This article contains spoilers for Metro Exodus
Though there are snippets of joy to be found, the world of Metro Exodus is not a fun place to be. And it’s all the better because of it. You aren’t supposed to derive pleasure from the things you do in this game, and neither is the player character Artyom. Any 'joy' is concentrated in the game’s quiet moments, aboard the Aurora, a place of safety for you and your family, because the entire story is about finding a place where such safety and peace is permanent.
Sure, in the game itself, there’s the queasy satisfaction you get when blowing someone’s head off, and driving the barely functioning vehicles is slightly more fun than walking. But this is a desperate world where you do what you must to survive. Going any further than that when dealing with your enemies will have consequences come the end game.
You're a scavenger. You scrap the weapons of your fallen foes for a better sight, or an extended magazine, you raid their supplies so you can craft a few incendiary bullets, and you wait for a ghoul to be right on you before firing to guarantee a headshot. That’s not to say it’s all great. The enemy AI does go AWOL at times, the stealth detection is incredibly forgiving, and the opposition has a suicidal habit of standing out of cover – generally speaking, however, the tactics you employ are in-keeping with the world and character you inhabit.
The game’s final moments encapsulate this, a slow and desperate drive. Compare how Exodus handles this climax next to others in the same genre: to take a classic example, the original Halo. Bungie's FPS ends in a beautifully bombastic and glorious manner – after your AI girlfriend triggers the finale, you take the wheel of a Warthog and frantically barrel through the Pillar of Autumn overtaking myriads of Flood and fleeing Covenant, trying to keep control and make it to the end as the Pillar starts to blow. If you don’t reach the destination in time, you die. A full orchestra crescendos as the game comes to an explosive climax inside a Halo ring. What metaphor?
With Metro Exodus, you almost struggle to keep your eyes open. You’re dying. Your dad is probably dead, and a child desperately retells you his final moments. The Geiger counter on your wrist clicks away as you navigate around a dilapidated car abandoned on a broken road at a respectable 10 mph. You reach the train tracks and slowly fall out of your car. Fade to black.
It always wonderful to see a larger studio confident enough to go all-in on its themes, to ground the player in a horrifying world, even if there’s an issue or two. Unfortunately, the biggest problem here is the choice of a silent protagonist.
During the final moments of the game, the fate of Artyom hangs in the balance and you're surrounded by all of those you fought for and lived with throughout the game. In this situation, a line such as “He even seems to say something,” shouldn’t make you snort with laughter, but it does. The entire game up until this point, you’ve not said a word to anybody: even while alone with his wife, Artyom stays silent. Being saved by strangers in the wilderness, Artyom keeps quiet. As you are told about your dying father-in-law’s heroic deeds, Artyom doesn’t say a thing. The only time Artyom ever speaks is via an offscreen monologue. It makes no sense.
It’s clear why the Gordon Freeman school of character design exists, because in certain contexts silent protagonists can reduce the disconnect between player and game. It’s a technique that allows the player character to remain 'the player', to inhabit the blank slate of the protagonist, while simultaneously allowing the protagonist to have a pre-existing supporting cast that deliver advice and exposition. When it's done well, the player may come to feel a sense of kinship or even ownership with their avatar.
Everyone knows the age-old marketing line: “We let the player choose how they want to play.” Studios are indeed finding more and more ways to allow their players to experience the game they want. Take Red Dead Redemption 2, where the freedom to craft your own Arthur Morgan in the most detailed Wild West simulator to date was almost ludicrous. Are you a diligent hunter? Do you have a balanced diet? Are you merciful? Law abiding? Clean? Do you shave regularly? What kind of clothes do you wear? Do you greet and help people on the road? All of this is an attempt to facilitate the player’s desired character. Rockstar painstakingly provided you with the tools needed to craft your own story down to the minutiae, and the only issue is that the player's choices (perhaps inevitably) are often at odds with the story the game itself is trying to tell. Your Arthur Morgan is permanently yoked to Rockstar's Arthur Morgan, and the tension at times is too much to bear.
A recent controversy around Assassin's Creed Odyssey offers a more specific example. A DLC was released that had many player’s female character engage in heterosexual sex. The problem was for people who had played the entire game and, via the freedom of choice provided to them by the developers, played as a lesbian. Having that freedom, that character choice they’d made, being 'retconned' by the game resulted in some understandably disappointed players. As such it's a prime example of a clash we're seeing more and more, between the stories developers want you to create for yourself, and the story they want to tell.
Metro Exodus chooses to do neither. Its freedom extends only to combat style, the optional side quests and your total body count. While there are times where the game restricts you in the former, to its benefit, another player’s Artyom will always be identical to your own. He’s entirely what the developers wanted him to be, which is great. But instead of utilising this empty space, making Artyom a compelling character you can empathise with and wish the best for (an area where this studio excels), it left him blank.
Artyom is surrounded by characters that care about one another. They are constantly singing your praises and, during the quieter moments on the Aurora, you do feel a camaraderie with them – but Artyom never responds. It’s like watching a performance of Romeo and Juliet where Romeo is a literal brick, which I have actually seen. You can still enjoy Juliet’s performance. You can still enjoy Mercutio and the rest of the cast but, not to miss the joke or anything, you’re soon enough thinking “Was a brick really the best they had? They didn’t even draw a face on it. Wouldn’t this be much better if I could hear the lines the characters are responding to?” It's a good gag, but ultimately drags down the experience.
Developers have many choices when it comes to a player character. Will this character be the developer’s creation that the player inhabits? A Solid Snake, a Joel, a B.J Blazkowicz, a 2B? Or do they belong partly to the player? A Commander Shepard, a Geralt, a Kassandra? Both styles have their strengths in different contexts, and of course there are all sorts of gradations in-between. But when you have a blank slate in a tightly-controlled narrative then they can, as is the case with Exodus' Artyom, end up feeling like a void rather than a character. Did Metro Exodus as an experience benefit from the few freedoms it grants players? Not really. It's still a brilliant game, and probably one of this year's best. But the experience, and especially the protagonist, could have been so much more.