Humanity In The Metro

 

                                          “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.

tumblr_moqry2BVRe1s9v32ho1_1280Neo-Paris 2084 is a society built on tragedies. Like our own, it turns a blind eye to suffering in the present while sanitizing its history of any uncomfortable truths. Unlike our own, science has perfected a way for individuals to delete or alter their memories or to take as their own the memories of strangers.  Memory has been commodified; turning them into entertainments to be bought and sold or salves to soothe mental anguish.

This technology of memory manipulation is called the Sensation Engine (Sensen), and was invented by a man called Charles Cartier-Wells.   A technocrat; he believed he could eradicate human mental suffering through the erasure of painful memories, but instead, the spread of his technology imposed a false consciousness on individuals and society, exacerbating the injustices, inequalities and oppression of 21st century Capitalism.

In defiance, a resistance movement formed, consisting of freedom fighters dubbed Errorists, of which Nilin is a leading figure.  The game begins with her captured, in the Bastille, halfway through having her memory, and personality, completely wiped.

A person who fights for freedom may be compelled onwards by the longing for a just and peaceful society.  In pursuit of their goal they employ violence. This is not a contradiction.  The violence of the ruling class is employed to make violence a permanent state of being. The violence of the revolutionary: to eradicate it from our futures.

As their genre of violence, Dontnod, the development team, chose the brawler.  Remember Me is not merely a good brawler, it is one of the best.  Here is why it works.

What the brawler has over the FPS is human contact.  The fist meets the face.  When one human being shoots another they are separated by distance. That distance is also emotional.  A gunslinger is stoic. A kung-fu fighter is expressive.

004_Eastwood_man_with_No_Name

bruce lee expressive

Every kick and punch Nilin lands she accompanies with a grunt or a cry.  In those sounds we hear, and experience with her, her struggle.  As she connects with her enemies, we connect with her.

The player shares Nilin’s exaltation at every victory even more because each fight is novel and challenging.  Our triumph is therefore heartfelt. The challenge of Remember Me’s fighting has a puzzle like quality on top of the usual test of reactions inherent in a good brawler. Nilin’s enemies have a variety of qualities that complement each other in different ways depending on their combination.  Some enemies are invisible and untouchable except in bright light, some reflect damage, some are invincible while their allies are alive, others fly, teleport, or climb walls. The robots use projectiles or area of effect damage.

To help her solve the puzzle of a combat situation Nilin has a variety of cyber-based abilities as well as the pressen combo system.  Nilin’s powers, which work with a cooldown system, include a ranged attack, a robot hack, the ability to become invisible, a mass stun-attack, an area effect bomb and a fury combo that breaks through blocks.  The pressen combo system allows a player to customise the qualities of Nilin’s attacks: dealing extra damage, regenerating her health, or reducing cooldown time.

All of this is to say, that the combat is deep and challenging. I played Remember Me on hard and barely a fight passed by without me dying several times, learning from my failures and succeeding only when a new and effective strategy had been found.  Victory then is as much a cathartic triumph for us as it is for Nilin.

Remember_Me_Concept_Art_Charles_Office_GJ-01

The heart of Memorize has a cathedral like quality and Nilin’s journey into it is at least a secular, if not spiritual awakening. The music that plays during her final approach is called ‘Rise To The Light’. This evocation of religion is no aesthetic accident.  It is a reflection of the religious qualities inherent in Memorize’s product: the Sensation Engine.

 Let’s remind ourselves fully, what Marx said of religion:

 Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusion about its condition is the demand to give up a condition which needs illusions.

The sentence I have emboldened is the goal that drives Nilin forward. Memory manipulation, she recognises, is an opiate that dulls pain but hides the nature of reality from everyone.  Reluctantly, she uses memory manipulation as a weapon to bring about its destruction.

REMEMBERING

The memory reconstruction moments are incredibly well crafted, by both the voice actors and the game designers.  They are a showcase of how video games, when cleverly designed, can give a story experience superior to the passive media of books and film. These sections immerse us into the emotions and experiences of the characters.  We learn how objects, people, and chance can wildly influence a moment in a person’s life, therefore changing them as a person.  These are not just memories we explore. They are reasons. Reasons the characters live how they live. And reasons why the society exists as it does.

We are left to reflect on our own being.  What are we if this or that memory can have such drastic effects on our personality?  If one memory, through design or disease, is altered or erased, resulting in a drastic change of everything we have been since?  Can we ever be free from the tyranny of memory?

The game, I think, actually answers that question.

Neo-Paris is a society drowned in alienation. There, human existence consists of two things: shopping and Sensen. Those not indulging in these two past-times are either Prisoners or Errorists.  Shopping, Sensen and prisons all alienate people: that is, separate people from the community; from the natural world; from each other and from themselves.

Memories are a barricade to hold back time.  We fortify this barricade with photos, portraits, and in Neo-Paris, with Sensen technology.  The characters in Remember Me are afraid of the future, as are most of us.  After all, it holds uncertainty, ageing and death.

The main characters achieve a kind of freedom, only when they forget about their memories, and recognise their loved-ones in the present. A free society does not fear death any more than it fears birth (our society, of course, is as terrified of too many births as it is of too many deaths).  A just society can afford to forget, and does so without coercion, and with the slowness of nature.  Old memories wither, to be replaced by buds of new life.

Remember Me is a masterpiece. There is more beauty in the last hour alone than almost any other game can achieve through its duration.  We are moved by awe-inspiring visuals and soul-raising music, all swirling around a human drama: a glowing crucible of emotion; of suffering and salvation.

Compare Remember Me to Bioshock Infinite. The first is a game, the second, a marketing event.  Infinite is a pulp adventure strutting in the emperor’s cloak of pseudo-intellectualism.  Humans in it are slaves to concepts. Concepts long since exhausted by hundreds of sci-fi paperbacks; and episodes of Star Trek and the Twilight Zone.

Remember Me ends with a single death.  Bioshock Infinite, with only a single survivor: and she, a cartoon princess.  In Remember Me the science-fiction, like its violence, is a means to and end, not the end itself.  Remember Me ends by teaching us something of the common experience; the human condition. It uses fantasy science to explore real world concerns. It warns us of the dangers of bad science and even worse consumerism.  It shows also that as long as human society is divided by class there will always be injustice and illusion.

Cults of personality, whether the person be Stalin, Comstock, or Andrew Ryan, all involve a yawning disparity between the myth the society believes (or pretends to believe in) and the truth that lies behind the curtain. A personality cult is not imposed upon unwilling subjects, it is invited into existence by them. It fulfils a need. Andrew Ryan provided proof of the triumph of Man’s Will over Nature and confirmation to the strivers that their efforts will be rewarded. Comstock represented safety and order for fearful whitefolk over the chaotic and dangerous: the natives, non-whites and poor.  Ken Levine is a personality for the gaming industry to believe in, someone who can prove to the sneering outside world, through His will alone, that a video game can be a magnificent work of art.  Gaming journalists awaited the release of Bioshock Infinite like the Israelites awaited Moses at the bottom of the mountain. When he revealed unto the world His creation, the response was, fittingly enough, rapturous.

 The first half hour on Columbia sees you experience a pseudo-baptism, observe religious zealots and enjoy a lovely racist fair. The propaganda posters and NPC utterances give us a sense of the values of this society and the filmsa touch of its history. It draws you in, shows you the delights and you begin to fall in love with it. But what you are not aware of is that, unlike, for example, a Rockstar game, where the richness of detail is maintained throughout the world and game duration, this is the games highpoint in world description.  The beginning is, in fact, a facade, a colourful front to lure the discerning gamer in. You enter Columbia expecting a rich and novel gaming experience. Instead you are assaulted with 15 hours of banal, repetitive, arena shooting. It is 200 million dollar bait-and-switch.

Irrational Games decided to devote all of Bioshock Infinite’s gameplay to a quite conservative and easy to handle (from both the level designer and player standpoints) First Person Shooter mechanic.  In an attempt to pretend that some kind of innovation has been carried out by the Irrational team two simplistic gimmicks are introduced – one a little fun, and another simply pointless. The first is the rails. Ripped from a Sonic The Hedgehog game these rails are Booker’s main mode of transport from one shooting arena to the next.  Some of the arenas themselves have the rails circling them, allowing you the novel experience of being shot at while flying around in circles. When playing on 1999 mode these rails are sometimes a way to flee imminent death or if “battling” a handyman, a way to paralyse its AI.

The second gimmick, and this truly is a gimmick as it has no strategical depth, nor does it add anything to the gaming experience, is Elizabeth’s ability to open tears during battle. Here, a potentially interesting gameplay mechanic is utterly squandered in Irrational’s hands.  Essentially, objects you would normally expect to find in a shooting arena (eg guns, medipacks, turrets) now require two button presses to interact with as opposed to the traditional one button press.  You can see these greyed out objects but need first to press x in order for Elizabeth to fetch them into our universe.   You then press x a second time to pick up or use said object in the traditional way. That is it. Elizabeth’s other influence on play is to randomly throw ammo and health at you.

It has been asked how Elizabeth finds these items when she spends the duration in a duck and cover posture. Perhaps she has a tear in her blouse, but the matter brings us to one of the most important and hyped aspects of Infinite – Elizabeth and her AI. The amount of pre-release hype this virtual entity received was quite dramatic. Our imaginations were allowed to fly into gaming heaven wondering what marvels this one character, worked on for years, would bring. But why indeed imagine, when Irrational Games themselves gave the world video evidence of this programming phenomenon, showing her resurrecting dead horses and wielding powers to fight alongside Booker as an equal. So bafflement overcame me when I played the finished product to find Elizabeth nothing more than a Disney princess skin over the Fable 2 dog’s AI brain. She would trot ahead of you, scrutinize a prop (desk, poster, potted plant), but instead of sniffing out loot and barking, she would say forgettable things at predetermined map-points.  Other than that she opened locked doors, but only after you had suffered to completion, the slaughter of every living thing in the current area.

So her AI was nothing new after all. But what about the character. Irrational Games tried so hard to make her likable – hence the Disney looks, Disney run, and Disney character-development – that over time she began to grate. The difference between her and the rebooted Lara Croft could not be more stark. Both start with a certain level of innocence and inexperience, and for both women, their first murder is a notable step in their “maturing”.  However, Lara kills a man who is about to rape and probably kill her; Elizabeth murders a black woman who has just led an uprising of the working class, united across lines of race and gender, against a white-supremacist dictatorship.

When Elizabeth happens upon Daisy Fitzroy the latter has just that moment killed Columbia’s leading capitalist and now threatens his son with a gun.  Elizabeth does not attempt to reason with Daisy, to show her the futility of killing a child, or trying to understand why she has so much pent up anger. (it’s no stretch of the imagination to assume she has been abused over the years by her racist masters) Booker distracts Daisy, and Elizabeth sneaks up on her. Elizabeth could use the element of surprise to disarm Daisy but instead chooses to kill. Afterwards the child is left behind, abandoned by Elizabeth, Booker and Ken Levine.

At this point the writing in the game has hit rock bottom.  It is now serving to impose Ken Levine’s views upon the player, rather than creating a believable set of events that may possibly be influenced by the player’s own judgements.  The child is a cynical tool to emote instant hate in the player for a character they may otherwise be sympathetic to.  The blood-thirst of Fitzroy and the Vox Populii is artificial and strained.  The player meets those people early in the game, the porters and cleaners; the workers undercutting each others wage-price in an attempt to be chosen to work for the day; oppressed souls singng folk-songs. Irrational Games shows us a people, surviving in a highly oppressive and violent society (one that lynches mixed-race couples in front of children and calls it a raffle).  A few hours later the game forces us to kill these people who have just now found freedom. We disembowel the porters and cleaners, we burn to cinders the cooks and servants, we shoot to death the mums and dads of the children who sung so sweetly to us in the slums. In an interview Ken Levine calls this the middle way.  We are meant to prefer it.

And it seems many players do.  Here are two typical comments by players about Daisy Fitzroy and the Vox Populii (remember, vox populii is a slogan calling for democracy):

“Vox Populi should have never been established and Daisy should’ve been dead more earlier. Her ruthless revolution did nothing but made Columbia more corrupt than it was before.”

“By the end she even destroys Columbia, attempts to murder a child and practically forces Liz to give up her innocence”

BLACK HISTORY…

lynch-mob

WHITE FANTASY…

White Fantasy

Only a person with utterly compromised morals can equate the violence of Columbian society with the violence of the resistance against it, and say, in Ken Levine’s own word’s “a plague on both their houses”. The violence of resistance is the violence of a strangled man who punches his attacker.

More people died making the film version of the Russian revolution, than the event itself.  Oppressed people don’t suddenly become hooligans, burning and killing everything in sight, when the guards are no longer there to flog them.  Ken Levine believes they do, and wants everyone who plays his games to think so too.  He believes there can be no bloodless revolution, despite history proving him wrong. In his world view, (and I come to this conclusion from his interviews as much as his games) progress is not fought for and won, it is a gift bestowed upon us by a few wise men. Be it the founding fathers or the Lutece twins.

There is a reason why Levine can not envisage the real forces of progress. He has spent his career describing dystopias, showing us the broken remains of societies and their demented inhabitants in great detail.  He has given no time over to how just and egalitarian societies are truly created. That vacuum has been filled with fairytales. With his vision filled by statues of founding fathers he is unable to see the mass of ordinary people who are the real driving force of history.

Booker is a mercenary, and in Late Capitalist society the mercenary is the only pure hero: a person uncompromised by religion, politics or ideology; whose only motivation is money. Elizabeth is a surrogate Messiah, whose innocence is the baptismal waters in which Booker can wash his sins away.  His pointless death (a contrivance shoe-horned in to give us “that shocking ending”) is the solution to all Columbia’s ills, a fate designed all along by the omnipotent Luteces.  Neither Elizabeth nor the Luteces are sullied with such distasteful motivations as politics or ideals. Indeed, if the Luteces had had strong political beliefs of a progressive kind they may not have prostituted science over to Comstock to begin with.

It is remarkable just how much Bioshock Infinite as a creative work embodies the attitudes it purports to be a critique of.  The interracial melting pot of the Vox Populii is incapable of producing a civilised society. Fitzroy, a black woman, is incapable of taming her emotions and is swept along by impulse. The white, English, Luteces, on the other hand, are the embodiment of tranquility and reason, using the might of intellect to cure societies ills.  The fact that the Luteces manipulate a war criminal into killing thousands of people across universes to achieve their goals is an irony that never enters Levine’s consciousness.

Compare Bioshock Infinite to 4A’s Metro 2033 games.  Beneath the ruins of Moscow we walk amongst cooks and merchants, fishermen and prostitutes, the altruistic and the exploiters, murderers and protectors. We witness them and listen to their stories. The game does not force us to kill other humans even when those humans are desperately trying to kill us.  And yet the FPS mechanics of Metro are far more satisfying than Infinite, the combat encounters far more varied and thrilling, the entire experience utterly engrossing and enjoyable.  Despite good work from the artists the graphics of Infinite are lacklustre, with outdated textures, models and disappointing detail. 4A, on the other hand, built a custom engine that broke new graphical grounds. They achieved this with a fraction of the resources available to Irrational, and in atrocious working conditions.

The Metro goes beyond dystopia into post-apocalypse,  yet it is far more sympathetic to human beings. It does not blame them for their fate – only the folly of Mutually Assured Destruction. It does not cast judgement but shows all the different ways people survive in desperate times.  The good and the bad. The game rewards thinking before shooting. Even the utterly unknowable monsters who have been decimating humanities remnants, the Metro teaches us, have a right to exist, that they too can be spared. It shows us renewal and hope in a world we may earlier have dismissed as completely destroyed.

Bioshock Infinite then, is an utterly pessimistic game, and I think this unconsciously seeped into the game mechanics, revealing itself in the bland, repetitive, arena shooting.  Levine’s gameplay design decisions have become more conservative over time, culminating in him making decisions for Bioshock Infinite based on “fratboy focus groups”. The possibilities for this game were indeed infinite, but Levine lacked the vision to pull anything off other than a conservative shooter with conservative politics.  It is a singular failure.