The stations of Metro 2033’s reappropriated subway are dark and densely packed. People live on top of each other in shacks made of rotting wood and corrugated metal siding. There’s no privacy, no silence; conversations spoken above a whisper are heard by everyone. Whether it’s mothers trying to hush their wailing babies or harsh, clipped arguments between couples, noise is the texture of the metro station, and uncomfortable closeness is its character.
Dystopian fiction is often seeded from the day-to-day realities of the dysfunctional modern city. City living usually involves being forced into close confines: apartment buildings in place of single-family homes; the subway (in its original form) packed tightly with perfect strangers, often face-to-face in a brusque pantomime of intimacy. The city, for many, means poverty, trash, and illness; “dirt, dirt, dirt” according to one complaining metro denizen. It lies behind off-ramps into ghettos that many will never take, speeding instead along highway overpasses into the safe cradle of the suburbs or into rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods.
Neighborhood segregation and white flight—phenomena common to American life that the Russian-set game Metro 2033 nevertheless sheds light on—is an attempt to erect barriers around the poor, often non-white residents found in any city. One result of this effort, the suburbs, were not only modeled as an escape from the poverty of the city, but presented as a way to reinforce control and hegemony, particularly when it came to the racial makeup of a neighborhood. In The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit Thomas J. Sugrue writes: “Suburban communities were themselves defended communities, whose invisible walls against ‘invasions’ were far more difficult to breach than the constantly shifting, insecure lines that divided the city.”
Metro 2033’s communities maintain their own form of impenetrable barriers. Its residents, already pushed to the brink by nuclear catastrophe, are endangered further by internecine conflicts between the warring ideologies of the metro’s disparate stations. At one point, your character, Artyom, must cross the front line in a grueling battle between groups of Nazis and communists, aged ideologies play-acting a century-old war for dominance. During one overheard conversation, a Nazi reasons to his compatriot: “The rest of the metro is sinking in shit, but not us. Why? Because we have order.” Ideological parallels can be found with figures like the developer of the massive all-white suburb of Levittown in Long Island, who said in 1948: “No man who owns his house and lot can be a communist. He has too much to do.”
The desire to build walls, both literal and ideological, between ourselves and the rest of the world might offer temporary solace, but ultimately contributes to the kinds of ruinous and dystopian outcomes evidenced in apocalyptic settings like Metro 2033. The legacy of the suburbs of post-war America is dilapidated cities, sucked dry of resources and promise, ringed by better-off communities, and near-unlivable for working class people. But our fates remain intertwined: if, like the average white suburbanite, you rarely see people who are different from you, if your only image of the worse-off comes from conservative news organizations or passed-down stereotype, the odds that you’ll ever work together toward a positive future are close to zero. The chances you’ll vote against social programs that could help you, out of fear that the undeserving “other” might also benefit, are near certain.
The stations of the metro map out in similar ways to the historically divided geography of America’s big cities. Just as the all-white holdouts of these cities proved to be, the majority of Metro 2033’s stations are deeply unfriendly to outsiders. And as was commonly the case with white neighborhoods, the mere act of trespassing in many stations invites violence. Each new station Artyom visits features walls, spotlights, and bristling weaponry pointed out into the dark. Gruff commands and rough pat-downs tend to greet Artyom and his companions; these stations are coveted and treated as the hard-won prizes they are, wrested from the oblivion evidenced all around them.
In The Origins of the Urban Crisis, Sugrue writes: “Most Detroiters viewed homeownership as a precarious state, always under siege by external forces beyond their control.” Far too often, black families looking to move into white neighborhoods would see their homes burned, their windows smashed, and trash dumped on their lawns.” Where Metro’s stations erect tripwires, spikes, and barricades, white Detroiters would post “No Niggers Wanted” signs in their neighborhoods and enforce them with riots and burning crosses.
Where segregation failed, and black families moved in anyway, white neighbors simply moved out en masse. “Countless whites retreated to suburbs or neighborhoods on the periphery of cities where they prevented black movement into their communities . . .” writes Sugrue. The suburb became a bastion of the white fantasy of unchanging homogeneity. “Within the secure confines of suburban municipalities, working-class whites created a world that looked remarkably like the city they had left behind.” The suburb offers a world that never changes, that never sees threats, real or imagined. It is a bubble that exists outside of reality, within which all the very real problems of the world can be abstracted and blamed on someone else.
Hiding behind fences and driving a few hours to work every day doesn’t mean the problems of the world won’t affect you, however. Artyom’s home station, Exhibition, far away from the battles for control plaguing the central metro, begins the game under existential threat from the supernatural Dark Ones, a totally new kind of enemy, one that in all their preparation and seclusion, they did not see coming.
Artyom spends the game, like many of the children of post-war suburbanites, in a kind of reverse exodus, making his way to the center of the metro in search of help. He begins to see his own station as “a foreign and hostile place,” in comparison to “the darkness of the metro.” It isn’t on the blasted surface or in near-abandoned tunnels and outskirts that he finds aid, but in the congested and often miserable conditions of the metro stations. There, people share a drink with one another; recount their nightmares; tell their stories of harrowing encounters with mutants; describe their child’s first words, along with their hopes and dreams for their futures. The station is where trade happens, not only for weapons and food, but for information as well. It’s in these stations that Artyom finds his way forward, finding unlikely allies in complete strangers.
Cities, like the unruly, cramped stations of the metro, bring into contact a variety of ideologies and identities. Despite (or because of) their crowding and congestion, they provide a breeding ground for a more comprehensive understanding of our political reality. Unlike suburbs, where you might be able to get away with avoiding human contact entirely if you choose, cities involve witnessing and interacting with people unlike yourself every single time you leave your house.
The legacy left behind by white flight, and postwar racial struggles in American cities is an unresolved one. Segregation in housing leads to segregated schools, workplaces, and communities. The never-ending conflicts between stations and ideologies in Metro 2033 are a disastrous analogy to the racial conflicts endemic to American life. Barriers enforced through violence separate not only people but worldviews as well, preventing any hope of reconciliation. White Americans are so afraid of blacks and other minorities that they prefer to run away, to leave the cities that were once their homes, to cut social programs intended to help everyone.
Metro 2033 represents an extreme outcome of the selfishness and close-mindedness of 20th-century life—a city destroyed by nuclear fire is an instantaneous version of one ravaged by the cold forces of segregation and deindustrialization. That kind of destruction is less terrible but far more specific, hurting those shut out for their differences and presumed shortcomings.
In the stations of the metro, people yearn for the world they helped destroy. On the wall of Artyom’s room hang postcards of monuments he will never get to see. For him, and for the other residents of the metro, it is too late. They must scrabble for survival in the rotten bones of the once great metropolis of Moscow. In the US our cities remain standing, crippled by exploitative interests and racist intransigence, but still populated by those who continue to resist being driven underground and out of sight.
Yussef Cole is a writer and motion designer hailing from the Bronx, NY. Much of his time is spent animating for the screen but he spends the rest of it thinking and writing about games. Find him on Twitter @youmeyou.