Metro 2033's Greatest Strength is How it Feels Like a Real Place

Most games fail at creating a believable world. The few that succeed stand out clearly against all others, and the one that stands out the most is Metro 2033. At first glance it’s a first person shooter like many others with narrow linear corridors and the occasional open arenas. It doesn’t have the best writing, characters, or actors if you compare it to the best of the genre. What it does instead is use the highest end technology available today for both graphics and sound to breathe life into the towns and tunnels of post-apocalyptic Moscow. The design and implementation of sound sells the illusion of life better than its competitors. Some games still work if you mute the audio. Metro 2033 falls apart and turns into an average shooter without it.

Metro 2033 takes place in post-apocalyptic Moscow where the remnants of humanity have moved underground. People now live in cramped settlements in what used to be subway stations. The air outside is toxic. You play as Artyom, who is given the mission to travel to a faraway settlement in the metro system and ask for help. A new race of mutated beings, called the “Dark Ones”, has appeared and their psychic powers have the ability to drive humans insane. In the opening scenes after a brief prologue you walk through Artyom’s home town and get a sense of how people live. You see children playing, an old lady sweeping and women preparing meals. The cramped living conditions makes the sound dense and that adds to the the impression that everyone is living their own lives in the background. It’s all a trick as it’s just as scripted as any other game, but thanks to the layers of background noise and the acoustic effects adding to the density the illusion works.

In games, towns rarely feel like livable spaces. Rage, for example, is like this. It has no children, mothers or families of any kind. There are women, but they all appear to be single. When you wander through the towns of Rage you get the impression that nobody has any friends and that everyone sticks to themselves and minds their own business. This attitude might be believable in a game taking place in a modern metropolitan city, but not in post apocalyptic settlements which hearken back to older types of towns like those in the old west. In Metro 2033 you will see friends and families interacting and the bars are filled with people talking to each others. There are also people who stick to themselves in these environments, but they’re part of a crowd filled will all sorts of people. In the clip you’ll see one of the market stations in Metro 2033 followed by the second major town you visit in Rage. While you’re in the bar in Rage you might notice that the developers added subtle crowd noises, but if you look at everyone in the bar nobody is talking to anyone. Outside the bar you would only be hearing noise from wind and machinery if it wasn’t for the music. When the world feels like a real place where people might actually live I care more about it.

Any atrocities you might see carried out against a town’s inhabitants will resonate more if the town felt like a real place, with real people. In one section of the game, you stumble across a town evacuating its citizens due to an impending monster swarm. The player joins the defense which unfortunately fails. You then continue your journey which takes you through the now devastated town. Through the entire town level you hear a distant radio playing that the inhabitants didn’t have time to shut off during the panicked evacuation. This and the sounds of the monsters feasting on the dead citizens effectively sets a grim mood.

The unrelenting bleakness of the experience will undoubtedly be either too much or refreshing to someone whose idea of a post-apocalyptic shooter comes from Fallout 3 or Rage where the world seems to be coming back to life rather than slowly dying out. The atmosphere and design of the sound and visuals is reminiscent of Stalker. Both create tonally similar and convincing nightmare visions of the future, despite the supernatural elements both games have. The metro tunnels and the world above ground are haunted by ghosts and anomalies. These will either give hints at the world of the past, or they will try to freak you out. Nailing the sound is critical in these kinds of situations, as it will determine whether the scenes support the darkness or if they fall flat. The scenes in the following clip might not carry the same weight as they do in the game as they’re taken out of context, but you’ll get the idea.

When the game was released in March 2010 it set the bar for system requirements on PC and is still the most demanding game out there. The sound engine uses “wave tracing" , which is the most advanced method for acoustic effects there is. What wave tracing does is simulate what happens to sound as it bounces off the walls in the room before arriving to your ears. This is done in real time so the echo effects constantly change subtly based on the geometry of the room you’re in and the objects placed between you and whatever is emitting the sound. The 360 version of the game used less demanding acoustic effects similar to what every other game uses. Those effects are approximations of what the echo of every room sounds like and when the distance of the sound source gets bigger, the volume of the echo increases. It’s a simple and effective method everyone has used for decades, but compared to wave tracing it has limitations. The world of Metro 2033 has a complex geometry, filled with details such as pillars, train carts, bombed out or collapsed sections that all make it hard for a simpler sound engine to keep up. Level design has moved beyond the simpler square and rectangular environments of the past where the difference between wave tracing and simpler sound engines would’ve been hard to notice.

In the real world, when sounds get further away, the amount of surfaces they bounce off before reaching you rapidly increases. We’re used to hearing this all the time because it’s what the real world sounds like. With a simpler sound engine the effects of occlusion from walls, pillars etc aren’t simulated properly as they are with wave tracing so your brain instinctively knows something is wrong with the sound, making it feel like the kind of “fake” sound you’re used to hearing from other games. You will automatically identify it as “game” sound. The advantages of wave tracing become obvious particularly with sounds in the mid to far distances. In Metro 2033 I find myself engaged by the experience on a different level from other games since the sound always feels just right in a way no other game has managed to date. As far as I know no other game uses wave tracing since it adds to the system requirements and traditional methods are deemed to be “good enough”. Given that it wasn’t used in the 360 version of Metro 2033 we might not see it used in any other games until the next generation of consoles apart from some outliers on PC where the computing power currently exists for it.

Metro 2033 is a game with many flaws. But, the believable and terrifying world outweighs all of them. Perfectly executed game mechanics matter less to me than the ability of a game to suck you in and transport you to a different time and place. I often hear people cry “gameplay over graphics” whenever a developer tries to push the limits of what current hardware can do. To me that is missing the point of what endeavors like Metro 2033 are capable of bringing us. When a world is this well made the game stops being “just a game”. It becomes an unforgettable experience.