“We cannot live only for ourselves. A thousand fibers connect us with our fellow men; and among those fibers, as sympathetic threads, our actions run as causes, and they come back to us as effects.” ― Herman Melville
“Just as the wave cannot exist for itself, but is ever a part of the heaving surface of the ocean, so must I never live my life for itself, but always in the experience which is going on around me.” ― Albert Schweitzer
“The ladder offers long-lasting durability and security…” ― Excerpt from a product description for an extension ladder from Home Depot
There is a rockface shrouded in early-morning or midday mist, the time of day remains relatively unknown. Sam Porter Bridges has a delivery to make and he must climb this sheer wall of eons-old rock. Sam doesn’t have any ladders with him, but there’s one already there. It is a bit rusted from the Timefall but it is standing all the same. Sam uses it. Another Porter in another time left it there. Sam will never see him, and that Porter will never see Sam. But they are intimately connected, the ladder a bridge between these two being who will never know one another. And this reverberates to the actual players as well. I will never know the player who left that ladder in that random spot of the map right when and where I needed it most. But we’re connected in some way.
Movement in Death Stranding is everything. Navigating the game’s open-world is a communal effort soaked in solitude. The asynchronous approach Kojima Productions took to the game’s multiplayer is as intimate as it is powerful. Players can leave traversal items (bridges, ladders, etc.), notes, and digital markers anywhere in the open world and it populates into each player’s game, a reflection of their own journey. These journies all bleed together into the open-world which makes it feel somewhat alive. Through knowing that other Porters have walked the same land and path as you give everything an extra hint of melancholy because we never see them. All we see is what they’ve left behind. We don’t know where they started or where they ended, but each individual journey can be chronicled by the ephemera left in their wake. It is beautiful.
For me, this beauty and sadness are best personified through Death Stranding’s ladder. It is a simple item. Throw it up against a wall to climb it, up a steep hill to keep your footing, or across a body of water or chasm to act as a simple bridge. It is, arguably, the simplest item in an otherwise exceedingly complex game full of proper nouns, unhinged Kojima-ness, and babies who can sense ghost monster things. The ladder is delightfully grounded. Easily defined and unchanged. It is an item devoid of mechanical depth, its purpose is clear and it serves that purpose simply and clearly. But there is depth to the ladder, not as a mechanic but as a symbol.
The ladder in Death Stranding, when placed in the game world, is an extension of the player themselves. It is both a tool and a helping hand. A cookie crumb along our trail from point A to B to C and beyond throughout the game. Other items laid down in the world are similar to the ladder, such as the rope and the bridge, but there is a clarity of purpose to the ladder that stands above all else. The thematic depth of such a simple tool, especially when extended to the game’s light multiplayer, shared-but-not-shared world functionalities, is a genuinely beautiful thing. A knot along the rope that ties us all together, and that rope is full of knots tied by others to and for others. Yet, even with all that said, none of that is necessarily what drew me to Death Stranding’s ladder in the first place. I love Death Stranding’s ladder for what it stands for, but I really, really love Death Stranding’s ladder just for what it is—a really damn good in-game ladder.
Most video game ladders aren’t things we actively think about. Hit “A” to climb. Sometimes we see this action in first-person and sometimes we see it in third-person. More often than not, the actual act of climbing the ladder is a short cutscene. Control is ripped from the player in this moment. The weight and purpose of the ladder are lost. It is just a little, meant to be forgotten thing that gets us from setpiece to setpiece, that's all. Death Stranding refutes that approach to game design at almost every turn, and for me, that is most beautifully shown via the game’s ladder. It is an object Sam Bridges, the player character, has to place. They aren’t already out in the game world for us, we decide where the ladder goes. And if there is a ladder out in the game world, it was placed by another player. This deepens its purpose. The affordances of the ladder thus begin to grow thanks to its situational fluidity. It doesn't just get us up and down something. No, it can now serve as a bridge, over rapid waters and chasms alike, or as a simple means of keeping one’s balance over a sharp hill. The ladder blossoms into something more. And the physical (within the game world) act of placing the ladder has a sense of life to it. The rich animation of Sam holding the ladder, his weight shifting and sometimes straining as he carries it and then places it where he wants it actively tells a story, both about Same the character and the ladder itself. Kojima Productions is no slouch when it comes to detail, especially in sound design, and the sonic character of the ladder is, for lack of a better turn of phrase, really fucking satisfying. It clanks with a sense of metallic purpose as it is pressed against a rockface and Sam’s boots reverberate off the serrated surface of each handle with a force and impact that grounds him as a physical presence in the game world. He does not glide through spaces as a Call of Duty in-game avatar might, no, he stumbles and shifts his weight throughout every inch of Death Stranding. He is a bumbling, stumbling idiot. But once you hit that button to climb the ladder, he is afforded a sense of train-track-like grace. He isn’t going to fall or tumble off that ladder. The ladder will keep him safe whether he is going up, down, or across it. His footfalls will echo through the empty post(ish)-apocalyptic(ish) world.
The ladder is a form of life, a connecting tissue for a collective journey. Death Stranding understands that and then imbues the simple tool with such purpose that one might find themselves writing a little essay about it. But the ladder, both in-game and in real life, is a simple, elegant tool. Death Stranding also understands that, which is why the thing becomes a character unto itself. It speaks in metallic clangs and journeys alongside Sam, whether by backpack or carried in his hands. We place the ladder and it gets us over the next hill, but it will never see the crest of that hill. Its purpose, until destroyed or rendered unusable, is to get folks from where they are to where they will be. And thousands upon thousands of ladders in Death Stranding, right now, at this very moment, are doing just that.