Metal Gear Survive Is the Rebirth and Death of Metal Gear
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, the last Metal Gear game helmed by series creator Hideo Kojima, begins with the destruction of a military base. This building, an off-shore platform designed as the home for a mercenary army, falls into fire and rubble, collapsing into the ocean as enemy guns and bombs tear it asunder. The destruction nearly kills Big Boss, the villain-protagonist of the game, putting him in a coma for years. When he awakens, he concerns himself with rebuilding, and revenge.
Metal Gear Solid V is the story of that quest, but it also tells the story of its own storied creation. Much of this tale isn't known, but the gaming press has scraped it together from the aftermath: at some point during Metal Gear Solid V's development, Konami, its publisher, changed directions, moving toward mobile games and Japanese gambling machines as a quicker, easier way to turn its franchises into profitability. It began to segway away from traditional major game development, putting a wedge between Konami and Kojima Productions, its former flagship studio. After Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain shipped in 2015, Hideo Kojima left Konami, taking an unknown number of Kojima Productions staff with him to start an independent company. Metal Gear, like Big Boss's Mother Base, had fallen apart.
That was nearly three years ago. Last year, Konami unveiled the future for Metal Gear—for Konami's big-budget game development, for the Fox Engine software once built by Kojima's team to safeguard the future of the saga, and of Kojima's work itself. That future was Metal Gear Survive, an unlikely spin-off taking place in an alternate reality overrun by uncanny monsters and hidden ruins. It takes one of the most storied, most strange franchises in the history of the medium, and it turns it into a zombie game.
If Metal Gear Solid V is about destruction and revenge, Metal Gear Survive, built out of re-contextualized art assets and design ideas from its immediate predecessor, is about the wreckage: the wreckage left behind by the end of the Konami/Kojima Productions relationship, and the wreckage of Metal Gear Solid V itself.
Metal Gear Survive begins precisely where Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain does: with the destruction of Mother Base. Even using some of the same footage, it details the carnage that led to the death of Big Boss' mercenary army and the massive industrial structure that housed it. But where The Phantom Pain follows Big Boss, Survive's first and perhaps most interesting gesture is to focus instead on the soldiers under his command. In a bizarre twist, some of these soldiers, along with some of Mother Base itself, are pulled through an interdimensional wormhole into the wasteland world of Dite (the Dante's Inferno reference is both intentional and thoroughly overexplained, in true Metal Gear fashion), whose inhabitants have been turned into monsters by some unknown, crystalline parasite.
This gesture, in the form of an out-there weird science plot twist, is also the first sign that this is Metal Gear minus much of the creative talent that formerly powered it. Metal Gear under Kojima Productions always had a balance of mundane and magic, military paranoia and freakish science fiction, but the balance has never been as tipped in one direction as it is here. Whereas Metal Gear is often silly, Survive immediately turns cheesy, and rarely stops. Judging by writing alone, Survive could rank as the most expensive direct-to-DVD sequel in history.
But, in a move that would have been unheard of in traditional Metal Gear, the writing of Survive is secondary to the experience of its world. Dite is a strange place. Even ignoring the unfortunate political implications of labelling re-used environmental designs, originally meant to represent Afghanistan and Angola as a "wasteland," it's a distinctly uncanny locale. A metaphorical purgatory, Dite is marred by fog, ruins, and monsters. Portals occasionally open in the sky, dropping wreckage and refugees. Pieces of Mother Base are strewn about the scenery, gnarled and scorched. Walls of choking dust turn much of the world into a hazy hellscape, forcing you to carry an oxygen tank and move with the utmost care.
As one of Big Boss' refugees, stranded in Dite, your job is to get home. In an inversion of Metal Gear's traditional stealth action, the goals here are simple: find food, build a base, and live long enough to find a way to open a portal out of this awful, mesmerizing place. To do this, you have to make use of all of Metal Gear Solid V's systems, now rearranged and added to in service of survival. You have to sneak, and fight, using your military training and whatever improvised tools you can find. Like in MGSV, you build and defend a base, and that base becomes a home for research, resource gathering, and personnel management. Like in MGSV, you take part in missions dotting the landscape, gaining materials and knowledge to expand your base while unravelling a strange, twisty narrative.
But the shift in focus, from commander to grunt, brings an urgency and depth of insight that's surprising, even if that insight fails to ever broach the written narrative. Big Boss and his ilk were killers, bad men, villains created by circumstance as well as by their own choices. While Kojima's games often align the player's perspective with that of Big Boss, it also criticizes it, and at best Metal Gear Solid V is a tale of gray morality versus black morality. At its worst, it's a tale of monstrous warlords trying to destroy each other, the political stability of the world left to their awful whims. As a soldier left behind by that conflict, you stand in contrast to that struggle in Survive. Big Boss is gone, as are his wars. What's left in Dite is just the aftermath, the casualties that are forgotten about. Dite is a purgatory for wayward soldiers left to die.
It's also a purgatory for Metal Gear itself. Playing, it's impossible not to read the wreckage of Mother Base as a metaphor for the franchise. MGSV was a notoriously incomplete game, at least according to fan interpretation. It lacks a satisfying ending, and many of the late-game missions are just old missions repurposed. Much of the care that characterizes the older titles of Kojima Productions seems to be missing, a victim of the game's behind-the-scenes circumstances. In that context, Survive reads like a self-conscious attempt to sift through that wreckage. Its framing may be derivative, but that seems less a problem here and more of a feature: Metal Gear Survive takes the art and design of its predecessor and attempts to make a complete game out of it. As the player sifts through the wreckage of Mother Base and Big Boss's revenge, its design is sifting through Metal Gear, deciding what to keep and what to throw away.
The decisions the developers of Survive make are not always good, and it's clear Konami intends the game at least in part to try to recoup the money and time used to develop the Fox Engine, which was ultimately only used to make two games (Metal Gear Solid V and the aborted Silent Hill teaser PT) before Kojima left the company. It's full of microtransactions and busy work. But it's also full of surprising bursts of excellence, some borrowed from the heights of its predecessor and some wholly new. The monsters, shambling soldiers with precious crystals bursting from their limbs, were designed by Masahiro Ito, who created some of the best creatures in Konami's other orphaned flagship, Silent Hill. As dead soldiers that need to be killed again so they can be literally mined as resources, their design makes explicit ideas about dehumanization and war that Metal Gear Solid V leaves to subtext. The defensive combat, powered by the same design that made MGSV incredible to play, is tense and engaging.
There's a moment around the middle of Metal Gear Solid V that is telling of what Metal Gear Survive is, and what it does. In it, Big Boss, in the wake of another enemy attack, memorializes some of his fallen soldiers. Refusing to empty their ashes into the sea, he declares that he will make diamonds out of them, so that his loyal soldiers can be carried into battle posthumously. Disregarding the silliness of the idea, this moment emerges as both sweet and tragic. Big Boss is trying to honor the sacrifices made in his cause, but he's blinded by the cruelty of his cause. The only thing he has to offer men and women victimized by war is the promise of more war.
Metal Gear Survive is like that. It's a fascinating, sometimes beautiful commentary on the life and death of Metal Gear, made in the absence of the creative minds who guided it for decades. But there's something tragic that, to memorialize the loss of one of gaming's greatest, Konami could think of nothing but to make another Metal Gear.
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