I am the member of the Bullet Points doomsday cult with the least Metal Gear knowledge by far. Luckily, it doesn’t matter how much you know about this series going into Metal Gear Survive; even I can comfortably say it feels like an ambitious Metal Gear Solid V mod at best. At worst it is a creative desert, an attempt by Konami to wring more profit out of the proprietary Fox Engine. The Fox Engine was not developed exclusively for MGSV, per se, but thanks to the nasty, public falling-out between Metal Gear figurehead Hideo Kojima and the corporate dogs at Konami, MGSV ended up being its flagship game, flanked by five consecutive years of Pro Evolution Soccer and a single demo for a Silent Hill revival that ended up axed.
In what turned out to be a cruel little irony, the Fox Engine was only viable because it was going to run the next Metal Gear. It took four years of work to build an engine intended expressly to minimize development time, an engine that is now essentially gathering dust. Kojima is running his own company, making Death Stranding for Sony on Guerrilla Games’ Decima engine. Konami’s future as a game publishing house is up in the air. Metal Gear Survive is not going to convince anyone that there is much life left in this series no matter who’s at the wheel—it’s an exhausted game hopping six different trends at once. But it is not uninteresting.
Julie Muncy’s piece at Wired examines Survive through a metatextual lens, discussing how it repurposes the Metal Gear legacy for its own ends. “It's impossible not to read the wreckage of Mother Base as a metaphor for the franchise,” she writes. Again, Kojima himself was not involved with the development of Survive—his absence has led to some truly dead-end auteurist bullshit, desperate to neatly diagnose a messy situation. The game was designed by a corps of Metal Gear veterans: director/designer Yota Tsutsumizaki dates back to 2004’s Snake Eater, and producer Yuji Korekado had worked with Kojima since 1996’s Policenauts. Creature designer Masahiro Ito worked on the first three Silent Hill games—an unimpeachable resume that’s largely wasted on Survive’s hordes of zombie grunt enemies. Only one monster, a titanic carbonized worm that the player first glimpses half-obscured by dust and ruined buildings, feels genuinely intimidating.
I note all those returning names because Muncy, in reading the circumstances of the game’s creation as integral to its text, is not writing from behind fannish nostalgia blinders; quite the opposite. Metal Gear Survive is dull as a self-contained object. It really can’t be separated from its own history. It only offers anything when taken in context, unless you’re simply looking to write a pan or list off all the available mechanics. Art that is “about itself” can be tiresome; oftentimes that interpretation is a rhetorical gambit by the self-conscious critic trying to layer on meaning. But Survive is a game where you strip an entire alternate dimension for parts; to empower yourself, to—yes—keep yourself alive. It takes place in the wake of MGSV in every respect, a shellshocked response to a foreclosed future. The game’s blunt allusions to Dante do make a certain sense in this light.
As a “survival game,” though, Survive is a failure, however much empathy one may have for its creators as beleaguered workers. Michael Thomsen at the Washington Post nails it when he says “it’s hard to shake the feeling that ‘Survive’ is more about consumerism than survivalism.” The player’s comically overactive hunger and thirst meters position them as a sort of slavering hypercapitalist maw (surely no parallels should be drawn to Konami); the environment must be razed to keep them alive, like a smoke-spitting factory town given human form. The survival game often intersects with the post-apocalyptic genre, or at least something barren and lawless enough to look like it; the latter’s tendency toward brutish self-interest and easy nihilism finds a comfortable partner in survival games’ isolating, ravenous mechanics.
Author Jeff Vandermeer wrote that sci-fi and speculative fiction often fails to interrogate itself, to “questio[n] whether elements of modern society we think will lead toward a golden age are actually hindrances and support a regressive order.” These assumptions and unexamined biases filter into fiction; they shape the worlds we imagine. That survival games aren’t really about surviving, but about consuming everything in service of perpetuating one’s own life, is revealing. Games like Metal Gear Survive, ARK: Survival Evolved, The Division, DayZ, and others force the player to go through varying amounts of trouble to build weapons and shelter—the more trouble, the more realism—but they all operate by the same Hobbesian post-apocalyptic logic+. Then, as a top layer to this, multiplayer games are competitive! Gamers like to kill (or at least defeat) each other in virtual spaces: this loose organizing principle finds expression across all games, but in particular, “surviving” as videogames imagine it means “killing.”
In fact, the survival game fuses together so many noxious design trends, from crafting and its albatross of systems to monetized progression, that it has begun to feel a bit like the heat death of videogames (open-world games are off the hook!). In Metal Gear Survive, the strain of creative direction versus craven money-chasing is suffocating. Here is a once-vital series, which pushed its own capacity for brazen intertextuality and formalism—that always felt unique, even from my outside perspective—first gutted and then stuffed with mechanics stripped from a dozen other games.
That Metal Gear Survive was released in the same month as Jason Rohrer’s One Hour One Life, which deliberately counters the survival genre’s runaway gluttony and hard-hearted opportunism, is if nothing else a welcome reminder that the Medium Of Games is not a waste of time if you’re looking in the right places. The mainstream space is as ossified and intermittently rewarding as paperback thrillers or superhero movies; we have to seek out the work that means something to us. Metal Gear was a series that was bold and bizarre and stupid on a blockbuster level. Metal Gear Survive is a shambles, cobbled together from leftover assets and running on a game engine that signifies the death of the series it means to continue. It’s hard to think of a better metaphor for the mindless, self-devouring churn of big-budget game development.
+ Wouldn’t you know it, there are exceptions! To name two: Don’t Starve Together gives away its cooperative aspect right in the name, and The Long Dark focuses on an intimate, moment-to-moment struggle with the wilderness. And as we discussed on this month’s podcast, survival horror games also translate psychological strain into mechanics alongside resource scarcity and deadly monsters.
Astrid B writes about movies and videogames on the internet. Follow her on Twitter.