Bleak. Beautiful. Oppressive. That’s the situation in Metro: Last Light, the latest (read: second) in the Metro series by 4A Games. It is also poignant, resonant, and haunting. It follows the genesis set forth in Metro 2033, allowing the player to once again control Artyom as he sets out to the hostile surface to kill the last surviving Dark One.
Dark Ones are those that were left out in the irradiated world after a nuclear war broke out at the end of 2013. 20 years of mutating and living in an abandoned wasteland has caused them to be more than hostile. In fact, most of the world now is plenty pugnacious seeing as how everything has gone to shit, and it sets up a fantastic world through which you can explore.
Metro 2033 was known for creating an intensely and thoroughly complete world that you can wander and poke around in. Much in the vein of games like Miasmata where diegetic instruments replace things that would normally be a meta HUD element like maps and timers, it was all about steeping you in the atmosphere. If it could be avoided, you would never have to disengage from direct interactions with the virtual world. From what I’ve seen of Metro: Last Light, it seems as though that tradition is being continued.
One key aspect, in fact, has made the trip over on the development gondola: Russian audio. There are plenty of other games out there with different audio tracks you can choose from and different subtitle languages to peruse (most triple-A titles, in fact, are translated and re-recorded for other territories), but Last Light is somewhat special in that its native tongue is not English.
That adds to the atmosphere of Last Light in some very important ways. English, for all its widespread use and massive utility among some literary classics, is a rather clunky language. There’s an entire part of speech (adverbs) that most writers decry as pointless at best and evil at worst. Complex syntax generally precludes intelligibility. But most of all, English just kind of sounds weird.
Russian, on the other hand, is one of the most beautiful-sounding languages in the world (its quality as an actual morphological subject is a different topic entirely). It strikes a startling similarity to the beauty presented in the visuals of Last Light. The game puts you in a dire situation—a dying species on a dying planet with joy, food, and water on extremely short supply—but makes it look amazing. I never realized a rock could look so could, especially contrasted with the normal maps and diffuse lighting on this hard place (#jokes).
Even Russian profanity comes out smooth and effortlessly. I suppose it has to do with Russian’s reduction on unstressed vowels so it gives the mouth something to physically hang onto as it maneuvers around the language. But it can also sound overbearing and manically aggressive. Mark Twain once wrote an entire essay about the complications with learning German, but he also stated that it was impossible to come across as angry with the language. Granted, German has changed since his time, but it is in stark contrast with what Russian is able to evoke.
When members of your team or those ornery folk trying to load you up with bullets are yelling at you in Russian, it feels god damn awful. It feels so much sharper and more caustic than the general profane nonsense that comes out of English mouths. Much like how the game itself shifts from scenes of empty but objective, symmetrical beauty, the language of its native setting moves between a facilitated, easy cadence and a shot of aural pain.
Of course, there’s the fact that the Russian voice actors just sound so much better than the Slavic-tinged English of the localized audio. Which I wouldn’t say is necessarily the fault of those Eastern Bloc actors where the English coming out of their mouths feels like a thick porridge being thrown at the wall and more a fault of the conflicting subtleties of the two different languages’ phonemes. It makes the underground world feel more foreign than native, a notion in direct opposition with the established setting of the game. The surface is supposed to be alien and unnerving while the underground should be familiar but dangerous.
And as an added bonus, it becomes a lot harder to recognize when you hear the same NPC bark over and over again.
There is obviously a lot more to Metro: Last Light than a simple little language setting, but for a game so heartily dependent on establishing an atmosphere and setting you loose in its warped terrarium of mutants and gunfights, it’s an important setting. Granted, I don’t speak Russian and I have a soft spot for choosing subtitles over dubs in foreign films, but it’s very obvious 4A Games set out to create a coherent, cogent world and that being in their native language and environment is very important to that world. So play into their vision. It’s a good one, if a little bleak.