A novel idea
Monday, 4th January 2010 at 9:30 am
How 4A is adapting Russia's smash-hit Metro 2033
There’s an assumption that on the rare occasions a book is turned into a game, it is a process that absolutely favours the developer and publisher of the virtual work. Meanwhile, the original author is often projected as victim; their oeuvre ransacked and cast aside.
That’s not just because of the inherent scepticism that surrounds licensed software. In reality, titles based directly on the written word tend to arrive relatively independently from their source material, separated by decades or handshakes between license holders.
One game that bucks the literary trend is 4A’s post-apocalyptic shooter Metro 2033. Published by THQ, the release is based on Dmitry Glukhovsky’s cult work of speculative fiction of the same name, and shares a unique bond with its source material that can serve as an example to all studios eyeing the printed page for inspiration.
Only printed in 2005, and originally self-published online, Metro 2033 quickly became a bestseller in its native Russia, where the book is set. Glukhovsky’s manuscript was originally made public digitally before its completion, and as readers guided the author in expanding and concluding the narrative, the Ukrainian team from 4A got in touch.
Subsequently, far from pulling the rug from beneath the 30-year-old writer’s opus, the game has become an integral launch pad for the author’s vision of turning into the creative director of a broader fictional universe built on Metro 2033’s foundations. Even serving as a promotional tool for the imminent English translation of the novel, 4A’s latest makes for a fascinating case study.
So what is Metro 2033’s secret? There are a lot of great books out there, and the creative relationship 4A and Glukhovsky share could inform the work of others.
BY THE BOOK
From a studio’s perspective, finding a forward thinking author like Dmitry is key. It might just be down to luck, but 4A uncovered the right project at the right time, and Glukhovsky has a very open-minded attitude to placing his IP in the hands of others.
“I don’t know why authors are greedy with their worlds,” the author tells us. “I have invented something, but I have other ideas. I don’t want to stick forever writing Metro. Let’s just start a work of collective creation and collective thinking and see what comes out of it. I hope right now we’re at the origin of something that becomes as big as Star Wars.”
That’s an ambitious goal, and there’s a smile on his face as he proposes trumping George Lucas. But there’s also a glint in his eye that suggests his joke is only greeted with laughter because his intent is clearly genuine.
And as soon as he’s started, Glukhovsky is already talking game sequels: “I hope this can be a really big thing. When people are creating a whole universe in a joint effort that could be really special – and of course support more computer games.”
It’s time to take a few steps back. Here is a man happy to see his novel turned into a game, and other young authors pen more novels, and before he’s addressed the original Metro 2033 he’s already on to video game sequels.
As a young boy, Glukhovsky spent some 3,500 hours commuting on Moscow’s Metro; a strange maze of marble floors, mosaic clad ceilings and chandelier lit platforms. Designed to serve as both underground transport network and, in places, a public nuclear bunker, the huge network is perhaps the world’s most glamorous location designed for the apocalypse that the Cold War long-promised to deliver.
“I’ve felt very comfortable on Moscow’s Metro, and always imagined it as a home of sorts,” explains Glukhovsky, who was enchanted as a youngster by the concept of Moscow’s residents fleeing to the tunnels to spend months underground. “The Moscow Metro is an incredible place, and certainly the greatest influence over my work.”
So Metro 2033 is set in the autonomous society that forms below ground in the wake of a nuclear attack, focusing on a community under constant threat from mutated beings on Moscow’s razed surface. Perfect fodder for an ambitious video game, then.
THE WRITE STUFF
“We are absolutely satisfied by Dmitry’s co-operation,” says 4A’s creative director and co-founder Andrew Prokhorob, who previously worked at S.T.A.L.K.E.R developer GSC Game World before leaving to set up A4, along with several other S.T.A.L.K.E.R team members. “Dmitry is a very clever person and understands that if he were to try and tell us what to do it would be bad. He is satisfied by how we are doing it.”
The project certainly seems defined by a reciprocal appreciation between author and developer that may be hard for other studios to handle. In Metro 2033, 4A has assumed a huge responsibility in taking over and growing someone else’s IP.
“Because of S.T.A.L.K.E.R 4A had something to show,” says the novelist. “I knew what they were capable of, and that they had raw talent. In my position, you have to find talent, and give it freedom, instead of finding some mediocre developer and controlling them for every step. That would be exhausting and useless, because you cannot teach people how to be creative.”
That’s not to say Glukhovsky wasn’t sceptical when a number of studios initially contacted him about adapting his tribute to Moscow’s equivalent to the Tube: “Back then that made me very excited, and a little suspicious too, not from the viewpoint of about whether I should turn my precious book into a computer game, but in terms of who would turn my book into a computer game.”
Clearly A4 were the final choice, and a number of factors, both cultural and geographical, made them the perfect fit. According to Prokhorob, author and developer’s shared Eastern European mindset is an advantage.
“It’s a question of psychology,” he insists. “Maybe it’s to do with the influence of the devastation of the Soviet Union – I really don’t know. I played a similar game set after a nuclear war many years ago – I showed it to a friend, and he said ‘Have you read this novel on the internet called Metro?’ I read it and the same evening I sent a letter saying ‘Let’s make this a game.’”
But Glukhovsky admits that, really, the real reason he and 4A work so well together is because there’s an aesthetic overlap in the Venn diagram that covers the original fiction and the first-person shooter studio.
“If you consider this book’s formula, it’s constructed as a shooter,” proposes Glukhovsky. “Although it’s a third-person book, and we have to follow step-by-step from the very beginning to the very end, what happens in the hero’s head means that is is very much a first-person book. And a lot of it happens in tunnels. An FPS is a good fit.”
“And turning all of that into a computer game is not too dramatic a jump. Perhaps that’s because for me, being myself representative of a generation that has grown up playing compute games, it’s not something wild for me.”
While it’s a little early to pass critical comment on the quality of Metro 2033, it’s clearly a game that takes its source material seriously, and the way it attempts to capture the spirit and atmosphere of the novel is, from a design perspective, particularly interesting.
“Key plot points we keep in the game, but it is impossible to just copy the book,” says Prokhorob. “It’s very difficult to make that work. If we did that the player would have to talk to himself for most of the game.”
Eager to avoid confining Dmitry’s world to cut-scenes, 4A’s solution has been to pack the game with incidental in-game conversation. Roaming the underground fortresses that are Metro 2033’s focal points, NPCs bid farewells to partners, trade ammunition for food, and argue playfully or gossip idly. It’s curiously distracting, and certainly weaves the fabric of a believable society into a title that should have its potential constrained by the tunnels that are the project’s inspiration.
“We certainly focused on an atmosphere of believability,” confirms executive producer Dean Sharp. “That’s why we’ve had to go with a refined game experience.
“In that context we discussed multiplayer, and it really came down to was that if we did it, it would really be a bolt-on; something that we were doing for the sake of doing it, so we could say that we had it in the game. No matter what you do, if you’re throwing more people at the project, and more money in, you’re still going to lose focus trying to do multiple things, so we decided that it was a better route just to focus on a really good single-player experience.”
Foregoing a box-ticking multiplayer mode in favour of loyalty to source material is a bold move, but one that may find favour with gamers, and a choice that has bolstered the relationship between Glukhovsky and 4A.
So far so positive, but 4A’s progress isn’t without challenges; the main one being comparisons with other titles. In Metro 2033’s case it is of course its team’s previous game S.T.A.L.K.E.R that draws the most associations. After all, GSC Game World’s effort is loosely based on a cult Russian sci-fi novella, Roadside Picnic.
“The Ukrainian development industry is not huge, and in a way it was very incestuous at the time S.T.A.L.K.E.R was being developed,” professes Sharp. “If you’re a developer in the Ukraine, then you’ve probably worked on S.T.A.L.K.E.R. However, I worked on both, and I don’t see any similarities between them other than maybe the setting and some of the look, but that comes from Prokhorob’s head rather than anything else.”
“There have been a lot of comparisons to Fallout 2,” adds THQ’s global brand manager Huw Beynon. “While it’s a pleasure to be compared to one of the best games of all time, I think this is a very different experience.”
It’s an age old problem for developers, and one there seems no escape from. From 4A’s perspective, there’s an easy response to accusations of stylistic parallels. “It’s no secret that you gravitate towards what you’re good at,” says Sharp, with a relaxed tone. If a game’s good, then perhaps it just doesn’t matter if its developer has covered similar ground before, from a narrative perspective.
“Maybe the next game I make will be bright and happy,” jokes Prokhorob. It’s a dry remark, and it probably isn’t true.
Spending time with 4A makes it clear just how enthusiastic they are about creating a game based on Glukhovsky’s creation, but it is time with the Metro 2033 author that really conveys how the book and game are striding beyond Eastern Europe to the rest of the world. This project also gives the Metro IP a new lease of life globally.
“I believe that this is part of the origin of something much bigger and ambitious than just one national bestselling science fiction novel, into an original, authentic and interesting fictional world,” asserts Glukhovsky, who highlights authors including Ray Bradbury and Gabriel García Márquez as his greatest influences.
“I don’t want to stay forever as a science fiction writer, but I want this sci-fi universe to stick. I’ve been living in this universe for ten years now, and I want to move on. This game is the start of me opening the doors of the universe to other authors.
“What I have seen from THQ, and especially from 4A, is very original work, very authentic work, very enthusiastic work, and provides an incredible feeling of the atmosphere and spirit. On the part of THQ I’ve seen real enthusiasm and commitment. I believe this is an alliance that is good for gamers.”
It’s tempting, when words like ‘alliance’ are used, to draw comparisons with clichés about Communist Russia, and the shadows of hulking statues from the Stalin era still cast long shadows over the streets and psyche of Moscow. Whether that fact contributes to what 4A and Glukhovsky have created between them is hard to quantify, but what is certain is that they are creative comrades, and together they have built a working model that other developers would do well to observe.
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