Metro: Last Light Interview
Metro: Last Light, the sequel to 4A Games’ post-apocalyptic shooter Metro 2033 is shaping up to be a killer sequel. We caught up with executive producer Dean Sharpe, and communications lead Huw Beynon to discuss why this could be one of the best sequels of the generation.
4A Games had input from Dimitry Glukhovsky when creating Metro: 2033. Have you had any dialogue with him when creating Metro: Last Light?
DS: He’s not so much involved with Metro: Last Light as he was with the last one. He helped create the story, but after that his involvement pretty much ended.
We still have a friendly relationship with him though, so he’s still there if we get stuck, or if we need ideas we’ll talk to him. But for the most part, it’s the 4A team coming up with the story on this one.
Before it the game was called Metro: Last Light, it was rumoured under the name ‘Metro 2034’, which is also the name of Dimitry’s second book. As the game is made up largely of 4A’s own ideas, did this result in a name change?
HB: Yeah, that was one of those things that kind of leaked out when it shouldn’t have. We had ‘Metro 2034’ as our internal working title for the game, before we actually settled on calling it Metro: Last Light. I think one of our exuberant executives might have let that slip to a journalist (laughs).
Oh right (laughs)
HB: You know what the internet is like though. The next thing it’s, ‘Metro 2034 in development’ getting plastered everywhere. So yeah, it was never really meant to be ‘Metro 2034’, because Dimitry’s book of the same name is very, very different.
He kind of crafted the outline of the plot that would follow as the true sequel to Metro 2033 for us, and we’ve kind of taken it from there.
Well, there goes the neighbourhood.
The actual plot of Metro: Last Light is said to follow on from the bad ending of Metro 2033, which is quite a bold, rare thing to do, as so many games go out on a relative high.
DS: Ah, but which one is the bad ending, and which one is the good ending? (laughs)
Ah, so there are definitely shades of grey that unfold in Metro: Last Light then?
HB: Well, is it even so black and white?
OK, that’s really interesting now. In that case then, why did you choose to make the so-called ‘bad’ route canon?
HB: It’s the canon of the book, but as with a lot of the best science fiction, there are plenty of different layers to Dimitry’s original novel. The whole idea of the factions warring against each other is his kind-of pseudo critique of what he saw as the state of contemporary Russian politics.
Lots of science fiction has something to say about our present time, and the ending of the book – in which Artyom destroys the Dark One, and he’s not actually aware that they represent the last line of hope for humanity – is obviously a very pessimistic ending.
It’s definitely the message that Dimitry wanted to put out. I think as the basis for a follow-on story, it’s a lot more interesting to follow the canon, than to follow that happy, ‘Oh, Artyom realised just in time, and actually saved everyone’ ending. It gives us a much more interesting starting point for Metro: Last Light.
Is there any danger of a disconnect with those who only saw the ‘good’ ending?
HB: Everyone who knows anything about the game knows there’s an alternative ending to Metro 2033. You know, it’s discussed and it’s talked about, but when we look at the achievements on Steam and Xbox Live, they tell us how many people actually got the alternative ending.
It’s something like 2.5 percent of people who got to that alternative ending. So the vast majority of the people who played through the first game may be aware that there’s a different ending, but we really hid that alternate ending in there, and it’s an extremely rare achievement for people to have got.
DS: I think it’s also important to maintain the spirit of the first book, and the universe. Certainly, as Huw said, the spirit of the first book was of this dark, depressing nature. To stay with that spirit, it was important to follow along with that.
Topside, the battles are getting worse.
So in terms of plot progression this time around, where can we expect the story to take Artyom?
HB: We’ve kind of given a little bit of context for it, and I think the first thing we’re trying to figure out, is how we get down from the tower. Artyom has kind of been taken under the wing of The Order of Rangers, and the broader context that we want to put the story into gives you this sense of upcoming civil war within the Metro.
Again, it’s kind of continuing this theme of Dimitry’s from the first game, in that you have 40,000 people left, surviving from the holocaust.
You kind of hope that they would just band together, and work together, but instead they’ve just split off into these antagonistic factions who are fighting against each other.
With the discovery of, and opening of D6 at the end of Metro 2033, there’s a very juicy prize sat at the centre of the Metro. So that’s really the context that we’ve laid out.
We’re not really going to talk too much about the story beyond that, because I think that’s something we’d rather let players find out for themselves as they play it.
It’s particularly interesting, because there isn’t a Metro book for people to follow this time, like there was with Metro 2033. This is going to be their own discovery of the story as they play through it.
One area of Metro 2033 that really told a strong story were the checkpoint camps, in which you can really get a sense of how the survivors live in their harsh environment. Will those areas be expanded and more interactive this time around?
DS: Well I’d say expanded isn’t the word, but it’s really tough whenever you’re doing a game like this, and you’re trying to get a story across while giving some interaction.
But you don’t want to do it to the point where it bogs down the gameplay and it feels like you’re dragging through it. We’re always trying to look for ways to expand the interactivity, but not to the point that it brings the gameplay down too much.
Interactivity aside, how has the team fleshed out, or populated these checkpoint areas beyond the first game?
DS: We put a lot of focus in trying to expand on the Metro stations and to give them more life, and I thought they had quite a bit of life in the first game, but we’re really trying to push things in Metro: Last Light to give them even more life, and more detail.
If you haven’t seen this bit in motion, watch the trailer, seriously.
We were having a discussion in the office about the bullet currency system that plays out at the Metro station shops. Will this system remain the same in Metro: Last Light?
DS: We’re still working on that, and I’m not sure that it will be exactly the same. Without a doubt, I think that in the first game the system was really confusing.
Whichever way the new system goes, it will be much more understandable, because we know that some gamers had problems with it. Hell, even I was confused by it at some points.
We’ve seen snippets of Metro: Last Light footage behind closed doors at both E3 and Gamescom. The visual quality is outstanding. Can you give us an insight into what tech is running behind the scenes?
DS: Well, the tech is still the original engine running from the first game, which we continue to improve and optimise. You can really see it in the E3 gameplay demo, specifically the scene with Artyom sneaking through a crowd of enemies. When I first saw that, even in the studio, I just thought it was amazing.
Our lead programmer never ceases to amaze me. He’s just continuing to push the envelope, and I remember he came back from GDC this year and he was like, “Damn it!”
So I said, “Woah, woah, what’s going on?” and he’s like, “The other programmers. They keep doing new stuff, so I guess I’m going to have to go and make my stuff better.”
I just said, “Yeah I guess you are” [laughs]. The guy is great, he never quits. I mean I could get into the specifics of the game engine, but I think that’s probably a different conversation.
You can taste the atmosphere. Go on, lick your screen.
There are clearly benefits to making your own in-house engine. Would it be fair to say that 4A Games is ‘future proofing’ itself by pushing the possibilities of its engine?
DS: Any time your engine is developed in-house, it’s somewhat future tech in itself. The dangers of working with an off-the-shelf engine, is that you’re limited by working in a way that was pre-determined by the people who developed the engine.
So much of an engine’s power – regardless of who built it – is around the way in which the users work. In what way is the studio comfortable when developing?
How do they like the pipeline to work? That’s why so often, different groups use the same engine and have a really hard time, because any good engine is always developed with the team’s specific needs in mind.
When you’re using in-house engines you’re always using future tech, because you built it based on your team. You’re always going to have, in theory, your core team and so the engine is just going to grow with them.
Although, nothing is ever truly ‘future proofed’. Who knows, say five years down the line, what technology will be like, and maybe we’ll have to throw everything away? But for the foreseeable future, I think we’re in good shape.
We’ve seen evidence of the engine being improved through the highly impressive destruction in Metro: Last Light. Will destruction play a bigger part in the gameplay this time?
DS: See, the funny thing is that all of that tech was in the last engine, but we just didn’t utilise it enough. When we came to do Metro: Last Light, we really souped it up a lot further along with the physics, and put an emphasis on building it into the gameplay.
But it’s not completely scripted is it? The destruction is completely reactive to what the player and NPCs are doing.
DS: Scripted? No, it’s just a question of the level-builders going through each area and making certain elements destructible. It brings a lot to the gameplay, because it’s almost impossible to determine how that stuff is going to play out.
None of that is scripted in there; it’s just that we’re really creating areas in the game that really lend themselves to being destructible. Things like destructible cover are really there from a design standpoint, rather than a scripting standpoint.
We also saw a glimpse of the city surface in the E3 demo, and it was suggested that the air was clearing up now. Will you still need a gas mask to get around? Because many gamers we’ve spoken to were frustrated by the difficulty of those sections in Metro 2033.
DS: Oh yeah, it’ll be the same old, same old, and maybe some new elements too. As for the difficulty, you know, I thought we actually needed to go further with it [laughs].
Oh dear [laughs]
DS: Yeah I mean, I thought the tension was great. But I think it could have been tuned a little bit better, so that you’re on your last gasp of oxygen just before you find a new gas canister.
HB: A huge amount of those sections also comes down to how you educate the player. There was no point during Metro 2033 where we actually explain to the player, “You have a finite amount of air canisters. They’re going to run out, and when they do, you’re going to die.” [Laughs]
But, there are all of these hidden air caches, other Stalkers who have died and have dropped an air stash, so by that logic it should be your first thought to scavenge for air. Now, if the player goes into those outdoor levels with that understanding, then the idea works better.
So it’s about explaining the mechanic visually then, rather than spelling it out for them in full?
HB: It’s works as an idea, but do we actually explain how the mechanic works to the player? We probably didn’t do a very good job in the first game, and I think the challenge this time is not to make it easier, but to actually explain the mechanic a little bit better, and actually make the game harder.
How challenging is it to convey these things through visual means alone?
DS: It is yeah. I mean that’s the trick. When you’re shooting for realism and emergence in the environment, the last thing you want to do is plaster, “To use the canister, press the X button”, all over the screen. It is very challenging to communicate instructions without doing that.
HB: I’ve been going back to play Half-Life 2 recently, and that must be one of the benchmarks in terms of how they communicate their new toys as you get them, like with the Gravity Gun. They build the tutorial into stuff that you’re actually doing.
DS: Oh, I actually have to disagree with that. I’d say the best example is Earthworm Jim on 16-bit consoles [Laughs]
Never wash your eyes again.
Another mechanic we’ve seen returning from Metro 2033 is stealth. We’ve asked around the office and many of us felt that the stealth sections were lacking polish. How have you improved them in Metro: Last Light?
DS: It was just broken in the first game [Laughs] but you know, I think what is very indicative of the team here is that they always err on the side of over-realistic. That sounds good in theory, but in reality; there’s nothing realistic about a video game.
If you make a single noise, then that shouldn’t break stealth. Just like if you’re in a warehouse with 50 other people, and you make too loud a noise, then you’re probably going to be dead.
We’re all about pushing the stealth mechanic so that it remains fun, and helping players learn the mechanic so that when they fail they aren’t punished brutally for it.
Compared with Metro 2033, the stealth mechanic is now ‘night and day’ better. There are multiple levels of alertness now, and so much more in it now to make it feel more realistic. It’s just a lot more fun, and fixes all of the problems from the last game.
Finally, we saw Metro: Last Light shown in a third party Wii U showcase reel at E3. Is it a console that sparks your imagination as a developer?
DS: From my personal standpoint, I haven’t seen enough of it to have a good opinion either way. Obviously there are a lot of neat ideas that you initially think of when you see that screen, but until I see the specifics of the hardware, it’s so hard for me to say anything.