“Mechanical Items as Theatrical Props in Metro,” by Ed Smith

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As this publication has regularly observed, shooting games repetitively attempt to create spectacular and dramatic effects using explosions, or some kind of equally extravagant pyrotechnic. I can’t definitively state who safeguards this metric—it’s the product of some inscrutable, symbiotic relationship between players, critics, game-makers, and their respective tastes—but I don’t think many people would disagree that one of the guiding creative ethea behind action videogames might equate to “more explosions/more death=more excitement/more value.”

It’s not a modern phenomenon; action games have always been this way. It’s not entirely a problem, either. The spectacular value of Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare’s explosions is hard to dismiss or downplay, and there’s plenty of drama, even social history, at the bottom of Mafia III’s river of blood. Metro: 2033 and Metro: Last Light, however, create drama and spectacle via means generally unusual and therefore refreshing to see in videogames. The suspense of their gunfights is communicated using minor aesthetic details, the kinds of things which described in isolation seem trivial but when conflated with on-screen violence take on meaning. And where the most exciting and melodramatic moment in your typical videogame may be the one with the most explosions, destruction, or deaths, Metro’s tensest moments are often predicated on the plastic screen of a gas mask getting muddy, or a flashlight refusing to light.

Mechanical objects and their particular functions are used to accentuate Metro’s action and drama. This is achieved thanks to those same objects providing a heightened familiarity and sense of relation to the game world, a kind of convergence of experience, whereby we recognise empathetically our character’s predicament and recognise also it’s been manufactured by game-makers who have been through the same things that we have. Put another way: not many of us have been blown up, but we’ve all struggled to install a television set or change a plug. Metro’s tools, like its pneumatic battery chargers, sputtering cigarette lighters, and failing generators  relate its fictional world to our own. The threats of that world feel closer or more tangible. In turn the action and drama are felt more keenly.

Subjective accounts of videogame experiences, heavy on personal pronouns and presented as evidence that the medium of games has a sui generis ability to reach out and touch its audience, have contributed significantly to a thinning of the same medium’s diversity of critical opinions. By discussing games mainly in respect to how they serve a narrative—a narrative which if not directly authored is then “spontaneous”, i.e., a hybrid product of the author’s premises and our interactions with them, which has erroneously been called groundbreaking—mainstream games criticism has failed to take seriously aesthetic, psychological, sociological, and other non-narrational theories. For various and questionable reasons it’s become very important to a lot of people to culturally canonise games; the most straightforward way of doing this, requiring the least critical insight, is to explain how good they are at creating and telling stories+. Which is to say: I’m highly self-conscious about describing something that happened to me (Something That Happened To Me) during a playthrough of any videogame, since those kind of accounts invariably come across as either affected, self-absorbed, or appealingly-worded marketing—as in, their wording dilutes the fact that they serve more the image of videogames as a medium than criticism of videogames, which is also insidious because it’s like sincerity has become a kind of advertising tool. But I also expect sequences similar to this one I experienced in Metro: 2033 to have been experienced by everyone who’s played it, because the game seems very deliberately set up to foreground its in-game mechanical objects and the effects they have with regards to making more present and precarious-feeling the game’s action.

So:

After leaving the unirradiated safety of the eponymous metro, and stepping outside into a pitch-dark, Muscovian night, I was attacked suddenly by several members of the Fourth Reich—2033’s interpretation of the Nazis. We started shooting at one another, but as well as choosing my targets and moving precisely between cover, I also had to contend with manually recharging my night-vision goggles (using a handheld, kinetic charger) and periodically replacing the filter on my gas mask. After a few minutes of protracted battling, I had no filters left and could barely see; if I couldn’t find my final opponent soon, and if he wasn’t carrying his own filter supply, to be pilfered after I’d killed him, I’d be dead myself.

Typical health bars offer a singular, easily-quantifiable measure of your endangerment. They essentially imply that the human body—or the body of the human whom you’re playing, at least—operates holistically, and depends on only one resource, the lateral “health”, in order to function. They distort and dilute something key to an intense, dramatic action sequence, which is a sense of vulnerability; when the body of the character we’re playing appears to operate like a machine, reliant only on one fuel, that character seems resistant to harm, or at least a nuanced kind of harm, which makes him appear significantly less vulnerable. His body doesn’t work anything like a human body, so he appears not-a-human. It becomes more difficult to care whether he lives or dies. By contrast, Artyom, Metro’s protagonist, in order to survive requires not just generic “health” but also, specifically, to breathe. His gas mask implies he has lungs; the way it is maintained, using filters, is a mechanic entirely separate from his overall health bar. It reflects that his individual organs require individual alimentation, i.e. that he has something more like a human body, i.e. that he is at least somewhat like us. The same effect may be derived from his night-vision goggles. To efficiently shoot he needs to efficiently see. To efficiently see, he needs to sustain his vision, his eyes, which we do using other mechanics separate from the health bar: manually charging the goggles and also wiping dirt off the gas mask’s visor.

Other games feature night-vision goggles, flashlights and oxygen meters, but by couching these mechanics in distinctly frail-seeming mechanical objects, things that break and require physical effort to maintain, Metro impresses more deeply the vulnerability of its character’s body. The devices signify that our character, like us, has these human bodily functions. And by their fallibility and propensity to malfunction they in-turn reflect our character’s physical vulnerability, hinting perhaps at other vulnerabilities, like emotional or spiritual—acutely, tactilely, he’s fracturable like us, which makes him easier to recognise, and care about. Perhaps not always in narrative terms, but physically, even abstractly, we know what we are fighting to defend, which is a facsimile of ourselves/”ourselves”, the effect being a heightened sense of involvement in each of Metro’s action and dramatic sequences—a quasi-personal stake in what games typically render as highly impersonal fare.

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Those “What Happened To Me In X Videogame Exemplifies Why Games Are Great” type articles are also excellent ways for critics to transform themselves into minor within-game-culture celebrities, since they provide a convenient and worthwhile-sounding auspice (talking about games as a medium) for the critic to actually talk entirely about themselves, and thus raise their profile. The other effect of this being: the impression there are only like ten game critics in the world and if you aren’t belletristically writing about how excruciatingly videogames make you feel you aren’t on the cutting-edge, which itself leads to the creation of an increased number of videogames that convey human emotion with the same brazenness and lack of subtlety as a drunk karaokeing “My Heart Will Go On”, because so far as what videogame critics suggest to videogame designers, ostentatious and easy-to-adhere-to-a-simple-and-uplifting-narrative sheer feeling is what’s in.

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Ed Smith contributes to Edge, Rolling Stone, Paste, GamesTM, and PCGamesN. Find him on Twitter @mostsincerelyed.