A Look at ‘Metro 2033’, or, Virtue in a Broken World

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Metro 2033 is a first-person shooter set in a post-apocalyptic Moscow frozen stiff in the grip of a nuclear winter. As the bombs fell some managed to take refuge in the Moscow metro system, and today, long after that time, humanity clings to life in those tunnels. The ground above is scorched and irradiated, utterly uninhabitable, and people are forced to live their entire lives underground.

It’s a dangerous place -the tunnels have become infested with mutants, ghosts, and strange environmental anomalies: the legacy of the nuclear apocalypse. But while few willingly venture out of the safety of their home stations, some do take the risk. Among them are the Rangers – a group of highly trained soldiers who see themselves as the white blood cells of the metro system; there to identify and destroy any and all threats to its inhabitants. However, a new, powerful threat has emerged; a mutant species called The Dark Ones, named by some as Homo Novus, New Man. These mutants display terrible telepathic powers, and encounters with them have left even the strongest of warriors empty shells housing irreparably broken minds.

Into this world is thrown Artyom, a young man who has spent his life living in a small station on the outskirts of the metro. One day a Ranger named Hunter arrives at his home station during a prolonged and especially violent mutant attack. He goes outside to scout out the area, and warns that if he doesn’t return the next morning Artyom must travel to the centre stations to warn them of the threat the Dark Ones pose. Naturally, Hunter doesn’t return.

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You take on the role of Artyom as he traverses the dangerous metro system, occasionally venturing out into the frozen wastelands of post-nuclear Moscow. Originally this sees Artyom travelling to the central stations in search of aid, but when this fails he’s joined by the Rangers in a desperate plan to activate a long-dead missile system and bomb the Dark Ones off the face of the earth. But Metro 2033 isn’t just a straightforward shooter, with Artyom rising up to become the hero. Instead it’s a morally ambiguous affair; an exploration of simple choices, and a commentary on how those simple, often unconscious choices can change the kind of person we are, or rather the kind of person we can be.

Metro 2033 isn’t just another first-person shooter that awkwardly tries to combine power-fantasy combat with a meaningful story. In fact, a huge proportion of the game is spent in the absence of violence, and you’ll spend much of your time exploring, scavenging, trading, and sneaking through the shadows. Most of the time in Metro 2033 you won’t be firing a gun, or looking to fire a gun, or even thinking about firing a gun.

But even when violence does come Metro 2033 stands out from the crowd. Played on anything other than the lowest difficulty levels you’ll struggle to survive. In fact you struggle to even find enough bullets to load your gun. This scarcity of ammunition forces you to play the game in a way that barely resembles most shooters: you crouch in shadows trying to avoid enemy patrols, you delay firing your weapon as long as you can to ensure clean, efficient kills, and you make use of silent, reusable weapons as often as is feasible. You panic as the force of an impact cracks open your gas-mask, and then you desperately search for another usable one, feeling all the while Artyom’s pained efforts to avoid inhaling the toxic air, feeling the startling sound of his lungs.

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Violence is quick and brutal; the real meat of the combat is in the expectation, and the frantic guessing as to where and how numerous your opponents are. In short, the game is something wholly other to the vast majority of first-person shooters, which are to a large extent about empowerment, or rather EMPOWERMENT. This isn’t a game just about bravado and the use of overwhelming force – it’s a game about vulnerability. As such, this is one of very few games where there’s absolutely no conflict between the themes it explores and the actions you take as a player.

The game’s most interesting way of exploring its themes is through its morality system. Many games, though very few shooters, have morality systems, and few do anything particularly interesting with them. Most simply hand you binary choices between good and evil, and call them moral choices. The effects of such choices are generally either cosmetic or artificially extreme. It is very much a case of kill the puppy or pet the puppy. But Metro 2033’s system is different – not only is it surprisingly sophisticated, but it’s the only morality system I’ve seen that actually tries to say something.

If you play through Metro 2033 you’d be forgiven for not noticing that there’s any kind of morality system within the game at all. This is because the system is subtle and unstated. Only with some further knowledge of the game, either through reading about it from external sources, or through multiple playthroughs of the game, will one really come to understand what it is and how it works.

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Almost all games with morality systems give you some kind of indication that you have committed a good act, or a bad one; a little happy noise or a frowny face, but all Metro 2033 does is give some slight indication that something may have happened somewhere. Periodically, certain actions will cause the screen to momentarily develop a different hue, and the faint sound of a klaxon will emerge. No indication is given then that what you did was right or wrong, or even that what you just did was important.

Christ, I didn’t even know that this indication was there until my second time playing through the game. It’s remarkably easy not to notice that the game keeps track of how you act, since most moral choices are not simply presented as binary choices. While you may be given the opportunity to accept or reject a reward from an impoverished mother your choices are generally far more subtle. You gain unstated moral ‘points’ (it’s important to emphasise that that’s my term, not the game’s) for avoiding unnecessary bloodshed in certain sections, or for listening to a preacher finish his final speech to doomed front line soldiers, and you can lose moral ‘points’ for something as simple as carelessly trampling over candles in a shrine to the dead.

The first time I ran through the game like any other linear first-person shooter, mostly because I wasn’t expecting it to be anything more than just another linear shooter. The second time I took things slower, really wanting to soak up the post-apocalyptic world on show. As a result I found countless things I had previously missed. I found that I can lead Artyom into his stepfather’s office for a parting talk before leaving home, which leads to a small, poignant, and entirely incidental moment. I found I can listen to a friend talk, and then as a result be asked to spare some money for medicine for his child. I found that the game rewards you for taking it seriously, acting out of curiosity, and performing small, perhaps in many cases inconsequential, acts of kindness. That treating the game as any other first-person shooter causes you to miss a great deal of its beauty.

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And, mirroring my own experience, the Artyom from my first run through the game was markedly different from the Artyom of my second, more deliberate one. He doesn’t talk differently, or grow devil horns and cause villagers to scatter at your presence, but in a very important sense your tacit decision determine the character of Artyom as you play. By tearing through the game as any other shooter your Artyom is set as a man single-mindedly determined to end the threat of the Dark Ones. And by moving through the game carefully and thoughtfully your Artyom becomes curious enough, and thorough enough, to be willing to question whether the Dark Ones are an enemy at all.

The only functional effect of Metro 2033’s morality system is to push you towards one of two of the game’s endings. People often call them the ‘good ending’ and the ‘bad ending’, although I think that’s an unfair representation of what they actually represent. The standard ‘bad ending’ is reached if Artyom doesn’t gain enough of these moral ‘points’ (and it should be noted that there are very few situations where one can receive negative moral points, so if you reach the ‘bad ending’ it’ll mostly be because of how you didn’t act). In this ending Artyom and the Rangers destroy the Dark Ones with a precision missile strike. Humanity is saved, and Artyom is a hero. If you act in such a way as to gain enough moral points to achieve the ‘good ending’ you’re given a choice: you can either let the missile deliver its payload, or you can destroy the guiding mechanism you fought so hard to position, and in doing so spare the Dark Ones.

If you rush through the game with your eyes always on the next objective you’re barred from this decision; forced down a path of violence against the Dark Ones to protect the human race. And you’re not reviled for this, you’re the considered the hero of the day. But by consistently acting with curiosity and kindness you give Artyom the opportunity to grow, and to question, and to make a world-changing decision.

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One of the central ideas of Aristotelian virtue ethics is that in order to become a virtuous person one must perform virtuous actions. Eventually, if one follows the example of virtuous people one can become virtuous, and virtuous actions will then come more naturally.

There are two central role models in this game, each representing a different way to respond to the violent, broken world. The first is a Ranger named Miller, and the second is Khan, a quiet, thoughtful wanderer of the underground who offers Artyom another way of looking at the world. At one point Khan says the following: ‘You reap what you sow, Artyom: force answers force, war breeds war, and death only brings death. To break this vicious circle one must do more than act without thought or doubt’, and this is hugely important for understanding Metro 2033 as a whole. If you follow the example of Miller, and take the Ranger motto ‘If it’s hostile you kill it’ to heart, Artyom becomes strong, and protects his station. In other words, if you play Metro 2033 as a standard run-and-gun first-person shooter then it acts as a standard run-and-gun first-person shooter. You shoot, you kill, and eventually you annihilate the Dark Ones with a precision missile strike in order to protect mankind. It functions perfectly well if played like this, though I didn’t fall in love with it.

However, if you decide to follow Khan’s example of employing violence only when necessary, of coexistence rather than annihilation, then the game transforms: it changes from a tale of Artyom gaining the power to eliminate the threat of the Dark Ones to a tale of Artyom slowly coming to question things. Finally, you’ll be given a brief moment in which to make a world-changing decision: you stand there with your pistol in hand, facing the missile-guidance system. The Dark Ones beg for peace. The game doesn’t tell you to destroy the guidance system or to leave it standing; it just leaves you there listening to a countdown to impact. You can simply stand there and wait until the missile destroys the Dark Ones, but you can also decide to destroy the guidance system and save the Dark Ones. It may be a difficult decision, but you are not forced down either path; you have shown yourself capable of making such a choice.

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2 Responses to A Look at ‘Metro 2033’, or, Virtue in a Broken World

  1. Sarah G says:

    I really enjoyed reading this – and I am not a video game fan. You make it sound so intriguing. I may even try playing it soon! xxx

  2. Pingback: Immersion in the Metro series | Next Level

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