Last Light’s Problem with Women
Meet Anna. She’s the first female character in the Metro series to have a name — other than Nikki the prostitute from the first game. Which means, if you couldn’t guess, today I’m writing about the sexist undertones in Metro: Last Light.
If you thought you’d never see the word “sexist” here on Space-Biff!, you’re not the only one. Since this is a site about the things I like, I don’t often talk much about the things I don’t like. Even my few negative reviews only exist because I really enjoy panning bad games. The thing is though, I really like both games in the Metro series. For the most part, they encourage thoughtful, even considerate, behavior. That’s a rarity in any genre of videogame, let alone in the first-person shooter genre, which one could argue makes its bucks by being the exact opposite of “thoughtful.” In fact, I’d go so far as to label Metro 2033 as one of the most moral games I’ve ever played — which is precisely why the sexism in Last Light bothers me so deeply.
Before we get into it, if you aren’t familiar with the Metro series, you might consider getting up to speed by reading the synopsis I wrote last year, which explains most of the game’s themes when it comes to morality. Also, I’d like to quickly clarify two things.
First, I haven’t written much about sexism in games because the topic brings out the worst in some people, and I’ve been content to keep on writing about the things I like, and having my non-asshole readers keep on contributing non-asshole comments to the discussion. If you’re the sort of person who doesn’t like to hear about all this “sexism” and “misogyny” and “rape culture” stuff, the door’s right there.
Second, there’s a major difference between setting and sexism. True, they can intersect — but it’s a vast oversimplification to label any work of fiction that depicts women being taken advantage of as sexist.
For instance, Metro 2033 didn’t strike me (personally) as sexist even though its only named female character was a prostitute. For one thing, indulging in her services was a big no-no (the game penalized you by robbing you of all your hard-earned military-grade bullets, the currency of the Metro series; Nikki, as it turns out, wasn’t your average post-apocalyptic sex worker), and for another, the lack of women soldiers made plenty of sense according to the fiction of the world. After all, it’s pretty easy to imagine that a post-disaster society would both revert to the Rule of the Physically Strong and/or treat females as a valuable commodity to be protected at all costs in the interests of preserving the species, thus relegating most women to support functions like mothering and food handling. Not enlightened, but certainly not surprising of the society the game depicted, and it fits the general attitude that living in a haunted metro is probably pretty shitty. And it’s not as though the standard of living is particularly superior for the menfolk. Everyone suffers alike in the Moscow Metro.
This means there are two different aspects to Last Light’s treatment of women.
The first is the game’s setting. I find it neither surprising nor worrisome that, within the fiction, a metro station run by criminal gangs should house a booming sex industry (though the insistence of certain of these prostitutes that they answer to no bosses of any kind, when said station is owned by said criminals, feels a bit like the designers were trying their best to eat the cake they were having), or that the metro’s sole bastion of “high culture” revels in high-breasted can-can lines as much as they do in shlocky pet tricks and bad accordion performances. These all fit into the game-world well enough, and in fact highlight just how grimy this life is when a whorehouse is situated mere feet from regular residential shanties.
The problem arises when the game herds you past grinning showgirls in various states of undress — including past the fogged glass of their showers, any concept of privacy or self-respect stripped away for the player’s puerile observances. And again when your character forcefully hushes a prostitute, holding a hand over her mouth to keep her voice and struggling to a minimum. Now, it’s true your character is muffling her cries because you were in the process of eavesdropping on an important conversation between enemies, but the real issue is what comes afterwards, upon her release: rather than being enraged at your imposed physicality, or even just annoyed, or afraid, or hopeful for an explanation — any of the things you’d expect a real human being to expect after being shoved into a booth and held immobile and silent — she basically says, “That’s how you like it?” and offers you a topless lap dance.
Unlike the first game, which had themes dealing with the value of life between enemies, challenging your expectations about others, and treating people in a generous manner, Last Light reduces its women to — pardon the word — a pair of tits.
Matters only get worse when you realize the game’s sole named female character, the brash ranger sniper Anna, is around for the sole reason of providing a love interest. She appears for a scant few minutes in the game’s intro, then disappears until it’s time for her to get captured hours later. Upon her rescue, she talks to you for all of one minute and then begs you to sex her.
To reiterate, the one time we’re shown a woman fighter in any capacity in this universe — and remember, the only other roles we’ve seen are food handlers, mothers, and prostitutes — and she turns out to be just another princess in another castle, held captive by another monster, waiting for her knight to come and fill her belly with child. Which is exactly what happens, by the way: in the game’s bad/regular ending, it turns out she’s now raising your child on tales of your bravery.
There are other irritating details, such as why women are the only ones in constant states of undress despite how undoubtedly cold it must become underground, but I’ll let those slide for now. After all, the point has been made: Last Light encourages its players to view all life as valuable and to feel empathy and generosity for all beings — at one point you even receive moral points for showing empathy for a hulking monster by letting it escape right after conducting a massive battle against it. And those are great themes for a game to have. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t seem to agree with its own message.
And that’s a damn shame.