Criticism Features Video Games

“Ghost Train” – On Metro 2033

Metro 2033 began life as a novel penned by Russian author Dmitry Glukhovsky. It told the tale of a post-apocalyptic Russia, and explored the lives of the survivors who sought refuge in the hermetically-sealed metro system beneath Moscow.

The video game adaptation of the story, developed by Ukraine-based 4A Games, was a spectacularly bleak and depressing affair that managed to capture a sense of bitter desperation within a world that was, in my mind, thoroughly believable. It’s one of those games which largely flew under the radar of the mainstream while still managing to develop something of a cult following, and with the 2013 release of a sequel – Metro: Last Light – and the 2014 repackaging of both games, it made sense to return to the original and explore what made it such a triumph.

There’s a strong chance that you either haven’t heard of Metro 2033, or that you have and simply dismissed it as another derivative first-person shooter, dismayed by the muddled critical reception. This is a game which suffered from our inability to discuss the merits of video games in a language that doesn’t rely on itemization and direct comparison to other, similar products. Metro 2033 is mechanically unimpressive, and its virtues are almost impossible to quantify and represent numerically.

Metro 2033 is, at its core, a first person shooter, yet it toys with elements of horror and stealth, too. Nothing really works as well as it should – the shooting is loose and frequently unresponsive; the horror portions are never really developed properly; and stealth feels like an awkward and poorly-balanced option which, while potentially satisfying, is usually best avoided. These different systems still, despite making relative sense within the context of the game world, feel rushed and schizophrenic. There is no mechanical cohesion, and it’s a disappointing barrier of entry, erecting walls of frustration around a wealth of interesting and resonant experiences.

These battered Moscow subway tunnels exist independently of the player, and would seemingly continue to live and breathe whether you happened to be there or not. Old men gather children around flickering fires and tell stories of mutants and their adventures on “the Surface”; mothers mourn at the shrines of their lost children; soldiers stand watch at their posts in constant fear, cracking awkward jokes to disguise their obvious terror. In some ways, these tunnels are the antithesis of games like Call of Duty, which glorify the successes and victories of combat. Winston Churchill – a figure regularly quoted in such series’ – would have us believe that history is written by the victors. In opposition to that idea, Metro 2033’s world is a grim tableaux, each brushstroke cast by a man, woman or child who must live with the enduring weight of defeat.

Life in the tunnels, while bereft of colour and excitement, nonetheless continues. Strolling through the myriad passageways and stations, the player-character, Artyom, can listen in to snippets of conversations and witness the daily routines of the people who surround him. Many have abandoned hope. Some still cling to the idea of perhaps one day being free of the underground, being able to once again breathe clean air and live their lives in the skeleton of the city they still love. Metro 2033 is at times tragic and upsetting; at others heart-warming and inspiring.

It’s also remarkably subtle, although you may not realise it until you reach the climax and the disparate aspects of the fiction all fall neatly into place. Metro 2033 has no branching dialogue, no moral choice system and no side-quests – the player is free to take their own route through the game and respond to situations dynamically. You can rescue prisoners from the Nazis if you wish, but you don’t have to. Strumming a guitar may seem inconsequential, but such quiet and contemplative actions have far-reaching narrative consequences.

Artyom is a tiny cog in a huge machine, and this feeling of hopelessness is a refreshing approach to video game storytelling. People don’t halt their business just to acknowledge your presence. Most don’t notice (or care) that you exist. In this time of desperation, why should they, unless you do something that directly benefits them?  These people rely on the tangible, and the mere promise of future successes only falls on deaf ears. In the post-apocalypse, cynicism is the lifeblood of a community, pumped lazily around the tunnels by a barely beating heart.

Metro 2033 is littered with a slew of interesting ideas and concepts, and its greatest failing is that you must wade through the mediocrity of its core mechanics in order to find them. This is a game built upon a succession of micro-conflicts, each tiny decision another piece of a fractured mosaic, the real beauty of which is only visible through those cracks and fissures on its surface. Reaching the end of the narrative isn’t the true objective here; the story continues long after the game itself has ended. Your responsibility is the formation of Artyom’s identity, and his immortalization as a saviour or yet another blight on an already suffering community. You won’t be steered towards a “correct” path, and your decisions are not influenced in any way. There is no feedback, no binary good/evil dichotomy. Artyom is what you make of him, nothing more, and nothing less.

I suppose, then, that Metro 2033 as a whole is entirely what you make of it, too. Entering the game with pre-conceived notions about what does or doesn’t make a good first person shooter, or horror, or stealth game, will likely lead to disappointment. Entering, however, with an open mind and a natural curiosity, will make Metro 2033 one of the most original, interesting and evocative video games you’ve played.

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