When I Replayed 'Metro 2033' Its Increased Political Relevance Surprised Me


#1

“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?

Let me know in today’s open thread!


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

#2

Call of Duty 4 gets more and more relevantly anti-war every time I play it. I’m not even entirely sure if it was intended, but the sense of legitimate unease so many missions give you - especially in regard to the fact that the “modern” in Modern Warfare seems to manifest itself primarily as hands-off, long-range death-dealing - is palpable and scary in ways that undercut any thrill of the more conventional action. Maybe it’s less that it is gaining relevance with time, but that the messages grow more prominent as it becomes clear how little they were ever heeded.


#3

Mirror’s edge was released a full decade ago and its vision of a near future, (private) security state, one practiced at swallowing up people’s uprisings, is so familiar that flying through the digital dystopia via the nimble heroine Faith is pure cathartic joy, but don’t take my word for it; instead enjoy what our own forum friend graceinthemachine had to say about the delightfully subversive gameplay!

By the way, if you end up deciding to take another flight through the finely shaped spaces, make sure you stop between dodging bullets long enough to read the writing on the walls:

During a recent playthrough, I nearly didn’t register a surreally named “Snowden Plaza”(not the first to find it of course); as my avatar sprinted past the sign with rentacops in hot pursuit and bearing deadly intent, it was symbolically jarring to be sure.


#4

Legit teared up at this shout out, thank you.

And, I didn’t even notice that, what a good find. It’s fascinating how much Mirror’s Edge wants to tell a story of resistance, but is constantly has to hide it or cover it. The main thrust of its plot isn’t all that political, but on the edges there’s all this stuff that is subtly commentating on things. Snowden Plaza being a particularly blunt example of that.
I think it’s why it’s a more successful game thematically than Catalyst (the reboot), which is allowed to be much more specific, but also makes silly and dangerous moral equivalencies.

The really obvious one here is MGS 2, which basically made Spec Ops: The Line years before that game came out and has a lot to say about modern media that only seems to have become more true.

The first Bioshock has plenty of problems, but there’s a simple plea for kindness at its heart that still resonants with me, I think.


#5

The re-release of Skyrim reminded me that I really didn’t pick up on that game’s reiteration of common “blood and soil” white supremacist talking points via the Stormcloak storyline. Going back to that game made me start reading into the game as a metaphor for US politics in ways that didn’t entirely work but were interesting to think about.


#6

Race in fantasy settings like that of Elders Scrolls is always a weird thing to think about. The whole idea of races with pre-defined attributes, both good and bad, is deeply uncomfortable but naturally gets us as players to build to and embrace stereotypes. Elves as archers or mages. Orcs are tribal blacksmiths and brutish warriors. Distinctions are even drawn within the human races of a fiction like the Elder Scrolls: the Nords and darker-skinned Redguard are physically gifted warriors while the roles of paladins, merchants and mages are left to the Imperial and Breton races.

I remember reading on the skyrimmods subreddit at some point that race is passed down maternally in that fiction. I find it intriguing that races can be clearly distinguished because the lore precludes a mixed birth (although I believe the origins of the Breton race in the lore is some combination of human and elves?–don’t quote me on that). As a person of mixed heritage myself, I find it very intriguing the way race is defined in real life and in games. I know first hand that being mixed can be a bit of an identity crisis from a young age. It is weird to walk through a game world where the definitions of race are objective. Certainly, characters in Skyrim can subvert the expectations of their race, but they are that race, in the very records of the game.

Sidenote, now I wanna jump back down the rabbithole of modding and roleplay something totally against the stereotypes.