Metro 2033 forces me to examine why I choose to play certain games, but not others. It makes me consider the degree to which I'm swayed by games press coverage, social media chatter (or silence), and the critical light we collectively shine, or fail to shine, on individual games. Since its release ten months ago, Metro 2033 has existed mostly in the dark, and that's a shame.
This game did not fly under my radar. I knew all about Metro 2033. I saw the screenshots, visited the website, read a few reviews...and cavalierly dismissed it. Another derivative shooter. More post-apocalyptic wastelands. More plucky humans blasting mutants in subway tunnels.
In other words, more Fallout 3, but with a survival horror twist - because mashing up genres can cover up a lot of recycled ideas. Oh, and it's made by a Ukrainian developer (4A Games) I've never heard of. So, yes, dismissing Metro 2033 was a no-brainer. With so many un-played games on my shelf, why would I choose to bury twelve hours into this one?
What a cynical player I've become. When you've suffered through enough bad games, I suppose you inevitably build a defense shield to protect yourself from harm, and self-protection is the primary function of cynicism. But I hate it. I don't want to be this way. I'm not convinced that a critic's credibility hinges on a prerequisite cynical sensibility.
The broad conversation about games among gamers is generally laced with cynicism, and I understand why. Buyer's remorse stings at $60 a pop. But if we're honest, I think we might also agree that negative, snarky discussions about games persist because they're a fashionable way to talk about games. For some people, it's the only discursive equipment they know how to use.
I blame only myself for overlooking Metro 2033. I like to think of myself as a free-thinking independent gamer. I've often tried to champion games here that I consider unfairly ignored. I enjoy discovering off-the-beaten-path titles recommended to me by friends and readers. These days, I receive email and download codes publicizing all sorts of games I might never otherwise play. I see myself as generally detached from the short-attention-span gabfest that characterizes our discourse about games.
But who am I kidding? I'm part of that gabfest. It's fun to sing the praises of unheralded games when they come along, but such discoveries are rare, happy surprises. Most games don't rise above mediocrity, and the sheer volume of releases forces me to employ a filtering system. I can't play everything; nor do I want to.
And so I rely on a system that is deeply flawed at best. I read press releases; I scan preview coverage to see what's coming; and I follow the advice of trusted reviewers and Twitter chatter (plus my own curiosity) to help me sort out which games to play and which to avoid. Sometimes that system works, but other times it fails miserably.
In the case of Metro 2033, it resulted in a collection of impressions based purely on feature descriptions, genre classifications, and comparative analysis. The actual experience of playing Metro 2033 has little to do with any of that stuff. The things that make Metro 2033 unique and worth playing are the very things routinely overlooked in most critical accounts of the game.
Outstanding games (books, movies, etc.) have failed before, of course; but when it happens, it's worth asking why. Metro 2033 is a game "victimized by consumerist reviewing," as Patrick Klepek put it to me via Twitter, and he's absolutely right. There may be other contributing factors, but the critical response to Metro 2033 certainly did the game no favors. It's not a question of Metacritic numbers. It's about how we discuss and convey a game's distinctive merits when those merits can't be quantified.
To understand and appreciate Metro 2033, we must detach our perspective from all the ways it can be itemized relative to other games. I'm hardly the first to suggest we're not very good at that yet. Until we improve, ambious and striking games like Metro 2033 will continue to be unfairly ignored.
In my next post, I'll explain why Metro 2033 succeeds so impressively, and I'll try to offer a way of seeing that accounts for the in-world moments, places, and encounters where its qualities shine most brightly.