Stumbling around in the dark: Metro 2033 with the English turned off

Metro 2033 is a tale of survival, hope and skulking. It’s an atmospheric and affecting, sometimes scary, sometimes tense, rewarding and exciting look at life after a (you guessed it) nuclear holocaust. Most of all, though, without the English dubbed dialogue it’s a surreal duck into a world of half-whispers, confusion and mistaken identity.

The ability to remember aspects of popular culture is a skill that’s lost to me. ‘Remember how great that line was in that film we watched a decade ago? It was right striking wasn’t it? To the point where after hearing it only once we can now quote it verbatim and will do so forever.’ “Well no, not really my old hypothetical chum. I certainly won’t be ‘cos I forgot it almost the instant it was spoken in favour of paying attention to the intervening years of my life. Sorry to have put us both in this very awkward position.” Quotes, scenes and overarching narratives can all be heard ‘round water coolers the world over. Some boffins can even remember and render entire video game maps from memory; a feat which I find admirably super-human. I though, am rubbish at remembering stuff.

It was probably a bit foolhardy of me, then, to insist on playing Metro with the optional original Russian audio, rather than just admit that I’d have an easier time of it with the (probably) dodgy Ruski-twinged English dub. But I get dead peeved when hearing dodgy Russian accents, so didn’t want to risk the whole affair descending into the final third of most Sean Connery/Roger Moore-era James Bond film. Going with this more wholesome and artistic option did give me a sense of superiority, but it also threw up a few problems, especially where keeping track of events and characters was concerned.  

Our ability to interpret sounds and images is neurologically linked, to the point where if we’re familiar with both an individual’s voice and face we’ll be able to remember one without the other more readily (the full study’s here, via the Public Library of Science). In Metro, however, these cognitive processes were disrupted for me by two fairly large obstacles:
i - Almost every noteworthy character I interacted with was a bloke with some kind of beard (please refer to the images littered about), so they kind of all looked the same.
ii - Said blokes were all speaking a language which I do not understand, with me instead reading the English subtitles.
These two issues combined to give me grief not only comprehending what was going on sometimes, but also remembering who these narratively important gentlemen were.

The comprehension problem is quite a simple one to explain away really. Unsurprisingly, it can prove quite difficult to read subtitles placed at the bottom of a screen when you’re concentrating on what’s going on in the middle. Especially if that something is a cabal of identical enemies (they are all mutants to be fair, so no one’s sure whether this is inaccurate or not) running at you for five straight minutes. Metro is littered with action-heavy sequences filled with characters talking to one another in that gung-ho Predator kind of way. They do a rather good job of offsetting the more reserved sections where you’re just walking about in tunnels or walking about in train stations, but they’re all but unintelligible underneath all the shooting and staying alive. I’d catch little drips of conversations as I reloaded (probably the best reload mechanic I’ve ever encountered, btw) and then lose myself again in the melee. Thinking about it though, maybe not hearing every word uttered is actually a slightly more accurate experience of a prolonged skirmish against a numerically superior force. Especially when considered alongside the heavily scripted and stage-managed choreography of the ‘war is HELL and/or never CHANGES’ battle dialogue of many other shooty games. Just a thought.

 While not being able to follow incidental conversations was a bit humbling - prolific wordsmith that I am - not being able to remember who everyone was proved maddeningly - and humorously - disorientating. A fair bit happens in Metro and you meet a few important characters along the way; the problem is I’d be hard pressed to tell you what many of them were called or even what they looked like. Characters would introduce themselves in a dramatic ‘Listen To Me For I Am Important’ way, and I’d be too busy rummaging about in lockers or shooting at railings to catch any of it. This makes me feel pretty shameful, especially considering I really enjoyed myself down in them tunnels. Was it just too dark down there for me to catch a glimpse of their faces, especially behind all those beards? So while it’s a linear game (it’s mostly set in underground tubes and boxes) I often felt as if I was wandering off and missing the best bits of the story, usually unintentionally.

Another study, this one carried out at Indiana University, drew similar conclusions to the previously cited PLOS paper, while going further and identifying individual speech patterns and accents as key contributors to speech attribution. In short: the way in which people speak helps us to associate a particular voice with a particular individual. In the case of Metro, I wasn’t paying a large amount of attention to the individual voices I heard because I was instead busy reading the transcription of those words. This, if we’re on board with the studies I’ve picked out to back myself up, goes a decent way of explaining why I couldn’t remember who all of these lovely men were.

In having to grapple with a foreign language I bypassed many of the linguistic pointers we use to help us put voices to faces, thus making it more difficult for me to remember and so recall these characters once they weren’t standing right in front of me. Taking a look around all these picture as well; most of those beards are actually pretty different, so perhaps our ability to recall faces is more closely linked to our understanding of a person’s voice than we’re currently letting on. It’s something video games could maybe do with investigating, because Metro isn’t the first time I’ve had difficulty remembering characters. Many action games - especially shooty/militaristic ones set in contemporary or near-future lands - suffer from casts chocked full of men in matching outfits, identifiable only by a slightly different hat, gun or facial hair configuration. It might all just be down to bad writing in some cases, but maybe all the writing could be made slightly better by every video game story having a couple of obligatory dinner sequences slotted into them. That way the player would get to sit down and study the faces and voices of their compatriots every couple of hours, ensuring that they never, ever, ever forget what they look like, what they sound like and - more importantly - who they are and why we’re all meant to care when they die near the end. 

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