There are women living in the ramshackle settlements of Metro: Last Light‘s post-apocalyptic subway system. There may not be quite as many of them as there are men, but they are there. Unfortunately, they are characterized in a drastically different manner than the male population of the Moscow ruins. Aside from the stray soldier, developer 4A Games portrays the women and girls of their world as either mothers or whores — or some combination of both.
Last Light, like its predecessor Metro 2033, is broken up into segments that are characterized by either combat or exploration. In the combat sections the player character, Artyom, must gun down monsters or dispatch enemy soldiers. In between these levels the player is instead placed in impressively rendered environments — typically roughshod subterranean villages constructed by the survivors of a nuclear disaster — and given the freedom to walk around, eavesdropping on conversations or interacting with mini-events. In the combat sections of the game the player takes on the role of a man who kills men. In the exploration segments the player continues in the role of a man who is able to non-violently interact with both men and women.
That all of the soldiers encountered during combat sections are male+ is problematic enough. The trouble with omitting female characters from the game’s armies pales in comparison to the actively concerting issue of how Last Light chooses to portray what women it does bother to include in its exploration levels, though. When the player is given a break from combat they are able to soak in Metro‘s fiction by walking around and observing how ordinary people live their lives after the end of the world. The men are mostly soldiers, but they are also arms vendors, panhandlers, fishermen and more. Women, on the other hand, occupy far fewer roles. From my time with the game I encountered only mothers, showgirls, strippers and a single member of a military faction (described below). Simply enough, 4A Games, in spite of the considerable imagination they display in adapting Dmitry Glukhovsky’s novel to an interactive medium, can’t figure out how to make a female character that falls outside the binary of mother or prostitute.
This problem is exasperated through Anna, the only character who appears to exist outside of these categories. Anna is introduced as a tough sniper sent to accompany Artyom on his mission to kill the last remaining Dark One. The pair only spend a short time together before they are split up while trying to fulfill their objective. When they’re reunited later in the game, quarantined together after potentially contracting a deadly virus, Anna inexplicably throws herself at Artyom because, well, she’s the game’s only named woman and . . . there’s nothing hotter than two people just sitting around, waiting out the verdict on whether or not they’re terminally ill.
The manner in which Anna is written shows just how poorly (and, whether inadvertent or not, offensively) Last Light‘s creators choose to portray female characters. Her initial set-up as the game’s only woman on equal footing with the game’s men (Anna is a skilled sniper and the military is Metro’s elite) is undermined by the way she is ultimately treated. Worse than her abrupt transition from seemingly important cast member to sex object — Anna’s baffling “love scene” with Artyom is directed with game camera fixated leeringly on virtual breasts++ possessing the same physics as the inside of a lava lamp — is how the game’s “bad ending” reveals that the only reason Anna was likely sketched as fully as she was was in order to facilitate a plot-device pregnancy after the protagonist’s heroic death. In the end, once Last Light has shown all of its cards, the player sees that Anna, the only slightly plausible female character in the game, was only written with any level of care because the narrative needed a lady for the main character to knock up. Baby ex machina.
Not since Hitman: Absolution has a game’s rendering of its entire female cast been so problematic and it seems important, in light of Last Light‘s many successes, to address these failings. There are many aspects of the game that are admirable — the “underdog triumph” of creating such a well realized game world is especially noteworthy in light of the 4A Games’ arduous development process — and worth discussing. The incredibly offensive manner in which women are written in the game is not one of them.
+ Though the enemy soldiers typically wear balaclavas or gas masks it’s easy to see their faces if the player chooses to get up close to knock them out. They also frequently talk to one another in masculine voices.
++ If there weren’t already enough nails in Last Light’s coffin, it may be worth mentioning one especially painful sequence in which the player journeys through Venice, a swampy city notorious for serving as the Metro’s centre for sex, drugs and crime. The game takes a break from guiding the player in tailing an important man in order to funnel them into an inexplicable first-person lapdance scene.
Reid McCarter is a writer, editor and musician living and working in Toronto. He has written for sites and magazines including Kill Screen, The Escapist and C&G Magazine. He maintains literature and music blog, Sasquatch Radio, and, more importantly, founded, writes and is editor-in-extremis for videogame site Digital Love Child. His Tweet-fu is strong @reidmccarter.