Wednesday 26 June 2019

Metro Exodus preview: Leaving the tunnel vision behind

The new chapter in the post-apocalyptic Metro series goes overground and open-world to bring us fresh horrors. Author Dmitry Glukhovsky explains why

Metro Exodus: The view is pretty good from this lighthouse
Metro Exodus: The view is pretty good from this lighthouse
Ronan Price

Ronan Price

GIANT woolly mammoths would improve almost any game, we can all agree. But author Dmitry Glukhovsky fought a losing battle to have the prehistoric creatures incorporated into Metro Exodus, the latest game adaptation of his wild post-apocalyptic fiction.

Glukhovsky was deeply involved in the development of the game based on his Metro book series, about survivors of the nuclear holocaust living in the Moscow subway.

Now, though, he looks weary and sounds drained. But still the 39-year-old Russian writer gamely answers the same questions he’s probably been asked umpteen times already in the past 48 hours. He’s here in a dimly lit room in London’s Embankment to talk about Exodus and the development process of the game but the conversation ranges freely to the writing of the books to the political situation in Russia.

This is his last interview of dozens during the two-day press tour for Exodus, which launches on February 15, but he wants to give it his best shot. With a wry chuckle, he says he’ll try to answer the questions like it’s the first time he’s heard them.

He explains how he has a close relationship with Ukrainian developer 4A, creators of Metro 2033 and Metro Last Light, which were based on his previous books. But he freely admits he didn’t always get his way when 4A was planning Exodus.

“We've had all sorts of exchanges,” he says. “I wouldn't say that we've always had this nice period in our relationship where everyone is smiling and kissing. We've had a couple of fights over where the story is supposed to go.

Metro Exodus: Yes, it does go a bit Mad Max now and then
Metro Exodus: Yes, it does go a bit Mad Max now and then

“I didn't accept everything that they suggested. They scrapped a couple of things that I suggested. For example, the huge post-nuclear mammoths did not make it into the game, although they were a great idea that I loved. They told me that they just didn't have time.”

Glukhovsky is rather proud of the fact that Exodus takes the story beyond his written fiction. His last book, Metro 2035, published in 2016, hints there may be life beyond the nuclear wastelands above the Moscow tunnels. Exodus takes the idea and runs with it.

“I would say that 2035 is kind of the foreword to Metro Exodus and also it's the final chapter on Metro books that exist on paper,” he says. “The only way to know what's next after the epilogue of 2035 is to play the game. In exactly the place where the plot of Metro 2035 stops, the game picks it up and takes it further.

“Maybe the world is not irradiated, maybe some parts of the world are suitable for humans to live in. So how come people in Moscow ignore that? How come they do not receive any radio signals? All of that is explained in the book and further developed in the game.

“Imagine it as a patchwork where you have to piece together the story from different media, one from the book, one from the game, one from another book, one from another game. When you have everything, then you fully understand what it's all about.”

Glukhovsky, a former news journalist who speaks six languages, is described as the co-creator of Exodus but some of the big narrative ideas came from 4A themselves. The third game in the series takes a decisive turn away from the claustrophobic underground tunnels of the first two instalments.

Perennial protagonist Artyom forms part of a raggle-taggle band of survivors travelling on a decrepit locomotive across Russia in search of sanctuary. The train is forced to stop at several points and the group explore the open-world locations for resources and information. These beautiful overground settings contrast strongly with the dank subterranean scenes of 2033 and Last Light. But the horror remains only ever a jump scare away, with mutants and dangerous bandits in abundant supply. Trips to creepy underground caverns are also a frequent necessity.

“4A came to me with the idea of train travel. I adored that because train travel is something super-romantic for every Soviet child. We've had a bigger country before and even now it's still quite huge. The trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway is the longest trip available on a train. We all have this romantic idea of unending train travel in our blood.”

Metro author Dmitry Glukhovsky. Photo: Ksenia Tavrina
Metro author Dmitry Glukhovsky. Photo: Ksenia Tavrina

Glukhovsky started writing his first Metro book aged just 17, though it took several years to get it properly published. He resorted to self-publishing on his own website at first, bit by bit in chapter form.

“Almost the entire book remained pretty much the same as I wrote it when I was 17-18-19. It's the same book I wrote when I was a kid. I never edited it. I started writing it with no idea what the fucking story was going to be about.

“I had no plan and even not many chances to change things backwards because I started publishing things online. And when you publish the chapter, you cannot change it.”

Remarkably, though, for someone who started writing so young, the series is seeded with political allegories, such as the Dark Ones, the “monsters” of the first book.

“In the first part (Metro 2033), the Dark Ones, they're clearly an allusion to migrants,” he says. “This is a way to treat the fear of the Other, of a different one, the xenophobia that Russians have, as much as Europeans have now.

Metro Exodus
Metro Exodus

“This book - and the game is a continuation of this book - goes around other things, such as that, apparently, we cannot survive without an enemy. We get bored and we get lost. We cannot define ourselves and we cannot identify ourselves unless we know who we're fighting against. Also, it's a question of how much we need the freedom and would we not prefer a clear purpose in life - to freedom.

“We need a bogeyman or an Arab refugee or we need a Russian and an American. That helps us a lot. Deep inside, we're still animals and we're not at all prepared for 70 years of peace.”

Fans of the series won’t have to wait long to dive into this new chapter of the Metro saga, with the release just a month away. While Glukhovsky firmly insists he has written his last book on the topic, it leaves the door for more game instalments if this one sells well.

Our few hours of game time with Exodus gave us experience of some richly detailed and interesting levels, seen through the lens of different seasons including spring, summer and winter. The combat feels decidedly weighty and tactile, using steampunk, cobbled-together weapons that in some cases need to be pumped up manually.

It's uncommonly gorgeous, goes a bit Mad Max in the summer desert level and is nicely diverse in later locations. But will venturing out of the tunnels take away the reason many fans fell in love with the series in the first place? We'll soon find out...

* Metro Exodus is due for release on 15 February 2019 on PS4, Xbox One and PC

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