Checkpoints are ordinarily something I find a bit irksome in video games because they suck the life out of things. Actually, they kind of suck the death out of things – in many games, Half-Life, being a good example, death means a miniature back-track, nothing serious. So it’s been a bit of a revelation to find a checkpoint system in Metro 2033 that hammers home some life lessons rather than holding my hand.

In Metro 2033 there are rather a lot of checkpoints, all coming at regular intervals and, at least on the surface, lending a sense of security to play. This is paired, however, with the save system of the game in an interesting way: the only places you can ever restore to are the most recent checkpoint (generally mere moments before the point you were already at) or the beginning of a chapter (often a relatively long time ago). And that’s it – each checkpoint saves over the last.

So, you know, live in the now.

This living in the now that the game pushes you into helps a lot with my usual problems with checkpoints and regular saving. Normally, the mechanic removes responsibility for your actions. You can charge in, test the waters, die, and then restore and try again – death is more a spatial matter than a spiritual one. This is often true in Metro 2033, but it can sometimes combine with other elements of the game – particularly the gasmask and stealth aspects – in more interesting ways.

One of the more frustrating periods of play I’ve had in the game was when I made it through a particular level (Front Lines or something) to a point where I needed my gasmask, only to find I didn’t have one. Further, I also discovered that restoring to the start of the chapter didn’t help – still didn’t have one. Somehow my incompetence had led me to not have a vital piece of equipment. My options were to suck it up and restore to an even earlier chapter or, well, suck in a deep lung-full of air and try to run through the deadly environment. It took a bunch of tries, but I made the sprint, and there was a grim satisfaction in knowing that I got myself out of the mess I’d put myself in.

On another occasion, just this evening, I was doing a great job of sneaking through an enemy position… until I wasn’t. Things went to shit, my cover was blown, and I ended up having to just barely take out about ten soldiers while I ran madly about inside their base of operations. At the end of it I felt pissed off, regretted all the lost ammo, and hated that I’d blown the stealth element of the level. I thought I’d just restore to a checkpoint to “do it properly” only to find that the check point put me precisely where I already was, after the screw up. Again, I could either accept my situation, or restore a long way back. I went with acceptance.

In both these instances, and various others during play, Metro 2033‘s checkpoint and chapter system pushes you into acceptance of the actions you’ve taken. Rather than regard it as a system to be perfected, you very frequently have to acknowledge you made a mess of things and just carry that with you onward. It’s not perfect, but it’s one of the few linear games I can name where I’ve felt that I’ll be held accountable not just for “BIG MORAL CHOICES!” but for the little things, too.

Living with our choices is hard enough in real life that we often don’t feel inclined to do so in games, but when we’re pushed into it, it can be very rewarding.

12 February 2011
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