go wrong that would take them away.
This is especially true during those first three months of pregnancy. This was when TTTS could strike. This was when a twin could suddenly disappear. When both of them could die for next to no reason at all. There are reasons to be scared all throughout pregnancy, but right here, at the beginning, was when it could all fall apart.
As my wife was carrying our children, I was lugging a BB unit across the windswept plains and snowy peaks of Death Stranding. I was listening to the BB gurgle and chirp as the music in the zone changed, or laugh as I drove a bike far too fast (likely crashing it moments later). Those tiny sounds would often draw my attention, and the game lets you stop everything and glance down at the little form that’s curled up against your chest. You can rock the child’s pod gently, drawing out a contented smile from the floating infant. You can use this gesture to soothe them when they’re crying as well, calming them from the stress of interacting with BTs.
I didn’t always feel much for the game’s world or its characters, but that smiling baby slowly stole my heart. It looked so helpless and frail in its pod, but contained such a happiness in its every reaction to me. I could feel so much love from this little thing that didn’t exist.Much like my own children who weren’t all that real to me, yet. I only knew them from a picture and a doctor’s word. BB may have been nothing more than code creating an image, but my own children were little more than an image to me now, too.
Sam named his BB Lou at some point. It was supposed to be the name of Sam’s own child, but he lost his wife and baby during the pregnancy. More for me to fear.
Meanwhile, this false child, like my own that I had yet to meet, was making connections to me. The narrative and character development weren’t doing much to convince me that Sam cared for Lou, but I sure did. Every small smile. Every hand placed against the glass. Every laugh. They all reminded me of my own two children, sealed away from anywhere I could see or feel them. My emotions were definitely running wild at this point, but I felt a surreal connection to my twins through Lou. I felt that I needed to carry her to safety alongside my own children.
However, as the game progressed, things started to become more and more grim for Lou. BBs exist somewhere between the land of the living and that of the dead in Death Stranding, and need to maintain that balance. As Lou connected with Sam, that balance became threatened, and Lou would have to be “recalibrated.” It’s a strange process, but it boiled down to me having to trust my child to a doctor in hopes something could be done. It was out of my hands, just like the lives of my twins. All I could do was wait and hope.
Lou would survive this seemingly-dangerous process and help see Sam through the chaos of Death Stranding’s final acts, sticking with him through battles against colossal beings. Lou even helped pull Sam back into the world after he found himself stranded beyond reality. This child formed an unbreakable bond with Sam, and forged one with me that would see me gently rocking the in-game child to calm her even as a massive monster hurtled down from the sky toward me.
Lou could only make a few sounds and smile. It’s not like babies do much. But you feel their love through their small, yet important actions. You can feel that bond forming between you when that tiny hand closes around your finger. And even if Lou couldn’t do a lot, I felt a connection with her in caring for her. In nurturing this imagined child as if she were the babies I was waiting for.
I headed toward Death Stranding’s finale the evening before I was supposed to go in for the big appointment for the twins. The ultrasound. The major one, where TTTS would likely show up. Where one of my twins would just be gone. Where something could go horribly wrong for no reason at all.
It’s the kind of fear that hums through your body, tingling and sickening. You ache from it, an anxious strain that can’t be loosened. You can only wait it out, watching minute after minute crawl by.
I beat the final boss. Seemed to have saved the day, even if it got old Sam lost in another dimensions. Luckily, Lou, my beautiful BB, pulled me back from the Beach I was lost on. But it cost Lou so much to bring me back.
I hoped to see my children in a few hours. But now, my coded baby, Lou, had died.
I half heard most of the next cutscene as I watched Lou floating still within the fluid in her pod. Were my own children adrift in their own fluids, lives snuffed out?
Deadman, or Guillermo del Toro as a doctor via Kojima’s imagination, tells me that I have to take Lou to the Incinerator outside the city. That I have to burn my child to ash, as the dead cause horrible, damaging blasts if left intact. They have to be incinerated. My baby had to be burned.
But Deadman says there’s a chance the child can survive. I could take Lou out of her pod, and there was a chance she would live. But there was also a chance of a horrific failure. Like my twins, if something bad came up in the ultrasound, it was unlikely they would live.
That walk through the grass and up the road toward the Incinerator was something that took a few minutes, but was perhaps the longest walk I’ve ever taken in a game. The end of this child, so connected with my own children, mirrored my worst fears of what was coming in only a few hours. I was so, so scared my babies were hurt or dying or dead, and here I found myself carrying a dead child up the hill for disposal, its tiny glass coffin in my hands.
My eyes burned. My chest was coiled tight. I was numb. I could feel morning and its imminent disasters rushing toward me as I crested that in-game hill. I crackled with a panic that seemed determined to boil over.
Sam doesn’t take Lou out when he gets to the incinerator. After some flashbacks, he starts up the incinerator. Places Lou on the cold platform. He watches as the glass case begins to slide down into the incinerator. I stare at the child, thumb in its mouth, curled up without warmth or joy or love any more.
I think of the children I have only seen in blurred black and white. I think of what I feel for them. I think of them, adrift and lost in the womb, their lives extinguished.
The incinerator carries out its grim work. For a moment, I collapse inward, but then I see fluid on the ground. The pod, cracked open. We pan up to see Sam holding the baby in one hand. It’s so small. So utterly small.
He begins to touch and prod at Lou, begging her to move. To be all right. I clench my wife’s hand tight.
He pulls Lou to his chest, asking her to wake up. Pleading. He’s no more a doctor than I am. It’s out of his hands. All of my fears about the pregnancy come crashing down on me, and I shake with out-of-control terror and sorrow.
Please be all right, I beg whatever forces might be listening to me.
He holds Lou to his chest. When all hope is lost, the child begins to murmur and complain. I feel something burst inside me, and I cry harder than I ever have at a game.
The next day, we would find out that my twins were all right. They were growing at a similar rate, so no signs of TTTS. Months later, they would be born happy and mostly healthy. One is so small compared to the other. So much like Lou was. Although he’s grown to match his older brother (older by two minutes) since then.
Death Stranding is a horror game, one filled with terrifying spirits and beings, but those things never much frightened me. The game touched on a much more personal horror, connecting with my fears as a parent and for the lives of my unborn children. It played out so incredibly close to those fears in a way that no other game had before, carrying me on a horrifying journey through my worst personal fears.
I have never felt so much terror playing a game before in my life. I pray I never feel anything like it ever again.
“I will hold you,
And protect you
So, let love warm you
’til the morning”