Metal Gear Survive is demanding, oppressive, obtuse, and not what most people would traditionally think of as “fun.” I’ve played for hours and haven’t achieved anything meaningful. My most dependable method of defeating the zombie-like Wanderers littered around its barren world is still poking at them with a sharp stick from the other side of a chain link fence. And I spend the majority of my time throwing up because I drank dirty water and contracted a horrible stomach bug.
And yet, I keep coming back to it. Not just because I’m obligated to soldier on and review the game, but because on the other side of the desperation and stress is a small nugget of satisfaction; the sweet release of endorphins that comes with completing an objective. I’m the rat pushing a button for a food pellet, and by god I can’t stop.
This manipulation of human psychology as game design has always been a tenet of role-playing games, but it has become a pervasive part of most genres of late. Metal Gear Survive pushes it to its most ruthless, demanding extremes to make good on its classification as an action game focused on survival.
The game is set shortly after the attack on Mother Base in Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes. During this siege, a wormhole into a parallel world appears, sucking in a chunk of Mother Base, along with the members of Snake’s Diamond Dogs and the attacking XOF forces. Your character is seemingly killed or rendered unconscious while defending Mother Base, but is brought back by an enigmatic UN scientist and constantly frowning Laurence Fishburne look-alike named Goodluck.
Upon waking up, you’re told you’ve been infected by a parasite that has overrun Dite, the world on the other side of the aforementioned wormhole. Your mission is to travel there to seek out a cure for yourself, and also find out what has become of your comrades, including a close friend. In typical Metal Gear Solid fashion, there’s more to Goodluck than meets the eye, and since the parasite that transforms people into Wanderers first showed up during the Vietnam War, there’s some questions around its true nature too. Dite also happens to have a special crystalised resource called Kuban, which can be extracted from Wanderers and harvested from the environment.
From the moment you land in Dite, you’re on the back foot. Survive wants you to know that success in this hellscape will come through struggling and pushing forward in the face of overwhelming adversity, and to that end the game tracks hunger, thirst, and oxygen on-screen. These ever-visible bars are constantly depleting, counting down to death if not kept topped up. The food and water needed to replenish them are scarce, and even the act of seeking them out expends resources in a way that will make you pause and really think about if it’s all worth it. It’s a grueling grind where the material rewards offer just a fleeting respite.
But all this also serves to intensify that rush of satisfaction you get when you manage to complete a mission or successfully take a trip to gather edible herbs, meat, or dirty water that has a good chance of making you sick. By stacking the odds so heavily against you, these successes–big or small–feel like an act of defiance.