Metro 2033 and Awkward Morality Systems

The Metro series is an interesting game property. Created by Ukrainian developers 4A Games and based off a novel by Russian author Dmitry Glukhovsky, the first in the series, Metro 2033, found a niche audience with its blend of shooting, stealth and survival horror.

Three years after its release, a sequel, Metro: Last Light was released along with Metro: Redux, which brought both games to the current generation of consoles (Xbox One and PlayStation 4), with better gameplay, mechanics and shinier graphics.

Another addition to the story, Metro: Exodus, headlined Microsoft’s conference as E3 2017, signalling that the property still has life to it. even with a company that is continually seen as an underdog when compared to the gigantic size of the mainstream companies such as Ubisoft and Electronic Arts.

But, away from all of that, I wanted to go back to the start of the series and I wanted to talk about the moral choices and ending, and why they don’t pack as much of a punch as they should.

So, spoilers ahead.

Mind the Gap: How Metro 2033 Misses the Mark with its Moral Choices

When I first played Metro 2033, I got the bad ending, which is also the true ending, both in setting up the sequel and the ending from the novel (I read the novel first, so I knew what was going to happen. And damn, in the book, the ending is heart-wrenching).

I presume dear reader, if you have also played Metro 2033, the first time you played the game you also got the bad ending. Metro 2033 has a moral system, but it is vague as to what and where the moral choices are. The only real acknowledgment of instances where you can alter the ending are vague audio/visual cues that play after certain situations.

Most of the gameplay that affects the ending is hidden, you have to seek it out, which can either make it incredibly rewarding and fun or so banal that it’s a surprise anyone ever found it.

For example, sneaking through an enemy guard encampment without killing anyone increases the chance of the good ending. This makes sense and also plays to the survival aspect/awkward shooting mechanics of the game.

Another situation early on is giving a bullet (the currency of the game and book) to a sick person, a homeless man and a child. These characters are never seen again and these bullets are the currency, meaning we’ll need them later on. It seems a bit counterproductive to give our money away, especially when we haven’t really been told how this mechanic works. This, to me, is a bad case of the morality system.

The theory for not telling us outright there is a morality system could be due to the developers not wanting to give away there was a twist ending. I know that I’ve been in games where I’ve learnt about good and bad moral choices and instead of play the game how I would usually play, I would suddenly start playing inorganically, therefore lessening my fun or letting a game chastise me.

Over the course of Metro 2033, the bigger decisions take place in trippy dream sequences, with surreal architecture and unnatural lighting. It is here where we come face to face with the Dark Ones, the new race that rules over the nuclear wasteland now that the humans are reduced to the metro.

The human forces fight the Dark Ones day and night, maybe killing one now and again but usually losing several human soldiers in the fighting. The Dark Ones don’t want to hurt humanity though, they are wanting to help, and found that they could communicate through main character Artyom, to try and use him as a conduit. Humanity though is not too forthcoming in the world of Metro 2033, so they attack the Dark Ones because they fear the outsider. It’s a pretty obvious metaphor, but it doesn’t work because the game has conditioned us to fight the other, the outsider.

Metro 2033 has its fair share of human enemies as well as mutants, but the mutants never fight on your side. While you fight the Fourth Reich, The Communists, bandits, pirates and just regular scum and villainy, you also have friendly fighters; Bourbon, Khan, Ulman, Miller, the Rangers, a heap of people fight by your side. We are not conditioned to shoot every person because we have friendly humans as well as enemy humans.

However, every mutant in the game is an enemy. Watchers, Lurkers, Nosalises, Demons et al are all trying to kill us, so we repay them back in kind. (Yes, there are some cases of mutants not killing the player like a Librarian if it has been stared down or the Ghosts and the Anomalies if the player doesn’t move, but these do not fight alongside the player in the game.)

And while the Dark Ones are humanoid, their long limbs and imposing frame can easily be replicated by both the Nosalis in the metro and the Watcher on the surface. And just speaking for myself, the mutated creature models freak me out, so I would shoot every single one and not try to sneak past them in case I was ambushed by a horde of them later on.

So, even when the Dark Ones are slowly coming forwards towards the player, saying promising, non-confrontational words like “Save”, “Life” and “Hope”, our natural instincts as players would be to flee from this creature (it is important to note in the dream sequences, the player does not have any weapons). As well as one of our human friends shouting “Run Artyom!” when we are faced with the Dark One, it becomes hard, especially on either a first playthrough or no knowledge of the good ending, to not flee. The delivery of the lines doesn’t help. It’s a raspy, almost snake-like delivery, not one usually associated with good characters.

It is interesting though, that even if the player goes for the good ending, the Dark Ones try and stop Artyom while saying words like “Die” and “Surrender”. During the final part of the surreal dream, one of the characters that Artyom has met, Hunter, tosses him a gun and says, “If it is hostile, you kill it.” The Dark Ones are hostile, even in the good ending. Apart from a few different splash screens and a twenty second delay on the missile strike, there isn’t much difference between the endings.

It’s possible to get the set up to the good ending and play out the timer, therefore getting the bad ending, but with only one line saying the Dark Ones want peace. But like I said previously, the delivery makes it seem deceivable.

Maybe this was all part of the plan, to get rid of our pre-conceived notions of good and bad enemies, both within the story and as a larger whole. When Khan, one of the fighters that Artyom travels with, talks about an anomaly, he says, “It all depends on your point of view. Try to get a better understanding of things before you make your judgement.” Khan reappears at the end of the game as well, reinforcing this idea just before the player climbs to the top of the radio tower to call in an airstrike on the Dark Ones.

It’s also interesting to note the context of the creators. 4A Games was founded in Ukraine, and Eastern Europe has a much different culture to the West. Western FPSes for the last decade have been predicated on killing the outsider; foreign locales and accents, people that aren’t “just like us”. Metro envisions a world that could become prosperous through mutual help and understanding, but once again humanity is too busy fighting.

The most basic of games are predicated on win/loss. Moving forward to today, where the biggest market is the FPS genre, win/loss invariably now means kill/death. We have been conditioned by gaming, as well as Metro 2033, that when confronted with a calm, peaceful creature that is talking about saving humanity and co-operation, that we are still running scared from it, just because of what it looks like.

So, while I’m not a fan of how the morality system is delivered, if we add the context, it makes a little more sense as to how it was displayed. I still love Metro 2033 despite its flaws, and the morality system does add to the broken world presented to us, as we try to add a little bit of light to a world shrouded in nuclear darkness.

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