While I’m waiting for State of Decay 2 — checking my calendar, I see it’s 23 interminable days to go — I’ve got another zombie survival game to indulge my resource scavenging, survivor nurturing, and base-building needs. It even acknowledges the Metal Gear Solid V shaped hole in my heart. It doesn’t fill it, but it’s clearly trying to kick in a little dirt. I suppose I should appreciate the effort. Anything to make the next three weeks seem a little shorter.
Wait, what game are we talking about?
Metal Gear Survive is driven by the same impulse that drives State of Decay. You’re carving a new civilization out of the zombie apocalypse. It’s a fundamental part of the mythology often overlooked in favor of hordes and headshots. It took Sarah Northway’s Rebuild and then Undead Labs’ original State of Decay to realize with gameplay that we fight zombies for a reason. We’re not just trying to stay alive. That’s what you do in Call of Duty and Pac-Man. We fight zombies to drive them back so we can recover civilization. We’re banding together with other survivors, futzing around with a little colony management slash city building. It helps that crafting and survival games are all the rage these days. Just add zombies.
In Metal Gear: Survive, the crafting and surviving, the act of recovering civilization, is about what you’d expect. It meets the minimum requirements. Hoover stuff up and dump it into your base storage, then scoop out whatever you need to craft bullets, feed people, or make that bitchin’ kevlar vest from the blueprints you just found. Oops, you’re out of screws to repair your shotgun. Better go break up some chairs somewhere. Chairs have screws. That’s the sort of thing you learn in Metal Gear Survive. Use those wolf steaks to make wolf soup for when your hunger bar is low. Fresh water? Pfft. That ceased to be a problem long ago. You’ve got storage tabs brimming with canteens full of fresh water. Remember when you had to use bottles to scoop dirty water out of old sinks and then bring it back to base to boil it? Surviving was rough until you got into the groove of things. Now survival is the kind of busywork that gives context to wading out into this zombie apocalypse. Sometimes you find another survivor. That’s the real thrill. The labor shortage is the biggest economic obstacle in a zombie apocalypse.
To it’s credit, Metal Gear Survive features a refreshingly unique zombie apocalypse. You don’t find many unique zombie apocalypses, much less refreshingly unique ones. This one is set in an alternate dimension that keeps opening portals to our regular dimension, sucking stuff in that the enterprising survivor can scavenge. The landscape is littered with junk waiting to be broken down into its component resources. It never runs out. Go to the place you found a bunch of junk a few hours ago and there’s more junk to replace it. That storage shed you cleared out earlier? It’s been restocked! Metal Gear Survive doesn’t know the meaning of the word non-renewable.
The most prominent feature of this alternate dimension zombie apocalypse is its mist. Toxic stuff, crawling with monsters, limiting visibility, messing up your map because you can’t log a map until you get back to base. The mist is even scarier because your range is based on your store of breathable air, Subnautica style. When you get lost, with your oxygen running low, and you’re sure your goal is just over the rise, there’s no helpful arrow pointing the way. You might even have to remember landmarks. The teleport pad back to base is just over that rise up ahead, right? No? Where did you put that oxygen refill station? It’s a rare videogame these days that lets you get lost. You lose everything you’ve gathered when you die, so shorter and more frequent trips are safer. But maybe you can always push it just a teensy bit farther to get a little more loot. And now you’re lost.
This mist is an obvious nod to Stephen King’s short story, and it even understands that the best part of the story is that brief moment at the end. You know the part I’m talking about. You can’t hang out in the supermarket if you want to see the really cool things mist has to offer. John Carpenter’s The Fog also deserves credit, since it was specifically zombie-spawning fog. That’s what’s going on here: zombies in the fog. You don’t get the massive hordes Dead Rising offers, but you do get eerie shapes in the distance. Stealthing around zombies always feels a little silly (hi, Girl With All The Gifts), but it makes sense when visibility is limited.
But where this socked-in zombie apocalypse fails is where it most needs to succeed: character. Rebuild and State of Decay staged an emergent drama from survivors built out of scraps of backstory and gratifying character advancement. All their characters were playable, and all their characters could be killed by zombies. They all mattered because they were simultaneously your avatars and your main resource. They simultaneously had to be protected and put at risk. Metal Gear Survive can’t manage any overlap between who you play and who you protect, so it tries a story. Konami wants this to be both a single-player game (brace yourself for the frustratingly narrow scripted bits) and an online grind with customizable avatars (a solid horde mode with lots of goodies keeps sieges lively). To accommodate both types of games, you are yet another awkwardly mute protagonist. Everyone you bring into your base is either a generic placeholder or a poorly written mouthpiece for the story’s exposition stew. The fact that you can get screws from chairs is more interesting narrative than anything based on the characters.
It might seem odd to apply these kinds of standards to a zombie survival game. No one cares that 7 Days to Die, for instance, doesn’t have good writing. Or any writing. But the Metal Gear brand has traditionally been synonymous with interesting and off-kilter storytelling, even when it’s not written directly by Hideo Kojima (Metal Gear Acid is my favorite non-Kojima Kojima). You can see Metal Gear Survive trying. The arguing AIs, for instance. That’s a great fit for a Metal Gear story, and the physical housing for the AI will look familiar to fans, just as its red light looks familiar to anyone who knows Kubrick’s 2001. Kojima was never shy about acknowledging his influences, and his wacky storytelling was richer for it. But everything here feels forced and falls flat. Kojima has indeed left the building.
The design of the zombies doesn’t help the lack of character. I appreciate varying interpretations of zombies (all aboard for the train to Busan!). But these Metal Gear Survive zombies are a travesty. I’m sure someone somewhere can tell me something about how they aren’t zombies. I guess I’d agree, because one of the most salient facts about zombies is that they’re us. They are regular people, either infected with a rage virus or raised from the dead or controlled by a brain parasite. The mechanics don’t really matter. What matters is that these hordes are former human beings. The point of zombie mythology is our inevitable assimilation into this horde. Therefore, one of the most important features of a zombie is its face. The hollow eyes, devoid of life. The shriveled desiccated skin, an indication of aging at its worst. The gnashing mouth a thrall to insatiable appetite.
In fact, I’d argue this is partly what George Romero — consciously or unconsciously — was getting at with the idea that zombies can only be killed by headshots. You must focus on the fundamental point of their former humanity when you contend with zombies. The only way to deal with them is right between the eyes. Their existence, and therefore their identity, is that ineffable lack of consciousness behind the face, which was once the outward sign of consciousness. So one of the greatest mistakes you could make with a zombie design is to remove its head. The only worse mistake than removing its head is replacing its head with a glowing piece of candy corn. I guess Peeps might be worse.
To some folks this might not matter. But I take my zombie survival games seriously. I have a metaphor to indulge here. Replacing zombie heads with traffic cones is not cool! It’s the sort of thing you’d do with a cheat code in Dead Rising long after you’ve finished actually playing and now you’re just screwing around out of boredom.
I suppose this stuff wouldn’t have bothered me so much if Metal Gear Survive had just been called Survive. I’d have no expectations about any kind of interesting narrative. I’d be content hoovering up junk, converting junk to loot, stressing over how much oxygen I have left, cooking wolf soup, and populating my base with placeholder characters. Everything except the candy corn zombie heads I could swallow as zombie comfort food. But because it’s trying so hard to be a Metal Gear game, and falling so short, Metal Gear Survive is the wrong kind of off-kilter. Sometimes a Kojima game without Kojima just isn’t a Kojima game. Sometimes it’s just a snack to tide me over. 23 days to go.