A Cleaner, More Hygienic Apocalypse

This isn’t my first time through the metro.

I played through a goodly chunk of Metro 2033 on its release, and I was impressed by much of what others have observed about the game. The world of Metro is incredibly beguiling, a rich, detailed post-apocalyptic Russian underground whose craftsmanship is hard to ignore. Like games like Bioshock, the world of Metro is one in which it is a pleasure not merely to run-and-gun through, but one that begs to be closely looked at and appreciated for the authenticity of its scars and ruin.

Exploring the tunnels of the metro or the husk of the formerly civilized overworld in Metro emphasizes exploration in what is otherwise a combat heavy experience. And listening to the chatter of the beleaguered denizens of a burned out world as well as exploring the nooks and crannies of the desperately held together living spaces that they have carved out in the aftermath is, in many ways, the best part of this FPS – because it, unlike many other shooters, seems like a world that is well thought out, well lived in, and almost fully realized.

That “almost” caveat really hit me when I booted up the sequel to 2033, Metro: Last Light, and it hit me in the most banal of places, in the bathroom. Metro: Last Light begins in one of the stations that has been established as a living area for the remaining members of humanity following the apocalyptic events that drove those people down into the subway tunnels beneath Moscow. In this particular case, the area is a military facility and is dominantly occupied by soldiers, who, as in the first game, seem to authentically live in this space, as they play chess, chat about recent events, and otherwise move about and seem to be working in this virtual space.

Among other places that I explored in the facility as I made my way to an initial briefing was one of the facility’s bathrooms. And that bathroom was gnarly looking.

The toilet was filthy, as were the walls, door frames, etc. I thought to myself how I would never wish to encounter a washroom in this condition in real life (okay, actually I have, but I have tried to block those experiences from my memory), and then I reflected on the generally unhygienic qualities of the military base in general. Really everything was more or less atrocious in terms of any normal person’s standards of good housekeeping.

Then, it occurred to me that this was a military base after the apocalypse, a place where men were desperately clinging to life, and I had to wonder, “Why on earth would this space look this way?” Now, I realize that any space devastated by atomic weaponry is likely to look a little shabby, a little run down. However, one of the first priorities in occupying any space that one might carve out in the ruins of a former civilization would very likely be hygiene. Illness and disease are the last thing one wants running rampant in a small space occupied by a goodly number of human beings. These guys are soldiers. What on earth are they all doing playing chess and gossiping? The first order of business would be to keep this place up, so that it would be a hospitable enough place to survive in. There is a reason in the Navy, for instance, that much of one’s duties concern constantly cleaning up the ship that you are occupying for several months. After all, this is the ship that you are occupying for several months, let alone years in the world of Metro. One doesn’t need a SARS-like epidemic emerging in a small, vulnerable population, let alone even influenza.

Now I realize that part of the grime of Metro exists for the sake of striking a tone with us, the audience. Our expectation of a post-apocalyptic world is ruinous, filthy, uninhabitable, but it is the kind of moment in world building where representation and reality suddenly clash. In order to send the message that this is a desperate environment, one has to represent it in a manner that looks right, not that necessarily is the way it most likely would be.

I don’t know which one is better, authentic and strictly realistic world building or a world whose truth simply looks something like our expectations. In this case, I’m guessing the latter. While one would hope that humanity would aspire to a cleaner post-apocalyptic condition (after all, it would raise their chances for survival), for the sake of art I guess I have to settle for dirty toilets and filth encrusted walls.