“This wonder of construction was witnessing
What none of its predecessors in the cities of many centuries
Had witnessed: the builders in the role of proprietors.
Where would it ever have happened that the fruits of labour
Fell to those who had laboured? Where in all time
Were the people who had put up a building
Not always turned out of it?”
Bertolt Brecht – ‘The Moscow Workers Take Possesion Of The Metro On April 27, 1935’
Frequently in the Metro games a hand will reach out to clasp your own. What other game can elicit the pleasure of coming upon another human-being quite as strongly as when you have wondered, desperate and alone, in the Moscow Metro. Infact it is a reaction more profound than mere pleasure. You feel relief, a safeness, but most importantly kinship. When you are alone with the monsters, you fight to survive. When we are with the communities in the stations we remember why we survive. The indifferance of evolution is conquered by the love, compassion and solidarity between human beings.
Though the Metro games are single-player: experienced in solitude, they are intensely communal, like any great painting or novel. They send us into darkness with a gas mask, a hand-made gun and a wind-up up torch, where the loneliness of our existence is distilled, our anxieties amplified. As we approach failure Artyom’s tortured breathing blinds us. The very screen cracks from the pressures of a planet now hostile to our existence. What eventualy saves us from the austerity of the universe is other people. Our entire time in the dark is spent seeking humanity. As we press onward, our filters and ammo almost gone, we listen desperately for the human voices that signal, if not survival, then at least the comfort that we will not meet death alone. When hands grasp us, to pull us to safety, that is the signal of victory. For the moment at least. The Metro games teach us that a win state can only exist in the company of others.
In 2033 the Moscow Metro is the world entire, and it is a world created by the working class, who began it one hundred years before. The game’s virtual bricks, concrete, railway-carriages, cables, lamps, posters, furniture, hung washing, all rendered with detailed textures, are a homage to the congealed labour of the millions dead, both in that world and our own. In the primeval darkness of the underground each human-made object becomes a gravity well holding us in place. When we are utterly alone an innocuous object (perhaps a jacket, a metal sign, a toy) becomes our link to other human beings, even if they are dead and unknown to us. We love the light because it keeps us in touch, always, with this soul of humankind. It is the things that light reflects off that we love light for. If all we saw with our torch was soil, then we might as well be blind.
In survival horror such as Outlast you seek to escape a place condemned. In the Metro your purpose is to save it. In the popular genre of survivalism, the emphasis is on gathering resources, usually in competition with other individuals and factions. It emphasises the survivalist doctrine of looking out for yourself. Playing as Artyom we are always thinking of others. No matter how far we travel we think of our home station and our desire to save people we know we will never see again.
As we proceed through the games we, as Artyom, come to care about and strive to save humanity, both its physical and moral self. We learn through our experience (though we are never lectured to and can choose to ignore the lesson) that even those most bent on our destruction can be spared. In the Metro, human life is too precious to be so blithely cut down by the likes of a triple AAA mercenary such as Booker deWitt. Eventually we can learn from the young Dark One, and achieve an enlightenment of sorts: to understand that even the monsters have a right to exist. In what other game do you defeat a monstrous boss, to then be given, minutes later, the chance to save its life.
Monsters are not the biggest threat to human survival. On the irradiated surface nature breaks down all past works of humanity. The elements enact the long process of erasure. Underground, people mend what was made before, rework over-and-over the produce of a gone civilisation. They fight to hold back the rot and rust just as desperately as they fight to hold back the mutant creatures.
Human society reproduces itself through its labour. The scale and complexity of modern society helps us forget that the wealth of nations springs from human labour and labour alone. So delusions propogate, such as “the stock market creates wealth”. Post- apocolyptic games internalise these delusions. In games such as the Walking Dead, the action centers around scrounging, looting, fighting over tinned food. In our imaginations tinned food comes from factories. Now factories are no more, how are we to eat? Alienated from our labour, the resulting sense of helplessnes becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. But in the Metro people are busy, not looting, but creating. Industry and farming are redeveloped in a way peculiar to a sub-terranian existance. Survival is no longer seen as coming from something outside of us (the tin can) but is a product of communal effort and cooperation.
There is one threat to human survival, greater than nature or the monsters. That is Man himself. And I say Man deliberately as Russian society’s patriarchy is brought beneath the surface along with every other kind of exploitative relationship. Despite probably being the last 40,000 human-beings alive, banditry and war shrinks that number further. But whether allies or enemies, the Metro connects every member of the human race to one another, of every philosophy and every political persuasion. Despite being divided by haunted tunnels, blast doors or simply mutual hate, no one can escape the map of the Metro. People there live in shacks. Behind the plywood door of each you may hear music, a voice, sobbing or praying. Sometimes you knock and the inhabitant responds. A few recognise you. Each time you leave an inhabited station it is with a sense of loss and reluctance.
When journeying between stations, or out on the surface, we often come upon the dead. Each occasion offers us a moment of communion with people who died alone. Our discovering them is a kind of reintroducing them into the fold of humankind. Taking their supplies is not sacrilegeous. We add their efforts to survive to our own. The helping hand this time is given to us metaphorically. As well as bullets and gas mask filters, the dead leave for us their stories. We can sometimes infer something of a person’s life from the objects around them. Other times we hear the voices of ghosts, or even glimpse a moment from their lives.
To complain, as a depressing number of reviewers did, about the times when another person leads you through the Metro is to miss the point entirely. Characters like Bourbon, Kahn, Anna even Paval, tutor us in the lore of the Metro. People in this are not mere game-mechanics. What they give us are not quests, but stories. They do not exist for us to exploit, for coin or XP. We exist to know and understand them. We are Artyom in the Metro witnessing and empathizing with the whole of humanity: the fascists, the faithful, the communists, the capitalists, the mystics. All the ideologies, the dreams, fears, religions, hopes and delusions of the world above that were dragged into the Metro when that world destroyed itself.
And for observing the soldiers, the merchants, the cooks, the thiefs, the killers and nurses; for listening to the musicians’ songs, for hearing the stories of frightened men and women, the imaginations of their children, the surface-memories of the elderly and, even, for witnessing moments from the lives of ghosts, the game rewards us. It rewards us, not with fanfare or prizes, but with a good ending. Or at least the opportunity to achieve one. In the subtleist “morality system” in gaming, we are offered salvation through the simple act of caring.
The ascent of the Ostankino television tower in Metro 2033, is one of the most powerful passages in gaming I’ve experienced. To watch a man struggle up the tower in a film, or read of it in a book, would have only a fraction of the impact that ‘playing’ it has. Here the word ‘playing’ takes on its theatrical sense. It is a ceremonial ascent that we, the player, enact and it is deeply cathartic. The realistic graphics and sound design and the first-person viewpoint affect our imagination, ensuring we feel the metal creaking under our weight and the freezing blasts of wind. It is a ceremony of struggle. Carrying on (and remember, it is only ever Hope that drives Artyom forwards on his suicidal mission) …Carrying on is the refusal to accept the defeat of humanity at large. It transcends survival and becomes resistance.
Resistance is the beating heart of the Metro Games. Artyom resists the temptation to stand still; to enjoy the small comforts of the Metro and not change a thing. When our torchlight resists the darkness it is memory resisting forgetting. With hammer and nails the people resist the corrosive force of entropy, refusing to accept that annihalation is inevitable. Finally, with the help of the Dark Ones, we learn to resist the lie that humanity can only be saved, and not changed for the better.