Most of Metro 2033 takes place underground in the dilapidated tunnels of Russia’s metro system. Normally this would be a poor setting for a game since metro tunnels are by necessity a repetitive environment. However, while many big budget games take great pains to send the player all over the world during their single player story—to the snow level, the desert level, or the jungle level—Metro 2033 proves that such grand gestures aren’t necessary. Repetitive scenery isn’t repetitive if handled correctly, and Metro 2033 handles it correctly: The tunnels may stay the same but what fills those tunnels is very different; by contrasting the overpopulated metro stations with the desolate tunnels, the game creates a world that feels both claustrophobic and frighteningly empty.
Metro 2033 makes excellent use of a limited space. While the tunnels may be dangerous, the stations are hubs of activity and life, filled to the brim with people. Unlike Fallout 3, in which even the major cities look sparsely populated, each metro station looks like a full city crammed into a tight space. These are lively places with many people doing a variety of things that show off a realistic community. Multiple conversations are happening around you at once, listening in on one means missing out on another. Tables and stools are filled with people drinking, eating, and talking. People are shopping for food or ammo. Some are sleeping. No one is just standing around waiting for you to talk to them. In fact, most people ignore you. This lack of direct interaction with the populace actually works in the game’s favor since it reinforces the idea that you’re just some guy who wandered in from the tunnels. The simple truth is that most people don’t want to talk with you.
The attention to detail fully sells the world. People are selling rats as food and the animals aren’t treated as something disgusting; it’s like buying a chicken and that casual attitude to an animal that we associate with everything nasty tells players all that they need to know about the standard of living in this world without using any dialogue or exposition. Guns are laid out on a table in front of the shopkeeper, allowing you to browse without actually going up to a table and activating its menu. Of course you have to go into the menu to get details about each weapon, but even then, the camera just zooms in on the guns on the table. There are beds lining the periphery of the station, consisting of whatever item or items can be put on the floor to soften it. Actual mattresses are stacked on top of one another as bunk beds. Rooms are rare, and even then, a room is just a bed with 3 walls and a drape. Altogether it actually looks like there are enough places for everyone to sleep. The stations look livable.
Then you leave stations and go into the tunnels. In most games these metro tunnels would feel cramped, but compared to the stations, the tunnels are practically spacious. The tracks stretch into darkness in both directions, making them seem endless. Even above ground in the wasteland of post-apocalyptic Russia, the tight ruins are broken up with wide open courtyards.
A lot of the tension in Metro 2033 comes from contrasting the small populated places with the bigger spaces because the bigger spaces are almost always empty. The activity in the stations gives those places a powerful sense of life, and without that activity, the world feels dead. It’s the stillness that’s frightening, not just the emptiness; these are places people do not go.
Between the cramped stations and the lonely tunnels, Metro 2033 never allows you to feel comfortable in its world. You might feel safe in one of the stations, surrounded by other people, but you’ll never feel so comfortable and secure that you won’t want to keep moving forwards.