There is nothing I admire more in Metro 2033 than the myriad ways it rewards inattentive players with unceremonious death. The constant mortal peril teaches players to pay attention to every detail, and think twice about every action. These lessons are dearly won, and immerse the player in Metro’s dread-soaked world of blackened tunnels and postwar ruin. Unfortunately, those lessons also make it impossible for Metro 2033 to get away with the sleights of hand necessary to bring the narrative to a dramatic finish.
Metro 2033 is initially committed to making almost every step an adventure. Traps abound: tripwire-detonated pipe bombs, spike traps, pressure plates and crude noisemakers can all kill you outright or summon an army to come kill you. Its early levels are unrelenting in their severity. I might enjoy a momentary feeling of confidence that comes with fending off a mutant assault with nothing but a revolver and nerves, but then I learn humility by committing the unforgivable sin of walking through a door without checking for traps.
Eventually, I learn to occupy the same state of mind as the other characters of Metro 2033. I move slowly and methodically through hostile territory, looking for traps and ambush positions. Later, during an attack on a fascist base, I sweep past traps and hostile patrols like a ghost; I murder sentries before they have a chance to scream. I truly begin to feel like one of the Rangers that rule the tunnels of the Metro.
This hyper-awareness makes me an active participant in a journey that could have been nothing more than a corridor slog. Metro’s is a dangerous world, but not a malicious one. It behaves according to certain rules. I stand a decent chance of surviving if only I remain cool and alert.
The lessons I learn early in the game make it hard to surprise me, which is why Metro 2033 finally falls apart for me in its final act. Metro 2033 begins with a commitment to gritty realism, but increasingly relies on scripted sequences, NPC allies and cutscenes. As the game goes on, those reliances start undoing the careful world-building of the early stages.
During the climactic journey through a derelict missile base, my sudden passivity during scripted events made Metro 2033 seem like an unconvincing haunted house. The lowest moment came when I was covering an ally while he unlocked a door. Naturally, I focused on the shadowy corner of the room with a hole in the floor and a vent dangling out of the ceiling. These were obvious points of entry, and I had learned to spot them during my travels. Sure enough, a monster came bounding out. I let him have it in the face and throat with a full clip from my Kalashnikov.
He shrugged off all the incoming fire and killed my companion. Then, belatedly, he remembered to die.
In a game where every round counts, you learn exactly how many shots it takes to bring down a given enemy. To have made it that far, every single player must be able to spot that ambush coming from a mile away, and every single player would ventilate that monster with a dozen rounds before it took two steps. The entire scene rings false, because Metro has done too good a job of showing what is and is not possible in this world.
Most shooters don’t run into this problem because they are already so artificial that I don’t look for internal consistency. Gordon Freeman is a silent, unstoppable killing machine until a cutscene starts to play and he is somehow paralyzed long enough for something unfortunate to happen. An enemy is beyond harm until he finally gets access to the right weapon, and then it can finally be killed. Nathan Drake runs through beautifully decorated levels with equally dazzling backdrops, but he can’t really interact with anything or go exploring. His job is to climb and shoot, like the action hero he is. And in between the running and shooting, a cutscene will advance the plot and permit things to happen that cannot occur during gameplay.
But games like Metro 2033 face a bigger challenge when the time comes to increase the dramatic tension, because they are so devoid of artifice. The tension is inherent to the world: You and your friends could die at any moment, because that’s what this world is like. But that also means that it’s hard to structure a convincing dramatic encounter. When a hardened Ranger is killed by the kind of overgrown rodent you’ve been cutting down like dandelions, or felled by a giant bat that has been circling around you going “boo!” for about ten minutes, it’s clear the game is no longer playing by its own rules. That’s when I disengage, because it’s the rules that made the world real to me, and it’s the world that I’m invested in. When the story starts crowding out its setting, it is also eliminating the reason anyone should care in the first place.