Metro and oppression
This article has spoilers for Metro 2033 and Metro: Last Light – approach with caution!
For many, living in the USSR in its most oppressive days wasn’t the most pleasant experience. The state bureaucracy made changes slow and cumbersome. Unless, of course, you had connections in the party – directly or indirectly – in which case you could pull a few strings to make things go a bit faster. And if stepped out of line, dared to criticize corruption or unfairness in the system, you’d probably end up in jail – or with a bullet in the back of your head. Amongst all this, the individual can seem tiny. A dot in front a huge, monolithic state.
Despite the near-collapse of civilization – or perhaps because of it – humanity continues to wage war against one anotherThe protagonist of the Metro-series, Artyom, is an outlier from this. An anomaly. He represents the reluctant and unlikely individual achievement against all odds. When he first emerges on streets of ravaged Moscow, he is literally a tiny dot in the landscape, insignificant in the face of the empty husks of high-rise buildings. Everything there wants to kill him. Watchers rip him apart as soon as they get his scent, and Demons grab him in their claws and smash him to the ground. But Artyom perseveres.
Underneath the surface, another conflict is fought. Despite the near-collapse of civilization – or perhaps because of it – humanity continues to wage war against one another. Ironic, that at the time when we need to stick together the most, when our very existence as a species is threatened, we choose to combat each other instead. The main combatants in this war, the Communists and the Nazis, may claim to be opposites, but their methods are interchangeable. Whenever someone disagrees with their views, they are promptly eliminated. Their victims are often innocents. Men, women and children that are just trying to get by. To them, this war of ideologies is pointless when you are trying to survive.
I remember a scene from Metro: Last Light, where a of group refugees are trying to escape the communists. Sadly, they run into a group of bandits instead. They’re trapped between a rock and a hard place. It captures the feeling of what it was like living in the Soviet Union. The high and mighty claimed to be fighting for a revolution, but for many there were few benefits then and there. What the Metro games are saying is that “war is as certain as the dark of night”, as one character utters. Politicians may concoct different reasons and different ideologies to fight for, but in the end the difference is marginal. The communist ideology that governed the former USSR was as hollow as any other of its kind.
“As much as they’d like to be seen as better people, they were still driven by animalistic needs for status, sex, and power over others”Throughout the games, there are multiple references to “the animal inside us”. This is both a reference to the brutality that the combatants in the conflict use against each other, but also to the desires that drive us. Even high up in the Communist Party, officials were still driven by lust and greed, and corruption was widespread. As much as they’d like to be seen as better people, they were still driven by animalistic needs for status, sex, and power over others. As much as they spoke of equality, there was still a strict hierarchy, and some were more equal than others.
“Experientially, the Metro games taught me that in this world, no one should be given too much trust. It’s bound to bite you in the ass”Another aspect of the individual’s perceived insignificance is illustrated with the character Bourbon. Bourbon and Artyom join together for a while, as you wouldn’t want to venture into the Metro on your own. I ended up growing quite close with Bourbon – or as close as you can be to a fictional character, which made the shock of his sudden death all the more grating. He didn’t get any glorious last words, or get to say an emotional goodbye to Artyom. He just took a bullet to the head – and died. It was horrifying because yet another life would be forgotten in the Metro, his body slowly rotting in the chair.
Perhaps it’s because of this experience I had a feeling my travels with Pavel in Metro: Last Light could not end well. I had spent enough time in Moscow’s metro by then to know not to get attached to characters. When we reached Theater Station and both of us were relatively unscathed, I knew that something was waiting for me. The game didn’t give me the option, but I wanted to resist Pavel’s offer of vodka. Reluctantly, I gulped it down. I wasn’t too surprised when Red Line soldiers dragged me away from the table. Experientially, the Metro games taught me that in this world, no one should be given too much trust. It’s bound to bite you in the ass. Again it mimics reality; what it was like living with the ever-present threat of the KGB, and neighbors ratting you out if it benefitted them. That feeling of not being able to trust your own neighbors is difficult to fully understand if you live in a safe neighborhood – as you probably do
But even in this bleak future landscape, there’s still a sliver of hope. The Rangers, although not flawless, represent liberty from the oppression, and have strong connections to Polis station, humanity’s last bastion of reason and hope in the metro. While the Nazis and the Communists claim to fight for humanity, all they really do is exterminate it slowly. The Rangers are the true humanitarians. To my knowledge there was no organized armed resistance to Communism in the USSR, but it’s not difficult to imagine such a group arising. Considering how hard the Soviets struck down the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, that could be one explanation for why armed resistance never really took form in the USSR. Instead civil resistance was widespread, and played a significant role in demolishing the USSR. However, there had to be some forebears, someone to take the first step. In the Metro games the Rangers are such people. People who are willing to submit themselves to great personal risk, because their cause is just.
Lastly, there’s Artyom, the altruist – or the flawed idealist, depending on your playstyle. At a young age, he was touched by one of the Dark Ones, and acts as a conduit for the Dark Ones. In 2033 he annihilates – or thinks he does – the Dark Ones, which bothers him greatly, as he had a suspicion that they were not a threat after all. However, he does in fact have a choice, though to the most it will probably stay hidden. Throughout both games, Artyom is faced with several of these tough decisions. The most interesting, in my opinion, is whether or not to save Pavel. Considering that he had just tried to shoot me, part of me wanted him dead, but at the same time I felt a tinge of sadness in his voice, so I refused to let him die. Either way, the game doesn’t judge you instantly. The Dark One you are travelling with simply remarks that he understands what forgiveness is now, or that he understands why you didn’t forgive Pavel. But while it doesn’t judge the player, it does force introspection. With all the injustice and oppression you have experienced on your journey, can you be the better man and forgive Pavel for his mistakes? A question that most people who have lived under an oppressive regime will have ask themselves. It seems necessary if you want to build a new nation upon the ashes of the old, but one that most would probably answer “No” to.