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Metro 2033 and the poetics of urban agoraphobia

They call it a demon, and it lurks just out of sight. The first time your player reaches the surface in Metro 2033, your ally laughs after he tells you that.

“I call them bitches,” he adds. They’re winged monstrosities, mutated and angry, haunting the irradiated Russian surface. They’re nearly impossible to kill and almost as hard to keep track of. The demons are crystallized fear, the ever-present danger of the unknown dogging you, punishing you if you stay exposed for too long. The moment I encounter a demon, my reaction is instantaneous, pavlovian. Damn, I say to myself, hurrying to my next objective. I need to get back inside.

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In the world of Metro 2033, based on the science fiction novels by Russian author Dmitry Glukhovsky, “inside” refers to the 200 kilometers of the Moscow Metro system, a sprawling network of subway tunnels that have become home to the remains of Moscow’s population. Twenty years prior to the titular 2033, a nuclear holocaust destroyed the city, and, as per real plans made during the Soviet era, the surviving population fled underground, turning the metro into a series of fallout shelters that grew, over twenty years, into a makeshift society, cloistered and shuffling around broken-down trains.

Released in 2010, Metro 2033 launched to little fanfare. It was lauded for its strong sense of atmosphere and narrative, but didn’t get much in-depth attention otherwise. (Last August, it was re-released for new consoles and PC along with its sequel, as Metro: Redux, featuring a host of tweaks and revisions. Despite being one of the best re-releases put out last year, it failed to revive considered interest in the game.) But even five years later, the world of the Metro games, and particularly of Metro 2033, is engrossing, with spaces that are thoughtfully crafted to make specific points. The player’s entry into this world is Artyom, a young man forced out of his home station to find a way to fight the Dark Ones, paranormal creatures who are massacring the already beleaguered metro populace.

Artyom’s journey takes you all across the metro, showcasing the society these few have built for themselves after the end. It’s miserable. The metro has communists, it has nazis, plus irradiated dog-monsters, starvation, and rotting corpses everywhere. It’s tiny, cruel, and haunted. Over the course of the game, though, Metro 2033 has a way of making it feel like home. Because in order to complete his quest, Artyom also has to journey to the frozen ruins of Moscow’s surface. Metro 2033 works to traumatize you, to expose you to the post-nuclear surface and its horrors until the claustrophobic underground feels cozy. Spend enough time in the metro, and you become agoraphobic, huddled in the darkness out of fear of what lurks above.

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In popular culture, agoraphobia is typically associated with the simple fear of going outside—in our imagining, agoraphobics are shut-ins, never venturing out of their bedrooms. In reality, agoraphobia is a type of anxiety disorder characterized by a fear of situations where panic seems to be likely, where the sufferer perceives the possibility of embarrassment, danger, or unmanageable anxiety without recourse. Often, it’s a result of a trauma or set of traumas that tie themselves to certain forms of space, certain locations where danger feels higher than normal, where boundaries can’t be navigated or controlled. Writing on the origins of agoraphobia in modernity, scholar Joshua Holmes connects this form of trauma directly to the nature of modern urban spaces, using the example of a bridge as a fundamentally modern urban space:

“Symbolically, the bridge is a connector and therefore a triumphant emblem of modernity. But the converse of connection is the breaking, or even transgressing of boundaries. The bridge is a boundary breaker, an intrusion into bounded spaces…inherent in modernity is the breaking of and remaking of boundaries. This can lead to psychological strain, of which agoraphobia is a manifestation.”

The broken-down spaces of the Muscovite surface in Metro 2033 are a dark rereading of this idea, boundary-breaking urban expansiveness laid bare. Games of the running and shooting variety tend to prize large urban spaces in their design, working to build flexible environments that lend the player a sense of freedom, allowing her to approach challenges in varied ways. The surface sections in Metro 2033 turn that design on its head. Here, the freedom is oppressive, less a symbol of empowerment and more a sign of a total lack of control.

The surface is hostile to you in every way possible. The skies are haunted by demons, and since you can’t kill them you’re forced to huddle under any overhang you can find, waiting for the flapping of their wings to fade. Nosalies, the mutant dogs, are much more numerous on the surface, and will attack you in roving packs as you scrounge through rubble and collapsed buildings. They transgress the boundaries of your comfort, standing in for the unavoidable crowds of actual urban spaces, always homing in on you and refusing you more than a moment’s peace. And all the while, the air on the surface is toxic, forcing you to don a gas mask that’s always running out of filters, forcing you to scavenge as you go and keep an eye on your air at every moment, the fear of suffocation always at your back.

Even more troubling, Artyom is plagued by frequent hallucinations on the surface, psychic echoes of the nuclear tragedy that occurred there. At one point, you walk through what used to be a small playground, and you briefly get a view of what it was like in the moments immediately prior to the bombs dropping. Children playing, parents looking along affectionately—then collapse, and fire. Every moment spent on the surface is among the highest-tension moments in the game, a compounding experience in vulnerability and fear that teaches you a simple lesson. This place is out of your control. You don’t belong here.

By contrast, the metro, as terrible as it is, starts feeling comfortable.

Here, the freedom is opressive

Subways are naturally orderly spaces, each corridor and tunnel built with a purpose, moving people and property in a mechanical, logical way. Transfigured here into the home of a new human society, they are a hope for order, a place where control can be measured along the length of the train tracks. There’s a sort of technological optimism in the very idea of the metro, a means to move people and goods in a way that’s safe, orderly, and easy to manage. Even broken down and turned into fall out shelters, the remains of that idea linger in its shape. The metro is welcomingly claustrophobic, offering what the surface lacks so direly: borders, walls, and the space to manage them comfortably.

This extends into the way you interact with the metro’s denizens. Here, your opponents are mostly human (remember those nazis?) and the order of the day is stealth. The metro is full of shadows and sharp corners, giving you the ability to engage or avoid in a measured, deliberate fashion This lends the encounters in the subway a sense of controllability. After the earlier encounters with the various horrors of the surface, facing humans is almost relaxing. After all, you know how to deal with people. They’re predictable, with familiar weak points and mappable paths.

The metro, then, forms an effective emotional counterpoint to the chaos of the surface. Up there, everything is out of control, boundaries impossible to create or navigate. Down here, I have a little bit of safety, a little bit of power. I belong here.

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Videogames can’t comfortably provide an easy 1:1 exploration of real mental illness or trauma, major releases with dystopian settings and rusted AK-47s even less so. But videogames, particularly, I think, horror games, with their bent on giving the player a safe place to open themselves up to imitation forms of psychological harm, can offer a window into what those experiences might be like. This is what Metro 2033 does so well. The world of Metro 2033 is a world of trauma made vivid and monstrous, using the vessel of dystopian fiction to dramatize Holmes’ agoraphobic modernity in stark terms, pulling the player into the mindset of the traumatized.

Early in the game, it’s revealed that Artyom has a photo collection. They’re pictures of landscapes and landmarks from the world before; the Empire State Building, the Eiffel Tower. You can spend a moment looking at them on the walls of his bedroom: beautiful pictures of places that have been made permanently inaccessible. These are the idealized version of urban spaces: all connection, no alienation, big comforting landmarks that symbolize man’s ability to create and grow and unite. They’re also fundamentally orderly spaces, designed as straightforward rallying points of national and humanistic pride. Here, they only serve to make the urban spaces you do visit all the more terrible and frightening. The ruined, gray cityscapes of post-apocalyptic Moscow are the opposite exaggeration, all disconnection, demons hiding behind the rubble.