Metro 2033 presented a true post-nuclear dystopia, informed by all-too-familiar Cold War fears. And the scary thing is, save for the more survival-horror aspects of the game, some of the themes it explored were uncomfortably true to life. I learned as much when I sat down with author Dmitry Glukhovsky. As the author of the Metro series' latest installment, Metro: Last Light (out tomorrow), he had a lot to say about what made this game happen and how close we might be to the end of the world.
In your own words, what is Metro: Last Light about?
It continu[es] the story of Metro 2033 – both the book and the video game. The first part of the saga is set in the year 2033, 20 years after the nuclear war that devastated the world. Approximately 50,000 survivors made it to the Moscow subway and managed to survive over two decades.
For the first years, there was a system of administration that eventually collapsed. Then, there is anarchy, and stations become medieval-style city-states. Then the survivors start making alliances, professing different ideologies, and different religions. They are re-explaining world history and the apocalypse from the viewpoint of new gods.
Then there’s the story of a young guy [Artyom] who lives in the Moscow station. After going to the surface, he encounters a new species called the Dark Ones. Their mere presence induces fear and disgust in human beings, and even cause people to go mad. So the natural reaction is to fight back and strike first. Artyom is charged with the mission to journey through the different city-states and abandoned stations of Moscow to find a cure or weapon to deal with the Dark Ones.
He finds an old sealed missile silo [and] uses the missiles to scorch the Dark Ones’ nest, killing off every single Dark One. But when the missiles are already falling and it’s too late to stop them, he discovers that the Dark Ones were not an unfriendly species. So he killed off all of them, and realized this too late.
So, that’s where we spring into the story of Metro: Last Light, which is a transmedia continuation of the saga. We find Artyom burdened with the knowledge of what he’s done. He’s gotten an order from his new commanders who claim that the last surviving Dark One has been spotted in the scorched nest. So his mission is to find it and [reluctantly] finish what he started.
How does this game differ from your previous work?
Well, first of all, I got 10 years older. So Metro: Last Light is going to be explicit, way more mature, controversial, and certainly more sophisticated than Metro 2033. You can actually expect a very mature story, dealing with quite serious issues. I didn’t conceive Metro: Last Light as a game, but something more like an HBO or Showtime series. So the level of maturity is definitely different.
What was it like working with the developers on this game? What was the process like?
We worked in phases. First of all, they told me they wanted to create a sequel, and they suggested that they would base it off my next book, Metro 2034. But '34 was not suitable to become a video game. It is basically memories of people imagining what the world would have been if the war hadn’t happened. So it’s very introverted storytelling: Less action, more memories, hopes, and crushed dreams. So I suggested that instead, I would create a separate story that would continue Artyom’s storyline.
So I created the general plot, they adjusted it a little bit, we discussed, and then they cut into pieces and fit it to gameplay. That took them six months to a year. Then I provided some initial dialogue, they created their piece, and then I recreated [everything] completely from scratch, spending several months last winter on just writing the dialogue. There are over 3,000 pieces of dialogue. I took it very seriously, as seriously as I would have taken a novel or a script of a movie. I actually overdid it! There are a lot of things I created, lots of side characters, that don’t always play a direct role in the central plotline.
Where did you get the inspiration for the character of Artyom?
In the book, it’s me: the non-fighter, non-militant, non-war-hero type of character. Plus, I was, twenty-something when I wrote the biggest piece, and that was the age of the character. The main issues Artyom worries about are his stepfather, going on his first journey through Metro, confronting its split ideologies, and looking for a place in his life. He’s worried about being remembered and achieving things, it’s very personal...
What is it like imagining the places in Metro?
Oh, it was very easy because I spent half my childhood [in Moscow] in the Metro. My school was quite a ways from my home, and the subway was the most popular form of transportation. And unlike the subway of New York, it’s way cleaner and safer. The stations are like palaces built underground. They were built during Stalin’s rule at the paramount of the Soviet empire, and they were meant to impress. It was the promise of a better future.
But, one day I read a report that there was Metro-2. And Metro-2 is a separate, secret governmental subway, the stations of which lie sometimes meters from the stations of the regular Metro. And the tunnels of Metro-2 intertwine with tunnels of regular Metro. And that was meant to save the lives of the ruling elite in case of a nuclear war. So under the buildings of big ministries: the Kremlin, Moscow State University, the KGB building, Lubyanka – they were all equipped with their own private Metro stations. And after they were abandoned when the Soviet Union collapsed, I know people who went on to find some of these tunnels. I heard reports of people walking a week or two and the tunnel didn’t end – they would return because they were running out of food. It sounds almost Sci-fi.
What is it about a nuclear holocaust that is particularly captivating?
Well here in the States, it’s not the nuclear holocaust that’s as appealing as zombies. I don’t know why we’re so obsessed with zombies. I think we’re seriously overdosed. I mean, I can understand vampires – they’re a metaphor for sex. But the consequences of a zombie apocalypse are essentially the same for a post-nuclear world: empty streets, everyone for themselves, no civilization, every house is a fortress. The setting is the same. I don’t know why you guys aren’t afraid of nuclear war. I mean, zombies scarier than nuclear war? Come on!
[The appeal of nuclear war is that] we want this world to be wild again. Our very well-explored, civilized, and saturated world is boring. We want to be explore; we want to be heroes. We want the world to be unknown. And the second part of the nuclear thing is, of course, that it is one of our biggest fears: the ultimate war that would destroy us all and everything we know and love. And it’s not all that improbable.
What gaming trends excite you?
Well, to be frank, I’m a big traditionalist. I’m not as big a gamer right now, so I’m following the new things coming out, but still I’m emotionally attached to the franchises of my childhood. I’m not very much a shooter person, actually. Mainly I’m playing Civilization right now, and it may speak badly of me, but [I’m also playing] strategies and RPGs. The slow [kind of game] that lets you see it all and doesn’t scare the shit out of you is something I find more appealing.
Thanks to Dmitry for taking the time to answer my questions. Be sure to take a ride through Metro: Last Light and try to survive the future's horrors when it hits stores tomorrow.
Kwame Opam is a tech writer and content producer for Studio@Gawker.