Interview: THQ’s Huw Beynon on Metro: Last Light

With Metro: Last Light pencilled in for an early 2013 launch, I sat down with 4A Games studio rep Huw Beynon to discuss how the developer has tightened the shooting without betraying the former game’s electric sense of vulnerability, just what’s going on in the narrative-driven first-person shooter space and how Last Light’s rich world has been brought screaming to life.

Metro Last Light (18)

Metro 2033 was reasonably successful but there was always a sense it was punching below its weight. With Last Light, have you looked at the first-person shooter landscape and adapted or stuck with the formula?

I think we’ve stuck to the core vision behind the game. I think we actually got the blueprint right for Metro 2033 the first time around. We’ve seen that people who liked the game, absolutely loved it and we’d be the first to admit that it wasn’t a flawless execution. The real task this time round has been to preserve what was good about the first game and hopefully address some of those issues with mechanics to deliver on the promise of last time. So no, we’re not chasing some mythical mass-market audience for a game like this. It is an Eastern European post-apocalyptic tale set in a bleak and unrelenting Moscow metro, after all.

One of the mechanics that perhaps didn’t work so well last time was the shooting, which didn’t always feel convincing. At the same time, that weakness fed into the tone of the game and the story; the idea that you weren’t a badass. Instead there was a persistent sense of vulnerability. How did you go about making the shooting more enjoyable without betraying the story and survival aspect of the game?

I think it’s more about giving feedback to the player as much as anything. That idea about vulnerability is critical to the game. For me, it’s one of the defining properties of Metro in that you’re not empowered throughout the game; you should feel overwhelmed, outnumbered, vulnerable. You shouldn’t feel like you can pick any fight or that you can mow down wave upon wave of faceless enemies. At the same time, when you fire a gun it needs to kick in your hand. Some of the basic things that we’ve addressed with the shooting – and I don’t mean the shooting model in the sense that you should feel vulnerable and not empowered like you’re some kind of super soldier – is how enemies respond to being hit. We had the armour system in place in the previous game but we didn’t distinguish, for instance, whether you were striking armour or striking flesh. That lack of tactile feedback to the player can be frustrating if we don’t explain how it’s functioning in the game. 

Just by addressing that with much improved sound and visual effects, plus that little layer of HUD if you choose to play with the HUD on, transforms the way you understand the combat unfolding around you. But it’s not fundamentally changing the process of piling bullets into someone until they die. Whether it’s that or whether it’s improved hit reaction or hit animation or improved particle effects as tracer rounds come towards you, or objects within the environment that shatter or crumble… it’s not changing the design of the gunplay as much as the feel of it.

Metro Last Light (6)

It’s obviously a very narrative-driven game. Why do you think the story-driven first-person shooter has fallen out of favour over the last few years?

I don’t think the story-driven game has fallen out of favour, per-se. I don’t think storytelling has necessarily ever been games’ strongest hour, either. There are a few standout examples, something like Half Life for example, and we see a lot of attempts at storytelling in the role-playing genre. I think it’s more just the enveloping mushroom-cloud after-effect of what once used to be a subset of a thriving genre with lots of different settings and styles almost taken over to become the definition of the genre, which has pushed other things to the side. But we see with things like BioShock Infinite on the horizon or Dishonored, a lot of studios experimenting with different settings and with different gameplay styles, each trying to tackle the conundrum of how to do something a little bit different in the FPS space without just copying what’s already out there.

You mention BioShock and Half Life. What is it about Rapture and City 17 that are so intoxicating?

I name-check those as locations more because of the consistency and depth and detail that has been poured into the game world; the fact that you get the sense that it’s not an arbitrary location whereby, you know, an urban location allows us to tale a tale of guerilla street-to-street warfare. City 17 is a real place. It’s got the propaganda boards, you see the people going about their business, the guards keeping everyone in check and there’s this overwhelming sense of oppression. You feel like it’s an actual place, there are stories being told about it and you understand that you’re playing in a much bigger world. For something like Rapture it’s just the beautiful consistency and the aesthetic design that’s gone in to recreating this glorious art-deco style.

I wouldn’t just reference dystopian or FPS worlds, though. I’d look at something like Hyrule from The Legend of Zelda as being a great example. You step out on the field for the first time in Ocarina of Time and I remember being amazed, it seemed to go on forever. These games are about escapism and stepping into another world, whether it’s a beautiful place to visit or a horrific place – and in our case horrific – but it’s that escapism that comes from presenting someone with a different world which, for me, was always the appeal about games in the first place.

Metro Last Light (5)

It’s interesting that you talk about escapism. One of the things I noticed from the demo is there’s little in the way of a HUD and no skill-trees or XP – things that have crept into just about every genre now, much to the detriment of story. Is keeping all the typically ‘gamey’ parts at bay crucial to that sense of escapism and, through that, believing in the world?

You’ve probably noticed there’s a distinct lack of gamification throughout the world, and that applies to all of the systems in it. I think it is a wrench from that sense of immersion so no, you don’t have skills that you acquire. You acquire equipment and you see mechanically how it works and then you figure out how to use it as you play through the game. So your character will progress in as much as you’ll improve your arsenal and you’ll improve the equipment you’re carrying etcetera, but it’s not levelling up this stat or that stat. You’ll improve your accuracy by playing the game.

That same attitude applies throughout. It took a long time for people to figure out what we were actually doing because we hadn’t reduced it to this arbitrary game – which for me robs it of all meaning entirely – which is the idea of choices you make within the game. You see it sometimes presented as a ‘press A to do the virtuous act’ and ‘press B to do the evil act’. As soon as you’ve told the player and they understand what the choice is, they’re playing the game to get the result they think they want. We do it very differently. The choices are laid out and they’re never flagged and they’re never sign-posted and you’re never entirely sure if you’re even making a choice but believe me you are. The game is taking notes and keeping track of everything you’re doing and judging you accordingly because ultimately, that’s how we live. At no point in my day-to-day life does a screen pop up to tell me ‘this is the right decision, and this is the bad decision’, and at no point during my day-to-day life, if I had that option, would I deliberately choose to be a dick because I want to grow the horns or the tail or whatever I’ve been told the reward is for doing that. That’s really important for us. We didn’t flag that about the first game, we let people discover and as they did it’s been written about more and more. There’s some really interesting critical writing online with people trying to figure out the system. All of those things are not gamified.

It’s such a rich world, which makes the almost total absence of women all the more odd. There are the prostitutes and a woman drinking at the bar and another selling something at the market, but really it seems like a world made up of men and monsters. 

Obviously within the context of the story and what’s happening that place and location makes sense, but I would not take that level to be representative of the whole game. It’s not the first time I’ve been asked this question. I can understand the concern and I’m glad to say that no, that’s not the sum total of how women are represented in the game. I think it’s appropriate for the story at that point, but I can’t really say any more at the moment.

Any word on whether there any female soldiers or…

You’ll have to wait and see.

This interview was originally published on BeefJack.

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