“Discussing Metro, Videogame Pulp, and Genre,” by Reid McCarter and Ed Smith

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Reid: Ed, what do you think the Metro games are about? I want to start off talking to you by getting into this big (overly broad) point because I think what makes these games worth discussing is their insistence on zooming in on really specific political and historical references, recurring religious motifs, and just generally everything that doesn’t really need to exist to make a serviceable, by-the-numbers post-apocalyptic shooter. What do you take away from these games? What do you think their creators want you to take away from them? (I feel like a ninth grade English teacher.)

Ed: “What do we want people to take away from this?” Game creators, I hope they ask themselves that at the start of each project and at least try to generate an answer more complex than “a fun experience”. Increasingly I feel like, if your game is a fun experience, congratulations, you’ve earned your place in the pile.

The Metro games want to give you more than a—in the pejorative sense, and I lament reaching the point these words could even have a pejorative sense—”fun experience”. There is something about history and humanity being doomed to repeat its history kind of salt-shakered over Metro‘s top. What I take away is a feeling of unfulfillment and incompleteness, like Metro is enough about 20th century history to make me expect a coherent, political oeuvre, but not that about 20th century history, or ideologies, or Us that I feel like I’m taking away a political oeuvre. You’re asking what I think their creators want me to take away from Metro. It’s either the impression Metro‘s creators are smarter than the average shooter developer or a vaguely nihilistic feeling that yes, Metro has a point, and that humans are doomed to never learn from our mistakes. Or maybe it’s not exactly that binary, but this is another game, like last month’s, Wolfenstein II, assuming to impress us with a type of political, social observation which in order to be impressed by we’d have to be pretty poorly-experienced or read, which is to say: what I take away from Metro is a sense we’re being talked down to by people either less politically/historically interested that we are or whose political/historical interest, by some inscrutable but still really disheartening combi-system of low expectations of audience and commerce, isn’t able to fully be expressed in their videogame.

You?

Reid: My outlook on the games is a lot more favourable. I think you’re right to see aspects of it as sort of posturing—the way it throws in warring Nazi and militant communist factions feels pretty juvenile, as if the game is hoping to have a political message by evoking the Second World War and asking you to take a side regarding who’s worse. As Astrid noted, Artyom being in the middle is a weird example of that typical videogame inclination not to have too strong an opinion (maybe figuring out if you think the Nazis or communists are worse is something that should be hashed out before writing your story?) and it ends up spiking what could be an interesting discussion of the influences of fascism and communism in post-war Eastern Europe. But it doesn’t do that so it’s a wasted opportunity that, like Wolfenstein II, requires some really generous work on the player’s part to get anything more than a really surface level reading from.

Still, that said, I’m struck less by the big in-your-face elements of the game’s plot than in those aspects of the game that are given less prominence. Mostly, I’m thinking of scenes from both games where the pre-apocalypse world or the moment the apocalypse began lingers on in its present day. There’s a great sequence in 2033 where Artyom is being guided through this haunted house section of the Metro by the goateed mystic Khan and these ghosts keep showing up. He says, at one point, “Heaven, hell, and purgatory were atomized as well. So, when a soul leaves the body, it has nowhere to go and must remain here in the Metro. A harsh, but not undeserved atonement for our sins, wouldn’t you agree?”

These ghosts are sort of greasy-looking shadows and they show up on walls and in the corners of the rooms you walk through. It’s almost crass, and maybe too far to say this, but they look like the burned-in silhouettes left after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They make me think of the atrocities of the Second World War far more than the Nazis and communist factions, even though they’re purely a visual reference. Khan saying that these post-nuclear shadows haunt the subway tunnels as “a harsh, but not undeserved atonement for our sins” packs way more of a wallop that anything the games try to communicate more explicitly and I think there’s value in how unnerving it is to make a ghost story out of themes Metro otherwise uses to hammer the player over the head.

Do you see any value in these aspects of the game? To me, they’re part and parcel with the smaller details you discussed in your article, but I guess I’m also suggesting they rehabilitate parts of the story that fall flat, too.

Ed: You know what, I had forgotten that sequence. The idea of Metro as a ghost story rather than a political or historical allegory to me is much more appealing. The scenes where you’re sneaking into, I think it’s the Nazi’s rally, or you’re betrayed by your communist pal in Last Light, I didn’t get anything from those at all. But walking alone through the abandoned rail tunnels (I think Metro does darkness convincingly) could feel at times haunting.

Maybe I have a learned aversion to games doing politics or history, not because I believe they can’t or oughtn’t, but it seems like almost every time they attempt to get in those particular rings I end up with the impression I’m being lectured by writers who either know less than I do or if they do have the knowledge have somehow been prevented from putting it into the game, which, Reid, makes me tired all over, as in, due to despair. So when Metro is being suggestive and spooky as opposed to I suppose you might say didactic I’m much more on its side. We’ve talked privately about a certain Japanese-developed, 1998 stealth game for the original PlayStation and how its abandoned, decomposing, shadowy setting evokes the nightmarish prospect of nuclear war. At its less-vocal, Metro achieves something similar; on a tangent, do you think any of the Fallout games have a comparable haunting quality?

What frustrates me, the supernatural, sci-fi-ish allusions in Metro don’t stop at the impressively-subtle scene like you described. At times it’s a ghost story, or maybe like if you can imagine The Tell-tale Heart but with instead of a heart, Moscow. But then it’s also enigmatic, teratoid indigo children teaching humanity how to be better to one another via telepathy. If the scene you mentioned between Arytom and Khan underpins some degree of moral message—we should look upon our mistakes and learn from them—the monster thing that you pursue in Last Light, the one that repeatedly, telepathically admonishes you for firing a bomb at the end of 2033, and which you end up trying to protect, because it holds the key to I forget what precisely, to me that thing blows the games’ load, or if you prefer fires its entire arsenal. I said in my previous message Metro leaves me feeling condescended to. Being so voluminously presented with the games’ meaning in this way is another example of that as well as I think quite tedious: when Arytom starts talking about “the Dark Ones” I look at my phone.

Then again, I’d forgotten the sequence you described. So maybe I do need to be beaten around the temples with this stuff. Maybe putting guns, monsters, and toxic-waste-drum-loads of spilled blood into your game always overwhelms anything else your game might be trying to achieve.

If you want to be taken seriously as a historical analogue, cut down on monsters and body-count. Now there’s a radical videogame concept.

Reid: You’re right about that the Dark Ones and the little Dark One baby. I think those creatures are fun (as in funny) but they do nothing for me in terms of imparting anything worthwhile to the game itself. They’re incredibly goofy, not just in looks (they’re sort of like giant, hairless sasquatches and the animation, especially in the first Metro, gives them a sort of unintentional ’80s B-movie quality that’s hard to get over) but also in the role they play in the story at large. If the political commentary is exaggerated to caricature by the Nazi/communist scenes, the themes of guilt and redemption are turned into a full-on cartoon by the Dark Ones. So, I’m with you there.

That said, I don’t think there’s necessarily anything wrong with using monsters and over-the-top violence to make more serious points. I think it’s tiring in games because there’s so much of it—you always have to brush aside silly surface trappings to get to the rest of what a game is saying—but that doesn’t mean being a bit colourful or pulpy precludes larger messages. I say this as someone who prefers more mundane fictional scenarios by the way. But I worry that dismissing all of the big, loud aspects of games entirely as somehow wrong or counter-productive is like saying that we shouldn’t have genre books or film because their trappings are too ridiculous in most cases to warrant deeper looks. Again, I’m sympathetic to what you’re saying because I’m right there with you in being really worn out by this sort of thing—of feeling like you have to take games about aliens and monsters and laser guns on such good faith to see what they might be about beneath that stuff—but I still think it’s worth giving quality genre work its due despite being tired of how common it’s become.

Fallout‘s an interesting comparison because I think it tries to do something similar. I don’t want to go back to the earlier points I was making, but for me Fallout has only ever achieved the kind of eeriness and gut-level pathos of the Metro games in small moments—like leaving the Vault for the first time in Fallout 3 or wandering the irradiated wasteland in Fallout 4 or just walking by a rusted out old car left abandoned in an American city’s downtown or other moments I can’t remember from hundreds of hours with those games. Metro cuts out a lot of the cruft, I think, zooming in on a very specific mood it wants to create and largely sustaining it (excepting some of the heavier-handed stuff we’ve discussed). So, for me, they work better in terms of creating and maintaining a specific feeling than any of the Fallout games. My main memories from Fallout, to be honest, are the giant robots and power suits and ghouls so, as you say regarding the loudest elements of a game outweighing the quieter, my memories of them are dominated by the same aspects that scuttle Metro for you.

Ed: Hey now, I didn’t say cut all that big, loud genre stuff out. I said cut down. Use it more sparingly and more meaningfully. Maybe, for example, it would be easier to care about Metro‘s politicising if you only fought and killed one or two members from each faction, and they had names and identities. You know like Shadow of the Colossus. There’s one spectacular, sword-and-shield kind of game, and its—what you might call—its pulp is nevertheless used to make part of its bigger picture. I love genre work. But I feel like genre games are actually two-genre games.

Taking a massive detour here: a film in the gangster genre, you can expect that film to have some kind of romance, some theme of moral redemption/unredemption, power versus purity, money, maybe national identity, as well as all the shooting and style. A gangster game, maybe it has all that stuff, too, in its gangster half. But it likely belongs also to the open-world genre—it has to belong to the open-world genre, or some videogame-mechanical genre, that seriously threatens to crowd out its gangsterishness. Metro has trappings of the apocalypse genre, but its violence and action feel rooted in the first-person shooter, videogame-mechanic genre—violence as generically-defined in the apocalypse genre isn’t this plentiful. So I suppose I’m saying when games lean into genre it would be interesting to see them lean into the more filmic or maybe literary epitomes of the genre and lean away from the mechanically-defined videogame genres. So Metro, with violence, with guns, with monsters, but deployed more like The Road or Children of Men or something.

Now it sounds like I’m saying games should copy films more, which I don’t think they should. More like games should adapt different things from films or from books than they have so far.

In the case of Metro that doesn’t seem to be happening, since the next game is open-world-based. It’s not a shame—you know, who cares really about another big game series getting even bigger? But maybe that game, Metro: Exodus, will give more definition to what we’re talking about. Sociological, psychological, and historical game readings being devoured by mechanics; games’ politics forced to live underground, beneath their mechanical wasteland.

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Reid McCarter is a writer and editor based in Toronto. His work has appeared at GQ, The AV Club, Kill Screen, Playboy, Paste, and VICE. He is also co-editor of SHOOTER, co-hosts the Bullet Points podcast, and tweets @reidmccarter.

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