Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Learning Russian

Have I just saved humanity from a race of psychic monsters or committed genocide on a peaceful species of post-humans? That was the question I pondered as Metro 2033's credits began to roll. I immediately regretted my decision to destroy the so-called Dark Ones. My plan had been to make peace if the opportunity presented itself. It did, but I still chose to blow them to kingdom come. Why? Now that's a more interesting question to ponder.

There aren't many videogames based on books, especially obscure foreign books like Metro 2033 by Dmitry Glukhovsky. There aren't many games set exclusively in Russia with nary an American hero in sight. There aren't many games of such scope and quality to have come out of Ukraine. There are a lot of "there aren't"s about Metro 2033. It has the trappings of a big-budget western release, but it's also essentially foreign. Few were surprised when, upon release in March 2010, it failed to set the sales charts on fire. However, it has since become something of a sleeper hit, earning good reviews and gaining recognition through numerous "best of 2010" lists. A sequel is now in production.

I've visited dozens of post-apocalyptic worlds of every imaginable catastrophe: nuclear war, asteroid collision, viral contagion, alien invasion, ecological disaster, and socio-economic collapse to name but a few. Whenever a new game is announced to be set in another post-apocalyptic world, there is a collective sigh and rolling of eyes among some gamers who then castigate the industry for lacking originality. While their complaints are not without merit, it seems to have little bearing on their purchasing decisions. I think there is something other than laziness behind this preoccupation with the end of the world.

My brother's favourite movie is 28 Days Later. It follows the story of Jim, a bicycle courier who wakes from a coma twenty-eight days after a terrible plague sweeps Britain. He ventures into a seemingly deserted London -- where the streets are littered with signs of violence and devastation -- hoping to find ... something. The aptly named Rage virus has turned all but a few Briton's into rabid ADHD zombies. Jim is soon fleeing for his life and is later rescued by other survivors. Meanwhile, my brother's excitement was contained little better than the zombies' appetite for human flesh.

For my brother, the story of Jim and his companions was never the main attraction of 28 Days Later; plot and character were merely vehicles to explore a post-apocalyptic England. My brother has lived in and around London for most of his life, and seeing the familiar people and places drove his imagination into high gear: what would he do in Jim's position? Where would he go? How would he get there? Most importantly, would he survive? (The answer to this last question was always yes.) My brother was both enthralled and terrified by the world depicted in 28 Days Later, and he wanted to explore and master it.

Here was a play where the stage itself was the star; the script and actors served mainly to draw a spotlight over its background and props. In these circumstances, the authoritative role of writer or director can prohibit the kind of interaction the imagination craves. I think videogames are drawn to post-apocalyptic worlds because they are in a unique position to deliver on what other mediums can only suggest. The product is a kind of ambient storytelling where the audience discovers the narrative through an exploration and interpretation of its environment. The day after the end of the world just happens to be a highly effective setting for that kind of storytelling.

4A Games resist the urge to over-explain or -justify their eccentric vision of post-apocalyptic Moscow. There are monsters, ghosts, radiation, Nazis, glowing balls of ... erm, anomaly? It gets pretty bonkers if you think about it too much. The magic is that you just don't think about it at all. It's not even made explicit what catastrophe was responsible for the apocalypse. Metro 2033 imposes its fiction by sheer force of assumption, and I implicitly yielded to its dictates without question. The diverse elements of its world somehow hang together as a coherent whole, even if they are at times only tangentially connected to reality. The game silently repeats, again and again: "how the world got into this condition is not your concern. It is what it is, now deal with it."

Dealing with this harsh new world is no small challenge. The remaining human population of Moscow live in underground metro tunnels that criss-cross the city. Air on the surface is poisonous and shouldn't be endured without a gas mask, and there are strange packs of roaming beasts that want nothing more than a human leg to chew on. The situation hardly improves underground. Many monsters have made their homes in the tunnels, and pockets of intense radiation are a regular obstacle. Amidst all this, humans still find the time to fight each other. Bandits prey on unwary travelers, while rival factions of Nazis and Communists have decided to reenact World War II in microcosm. Life is a constant battle for self-preservation, sometimes literally.

The emphasis on survival is present in every moment of Metro 2033. The player must scavenge for supplies and ammunition. Filters on gas masks are quickly rendered useless, giving all surface excursions a distressing sense of urgency. High-grade ammunition doubles as the preferred currency, establishing a trade-off between fire power and monetary gain. Stealth is advisable where possible, whether to avoid conflicts altogether or set-up traps and ambushes. Metro 2033 relentlessly reinforces its themes of scarcity and vulnerability: even the player's flashlight must be manually charged by pumping the lever of a portable battery device.

Artyom, the player-character, was born just before the apocalypse and has otherwise lived his entire life underground. He is mostly a silent protagonist whom the player only infrequently glimpses. Strangely, he is given voice during the games' loading screens where he adopts the role of narrator and talks of events in the past tense. It's a reminder of the story's literary origins. Artyom has little personality beyond what is necessary to define his basic motivations and goals, and the player's control over him is rarely interrupted. His transition from a naive civilian to hardened soldier subtlety mirrors the player's own growing experience and competence nicely.

Shortly after the story begins, Artyom's home station is purportedly attacked by a race of mysterious creatures known as Dark Ones. Hunter, a friend of Artyom's father, goes to investigate. Hunter is a Ranger, a member of an elite group of warriors. Before leaving, he charges Artyom with a task: should he not return, Artyom is to take his dog tags and seek help from other Rangers in the distant station of Polis. Hunter does not return, and Artyom soon finds himself beginning a perilous journey that will take him through the metro system and beyond. Something must be done about the Dark Ones if Artyom's home is going to be there when he returns.

4A Games want players to finish Metro 2033 (the videogame) no less than Dmitry Glukhovsky wants readers to finish Metro 2033 (the book). However, unlike 4A Games, Glukhovsky doesn't regularly test his audience to see whether they are good enough to continue reading the rest of the story. This strange juxtaposition of goals is especially pronounced in Metro 2033. The story itself assumes great hardship upon the protagonist, but simulating that level of difficulty would, for many people, create an insurmountable obstacle in the way of the story.

I played Metro 2033 on its hardest difficulty setting; I even turned off the onscreen crosshair and switched to Russian voiceovers. I would recommend anyone else do the same. For its post-apocalyptic Moscow to have the kind of bite demanded by the narrative, I had to feel genuinely assailed by its many dangers.

At one point in the story, Atyom passes through Nazi controlled territory on the surface. He ventures into what appears to be an old parking lot scattered with the husks of old vehicles. If spotted here, the Nazis will shoot on sight. I could see movement in the distance and skulked from cover to cover as a group of armed men approached. Moving into position behind a wrecked car, I planned to wait for them to pass by, but then one broke off from the pack and walked over toward my hiding place. He just stood there looking in my general direction. My gas mask's air filter wasn't going to last much longer. What now?

Had I set the game to its lowest difficulty settings, I could have just gunned down the man and his comrades with no trouble. I probably wouldn't have been skulking around in the first place. It would have also completely undermined the story, which would have continued insisting that Artyom was in danger despite evidence to the contrary. It was only by genuinely pushing my limits that the game could deliver on its narrative and thematic intents, but a lot of people just don't want that kind of challenge. An attempt to make Metro 2033 more accessible to a casual audience would inevitably just prevent it from succeeding on its own terms.

One regrettable concession is the presence of regenerating health. It has become ubiquitous in the last few years, and rarely does it feel so preposterous as in Metro 2033. 4A Games are less generous with it than some, but Artyom still has the miraculous ability to recover from major wounds by just waiting around. Has the radiation granted him superpowers? Health even regenerates on the hardest difficulty settings; medical packs merely speed up recovery and I rarely found use for them. This is a game where even Artyom's flashlight won't recharge automatically, but apparently his health will after squatting in the corner for a minute.

Videogames are still experimenting with how to pose meaningful choices to players. Many of their supposed moral dilemmas are really nothing of the sort: should I be a paragon of virtue or an evil despot? One problem is that all options and their consequences tend to be clearly explained before having to make the decision, and often everything will pause while the player ruminates. The spontaneity and uncertainty that normally surrounds important choices is artificially eliminated, and in the process so is much of the drama. Moreover, among the decisions that teach us the most about ourselves are those that we do not realise we made until after their consequences have been felt. This last kind of decision is too often ignored by videogames.

I increasingly began to suspect that the Dark Ones were not the enemy they had first appeared. The Dark Ones are telepathic and are only seen by Artyom through vivid hallucinations. While these events are frightening and confusing, they don't unambiguously depict the Dark Ones as evil or threatening. Most people seem to fear the Dark Ones only because they are different and unknown. That said, they might also just be evil psychic monsters that need to die. Whatever the case, I began to suspect a decision was looming. At some point, there would be a choice to either destroy the Dark Ones or offer peace. I resolved to give peace a chance.

Artyom arrived in Polis with Hunter's dog tags. The Rangers convened to discuss the Dark Ones but refused to help. Not all of the Rangers agreed, however, and a few approached Artyom with a plan of their own. There was an old missile command facility called D6 accessible through a long-abandoned part of the metro system. The Dark Ones appeared to live on the surface, and it might be possible to use D6 to destroy them in a single blow. Artyom and his new allies traveled to the facility and got it back up and running. The end started creeping closer.

The only thing left to do was activate a laser guidance system. The plan was to put it atop of a large telecommunications tower on the surface. Most of Metro 2033 is spent in dark underground passageways, and even surface expeditions tend to be fleeting and confined. Climbing the rickety old tower made for a radical shift in perspective. Suddenly, all of post-apocalyptic Moscow was before my eyes. In its centre was a giant throbbing black growth spreading its roots through the city streets like a weed. This must be the home of the Dark Ones, I thought. Artyom scrambled to the tower's summit. It was up to him alone, but then more hallucinations struck.

Sensing their imminent destruction, the Dark Ones were now desperately trying to stop Artyom. They tried to force him off the tower in a delirium. This is all presented in the abstract. Artyom races through seemingly endless twisting corridors and landscapes; Dark Ones randomly appear here and there and, unarmed, Artyom can only run away. Eventually, a ranger appears in the hallucination, hands Artyom a pistol and says, "If it's hostile, you kill it." Huh? Then a lone Dark One appeared. What was going on? I didn't want to kill it, but then I shot it anyway. The hallucination ended as Artyom activated the laser guidance system.

I sat slack-jawed as the missiles flew overhead and came crashing down on the Dark Ones's home. The camera drew back slowly as explosions lit up the city. Artyom just slumped to the ground. There was no triumphant music or revelry as the credits began a somber crawl up the side of the screen. What had I done?

4A Games tricked me. I knew the choice was coming, but I wasn't expecting it to happen like this. My rational brain had just been bypassed, and what remained was xenophobic and prejudiced. My instincts as an avid gamer and, perhaps, a human being had made the decision alone. Give me a gun, show me a monster, and I will shoot it in the face. I didn't even want to, but I did anyway. Part of me even started rationalising the decision. It was better this way, I told myself, because surely no peace could last between such different species. Oh crap, I thought, I was Robert Neville from Richard Matheson's I am Legend: I was the monster all along.

Some people imagine that videogames are all about scoring points and ascending levels. This vision was defined by arcade games of the eighties and nineties along with their homebound counterparts. For commercial and technological reasons, these games were almost exclusively about challenging the player to complete objectives of increasing difficulty. Gamers still talk about "beating" a game, as though its only purpose was to pose a challenge for them to overcome.

Many games really are all about finishing top of a leaderboard, but those like Metro 2033 strive to be something else. Calling it a "videogame" is really a misnomer, because it's certainly not a video and it's not really a game, but it's futile to fight linguistic conventions on the matter.

After finishing Metro 2033, I strolled into another room where my wife had been working. She turned and asked, "Did you win?" It's a question she often asked when I was done playing videogames, but never had it seemed more preposterous than at that moment. Had I won? I had finished the game, but it had felt nothing like winning. Would she ask me that same question had I just finished reading a book or watching a movie? I hadn't won anything, but neither had I lost. The question had presumed I was just playing a game, when I was really playing a videogame.

I didn't know how to answer my wife at the time, but maybe, after writing all this, I finally can: "No darling, I didn't win, but I might have learned a little something about myself. Perhaps that's better than winning."


  1. Hi Lee,

    great article! I don't know if you realise this, but you never really had a choice - in the ending you got, you can't not shoot the Dark One. To get the "good" (but non-canonical) ending, you have to acquire enough Karma points during the game (not killing anyone, helping civilians, etc.). You then have a choice to shoot the launching mechanism before it counts down to zero.

    Still, I prefer the "bad" ending, for all the reasons you described.

  2. Marijn,

    That's interesting. I had wondered if I was right about the ending, but I intentionally didn't look it up. What mattered was what I thought was happening at the time.

    The ending, then, isn't as interesting as I thought from a design perspective. 4A Games didn't trick me, and they weren't being as clever as I thought.

    But what remains interesting is the very fact that my misconception of the situation, perhaps unintended by the "authors," can actually make for a better and more meaningful event.

  3. I read the book, and then played the game. Call it youthful arrogance, but I preferred the game. Feeling a part of the world (As 4A Games make you do so perfectly) completely changed how you feel about decisions you make in the said world.

    I felt terrible afterwards, when the no-thrills credits came up and I reflected upon my decision. But I loved it.

  4. Now I feel sorry for telling you! But, in fact, I believe they actually DID trick you - you really believed you had a choice, after all (and I think this was very much intended). It's a pretty good design trick to make a player think a prescribed ending was due to his own decisions - if Rockstar had managed that, your enjoyment of (the ending of) Red Dead Redemption would have improved immensely.

  5. Marijn,

    Yes, since writing my last comment I have been thinking the same thing -- they did trick me. And you're absolutely right about Red Dead Redemption. While I intended both this and "Dead End" to be standalone articles, they were also, in my mind, companion pieces. The ending Metro 2033 got right what I think the ending of Red Dead Redemption got wrong.

    I also find myself reminded of Half-Life 2. It is extremely good at giving the player a sense of agency in its world when, in fact, much of it is very linear and authored. For example, when you chose to go left rather than right, it feels like your spontaneous decision. But actually the right path is a dead end, a locked door, or a collapsed hallway. Valve cleverly set the scene so that ninety-nine percent of players "choose" to go left, perhaps by bathing the left path in green, piling miscellaneous obstacles in front of the right path, carefully positioning an interesting poster, or whatever. The illusion of agency in its world, at least the first time, is almost as compelling as the real thing.

  6. > An attempt to make Metro 2033 more accessible to a casual audience would inevitably just prevent it from succeeding on its own terms.

    I think this is a very interesting point. Do the interests of most gaming audiences mean that games are crippled from communicating ideas outside of the range of their consumers interests?

    Also, submitting to r/ludology, would love to see you around the reddit!

  7. Lovely article - I really enjoyed it.

    I had the opposite experience with Metro 2033.

    At that final alien, I just knew that I had found the critical decision point. And then I was heartbroken when I couldn't find a way to advance without shooting the alien. I didn't want to kill it. I did, and it was awful.

    Then, back in the real world, I was given what felt like a second chance - I was given a chance to shoot the targeting laser and knock it astray. I did, and it was awesome.

  8. Lee, first of all thank you for another great, thought provoking read on Metro 2033.

    As the first comment mentioned, the choice does exist - but not at the point you thought, and it has to be earned. It's very interesting to us that you had, internally, drawn the enlightened conclusion without passing the test the game sets you... But then as you wrote, you felt powerless to resist the destructive path at what you perceived to be the moment of truth...

    If you're not familiar with it, I thoroughly recommend this article on Metro, published last year:

  9. I came here from Rock Paper Shotgun. I'm loving this blog, you've got some great insights here.

    I like your point of view when it comes to difficulty. I never finished Metro 2033, but your suggestion of going back to it on the highest difficulty and turning crosshairs off makes me want to go back to it.

    The last time I played a game where I pulled myself through by the skin of my teeth, heart pounding, sweating and trembling, was when I was actively playing Starcraft II. That's a game in which I wasn't necessarily playing to win, but for the experience of learning and becoming better at the game, and thus gaining the privilege of playing against more skillful opponents.

    Playing Starcraft II online is a bit like how I imagine playing Metro 2033 on the highest difficulty setting is - around every corner, behind every veil of the fog of war, is the possibility of your immediate, brutal defeat.

    There are no moral choices in Starcraft II - you're always trying to murder everything the other player owns and gain mastery over the battlefield.

    The act of winning or losing is more complex. I lost, but I learned some things and got better at the game. I won, but my opponent was a pushover and I didn't feel challenged. The spectrum of emotions you can feel while playing is broadened, and they're the result of interactions between yourself and other players in the game world, rather than something the game tries to force on you through storytelling.

    I found this to be more meaningful than your typical striving to get to the top of the leaderboard experience.

    Anyways, keep up the good work. I'll definitely be reading anything new you put out.

  10. Hello Lee!

    Great article I just read it after finding it on Metro 2033's facebook :)

    There is a phrase that David Cage uses called "interactive storytelling" to refer to his own games. Perhaps we see that in Metro 2033? Albeit in a shooter form...

  11. Rob,

    I think the true value of Metro 2033 is inaccessible to be who don't want a challenge. A harsh difficulty is intimately bound up with with the story itself. We're accustomed to dividing story and game into distinct entities and assuming changes to one will not impact the other. For example, I think Dragon Age: Origins describes its easiest difficulty setting as for people who just want to enjoy the story, but to the extent that the story is about the difficult trials of the Wardan and their companions, is the story actually impaired by playing it on easy? Perhaps no so much in Origins's case, but I think it might be with Metro 2033.

    And thanks for the invite. I'll be sure to stop by.

  12. My gods this article is outstanding! I'd have to say that the point I knew this game was going to be "great " and much better than anything I've ever seen was while walking with khan and seeing the ghost and hearing his chant for passage and when he stops and looks into the player says we've destroyed and hell and there is no where for the dead to go anymore. I understand completely the thoughts you had after being asked" did you win" this game was followed by The same kind of sleepless night you'd get the first time you finished Moore's battle star galactica. Where you are completely out side of yourself trying to find a way for it to not be the most amazing and perfect thing you've ever experienced... lol I didn't even know how to explain my feelings to my significant other Part of me even wanted to cry lol. I played the game a second tome a few weeks ago aiming for the enlightened ending found it to be less ... memorable bit still good. Going to play the game a third time after I finish the novel just to clean up the last few achievements. The novel is very good so far I'm exactly half way and artyom journey is stricking an emotional charge withen me and its hard to tell if its because playing the game first has predetermined certain things or not... blah blah lol sorry for the rant. I loved this article I'm glad it was written i have considered writing one very similar several times but had no where to publish.

    Thank you

  13. I think there's definitely some tension between the way Metro 2033 handles the endings and the way you may feel during the game. In my first playthrough I was convinced that I was going to be given the choice to save the Dark Ones, but in the end I was forced by the game to destroy them. Originally I thought this was unfair, and when I found out that you can only get the 'good' ending by playing in a certain way I was even more annoyed. Here was the game punishing me for the way I chose to play it, I thought.

    But after playing it a second time I completely changed my mind. I think what the game is doing is actually really clever: it's making a statement. If you play Metro 2033 as a run-and-gun shooter it's act like one, but if you take time to poke about, talk to civilians, explore the areas, give money to a beggar, and so on, you start to see the game as something more than just a bog-standard FPS. Essentially, if you follow Khan's example of curiosity and coexistence you are eventually able to put it into practice at the most vital time - deciding what to do with the Dark Ones. But if you just rush through the game without engaging with the world and its inhabitants properly then your view of the world becomes myopic, and your Artyom starts to see the world as the Rangers do - in black and white, with the Dark Ones clearly a great enemy.In other words, I think that 4A Games is actually doing quite a lot of interesting things with this game that you might never really happen to stumble across.

    I actually wrote a bit more about this on my own blog, and I only link to it here because I hope someone might find what I have to say about it interesting and subsequently choose to try the game out:

  14. I hope you're not done. I've been looking forward to another review. I read a lot of gaming material and yours is quite good and should definitely continue. Take care.

  15. Brilliant reviews, I can't wait to see more!