Have you ever noticed how stories in games don’t always sit well with what you actually do in them? How you can revive your spiky-haired buddies time and time again with unicorn tears right up until one of them gets bumped off in a cutscene, at which point they’re gone for good? How that mysterious virus has turned the entire city’s population into zombies, but you can get bitten hundreds of times and suffer no ill effects? How your magic sword can cleave boulders in twain (according to the description), but for some reason you still have to round up Farmer Busywork’s sheep so he’ll open a waist-high wooden gate for you? That’s ludonarrative dissonance. Or, to put it a less hilarious-sounding way, that’s when story and gameplay don’t work well together.
If you’ve been following me for a while, you’ll probably know I’m pretty keen on games. Particularly video games. I’ve even had a go at producing a game myself, though as a writer I tend to focus on story over gameplay. And that’s what’s got me thinking. That, and Metro: Last Light.
Metro: Last Light, if you haven’t heard of it, is a sequel to 2010’s Metro 2033, which in turn is based on Dmitri Glukhovski’s novel by the same name. It’s a post-apocalyptic Survival Horror in which you travel through the decaying tunnels of the Moscow Metro, and occasionally the even more decaying surface. The gameplay is notable because it uses a first person perspective with no heads-up display. There’s no health bar, no compass and (usually) no ammo counter. All the necessary information is presented either inside the head of the player character, Artyom–a pounding heartbeat if you become seriously injured, laboured breathing as your gasmask’s filter begins to clog–or in the world itself: you can see the stack of bullets gradually disappearing into your rifle as you fire, and cracks in your visor indicate that it is damaged and poisonous air from outside is beginning to seep in. The hardest difficulty level in 2033 and a downloadable expansion for Last Light add further realism, removing the crosshair from the centre of the screen and generally increasing the threat posed by enemy fire and slavering mutants.
Compared with the vast majority of first person games, Metro is extremely immersive. In addition to the overall lack of direct “here is how many medpacks you have” type information presented on-screen, the game takes pains to remind you that you are an individual human being moving through a real and deadly world, rather than some tank-like camera-bot maneouvering through an arbitrary series of similar-looking corridors. Any splashes of grime or blood on your mask obscure your view and must be wiped away with a button-press. Cutscenes frequently see your view change and tilt as Artyom looks around or is knocked over by some sudden event. And yet, somehow, all these realistic little touches also serve to highlight the ways in which the situation is, in many respects, completely unbelievable.
It’s made clear time and again that Artyom is not an invincible action hero. The people of the Metro, despite being somewhat desensitised to its horrors, still dread the bandits and hordes of mutants lurking in the darkness, and the player’s character is no exception. This is particularly clear in the–for want of a better world–haunted patches of the world, where shadowy figures appear, whispers are heard and, occasionally, electric lights stop working, forcing you to navigate by the light of your cigarette lighter. And yet, he’s curiously unaffected by the sight of some glowing-eyed horror suddenly lurching into that three-foot pool of light. You can shoot as accurately at a charging, pig-faced mutant as you can a tin bullseye at a shooting range. Not only that, if you are caught off-guard, you can calmly reload or switch weapons while the pesky tunnel-beast claws at your face. You the player might be freaking out on your sofa, but you the character get on with it just as quickly as you would in a brigtly-lit room with a great big “Reloading for Dummies” poster on the wall in front of you.
And when you think even further about what’s actually going on in the game, it just gets more and more impossible. To begin with, you have a huge choice of weapons and all of these can be upgraded in some way or another, meaning that none of them are guaranteed to work quite the same way as any of the others. Compounding the problem, quite a few have been made, post-apocalypse, in the Metro tunnels. Somehow, Artyom is deadly accurate with literally all of them and never has to fumble around trying to work out how to take off the safety or eject an empty magazine. You can chalk this up as an acceptable break from reality, since spending twenty minutes in an empty tunnel quietly working out how to use the thing would almost certainly not improve the game, but acceptable or not, it’s a break, and once you’ve noticed it, it’s impossible to un-notice.
It’s also worth considering that Artyom’s uncanny ability to just pick up and use any gun he stumbles across has knock-on effects. The myriad of designs–some pre-apocalypse, some cobbled together in the tunnels–mean that even though several will share one sort of ammunition (pistol rounds, rifle rounds, shotgun shells, etc.) the way these are actually fed into the weapon may be (and usually are) enormously different. In order to swap his double-barreled shotgun for an automatic one, Artyom would have to sit down and load every shell he has into the appropriate magazine: otherwise, next time he wanted to use it, he’d have an empty shotgun, an empty magazine and a big bag of loose shells. Again, that would make for a seriously dull game, but it leads me into quite possibly the biggest knock-on issue…
You can fill magazines with bullets instantaneously. There’s a definite pattern in Metro‘s gameplay, and indeed in virtually any game in which you have to reload anything. You don’t want to get caught without any bullets in your gun, so you reload at pretty much every opportunity. Just finished shooting? Reload. About to open a door? Reload. Don’t like the look of that suspiciously dark/bright/symmetrical room up ahead? Reload. Not sure you reloaded last time you decided to? Hit the button anyway, just in case. The issue with this is that, in almost every case, the magazine you take out of the weapon isn’t actually empty. That means that either you’re left with a spare (but not full) magazine, or you sit down and refill it with individual bullets. The reason you don’t have to do this in Metro is, yet again, that it’s a chore, games shouldn’t involve chores, and in fact the entire concept is so tedious that I’m just going to leave a link to this page for anyone who wants a more detailed explanation.
So there are good reasons why, in terms of gameplay, it’s often best not to strive for absolute realism. However, in the case of Metro the visually immersive nature of the game–the condensation on the gasmask, the lack of a heads-up display–and the comparative vulnerability of the character make some of these breaks from reality seem unusual: the story/setting suggests one thing, the gameplay something else. It is strange to play as a character who lives in a chaotic, crumbling world and yet know how to use every new bit of equipment you stumble across. It is strange to play as a character who must scavenge for every scrap of ammunition he can find, and yet doesn’t have to worry about the practical problem of how to manage it. The result is a game that suggests you are playing a living, breathing, feeling character, but ultimately still plonks you down into the curiously invisible shoes of a camera with a bullet-hose mounted on the bottom-right corner.
I’d be interested in seeing a game that at least acknowledged the day-to-day difficulties that even Artyom ignores. Granted, it wouldn’t be a good move for some bullet-spraying Medal of Duty fragfest, but for a Survival Horror game, I can imagine it boosting both the realism and the difficulty. You might not have to be completely overwhelmed by the first monster that got hold of you, but your ability to reload could be significantly hampered. You might not have to wait five minutes while your character rearranges the bullets in his or her backpack, but you might have to think twice about whether it’s really a good idea to reload while you still have a handful in the magazine. You might not have to face so many enemies, but those you did would present more of a challenge. Metro does a fantastic job of really letting you see through the eyes of its protagonist. I only wish he were human.