Game * 4A Games * Russian Post-Nuclear * 2010
As it happens, the United States wasn’t the only place in the world concerned about a nuclear holocaust. This game, based upon a novel by Dmitry Glukhosvsky that I haven’t read (yet), takes place in Moscow after nuclear war has reduced the city to rubble. The surface is in the grip of nuclear winter, poison air, and spooky mutants. The surviving population managed to escape the surface horrors and scrape out a vestige of civilization within the confines of the Moscow Metro system. Each station serves as a tiny city-state, and they are connected by the various tunnels and railways of the old subway system. The story takes place some years after the system has been in place and our silent protagonist, Artyom, has lived his entire life within the confines of the Metro. As one might imagine, life is rough for the survivors of the nuclear fire. Most of the details of how such a society can exist aren’t really discussed here, and I can only assume I can find that mundane (and yet fascinating to me, because I am weird and broken) information in the novels. The main point of the game is to give Artyom a reason to leave the cozy confines of his station to eventually save the Metro from an external menace.
Look, I’ll be the first to admit that video games haven’t really nailed the narrative aspect of the experience yet. Metro 2033 features a silent protagonist, which is jarring and obnoxious. Either Artyom is mute, or an asshole. Various characters ask you direct questions which you flat out ignore. What a douche. Beyond that, most of the story-telling is done in a bubble around you which serves to push Artyom through the various stations of the Metro, and occasionally on the surface. Apparently there is a surge in mutant attacks and they’re pushing further into the tunnels than usual. It seems there is a new kind of mutant intelligence out there provoking these attacks. Also they’re telepathic. The beginning of the game thrusts you into a firefight with some of the aforementioned mutants, and then you’re set out into the tunnels to deliver a message to another station. Things snowball from there.
Other than the occasional character-conference that happen around Artyom at conspicuous times, the rest of the story is told through the environment and (ugh) collectable journal entries. I understand that it must be difficult to give the player interesting, non-essential, world-building information in a totally natural way, but I like that information, and it would be nice if I didn’t have hunt all over hell and gone for little glowy icons. In an especially odd choice, the collectables in 2033 aren’t even artifacts left by others. Finding the little glow-books scattered throughout the game only serve to unlock the journal entries of Artyom himself. You’d think he’d have access to his own thoughts without having to find them in the clutches of a gross, spider-infested skeleton. What is especially curious about this whole thing is that these journal entries are the only access point the player has into Artyom’s character considering that he never speaks. Since I did not locate all of these in my play-through, I have some gaps in Artyom’s perspective. To be fair, in the ones I did find, he’s mostly just astounded at whatever event is happening at any given time.
It occurs to me that perhaps I’m being too harsh, because I did enjoy the game. I mean, you’re crawling around creepy abandoned tunnels, or the ruins of a post-nuclear Moscow, and shooting beasties. This game has great atmosphere, and looks pretty nice (I played the new remaster, by the way). What’s not to like? The game is ostensibly a first person shooter, but there are some rudimentary survival aspects to the gameplay. Ammo is scarce, and whenever you’re on the surface you need to constantly swap filters in your gasmask or you’ll choke on the poison air. This was never really an issue for me until the very end, when either filters became more difficult to come by (or I got impatient for the ending and stopped looking as hard). Generally the things you’re shooting are these obnoxious mutant dog-things, but there are various baddie humans around as well. There’s a decent-but-not-great stealth aspect to the game you can play with if you like being sneaky.
The most engaging aspect of the game, when it comes to story, is the structure of the Metro itself. I mentioned that each station operates as an independent city-state, and they each have their own system in place to aid survival. Artyom comes from station on the fringe of the system, a frontier town, as it were, and as such it makes sense that he takes naturally to the Ranger lifestyle. Rangers are free agents in the Metro, and act as a sort of police/militia/scavenger force. They’re the only ones who dare the surface, and are instrumental in finding information about the Dark Ones, the aforementioned super-mutants who started this whole thing in the first place. Other than the frontier stations, there are also stations that are held by authoritarian leaders, the Reds and the Nazis. First, that’s indicative of the Russian-ness of the source material. Second, there’s a point where you have to navigate a battlefield between these two factions, and it’s instructive that either side will fire on you if you’re seen. There’s a moment when you’re infiltrating a station held by the Reds and there’s a little morality play that unfolds which features party members acting atrociously while espousing party ideals. There is some conflict amongst the citizens, and later you have the option of rescuing some captured Red soldiers. I don’t recall having the same opportunity to save any misguided Nazis. They’re pretty much portrayed as you might expect.
This kind of social interplay is where my interest in the story kind of ends for me, I’m afraid. Honestly, the biggest problem the story has is that it relies on a supernatural, external threat to provide the dramatic tension. Honestly, the warring between authoritarian stations is a far more interesting premise to base a narrative on. The third power player in that struggle is the largest station, Polis, where most of the civilized aspects of humanity are quartered. I’m much more vested in how they protect themselves from aggressive incursions by the Reds and Nazis, and how they all manage to survive the nightmare conditions set upon them by the follies of the past. Instead we get telepathic ghost-monsters. While I’ve got nothing against a supernatural premise, in this instance it just seems kind of incoherent. I’m still not sure what happened at the end. There was an extended scene where you’re guiding Artyom through some kind of trippy, extra-dimensional brain-space for some reason. Oh, and you can fail that sequence, which I did, several times. One second you’re stumbling around this area which doesn’t make any sense, and if you turn wrong the scene cuts back to reality as you tumble off a building. Yeah, super fun. Eventually you rain missiles upon their Dark One’s enclave and save the day. Considering I was barely engaged with that aspect of the narrative, the ending was totally underwhelming. Ah well, maybe the book will be better.