Friday, February 10, 2012

Horror and guitars in Metro 2033

I just finished Metro 2033, a 2010 adaptation of the 2005 book by Russian author Dmitry Glukhovsky. Created by Ukrainian developer 4A Games, Metro 2033 is one of the most chilling games I've played in a long time.

The game tells a tale of post-apocalyptic Moscow, where people are forced to live underground in the Metro stations. The structure reminds me of Fallout 3 crossed with Half-Life 2, but with a distinctly Slavic perspective.

It's interesting to play something made in Ukraine. Most video games are either North American or Japanese. Not many are European, and even fewer are Eastern European. The result is a work that could not be replicated in the United States or anywhere else.

Metro 2033 isn't perfect. It's got all the trappings of a survival-horror FPS, and there are some sections that take control away from the player when they should've just let the player experience them on their own, Valve-style. But Metro 2033's atmosphere is melancholy in a way I haven't experienced before. The narrative doesn't spoon-feed you the emotions you're meant to feel as you play through the storyline. Instead, the claustrophobic settlements in the subway stations and the stark icy dystopia of the Muscovite surface seep into the player's psyche. On top of it all, there's a supernatural subtext that's handled beautifully.

The Metro stations are by far my favorite part of the game. Cramped and full of dirty, tattered survivors, these ramshackle subterranean villages provide context for the graveness of Moscow's holocaust. There's no way to "interact" with most of the civilians, per se. Instead, all you can do is walk around and observe these people live their dreary underground lives. The dialogue between all these non-player characters is inconsequential to your story, but they add layers and layers of personality to the world of Metro 2033.

The voice acting here is some of the best I've ever heard in a game (both in English and in Russian--you can play through the game with either audio track), and perhaps because of the work's roots as a novel, the writing is beautiful. Hear two children speculate about what the surface of Moscow (which they've never seen before) is like, or listen to drug addicts argue over their stash. There's nothing tangibly beneficial to you in the game world for listening to these conversations other than to deepen your understanding of the story you're in.

There are a few curious inclusions in these subway towns. First of all, almost every settlement you visit includes someone playing music. There are guitars and other instruments strewn around the game world. And second, there are kids everywhere. Most video games feature few to zero children, but these Metro stations are full of kids. And in a way, it's very unsettling. Will these children ever have a future? Their lives are full of darkness and death.

Which brings me to Metro 2033's understatedly brilliant morality system. Many games have a metered "good or evil" morality bar where doing the right thing or the wrong thing provide clear gameplay advantages and disadvantages. Metro 2033, on the other hand, never tells you it's keeping track of the decisions you make. And instead of obvious "kill this person or spare their life" moral choices, the game judges you on a plethora of tiny decisions. Do you stay and listen to the old lady begging for food? Do you linger in a place and play the piano? These little choices change the trajectory of the story without your knowledge. Really, that's a truer "morality" system than "choose obviously good decision for ___ benefit."

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