This is a guest post by my bro Bill/Hovercraft, who doesn’t have a blog of his own but occasionally writes rather good essays on game stuff.
Two of my absolute favourite game series are Metro 2033 and S.T.A.L.K.E.R., both mainly due to their setting and atmosphere. Metro is set in the ruins of Moscow, twenty years after the nuclear apocalypse of 2013, while S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is set in the Zone of Alienation around Chernobyl NPP in the present day. Thus, both have you exploring bleak post-Soviet wreckage. It’s the best kind of apocalypse porn.
There is at least one other game that does post-Soviet wreckage though, one that predates both Metro and S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Half-Life 2. In that, our hero Gordon Freeman wakes up from some kind of stasis twenty years after the events of Half-Life 1, on a train pulling into City 17. The world has been conquered by an alien civilisation called the Combine, who have subjugated all the humans under authoritarian rule. City 17 is the scarred, run-down remnant of a largish coastal Eastern European city. It’s bleak and post-Soviet and apocalyptic, so I should be all over that shit like white on rice.
Except, I’m not. Don’t get me wrong, I like Half-Life 2, and I recognise that it’s a masterpiece of game design. But City 17 just doesn’t enthrall me like Moscow or the Zone do in those other games. Here’s me trying to suss out why:
1) The environments aren’t believable.
The surface world of Moscow in Metro 2033 is in the grip of nuclear winter, the air is poisonous, it’s infested with mutants and strewn with rubble. The Metro system, where the remnants of humanity cling to survival, is dingy, cramped, stifling and crawling with hostile human factions, creepy phenomena and more mutants. The Zone in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is, by contrast, mostly large open grassy spaces, dotted with abandoned settlements and bits of industry being reclaimed by nature. But nature itself has turned unpredictable, with yet more dangerous phenomena and freakish mutants.
City 17 has its share of toxic wastes and horrible monsters, but the way it presents them feels extremely artificial. It’s a planned-out obstacle course of hazards, enemy placements and physics puzzles, rather than a place which just exists, in spite of the player. The result is, firstly, that the environments often don’t make any sense as bits of an actual city, only as obstacle courses (the canal section is a very good example of this). Secondly, once you’ve learned the simple steps by which to navigate the obstacle course, you feel like you’ve mastered the game. In Metro and S.T.A.L.K.E.R., you never feel particularly safe or in control of your situation. While mastery has its own appeal, the sense of powerlessness and vulnerability that these games evoke is crucial to the post-Soviet misery aesthetic.
Moscow and the Zone are both real places (bits of which are accurately modelled in their respective games); City 17 is not. 4A and GSC started with those places and, to some extent, built the gameplay around them, while Valve primarily designed the world to fit the gameplay. It’s well-known that Valve playtest their games almost to a fault, cutting or tweaking any bit which unduly confuses the playtesters or causes them to get lost. Recently, this process (as applied to Portal 2) provoked accusations of overdesign and dumbing down, but the former is certainly true of HL2 as well. They were just more subtle about holding the player’s hand through the obstacle course back then.
2) The world revolves around you.
I mentioned in the previous point that the worlds of Metro and S.T.A.L.K.E.R. exist “in spite of the player”. Words to that effect pop up all the time in analyses of these games. It’s sometimes even claimed that this approach is what distinguishes games developed in former-Soviet countries (Ukraine, in this case) from those developed in the West. Whatever, it’s a hellishly appropriate sentiment, particularly for S.T.A.L.K.E.R.
Basically, both games present worlds which don’t seem to give a fuck about you, the player. It’s the feeling that things are happening in the world whether or not you’re there to witness or affect them. That the universe doesn’t revolve around you. You’re not some Chosen One walking the fated path to victory and glory, you’re just one of many dudes trying to cling to life in a horribly hostile world, while working towards your own humble goals. This is so refreshing in a medium saturated with tired old Hero’s Journeys. Again, playing a fragile little man works perfectly with the big bleak dangerous world aesthetic, plus you can better identify with your fragile little man than you can with the clichéd Hero and his Journey. In the same situation, you’d be lonely and scared and vulnerable too.
In Half-Life 2, you are explicitly the Chosen One. The friendly Vortigaunts, mystic Yoda-stereotype aliens, refer to you as “The One Free Man”. Your fellow downtrodden humans, aware of your heroic exploits, interpret your return as a signal to start a revolution against the Combine. You have a power-suit and a gun that manipulates gravity to fling heavy objects at anything that looks at you funny. Even in Ravenholm, the horror section in which you’re (mostly) alone and beset by zombies, you never feel particularly threatened. Between the fairly common sight of friendly humans in City 17, your occasional NPC partner Alyx and communication with the rest of the supporting cast, you never feel lonely.
Metro and S.T.A.L.K.E.R. both also have NPC allies leading you by the nose at various points; but, because your position in the world is better set up, you feel relieved when you get some companionship for a little while, and the sense of loneliness and vulnerability is amplified when you’re left on your own again afterwards. You look up to Khan in Metro 2033 or Zulu in S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat, because the narrative establishes that they’re more experienced and probably more capable in this place than you. Alyx does come across as more experienced in the new world than Gordon, having grown up in it, but she’s certainly not as capable as he is. She doesn’t have the suit or the gravity gun, just a sonic screwdriver thing, a machine pistol and uncanny durability. She’s essentially a door-opener to escort around, and you don’t feel especially worse off when she’s not with you.
3) Post-Soviet places should be full of post-Soviet people.
City 17 is definitely supposed to be in Eastern Europe, and yet there isn’t an Eastern European in sight. The entire city is filled with North Americans instead. This is never properly explained — the Half-Life series is notorious for avoiding explicit exposition wherever possible — but it needs to be. When Gordon steps off the train, the recorded message from City 17’s human puppet leader Dr Breen states, “You have chosen, or been chosen, to relocate to one of our finest remaining urban centers,” and that’s all you get. Fair enough, it’s believable that the Combine overlords would ship some humans around to meet their requirements, but why is everyone here North American, and all the original inhabitants are gone? Were they all wiped out when the Combine took over? Did the Combine decide to needlessly uproot every single remaining human from their home to help break humanity’s morale? There are loads of plausible explanations which could easily be dropped into dialogue, but instead we get a plot hole and a big hit to verisimilitude.
Whatever the in-game explanation, presumably it was done a) because the first game was set at the Black Mesa facility in Nevada, and they wanted some character continuity with Gordon’s old colleagues (even though they were all generic nameless scientists and guards back then), b) due to the stereotype where Americans can only empathise with other Americans. So we get downtrodden yanks, living in scummy flats in a crumbling old foreign city, resignedly complaining about crap food and oppression and suspecting that the water supply is spiked. This doesn’t work for me. Americans are bad at being downtrodden, maybe because their entire culture is built around FREEDOM and SUCCESS and THE AMERICAN DREAM. Forgive me for generalising, but pretty much all US media of the 20th century was about Americans overcoming any and all hardship to be happy and successful. So when you see them moping around in a game, even when, according to the story, they are entirely justified in doing so, it comes off as just a little bit whiny.
Eastern Europeans, on the other hand, were born to suffer. Think of Eastern Europe in the 20th century, and you think violent revolution. Bloody war. Breadlines. Gulags. Backbreaking factory labour. Starving babushkas huddled around tiny gas stoves in crumbling tenements. And the people are inseparable from their environment. Hence Metro works, with its desperate ragged subterranean societies of Muscovites, and S.T.A.L.K.E.R. works, with its bands of Ukrainian chancers, bandits and paramilitary tough guys. But HL2 doesn’t work.
4) Aliens are dumb.
This is a very subjective point, but I generally don’t like spacey sci-fi. I’m just not into it, and the only exception that springs to mind is the Mass Effect series (which gets by on brilliant characterisation and a future world dripping with verisimilitude). So for me, human-induced nuclear apocalypses are just more compelling than alien-induced non-nuclear apocalypses. Granted, the human fuck-up at Black Mesa in Half-Life 1 is what led to the aliens invading, but the key problem for me here is “aliens”.
Similarly, the S.T.A.L.K.E.R series is actually based on a Russian sci-fi novella called Roadside Picnic, written by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky in the early 1970s. In that, there are multiple Zones full of weird, dangerous anomalies and artifacts, which have arisen not due to the Chernobyl disaster (which hadn’t happened yet), but due to alien visitation. It’s set in Canada, or a Canada-like country. It’s a decent book, but partly for both these reasons, I don’t like it as much as the S.T.A.L.K.E.R games.
I reiterate that I don’t think HL2 is a bad game. But in my mind, there’s a pretty wide gap between games I like, and games I love. A game has to do something special and fairly ill-defined to my brain to cross the gap. Metro and S.T.A.L.K.E.R. both manage it, but HL2 falls short.
 This is literally the case in S.T.A.L.K.E.R.; the game engine was explicitly designed for it.