While the post-apocalyptic setting is hardly new for games, few titles are based on a wildly successful near-future novel focused on sci-fi and Russian political satire in the Moscow underground. Very few, in fact.
Metro 2033 is unique in that respect. Built closely on Dmitry Glukhovsky's book of the same name, it's the first project from Ukrainian 4A Games, a splinter company formed from S.T.A.L.K.E.R. dev GSC. The FPS looks mint, to be blunt, throwing online everything firmly out of its irradiated window, dropping the HUD and sticking to plot only.
We caught up with Dmitry and producer Huw Beynon in London last week to find out more on the novel's relationship to the game, why THQ decided to not go with a PS3 version and how Glukhovsky plans to smash international writing boundaries with an ambitious personal book publishing operation. Sterling stuff.
VG247: I saw the game yesterday, and it seems quite unusual for a first-person shooter in that the pacing is almost thoughtful. Do you think that comes from the fact that it’s adapted from a novel?
Huw: Yes, definitely. We’ve based the games very closely on the novel, and what Dmitry’s given us is basically a framework, a fantastic setting, plot, cast of characters to work with. Obviously, it doesn’t go into the same level of detail it does in the book, and it takes place over a much more condensed time-frame, but I’d say, yeah, compared to most shooters out there, it’s a much more thoughtful, considered experience.
We include lots of the non-combat passages from the book as well, to get that variety and balance of pacing. You’ll see first-person shooter style action sequences in it, but for a first-person shooter game there’s an awful lot of exploration and discovery rather than just all-out action.
As a novelist, did you find it difficult to allow someone else to visualize your writing?
Dmitry: Not at all. First of all, I’m a gamer since the age of 12, more or less. I played the very first Civilization, the very first Prince of Persia, Arkanoid and all these retro things, and I played every single Civilization that came out. Before the first version of the book was published, when it was still online on the website, the guys from 4A, the developer, contacted me and said, “We want to turn that into a computer game.”
Before that I was addressed more than a couple of times by different developers, but I wasn’t very thrilled by their expertise. When I saw these guys and I saw what they did, I said, “I’m going with you.”
For me it’s as much of an honour having this book turned into a videogame as having it screened, turned into a movie. The audience is comparable, and if it does well then the audience could even be bigger. I don’t think that having your book turned into a computer game somehow degrades it at all. I think it promotes it and gives access to different audiences, and it can lure younger audiences [into reading]. In Russia, for example, there are lots of teenagers that didn’t read at all before books based on computer games started to pop up. Well, I speak mainly of myself [laughs] but another example is another game released by THQ, S.T.A.L.K.E.R., which was based on a book series.
You suddenly see teenagers of 13, 14 years old, that you thought would never read any book in their lives because they’re computer game fans and addicts, they start reading books, and collecting books, and getting crazy about books. I think that getting this mission accomplished is prodigious. It’s huge. It’s great.
I say, take Crime and Punishment and turn it into a computer game. Take War and Peace. If it helps to lure some younger people not used to reading into reading, what could be better?
Huw: We’re going to do Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard next.
You’re openly critical of modern Russia in a lot of your writing.
Is it important for you for those ideas and views to get across into a videogame?
Dmitry: I’ve been critical of modern Russia, it’s true, but in Metro 2033 in particular there is one scene…
[Cut at THQ’s request - Ed]
The political satire in Metro 2033 is not the main layer of understanding. Basically, Metro 2033 the book is multi-layered. The upper layer is the action thriller with a mystical flavour, but then there comes a layer of philosophy. The entire story is a tale of xenophobia – to fight or not fight the Dark Ones. Then there is a layer of a young man looking for his path in life, his meaning of existence, and finding or not finding it, and there’s where the open ending comes in. Then there’s a level of social criticism, and a level of political satire, and other layers which are pretty much hidden under the layer of an action thriller. It’s not just a mere sci-fi novel, of course; it’s more of a dystopic thing.
So, mainly these layers did make it into the game. Philosophically, the spirit, the atmosphere and the emotion is there. I’ve seen the game, I’ve played it, and I feel that the spirit is there. But of course, you can’t put every fucking single thing that’s mentioned in the book into the game. It’s nonsense. Computer games are a completely difference genre, with their own rules, and it’s as impossible to get a 500-page-thick book into a computer game as it is getting it into a 90-minute movie. You have to cut something. The important thing is to preserve the spirit.
Huw: The game is a game, first and foremost, and it’s got to be able to stand on its own two feet as a game with solid mechanics and all the things that people are going to expect from a modern videogame. I think what we have from the source material is an extra dimension, maybe not to quite the same extent and to quite the same level of detail as it’s found in the book, but it adds a bit more texture to the game experience, a thing that’s probably missing from a lot of other games these days.
From what I saw, you’ve very heavily focused on narrative. It’s all about the story, and you’ve completely eschewed multiplayer and some of the things modern gamers do expect to see, especially in action experiences. Aren’t you worried that’s going to affect longevity?
Huw: No, not particularly. There’s no multiplayer in the book.
No, but multiplayer keeps discs in consoles.
Huw: Without giving too much away, there are several reasons why you might want to replay the game anyway, despite it only being a single-player experience. But we’ve seen extremely successful and fantastic games in this area very recently which have shipped without any multiplayer component, and you have to ask whether or not it’s really necessary to add a tick-box feature to the back of the box. It’s going to take studio time and effort, when you could be putting more hours, more attention, more detail into the single-player. We’re here to tell a story with Metro 2033, not just tick boxes on the back of a packet.
Obviously, some very big shooters have come back to market with sequels with multiplayer, the obvious one at the moment being BioShock 2. How do you feel about these games that made their names as narrative experiences coming back with what you might consider to be shoe-horned multiplayer?
Huw: I can’t really comment on the decisions on why they wanted to do that. I guess they feel a sequel has to be bigger, badder, better in whatever way, so maybe they felt that they needed to add something to it. We’ll get the first game out of the door with Metro and see what happens.
Dmitry: Addressing your concerns on the pace of the game, and the multiplayer versus single-player thing: I got much more than just a shooter from Metro the game. It’s not just a shooter, another shooter that you’re expecting to get. This is a whole world you can live in, that you can move to and live in. You can feel the atmosphere and the climate, the spirit, other NPCs talking to each other. You can discover it, and you’d better discover it, you’d better go round and talk, rather than just run and shoot. If you’re just running and shooting, you’re going to miss a lot. The advantage of the book is that it’s established an entire universe, a grotesque universe, a world in a single subway system. It’s the charm of the idea, and it’s the charm of the book and it’s the charm of the game. So, you go and explore rather than trigger-happily butcher everyone you see around.
Immersion is obviously a key thing for the game.
You can see that in the technical aspects - as you’ve got a lot of particle physics going on, and stuff like that - but you’ve also gone for a HUD-free style. What would you say are the gameplay influences for that? I mentioned yesterday that the first aid application and the map does look a bit like Far Cry 2. Would you say that was an influence in direction?
Huw: You’d probably have to ask the creative director. I think to bring the world to life, they took an early design decision to do away with a HUD wherever possible. Obviously, you need a HUD in some instances - to make the gameplay work, you have to give some information to the player - but wherever possible, and where practical and where it fits the fiction of the game, we’ve been able to give information visually. I’m sure they’ve picked influences from here and there, and I’m sure some evolve naturally from the plot. For instance, your map and objectives case is a KGB-issue map case. Those things are real, and they were used by the Russian military. There are 30-50,000 of them, brand new in boxes in a warehouse in Russia somewhere. It makes sense to use that item within the game.
In instances where we’ve had to HUD-display critical information, it’s there. We’ve not just said, “It’s got to be this,” even if it doesn’t work as a gameplay mechanic. We just try wherever possible to reduce that screen clutter, so there’s nothing between you and the game. When I play I switch off the crosshairs, switch off the subtitles, get everything out of the way so I can see what’s happening on the screen.
Dmitry: Yeah, and as I was on the project before Huw, I know that back in 2004 when 4A first addressed me, it was already decided then that they wouldn’t have any on-screen graphics, that there would be a complete sense of immersion. Who’s borrowing from whom? It’s a difficult question, because these guys were doing it six years ago.
Why isn’t there a PS3 version?
Huw: That’s probably more of a business decision, and one that I wasn’t part of when I was at THQ. The studio architect of the 4A engine did a lot of the initial work on the PS3 first, just to get to grips with the architecture. A lot of the early prototypes you saw were of the PC version... You’d probably have to ask someone up in senior THQ finance to find out why we didn’t greenlight a PS3 version at the time, but there’s no reason why the engine wouldn’t work on PS3. As I say, all the architecture’s in there. As 4A uses the engine in future, you’ll probably see PS3 titles based on the 4A engine.
You’ve published 2034 to great success. It’s sold over 300,000 copies in Russia.
I’m assuming you’re already working on a sequel? Or not.
Huw: He can’t answer that.
Dmitry: A sequel of the game, you mean?
Yeah. And the book.
Dmitry: We can’t answer that. It’s THQ’s secret. But hopefully this is going to be the start of a big franchise. We all hope it will flourish and prosper. I’m using it as an opportunity to expand this world and turn it into a real universe. Metro 2033 in Russia has now sold some 500,000 copies, and that’s only in Russia. It’s also been a success in Germany and other countries. You know the story of the publication of Metro 2033?
Dmitry: That it came from an online project? That it’s still available for free on the website, and everyone who’s curious can read it online for free, the same version that’s published on paper?
Dmitry: That’s part of my philosophy. One doesn’t prevent the other from happening. Two million people have read it online for free, 500,000 have bought it. People keep buying it and reading it online; basically it’s just information-sharing and spreading the word. Those that want to buy it do buy, and those that don’t want to buy it can borrow it from their friends.
Right now I’m trying to extend this in new directions, and I’ve established a book series, like a franchise, and I’m inviting new, unpublished authors to write their own spin-offs and sequels with their own characters and names, and they’re posting [their work] on Metro2033.ru, along with their music compositions and their pictures. There is a popular vote, and those that get into the top five get a chance to get published. We have already published two titles, in January and February, and we’re going to release one Metro 2033 universe book every month, getting new writers and authors the chance to get published.
I’m not sure if the franchise is going to be translated into English and other languages soon… but the idea is that we can create a broad, international, cross-language, cross-author experience of collective creation, and things do not necessarily have to happen in Moscow’s underground, in Moscow’s subway. They can be happening in St Petersburg, or in Tokyo, or in New York, or in London. Nuclear war is a nuclear war, but not everyone has died in it. Together we can create a new map of the post-nuclear world, which is fun.
Metro 2033 launches on March 19 for PC and 360.