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Where the Horror Lives – Metro 2033

Upon my life, the tracks have vanished,

We’ve lost our way, what shall we do?

It must be a demon’s leading us

This way and that around the fields.

– A. S. Pushkin, “Demons”

 

Metro 2033 was a relatively unnoticed Xbox360 game that came out in 2010. None of my friends played it or were excited about its release. It was developed by a small video game company (4A Games) in Ukraine that was an offshoot of a more prominent developer. So small, that it seems like their website’s home page has not been updated since 2006 when they had only 10 employees. I did not give it a second thought until about 3 weeks ago when I sought it out on a whim after watching the trailer during a Youtube Suggested Video. The somberness of the music and the narration contrasts beautifully with the intensity of the action. In the second video, Artyom’s description of life is absolutely chilling.

It is one of the more unsettling survival horror games I’ve played, but it is not because it is scary. It is because it is horrifying. I purposely differentiate those two concepts, as they are fundamentally different. I will attempt to explain that as this article progresses, so don’t think I’m just playing that off because it sounds cool.

Based on a series of novels by Dmitry Glukhovsky, the game follows a fairly standard post-apocalyptic mold – nuclear holocaust destroys civilization and humanity survives on the remints of dysfunctional technology. It uses nostalgia and knowledge about the present as a way of making the fictional and fantastical more identifiable. But where the Fallout franchise (in particular, this generation of games) uses the iconoclasm of the 1950s (and, by proxy, an arms race in which its world “won”) to contrast its barren landscapes, Metro 2033 uses the fresh political wounds of the Cold War in order to emphasize the destructive possibilities of historically unjustifiable militarism. To elaborate – Fallout banks on the accidents caused by us having nuclear weapons and Metro demonstrates the horrors of us using them. While the imagery might be more apt for a Russian or Post-Soviet Bloc country, the tension of history is not lost on an American gamer. Even one without conscious memory of previous political administrations can recognize that the environment of the game is one of destruction without reason. One game uses history as a crutch to suggest impossibility, whereas the other shows how it was all too feasible.

The aesthetic of Metro is gray and brown and dark. You live in a subway station with other starving, sickly survivors, and you are constantly under attack by the surges of monsters. Humanity has survived for 20 years underground in Russia’s subway system in isolated pockets and travels between them by pushcart. The surface world has been decimated by missiles, radiation makes the air toxic, and ash clouds have turned it into a tundra wasteland. Monsters roam the surface and bleed into the tunnel systems. The only food available is what is bred for slaughter and only if your station is lucky enough to be able to do so. Children are starving, lonely fires warm the constant cold, people sleep on tightly stacked bunk beds, and defecate into carefully distanced holes. To summarize, the world you live in is miserable, unjust, and in a constant reminder of the constant death that can come from anywhere.

It is a perspective that only a Russian company could take, I think, and Tom Bissell smartly points that out in Slate in what seems to be the only article written with any enthusiasm for this game. The Russianness of the narrative contrasts sharply with the preconceived notion of what a post-apocalyptic video game should be like to an American audience:

What I love about Metro 2033 is that it takes the power fantasy tropes of the first-person shooter and effectively Russianizes them. In Western shooters, typically, you progress through the game, unlocking deadlier and more accurate weapons and cooler and ever-more-neato technology. Metro 2033 says, To hell with all that.

While you do get more deadly weapons throughout the game, it is rather difficult. You have to find them off corpses (which is harder and more rare than it sounds – the best gun in the game is found on a corpse at a point so late you never get to fire it) or buy them. The game itself actually admits that the first gun you get is awful. It takes forever to load, overheats, and has zero accuracy. When you find a different gun, there is no way to know that it is “better” in any conceivable way, other than to try it out. Chances are, it is worse. The odds of survival are grim.

Of particular note is the game’s economic system. Similar to Fallout, it is based on a barter of newly defined currency. But, it does not fall back on the cuteness of overly-abundant soda bottle caps, but rather the very ammunition that you need in order to survive the game. There are two forms of ammunition in the game – bullets made before the apocalypse and bullets made after. Pre-apocalypse ammunition is rare and valuable and can be found throughout areas. Post-bullets are not as deadly, but more abundant, and can be traded in bulk for Pre-bullets – which can be used to buy better guns. Therefore, the easiest way to get a better weapon – buying it- is only feasible in the sense that you are limiting its very use. It might be better, but a gun with no bullets would do you any good. You have to balance the idea of whether you want to kill effectively or be able to kill at all. The idea itself is quit insidious – it forces you to consider your basic needs of survival and made a weapon on par with food and clothing. Though it is perhaps the all too real reminder previous cultural realities of Russia, where one had to balance going hungry with staying warm, the metaphor works similarly to create tension within the gamer about their own survival.

Another devastating inclusion to this game is just how many ways there are to die. You can die because your gun is bad, because your ammo is bad, because your armor is bad. You can die from bullets from other humans or by the claws and teeth of monsters. You can be killed in your own subconscious through some of the game’s supernatural elements. But, all of this takes place in the relative safety of the underground metro tunnel system (where humanity escaped to avoid missiles, and where they must remain due to nuclear winter). Going up to the surface requires a gas mask and air filters. If you run out of filters, you die. So, you can die by standing still. If a monster damages your gas mask, you suffocate and die, regardless of how much health you have. If you stand in too much radiation, you die. Death is omnipresent and creates a sense of dread just to play the very game. You worry about being seen or heard in the face of the most basic fight. You don’t just have to avoid attack in order to survive, but be conscious of your own survival. There is no health meter or oxygen meter; you need to be actually responsible and aware. This idea ties into the above – your basic necessities are against you and your odds of survival. You need to buy more gasmask filters banking on the fact that you might have to go up to the surface before you get to another shop and doing so decreases your available ammunition and your ability to survive the immediate future. The forced awareness that the game thrusts upon the player adds to the very horror of survival.

A question I found myself asking very early on was “What am I playing for?” This wasn’t to question my own action as a player, but my characters actions in the narrative – why was I fighting so hard to save so little? Why was I risking my life just to slow down the deaths of others? The very idea of it is foreign to me. Yes, life is precious and worth fighting for, and this is a trope in storytelling since the beginning of stories, but something felt different this time. There was so little left, and there was no way anything was going to get remotely better. The only glimmer of hope is the idea that I can go to sleep at night and only be worried about bandits, Nazis, or a starving neighbor killing me in my sleep instead of monsters.

I realized soon that this was the horror of the game – the existential struggle of a worthless survival and the narrative disconnect between player and character. My character had hope, but I did not have any for him. This is the horror. It wasn’t that I did not want to play the game – I absolutely did. But, it was that the playable experience one of despair and perhaps the only existential playing experience I can think of. The world is bleak in every conceivable aspect – from everyday life, to basic economics, to the necessities of survival. The aesthetics and structure of life constantly force a wedge between the player and the narrative, making you work not only for your very survival but for the sheer desire to even do so. If the game offered suicide as an option to end the experience, I feel like it would not judge you for choosing so.

Unlike games that make the morals blindingly apparent (Mass Effect, Fallout, et al) Metro doesn’t give you any reason to do anything moral – you have to actively choose to do so if you even notice it is there to begin with. Hiding the morality is an interesting choice. Players’ seem to enjoy the distinct possibilities of play, but by making players choose something without the knowledge that they have to as a part of the ludic experience, the game extends its existentialism to your choices. You might witness the end of the game and ponder “How did it all lead to this?” – well, your actions did. The absence of immorality does not make your choices or actions moral, and thus subtly add to the horrific experience of existence. [Update: Chris Thursten has a great article that better discusses this part of the game: http://exitwarp.blogspot.com/2010/10/novus-homo-thoughts-on-metro-2033.html ]

There are plenty of monsters to shoot, even though you only run into 4-5 different types – many of which you can’t actually kill. They are never particularly scary, but then again, neither is the game itself. You don’t fear the monsters, you fear life itself. And that is not the point. Many survival horror games conflate the concepts of “horror” and “scary” – demons are unpleasant to look at and a zombie can jump from behind an object to startle you, but at least there is (usually) hope. Most survival horror games do not leave you pondering the very futility of your actions, grasping at the very essence of “why”.

Metro 2033 is a game that is dreadful, it is full of despair, it is bleak, it is existential, and it is horrific. The game is very much worth playing, even if the life inside it is not worth living.

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Skyrim’s Most Difficult Choice

I have been having a difficult time with an element of Skyrim. It is not the random dragon battles. It is not the quests of morally dubious intent. It is not collecting things for my home. It is not even a particularly important part of the game itself, as it falls under the Miscellaneous section of the side quests. The issue I have been teetering on the edge of for 50 levels has been what political affiliation I want my character to take part in.

I became the master of the Thieves Guild and the Dark Brotherhood. I stole, blackmailed, and murdered, but everyone seemed to deserved it, or at least I was told this by my peers. I do not have a problem going to a random cave to slaughter a group of people or Falmer, because I am always attacked first. Their actions against me justify the use of violence against them. I have let evil gods loose on the lands, stolen cultural treasures for personal profit, and recovered a lost flute. These are things of great significance that should have forced me to pause and consider my actions, but the narrative set up of Skyrim always justifies your quests as a part of the overall experience. This makes the gamer act rather than think, and the more we get to know what we are doing, the more interesting it seems. If there is a “purpose” that a quest encapsulates, then it is ethically okay to do, no matter the action.

One aspect of this game is lacking this experience. While I have accomplished much throughout my play through (I am not yet done), I am ultimately hesitant over which side of the political argument I want to join. There are the Stormcloaks and the Legion. The Stormcloaks are an independent group of people opposing the Empire due in part largely because of a ban against worshiping the Man/God Thalos (hero to the Nord people). While there are eight other deities of worship available, these are meaningless to the Nord, who simply want the freedom to worship their one. Thalos, however, is a slap in the face to many of the other cultures. Not only does He represent murder and war to many of the elves in the game, but perhaps the most objectionable quality of Thalos is the fact that he asserts that a man (read: human/male/white) is equal to or superior to the spiritual gods that are the basis for almost every other history and culture in the land. This quarrel is presented under the guise of religious freedom, something that is very important to the makings of America (a primary audience for the game), thus this is an important narrative drive for the player, regardless of its banal inclusion.

The Stormcloaks also oppose the seemingly corrupt Empire. While they do not suggest a democracy as an alternative, they certainly are suggesting that the Empire is too big and too invested in the lives of the people and forgo the consideration that there is a delicate social fabric that Empire holds together. While the game suggests that the Empire is infected with outside influence, an influence you are often fighting personally throughout the game’s narrative (therefore the influence is bad, not the Empire itself…), it does little to demonstrate the political and cultural reasonings for seemingly odd alliances and compromises. The game even sets up the main character as an enemy of the Empire, as you are due to be executed for unknown crimes as the game opens (even though you may have deserved it).

The Stormcloaks are not all positive, though. Their champion is a murderer, someone who somehow learned how to dragon-shout a King to death (even though the Graybeards have stated that no one has gone to train with them in some time (I’m not all the way through the game, so I am not sure what the story may be here…)). The cause is violent and has seemingly little regard for anything other than their own goals. Many even accuse the Stormcloaks of racism, including fellow Nords.

If one takes time to pause and consider, the Stormcloaks are the Tea Party of Skyrim. They want their freedoms (as they have defined them), regardless of cultural and political developments. They want smaller and less powerful government – one that stays out of the personal lives of the people (even if it is still a monarchy). Perhaps something that has had the biggest impact on me is the disregard of other cultures, to the point of hatred. While public officials may not openly state their mistrust of a president’s birth certificate, many of the supporters do. Many of the positions the party stands for are based on a hegemonic normalcy that positively supports the long-standing privilege of white, male Americans. Many of the goals of the Stormcloaks only support the ideologies of the Nords, and only “True Nords” at that (just in case you wanted your masculinity and culture questioned if you chose that particular race of people).

You do not have to pick a side in the game, but there are achievements on the line. This is a narrative cue that the gamer should do this, as it is a part of the overall experience of the game and the character’s life. Herein lies much of my struggle for what to do. The political scuffle is so non-important to my day-to-day activities that it holds little to no bearing on my in-game life. There are dragons that need to be killed, after all. One side thinks they are right and the other thinks that they as well, and there is little interaction between either group and my player besides petty rumors that are randomly shouted at me as I walk by, or passive aggressive comments by regional leaders. The entire aspect of the game is optional, and is not at all pressing to me as a player if it is not pressing to my character as a social entity.

The question bothers me so much because of how the game narratively structures the opposing sides. As a democrat, the Empire is the side I feel most politically aligned to, however they are treated as corrupt, lazy, ineffective, imposing, and destructive of tradition. Most importantly, perhaps, against their case is the fact that they lack a strong, charismatic figurehead. This is what makes the Stormcloaks most appealing, I would argue.

The game sets up a strong dichotomy between the main character and Ulfric Stormcloak (the leader of the “rebellion”). On one hand, the main character is a surrogate for the gamer, and thus a surrogate for the gamer’s morality. This makes much of the game’s quests easy to do – the game tells me that necromancers or Forlorn are bad because they attack me, therefore my murder of them is good. The character’s morality is never in question or even really challenged by the game – you just do things, and because the character is the gamer, the character is the figure of good. On the other hand, Ulfric is the rouge hero of many people. While his actions are morally bad, he is doing them for morally good reasons. Therefore, we are presented with two heroes to the people of Skyrim – an official hero and an outlaw hero.

This basic structure is something that Robert B. Ray classified as the “Thematic Paradigm” in his book A Certain Tendency of Hollywood Cinema (1985). He states:

The movies traded on one opposition in particular, American culture’s traditional dichotomy of individual and community that had generated the most significant pair of competing myths: the outlaw hero and the official hero. Embodied in the adventurer, explorer, gunfighter, wanderer, and loner, the outlaw hero stood for that part in American imagination valuing self-determination and freedom from entanglements. By contrast, the official hero, normally portrayed as a teacher, lawyer, politician, farmer, or family man, represents the American belief in collective action, and the objective legal process that supersedes private notions of right and wrong. (58-59)

While Skyrim does not tidily fit this description, the characters are close enough. It is not that these two characters exist in game that makes the political choice so difficult, but rather that American media has traditionally paired these two heroes together as a way of accomplishing the impossible. We have been trained through popular media to accept these pairs of unlike heroes as the ultimate form of purpose. Mulder and Scully, Luke and Han, Riggs and Murtaugh, Turner and Hooch. The game is suggesting through its narrative and character structures that the Stormcloaks are the right choice for the gamer. Or, as Ray states, “in other words, when faced with a difficult choice, American stories resolved it either simplistically (by refusing to acknowledge that a choice was necessary), sentimentally (by blurring the lines between the two sides), or by laughing the whole thing off” (65). You either do not pick a side, because there is really no compelling reason to do so, justify your acceptance of a violent racist because of his thematic and heroic characterization in opposition/support to your own (in opposition to a rather non-compelling alternative), or break the insistence of the game’s narrative and choose the Empire.

For the record, I support the Legion.

 

 

Ray, Robert B. A Certain Tendency of the Hollywood Cinema, 1930-1980. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1985. Print.