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How Metro Exodus envisions a different post-apocalypse than Fallout and The Last of Us
Metro Exodus, the third entry in Ukraine-founded studio 4A Games' Metro series, doesn't exactly have a novel premise. The world has been decimated by nuclear warfare. Survivors huddle in the ruins of Moscow's subway system, forging a makeshift society out of the ruins of the old world. There are mutant animals and homicidal bandits. Everyone wears gas masks and crafts ammunition and pipe bombs from scrap metal while smoking cigarettes rolled from newspaper pages. It all looks, at first glance, like just about any of the myriad of post-apocalyptic video games — Fallout, The Last of Us, State of Decay, Horizon Zero Dawn, The Walking Dead — we've seen before.
Just like its two predecessors, though, Exodus is a game that reveals itself as something different after one spends more than a little time in its irradiated wastelands. It's set in Russia, for one thing, casting aside the usual American skyscrapers and billboards for dimly lit subway tunnels with Cyrillic signage and a surface world whose most notable landmarks include Orthodox churches and mossy summer camps with statues of Lenin posted outside deserted classrooms.
In Exodus, protagonist Artyom and his crew are heading east across Russia on an old train, hoping to find a new place to call home after learning that the outside world they thought completely unlivable has actually continued on in a strange new form. Over the course of an in-universe year, their train chugs along through changing landscapes and seasons, from the frozen underground and streets of Moscow to a dusty stretch of dried-out Caspian Sea coastline and an autumnal forest in the Taiga.
While the goal of their journey across the country — settling down somewhere safe from radiation and rival communities — is similar to other genre stories, it's the way Exodus interprets well-established post-apocalyptic plotlines and aesthetics that sets it apart. Even immediately familiar scenes featuring run-ins with cannibal gangs or the rote, Mad Max-ian vibes of the Caspian's dusty oil refineries are transformed into something else through the lens of non-Western culture.
As old hat as the goggle-wearing bandits and fire-belching smokestacks of the desert section's plotline may be, these overdone aesthetics are channeled toward distinctly post-Soviet explorations of power dynamics and are informed by the last century of Russian history. The Caspian's local, non-Slavic population are enslaved by The Baron, a charismatic leader presiding over the region's people by channeling his oil wealth into displays of invented divinity revolved around fire worship. He's every bandit leader from games and film distilled into one, but he's also a master of propaganda who plasters the desert's scant walls with iconographic images of his face and manipulates his followers and slaves into believing in his mission through relentless broadcasts regarding his philosophy.
For a Ukrainian studio telling a story of sci-fi Russia, the historical parallels to the totalitarian USSR's — and modern-day Federation's — treatment of its ethnic minorities and consolidation of government power are easy to spot. Elsewhere, a group of children attending a summer camp in the remote forests of the Taiga have grown up into rival communities whose interpretation of their former leader's ideology led to a violent schism. Like early 20th century revolutionaries, they're all sure their understanding of the deceased man's philosophy is the right one.
More broadly, the entire cast's disillusionment with organized power defines their attitudes toward survival. Artyom's crew fled the Moscow metro, in part, because of sectarian conflict between survivors who've divided themselves into staunch communist and neo-Nazi camps and wage eternal war with one another for control of their meager territory. Their journey is spurred on by learning that their leaders have fed them decades of lies that the surface world is uninhabitable. Unable to trust any form of centralized power, they count on one another as a miniature family instead of placing their faith in any other form of external salvation. Community is all-important to them, but not a community defined by inflexible dogma or anything more rigid than the simple altruism of a few people trying to support one another. They want to break out from old, unworkable systems of living, not just take part in the new ones shown to be reenacting doomed, pre-apocalyptic world views.
The post-apocalyptic games we're used to playing more often channel Western — specifically American — myths of libertarian self-sufficiency. End the world, they say, and capable people will naturally overcome hardships to try to foster good in the world. The individual is valorized above all, whether it's the lone wanderers of Fallout or the clashing personalities of The Walking Dead's survival groups. Metro Exodus, based on a series of Russian books and created by a Ukrainian developer, is informed by a far different history than America's. It sees the process of rebuilding society not as the straightforward work of exceptional, innately good individuals persevering against hardship to exert control over those around them, but as a more complex problem that involves cooperation and healthy suspicion regarding anything that evokes negative historical precedents.
Exodus isn't a perfect game by any means. Its dialogue and voice acting is abysmal, even the script's best moments hampered by what reads like a bad translation and the actors stilted readings. The levels, frequently consisting of sprawling, desolate landscapes, are often too confusing for their own good. But, these issues are less significant than the game in totality. It isn't often that a game genre as well-worn as the post-apocalyptic shooter is able to feel as novel as Metro Exodus and its predecessors. That, more than anything else, is worth noting—and it's a reminder that games benefit when their stories are told from viewpoints other than the most dominant ones.