Best of 2018: “I’ve always used the opportunity to make political statements in Metro games” – Dmitry Glukhovsky

By Kirk McKeand, Friday, 21 December 2018 12:44 GMT

It’s been a wild year for VG247, so to celebrate we’re going to be republishing some of our favourite work published in 2018 – opinion pieces, features, and interviews, that we’ve enjoyed writing and reading, and which we believe showcase some of our best work. Enjoy!

“I’ve always used the opportunity to make political statements in Metro games” – Dmitry Glukhovsky was first published on December 10.

Dmitry Glukhovsky beta tested his debut novel, Metro 2033.

The Russian author and journalist placed the entire text online where it could be enjoyed for free. Rejected by traditional publishers, he just wanted people to read his take on the post-apocalypse, set within the veins of Moscow.

His story of people fighting for survival in Russia’s metro system resonated with readers, and these readers unwittingly became the book’s editors. Everything was under scrutiny, from the ammunition-based economy to the calibre of bullets used in different firearms, leading Glukhovsky to evolve his vision. Even the original ending, which saw protagonist Artyom die, was eventually altered due to feedback. Without that change, perhaps we wouldn’t be getting the third Metro video game – in which Artyom very much still lives – early next year.

“We’re increasingly becoming further and further from the caves, from our animal nature. The more human we become, the less natural we become. “

In fact we would never have even got Metro 2033, the first Metro game adaptation. Before the book went to print, 4A Games creative lead Andrew Prokhorov discovered Glukhovsky’s online manuscript and read it through in a single sitting. He reached out to the author to talk about working together. It’s fitting because Glukhovsky himself – although his interpretation of the apocalypse is wholly different – was partly inspired to write Metro 2033 because of a video game series: Fallout. Fun fact: Glukhovsky loves the original Fallout game so much that he once accidentally poured boiling spaghetti all over his knees in a hurry to get back to his desktop, narrowly missing his crotch.

Other inspirations include Roadside Picnic (Пикник на обочине), later adapted as the Stalker games, and another Strugatsky brothers novel called The Doomed City (Град обреченный). “[That book] has this incredible romanticism of abandoned urban spaces where you can explore the empty streets and buildings and everyone’s gone and you roam through empty apartments full of the belongings of other people,” Glukhovsky tells me. “So this is something very romantic and very dreamy that can also be accounted for as an inspiration. And there’s some movies, of course. There’s a very famous Soviet movie called The Letters of a Dead Man (Письма мёртвого человека), also about the post-apocalypse. Altogether, that’s shaping your art references that inspire you. Then you build up on that and you become the inspiration for someone else, and that’s how creative things work.”

Though Fallout sparked his imagination, there’s a clear difference between Glukhovsky’s post-apocalypse and the aftermath of nuclear war as seen through American eyes. American post-apocalypse stories – particularly in video games – are often playful and occasionally optimistic. Meanwhile, the Russian post-apocalypse is relentlessly grim. The Metro series isn’t afraid of tackling tough topics, either. In Metro, the humanoid enemies – known as the Dark Ones – are a metaphor for racism. The Dark Ones aren’t actually evil and wish to coexist with the humans, but a fear of the foreign causes the story’s hero to perform a reckless, inhuman act. In much American fiction, the humanoid enemies are zombies – lifeless husks that only exist to bite and be killed without remorse.

“What’s happening in America with Trump, what’s happening in Britain with Brexit, what’s happening in Germany with the rise of new nationalism, all this suddenly is becoming very, very relevant.”

“I believe Western European post-apocalypse stories mean zombie stories or just virus stories or whatever,” Glukhovsky explains. “They have this cheerful tonality because they free Western society of the laws and obligations and turn the very known urban environment to no man’s land, where everything is possible and where you can dehumanise human beings and murder them. Wherever zombies are popular, they are popular because people are tired of rules. Zombies give you a fairy tale that allows you to legally smash the head of your neighbour because they’ve been dehumanised. It’s the total freedom of legal limitations that a mortal being has to abide by. We’re increasingly becoming further and further from the caves, from our animal nature. The more human we become, the less natural we become. The popularity of the zombie tales and the Western style post-apocalypse is the consequence of this.”

Zombies allow Americans to dream of the past, to transport back to romanticised days of the Wild West. On the other side of the Bering Strait, the population doesn’t pine for a time when humans were wild – it dreams, wistfully, of another relic of the past: order.

Copyright Ksenia Tavrina, 2016

“In Russia, it doesn’t make much sense, as we are living in a zombie land,” Glukhovsky says. “It was in a bigger zombie land in the 1990s when everything was possible and people got tired by that very soon. This incredibly nostalgic, bleak, regretful tonality of the Russian post-apocalypse stems from the fact that we had this feeling – just like people in the Dark Age and medieval times – that the Golden Age of civilisation was long gone and you were looking into the past with a great nostalgia thinking that the higher the paramount of culture and science and civilisation was already gone. You fear the future because you know for sure that every tomorrow is going to be worse than every today. You look back with awe and admiration and nostalgia and you miss all these days. You understand they are gone forever and you have no hope or future.

“In the ‘90s everything collapsed and people were basically left alone and ceased to exist, per se. Just the penitentiary system and the police kept on existing, but they turned into private businesses and the police started to earn money from squeezing people. People looked into the past, into this collapsed huge empire that was no longer, that collapsed politically, geographically, financially, and people were left all in their own in a decaying urban environment which is precisely the description of what’s going on in the Metro books where the great awe, inspiration and nostalgia weren’t willing to come back. In this regard, you can understand the feelings of Russians and the euphoria they had following the annexation of Crimea because Putin simulated for them the restoration of this former empire to its greatness. This was, of course, an illusion and I’m totally personally against that, but if you regard this total popular euphoria from the viewpoint of psychoanalysis, this is where it’s getting you.”

“For me, that was totally a discovery, and a very sad discovery about just how easily people can be affected by propaganda formulating for them pretty idiotic and easy messages. All the nationalist cliches from the past, from Nazi Germany and wherever – all the revisionist, idiotic cliches, why do we swallow them again?”

This vision of a population enraptured by its past achievements is where the fiction of Metro sits. All these survivors are split into disparate groups within the Moscow metro tunnels – an actual relic of the past, built to withstand a nuclear attack, reduced to a macabre museum of marble and granite. It is uniquely Russian and feels a world apart from American zombie fiction.

“[The metro is] constructed by their ancestors in a very traditional neo-classic, Stalinist style, and they are locked underground in these museum-like spaces with monuments glorifying the old days gone,” Glukhovsky explains. “They cannot expand this space as the technology is lost and they cannot get out of it because the surface is not suitable for them to leave – at least as they think in the first two books. But in Metro 2035, which prepares the players for the story of Metro Exodus, the main character is making the discovery of how and why the life outside of the bunkers, of metro, was possible, and why for two decades people in the stations and tunnels did not know that life outside the metro was possible. How did they ignore it?

“There is a sudden change in story and tonality between Last Light and Exodus. In Last Light, all you know from the plot is that life is not possible outside the metro and that’s precisely why people fight tooth and nail for every square inch of land and every drop of water and fresh air. That’s why the stakes are so high, because no-one can go outside. How come in the trailers of Metro Exodus, you all of a sudden see this armoured train going through huge Russian territories, not even wastelands, but something that looks very inspiring and beautiful and not contaminated. How come?”

The Metro series has always been about what happens when communities retreat inwards, xenophobia, and manufactured conflict between groups. It’s about how whispers within communities can cement ideologies that are harmful. It’s about how humans consistently fail to learn from their mistakes – how they idolise history as this romantic vision, even if it is all an illusion. It looks like Exodus – a story Dmitri himself wrote in collaboration with 4A Games – will finally show the illusion for what it always was.

“Publishers don’t want to repel any kind of political position, they just want to have all consumers. This is precisely why they would try not to take sides, be it Republican or Democrat, pro or against Brexit, whatever. They want them all. They want money.”

“They’re just copying [the past] brainlessly and that’s pretty much what’s happening between America and Putin,” Glukhovsky says. “Putin is getting inspiration from the Soviet days and Trump is swearing he’ll make America great again like in the ‘50s and ‘60s without acknowledging, at least not openly, that these days are gone and you have to embrace the future. Metro 2035 was a comment on what the reason behind Russian euphoria after the annexation of Crimea was, and the war that Russia is waging on the Ukraine. I was very surprised at the time that we Russians were so happy to return to the concept of Cold War, and that we turned out to be so lost during the 20 years of our freedom without having a proper enemy to oppose. Not that we really want a war. No-one wants a war. But we like the concept of being in a confrontation with a mighty enemy that wants our demise and we have to resist. It’s through resistance that we like to define ourselves. We don’t understand who we are without knowing who our enemy is.

“Once we locate the enemy – the Americans – everything goes better. We know we are not like Americans. We’re not capitalist, we’re not imperialist because that’s what America is. When there is no enemy, we are lost. We’re getting bored. We’re not really happy with the society of consumption because it doesn’t give you the feeling of purpose in your life. But when you are in a struggle, then the question of ‘what’s the purpose of this life?’ is solved, perfectly. But still, for me – because I’m pro-Western, globalist, progressive, and I don’t think this new postmodern, idiotic concept of Russia and the West was necessary at all – I think it’s just a manipulation in order to keep the population mobilised and make them swallow economic hardships. Why do I understand that and why does the majority of people not understand that? For me, that was totally a discovery, and a very sad discovery about just how easily people can be affected by propaganda formulating for them pretty idiotic and easy messages. All the nationalist cliches from the past, from Nazi Germany and wherever – all the revisionist, idiotic cliches, why do we swallow them again?”

In the US, you have Trump blasting press and labelling them as ‘fake news’. This mirrors Nazi Germany, in which Hitler discredited the press in the same way by labelling them as lügenpresse, which literally translates to ‘lying press’. In the UK, we’re on the cusp of leaving the European Union because of propaganda and a fear of immigration. Many pro-Brexiters will tell you it will all be fine – after all, we coped without an EU membership before, in the rosy days when Britain was a superpower to be reckoned with. Oh, glorious past. The subject matter the Metro series tackles has never been more appropriate.

“Metro 2035 was, in a way, an attempt to discover how and why we prefer to believe comfortable lies than face uncomfortable truths,” Glukhovsky explains. “Why – and this is the central metaphor for the book – do we prefer to live in a fucking bunker? Why don’t we want to go outside and open our eyes and see that there is life out there? That’s exactly what the story of Metro 2035 is about. A discovery is made in this book that there is life outside and they have to explore now. That’s what they’re doing in Metro Exodus.”

“I’ve always used the opportunity to make political statements in Metro games precisely because games have the right to make these messages.”

It’s a hefty set of messages to attempt to deliver in a video game – especially to an audience that generally gets upset at even a whiff of politics (read: depth) to their stories. But Glukhovsky has a huge respect for the medium and believes these topics can and should be tackled in their stories.

“I’ve always used the opportunity to make political statements in Metro games precisely because games have the right to make these messages,” the author states. “Games are getting to a way broader audience than books – that’s the reality we have to face. And games can be just as emotional. The message I’m trying to get is that the totalitarian regimes are all alike and I’m trying to make the gamers – as well as my readers – more susceptible when the official propaganda is trying to manipulate them. What I’m trying to make them do is make them think and question easy truths.”

Glukhovsky is in a unique position in the triple-A space. Our entire conversation is being listened to by a representative of the game’s publisher, but at no point do they come in to stop the author talking about his thematic intentions. In fact, they give us an extra 20 minutes because they find the conversation so interesting. In a world where many publishers do anything to dispel any political connotations in their games – in order to not put off any prospective buyers – it seems like the author landed in the right partnership for Metro’s thunderous themes.

“Publishers don’t want to repel any kind of political position, they just want to have all consumers,” Glukhovsky agrees. “This is precisely why they would try not to take sides, be it Republican or Democrat, pro or against Brexit, whatever. They want them all. They want money. But it’s not that I’m taking sides. Really, in the Nazi versus communist conflict, it’s difficult to take sides, even if you come from a former communist country. My message here is more complicated. But as I just said, I’d rather try to educate people than manipulate them.

“The message I’m trying to get is that the totalitarian regimes are all alike and I’m trying to make the gamers – as well as my readers – more susceptible when the official propaganda is trying to manipulate them. What I’m trying to make them do is make them think and question easy truths.”

“Games can be a medium of educating people and it can be a medium of making people’s minds more flexible and more apt for learning new things. Already Metro stories are pretty exotic. For me, it’s kind of a surprise that after all these years, the books are becoming a part of the mainstream. A story set in the subway of Moscow in Russia after a nuclear war where people hide and there are suggestions of a supernatural component – that sounds like a pretty weird mash-up. But weirdly enough, it’s not. If you really give time to go and explore it, all of a sudden it starts to make sense. Every fairy tale is just a metaphor, it just speaks about something that’s very relevant to everybody. Without that, it wouldn’t become popular.”

It’s in the supernatural where Glukhovsky’s metaphor is at its most stark. You might be exploring the ruins of a powerful civilisation gone by, but the warnings of the dangers associated with that hubris come from the dead: the ghosts that haunt the tunnels are a reminder of what happens when you continue down this track, within these tunnels that loop around, folding back on themselves like a cycle of political beliefs.

“Weirdly enough, I made these statements when they were purely theoretical,” Glukhovsky says. “The first Metro book was written in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s. Back at the time, we didn’t have the impression that the old mistakes are going to be repeated. But right now, following what’s happening in Russia and the Ukraine since 2014, after Crimea, and this Russian intrusion in the East of the Ukraine, what’s happening in America with Trump, what’s happening in Britain with Brexit, what’s happening in Germany with the rise of new nationalism, all this suddenly is becoming very, very relevant.”

Metro Exodus gives Glukhovsky an opportunity to approach these subjects through a more contemporary lens, and we’ll find out if it works as intended on February 22.

While you’re waiting, give Glukhovsky a follow on Instagram.

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