“What a beautiful world we’ve destroyed,” sighs one of the old soldiers around a campfire, as he recalls the glories of spring in the cities of Russia and Ukraine, the taste of air so fresh and clean “you could drink it.”
Metro 2033 is a consistently mournful game, as characters confront the reality that the world they lost is beyond recovery. The survivors gathered in the Moscow Metro do not know if they’re the last people alive on earth, but they know that few of them will live to see the day when the surface is habitable again, and when they do emerge, it will be into a world of ruins.
But Metro 2033 is also critical of the nostalgia that it dwells upon. Playing it this week for our Waypoint 101 later today—and eight years after its release—the game’s political themes are clearer and more complicated than I realized the first time I played. Those politics have aged better than those of many of Metro’s contemporaries, because in this wounded society’s romantic regret for a half-remembered, half-imagined world gone by, Metro sees the seeds of political reaction and racial apocalypticism.
The people in the Metro dwell on the past a great deal, and our hero Artyom more than most. He keeps a bedroom wall with postcards of the world’s lost cities and wonders but, tellingly, they’re mostly pictures of western cities. The Pyramids of ancient Egypt are there, but for the most part Artyom has collected a wall of European capitals: here is London, there is Vienna, and finally there is a postcard of New York from his mentor. The world has been destroyed but, for Artyom, it is the West that was lost.
However, this still makes Artyom more broad-minded than his peers. Artyom never really knew the old world before it was leveled by nuclear weapons, so all the culture he’s had access to is whatever people can tell him about and share with him. However, within those confines, his grief and nostalgia have become embraced by people and places with which he has no connection. Artyom’s perspective is limited, but it’s formed via a capacity to imagine and empathize beyond his own experiences.
But it also establishes that within the world of Metro 2033, it’s Europe and the West whose loss and identity is worth remembering and, by implication, redeeming in the world to come. And that identity and dream is the one that’s under threat. After all, the tagline for Metro 2033 (splashed across the title screen in bold lettering like a wartime propaganda poster) is “Fear the Future.” It’s a vague, undirected call to arms against the most abstract and undefeated of foes, that produces much of the game’s tragedy.
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The game’s opening sequence unfolds in a rush of conversations and events, so fast that young Artyom barely questions the sense of crisis that his mentors have created. Their community of survivors is menaced by what appears to be a monstrous new sentient species that’s evolved in the wake of the nuclear war, called homo novus by the more detached, intellectual leadership of the Metro and the Dark Ones by most everyone else.
The racial overtones are heavy-handed, but the anxieties in this metaphor are not solely racial (with the caveat that race does intersect with most of the other socio-political themes at play here). The Dark Ones are emblematic of a changed world where it may not even be possible to recover what the survivors lost. Confronted with the rise of an “other,” and grimly holding onto a memories of a past and dread of the uncertain future, the factions of the Metro turn to various forms of nihilism. Including the “good” guys, whose position is explicitly that they would rather cause what is left of the world to perish rather than accept that it could move on without them.
In our chat yesterday, we talked a lot about the game’s politics and Austin and I disagreed about the actual political positions that Metro 2033 sketches for itself. But in its portrait of a declining hegemony, animated by a mixture of nostalgia and dread, I was surprised to find a much more plausible and complicated game than I remembered. In the eight years since it came out, I find myself reading the game less as a warning of what could happen than a metaphor for what was already happening in the 2000s, and whose full ramifications are only now coming into view.
What are some games that seemed to become more prescient, or at least more relevant, with time? What games have surprised you with how well their messages have aged?
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://waypoint.vice.com/en_us/article/9kze3y/when-i-replayed-metro-2033-its-increased-political-relevance-surprised-me