header is screenshot from Metal Gear Survive
The Many Deaths of Metal Gear Survive
Reid McCarter

Death is a funny thing in Metal Gear, mostly becomes it doesn’t always mean an awful lot. Important characters, from the blood-sucking Vamp and cybernetic Gray Fox to the looming figures of Liquid Snake and Big Boss, may die in one scene only to return in a later game, living on past the apparent destruction of their bodies. Partially the result of a storyline whose sequels have spun on long past several natural concluding points, the effect is that death in Metal Gear takes on a strange logic of its own. Audiences are told that killing is tragic and a life defined by war is a diminished one, but, at the same time, every further entry to the series brings with it new resurrections that chip away at just how much the physical act of death actually matters.

In Metal Gear Survive, this theme has never been so puzzlingly inconsistent. A bizarre step-child of the series proper, Survive immediately sets itself apart from prior Metal Gear games not just in the way it plays or the story it occasionally remembers to tell, but also in its approach to mortality and, as strange as it is to write, whether or not death means anything at all.

Survive’s player assumes the role of a customized grunt in Big Boss’s private army who just barely lives through the catastrophic attack that destroys the Boss’s military base and sets up the events of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. The game’s early scenes linger on the devastation caused by a rival group’s assault. Coffins filled with those killed in action are lined up on the platforms of the oceanic base and given a watery burial by those left behind. Officers survey lists of the dead, wounded, and missing. Audiences are meant to be impressed by the fact that something terrible has happened. Soon, one soldier—presumed dead—is claimed by a mysterious government bureaucrat, brought to a secret location, and revealed to be alive. That soldier is told they will travel through a wormhole to an alternate dimension (honestly; don’t worry about the details) in order to rescue others, learn more about an alternative energy source called “kuban,” and discover a cure for the parasitic disease associated with all of this mess.

After embarking through the wormhole and setting out into the desolate wasteland of “Dite” (the Dante references come hard, fast, and directly on the nose for the first hour of the game), the soldier—dubbed “the Captain”—must learn to keep her or himself alive by scavenging resources from the world around them. Most immediately apparent: thirst and hunger bars that constantly deplete if the Captain isn’t eating and drinking at a volume and rate that would make a real-life human being’s stomach burst like an overfilled water balloon. Venturing into the poisonous miasma that engulfs much of Dite, the Captain also has to wear an oxygen tank that regularly needs topping up, is forced to gather wood, iron, steel, and other materials to build a home base with beds, medical stations, weapons-crafting workshops, and devices to purify or cook food and water. Leave any of these needs untended for too long and the character dies. If its title doesn’t make it clear enough, the rest of the game hammers home the idea that survival is the main goal of everything that takes place over the several dozen hours to follow.

Because of this—and in a different way than past Metal Gear games—Survive is relentless with reminders that its protagonist is a human being whose existence is as fragile (if not more so) than their real-world counterparts. Starve for long enough and the Captain’s health will tick down to zero; avoid drinking clean water and the same thing happens. Wounds sustained in battle must, in an echo of Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, be treated with stitches and other medicine in order to regain full health. Hilariously, the Captain will periodically wretch out torrents of vomit if they consume spoiled food or water. Even the battles, which rely largely on melee combat since ammunition is far more scarce than other Metal Gear games, can go wrong in a frustrating instant. Mortality is always on the mind.

But still, death never feels very significant, even as the game insists it is at every moment. Its main enemies, zombie-like creatures whose heads are replaced wholesale with a craggy eruption of glowing crystal, are dressed in outfits repurposed from The Phantom Pain—the striped undershirts and baggy military trousers of its mainly Russian soldiers. But any relations to the real-world Cold War battles from which these character models are drawn are ignored. (A throwaway reference to the Vietnam War in Survive’s opening is as close as it gets.) There’s an incoherent, hazy bit of commentary begging to be extracted from the fact that these zombies, once smacked, cut, shot, or immolated, leave crystals on the ground for the Captain to harvest, turning their second deaths into material gain. But following that trail leads nowhere, given the thematic void that characterizes every other moment of the game. These soldiers are not soldiers, but stumbling monsters totally divorced from any larger context than their place as an amorphous threat. They die with the tinkle of a broken chandelier—they are not anything like human. The Captain, despite their name, never feels much like a soldier either. Their battle against the zombies only represents a single thread in the faded tapestry of that well-worn story of the human will to survive, against all odds.

The problem with even this most basic theme, though, is that the player is deeply unlikely to care about the Captain, mute and physically customizable to the point of being an anti-character. Dead from a rumbling stomach; dead from spending too long in the growling embrace of a zombie moshpit; dead from standing next to an exploded mortar—regardless of cause, the game’s treatment of death feels meaningless.

That Survive fails even to make good on any small dramatic potential inherent to its premise makes it a disappointing game on its own, but even more so within the context of the series it’s a part of. The weakest entries to Metal Gear succumbed to the almost inevitable pull of self-mythologizing indulgence, resurrecting characters better left in the ground. But even as the player encountered immortal vampires, arm-possessing DNA ghosts, and improbably hearty old men once thought dead, these kind of plot contortions were in service of, or secondary to, a preoccupation with the theme of death itself. Every one of the games used its combat setting to hold court on human violence, discussing the importance of every death, from major characters down to the faceless soldiers killed by the player character. Survive, despite the theme it chooses and legacy it inherits, never manages to offer even the faintest approximation of this or an argument for its existence apart from the games it follows. It’s a game about survival—and everything that term entails—in name only.


Reid McCarter is a writer and editor based in Toronto. His work has appeared at GQ, The AV Club, Kill Screen, Playboy, Paste, and VICE.