I want to be good.
No, I want to be seen as good. I want some father or god to pat me on the head, tell me I have done the work, and send me waltzing through pearly gates. I want my goodness to be rewarded with noise and applause. Why I want this is a question outside the scope of this article. But I theorize that it is because I find it difficult to live with myself. I believe that an external validation will alleviate the pressure inside me.
Games are adapt at external validation. Positive feedback and rewards for the bare minimum are laced through typical big budget experiences. Throughout my youth, I played Knights of the Old Republic four times and never wavered from the light-side. The game applauded me with blue halos, heroic music, and a classic Star Wars redemption arc.
Now that I’m older, I like to think that my tastes have matured. My favorite games of recent memory include The Witcher 3, with its complex moral universe that subverts player power, and Anodyne, which interrogates why we indulge fantasies of destiny and goodness. Still, far more often than I would like to admit, this insecure side of me creeps out. I have to know if I am good.
The last game that awoke this cycle in me was Metro 2033. Based on the Russian post-apocalypse novel of the same name, it tells the story of Artyom, one of thousands of Moscow citizens who fled to the metro tunnels and survived nuclear destruction. He grows up among the mutants, outcasts, and predators of the metro. When a new kind of mutant appears, one with terrifying physic powers, he must leave his home station to end this threat.
Metro is a game about violence and survival. The world is hostile to you, either infected with nuclear fallout, infested with mutants or both. It tasks you to explore every nook and cranny to find filters for your gas mask, ammo, parts for your weapons, and first aid kits. Whereas most modern FPSs are about god-like power, Metro is about a kind of fragility. Instead of regenerating health, it has limited health packs. Ammo is rare and special rounds are the primary form of currency. Thus, your violence has a real financial cost. It’s a world that feels tangible and physical. Even its simple shooting is draped with cause and effect, even its morality system.
Unlike Knights of the old Republic’s light/dark system, Metro’s morality is obtuse. Though the result is fairly binary, get enough “good” points and you get the “good” ending, it never explains itself. The activities that award you points range from the obvious (sparing lives, being generous) to the strange and mundane (playing an instrument, finding a hidden room). Which means that, without a guide, the outcome of these games is unpredictable. They either end with an act of mercy, or one of incredible violence.
The game asks you to pay attention to prevent that violence. In the Metro, kindness and generosity are radical acts. Unlike other games of its ilk, which reward quick reflexes and fast thinking, Metro 2033 asks you to linger. Several levels are extended vignettes of towns and stations. Violence is always present, but it often takes a backseat as you stop and ponder its results.
This creates a simple, but profound, message about atrocity: there is no big moment. In Knight of the Old Republic, you can flip sides at anytime. Be a big jerk until the last possible second and then show your true colors. But in Metro, evil is not a costume. If you are just following orders, doing what you are supposed to, you will stumble into it. You won’t even know that you are evil. Atrocities are built out of small decisions that crescendo into massive violence. Artyom has grown up in a world defined by hostility. This world was born in a fire that never went away. His heroes, the rangers, are an organization that thrives on the killing of the other. A ranger spurs him on his quest and its end goal is the extermination of a new life form, the aforementioned physic threat. At the end of Metro 2033, if you don’t have enough “good points,” you drop a nuclear bomb on millions of innocent beings. What’s worse, if you weren’t paying attention, you wouldn’t even know they were innocent. This thesis, meant as shock to player power, struck me as a test. Could I play the game consciously enough to be good?
As I played, I would tell myself I was going to just play the game, but often, I would find myself looking at a wiki, making sure I was making the “right choice.” Even at the end, I was tensing up, waiting, uncertain of what would come. Would I be good enough to see this game through? It turns out, the first time through at least, I wasn’t. My insistence on not using a guide and my occasional indulgence of one had worked together to insure my failure.
I want to be rewarded, not tested. So, in my second playthrough of Metro 2033 and in my subsequent playing of its sequel, Last Light, I made sure to get the good ending. I checked guides with regular frequency. I managed it both times, though I felt a serious dread every time I reached the end. Did I pass the test? Will I be rewarded?
What I discovered, though I enjoyed both Metro games and consider them among my favorite things I’ve played this year, was that this is a truly soul sucking way to play. By treating Metro as a test that I could not fail, I only managed to cheat myself. I could not relax and enjoy these games or critically engage with their portrayal of morality. I was too worried about the test.
This is perhaps a problem with the binaries of games. At its most basic, the morality system of Metro is just a scavenger hunt. If you’ve collected enough eggs at the end, you get to enter the good door. Implicitly, this gating judges you. But more fundamentally, it reveals almost nothing about me as a person. I could have been writing this game for review, only had a little time to play, or could have been picking it up after weeks of inactivity. The game never shows what it is doing through tutorial. There are a multitude of reasons why I could have gotten the bad ending, none of them to do with my objective goodness.
This is not a total condemnation. Within the internal logic of its world, Artyom’s quickness is certainly a vice. The ‘bad’ ending feels like a gut punch because it puts control in the player’s hands. I’m merely pointing out that this game says nothing about me. Despite the way I treated it, Metro never asked anything profound of me, beyond understanding the constraints of its system. It never demanded that I learn anything about myself. Despite all my frantic testing, this was just another way of escaping, of alleviating pressure. I never considered this a true test. If I did, I might not have cheated to get my way. Time and time again, I fall into the same cycles and play games for the same reasons.
Metro is also interested in cycles. The violence of the nuclear apocalypse lives on in you, unless you choose to end it. The good endings of the Metro games are about trying to see a future beyond the apocalypse, one where peace could reign for the first time. It’s a vision that the games themselves can’t reach to. Despite their unique ponderousness, the primary verb is still ‘kill.’ Furthermore the games offer little practical way out of destruction, besides platitudes of acceptance.
Still, they are about imagining a way forward, pushing through violence, disaster, and blind hatred to make a new world. Although troublesome binaries have implanted themselves in their code and their morality, it dreams of something outside. Thus, Metro helps me imagine a self unfettered from hatred and the need for external recognition. We need more games that help us imagine ourselves anew. At least for a moment, Metro lets us imagine.