Extract: Playing Dystopia. Nightmarish Worlds in Video Games and the Player’s Aesthetic Response.

© Metro2033 (4A Games, 2010)

Gerald Farca, doctor of philosophy in English literary studies/video game studies published a new book an the topic of Utopian, Dystopian and Anti-Dystopian Worlds presented to Players in Video Games and how Players react to those Worlds.

With permission of the transcript Verlag and of Gerald Farca we proudly present an Extract of his newly pusblished Book. The concerning Extract „THE FLUX OF IMAGES AND THE PLAYER’S CREATION OF THE AESTHETIC OBJECT IN Metro 2033“

Re-imprint with permission of transcript Verlag (2018, Bielefeld).

Wiederverwendung (bzw. Wiederabdruck) mit Genehmigung durch den transcript Verlag (2018, Bielefeld).

Print-ISBN 978-3-8376-4597-2
PDF-ISBN 978-3-8394-4597-6

Gerald Farca, born in 1983, did his doctorate at the University of Augsburg
(English Literature) and is a member of the Augsburg Cultural Ecology Research Group. In 2016, the digital culture and game studies scholar worked as a visiting researcher and lecturer at the Center for Computer Games Research of the IT University in Copenhagen.


It has been clarified so far that representational art — and the genres of SF, utopia, and dystopia inparticular (through their games of estrangement) — denies direct access to the empirical world. Instead, representations involve the appreciator in creative games of make-believe. They urge him into imaginings of a certain kind and the player to action and grant access to their worlds through acts of ideation. This feedback oscillation between fictional and empirical world is largely encouraged by the creation of images and their negotiation as the player closes the blanks between the perspectives he encounters and co-creates. I have previously outlined the player’s creation of images with the example of Journey, and I now wish to go into further detail by resorting to Iser:

The imagistic vision of the imagination is… not the impression objects make upon what Hume still called ‘sensation’; nor is it optical vision … it is, in fact, the attempt to ideate … [vorstellen] that which one can never see as such. The true character of these images consists in the fact that they bring to light aspects which could not have emerged through direct perception of the object.[1]

The discussion of image creation in the act of play becomes of benefit to understand the player’s venture into dystopia. It will not only illuminate how he is able to decipher the distorted dreamworlds but, in addition, will clarify the mechanisms behind the emancipatory window the genre offers — when the player catches a glimpse of the truth behind the experience and of the opaque nature of his empirical surroundings.

Metro 2033 does not deviate from this fact, and it would be hard to deny the naturalness of its aesthetic effect—sending the player on acathartic journey to enlightenment and having him ideate the images that compose and arise from his experience. These are in constant flux and their ever-changing signifieds urge the player to reconsider his previous imaginings and actions. In this respect, the tower at the game’s beginning and the image of the Dark Ones are of considerable importance. For, as Iser would say, they urge the player to imagine something that their iconic signs have not yet denoted but what is nonetheless guided through that denotation. Denotations transform into connotations, guided by the structural finesse of the game’s strategies, which allows the player to see the gameworld in a different manner and to create unexpected connections to his empirical surroundings.[2]

Figure 16: The image of the tower will ideate in the player’s mind and grant new insights into both the gameworld and the empirical world.

Perception and ideation are thus “two different [yet not mutually exclusive] means to access the world“: the former requiring an object’s “presence,” the latter its “absence or nonexistence.”[3] Although video games differ in this respect from literary works, as the player perceives large parts of the world (similar to the spectator or the viewer, whereas the world of a book can only be imagined), it is still necessary for him to ideate the truth behind these impressions and interactions. Such an enterprise will ultimately lead to the creation of the aesthetic object, whose initial “insubstantiality … spurs on the reader’s [/player’s] imagination” and induces him to partially complete “its shape.”[4] The creation of images, thereby, is by no means an arbitrary process but is guided by the textual positions and strategies that demarcate the reader’s journey and which formulate the “lines along which the imagination is to run.”[5] Following this train of thought, the strategies of a game become of fundamental importance to the participation process, since they guide the player on the lines of the ergodic and the imaginative, and set him in a dialectic with the work’s implied player.

The Blank and Its Ideation-Inducing Function as Positive Hint or Negation

To better understand the player’s acts of ideation, let me again resort to Metro 2033 in which the player takes on the role of twenty-year-old Artyom and embarks on a dreamlike journey of disclosure and disguise towards a mysterious tower. The tower is where the plot begins, at the story’s end, and eight days into the future. Artyom and Miller are about to finish their mission of dealing with the Dark Ones, a race of hostile creatures that through their psychicabilities induce nightmares in human beings and attack their stations. The first perspective segments contribute to this image. The player is about to reach the surface of what used to be Moscow and puts on his gas mask when a shadow, resembling a werewolf, bids him welcome to a frozen world. The threat is palpable, and once the player reaches the tower, his military convoy is attacked by vicious creatures. These first moments of the prologue (after which the game jumps back in time) introduce the player to the gameworld of Metro and anticipate future events. They are pregnant moments that create a space of uncertainty (indeterminacy) and function as “existential presuppositions” that, similar to the opening of a novel, indicate what can be found in this world and what is still to come.[6]

What the game achieves by doing so is not simply enabling the player’s understanding of this world but setting him on a journey towards the truth. This journey is structured by the form of indeterminacy I have termed the blank. Blanks, as Iser argues, “are the unseen joints of the text, and as they mark of schemata and textual perspectives from one another, they simultaneously trigger acts of ideation on the reader’s part.”[7] In doing so, the blank controls communication with a text/game and sets into motion the perspectives (segments)[8] encountered and created by the player. The drive for completion is here intertwined with that for combination, and this process of “passive synthesis”[9] induces the reader/player to slowly build up a gestalt, to create consistency by closing the blanks between the signs/perspectives.[10] The blank, as such, not only prompts the reader/player into imagining something that is not — the absent image upon which the player can act,not the reader—but it also structures this process in a decisive manner.[11]

Devising certain strategies, choosing how to proceed in a game, or imagining the gameworld’s particulars and plot details designate processes that are fuelled by the blank’s structure. In this form it is akin to what Doležel calls “positive (hints)”[12]—that is to say, it helps the player comprehend the plot and the game’s ludic structure and enables him to make informed decisions from these deliberations. In Metro 2033 this means understanding that the Dark Ones pose a threat and that for the sake of the game world and to complete the game, it is important to tackle the goal of defeating them, while comprehending how it could be done. The strategies of the game inform this process, and various perspectives aid the player’s comprehension, while virtualised potentialities enable him to actualise certain imaginings he deems possible and fruitful to enact.

This first function of the blank is complemented by what Doležel calls “negative (lacunae)”[13]—and herein lies the blank’s “aesthetic relevance.”[14] It is when play is at its most exciting that any attempts at “good continuation[15] in the comprehension process and the act of play are shattered. This is not to say that in order to create aesthetic complexity a game should be unplayable. But what it should do is have the player ponder problems, his tactics, and not present him with premature solutions to both ergodic and imaginative issues. In such cases, blanks “break up the connectability of the schemata, and thus they marshal selected norms and perspective segments into a fragmented, counterfactual, contrastive or telescoped sequence.”[16] The result is a confusing array of perspectives that often contradict eachother and stand in opposition in an intricate game of agôn. As such, they withstand convergence/synthesis—and this runs against the player’s habitual dispositions in that his expectations of the game are shattered, or at least refuted, while he tries to solve the conflicts he is presented with.[17]

Such hindrances to play may occur in basic and more complex forms. For now, however, it suffices to say that art (or at least complex art), “impedes the acts of ideation which form the basis for the constitution of meaning”[18] and spurs the appreciator into creating a sequence of images that move on one another. In constant flux, they negotiate what is presented and inconflict and what is created by the player, and devise an unprecedented newness. This occurs through “various types of negation,” which “invoke familiar or determinate elements only to cancel them out”[19] and coerce the reader/player into discarding previously composed images. First degree images turn into those of a “second degree,”[20] and it is the latter to which readers/players respond most intimately. For the potential of a perennial response lies in one’s own creations, through acts of negotiation and revision and by imagining the unthinkable.[21] The player’s increased involvement in a game intensifies these games of proximity and distance, there is no doubt, by testing and validating the created images through ergodic efforts and acting upon them.

Metro 2033 is a well-suited example to illustrate these issues and to address the guiding function of the blank as well as the ideation-inducing hindrance of negation. When the plot moves back eight days in the past, the player has already glimpsed the hostile world that awaits him. First impressions have formed, and these continue to be informed by perspective segments once we set out to discover Artyom’s home station Exhibition. The section begins in Artyom’s room, where postcards of the old world are pinned to a wall. He is informed that a man called Hunter is on his way to the stationand sets out to find him. On the way there, the player is made familiar with life in the Metro. There is chatter about disease and mutant attacks, while a child cries in the background. People in Exhibition blame the Dark Ones for their current situation, mentioning how they damage their prey’s minds through hallucinations. The existential fear of the Other is palpable in every respect, and the player passes a hospital area with men wounded by the attacks. What can be the solution to these issues, the player may ponder. For the situation is desperate and the station will no longer endure it.

It is obvious that these perspectives contribute to the negative image of the Dark Ones formed in the prologue, and further insights intensify these impressions. Finally, the player meets Hunter, who seems to know Artyom, as he brings him a postcard of the Statue of Liberty to complement his collection. Hunter is a high-ranking Polis Ranger and constitutes the first important character perspective, with a clear motto: “If it’s hostile, you kill it.”[22] The conversation is interrupted by a sequence in which the mutants attack. The player quickly gathers a weapon and ammunition, tensely awaiting the upcoming action. Exhibition is saved for now — in a brutal skirmish — and an additional perspective that complements the horizon of past perspectives is created through the player’s actions. For now, the situation seems clear: The Dark Ones pose a threat that needs to be dealt with, and the perspectives the player has gathered and co-created strengthen this insight. Various blanks were closed in the process, which guided the player’s involvement in the game, and led to the premature solving of the conflict. These deliberations and actions are further propelled by another perspective created through the informational distance between Artyom and the player. Although these share a similar point of view (first person) and most of the action Artyom conducts (except in cut scenes), the player does not know Artyom. He lives in a world that is unfamiliar to the player, which is emphasised by Artyom’s retrospective narration of the events leading up to the tower. This arrangement of affairs leads to the creation of the most interesting blank between the two, which comes to the fore at the game’s end.

Blanks in VGNs thus arise between the perspectives the player encounters in the game world and co-creates through his actions. They are closed by the player’s acts of ideation (and in imaginative games of alea), which are informed by his world knowledge and contribute to his understanding of the game world, and also to his ability to perform in it. The strategies of the game organise this involvement, as they structure “both the material of the text [the repertoire of the game, the familiar context it draws on] and the conditions under which the material is to be communicated.”[23]

The conditions thereby refer to the aesthetic arrangements of the perspectives, which are cancelled once the experience of the game is narrated afterwards. What this means for the strategies is important, since they help the player understand the game world through employing his real-world knowledge but, additionally, expose it to meticulous scrutiny. They thus constitute the juncture with the empirical world—and so familiar norms, conventions, or references to other fictional worlds are reorganised horizontally in the game’s perspectives and by virtualising potential actions and processes. Consequently, it is only through the player’s acts of ideation that these blanks can be closed.[24]

The Player as Wanderer Between Sensorial Impressions and Playful Actions, Themes and Horizons

The process of understanding the fictional game world and creating connections to the empirical world is thus informed by “a background-foreground relationship, with the chosen element in the foreground and its original context in the background.”[25] This is to say, familiar norms and conventions “establish a frame of reference” and background for gameplay. As they are liberated from their original surroundings, however, they are depragmatised in the fictional game world and allow for “hitherto unsuspected meanings.”[26] Such a relationship is similar to “that of figure and ground in Gestaltpsychology”[27] and helps the player not only to comprehend the plot on a basic level, but also the levels of concept or significance.

To do so, the reader/player creates a “primary gestalt [that] emerges out of the interacting characters and plot developments,”[28] the game world occurrences, and the player’s actions within it. This primary gestalt is more diverse[29] than it could be in a novel or film, because different players create a great variety of plots arising from the same story (if the game allows them to). However, at times the creation of the primary gestalt runs into hindrances, as the games of agôn juxtapose seemingly incommensurable perspectives.

As a consequence, the creative function of negation begins to exercise its effect, which is complemented by the vivid games of mimicry Metro 2033 plays with the player. These doublings and distortions contribute to the primordial force of the fictive and begin to affect the player’s involvement on a basic plot level. I have clarified before that the perspectives help the player get his bearings in the gameworld, but they may also stand in conflict to one another and negate themselves. This is because, similar to reality, watching a film, or reading a book, playing a game confronts the player with a panoply of vistas or perspectives, out of which only a fragmentary number can be discerned at any given moment. These are nonetheless “interwoven in the text[/game] and offer a constantly shifting constellation of views”[30] that bewilder the player. The “theme” thereby designates “the view” or action the player is “involved with at any particular moment.”[31] It is substituted by additional themes that emerge in the course of play and moves into the background and the “horizon[32] of previously encountered/enacted perspectives. The horizon of past perspectives thus includes both the inner perspectives of the text/game and the outer perspectives, which link the game to the empirical world, and conditions the player’s subsequent actions and imaginings based on the information he has gathered before (from the fictional and empirical world).[33]

Metro 2033 aggravates these games of agôn with a distorted dreamworld in which the true nature (or meaning) of the perspectives remains oblique. This is the case with the created image of the Dark Ones and the current gameworld situation that induces the player to handle the supposed threat. Such is the inevitable conclusion at this moment of play as the player draws from the horizon of past perspectives to compose it. Yet this image is fragile and will change, since with new perspectives, new impressions inform the player’s acts of ideation.

The continual interaction of perspectives throws new light on all positions linguistically manifested in the text, for each position is set in a fresh context, with the result that the reader’s attention is drawn to aspect hitherto not apparent.[34]

This statement gives a viable explanation as to why player actions are prone to assume different meanings in the aftermath of their execution—for example, when the player of The Walking Dead feels guilty about actions he previously deemed noble but which, through the encounter with new perspectives, turn out to be quite the contrary, or at least ambiguous. Consequently, with each new perspective—whether it is a player action, a character telling her news, a sign or gameworld process, “a retroactive effecton what has already been read [/played]”[35] is provoked, which results in potential “enrichment, as attitudes are at one and the same time refined and broadened.”[36]

Iser has called this process of continuous revision the reader’s “wandering viewpoint,”[37] an insightful and romantic term that is, nonetheless, not sufficient for the player. Because what he experiences rather resembles the venture of a wanderer between sensorial impressions andactions, between the floating of the spectator’s imagination and the ergodic participant’s navigation of and action within the gameworld. Such a feeling is unknown to a reader/viewer—think of how the player moves the virtual camera and catches a glimpse of an extraordinary event or discovers parts ofthe world that require his intervention. The perspectives he thereby encounters and co-creates are mapped to an entire panorama of sensorial impressions and actions that compose the horizon of perspectives that inform his subsequent actions and their potentiality (for players gain a feeling for what they can do in a game based on their previous knowledge/experience). This process, as Iser has remarked for the reader, is driven by a constant alternation between “retention and protension,” between what was and what is about to come (once theplayer acts).[38]

What follows from these observations is that the reader/player’s expectations are either confirmed by the newly encountered/co-created perspectives (this narrows down the semantic potential of the text/game; and to a degree the ergodic one) or they are frustrated and renegotiated in the flux of further perspectives in games of alea. The second option predominates in the literary text (in aesthetically complex literature) and forces the reader to constant reshaping of memory and the restructuring of the aesthetic object, when alea breaks open the semantic veil of the text and evokes the games of ilinxin the reader.[39] Such an initial frustration and semantic ambiguity occurs as well in Metro 2033 in the constant renegotiation of the image of the Dark Ones, whose formation is influenced by perspectives that stand in opposition. These hinder the player’s comprehension of the plot (and choice making in this respect) as well as his acts of ideation on the level of significance. They nonetheless drive the player to a constant renegotiation of the aesthetic object.

The Emergence of the Aesthetic Object Through the Creation of a Secondary Gestalt

Various hints and possibilities to action point at a different conclusion concerning the Dark Ones, and these begin with the hallucinations they evoke in Artyom. These are unclear to him but imply that the intentions of the supposedly hostile race maybe peaceful after all. This manifests itself in that the Dark Ones try to convince Artyom of their pacifism through pre-war images of a better world or sections in which they help him overcome the paranoia the Metro tunnels induce.[40] However, the hallucinations are not a reliable vantage point for now—for neither Artyom nor the player—and they could be a trick to stop Artyom from destroying the Dark Ones.

Figure 17: The image of the Darks Ones remains ambiguous. Are they attacking or surrendering?

Indeed, it seems that the games of estrangement and mimicry Metro 2033 involves the player in are the main reason for his confusion. To blame here is the technique of “inversion,”[41] which creates “discrepancies” in the player’s acts of ideation that “make him dispute his own gestalten” and induce him to constantly revise them.[42] This is because none of the game’s points of view are entirely reliable (includingthe prologue and the section at Exhibition). Consequently, the gestalts the player is initially composing (of the plot, game world, and character relations) are flawed, which affects the creation of a secondary gestalt that complements the first and extends it.[43]

[T]he plot is not an end in itself—it always serves a meaning, for stories are not told for their own sake but for the demonstration of something that extends beyond themselves. And so a gestalt that represents the plot development is still not completely closed. The closing can only come about when the significanceof the action can be represented by a further gestalt.[44]

The potential for confusion here is considerable, because both gestalts are necessarily intertwined, and one should not underestimate the importance of any one of them for the player’s acts of ideation. However, it is true that the secondary gestalt (which moves the player into the realms of significance and helps him understand the fictional world’s relation to the empirical world) is more flexible than the first and allows for a variety of fillings. This can be discerned in the fact that people seem to discuss more vividly the interpretation of a narrative (and what it means to them) rather than its plot details.[45]

The creation of the aesthetic object is thus a complex process, although one that works naturally if one shows the necessary willingness to do so. This fact and the necessity for an emancipated player should not be dismissed so easily—specifically for the genres of SF and dystopia. For as Moylan argues, the SF story involves the reader in a complex world he must take seriously and whose logic he needs to understand in order not to misinterpret it. Otherwise, and in “[a] refusal of an engaged, cognitive reading process,” he may “only find … [his] own position and prejudices bounced back at” him.[46] Playing dystopia proceeds similarly, and there are a plethora of instances in which the naive player can misplay these games and resist their aesthetic function (see the discussion of player types in chapter IV). In Metro 2033, this entails the loss of the revelatory effect at the game’s end, which I will come to shortly. The emancipated player resists such premature playing and, to experience dystopia’s aesthetic effect, he composes two intertwined gestalts during play.

This interplay between images on the plot level and their significance can be discerned relatively early in the game with the psychoanalytic connotation of the Metro tunnels. These hide a dark secret and set the player within the deepest regions of the human unconscious,which is characterised by the innate fear of Otherness. Such an image is fostered once the player connects the narrow stretches of the Metro tunnel to Freud’s deliberations on the night-time dream, while he passes through them with the phallic symbol of his weapon extended. In order to see this image more clearly, the acts of ideation need to be fed with additional perspectives. I have clarified that people in the stations suffer from deep trauma—not only because of the nuclear annihilation that caused the current state of affairs but more so in their mistrust of anything that seems different. Their lives underground are marked by isolation within the stations, and although there are trading networks, conflicts between the factions (ideologies) are ongoing.

An example of this is the never-ending battle at Cursed Station in which monsters (the Nosalises, a common enemy in the game) continuously attack the humans. They stand for those parts of the self that humankind can not get rid of and that fundamentally revolve around the instinct of survival and the mistrust of the Other (an image the player will steadily compose). After a barbaric slaughter, the section ends with the player entering a shrine at the tunnel’s end. It is guarded by shadows of fallen men, and access to it is only granted to the virtuous and pure at heart. Khan, who accompanies the player through this part of the game, leads him in. The experience thus serves as a reminder of the player’s deeds, by reconfiguring their image and having him ponder their ethical justification.

The second image I wish to stress is when the player passes a bridge that is contested by both the Red faction and the Nazi faction. Not even the apocalypse could stop them from bloodshed, and the bridge creates a terrifying but, at the same time, beautiful image of the futility of these conflicts. The player may choose to either sneak below the bridge or participate in the frenzy of combat—but he will certainly ask himself whether mankind is doomed to fight forever.[47] Consequently, through the experience of the factions in the game and how the player deals with them, he not only further comprehends this world but has already begun to compose a secondary gestalt by linking the enacted events to facts about his empirical world. This process is supported in that the factions and the rules by which they work are inspired by those of the empirical world—but they are crammed into the microcosm of the Metro stations and distorted in perception to have the player decipher this connection.

Important stations in the game thus include Hansa, the wealthy and capitalist trading centre in the metro, where a free market has been established and which is heavily guarded from the outside world. In addition, there is Polis, where the player encounters the head of the Rangers Miller. Polis is the centre of science and knowledge in the Metro. It is situated beneath the former Moscow State Library (a revelatory juxtaposition), and many scouting missions to extract its treasures are undertaken. However, although the best and brightest reside in Polis, they refrain from intervening in the issue of the Dark Ones, and, thus, the supposedly reasonable turn a blind eye to ethical issues. Miller, on the contrary, has a clear opinion. He exhibits militaristic characteristics of the empirical world and will accompany Artyom to the tower, after the latter has secured the D6 documents from the library—a place of knowledge and virtue,which the player scavenges for missile documents in the attempt to accomplish the game’s goal.

It is revelatory that Metro 2033 outlines various images for the player to compose, which include the negotiation of what he encounters and what he participates in. The stations are thereby important points of orientation. By understanding their ideologies, the player gains vital perspectives that will inform both the decision that awaits him and the analogic connection of the enacted events to the real world. In playing dystopia, he may thus get a glimpse behind the opaque nature of empirical reality by testing its norms, conventions, and processes in the condensed and defamiliarised version of the fictional gameworld. In this context the player’s actions also stand, which imply various signifieds: from a phallic symbol of power to the related one of waging a blind war against the Other, which has caused disaster before.

These possibilities not withstanding, the player does not need to fall into this trap of naiveté, of following orders (or game goals) without pondering their ramifications. In this regard, there is an important perspective that may help him see things differently. During the journey, he eventually meets the tempter of this story—the enigmatic figure Khan—who will become Artyom’s and the player’s mentor. Khan understands the psychic phenomena of the Metro and warns Artyom on various occasions that force is not the answer and that to “break this vicious circle one must do more than just act without any thought or doubt.”[48] The Khan chapters thus lead the player into the darkest parts of the Metro and into the deepest spheres of the human unconsciousness. They illustrate that even beneath human kind’s ugliest parts lies hope in the search for compassion and in a cathartic cleansing of the aggressions towards the Other. Shortly before the game’s final moments and the player’s ascension of the tower, Khan reminds him of these truths. He therefore exhibits those characteristics of empirical society that aim at prudence and dialogue, not warand destruction.

What enhances this image is that the conversation takes place in an old church underneath Moscow, which creates a beautiful inversion in that hell has extended to the surface of the planet, while only a few parts beneath it remain untouched. Khan’s perspective is thus to be seen in terms of an altruistic world view that promotes benevolence towards the Other and which stands in strong contrast to that of Miller, who has established a base of operations within the church. As such, the player is presented with two opposing perspectives that have plastered his way before and is set between the seemingly incommensurable fronts of war and peace and in an intricate game of agôn to which he can ergodically react. However, Metro 2033 does not make it easy for the player to have a say in this choice after all, for only the virtuous and pure-hearted maytake it and instigate a successful counter-narrativeto this dystopia.

Of critical importance in this respect is how the player behaves in certain situations in the game, and Metro 2033 pays close attention through a subtle morality system. It is the big choices but even more so the little choices that matter in a world of despair — and, consequently, decisions such as passing through certain areas without engaging in conflict, being generous to those in need by handing them ammunition or rejecting rewards for helping them, or listening to people’s problems (even to those of supposedly evil factions like the Nazis) will reward the player with morality points. A most precious example of such is when Artyom walks past a derelict playground and a vision of the Dark Ones fills it with life and the playing of children. If the player chooses to relish this moment, and even takes off his gasmask, he will receive a morality point, or even two. If he rushes through it, or shoots a bullet for any reason, the vision will end with a negative entry in the morality system. These are only a few instances in which the morality system takes grip of the player, but it suffices to say that only if he has a positive balance in the system is he able to choose the future of the Dark Ones at the game’s end.

The choice between killing the Dark Ones by the use of nuclear weapons or saving their species and averting a potential genocide thus soon awaits the ethical player. It is guided through various perspectives that negate each other and also (and probably more importantly) through virtualised potentialities inscribed in the gameworld. These are utopian enclaves the player can actualise or not—and it is only when he realises the stakes early enough that a utopian horizon to this dystopia can emerge. The image of the Dark Ones thereby remains ambiguous until the very end, and, consequently, the player is confronted with “incomplete information” and a choice that is based on “conflicting arguments for and against … that might have probabilities, but no certainties attached to them.”[49]

The decision, in other words, creates a space of “uncertainty”[50] (indeterminacy) about its outcome (alea). While the game’s primary goal is clear (defeat the Dark Ones), it also ascribes a major value to it, or what Domsch has called a “theological attitude” and “a clear hierarchical valorisation to the options offered.”[51] The emancipated player, however, knows no such fetters of the “ludic”[52] and refrains from the relentless pursuit of the primary goal. Instead, he embarks on an “explorative” and “paidic”[53] route and enables the imaginary (the games of alea and ilinx) to permeate his body by closing the blanks presented by the fictive in a creative and playful manner. This attempt to attain a “transcendental viewpoint” over the “positions” of a text/game (which nonetheless can never be reached entirely) is tantamount to approaching the aesthetic object.[54]

Metro 2033 thus has a persuasive effect on the player. It is evoked by what Sicart has called “ethical cognitive frictions” that “might encourage a thoughtful kind of play”[55] and have the player close various blanks in the process. The thereby composed image of the Dark Ones remains incomplete, but it may tempt the ethical player to save them from annihilation and to pursue an open-minded route towards the posthuman. For he understands that in order to overcome this world (to not let history repeat itself), humankind has to evolve and to free itself from the suspicion and fear of the Other. The Dark Ones have paved the way for it, but, in the end, it is up to the player to comprehend their message and to act accordingly.

Even in the game’s final moments such emancipatory thoughts are put to trial in games of alea, and the player’s abilities to think reasonably and to suppress irrational emotions or premature accusations are scrutinised. This can be discerned in his ascension of the tower, which evokes the psychoanalytical image of the phallus and humankind’s greed for power in the survival of the fittest. Having almost reached the primary game goal, Miller and Artyom are attacked by a demon, a flying monster resembling a bat. Miller is nearly killed in the encounter, but Artyom succeeds in defeating it. The player may now be filled with fictional anger for having almost lost a dear friend, while Artyom’s victory seemingly gets to his head. He now believes he is the strongest predator on Earth, and this frenzy of emotions is easily transferred to the player and furthered by the rapid ascent of the elevator, which like a seminal fluid shoots Artyom to its peak. Consequently, through this game of proximity and distance between the player and his PC, a blank emerges that can be closed in primarily two ways: succumbing to irrational instincts and the frenzy of combat (such as Artyom in this instance) or remaining calm by having in mind the greater picture (what Khan told the player).

Even the tranquil race of the Dark Ones are becoming nervous in the face of potential extinction. Although their reaction depends on whether the player shows a positive or negative morality balance, they utter doubt in both instances—going as far as trying to stop Artyom by inducing hallucinations in him. Playing Metro 2033 is thus precarious. It is driven by uncertainty and the loss of a potential Utopia, and yet it appears inescapable that the player has not become aware of these facts. Stepping into a creative dialectic with the game’s implied player, he was exposed to a system of perspectives that he has helped create. Various images were evoked through this involvement and by closing the blanks between the perspectives while at the same time negotiating the plot and its significance. These images of a secondary gestalt differ from player to player, but they are nonetheless outlined by the game’s strategies.

All in all, the experience of dystopia leads to the climactic moment where the player’s acts of ideation are tested — even when he is declined the choice due to previous failures. The magic, then, lies in a revelatory moment at the game’s end, which has the player ponder humankind’s true nature, which is deeply flawed. The game has outlined several images to come to such a conclusion and provide the insight that only in overcoming these primitive urges, will it be possible to create a sustainable future for generations to come.


[1]       Iser, Act, 137.; [2]       Ibid., 65-66, 137.; [3]       Ibid., 137; cf. 137.; [4]       Ibid., 92.; [5]       Ibid.; cf. 92.; [6]       Doležel, Heterocosmica, 175.; [7]       Iser, Act, 183, emphasis added.

[8]       The blank not only conditions the links between the perspectives of a text/game but also the indeterminate space between perspectives segments themselves. In combination, these compose a greater perspective: for example, if the reader/player is given only segments of a character’s personality and composes a coherent picture of that character through combinatorial acts. (Ibid., 182-183).

[9]       Ibid., 135.; [10]     Ibid., 118-120, 169.; [11]     Ibid., 135-136.; [12]     Doležel, Heterocosmica, 174.; [13]     Ibid.; [14]     Iser, Act, 186.; [15]     Ibid.; [16]     Ibid.; [17]     Ibid.; [18]     Ibid., 187-188.; [19]     Ibid., 169.; [20]     Ibid., 186.; [21]     Ibid., 186, 189.; [22]     Metro 2033 (4A Games, 2010), ch. Hunter.; [23]     Iser, Act, 86.; [24]     Ibid., 86-87.; [25]     Ibid., 93; emphasis added.; [26]     Ibid., 93; cf. 93.; [27]     Ibid.; [28]     Ibid., 123.

[29]     At the same time, it can, however, be described as less diverse. For when experiencing a novel, different readers may imagine the storyworld in different ways.

[30]     Ibid., 96; cf. 96, 116.; [31]     Ibid., 97; emphasis added.; [32]     Ibid.; emphasis added.; [33]     Ibid., 96-97.; [34]     Ibid., 97.; [35]     Ibid., 111.; [36]     Ibid., 99.; [37]     Ibid., 135.; [38]     Ibid., 111; cf. 110-111.; [39]     Ibid., 111-112.

[40]     Indeed, the conflict between the Dark Ones and the humans was caused by a misunderstanding, when the former approached the humans with peaceful intentions, but the humans were arrogant in their concept of humanity. Too afraid of change and driven by the anxiety of evolutionary defeat, the humans declined to accept the posthuman solution the Dark Ones promised. As homo novice, the Dark Ones are better adapted to the new world, but they are a life form humankind does not understand (or does not wish to understand)—all of which the player is unaware of for now.

[41]     Iser, Act, 131.; [42]     Ibid.; cf.131.; [43]     Ibid., 123.; [44]     Ibid.; [45]     Ibid.; [46]     Moylan, Scraps, 25; cf. 24-25.; [47]     Here again, I wish to stress the difference between the (uncritical) playthrough of the gamist or achiever player and that of the emancipated player, for the former will probably not come to such a conclusion.; [48]     Metro 2033 (4A Games, 2010), ch. Sparta.; [49]     Domsch, Storyplaying, 115.; [50]     Ibid.; [51]     Ibid., 116.; [52]     Ibid.; [53]     Ibid.; [54]     Iser, Act, 98; cf. 98.; [55]     Sicart, Beyond, 96.


4A Games. Metro 2033. THQ, 2010. Played on PC.

Domsch, Sebastian. Storyplaying: Agency and Narrative in Video Games. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2013.

Doležel, Lubomír. Heterocosmica: Fictional and Possible Worlds. Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 1998.

Iser, Wolfgang. The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response. Translated by Wilhelm Fink. Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 1978.

Moylan, Tom. Scraps of the Untainted Sky: Science Fiction, Utopia, Dystopia. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2000.

Sicart, Miguel. Beyond Choices: The Design of Ethical Gameplay. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2013.