The Dust hangs inert over the world of Metal Gear Survive like a dead storm cloud. It's a constant reminder of the invisible scale of its mostly empty world. It creates a compelling illusion—that behind that strange, subtly shifting cloud is a place of infinite, terrible possibility.
The illusion is mostly just that. Metal Gear Survive is, in its moment-to-moment play, remarkably uneventful. All tension in the experience comes largely from the player herself. If she is able to invest herself in the mundane concerns of Dite—feeding herself, gathering supplies, hunting down crates of inexplicably placed weapon diagrams—then she can fill in the gaps the way the game wants her to, with an abiding sense of unease and scarcity. But for most players, it's just . . . flat.
Except, that is, for the Dust itself. Inside Survive's otherwise dull mechanics, the Dust—and the aesthetics and design choices surrounding it—remains, perhaps, the most interesting thing about the game. And I want to take this last week of Bullet Points' coverage of the game to highlight the tiny amount of things the game does right.
From the moment you enter the alternate dimension of Dite, the Dust is an ever present companion. It's a cloud of fog that engulfs most of the world, unbreathable by humans and full of Wanderers—Metal Gear Survive's misshapen, almost crystalline answer to zombies. It's an aesthetic marvel, perhaps Metal Gear Survive's single visual achievement: a softly undulating wall of gray, giving way to a suffocating morass of darkness inside. It successfully captures the feeling of driving into, and out of, a massive clutch of fog, light splashing out of little open pockets of the air when entering or leaving its embrace until it clears in a single, quiet release.
But more than that, the Dust in Survive works by disrupting the legibility of the game world in productive, interesting ways. Survival games typically function on a series of repeated tasks and a growing, albeit tenuous sense of mastery of the environment to go along with them. You learn, over time, where the resources are, how to fend off the enemies, and what equipment you absolutely need to carry with you to survive. In Metal Gear Survive, this is mostly systemized as the world map, which contains a record of all tasks that need doing as well as the navigational data needed to complete them. Waypoints are liberally used to help the player find her way around.
But the Dust makes the map effectively useless—while inside, waypoints disappear, and your location only shows up on the map at random intervals, meant to represent a signal occasionally piercing the thick of the fog. This simple method of tension building, a violation of the most sacred tentpole of what critic Clayton Purdom once called "map games," immediately makes the game world more threatening than it would be otherwise. For the first time, becoming lost—authentically, heedlessly lost—is a real possibility. The game's shallow resource system makes running out of air and dying in the Dust essentially impossible, but without the map, the sense of isolation is almost enough to trick the player into bracing herself for actual danger.
The Dust solves one of the significant problems of map games by disrupting the rote repetition of movement. When a game map is so central, actions become mechanical as you zoom from waypoint to waypoint, drawing crisscrossing lines between map objectives. By crippling the map's normal functionality, Survive jars the player awake. She becomes, for a moment, exactly what the game wants her to be: a wary sojourner, carefully walking through an otherworldly purgatory.
Disrupting the systems around the game's map makes Survive’s broad, recycled world a place you actually have to pay attention to. You have to see it, and listen to it, or you'll lose track of your direction and end up walking in circles, chased by roaring monsters. The tension that disruption elicits doesn't last, but there's a kernel of a productive insight there, into the way players have been trained to interact with open worlds and what could be done to cause them real unease. In a game built out of borrowed ideas, it's an insight worth recognizing.
Julie Muncy is a writer and poet based in Asheville, NC. She’s a contributor to WIRED.com, and has had her work published at Vice, Rolling Stone, The AV Club, and anywhere else she can convince people to post it. You can contact her on twitter, where she tweets regularly about videogames, the Mountain Goats, and sandwiches. She has very strong feelings about Kanye West.