A Tragic Commitment to Realism

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.


I know some people play games to experience the story, just as some people watch the Super Bowl for the ads, but when a game ties itself to the mast of realism like this, notions like cutscenes stand out more and more and annoying breaks in the action.

Though I have not played this game, this is a thought-provoking piece and I find myself very much agreeing with you.

System Shock 2 suffers from a similar problem in its closing act. Having dedicated itself to a consistent, realistic world throughout the majority of its running time, the game suddenly takes a turn into very different territory not with cutscenes but with baldly fake platforming environments. The shift is jarring and negatively impacts the work as a whole.

The suspension of disbelief is fragile.

In the case of the scripted death of your comrade, it seems all they needed to do was give you some way to be unable to intervene, separating you with bullet proof glass would have done.

One of the definitions of 'a game' is that it's a scenario in that the rules are followed. So it's not valid game playing if you hide your flag under something where the opposing team can't get it. If you break the rules or cheat, you're breaking the game for yourself.

One thing I've noticed is that I'm much more forgiving of games that are rough around the edges. The guards in Theif 2 are extremely dumb ("Must be rats"), but they're effective at their job so they work for their game. The graphics are crude but effective, and I don't care if I can see the edge of the skybox. It's all enough to transport me into the world, so I obey the rules.

As much as developers hate people cheating (and when you do you're not playing the game, you're a tourist), they need to be fair at their own game.

Metro 2033 was one of my favorite games like Alan Wake and Red Dead Redemption for 2010. I'm really excited for the sequel tho, Metro 2034. That follows the plot of the second book. Which also stands out as something extraordinary. Both of these games are books turned into games with no middle media.

Books being turned into movies is a common thing these days but taking a book and building a game around it is astounding and brilliant. The holes in the story and in the game I feel can be directed more to the gameplay and inability to convey what a book can convey.

Loved the atmosphere in this game, but took the game itself to be more of a necessary evil. By that I mean I would have rather watched this as a movie, I think, than suffer through the awkwardly built game elements. I've been searching for a book in translation, so Wolfen if you know something I don't please provide a link.

The assault on the fascist camp...


I ran the length of the no-man's land bridge and did not stop until the end of the level. After three nights of unsuccessful attempts to sneak under it that was my only chance to make an attempt at completing the game.

Games like this, positively dripping with atmosphere and narrative but with large chunks of murderously inept balancing, are madenning. You want to recommend them to friends who are on the fringes of gaming, who could be brought into the fold if only the right story was there that spoke to them, but the tight game experience newbies need is what stops me short or recommending them.

Don't get me started on the fascist camp.


I went under the bridge, but made like 3 dozen attempts to use the catwalk rather than descending to the ground level and taking the backdoor into the base. It's a hard slog: machine gunner with a searchlight, plus a horde of shock troops who come at the first sign of commotion. Well, finally I blasted through them all and went back up to the bridge... only to get sniped by one last soldier who had been hanging out up there without making a sound.

Oh, and when I went through the back door, the game autosaved just as I accidentally alerted a patrol I was there, so I was stuck going through another near-unwinnable firefight.

The thing about Metro is that it's not uniformly clumsy. The early encounters with the bandits, most of the surface sections... this stuff is great. I feel like I'm living by my wits, and if things go wrong, I can adjust and go to plan B. But there are just these show-stopping sequences where it turns into Super Meatboy: go die, die again a little farther, die in the same place...

And then at the end, you're paired of with such ridiculously supercharged allies that the game practically plays itself. Still, when the game hits that happy medium, it's something special.

Rob Zacny wrote:

Don't get me started on the fascist camp.


The thing about Metro is that it's not uniformly clumsy.

That sounds like a good thing in some ways. If some enemy is picking off your allies, and you're the last guy left, anyone with half a brain isn't going to go looking for that enemy and put your head out in the line of fire. On the other, in terms of a game that's meant to be fair I can see how it's aggravating, but I think part of the skill of making great games is finding the balance between those two. As the Metro2033 developers split off from GSC who made STALKER, I can see it as part of how they work.

Can't agree more. I stopped Metro 2033 when I was in a huge fight outside, hordes of monsters coming at me and some AI. I eventually ran out of ammo and died a couple of times. Only at the very last attempt (I am patient, but not to a fault) I turn around by chance and I see a AI holding his hand out to me and beckoning me to flee and start a cut scene. It took all the drama out of the fight as I realized that I HAD to run away from the fight. With the choice taken away from me, the game lost all its charm to me.

If there were a problem with Far Cry 2, this might be it.


Sneaking through the Frontlines mission, the bandit camp (in which one can find a particularly interesting little nook in the level), and the and the Fascist camp are all quite possible. It's challenging, and this is a good thing as the game encourages exploration and figuring out things for oneself by the time you get to the most difficult sneak play in Frontlines.

My only grievances with the game were towards the end, as well, when people would die from what seemed like situations they ought not to die in.

On the whole the world was incredible and the gameplay solid. After you arrive at the station you failed to defend it's chilling to walk around and see people after their final moments. There's a man who died listening to his favorite tunes, another who went to a corner and blew out his brains before the mutants got him, it's extremely well put together and I appreciated how much of the story the player had to put together for himself while not being overly vague.

I love that, coming up on a year since its release, Metro 2033 is starting to get the recognition it deserves.

TheWanderer wrote:

I've been searching for a book in translation, so Wolfen if you know something I don't please provide a link.

It's out there, I picked it up off the shelf at Chapters (the Canadian version of Barnes & Noble). The translation isn't very good, but beyond that I think this is first time I can confidently say (or say at all): the game was better. But I have to organize my thoughts about that for a different post.

Gravey wrote:

I love that, coming up on a year since its release, Metro 2033 is starting to get the recognition it deserves.

Some of the gamer intelligentsia on Twitter, Buzz, and circling around Brainy Gamer have been quietly pushing for more attention to 2033 for a while. Those communities have a wonderfully slow pace of discussion and attention.

I enjoyed this game right up until the Librarians. After having to reload my save game about a dozen times, I lost patience with it. I appreciate challenges in a game, but clearly that part of the game was beyond my skills and patience.

It is a shame, as that was one of the most interesting FPS games I have played in a long time. The atmosphere was very effective, the combat was tough but rewarding, the graphics were top notch, and the story was bleak and interesting. Well worth the time spent, but it is a shame I could not finish it.

I heard the game had some of the you describe problems so I checked it of my list (these days I'm glad of any excuse to reduce the number of 'must buy' game heading my way.) After reading this article I took a peek at a game play video and I can see where the articles title came from. The care that's gone into building the games atmosphere is astonishing.

I'm probably going to buy the game now to experience the sections up until the world breaks down. I'm now officially excited for the sequel.

This reminds me a lot of how Splinter Cell: Convictions story ended:


Once you got to the While House after interogating the Vice-President you were presented with a handful of commandos who knew you were there and were about to breach in through a door.

The solution was to throw frag grenades and use your assault rifle / other loud primary - bascially the solution was to use a play style that the game more or less encouraged you not to use (stealth was useless in this scene due to lack of cover & lighting)

Can't complain too much though since the Hunter and Infiltration modes gave fans of the series all the difficult stealth sections they could handle

Now we can't wait for Metro Last Light