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.