There’s another world, parallel to our own - one made up of hidden or decayed places, built by people but used only by a few or abandoned altogether. We are separated from it by a few metres of concrete when we walk the streets or use a subway; it’s just above or below us in the mechanical floors of hospitals and universities; we can see it in the empty industrial buildings visible from canals or from moving trains. These kinds of spaces are all around us, and yet rarely seen. Some, like steam tunnels, are the blood vessels that keep towns and cities alive. Others, like the ruined factories of Detroit, are the parts of the urban landscape abandoned by people and capital and left to fall apart.
These eerie locales have a grip on the imagination of many people, not least the urban explorers who venture into and photograph them. They also have a powerful hold on fiction, which often imagines a life driven out of the light by some catastrophe and into the dark places, often underground. This trend has been particularly strong in videogames, where the hidden and decaying areas of cities provide a venue for post-apocalyptic struggles. Numerous games have mined this territory, but few have done so as effectively as the 2010 survival first-person shooter Metro 2033.
Metro 2033 was the first project for a newly founded studio, Kiev-based 4A Games. They had experience working with eerie, abandoned settings - they were a core part of the team at GSC Game World who had developed the game STALKER. Released in 2007, that game was set in perhaps the most notorious real-world area of desolation - the irradiated “zone” surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Continuing in a similar vein, 4A Games chose to adapt a novel by Russian author Dmitri Glukhovsky which was a surprise runaway success at the time.
Metro 2033 is set in a Moscow devastated by a nuclear exchange. The surface is an irradiated wasteland, shrouded in a permanent nuclear winter. The survivors have lived for two decades in the city’s sprawling metro system - once famously ornate and now the site of desperate struggle against aggressive mutants and between violent groups of political extremists. This desperate civilisation uses bullets for currency, manufactures crude firearms for defence, and is forced to use gas masks for the hazardous trips to the city streets. The game’s depiction of the occupied stations is impressive enough, but its environmental storytelling is better still when the player explores the wider underground world - its service tunnels, rail depots, shattered buildings, and forgotten military facilities. In building this world, 4A Games draw on reality, fiction, and urban legend to create some of the most memorable settings ever seen in a game; to make desolation into an artform.
The oppressive, cramped environments of the subway system and of the Moscow streets are the centrepiece of Metro 2033. Expansive, intensely detailed and believable, they leave more of a lasting impression than the game’s characters, or even its bestiary of bloodthirsty monsters. While the game has a somewhat interesting plot and very satisfying stealth and gunplay, its environments are so brilliantly constructed that the game would work even without these elements. In developing Metro 2033, 4A Games built a living, breathing world - or more accurately, a world choking on its last breath through the decaying filter of an old gas mask.
Outside the stations, metro tunnels are sheathed in gloom, filled with the remains of broken-down subway trains. Mutant spiders breed in the rib cages of corpses in narrow service tunnels. Often, the only light in an area is provided by a sparking electrical cable, or bioluminescent fungus growing from tunnel walls. Shattered walkways circle a ventilation tower, through which a young boy that the player encounters sees the sky for the first time.
The attention to detail in the environments is frequently stunning, and contributes to a remarkable sense of place. Each collapsed tunnel and mutilated body carries with it the implication of a past event - Metro 2033 is a supreme example of environmental storytelling, in which the places traversed by the player say more about what has become of this world than the characters’ dialogue. This is one of the strongest arguments in favour of today’s advanced graphics engines; with the skill of a developer like 4A they can create a deeper sense of place than even the most carefully constructed environments of years past.
Although Metro 2033 is not a particularly lengthy game, the underground settings naturally threaten to become repetitive, which is why the inclusion of brief trips to the surface is so welcome. The transition from the dark of the tunnels to the blinding whiteness of the Moscow snow is jarring, and the surface buildings offer a welcome change of pace. The recreation of the Russian State Library is remarkable, the destruction of its beautiful interiors by a nuclear shockwave and two decades of neglect rendered with incredible care.
The sources of inspiration for the environmental design in Metro 2033 are many and varied. 4A Games were evidently inspired by Half-Life 2; both games feature a mute protagonist, a similar narrative structure focusing on an arduous journey, and devastated urban settings. Valve Software’s magnum opus is set in City 17, a future dystopia modeled on Prague, Sofia and Budapest. While its combat mechanics have dated over the years, its oppressive atmosphere of urban decay and abandonment stands up even now and is a clear influence on Metro 2033. Half-Life 2 contains memorable sections where the environment itself, and not enemies, is the main obstacle. Its sequence of traversing the underside of a severely damaged railway bridge is echoed in the finale of Metro 2033, which takes place on what remains of Moscow’s real-life Ostankino Tower.
For enthusiasts of urban decay and exploration, the Soviet Union is a source of constant fascination, as evidenced by the numerous books on this subject. The ambitious architecture of the communist superstate, often subsequently left to fall apart, is evident in everything from bus stations to the forgotten hangars of the cancelled Buran space shuttle programme. Rumours persist of even more remarkable structures, which are critical to the plot of Metro 2033. The game’s climax hinges on a mission into “Metro-2”, a real-life secret military branch of the metro system which has partly been photographed. The convincing nature of every location in the game, from the occupied stations to the most mysterious military facility, reflects 4A’s meticulous research and pays dividends for the game’s atmosphere.
While Metro 2033 is by no means a perfect game, its superbly realised environments offer a lesson to developers on how to best to leverage today's graphics technology. Handled carefully, taking inspiration from real-world environments can provide a particularly engaging and memorable backdrop for a first-person shooter. Environments that are rich with background details can be as critical to telling a story as a good script. Intriguingly, Metro 2033 is a game with the potential to make us see the real world around us differently - if you find yourself wondering how useful a particular tube station or empty factory would be if the bombs start to fall, you'll know the game has had an impact.
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I write about classic science fiction and occasionally fantasy; I sometimes make maps for Doom II; and I'm a contributor to the videogames site Entertainium, where I regularly review new games.