The first “Metal Gear” game since series creator Hideo Kojima left Konami under contentious circumstances in 2015, “Survive” is a theater of minor irritations made from the disassembled essentials of human survival. The game opens following a soldier, whose gender and appearance you determine at the outset, pulled through a wormhole during the invasion of Mother Base that served as the climax to “Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes.” You awake in a scalded wilderness named Dite, the only inhabitants of which are called Wanderers, decrepit zombies whose lurching bodies are topped not with a head but a shard of red crystal that glows like a piece of rock candy on a museum pedestal. After the tutorial you’ll find Virgil-AT9, an A.I. with a case of amnesia that speaks in alternating male and female voices. Your task, if the talking computer with a memory breach is to be trusted, is to explore the landscape to find the technology that will allow you to open your own wormholes and get back home.
As you scour the wastes, you’ll also need to drink water and eat every few minutes to maintain your health and stamina points, and build tools for defending against the Wanderers who frequently guard the resources you need for survival. In reality a person can survive a few days before the worst symptoms of dehydration take hold, but in “Survive” you’ll need to drink a bottle of water every three or four minutes to stave off death. Consuming an entire donkey will only tide you over for five or six minutes in “Survive”. You’ll get a bigger percentage of your hunger meter erased from a single military ration than from the meat of a sheep, which could feed a family for at least a few days in another context. As you forage, you’ll be able to carry iron and rubber harvested from dozen oil drums and abandoned car tires, yet you’ll be limited to carrying just 27 handgun bullets.
To add drama to these absurdities, there’s a significant imbalance between how often you need to consume food and water and the number of places you can get them. Spending more than a few minutes looking for fresh meat can ultimately cost you more in food stores than it will get you. It often feels more useful to scavenge for weapons material and complete shorter side quests than wasting time looking for food. You can then restart with the free health and thirst bonus the game gives you after each death. It’s a bizarre twist, a game about survivalism in which the best way to proceed is to ignore your fundamental needs and just accept repeated deaths to amass resources for combat and story missions.
The game’s first real paywall arrives as naturally as a rain cloud crossing the horizon. You can pay to boost your resource collection rates, unlock more slots to save particular weapon loadouts, send extra squads of AI-controlled survivors out on scavenging missions, and save slots. After a few hours it’s hard to shake the feeling that “Survive” is more about consumerism than survivalism, a game that makes you hoard inessentials while ignoring basic needs, as if you were saving up for an Apple Watch by not eating for two months straight.
Though we often think of survivalism as a kind of return to the primitive truths about humanity, it’s a peculiarly modern phenomenon. Its fixation on resource gathering is a mask for acquisitiveness, in which one focuses on how to extract a maximum number of resources from an environment, not on reaching a state of stable equilibrium within an ecosystem.
It’s easy to see how these companion desires play out in “Survive” and its bizarre confusion between accumulation and survival. It’s not a difficult game but a bossy one, and the more illogical its demands the more gratifying the relief when you’ve satisfied them. There’s a similar incongruity that runs through shows like “Naked and Afraid” and “Survivorman,” which aren’t ultimately about primitivism but the very modern anxiety of isolation, of being exiled and forced to live without any of the companionship and community that makes human life possible. “Survive” preys on those superstitious fears, allowing you to feel like you’re accommodating the needs of some external presence, holding onto the last scrap of companionship you’ve got left on the other side of the wormhole, up to, and well past the point where it makes any sense.
Michael Thomsen is a writer in New York. His work has appeared in the New Yorker, the Atlantic, Slate, the New Republic, the Daily Beast, the New Inquiry, Kill Screen, Edge and Gamasutra. Follow him on Twitter @mike_thomsen.
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