header is screenshot from Metal Gear Survive
In Metal Gear Survive, Survival is Impossible
Ed Smith

In the original Metal Gear Solid, there’s a profound disparity between what Snake and his comrades say Snake can do and what Snake can actually do when he’s in the player’s hands. Colonel Campbell, Mei Ling, Master Miller—they all rhapsodise about how Snake is the greatest living soldier, how his battlefield travails and personal body count are the thing of military legend. But aiming a pistol requires standing Snake completely still, holding down the Square button, and at the same time tapping the PS1 D-pad to reposition the gun in one of four possible pre-set directions. Snake’s movement is rigid (he can run but not walk, he has a wide turn circle, and he can’t move at all while crouching) and his supposedly world-class hand-to-hand combat skills comprise exactly two punches and one kick.

Metal Gear Solid is hardly the only game to suffer from this ludonarrative dissonance, but the difference between Snake as described and Snake as experienced provides a peculiar example of where not being able to do all the superlative things your game character is supposed to be able to do benefits the game’s aesthetic. Shadow Moses Island is dark, dank, and desolate. Between the snowbound heliport and gunmetal confines of its hangars and labs, there’s a pronounced sense of being isolated. Weapons and items, you have to find them yourself. The Codec, your single channel of communication to the outside world, repeatedly loses its signal and fails. You have no idea who, if anyone, you can trust; alone in gloomy, abandoned and decrepit enemy territory, Snake is presented as persistently threatened and overwhelmed. Metal Gear Solid’s frustrating and awkward mechanics complement its atmosphere, by making the prospect of confrontation, if not daunting as such, at least undesirable—stuck with the game’s unintuitive controls, the player is appropriately, method-actingly, disempowered.

You don’t have to eat food, you don’t have to build shelter and you don’t have to cure your wounds—at least, not in any detailed sense. And yet, the original Metal Gear Solid is more like a game of survival than Metal Gear Survive, which not only has the premise of “survival” inscribed in its title but prominently features all the aforementioned and generic staples, one of the key differences being: in Metal Gear Survive the character can move, fight, and shoot like a capable soldier.

Creating tension by limiting the player’s ability to run and shoot at the same time is kind of a cheap trick; it’s formal, and heavy-handed, and as much as it might help equalise Metal Gear Solid’s atmosphere of duress, it also contradicts most of its narrative setup. It’s also, partially, a product of hardware. Making Snake bendable/poseable to the same extent as his anonymous Survive descendant was technologically impossible for game-makers in 1998, so entirely crediting his weak- and stiffness to artistic purpose is unfair. On the contrary, modern technology, and modern videogame sensibilities, do not benefit the survival aesthetic.

Modern games boast porcelain-smooth textures, complex physics engines, and indefatigable frame-rates. Because of how much they cost to produce, and in-turn to buy, publishers demand a high rate of financial return, and players expect value for their money. Both these pressures lead developers to create bigger, longer games, whose sheer size impels consumers to consume.

Metal Gear Survive is a modern game. It looks refined, smooth and pristine, it’s expensively-made and marketed, and it goes on, and on, and on. Its modernity, however—its contemporary production value, not just in terms of money spent but its ideas, mechanics, and conceits given precedent—undercut its aesthetic and its premise, i.e. its images and themes pertaining to struggle and survivalism. The contradiction between what Metal Gear Survive implies and how Metal Gear Survive actually plays out is straightforwardly apparent in its character’s movement: fast, accurate, and able to perform myriad physical actions, all of which in reality would demand peak fitness, she’s the opposite of Metal Gear Solid 1’s Solid Snake. She’s an adaptable omni-soldier whose physiological sublimity suggests that there’s no need to worry—that she can survive anything.

More significantly, though less immediately apparent, Metal Gear Survive’s resource-accumulating and base-building mechanics, because they’re stretched out over such a long play time and, by that virtue, gratuitous extremity, more or less convert the game from a virtual fight for survival into an exercise in the player exerting power. As she accrues materials, crafts weapons, recruits soldiers, and renovates and improves her ad-hoc home base, she becomes less a survivalist than an expansionist, her game not so much Metal Gear Survive as Metal Gear Thrive, whereby she progressively establishes dominance over the underworld Dite’s elements.

There is a fundamental conflict between the game’s survivalistic pretence and its adherence, maybe confinement, to modern blockbuster expectations. “Survival” implies a situation that is urgent, threatening and precarious, and by its nature short-lived—if somebody has survived beyond a certain amount of time, like they do in Metal Gear Survive, which lasts tens of real hours, myriad in-game weeks, that person’s no longer surviving, impassive; they’re simply a survivor. The generic expectations of the modern videogame blockbuster—astounding visuals, long runtime, metric tons of content, reliably supplied—undercut Survive’s thematic and aesthetic foundations. “Survival” connotes bleakness, primitiveness, and a kind of perceptible baseness, an experience that looks as bad as it feels. Metal Gear Survive is vivid, expensive-looking and evidently finely-cultivated, anything but coarse. “Survival” also connotes deprivation, and the preciousness of materials; in Metal Gear Survive, there is plenty to do and collect, and you’re encouraged to spend it all not to preserve yourself but construct a sort of empire. Finally, “survival” connotes intensity, a violent experience that in Joseph Conrad, Daniel Defoe, and Cormac McCarthy’s writing borders on religious, a pseudo rite-of-passage from man into a transcendent, biophiliac Man; Metal Gear Survive is too long and eventually too comfortable-feeling to be “of survival”, and its character is appreciable by how much stuff she’s picked up rather than her spiritual transformation.

Which isn’t to say that modern games, or games made using modern technology, by their modernity, preclude the survival theme nor the survival aesthetic. The original Metal Gear Solid’s limitations may make it feel like more a survivalistic experience than Survive, but those limitations exist and are only apparent by comparison to modern standards.

When it released, Metal Gear Solid was also a technical marvel, and Snake’s what-now-seem-like rigid and unhelpful motor functions were far more intuitive than say Pac-Man’s or the guy from Contra’s, so it’s not like as videogame technology progresses and videogame characters become accordingly more ambulant and versatile, videogames’ capacity for depicting human frailty will correlatively drop off. Likelier is the opposite, that game-makers, as their technology advances, will gain more ways to make their characters express and emote, and means of expressing their characters’ vulnerabilities beyond how good or bad those characters are with guns.

Metal Gear Survive’s failure to capture certain essences of “survival” has to do more with modern gaming tastes and expectations than with modern gaming technology. If both the literal definition and literary tradition of “survival” relate to human struggle, human experience of privation, and human emotional transfiguration, it’s impossible, and makes no sense, to try to explore survival via the modern blockbuster videogame, which owing to a combination of influences is now a virtual staging ground for exercises in agency, power, and accruement of materials; the survival theme being in this case the square peg to modern videogames’ round hole. Metal Gear Survive exemplifies how terminally ill-suited the modern blockbuster game is to the survival aesthetic and theme.


Ed Smith contributes to Edge, Rolling Stone, Paste, GamesTM, and PCGamesN. Find him on Twitter @mostsincerelyed.