Metro Exodus tells its story in a very interesting way, and I'm not sure how I feel about it
Updated: Jan 23, 2020
After writing the small novella that was my review of Anthem, I decided that it was time to write something a little more digestible - and hopefully, a bit more fun.
On February 15, 2019, Metro Exodus released for PC on the EPIC Games store, as well as for Playstation and Xbox consoles. While the game has received favorable reviews from critics (averaging a solid 83/100 critic score on Metacritic), there was a significant amount of controversy over publisher Deep Silver's decision to make the PC version of the game exclusive to the EPIC Games store. But that's not what I want to discuss, at least, not right now.
Right now, I want to explore how Metro Exodus is written and how Exodus uses a voiceless protagonist to tell its story. My purpose with this article is not necessarily to prove that Metro Exodus' story is beyond reproach, but rather to showcase how Exodus embraces the medium of interactive storytelling in what I believe are exciting and unique ways.
The Metro games are an adaptation by developer 4A of the Metro books, a series written by author Dmitry Glukhovsky. The difference between the Metro games and many other videogame adaptations of books (think The Witcher 3, for example) lies in how Dmitry Glukhovsky is the lead writer for both projects. And while both 2010's Metro 2033 and 2013's Metro Last Light were praised for their atmospheric world-building, I don't think Glukhovsky's videogame writing has ever been more intriguing than it is in Metro Exodus.
Videogame writers have a uniquely challenging job. They have to create functional scripts that can be adequately performed by voice-actors, while simultaneously accounting for how those scripts will be received by players partaking in an interactive storytelling medium. The interactive nature of videogames allows writers to not only manipulate narrative delivery through interactive experiences but also creates spaces for writers to inject lore and atmosphere into their games through elements such as item descriptions or interactive environments. It's a lot to ask of any writer, and very few do it well - which is why I think Glukhovsky's approach to storytelling in Metro Exodus is so exciting.
Artyom, the character whom the player inhabits throughout the Metro games, is a voiceless protagonist. However, Artyom is voiceless in a different way than many of the other mute videogame protagonists of yore. Let me explain.
When I hear the phrase 'voiceless protagonist' - particularly about a shooter like Exodus that has limited RPG elements - the first games that come to my mind are the Fallout games (pre Fallout 4, obviously), or more classically styled isometric RPGs such as Pillars of Eternity. In these types of games, the protagonist is often voiceless, but they are not wordless. What I mean by that is that these protagonists are not voice-acted, but they still utilize words by proxy of dialogue choices that still allow the to player 'interact' with the world around them.
However, Artyom is distinct from these other voiceless protagonists in that he isn't created or customized by the player, and in that he never projects words into Exodus through the use of dialogue options. In this way, Artyom is almost like Link in the Zelda games - characters interact with Artyom, but Artyom never says anything back.
This is where it gets interesting.
Artyom isn't entirely voiceless. You hear him during loading screens, narrating the major plot transitions of Exodus. Moreover, the number of physical interactions Artyom has with characters in Exodus - for example, Artyom will hug his wife after returning safely to camp, and various physical actions you choose to take will affect how the game's story plays out - clearly dictate Artyom's personality and values. Plus, when characters talk to Artyom, they pause as if to let him participate in the dialogue before continuing to speak.
In effect, Exodus has given you as the player a voiceless protagonist and then asked you to write Artyom in your head. This is emphasized by the dead space characters will leave as they wait for Artyom (you) to respond (in your head) to what they're saying. I think that the intent behind this experience was that players would take physical actions as Artyom (good or bad) that they felt reflected how they were 'writing' the character in their heads during cutscenes or dialogue interactions.
Phew. That's a lot to take in, so let's recap. We hear Artyom during loading screens, and yet as soon as the player gains control of him, Artyom becomes the player (or vice versa). Artyom loses his voice, and the player's projection of themselves as Artyom becomes canon. This roleplay takes place during pauses in cutscenes and gameplay, throughout which the player 'writes' Artyom's dialogue and reactions in their head. The player then takes physical actions that mirror how they are roleplaying Artyom, thereby making the player's roleplay headcanon actual canon that affects how the game ends.
It's weird. And I... sort of like it? Maybe?
Artyom is a voiceless voiced protagonist, a defined character who is also anyone the player wants him to be. In this way, Exodus gives Artyom character, but also allows the player to experience Exodus' narrative in a uniquely interactive and immersive manner that only a videogame could be capable of delivering. The first person perspective of Exodus only further emphasizes how the player is inhabiting Artyom's body, putting the player up-front and center as Artyom hugs and embraces his wife or is ruthlessly battered by giant radioactive mutants.
On the other hand, the cognitive dissonance of hearing Artyom during loading screens but not in cutscenes can be confusing. It sometimes feels like Artyom would have been a fantastic voiced protagonist, and that Glukhovsky didn't want to commit to the character for some reason. Still, I can understand why Glukhovsky wrote Artyom as a sort of strange voiceless-voiced protagonist hybrid. He's already spent three books giving Artyom a voice and a personality. The opportunity to make the player write Artyom in their own head was probably an appealing opportunity for Glukhosvky to combine his love of videogame and literature storytelling into one entity.
What's the takeaway? Well, for me, it's that videogame writers still have a long way to go before they unlock the full potential of videogames to deliver narratives in truly unique and interactive ways. Glukhovsky has taken steps forward in this respect, and by writing Artyom in the way he has, has created a narrative experience that I feel deserves attention - not only because it's ballsy, but also (and more so) because it's a genuinely unique expansion on the principles of storytelling in videogames. I hope to see more videogame writers taking risks like this in the future.