Why Human Connections Matter In Death Stranding
Imagine being unable to communicate with your friends and family. There are no emails, letter writing, or calling. You cannot roll into your car and visit them. You’re cut off and alone. It’s a terrifying scenario.
The Death Stranding story is a poignant and lonely portrayal of the dangers of an isolated society.
Sam Porter Bridges has the task of reconnecting individuals and small communities together in the wake of a crisis, dubbed Death Stranding, that has wiped out cities, large portion of human life, and all forms of connection. Yet, he holds no real motivation for building this social bridge, more obligated than driven. He exemplifies a jaded isolationism that has gripped America, doomed to fail.
It takes one meaningful connection with BB-28 to change Sam’s dismal trajectory.
Meanwhile, Higgs Monaghan, one of the story’s antagonist, tells a story of the negative impacts of a lack of social attachment.
At its core, Death Stranding is a story of just how dangerous being alone is and the power of connecting with others.
Warning: Spoilers below.
It’s Only Human To Connect
Humans are social animals and the social connections we make result in us thriving physically and psychologically (Kelly, Harper, & Mares, 2012). Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (1943) argues that to grow and reach our potential we need a sense of belonging and love.
“Humans do not live in proximity of one another. They link themselves to one another. They tie. They bond. They bind… this attachment behavior is a hallmark of the species and a key to its survival” (Lofland, 1982).
The greatest tool fostered by our early ancestors and today is creating attachments with others. Attachment behavior contributes to surviving against predators. We are stronger together.
John Bowlby (1973), a psychologist on the attachment theory, has observed in animals that becoming isolated from others (i.e. your pack, group) leads to incredible risk. You’re chances of being harmed increases. There is an instinctual need to link with others to ensure survival.
This instinct to connect help us meet the tiers of needs that go beyond food, shelter, and protection (i.e. love and belonging, esteem). We grow when we are with others, aiming for eventual self-actualization.
Sam’s Saving Grace? BB.
It’s when you connect areas to the chiral network (meaning you can communicate with both in-story communities and PS4 online communities), does the game change. You begin to interact.
Build a road or a sign and other players can like it. It’s a quick hit of oxytocin (the trust and love hormone) when your screen lists how many people used your road and appreciated it. Yet that’s not enough to motivate Sam to build social bonds.
The being that motivates Sam Porter Bridges — this quiet and lonely character — to connect is BB-28.
BB-28 is a Bridge Baby, a baby removed from a brain dead mother’s womb. These babies are both part of the world of the living and the dead, given the ability to see the dead (Beached Things/BTs). Sam interacts with BB the most and has opportunities to connect in-person.
You can soothe BB by rocking them. Take them to the local hot spring where you can watch them swim and bob in the water. You can speed in a vehicle and listen to BB giggling away. When you attach this pseudo umbilical cord to BB’s portable pod to link the two of you together, you’re given memories of a father, Cliff Unger, cooing and promising the world to their baby.
Later in the game it is revealed Cliff is our father and it is our memories we are accessing. Through BB, we recall a father’s undying love for their son.
Both Sam and players become attached to BB, despite warnings by other characters to not do so. BB is a tool, not a human. Who can blame us, though? As humans, we are not only naturally wired to want to connect, but more so with babies.
“For one, babies can subtly hack the biochemistry of their parents, even before they’re born. Such changes may tune the brain’s deeply rooted pleasure center to reward parenting behaviors.” (Mosher, 2016).
Sam cares deeply about BB and it is through BB is Sam fleshed out as a character and bears depth.
He will go at incredible lengths to make sure BB is safe. He’ll even crack a smile, laugh, and talk with BB during the journey. It’s not much, but it’s progress from the typically mute and distant Sam first introduced.
When Sam names BB “Lou” in Chapter 6, the love is clear. It’s a surprise confession and one announced when it’s revealed that BB has been progressing in development because of his connection with Sam. BB is gaining weight, brain activity is increasing, and accumulating memories. BB is becoming an actual child. Lou is thriving when he’s with Sam.
“But BB-28 here has been ‘leaning’ further and further towards the world of the living. Towards you, Sam.” — Deadman
When Lou is no longer with you for the rest of the chapter, Sam is miserable. Even going on missions without BB is dangerous and laborious.
Sam’s weak without Lou and vice versa. They need the other to survive and thrive.
Sam survives this journey and pulls himself back to the land of the living because of his connection with Lou and others.
I would even argue that it is because of this does Sam’s fear of physical contact disappear. Sam not only welcomes physical contact with other, now, he will initiate it.
This human connection motivates Sam to continue life with Lou and take on the role of a father, despite the difficulties that still make the world unsafe.
“Being a father… didn’t make me scared. It made me brave.”— Cliff
The Dangers of Isolation
If Sam Porter Bridges represents the benefits of the social bond, Higgs Monaghan represents the absence of it.
Higgs is the main antagonist for most of the game, ensuring that every attempt to connect stops. If you faithfully collect memory chips, you will have access to Higgs journals (“Unknown Man’s Journal”) that gives insight to his background and motivations.
His first memory is being yelled at by his uncle (acting as his caregiver) for crying. Higgs describes him as “ugly, violent man, full of anger with nowhere to go” (Journal #24). It’s implied in the entry that Higgs was verbally and physically abused by him regularly.
They’re, also, isolated. Higgs entire world revolves around being inside this shelter and his uncle. When he tries to seek out information, he’s beaten for his efforts. The end result of this toxic relationship is Higgs killing his uncle while they’re choking him.
There is no sign of parental attachment and affection in Higgs upbringing and coupled with isolation, Higgs story is a lonely one. Not forming early and nurturing attachments has detrimental effects to the human psyche.
Harry Harlow, another psychologist who studied the attachment theory, used infant rhesus monkeys to show the importance of companionship and comfort in early development. He took monkeys and provided an inanimate surrogate mothers for each group: one of wire and another with soft cloth.
When the monkeys became scared, those with the cloth mother would rush to her and seek comfort. In contrast, the monkeys with the wired mother did not run to their surrogate mother. “Instead, they threw themselves on the floor, clutched themselves, rocked back and forth, and screamed in terror” (Harlow, 1959). Harlow argues that those deprived of social bonds early in life make it difficult for them to develop lasting attachments.
Coupled with isolation, the negative impacts increase. Studies have found that being in isolation has negative health impacts, such as increase of suicide/suicidal ideation, heart issues, ineffective immune system, and risk of early death (Kennedy, 2015).
Higgs has no bond with society and others. His entire understanding of the world at an early age has been condensed into his uncle’s violence, snippets of truth he scrounged for, and his first encounter with a BT when disposing of his uncle’s body.
“That was the first one [BT] I sensed, but it wasn’t the last… I knew how I got it, and I knew how to get it back. All I needed was another body — and I got real good at making them. Death for life. Theirs for mine. A fair exchange.” — Higgs, Journal #26.
Through death and violence, he discovers a sense of control and power. He will chase that power into adulthood before deciding that he needs to rule not only life, but death. He even crafts a golden death mask that Egyptian Pharaohs would wear, symbolizing their “power and prestige.” His mask, however, would be “not a death mask, though, but one for living — ruling” (Journal #5). He’ll wear this mask, creating the illusion of invincibility.
However, with no real social bond, Higgs embodies the dangers that brings. Even though Higgs is a formidable opponent, he’s vulnerable because he’s alone.
Higgs is at constant risk of being preyed upon and used as a tool. When Amelie/Bridgett seek Higgs, she must have understood that vulnerability. So she offers him the power he wished over Beaches and BTS, along with knowledge. It is that moment that pushes Higgs beyond the point of no return and potential redemption.
He’s on a power trip and convinced that rushing the end of the days is imperative.
If Higgs power revolves around wielding BTs and the Timefall phenomenon, sacrificing more people to bring more BTs into existence increases it. It’s the first lesson he learned through his uncle’s death reappears: “Death for life.”
At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how much power he accumulated. Alone and invested in a dangerous ideal, Higgs was destined to fail.
Was Higgs always a lost cause? No. There could have been an opportunity (before his meeting with the Extinction Entity) to develop a healthy bond with another and connect with society. It would have been a long and difficult road, but the chance was always there.
Afterall, Sam, who purposefully kept himself in isolation and had given up on life, grew through healthy companionship.
Why couldn’t Higgs?
How To Beat Extinction? Building Bridges (BB).
Higgs stood as a foil character against Sam, but also as a reminder of how important it is to connect with others. The game provides different avenues of how you can interact and support other players to create an easier playing experience (i.e. building roads, generators, donating equipment).
Most of Sam’s successes throughout the story are through his relationship with others, the most significant being with BB/Lou.
Even the “good ending”, which is where Mankind endures and fights for another day, is only possible through Sam’s allies. Literally and metaphorically, those social bonds brought Sam back to life. There is no way to complete this story without those around and supporting Sam.
At the end of the day, Death Stranding pushes the message that the world is a less dangerous and lonely place when we’re connected with others. So next time you’re playing, give a round of likes, make BB laugh, and keep on building bridges.
Bowlby, J. Affectional bonds: Their nature and origin. In R. S. Weiss (Ed.), Loneliness: The experience of emotional and social isolation. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1973.
Harlow, H. F. (1959). Love in Infant Monkeys. Scientific American, 200(6), 68–74. doi: 10.1038/scientificamerican0659–68
Kelly, J., Harper, I., Mares, P. (2012).Social Cities. Grattan Institute. Retrieved from https://grattan.edu.au/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/057_transcript_social_cities.pdf
Kennedy, G. J. (2015, May 7). How Loneliness Affects the Mind and Body. Retrieved from http://blogs.einstein.yu.edu/how-loneliness-affects-the-mind-and-body/.
Lofland L.H. (1982) Loss and Human Connection: An Exploration into the Nature of the Social Bond. In: Ickes W., Knowles E.S. (eds) Personality, Roles, and Social Behavior. Springer Series in Social Psychology. Springer, New York, NY
Mcleod, S. (2018, May 21). Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Retrieved from https://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html.
Mosher, D. (2016, November 15). Holding a baby can make you feel bodaciously high — and it’s a scientific mystery. Retrieved from https://www.businessinsider.com/baby-bonding-oxytocin-opioids-euphoria-2016-10.