10.19.2010

Novus Homo: Thoughts on Metro 2033

I'm going to do this occasionally - grope around in my documents folder for older pieces, mostly games criticism, that I'd like to get some feedback on. This is in no way a transparent attempt to flesh out my anaemic blog. Move along.

Warning! The following contains spoilers for Metro 2033, and, to a lesser extent, Bioshock.

A surprise: Metro 2033 is almost a masterpiece. Were it not for a number of daft, avoidable flaws, I'd say it was the biggest thing to happen to narrative first-person shooters since the original Bioshock - in fact, I'd go as far as to say that it is, in several important ways, the game that Bioshock should have been.

Like Bioshock, Metro 2033 is a game about the relationship between ideology and personal agency, set in the crumbling remains of a society trapped in a destructive and unsustainable holding pattern. Also like Bioshock, Metro 2033 treats conflict, in gameplay terms, as a transaction between the player and the game. Both are in this regard closer to first-person survival-horrors than first- person shooters, preferring to challenge the player with the threat of running out of ammo rather than the threat of receiving a surplus of ammo to the face. More broadly, Metro and Bioshock alike confront the player with decisions and revelations that ask them to reflect on themselves as game-players as well as player-characters; both share an interest in the ontology of interactive fiction, and to this end are willing to push up against the fourth wall.



Unlike Bioshock, Metro 2033 makes none of its thematic intentions especially clear, and even goes out of its way to avoid telling the player what they should be doing or thinking. While it is often argued that Bioshock undermines its own message by buying wholesale into the same structure it tears apart ("would you kindly finish the rest of the game?"), Metro undersells its message to the extent that it's perfectly reasonable for a player to view it as a passably atmospheric shooter and little more. I can't imagine anyone not picking up on the fact that Bioshock wants you to learn something from it, but as a teacher it's lousy - delivering lesson after lesson, but somehow never getting around to the final exam. Metro is simpler: it's all a test, and the responsibility rests with you to learn as you go, with the consequence that many players will pass through the game and not know they were being tested at all (were it not, as ever, for Achievements).

The breakdown is this: to get the better of Metro's two endings, where the surface-dwelling race of hyperevolved psychic "Dark Ones" are spared rather than condemned to nuclear fire, it is necessary for the player to have made innumerable tiny selfless decisions over the course of the game. Whenever the player passes over taking some currency from a beggar's stash, declines the advances of a prostitute, or sneaks through a level with a minimum of bloodshed, a brief and uncontextualised flash indicates that points have been earned towards this goal. The player has to demonstrate that they're the kind of person who would spare the Dark Ones before they're allowed to do so. The solution to the game's macro-conflict is determined by the outcome of dozens of micro-conflicts, implicating any game with a push-button solution to an ethical impasse in a kind of hypocritical ambivalence. A man is not only entitled to the sweat of his brow, Metro says, but to the formation of his identity. Who you were before doesn't matter: what matters is what you do now. All of it.

How strange that it should be revolutionary for a game to provide consequences for that most commonplace of player activities: petty theft. Rather than cushion the blow with a "press-X-to-be-a-dick" intervention, the game simply allows these things to happen in the course of normal gameplay and then delivers the consequences later. "But I didn't know there would be consequences!" the player cries, "every other game wants me to take people's stuff - that's why it's there, right?"

Comparisons to Bioshock write themselves at this point. Seen alongside the metro tunnels, Rapture comes across as a little gaudy, a little obvious. Avarice is killing little girls; stealing everything in an entire city that isn't nailed down is just good sense. If Bioshock is trying to make the point that unchecked greed leads to the destruction of the thief as much as the victim, it only supports this up to a point. The player consumes just as much Adam and ammo following the selfless route as the selfish.

Metro 2033 looks good in this light: quieter, more meditative, waiting patiently for you to learn what you've been doing wrong all these years. It's a game that could only have come from an eastern European development culture whose holy grail is absolute simulation as opposed to absolute cinematic integrity, where implementing ideas that a player may never experience is not a failure but the defining characteristic of interactive media.

This sense of the game having come from a community - as opposed to an individual auteur - is at the heart of both its successes and its failures. There were moments when, playing Metro, I found myself grinding my teeth at narratorial rookie errors that cried out for a dictatorial guiding hand. One of the game's greatest strengths is its use of first-person interventionary cut- scenes, which take control from the player but expertly maintain the sense that these (often horrible) events are happening directly to them - a sensation immediately undermined every time the game arbitrarily cuts to third-person for this or that scene. The game loses as many battles as it wins, and while Metro 2033 fights itself Bioshock gets to hold on to its throne.

There are real victories. Metro's approach to equipment, and the way the player interacts with it, should be making designers - particularly those working with motion controllers - sit up and take note. The game operates on the unfashionable principle that fluid, responsive, easily-intuited controls are anathemic to tension and atmosphere; that a player's enjoyment of a game is not, as we are often told, hung on how they interact with the game but instead on what the game asks (and allows) them to do. In Metro 2033, there is no universal control scheme for all weapons. Some use the left trigger for ironsights; others use it for melee or the second barrel of a shotgun. A class of pneumatic weapons need to be pumped - achieved by holding down the right bumper and then hammering the right trigger - to maintain rate of fire and projectile velocity. Experiential verisimilitude resolutely takes priority over accessibility, but it would be narrow-minded to say that this comes at the expense of gameplay. It's simply a difficult proposition in Metro to find a new gun on the floor and immediately use it effectively under duress. Instead you find yourself looking for somewhere quiet to learn the ins and outs of your new weapon, perhaps even expending precious ammunition (which, brilliantly, is also currency) to make sure you have everything straight. This inserts seamless, player-motivated pauses into the rhythm of the game, increasing challenge while also reinforcing the game's atmosphere and core theme of acquiring and applying knowledge. Crucially, the controls integrate seamlessly with the game's other big ideas: the time you spend on the surface working out how your new pneumatic rifle works is time spent burning through gas- mask filters, the replacement of which requires fumbling - as if through pockets - for the necessary button to press. That's right: Metro not only accepts that the 360 has a shoddy d-pad, it runs with it. Perhaps that's taking it too far.

In any case, Metro's controls help its equipment, and, by extension, its world, feel real. They are devices and contraptions behaving according to an illusory but profound sense of logic, and the interface the game presents to the player reflects this. Near-simulation and sustained learning provide a connection to the world curiously missing from the majority of western games, and particularly Bioshock. What does it feel like to have your arm turn into a seething beehive? Apparently, it is much like shooting lightning from your fingers, or plucking a grenade out of the air with your mind, or by extension, firing a pistol or swinging a wrench. All require no more thought than a trigger squeeze.

I'd really like to argue that by imbuing the basic elements of the FPS with this kind of tactile fidelity Metro provides its whole world with real humanity. I suspect, however, that this is too much of a stretch even for the most sensitive players, and will mean little for those whose game-empathy extends no further than the barrel of their rifle. It still requires a proactive engagement with the game in order to care about its one-note (or, frequently, one- repeated-line) characters, and no matter the rewards for doing so it'll always come second in that regard to Bioshock's relentless focus on personality and performance, even if it is frequently taken to the point of pantomime. Bioshock is, simply, a better-constructed piece of pop-philosophy - and I suspect that I'm going to regard Metro for a long time to come as simply one of those faulty classics that turns up every couple of years, reminds everyone that rules are there to be broken, and then vanishes in a puff of mediocre sales and feeble marketing.

Metro 2033 is a strange animal. A linear first-person shooter set in a grim, rust-and-blood post-apocalyptic near future, it is somehow also an immersive sim with as much to say about games as unique ideological and ontological experiences as a Bioshock or a Limbo. It sits awkwardly in the middle of a Venn-diagram that combines western and eastern European design philosophy, individual auteurship and studio culture, old-school PC gaming traditionalism and pared-down, games-as-cinema console spectacle. The best parts of Metro embody all of these competing factors simultaneously; where the game fails - and it does fail - it is because one or other of these elements is out of balance with the others. It's fractured and leaderless, but with tremendous rewards for the right kind of player. To get the most of out of Metro 2033 you need to be willing to commit wholesale to the game's systems while simultaneously making continual, unprompted judgements about the ethics of your own actions. You must be free, yet self-regulating, a Novus Homo: a New Soviet Man. Perhaps, in the deterministic world of games, the concept is worth a second look.

10 comments:

  1. The one thing I would take issue with in your praise for Metro 2033 is this:

    "every other game wants me to take people's stuff"

    The issue here is similar to the problem I had with Limbo. Different types of games have a particular language or grammar, and I believe it's reasonable for players to expect a particular type of game to use that grammar. When a game breaks from this grammar, such as when Limbo breaks from the established platform equation of death with failure, I believe it behooves the game to communicate this break clearly to the player. Expecting players to learn a new language is fine, but first you must communicate that the game *has* a different language. I believe Limbo fails to do this. And from the way you describe it, it sounds like Metro 2033 fails to do this as well.

    Breaking the rules is fine, but if you don't communicate that you're going to do that, the player is justified in feeling cheated when they play by the known rules and then get what the known rules describe as a failure. Dying in Limbo is like that, at least the first few times, and especially in the many situations where there is little to no chance of avoiding death the first time through.

    If it isn't made clear to players that the rules have changed, it's unreasonable to expect them to act other than according to the known rules.

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  2. "it's unreasonable to expect them to act other than according to the known rules."

    My point would be that there are two sets of rules at play in this scenario: received game logic, and real-life ethics. In the former, petty theft is absolutely expected. In the latter, it is not. For either game to make the philosophical-political points they set out to make then real-life ethics need to be at the forefront of a player's mind: otherwise the best the game can hope for is some kind of meta commentary on the amoralistic nature of game players.

    That's what I found interesting about Metro 2033 and disingenuous about Bioshock. By *not* making explicit the fact that the game operates on real-world morality it gains an integrity that I think is healthy for the medium. It's an idealistic point, perhaps, but really we shouldn't have to tell people that stealing and murder is wrong, even if other games build play scenarios around them or ignore them outright.

    I'd argue that Metro 2033's failure to communicate it's intentions not only doesn't hinder its point, it *is* the point.

    Whether this makes it a better game, though, is absolutely up for debate.

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  3. Interesting examination and I tend to agree with each point. Metro 2033 hasn't had enough critical attention like this, so, kudos.

    I would argue that the micro-conflicts you referenced were of the least importance to the conclusion. The option to give a bullet to a beggar or (stupidly) accept the offer of a prostitute were much rarer than the equally influential opportunities to merely twang the strings of an instrument someone left laying around, listen in on a conversation or correctly avoid and watch the ghosts of the tunnels.

    Having played both played the game and read the book, I have to say the game's final choice between the Novus' obliteration or not is not based upon the player character being a 'good' person or not, but on having an open, investigative philosophical or scientific attitude to the world. The point being that you/he made a habit of examining the world around you and learning from it, rather than acting on your assumptions alone.

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  4. An interesting article, but I have to ask: What is the big difference between causing the bad ending by not giving money to a beggar and by "harvesting" a little sister?
    Both are actions you can do or not do, and both don't give any inclination that they will cause a different ending- it is enough to harvest a single sister in Bioshock to get to the "bad" ending.
    It's only a matter of scale. In addition, I totally disagree with your statement on petty theft in Bioshock - Is your criticism that Bioshock enables taking things lying around on the floors or cupboards of a mostly-abandoned city, populated with post-human monstrosities that are out to kill you? Or is it with the lack of consequences for such actions? I fail to see the issue.

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  5. That's me, in the previous response.

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  6. The difference is in presentation. You may not be aware that your approach to little sisters will affect the ending (but you've played video games before, right?) but there's no avoiding the sense that these decisions are significant. An enormous fuss is made about the sisters by both Atlas and Tenenbaum, and the decision itself is presented as a "pick a button" interventionary cutscene. Metro includes these as well, but also takes into account your unprompted actions - which is what makes it more credible.

    If Bioshock had incorporated the sisters more fully into regular gameplay - if you had to, for example, kill them with your normal weapons and loot the corpse for Adam - then the decision would, I'd argue, be much more powerful. As it is, the player is distanced from the act of harvesting the sisters in a way I find hypocritical.

    With regards to the "petty theft" issue: both games place philosophic and thematic weight on the idea that your actions (no matter how large or small) define and encircle you. In Bioshock's case this is expressed, explicitly, in economic terms. How wealth is acquired is as if not more important than how much is acquired - the difference between a "man" and a "parasite" is one of approach and intent. The way the player is invited to reject Ryan's ideals is through saving the sisters and therefore subscribing to the idea that mutual assistance leads to mutual gain: a resolutely anti-objectivist position. My issue is that a player is only required to demonstrate their conviction in this isolated context: there are no consequences provided for all the stealing, hacking, and scavenging that they'll do in the normal course of gameplay. It's nigh-impossible to succeed at Bioshock and retain moral integrity: an interesting point in its own right, maybe, but still to my mind an unfair arm-lock to place the player in. Metro, by contrast, provides a slender but vital chance for the player to succeed philosophically. It's a more optimistic game, in that sense, which is perhaps why I was so keen to celebrate it in the first place.

    Hope that makes my position a little clearer. I'm looking to post something new in the next few days: I've got half a dozen pieces in the works, but most of them are stuck at the corner of nonsense and garbage and need redrafting. Watch this space.

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  7. Yeah, that makes it clearer. I now agree with your point regarding how external to the gameplay Bioshock makes that choice.
    Although, if I could accidentally kill a little sister with my weapons, I'd be even more annoyed at the game for giving me the "evil taskmaster" ending for one such occurrence.

    It also seems that I didn't take as strongly to the message of Bioshock as you- I played to survive and get out of there, not to bring down any sort of philosophical system. As such, I read nothing into scouring trashcans and shelves for stuff.

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  8. I found this article a few weeks ago, but I waited until I completed Metro to actually read through it. My impression:

    I started playing the game like I always do: I used a modified, videogame version of my "real world ethics". I saw the little kid, and I gave him a bullet. That's just how I roll. He needed some money, and I gave it to him.

    Then, I came across the prostitute. She OBVIOUSLY needs money (hence the profession) so I gave her some money too. SLAP! I got killed by the hooker. Thus, I was punished by the game and taught that being "nice" is a bad thing.

    Then, I restarted, and DIDN'T give the kid a bullet, and the game gave me an achievement, thus "rewarding" me for my behavior. Now we're on the same page. The game has taught me that I'm supposed to be an a-hole. Nothing wrong with that. After all, it is a shooter, right?

    And then I read your article and find out that there was a "good" ending. W.T.H!?

    To me, that's sending mixed signals. How am I supposed to look at your game through the lens of my "real world ethics" when you go and pull the ol' pay-the-hooker-and-you-die-instantly gag on me?. I haven't had that trick played on me since the '80s in those Sierra games. Bad. Bad. Bad. Some might consider "mixing metaphors" like that in games ground-breaking, or ingenious, but I just find it annoying.

    The next issue I had, was the HORRIBLE stealth mechanics, if you can call them that. How am I supposed to get to the other side of the map quietly when once alerted, the enemies can see you from 100 yards away...in the dark...through the walls?

    If you really wanted me to try stealthing through the game, you'd make it at least as easy as gunning my way through. I'm willing to do either, but I'm not in college anymore and I'm not going to spend four hours trying to hog-tie and wrestle your gameplay mechanics, just for an amateur lesson in "morality".

    Overall, I have mixed emotions about, not only the game, but the "morality" system as well. I actually had no idea about the different endings until I read this article. If they gave me a hint, I missed it completely. Now I actually understand what that "live by the sword, die by the sword" speech (in the church...I think it was a church...) was all about. At the time I thought it was just incoherent storytelling. But I still can't help but feel "betrayed" in some way because of the things the game taught me in the very beginning. I'd have to agree with the grammar comment from earlier. If you can't let me know what language we're supposed to be speaking to one another, at some point we're going to have misunderstanding.

    Those gripes aside, this was easily one of the best shooters I've played in years. I wholeheartedly agree: This is one of those flawed classics that I'll be telling people about for years to come.

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  9. While reading, I was reminded of the case of game logic failure in Mass Effect 2. At a point in the game, stoping the looters in a quarantined area - ither by force or persuation -was rewarded by aditional points. The dialogues following both options were superbly done, fully in line with the current character development. That was the very reason it also became unbarebly hypocritical as the whole monetary system of the game was based on cracking and looting safes (what my character had also been doing in the same area.

    I was surprised to the extent that this breakdown took me emotionaly out of the game.

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  10. Games judge you according to their own set of ethics which do not exist in the real world. It's up to the player to discover them and, if you want a set outcome, play to them.

    I think Metro 2033 has a punishing narrative. I missed almost everything discussed. I didn't take pleasure in killing guards and the other factions, but I didn't see any other way to progress. I completely and utterly misread what the game was trying to tell me.

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