Nothingness is the biggest appeal, and curse, in the game.
Metro: Exodus is a video game that is endearing in its wants for hope, a future, and friendship(s) in the face of a nuclear-scorched post apocalyptic hellscape. It revels in the minutiae of daily life in such a dangerous and haunting future—this daily minutiae is rife with violence, but there is also hope. Yes, despair rears its ugly head time and time again. But there is always hope for Artyrom and his comrades aboard the train, keenly named The Aurora. The same cannot be said for the places they inhabit and interact with during the biome and country spanning journey that is Metro: Exodus.
Take, for example, the first major open area in the game—the cold and dangerous waterway ridden area of the Volga region. It is rife with danger and brimming with nuclear wasteland induced change, but what stands out most about the area is the palpable and tangible feeling of pure, undaunting nothingness that is felt through every nook and cranny of Volga.
Rivers, through time eternal, have begot life. Life finds its way to water, from water and in water. When one is lost in the woods, a common form of given advice is that of “find water and follow it, because you’ll eventually find life”. Yet, what would happen to this rationale in the face of total nuclear annihilation? Well, in Metro: Exodus water still begets life, but it’s a dangerous, mutated one, and the water itself is a toxic and dangerous enemy.
It’s brimming with this sort of twisted look at a once natural biome—a giant shrimp worshiping cult, mutated river creatures, bandits, and a zoo’s variety worth of various irradiated demons. They claw, shoot, and chase Artyrom through what was once a beautiful river delta. Now it is nothing more than twisted train tracks, dilapidated homes and sheds, and abandoned industrial buildings. Yet, Artyrom has to fight back against such evils and unknowns—his life was born out of violence and will presumably end in violence. Their flesh pulses with the blood of life and their blood can be spilled. And where blood is spilled, death follows. But what of the enemy that is invincible to firearms? What of the enemy that ebbs and flows through every fiber of the Volga river region? Nothingness is undefeatable, it is always spreading, and the fight against it is a futile war of attrition.
Survivors can erect settlements out of the remnants of the world that was, but the silence and all-consuming sense of purposelessness that comes hand in hand with these fossil-like remnants is immutable. It is never seen but always felt. The gray sky that drearily hangs over the area like a miasma acts as if it is a barrier to purpose—sunlight could bring new life, new meaning, a biological shift—but no, there is nothing to be salvaged from this wasted land. Hope comes by way of the bullet and of the gas mask. The natural world has nothing left to offer but death and ruin. Burnt trees rustle and shake as cold winds whip across the land, and somehow the world seems still. Nothing can bring it back to life, and a deep rolling fog veils the land in tangible nothingness as morning gives way to midday. No matter the time of day, nothingness remains.
Artyrom and his comrades cannot change that. Their search for new life and meaning in this region is futile, as it acts as a mere stopping point between purposelessness and purpose. The region is a purgatory of stillness, of a land and life bereft of meaning. All forms of reason seem to be enacted as futile gestures that only veil those left living from the nothingness of the area and of their existence—the battle between something and nothingness in the cruel world of Metro: Exodus is a war of attrition. There are no victors. One can only hope to push the dark grasp of nothingness away for just a little while longer. Yet, what happens when night falls upon the Volga River area of Metro: Exodus. It is in these dark hours where the feeling of supreme nothing is given life.
When the dim sun sets beyond the gloomy horizon, a natural energy is felt throughout the land. Human life surrenders itself to the nothingness. Bandits and survivors huddle into their makeshift homes and compel the night to pass and for the morning, a new day, to come. But outside, the demons and monsters of the land yip and holler with newfound purpose. They prowl, hunting whatever they can. Soon, something else is given life. Random anomalies start to pop up all over the map. They are seemingly sentient balls of electricity that reverberate and undulate with unknown energy. They are nothingness given life, such as the humans who combat the nothing surrender for the night.
These anomalies float over water and land, bereft of purpose or intent, and immolate anything that dares to get too close to them. They are something, but they are also nothing. No one knows what grants them life or what they are compelled by. They just are. Their purposeless existence illuminates to life as night falls and that palpable feeling of nothing glows and floats both near and far. Artyrom watches them from a distance, as they are curious dangerous things that no human will ever know or let alone comprehend. Curious anomalies that will kill at a moment’s notice. It is here where the nothingness of the Volga region is at its most compelling.
The compelling nature of nothingness and the feeling it emits in the player is what propels the curious player onward. Why do those who dwell there try to make any sense of their existence? What stories will the forgotten dwellings of a forgotten world have to tell? These questions help make the nothingness of the area quite compelling. The game gives the player enough small hints at meaning that help the player parse the gray picture of the region, but through parsing those empty roads no meaning is granted.
Yes, a family may have once dwelled in the dilapidated house that the player just found some bullets and crafting materials in. Maybe they even enjoyed Friday night dinners with fish served fresh from the swelling Volga river just outside their lamp-light-illuminated window. Still, that knowledge does not change a single thing. Nukes were still launched. The Earth was still bathed in irradiated fire. Billions were still killed. Purpose and meaning died when mankind’s war-minded machinations ended the modern world.
All that remains is nothingness and those brave (or ignorant) enough to push back against, to find meaning amidst the dangerous nothing of it all, and, most importantly, to search for hope. And if not hope, then purpose—no matter how futile it may seem.