Why choice does and doesn't matter in Metro: Last Light

The tiny metal casings glide from their housing, scattering as they slip free, tumbling to an unseen ground below. New rounds are pressed expertly into each chamber, the cylinder rotates back into gun.

The gun flares, bullets tearing away ragged pieces of concrete from a nearby crumbling pillar.

"Did you see that?"

Jeremy Greiner, THQ community manager, slows the game down even more, bringing my attention to the choreography of the minutely detailed fast reload.

If you listen closely, Greiner tells me, you can hear the distinct sound of each spent casing hitting and then bouncing across the floor.

But who's going to do that?

Who's going to stop to watch a reload in the middle of the stream of gun battles that can take place in the subway system beneath a nuclear-ravaged Moscow?

That's not the point. At least not for Metro: Last Light developers 4A Games.

They seem less interested in trying to guess what people may notice, or find wanting in their game, and more invested in crafting a world packed with possibly missed nuance.

My hours-long tour of the game, played by Greiner as I sat by his side in a New York hotel room, was mostly about showing off the atmosphere of Metro: Last Light and its new settings. But that more ordinary tour of features, gunplay, weapons and enemies was almost constantly interrupted by new discoveries of the little things: fascinating bits of mechanism, character art, storyline, seemingly tucked away, hiding from players.

Camp

While Metro: Last Light is a sequel to 2010's Metro 2033, which was based on a book by Russian author Dmitry Glukhovsky, it is not based on the sequel to the novel. Instead it tells the story of events that take place following the first game. In the game, players once more take on the role of Artyom, this time with him dealing with the consequences of his actions in Metro 2033. While much of the survival horror shooter takes place in the post-apocalyptic towns of Moscow's subways, players will also spend time on the nuclear-ravaged surface as well.

My first look at gameplay started with Artyom tasked with saving someone from an enemy camp.

Slipping into the scaffolding and walkways of the area, Greiner points out that Artyom has to be mindful of the light, lest he be spotted by enemies.

It looks like most lights in the game, from gaslamps to light bulbs, can be extinguished. When Greiner moves Artyom up to a gaslamp, an option to blow it out pops up on the screen. When he comes across the flickering light of a light bulb, he carefully shoots it out.

"Overtly speaking, there are choices you have to make in the game constantly."

In this future world technology isn't very reliable, Greiner tells me. The people who live in this subterranean world are used to lights blowing out and bulbs breaking, so the sudden darkness rarely alarms them. Instead guards spend much of their time patrolling not just for enemies, but things to fix.

This offers Artyom both cover and opportunity.

When the player sneaks up to an enemy they can decide whether to kill or knock out the bad guy. There is no overt reward or punishment built into that decision. Knocking out an enemy doesn't involve more risk. Later, I ask Huw Beynon, community lead for Metro: Last Light, about that. Why bother including it if you aren't rewarded or punished?

"Overtly speaking, there are choices you have to make in the game constantly," he said. "There are choices on all manner of fronts, and the fact that choice is being made is never overtly displayed."

So you'll never see a message that tells you that what you have done has in someway influenced either Artyom or the game. But there's a hint in Beynon's answer that may be true. He says the developers decided not to make it an obvious choice because life isn't about obvious choices.

The crosshair in the game doesn't just help you aim, it also helps you predict the amount of damage your shot will do.

"In almost every other game where you supposedly have a choice the outcome is flagged up with, ‘Press A to be the paragon knight and press B to be the jerk,'" he said. "I don't make decisions like that in my life. I don't have the luxury of that prompt to tell me which is the right or wrong decision."

As with the decision to kill or knock out, players also have to make more obvious decisions. Do they want to sneak through an area unnoticed or do they want to blast through a level and try to kill everyone?

Bullets serve two purposes in Metro: Last Light. Some bullets, the military-grade ones that inflict more damage, serve not only as ammo but as the game's currency. All bullets, be they currency or simply ammo, are relatively hard to find. So that choice isn't just about play style, it's also about ammo count.

In working his way through the camp, Greiner knocks out several enemies, stabs two to death and kills two more with well-placed shots.

Early into the mission, Greiner switches to a pneumatic weapon, a gun he has to tap a button to pump full of air. As he pumps, the gauge on the rifle moves from green to red. As he fires the bearings that the weapon uses as ammo, that gauge drops back down again. If it gets to low, shots will annoy and alert instead of kill.

Reloads for the rifle, as with every weapon in the game, are carefully detailed, showing the wasted rounds, the movement of, in this case, the giant spring that chambers each bearing before a shot.

Greiner points out that the crosshair in the game doesn't just help you aim, it also helps you predict the amount of damage your shot will do. The more spokes that appear on the reticule when you hover over an enemy, the more damage the shot will do.

Venice

Venice in Metro: Last Light is not charming as the name might imply. The "station city" is half flooded with sewer water, forcing its citizens to move between sections by raft. When we arrive at its waterway gates, the guard lets us in. Greiner points out that the gate is opening thanks to counterweights and a complex series of pulleys, ropes and gears. They're all animated, all seemingly illustrated to show that this gate would function in the real world. It's something many people probably won't notice as they glide under the gate to their first visit to this town full of gangsters and vendors.

The town is packed with little unnecessary details and moments.

As Greiner works his way through the town a begger asks for a bullet. Greiner drops one in his hand. Nothing happens. Nothing is meant to. Later, he hands another bullet to a man with a guitar and the busker plays a song for him. You can stay by his side and listen, or just walk by.

At the bar, Greiner, at my insistence, proceeds to get Artyom drunk. With each drink the world gets a little wobblier, the woman sitting next to him more attractive, literally. Drink enough and you wake up outside the bar lying next to the woman, now restored to her original looks. Wander back into the bar and you discover wreckage and a very angry bartender. You have an option then to spend 100 bullets, a post-apocalyptic fortune, to pay for the damages. But no one is insisting. If you do you make the bartender very happy, and likely a new friend, but there's no tangible reward.

Greiner tells me that if you explore enough in the town, you'll come across a little scene in a back alley: a boy crying to his mother about a lost teddy bear. Much later in the game you'll find that teddy bear and have the option to pick it up. If you decide to do that and then work your way back to this town, you can bring the teddy bear to the boy. You'll make him happy. But you won't be rewarded. Not really.

Swamp

The final section of the game I'm shown takes place above ground in a swamp. Outside, Artyom has to wear a full suit and gas mask to stay alive. He has to keep an eye on his oxygen levels, replacing canisters so he doesn't asphyxiate. His watch, which shows the time below ground, shows his oxygen levels when he's outside.

It's a messy business, not just fighting outside, but standing and walking outside.

Water, mud, blood all splash onto your steamed-up mask. You can press the left bumper of the controller to wipe the mask, smearing the muck to clear your vision for a bit. You can hear the sound of your own breathing as you walk; it gets louder as the time ticks away and the oxygen in your suit depletes. As you near the final bits of oxygen, Artyom's breathing is so strangled you can't hear anything else. He gasps louder and louder, making choking noises until he either finds more air or dies.

The sky is almost pretty; there's even a bit of sunlight, but not much. This is high noon in the wastelands of Moscow. The game tracks the time and weather of the area. You don't want to be caught out here at night.

Walking through the rubble of a building, a root-like object suddenly twitches to life and grabs Artyom. He kills it, moving further into the swamp where he finds a mass of spider-like creatures swarming over a dead body.

In the sky dragon-like hawks swoop and soar. One gets too close, grabbing Artyom and flying off with him. He drops him before the height becomes deadly.

Artyom is looking for a raft he can use to cross the swamp. When he finds it he realizes the motor that powers the thing has no gas. On the hunt for the fuel, Artyom is attacked by a huge creature, something that looks like a monstrous shrimp, but he's saved by one of those flying creatures, which swoops down to attack it.

None of this is scripted, Greiner tells me, it's just the way of this world.

Internalized Rewards

What I saw of Metro: Last Light offered a glimpse at a promising game. I wasn't able to actually play the game, not yet, but the mechanics of Last Light weren't what offered up the most promise.

Where many games will point you to side missions and then reward you for completing them, Metro: Last Light seems to weave these tangential events into the fabric of the experience with neither markers nor obvious rewards.

Missing something may be as easy as not hanging around long enough to overhear the right bit of a conversation while walking through a town. The reward could be a bit of lore, perhaps hints at how to survive a future encounter or pick your way more safely through a dangerous swamp.

Beynon was clear that the game is at least on some level tracking some of the decisions you make and it seems likely that those decisions will result in some sort of end-game payoff, perhaps even multiple endings. But at the crossroads of these decisions, when players are faced with spending money or risking their virtual lives for no obvious reward, Metro: Last Light has the potential of doing something very different: internalizing the badges and achievements made so popular by gaming.

The result, I hope, will be a game that drives players to do good things or maybe explore bad ones — not because they hope to win a badge, or rack up achievement points, but because of how that decision makes them feel.

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