There’s a certain bleakness entirely unique to Russian fiction. You could make a Western horror film about an apocalypse-like event which destroys all the pizzerias and puppy-orphanages in the world, and it’d still be substantially less bleak than a documentary on daily life in the former Soviet Bloc. A place where you probably can’t even take a shit without it freezing and shattering into a million pieces, as though it's the guy in Timecop who gets caught in liquid nitrogen and then kicked in half by Jean-Claude Van Damme. The figurative (and literal) coldness of the Russian setting is hardly surprising, considering the country's recent bloody history. No wonder the Russian mind-set is as cynical as it is when, in the last 150 years, Russia’s been invaded more frequently than the player trying to hold onto Asia in a game of Risk. There’s no way you’re getting those extra seven men per turn, buddy.
Dmitry Glukhovsky’s breakout sci-fi novel Metro 2033 is a book which I’ve never finished; purely because I remember getting half-way through before realising the novel was basically one long tedious scramble from history lesson to religious lesson to history lesson. It was like secondary school, but with less people threatening to beat me up and take my stuff. Metro 2033 the video game by 4A Games, however, was one of my favourite sci-fi/horror games of last generation. The year is 2033 (the number at the end of title isn’t just a running total of the plot’s clichés, you know) and mankind has been devastated by nuclear war. Russia (the game's setting) in particular has been given a mighty pounding, the little slut. Fortunately, pockets of survivors having taken shelter in the Moscow underground subway system and created a new civilisation of sorts. One where the NPCs mostly just sit around moaning about the ‘good old days’, like a Brexit supporter, and wait for someone else to improve their miserable lives – again, like a Brexit supporter.
Metro 2033 captures the bleak, hard world of its source novel. It’s an almost medieval world of isolated communities in which everyone’s a peasant and operating a sort of barter based economy. Bullets are the main currency here, an interesting mechanic for a first-person-shooter, with the pre-war military bullets being the most powerful and most valuable type. The cynic in me believes that the developers chose bullets because Fallout had already chosen bottle caps, S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Shadow of Chernobyl had salvageable junk, while Hellgate: London went with handfuls of shit to match its overall quality. But the bullets as ammo mechanic serves the tense scavenging survivalist atmosphere well. You may spend your best bullets to upgrade your equipment, but then you’ll be stuck doing less damage to the enemies than if you were using a spud gun that fired bits of paper with compliments written on them.
The atmosphere in Metro 2033 is pretty spot-on. Suitably for a game set in a dilapidated metro system, the game world feels claustrophobic and labyrinthine. Dark shadowy corners, cramped service tunnels, crumbling railway lines, and ragtag little shanty towns – the metro system feels like the clogged veins of the heart of darkness that is Metro’s world. Though the level design seems sprawling and confusing, the game is fairly linear – almost on rails if you will. But I like that about Metro 2033, it’s more interested in creating a living breathing world than providing a playground. In between the actual levels are short sections in which nothing really happens other than the player gets to walkthrough hastily put-together settlement stations. These sections help to cement the idea of the metro being a place where people live, die, and fuck. The entire game itself is basically a baby’s first guide to typical post-apocalyptic themes: the repressive and corrupt regimes in the Neo-Nazis and Communists, the failing infrastructure, disease, warfare, mutants, eldritch horrors, and ghosts…err, well maybe not wholly typical themes.
And I suppose that’s Metro 2033’s biggest failing – it has a narrative which feels thrown together like Frankenhooker. It begins with protagonist Artyom leaving his home station of Exhibition on a quest to visit the distant station of Polis, home of the oh-so-cool Rangers. What begins as a simple journey rapidly becomes railroaded, if you will. The whole point of Artyom’s journey is that he’s trying to get help for Exhibition, which is under siege by the gorilla-mutant-things. But he spends so much time being side-tracked that by the time help does reach Exhibition, it’ll be a verifiable Station of the Apes. Not that it'd matter anyway: Metro 2033 pulls off the last minute "oh no those evil monsters are actually friendly" twist. So, is killing people how these things say hello?
I feel the atmosphere in this game works best when you’re exploring the various stations rife with human misery and desperation, or going through the pitch-black, eerily-ambient tunnels – trigger on the finger and catheter up the nob, ready to collect the streams of terrified piss which inevitably squirt out when the monsters do show up. The sequence set in the (above-ground) library in which a huge lumbering monstrosity (see image up top) hunts you down, is the perfect balance of thrilling and nerve-wrecking. It's the whole Nazi-Communist conflict which really lets Metro 2033 down; turning the game into Call of Easily-Side-tracked Duty whenever you’re forced to fight them. I’m a gamer, I’m so used to killing digital Nazis that it’s practically second nature. In fact, I’m killing one right now.