The Brains of Metro 2033 (Act Five)
Act Five marks the end of Artyom’s (and your) journey, and lets you know it by starting right where the game’s introduction left off: Artyom and the Rangers are under siege, both by hordes on the ground and hordes above. Overhead looms the final objective, the imposing Ostankino Tower, where the Rangers hope to call down fire on the Dark Ones. As the Rangers’ lines are breached from every direction, and even as their armored car is thrown onto its side like a toy, Artyom is knocked down by a diving monster.
Artyom’s come a long way, and seen things he couldn’t have imagined back when he left Exhibition Station. He’s done both great and terrible things too. Now, here in the windswept dark, his journey is coming to an end, one way or another.
It turns out that the demon that lunged down at Artyom in the intro has missed him by a hair, and Miller, brave leader of the Rangers, is near enough to jump to the rescue. He drives off the mutants for a few short seconds, and then the two of them sprint off to the base of the tower, battling howlers and hiding amidst wreckage all the way.
It’s heart-pounding stuff, and done in such a way that the player is expecting the game to keep up the pace for the entirety of this last chapter. After the Great Library and D6 upped the ante with nigh-invincible enemies and even a fairly traditional boss fight, the stage is set for the game to kick the action to the next level—a tower full of Dark Ones, perhaps, getting gunned down by the dozen as you battle to save humanity. Or mobs of flying demons, hounding your every move. It stands to reason that once you reach the tower you’ll discover the darkest and most difficult enemy yet.
For a while Metro lets you think this. Once inside the tower, an elevator leaves you and Miller separated and far from the top, and a demon begins to stalk you, taking swipes while you cower behind twisted sheet metal and crawl out of sight along the high side of the tower. Then, when you’re finally reunited with Miller, a demon takes him out of action, and he tells you that you’ll have to continue up alone, taking the laser guidance tool for the missiles all the way to the top.
Upon leaving Miller, the game takes a sudden turn. You don’t burst through the door to find the Dark Ones ready and waiting. There are no more mutants to bother you. You don’t even have much of a reason to carry a gun anymore. Instead, you go into the tower’s innards and find yourself clambering up rusted ladders and chipping ice off of cables with your knife so that you won’t slip as you climb. The last chapter of the book was titled “Born to Creep,” and that’s precisely what you’re doing here—you’re crawling around like a rodent. You’ll survive one climb, pull out your menacing weapon, and then put it away again to make the next ascent. The game has prepared you for a glorious final battle, and instead what you get is one of the easiest sequences in the game. You’re anything but the gun-toting mythological hero that 99% of first-person shooters make you out to be.
And then, without any significant hindrance, you’ve reached the top. You can see the Dark Ones’ home far below—it’s easy to spot, and it does a fine job of looking menacing and hive-like. Of course anything living in a place like that must be hostile, right?
Let’s back up. The whole reason I’m writing this is because I believe that Metro 2033 is an Important Game, in the sense that it’s not only a finely crafted piece of entertainment, but also that it says something tragically true and profound about the state of humanity—or at the very least, about video games. Back in my writeup of Act Three, I talked about the game’s hidden morality system, and mentioned that the vast majority of players got the “bad” ending, if only because they were expecting to play a video game in which they could act the way video game characters usually act—i.e., selfishly, and violently. And so Metro 2033 acts like a deity, silently judging you from the shadows, even going so far as to decide what kind of person you are way back before Act Four even begins.
And if your version of Artyom reaches this point as that kind of person (the selfish and violent type), he could never even consider that the Dark Ones might not be humanity’s enemies. Your Artyom might develop some nagging doubts thanks to what comes next, but if he spent the entire game (and, by extension, his entire life) taking what he needed from people, and acting with brutal decisiveness, that’s all they could ever be: doubts.
But, if a player showed that they were helpful, and considerate, and open-minded, they would reach this point with a version of Artyom that is a Good Man. He isn’t what you might call enlightened—not yet, anyway—but at least he’s on the right track. And that Artyom could stretch his mind and piece together a very different narrative than the one he’s been assuming this entire time. That Artyom could recognize that maybe the story about the Dark Ones declaring a war on mankind wasn’t quite accurate.
The game now splits into two possibilities.
Ending One: What Could Have Been
The Dark Ones now bring their psychic powers to bear on Artyom, and even then they take their sweet time doing so despite the fact that a laser guidance system is about to send nukes hurtling toward their home. Before they get down to the business of imploding his mind, they show him a vision.
You hear the Dark ones whisper that you’ve come to destroy them, and in response they’re going to stop you. It sounds a lot like this will be their first try at killing you. This is a surprise, as there have been a few times in the past when the Dark Ones seemed to attack you. But now, looking back, it would seem that these were not necessarily what you assumed.
First was the psychic burst that put you and three others to sleep in a handcart back in Act One. You saw a Dark One in the ensuing dream, though you also saw your friend Hunter shoot that Dark One. Also, the thing that put you to sleep turned out to be an anomaly, which you couldn’t have known about until you learned about them later from Khan. So this wasn’t an attack from the Dark Ones, despite looking like one.
Second, when you were wandering the Dead City looking for Bourbon, the Dark Ones gave you visions of Moscow before the bombs fell, and they were peaceful and filled with beauty. They were completely non-threatening, even if they caught you off guard. It would be a stretch to interpret these as a declaration of war.
Third, other instances of psychic attacks, such as once when you were traveling with Bourbon and the blast that knocked you unconscious back at Hole Station, did not necessarily originate with the Dark Ones. Remember, the Moscow Metro is a mysterious place, filled with actual ghosts and screaming pipes, let alone anomalies and powerful mutants. Who’s to say that these attacks didn’t come from these other sources?
And last, your other prominent vision of a Dark One, had while traveling to D6 with the Rangers, was all about a pretty tree and a nice setting sun. The Dark One that you saw sure looked gross, but that’s about the extent of the creature’s malice.
The vision they show you now is quite different from that one:
“They never change,” the Dark Ones whisper. And here you see it. Proof.
Was Artyom uncomfortable when the Rangers revealed that their plan was to use missiles to wipe out the Dark Ones? To use the very weapons that ended the world? If not, he’s probably uncomfortable now.
At any rate, you’re about to vaporize the Dark Ones, so they’re willing to play all manner of psychic tricks on you. You’re chased through ethereal halls and down imaginary corridors, hiding from the Dark One tasked with your death. Then someone else appears.
Hunter. The very same Ranger that set you on your quest. The one who went to deal with the Dark Ones and died in the process. How or why he is here is a total mystery. At any rate, he tosses you a pistol and restates one of the game’s two conflicting themes—”If it’s hostile, you kill it,” the mantra of the Rangers.
But are the Dark Ones hostile? They did psychically wipe out many of Exhibition Station’s soldiers back at the beginning of the game. But was that intentional? It would seem that the Dark Ones can drive humans insane by mere proximity; and if that is the case, the deaths at Exhibition were accidental rather than malicious. And your own immunity to the Dark Ones’ probing seems explained here, if you consider that Hunter’s appearance might not actually be Hunter, but is rather Artyom’s way of resisting this psychic attack.
Regardless, you don’t have all the answers. So you turn around and shoot the Dark One that has been chasing you through the halls of your mind.
As the Dark One falls, Artyom is pulled out of the vision. It turns out that a Dark One was actually there, and now he’s wounded and dying and pawing pathetically in the direction of the targeting laser.
In your head, the game’s other conflicting theme is repeated, almost like a counteroffer. It’s Kahn, reminding you that, “You reap what you sow. Force answers force, war breeds war, and death only brings death. To break this vicious cycle, one must do more than just act without any thought or doubt.”
The speaker in your helmet announces that the missiles will impact in twenty seconds. The Dark One slumps back, dead or despairing.
And then, in this ending, Artyom decides to act. With thought, with doubt. He raises his gun and shoots the device, sending it tumbling from the tower. The missiles never detonate. Artyom sits down for the first time in what seems like days, and tells us something that H.G. Wells once said: “If we don’t end wars, wars will end us.” He says he now understands that the Dark Ones were trying to communicate all along, and that the future will be brighter and better.
It’s a beautiful, wonderful fantasy.
But it’s not what really happened.
Ending Two: What Was
This is the real ending. Not only because it was the ending of the novel, in which Artyom realized only seconds before the nukes hit that the Dark Ones were peaceful. Not only because it’s the ending that most players who finished the game earned. And not only because the game’s upcoming sequel says so.
No, this is the real ending because it’s the most truthful. Because human nature is to act, without thought or doubt. To wage righteous war, no matter the cost. To brutalize one’s enemies. To be cruel. To win.
In this ending, everything unfolds in the same way—Artyom scrambles up the tower, targets the hive, sees a vision, and evades the psychic projection of a Dark One—until, upon awakening from the nightmare, the player either hasn’t earned enough moral points to have the option to shoot the targeting device, or perhaps has but chooses not to. Artyom watches the missiles streak across the sky to burn the enemies of man.
It’s an unsatisfying ending. It’s supposed to be. Artyom even says “But to this day I wonder: When we burned the Dark Ones from the face of the world, was something lost as well?” Even so, of all the words that Artyom offers, perhaps the most melancholy are “We had won,” because in this ending, mankind is back in the pit, shedding members and slowly fading from the world, and nothing has been gained.
It has an incredible note of finality to it, which makes me a bit anxious for the sequel, Last Light, which will be out sometime next year. To me, one of the smartest things that Metro 2033 does is to establish that when it comes to such devastation, even when you win you’re losing for all of humanity. I wonder if Last Light will be able to pick up that torch and run with it. I hope so.
At any rate, that’s what makes me regard Metro 2033 an Important Game—that it’s a game with an opinion, and it trusts you to recognize its themes without popup morality scales or handwringing epilogues or wrist-slap consequences. It shows the world as saved by the thoughtless and doubtless, and it’s one where even our greatest accomplishments are self-defeating; and it presents you with an antagonist and expects you to not only forgive, but to recognize that there was never any offense in the first place.
Index of parts here.