Designing Horror: Metro 2033

This post is part of the Designing Horror series.

Game: Metro 2033

No one told me that this game was actually good when it came out, so when I picked it up for $5 on a Steam sale whim, I was super surprised. It is phenomenal. I like it a whole lot. Let me say some more silly, fannish things about the game. Ugh.

Anyway, I’m mentioning the game here because it does some really interesting things with the horror genre. While it doesn’t fit precisely in that tradition, it certainly rides the horror/action line, and it definitely depends on cultivating a scary atmosphere in order to fill in the spaces between the action. So let me do a little bit of analysis.

1. How Does It Work?

Metro 2033 tells you that the world is horrible and then shows you. And that, weirdly enough, is unique. A lot of writing that I have done on horror games in this blog series has been about how most horror games are reliant on aesthetics and sound design in order to give you a sense that the world the player inhabits is one that is, in a word, “realscary.”

Metro 2033 doesn’t do that. In fact, the aesthetic is ours. If you have ever explored urban ruins, you have a feel for what Metro 2033 is giving you already. The same goes for the sound design–it isn’t droning, buzzing sounds or slithering creatures from the backrooms of Hell. It is mostly just wood on wood, metal on metal, and the occasional man with a heavy Russian accent screaming “Noooooooo!” The monsters that you meet, even the supernatural ones, are materially present. They all make smacking noises when they run your companions through. A shotgun splatters them across the wall the same as it does your best friend.

It also works through explicit references to horror tropes. Normally, if I rattled off that pretentious-ass sentence, I would mean something like Cabin in the Woods that is a very specific kind of commentary on the horror that has come (and that which will be [spoooooky]). Not this time; instead, I mean that Metro 2033 makes the player recall very specific material practices in the world and then interpellates them with a spectral element.

An example:

The player follows Khan, an experienced traveler of the postnuclear metro, through a haunted passage. “This tunnel knows me well,” he says. He begins to pray. “Don’t tell anyone about this,” he says. The practice of prayer, a standard event in most of the world’s population, becomes intimately tied with the horror element in the world of Metro 2033. In a sense, it is Derridean hauntology–our life outside of the game radically returns to the present. The game narrative becomes haunted by our own, extra-gaming lives.

Another example:

The player rides a cart on the tracks. You’re on rails, and god, the creatures are coming. Your flashlight barely shows you what is in front of you. Suddenly, there is a train. To get close to it, about to smash into its solid steel, and the track veers left. You speed down a long tunnel. You splash out onto the ground.

Structurally, this is an on-rails haunted house attraction. It has the same movements. But what does it mean for a real experience to be supplanted into a fictional world where the haunting, where the possibility of death, is immanent? It becomes more real than real; more haunted than a haunted house.

2. Why Is It Horror?

Metro 2033 is horror because it takes the world we live in and stretches it. It is horror because it is makes itself seem possible. It is materially connected to the living world.

3. What Did It Do To Me?

It freaks me the hell out every time I play. I have to take long breaks between sessions.

Read about other games in the Designing Horror series. 

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