Commentary

08/07/2012

Exploring Scarcity

Metro 2033 is about surviving in scarcity. Something I've never done before.

By: James Hawkins

Filed Under: Criticism Life

The term “escapism” implies a destination of fantasy. A place that is favorable compared to reality. We so often brand the video game medium with the term, citing the unlimited capability video games have to offer what doesn’t exist here. The ability to fly. To assume the role of a different person – oftentimes created by our own hands and imaginations. The ability to make a difference in people’s lives, and be important to the world. We escape mundanity by soaking in digital worlds for a few hours at a time.

I don’t need to escape from much. I have a pretty nice life. A good job, a place of my own, plenty of food and instantaneous access to clean water. I live in a cloistered world without scarcity. Any shortcomings or weaknesses that draw me back, I compensate with a deliberate workaholism to regain control.

I play video games to be told a story, and I struggle to feel that I’m ever a participant. I don’t enjoy role-playing games, choosing what my character is going to say or how he or she will look. To me, that’s micromanagement. Some find an enviable beauty there, and they’re able to fly away with their creation. I sense that I am just comfortable where I am, and video games are largely a way for me to enjoy a spectacle.

In the months leading up to the launch of Bit Creature, I played one game that wasn’t for review. Between working forty-plus hours a week at my day job and forty-plus hours a week in my office drafting writer contracts and scoping business plans, I was more drawn to nimble poetry and Raymond Carver than lengthy video games to occupy my leisure. Leisure became a few minutes of conscious peace before I fell asleep, and I filled those minutes with art.

I downloaded Metro 2033 during an Xbox Live sale a while back and never played it. I watched its review scores tumble from perceptions of poor shooting mechanics and naive design. I began playing it on impulse – a tired, workless Friday night with a few free hours to myself and absolutely zero motivation to leave my apartment and drive to the store and pick up something new.

____

In Metro 2033, you can’t actually see much. From your first-person perspective, you are either discerning small measures of tunnel with a faulty flashlight and vague candles, or standing in the flurrying ash and grayscale winter of nuclear fallout. You’re in apocalypse-torn Moscow, traversing through an unknit society and poisoned air. If you want to stand in the glaze of natural light, you must wear a chipped-up old gas mask that becomes incrementally shattered as you fight to survive. For twelve hours, you sit on your chair and your eyes are squinted. You control Artyom, a young man under threat from mysterious creatures of the apocalypse, through the soggy shambles of the Moscow underground transit system. You miss plenty that the game has to offer. And when you ascend the tunnels and spill out onto the city’s cobblestone boulevards, you are not guided toward a particular goal, though the game requires you to find many of them on your quest. You feel for progress with a blind hand, like searching for spiderwebs at night.

It is intentionally disgusting and uncomfortable. 4A Games has eschewed the conventionally agreeable apocalypses we explore in Fallout 3 and Half-Life 2 and instead designed a ruinous wasteland world governed by  the consequences of the catastrophe. Gameplay mechanisms are ferocious in their realism, and feel informed by the place in which they reside, not by competing titles that fall superficially under the same “first-person shooter” umbrella. In an apocalypse, there would be no infrastructure to generate electricity, and weapons would never benefit from replaceable parts. Progress would simply stop, and survivors would be forced to make due. To have it otherwise would be disingenuous.

If you want light, you must create it for yourself. A small hand-pumped rechargeable battery will power your flashlight for moments at a time before the bulb fades.

If you need to kill something, expect your spray of shoddy homemade bullets to careen in the wind, or become superficially embedded in your aggressor. Take aim, and miss by meters.

If you come across other survivors, they will delight in your presence. Not because you are a hero, but because in every beating heart there lies the blessing of hope.

If your objective lies within a dilapidated tenement, you will inch toward what looks like project housing. Lines of carbon-copy structures, and no distinction between them. You will get lost.

And if you’re ever standing along a broken street, large winged monsters will come from above and kill you.

____

I escaped to a world of scarcity. For days, I left a world of ease and glimpsed a world without luxury. My eyes became red with my inability to process the dimness of the destroyed world, and the incessant heaving breaths ran through a gas mask filter stayed ringing in my ears. Sure, the fiction of the game was clear enough, but the Moscow of Metro 2033 is the vision of a culture who watched its mothers and fathers shake off a few crippling apocalypses.

I discovered a small notion of struggle there, something that I have only ever observed in passing, and certainly never in a video game. The stories I’ve experienced in my time as a video game player, no matter how bleak, have always been tempered by my ability to control my environment. Take that away, and all those little things we take for granted suddenly become important.

I’m not privy to strife, and by playing a video game, I haven’t been magically imbued with the requisite knowledge of hard-earned survival on anything more than a cosmetic level. I am no less privileged than I have been for the twenty-six years of my life. Just more aware of it, and more aware of the things I’ve been given all these years.

[art credit]

Filed Under: Criticism Life

About the Author:
James Hawkins is the founder of Bit Creature. He's a published poet, dabbling sportswriter, and former Senior Editor of Village Voice Media's Joystick Division.

10,133 Responses to “Exploring Scarcity”

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    This is one of those games I’ve been meaning to play for years, for the reasons you mentioned. It sounds truly different, something I have said about far too few games in the last several years.

  2. Michael

    It’s good to hear that there’s someone else out there who doesn’t think that the “Choose Your Own Response” type games aren’t necessarily the games of the future.
    I felt a pretty strong impact from Metro 2033 as well, and was surprised that not as many people seemed to notice the ingenuity of the world on display there.
    It also sounds like the way you generally approach video games is very similar to mine. It’s a serious sort of affair, but one that you can only seem to engage in on impulse.

    In short, great article. I can’t wait to see more from you.

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