Getting aggy in the dark.
The first few hours are a right blur. Just a collection of scattered little moments really. Trudging ever forwards through the darkness. Peaking at Bad Men through the gap between a stack of barrels. Cowering in dark corners of rooms, trying to hide myself from the dangerous flicker of campfires. Shaking, shotgun in hand, as enemies walk past me a few yards away, hoping beyond hope that they won’t spot me. Being armed with dangerous looking guns but not really knowing how to use them. And that’s about it.
The first few hours of Metro 2033 are magical escapism. You are thrust into the dilapidated tunnels and stations of a post nuclear holocaust Moscow metro and just sort of left to it. You’ve got a compass and a legitimately linear path to follow, but you are also in an otherworldly and entirely disorientating space. Living in London, I use the tube on an almost daily basis. Like most people, I’ve looked through ventilation grates and locked doors and wondered where they lead to. What sort of labyrinthine mess hides behind the straight corridors and ninety degree angles of these streamlined underground hamlets. I’ve never ventured beyond the tunnels I’m expressly granted access to, and having played 2033 I’m glad my curiosity has never prevailed. Tunnels are scary.
Lots of shooters take place in corridors. What makes the Metro games so chillingly atmospheric is that their corridors exist to not only physically, but also emotionally constrain the player. I always got the feeling that if things got super rough in, say, Counter Strike or Medal of Honor, that I could just jump my character over a fence and be off, running for the hills of freedom. I couldn’t, obviously, the games aren’t made like that, but at least there was the visual cue that something was out there past the chaos of violence. With Metro you are underground. While in practice there is nothing behind the constraining facility walls of Doom, theoretically there could be. You aren’t given this cold comfort in Metro, because there unequivocally isn’t anything. You are in a little concrete tube, trapped beneath the ruins of the Russian capital.
It is this spatial hopelessness which led to my fearful navigation of these tunnels. Yes, I was up against overwhelming forces and under-equipped, but I have been countless times before in similarly linear environments. Being underground really did something to me. Not having that hollow promise of escape really gets to me. And so I cowered. And when that failed, which it inevitable always did, I flailed. Running about mindlessly I’d shoot at shadows, emptying clips of precious ammunition into walls. Into packing crates. Into barrels. Into anything that wasn’t the Bad Men out to get me. The claustrophobia of the metro made me forget my hours upon hours of previous combat training - video games haven’t, I’m relieved to find, vicariously granted me a tangible proficiency with guns, even in other video games.
I scraped through these encounters - barely - and was struck by just how stressful they were. It’s the closeness with Metro that’s the real killer. When you unload a shotgun into a chest. When you stab a neck. When you bludgeon a head with the butt of your pistol. You’re always so close to the consequences of your actions. Even when you manage to shoot someone from a safe distance you’re still only a few feet away. Maybe it’s that by a decade into the twenty first century our shooters have morphed from the up close and personal days of Wolfenstein 3D to the more shooting gallery style of Call of Duty, but Metro just feels, well, raw. It’s dirty and in your face like very few games about killing people are. It hurts, if just a little, when you shoot a man’s face off, even if he’s trying to do the same thing to you, because you are so close to it when it happens. There’s no real sense or logic behind any of it. You are trapped underground and need to get to the end of a corridor. It’s that simple. I got there by pratfalling and clumsily shooting and stabbing my way through. It was messy and energetic and foolhardy and embarrassing. But at least I managed to get to the next door relatively intact.
A bit later you are given the chance to buy night vision goggles and a rifle with a silencer and a magnifying scope. It didn’t seem much at the time, but this purchase changed my entire experience with 2033.
Light is super important underground. This might sound silly to point out, but it’s necessary. There are those little moments on the tube where all the carriage lights go out. Nobody reacts to them, but that’s because they only last for a second or so. What if, though, the lights didn’t instantaneously come back on? You’d maybe get ten seconds in before people started fidgeting. Fifteen or twenty and books would be closed. Headphones would begin to fall from ears. By a full minute, I’d hazard, people would begin to panic. Whether the train were moving or not, five minutes of pure, unflinching blackness would be enough to send people into a frenzy. Windows would be clawed at, bodies would be trampled, people would be whole-hog, to the bone terrified. Why? Because without light we quickly realise we’re effectively trapped a hundred or so metres underground. It’s scary to be trapped in the dark.
My new arsenal allowed me to harness this power. With my combination of silent, distant weaponry and my ability to see without light, I was able to overcome my fear of the tunnels. My indiscriminate and wildly inaccurate aggression instantly turned to ruthless precision. I’d systematically and silently eliminate all artificial light sources from the subterranean battlegrounds. My enemies were effectively blinded. In their confusion they would clumsily crane their heads, trying to listen out for the assailant of their vision. They’d stumble around like children exploring a cave, completely unaware of my presence, or at least my location. Tunnels that once rang with battle cries and chest beating bravado were now silent but for the hushed whimpers of Lost Men. It was then that I pounced.
I’d cut them down in turn, a single bullet to the brain each. One would fall. Then another. The rest would start to realise that their numbers were dwindling. They’d begin blindly firing into the darkness in a vain attempt to counter my precision. Another. Another. Another. Then the final one. Perfect silence, punctuated only by the gentle hum of my magical goggles, would fall. I hadn’t even had the move as I shot them all in the head from the comfort of my darkness. I was removed from them entirely. I had started off as a blind, flailing mess. Now, that would prove to be the fate of my enemies, while I had become an omnipotent dealer of death. I was a God. Or maybe worse.
The Devil is in the detail, so we’re told, and it was certainly present in my flawless approach to tunnel navigation. There was a kind of gentle naivete to my earlier bumblings; I was simply getting by in my environment. There was no time for malice to infect my actions: I was too busy trying to survive. But as soon as I donned the night vision I became calculating and coolly removed from my actions. In being able to plan out my attacks to the letter, rather than responding to those of others, I’d lost something along the way. I no longer shook and cowered, disgusted by the necessity of my violence. Instead, I stalked and assassinated. And I enjoyed it. I enjoyed the hunt. I went from being acted upon by external forces to totally embodying them. I was all-powerful, and I really, really liked it. The slightly warped, colourless image through my goggles had done the same to my sense of humanity. Through them, I had been given the upper hand, been allowed to take control of my perpetually uncomfortable situation. But I had also completely, irrevocably lost myself in the process.