rw5.jpg['Diamond In The Rough' is a regularly scheduled GameSetWatch opinion column by Tom Cross focusing game narratives and the ways that play, gaming, and narrative mix. This week, Tom examine's 4A Games' Metro 2033 and its use of dialogue, timing, and characterization to create believable post-apocalyptic communities.]

It’s rather hard to believe that people in video games ever go to the bathroom, given the lack of such facilities (or their equivalents) in most game worlds. For long, long years, we’ve been witness to the most bizarre phenomena: entire races, entire galaxies of people who seem content never go to the bathroom. Or at least, that’s what we as players must infer, thanks to the total absence of restrooms in the future, or in magic medieval land, or in the pseudo-steampunk Wild West.

We know that these people sleep, because from time to time we see a bed (or, rarely, beds). Of course, it’s hard to believe that these people use them much since for every 10 in-game humans there might be half a bed. It’s just how games are. We’re playing in worlds populated by sleepless, bladderless monsters.

Not all games should be required to feature perfectly rendered bathrooms, I’ll concede. I spend a good deal of my day not being in or seeing bathrooms, and I’m not a globetrotting archaeologist, bug-shooting space marine (I bet they can just pee in their suits), or a vengeful angel/demon/poet/muscled guy.

That’s still where this problem pops up the most however. Why doesn’t Lara uncover more ancient bathrooms, bedrooms, and other everyday things (because they’re not as cool as giant cog-machine rooms, obviously)? Why does Isaac Clark spend all of his time looting bathrooms for ammo and health (that’s definitely where I keep my ammo), but only occasionally finds a bunked or cot? Why does no one in Oblivion (a game full of ostentatious, assiduous sleepers) ever, ever go to the bathroom?

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I’m not just being persnickety here. Sure, it’s entertaining to make fun of games for their obvious, unselfconscious faults. But there’s a lot more to this than just a humorous lack of toilets in space. It’s that there aren’t any signs of human habitation as we know it. The odd bathroom or chair doesn’t make a place feel like a home, or a workplace, or a place any person would ever frequent with regularity.

The issue isn’t necessarily what “real” things we include in games: there are uncountable things from the real world that designers can plug into their games. It’s how we show these real-world things in-game. Once you play a game with good acting and good facial animations, you mostly forget these accomplishments: we’re only human, and we learn to ignore or accept things in games that we’re used to in the real world. It’s when you switch back to games with bad acting, writing, animations, and world-design that the necessity of these amenities becomes apparent.

That’s the problem with Oblivion. It may include people who can respond to a number of questions and who have daily schedules, but they all respond to the same questions, and they all act and look alike. I’m more enthralled with a town when its inhabitants call me names based on who I am, or run for cover when it rains (and comment on the rain), than I am by 10 sets of people all talking (and by that, I mean reading the exact same script) about the dead king of Cyrodiil.

Some designers skillfully maneuver around these issues by creating highly detailed, (mostly) fully stocked “lived in” areas in parts of their games, and completely ignoring such details in other areas. That’s currently the “best” solution, it would seem, but it ignores the true heart of the problem. Mass Effect 2 has two gender-specific bathrooms (which allows for the ship’s computer to chide you for entering the “wrong” bathroom), but its crew quarters is woefully small, and no one on the ship ever moves an inch. That must be hard on their feet.

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Unsurprisingly, Valve does some of the best bathrooms out there. In the Left 4 Dead series, like in Dead Space, bathrooms signify dead ends, traps, and supply caches. They’ve been set up this way by the designers, but in Dead Space they feel out of place. The ship is so segmented and distanced from any real sense of contiguous space that bathrooms (some sections of the ship don’t have them, which is awkward) feel out of place, when they really shouldn’t. Left 4 Dead 2’s bathrooms are everywhere. That’s all that’s necessary.

It doesn’t help that the worlds of Mass Effect 2 and Oblivion (and, of course, Fallout 3) are gratingly inorganic and non-interactive. The things NPCs do in these games are so openly rigid and mechanical (and we’re given an amazing amount of access to their lives) that we can’t help but notice how strange these people are. It doesn’t matter that they do lots and lots of stuff. It all looks and sounds horribly alien. Maybe, if these games showed less and implied more, we’d be more likely to believe in their fictions.

Games that hide this as-yet unsolved design hurdle are those that mix deft, thorough recreation of human activity with strong world-building and moment-to-moment characterization. They’re also the games that never let you see these cleverly built interactions for more than a few minutes at a time. A game like The Witcher may have the backing of a large number of fantasy novels to back it up, but its world is a convincing one for other reasons.

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Plenty of games use movies and books as the influence, inspiration, or springboard for their own digital worlds. I think it’s safe to say that when we think about game worlds derived from other media, we aren’t exactly thrilled by the products that come to mind. Games that create convincing worlds do so regardless of their origins. The Witcher feels like a complete and full world because all of its bits and pieces, its grand sweeping arcs and minute developments. While the game spends a considerable amount of time explaining this world to us, it’s also happy to throw us into new situations with new people. When a new character appears, she and Geralt have a shared past, or she in turn has a history with other major characters in the game.

It’s this self-assured method of exposition, plot development, and character progression that makes the world of The Witcher feel full and lived-in, not all of the combined works of Andrzej Sapkowski. All of The Witcher’s monsters (with their charming verb-made-noun names, like “Drowner,” so similar to “Witcher”) feel lethal and interesting because everyone else in the world treats those monsters in their own different, quite serious ways. The swamp people worship creatures they call “the fish people,” while the soldiers and woodcutters in the area hate these watery “gods.” Even though most characters won’t do more than spit out a few canned responses when clicked on, the people and creatures in this world feel right. We’re not being lead by the nose to each plot point and character reveal, but we aren’t being thrown (too far) into the deep end, either. The world and its denizens feel as if they are aware of each other, as if they have relationships with each other(even if they never speak of such things). Most video game worlds couldn’t be bothered with themselves: the player is all that matters.

When we see these worlds that show such an alarming lack of self-concern, we see worlds that don’t make sense, worlds whose history and quirky present are boring. If the world isn’t aware of itself, if it doesn’t react to people and events within its bounds, then why should we care? A game that follows a parallel path (regarding world-building and character presentation) is Metro 2033. Like The Witcher, it creates deep, multi-layered in-game areas chock-full of NPCs, and like The Witcher, most of those NPCs are little more than convincingly rendered, silent automatons. But, like The Witcher’s mostly wordless NPCs, Metro 2033’s extras inhabit a world whose depth and interactivity are (though mostly nonexistent when compared to “open world” games) cleverly and persuasively fabricated.

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In 4A's Metro 2033, which has just debuted for Xbox 360 and PC via publisher THQ, incidental characters have the kind of world-building, carefully spaced conversations reviewers love to praise in big-budget action games. Let’s stop and consider the opening scene in Modern Warfare 2, the one that depicts an american military base at its (relative) ease. Soldiers work and train, but they also play, mess around, and listen to music. Every single scene in Metro 2033 involving a gaggle of humans struggling to survive practically drips attention to these kinds of details.

As you wend your way through the shanties and locked doors, you can hear a father trying not to tell his son that the boy’s mother is dead. You can hear a cleaning women muttering under her breath about the pigs she cleans up after. People sit, talk, drink, or go about their business. If you stick around and examine this tableau for longer than a few minutes, you’ll see that no one moves from their spots, that no new conversations emerge to entertain you.

That’s why Metro 2033 quickly ushers you past these carefully orchestrated scenes of post-apocalyptic everyday life. As slivers of others’ existences, they are entertaining, frightening, and interesting. They’re not meant for prolonged viewing. In this aspect of its design, Metro 2033 reminds me of nothing so much as Half Life 2 and its episodes. Valve loves to use this trick.

When Gordon and Alyx catch a breather in a rebel base, I can listen in to any number of amusing, heartfelt conversations. People argue about weapons, battles, and the main characters in the game. Valve isn’t as keen to push you past these little scenes. Their characters have a lot to say, even if they’re bit players. In the end though, Valve knows better than to let you watch these fake people fail to reproduce a semblance of humanity. You’re always tugged along to the next conversation or fight, just as the human rebels sitting in a circle start to look a little too canned, too unnatural.

Metro 2033 does Valve (and really, everyone else) one better by applying this attention to interpersonal detail to the gameplay and interface of their Moscow. While Metro 2033’s human outposts (bethey friendly or not so friendly) feel like dirty, wonderfully realized versions of Valve’s favorite breath-catching spot, the rebel base, the tunnels and overworld of Metro 2033 feel much less advanced.

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Whoever designed the UI, item interface, and combat of Metro 2033 should get some kind of award for originality (or at least ingenuity) in presentation. Nothing is conveyed to the character through nonsensical onscreen prompts unless there isn’t a clever way to plug it into the game world. It’s a lot like Far Cry 2’s approach to immersive physicality, except the world in Metro 2033 is just as convincing as the character animations.

Your compass, objectives, and sub-objectives are all on a clipboard that you can look at by holding down a button. Your level of visibility and remaining clean air (much of the game takes place in gaseous, toxic areas, like Moscow’s surface) are represented by glowing dials and lights on your watch and wrist. You can ascertain everything about your character just by looking at your clipboard and hands. All of your guns have visible, countable clips and bullets. Many of them (along with your flashlight) have to be pumped up to operate at full capacity.

Everything you do has an intensely, screen-filling personal and physical heft and weight. It feels really great, this level of in-game, in-world intermingling, and it’s backed up by some very strong guided cutscenes. One particularly unpleasant moment sees your character strapped to the bottom of a train car, travelling to the frontlines of a war. This is a game that doesn’t shy away from yanking the camera out of your control and showing you exactly what you need to see to heighten the game’s tensest moments. It cleverly casts your character in the role of gunner or backup shooter, or passenger, so you can watch as your friends and companions are slowly ripped to shreds.

In Metro 2033, after the bombs dropped and humanity continued to (barely) survive inside the metro, something mysterious and deadly began to mutate and change life in and below Moscow. While this is a rather tired plot contrivance, the Metro 2033 writers (and, of course, the book the game is based on) managed to make things interesting by throwing a spiritual, ghostly menace into the mix.

The aforementioned scripted first person cutscenes are used to incredible, ghostly effect: the shadowy, whispering denizens of the spirit-world that exists parallel to the physical world of metro 2033 are implacable and inescapable. When you hear their whispers and see their telltale physical manifestations, you’ll be understandably afraid. Sadly, all of this to-do about mutants and ghosts means that your principle enemies in the game (when not nasty humans) are crawling, jumping monsters straight out of the first Far Cry. They’re hard to kill, they spawn all over the place, they run at about knee-level, and they ruin what should be the game’s most promising set of ideas. They lack any of the strong character-work on display in the rest of Metro 2033.

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Then there are the survival horror and upgrade elements of Metro 2033. Bullets are a rare commodity, enemies are tough, and you’re always counting and missing every single projectile you let fly. Pre-war bullets are rarities, used to barter for weapons and new, cheaply and badly made bullets. This is where Metro 2033 begins to break down.

In a game that looks like a scary corridor shooter,  a game whose most common enemies are hard to kill and take an inordinate number of bullets to fell, scavenge-centric survival horror gameplay can be incredibly frustrating. Of course, this scarcity of resources, when combined with an almost overpowering enemy force, creates a powerful atmosphere of danger. Yet Metro 2033 isn’t just content to communicate the horrible conditions everyone in Moscow lives in. They do one better and make combat in the game a pretty horrible experience.

And still I play it, despite these wretchedly checkpointed gun battles and painfully tough mutants. I’d like to say that the limited upgrade system and item collection mechanics are what keep me going (as they so often are), but this isn’t the case. I love the game’s human enclaves, the scrabbling, desperate dregs of humanity watching me wearily as I head out into the deadly tunnels of the underground.

I love that the tiniest of details are always lavished with such care: cracked gas masks, cold, still exteriors, and increasingly alarming ghostly encounters: no other game makes you feel like this. I would never want to go to this version of Moscow, but every time I visit it, I forget or accept the game’s bad combat and enemy design. I walk the halls and tunnels beneath Moscow, and I can’t think of anywhere else I’ve been in a game that feels quite as real, or quite as crushingly despairing.

[Tom Cross writes for Gamers' Temple and Popmatters, and blogs about games at Delayed Responsibility. You can contact him at romain47 at gmail dot com.]