Disclaimer: This article contains spoilers for Death Stranding.
From a narrative game designer’s perspective, and for anyone who decided to give it an honest shot and not write it off as a walking simulator, the intricate tapestry of Death Stranding stands as a masterclass in storytelling. Among its many threads and the masterful mind of Hideo Kojima, the character Målingen, or “Mama”‘s story particularly stands out, offering rich lessons in weaving character depth, mystery, and emotional gravity. It’s worth repeating that what I’m about to say includes spoilers for the game, and chapter 5 in particular!
Crafting a Layered Character
Mama is an embodiment of duality in more ways than one – a narrative device in and of herself. If you’re a game dev wanting to create complex characters, this is one excellent example. You see, doing so is not just about framing a complex backstory. It’s about giving it to the player piecemeal, and in some cases, not at all. Letting them figure it out with every interaction, slowly peeling away the compelling layers and engaging them each step of the way.
In Chapter 5, when Sam Bridges, our protagonist of Death Stranding, finally goes to meet with Mama in person, the two had already had several exchanges about her baby, and the fact that she couldn’t move about too much or leave the place where she was so that she could care for her daughter.
So, when Sam arrives and sees that her baby is actually a BT, or “Beached Thing”, you can imagine the shock on his face. In a world where the opposing forces are the living and the dead, Mama stands as a link between worlds. However, it’s like I said – we don’t learn this right away.
Mama goes on to tell Sam about her tragic backstory, and how she was trapped under the rubble of a collapsed, or bombed building by a terrorist attack. She was in the midst of having her baby delivered via C-section when this occurred, and she “survived” by drinking timefall rain that fell from an opening in the ceiling.
Sadly, she realizes a moment later that her baby daughter was not, in fact, born here in this world, but had died and been born on the other side, or on the “beach”. It isn’t until later in the cutscene that we learn the truth.
The Power of Contextual Backstory
Kojima and his team didn’t just lay out the pieces for you like I am right now. Luckily, anyone reading this will have already played the game, at least up until this point (you better have!) Instead, it’s strategically unveiled, piece by piece. Effective backstories aren’t about filling chronological gaps, they’re about lending weight to present actions, building curiosity, and deepening the player’s emotional connection with that character.
In this case, the connection with Mama is so deep, that you’ll find troves of Reddit posts of people trying desperately to fill in the gaps they didn’t understand from their playthrough. Luckily, I’m here to do that for you for the sake of our discussion!
Drawing from Ancient Lore
I won’t spoil any concepts beyond Chapter 5 in case you haven’t played further, but in Death Stranding, but one such concept, which draws on ancient Egyptian mythology, will play a role here. We learn through an interaction Sam has with Mama that she is cold to the touch. Upon asking “Mama, are you -“, and being told to leave, the implication is that she has no internal temperature or pulse.
However, though we now have a sneaking suspicion that she’s truly not living, the game still doesn’t directly tell us! In fact, this next piece will blow your mind, and it puts it all together, but only if you’re paying attention!
Mystery and Subtle Revelations
At one point in this specific cutscene, which I’ve linked directly below with a timestamp, a BT reaches for the baby before being ushered away by Mama, as she grabs her baby back. Again, do remember that the baby is also a BT, but connected to Mama through an umbilical cord.
Anyway, at a later point, the revelation steps into the light that Mama chooses to have Sam cut that umbilical cord to her baby and finally “let go” so the child can go to the afterlife, so to speak. At that very moment, the same ponytailed figure reaches out to take the baby there, to the beach, where they can live together forever.
Even I didn’t realize this during my first playthrough, but if you look very closely, the pony-tailed BT is wearing the very same scrubs or outfit that Mama was wearing while she was pinned in the rubble!
Moments like this exemplify the power of gradual revelation in storytelling, wouldn’t you agree? It’s about holding back just enough to keep players on the edge, prompting them to connect the dots, even if that means searching it up or discussing it with others later.
Harnessing Setting for Emotional Depth
After cutting the cord, and subsequently reconciling with her twin sister, Mama’s corporeal form passes away. My wording here is very specific, you see, because Mama’s spirit was not in her body since the incident. In fact, there’s a brief moment where she blinks and the screen turns black under the rubble where you will piece together that she actually died.
Her baby, tethered to her in that moment of tragedy, kept her “alive” and tethered to the physical world while her spirit went on to occupy the beach, awaiting her daughter to join her, only to be obstructed by her physical body’s decision to keep the baby with her.
In fact, we also learn that the place where she’s built her research facility may just be either the destroyed hospital where she was crushed or the place where her rescuers took her after the fact. She is tethered there because her baby is there, and she truly can not leave!
The moment I realized this, even after having played the game up to this point, I was floored. The fact that Kojima decided not only to layer Mama’s character once, but twice and even a third time in just a few cutscenes, blew my mind.
Trusting the Player
Again, one of Mama’s narrative strengths is the trust it places in players. It doesn’t dictate every detail or overtly spell out every mystery. The fleeting darkness under the rubble, Mama’s interruptions when questioned by Sam, they’re breadcrumbs. It champions the art of ‘show, don’t tell’, pushing players to engage, deduce, and be active participants in the narrative.
If you’re creating a game story and characters you wish to be memorable, you must approach design in this manner. If you have cardboard characters because you think it’s all about the gameplay, then I’m sorry to say that that just won’t cut it! Some games are, in fact, about the gameplay, but if you present characters you hope others will care about, you’d better put the work in to make them worth caring for, and studying examples like this are exactly how you do that!