The World of Metro 2033 (Act One)
I originally began writing Space-Biff! to talk about four games. On September 20, Space-Biff! will be turning one year old, and I’m ashamed to say that even as we approach our baby’s birthday, I’ve only written about one of those four titles—and I haven’t even managed to finish writing the game diary for that one.
Well, this procrastination will stand no longer! The goal is to eventually write five articles, one for each of the game’s five broad segments, talking about the story in some detail and explaining how Metro 2033 appeared out of nowhere and weaved a masterful tale of hope and despair at the tail end of humanity’s run. This will be wildly self-indulgent, but since this entire site is basically me sitting in a darkened room making car noises with my mouth and playing make-believe that the entire internet relies solely on me for PC gaming information, it’ll fit right in.
“You’ve heard about survival of the fittest? Guess what—we lost.”
— Alex, Artyom’s stepfather and leader of Exhibition Station
You’ve probably heard that saying about the traditional three-act structure—you know, the first act runs the protagonist up a tree, the second throws rocks at him, and the third somehow gets the poor bastard down. Well, Metro 2033’s first act could be summed up as a mulching engine of despair. Not only is your character going to get himself up a tree, but it’s a charred old husk, probably the last of its kind, and chances are that when your character finally comes down, everything else does too. Oh, and there are swarming monsters with a hearty appetite for protagonists. And trees.
So after Metro 2033 gives us the requisite action intro (consisting of your character surviving a mutant attack on the surface near the end of the game) to grab you by the shoulders and convince you to sit through the following talky bits, it begins proper with some images of civilization: the Big Ben, Venetian canals, the Eiffel Tower, Pyramids. Then the frame pulls back and we’re shown that these are postcards, echoes of the not-so-distant past. The room is a cramped apartment lit by lamplight, with walls of cardboard, rug, and wood, cushioned train seats for a bed, and clutter stored on a portable metal table and homemade shelves. You can hear the murmur of human living through the flimsy frame of your room, and outside your sliding door are dozens more apartments, lined side by side in front of brick and concrete walls that are blank except for ancient graffiti. This is the Moscow Metro, where around 40,000 souls go about their lives after the world has ended.
It’s damp and cold—nearly everyone is bundled up in gloves and long sleeves and coats—not to mention dark. And still, these moments are as hopeful and comforting as they are desperate: a father lies to his son about his mother’s disappearance, women preparing a meal of mushrooms and mold joke about charming suitors, a man chastises his roommate for a dream of the surface, telling him that it will be fifty years before they can go back topside. Fifty years.
There’s hope in that number, because even though it’s a big one, it’s still conceivable. Fifty years of jostling and tedium and lean living underground, and then we’ll be back upstairs, living and loving in the sunshine.
The first act is all about making that moth-eaten rug look cozy and then pulling it right out from under you.
You’re Artyom, young at twenty years old (though not so young in this world, one suspects) and awakened by your stepfather Alex (a loving stepfather), who has come to tell you that Hunter will be arriving soon. Hunter is an old friend to Alex and a role model to you, the latter probably because he’s a Ranger. Rangers are basically the Metro’s leukocytes, eliminating threats and acting as agents of Polis, the central and most powerful station in the entire Metro. Hunter’s arrival signals the presence of a threat, and hopefully its resolution.
You see, the dangers facing humanity are more numerous than swarms of rats, scant resources, and inevitable human conflict. The weapons that ravaged the surface had the unpleasant side effect of creating hostile new species, the most recent of which seems to be the “Dark Ones,” who seem to command terrifying psychic powers and have already wiped out some of Exhibition Station’s best fighters. Worse, their psychic presence seems to be stirring up nearby hordes of mutants, so Exhibition is on constant alert. So constant, in fact, that as Hunter and Alex catch up (and Hunter gives you a postcard of the Statue of Liberty that he found during his travels across the surface), the station comes under attack by pig-monsters.
Despite you and Hunter and Alex surviving the attack, the gravity of the situation slams home when it’s revealed that another sector has taken heavy casualties, and Hunter chides Alex for being such a defeatist. It seems that Alex either was once a tougher man or the Dark Ones are affecting his mind—and the former seems unlikely, since it’s improbable that a weenie-man would be in charge of a station.
And then the quest: Hunter leaves to scout the Dark Ones, and gives you his dogtags and tells you that if he doesn’t return in a few days, he’s dead and your mission is to get word to the Rangers in Polis that they need to mobilize the Metro to face this new threat.
Of course, he never returns.
The story skips ahead a bit to Artyom awakening on the morning of his departure. You’ve convinced Alex that you’re going along with a caravan to the nearby Riga station, and you’re given some basic armament and a handful of military-grade bullets, which act as both the game’s currency and a more powerful alternative to your usual ammo. You walk through the market stocked with better wares than you can afford, past a guitarist playing for spare bullets, and then to the handcart that will carry you the short distance to Riga.
You’d have to hand in your gamer card if you didn’t expect an attack to land at some point during this journey: you’ve been given guns and ammo, told that the journey should be safe, and then at the last minute told that the main line that’s patrolled and well-lit is under repairs, diverting your railcar down a side passage that your driver finds creepy, but has traveled before—even just a month earlier—and arrived safely. The whole thing just screams ambush.
But here’s one way that Metro 2033 shines: the attack does come, but it turns out to be something completely different than you’d expect. Rather than a simple pop-a-mole segment (and the mutants could be moles, for all I know), an anomaly appears and puts everyone to sleep. And while you sleep, you dream of the Dark Ones.
In this vision, you watch as a spectral Dark One approaches Hunter, who fires at it without effect, and then knocks him flat through the sheer force of its proximity. Then, as it walks away, Hunter manages to use the last of his strength to prop himself up and shoot it in the back.
The game doesn’t give you any time to puzzle through what you just witnessed, because the creature’s body hitting the ground wakes you right up and shows that you and your new friends are about to be eaten by mutants, which you promptly begin fighting off. This makes the whole incident a bit foggy by the time you get to safety, which is a neat trick because the dream/vision is one of the first indications that this isn’t just another on-rails (hur hur) shooter. In fact, what you just witnessed stands out as a massive hint about one of the game’s major plot twists, one that many players actually managed to miss out on (I have statistical evidence).
Having survived a sleepy-making anomaly and a batch of mutants, you’re the toast of the Riga bar. And then you ditch your companions to pursue your secret mission to Polis.
The game does something cool here, letting you do a bit of roaming around Riga. Innocuous tests of character appear in your path: a beggar asks for a single precious military-grade bullet, a prostitute solicits your attention, and a little kid offers to lead you (for a price) to a man who has a business offer for you. These little meetings are entirely possible to miss, and take place without your knowledge they’re shaping who you, Artyom, are as a person. Are you generous? Do you steal? None of them have an immediate effect, and as such they’re easy to write off as inconsequential—and still, there they are, seemingly included in the game without purpose. We’ll return to this a few times in future acts, since this is Metro 2033’s most brilliant mechanic, even if it’s currently invisible.
Back in the game, you meet the rough-spoken Bourbon, who has heard of your abilities (which for all you know are a total fluke) and wants to hire you to help him reach the distant Dry Station. He promises to give you his AK-47 as payment upon arrival, which sounds a lot better than the cobbled-together junk you’ve been using, and although he seems like he could make an unlit room shadier, his route will take you closer to Polis.
It’s Bourbon who will complete your education, acting as the game’s final lengthy tutorial before you’re spat out into the dangerous Moscow Metro. He leads you through multiple locations, each of which teaches some extra little mechanic about the game, and doing it so subtly and masterfully that it’s possible to miss the fact that you’re being taught.
So you travel through tunnels filled with toxic gas, learning how to use your watch’s timer to gauge how much time you have until your gas mask filter is used up. You sneak into a bandit camp, learning how to avoid tripwires and broken glass that will crunch underfoot and give away your position. You learn that mutants aren’t the only dangerous creatures in the Metro, and that sometimes killing other people, effectively cutting humanity’s already-slim chances of survival even shorter, is unavoidable. He teaches you that every station is basically its own state, and some are banded together into power blocs, a few of which are to be avoided. It’s a crash course, and it’s so deftly handled and so compellingly told that chances are you’ll never even notice.
Finally, he teaches you the most important lesson of all, which incidentally is the harshest:
In order to pass the final stretch to Dry Station, you take a shortcut across the surface.
Now, the game’s intro showed you a bit of the surface, but it lacked the same impact that this sequence possesses. First of all, it took place in a very limited geographical area, so you didn’t get a good look at the world around you. Second, it was night; and third, it took place during the game’s climax before flashing back to the beginning of the story, so there could have been any number of reasons for the mutant attack that was the centerpiece of the scene.
On the other hand, the scene you’re now presented with is pure trauma. The world is devastated and populated by perpetual hordes of dangerous creatures. Buildings are rubble, and the ground is encased in ice and fissured with toxic streams. At first it doesn’t seem so bad, until a short distance into the dead city when you’re accosted by a vision, possibly another assault from the Dark Ones:
Through your cracked gas mask, you see a playground transformed: children laugh and play, green grass and trees fill the park, and the sky is clear and blue.
Mere seconds later, the vision is stripped away.
As the first act comes to a close, the truth sets in: Fifty years isn’t enough. Humanity won’t rise out of its cesspool of mutants and infighting. It will stay in the gutter until it dies out, cold and damp and stinking and scared, huddled together in pathetic nation-states that claim ideologies as excuses to fight over dwindling resources and as a distraction from the beautiful world that they’ve managed to destroy.
What it reveals is this: This game will not have a happy ending, because given the current circumstances there is no possible happy ending. Even if you succeed to reach Polis and rally the Metro against the Dark Ones, and even if you manage to return from that journey, you’ll go back underground to live out your days in darkness.
In short, all of humanity’s in the same damn tree, and there’s no ground to return to.
Index of parts here.