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.