“The world is increasingly unthinkable,” philosopher Eugene Thacker wrote in 2011. To his credit it has gotten no more comprehensible since then. Thacker attempted to redefine “horror” as a concept for this unthinkable world, situating H.P. Lovecraft’s classic (read: well-worn) “fear of the unknown” formulation as a third-person perspective on the universe; one which sits outside human-centric philosophical approaches to explore the “limits of the human” as we confront phenomena that are outside our understanding and control.
The Lovecraft citation should caution us as viewing this as a uniquely modern concern (or, of course, Thacker’s work as sui generis), but at the same time there is an undeniably new strain of apocalyptic envisioning. James Berger argues that by the end of the 20th century, our exposure to various and unforeseen atrocities—the Holocaust, nuclear weapons, urban desolation—offered a “strange prospective retrospect” on the end of the world. “We have been able to see these things because they actually occurred,” Berger writes. These horrific realities are sublimated into fiction, but the fiction can never outpace reality. It can only offer endless variations on the wounds we have inflicted on ourselves, rendering them over and over whether in austere Cormac McCarthy narration or multimillion dollar effects extravaganzas.
Thacker suggests that horror is the horizon of philosophical thought; the “paradoxical thought of the unthinkable.” Most post-apocalyptic fiction tends to resolve itself, then, turning away from the total eradication of humanity to find a familiar Hobbesian survivalist scenario; otherwise, there would be no story to tell in conventional terms. Even atypical post-apocalyptic work, like Walter M. Miller Jr.’s A Canticle for Liebowitz (1960), suggests humanity will inevitably turn on itself given the chance—a particularly vivid example is mangaka Junji Ito’s Hellstar Remina (2005), where every last human on Earth gives chase in a furious mass to a girl whose death they believe will stop the apocalypse.
This is the recognizable post-apocalyptic generic mode. I almost want to call it the default, because of how often it is deployed in the background of a text, or ushered out of the way quickly at the start to get the audience to the meat of the story—the rote interpersonal conflicts of characters who by the climax will likely eat each other alive in equally likely figurative or literal terms.
4A Games’ Metro games are no different in their broad strokes. Twenty years prior to Metro 2033, nuclear war rendered the planet largely uninhabitable. The survivors in Moscow live underground in the subway system, only venturing to the surface in gas masks and at great risk. The Metro games are based on the Metro books by Dmitry Glukhovsky, and feel like a streamlined riff on GSC Game World’s S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games—a similar setting, but far more accessible.
The Metro fiction also recasts the conflict between Russia and Germany in World War II as a renewed struggle between the Metro’s Communist and Nazi factions. The Communist Red Line demands conformity; the Nazi Fourth Reich is obsessed with “genetic purity,” a ropy metaphor for racism—and both sides are bad. Protagonist Artyom is caught in the middle of the two ostensible extremes, as videogame protagonists so often are. His journal entries and voiceover are terse and pragmatic, filled with observations like “[T]here is no greater danger than man” and “Even the apocalypse didn’t stop us from killing each other over ideology.”
Insofar as I find anything in the Metro games interesting, it is the gaps between the game’s fairly stock surface trappings (lots of guns and gruff men) and the experience of playing it. Metro is often content to let the player wander around blasted-out urban areas with little direction aside from a compass and a scrawled to-do list. It punctuates these grayscale longeurs with goofy setpieces where, say, you and a companion are beset by hordes of ankle-biting monsters, but then it is a series that struggles against itself. The atomized player character “body” that Ed talks about is a real coup, an array of discrete, invisible meters and systems to manage even in the midst of tense situations—and yet, to restore his health, Artyom simply pops open a syringe and jabs it into himself. The game’s vaunted “bullet economy,” which divides ammo supply into “normal” and “military-grade” ammunition, the latter doubling as currency, is superfluous: regular bullets work just fine.
In her 2001 The Future of Nostalgia, Svetlana Boym dissects the selective historicizing of Moscow’s Muzeon Park of Arts, teasing out the implicit meaning behind the Soviet-era monuments the park chose to display, and those it left out. “History has become spatialized,” she writes. A monument to Holocaust victims relocated “so as not to spoil the view”; a “hauntingly slippery,” “purely aesthetic” monument to Stalin. Years of strife manicured into a pleasant leisure area.
“Soviet history has turned into a pastoral,” Boym concludes. At best the Metro games use history as a backdrop to their grand gibberish about magical messianic children, but they do, as Julie Muncy wrote, understand how to use set design to effective ends. Science fiction and horror make meaning through metaphor; they work in the shadows cast by reality, and winnow into the cracks of our understanding. I feel like I need to make a note of this, because it’s a worrying critical trend to dismiss work that doesn’t “directly engage” with “issues”—on this very website we have argued (and remain divided!) about the allegorical function of games like NieR: Automata.
The ruins of Moscow speak louder than any of the game’s dialogue, and picking your way through them as a player is rewarding and chilling and isolating in spurts. It is a landscape of fear and trauma, a wide-open space without safety. Berger’s “strange prospective retrospect” is made manifest in the image of a bombed-out city—an urban corpse almost anonymous in its details. Gashed concrete; mangled rebar; waist-high rubble. The fingerprints are the city’s own, but the body itself could be anywhere.
Where the games fall apart is not in how they treat history, necessarily, but in how they fall so neatly into a stereotypical mode; apocalyptic stories that ironically refuse to deal with the apocalypse itself. So much “post-apocalyptic” fiction elides the manifold ways in which humanity is ensuring its own end; methods of annihilation large and small that are playing out right now, every day. I don’t think a thousand more Threads can save the world, but I sure watched enough of The Walking Dead.
Astrid B writes about movies and videogames on the internet. Follow her on Twitter.