Gaming

Why ‘Metro: Exodus’ Ditched the Fetch Quest

Metro: Exodus marks a major step forward for the franchise. It is, quite literally, coming out into the light. The first game in the series to abandon subterranean Moscow, Metro: Exodus takes players into the vast expanse of Soviet ruins as our hero Artyom continues his quest for a better life.

Newsweek sat down with executive producer Jon Bloch at a preview event. After demoing a small portion of the game, we spoke with him about the scope of the project and the challenges encountered during development.

Editor’s Note: The following transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

metro 2 Hang in there, baby. Metro's coming soon. 4A

What's the pitch for fans for Metro Exodus, beyond the usual "it's bigger and better" etc?

Jon Bloch: Bigger, better, faster, stronger [laughs] ... The main thing we wanted to do was go back through some of experiences of the team from early on, from before being 4A. There was a core set of the team that was at GSC and made S.T.A.L.K.E.R. And we're looking at that open-world experience, the choice that it brings. A lot of fans have been asking for a lot more openness and a lot more choice, and as our creative director has said, "fans have been asking for larger levels, more of an open feel with more options and more choice. Here, take it."

So that's been the motivation now, to go back on that experience and build something new because the past two adventures have been very linear. We've tried from the very beginning to blend those two experiences together because they don't typically think of story-driven games being also open like that. There's two different design theories/mentalities/strategies you would use for those two different types of games. So we tried to find a way to bring them together into one. It's still very story-driven, still has a linear progression through the story, but we open up the game to allow you to have a lot more freedom and choice and feel like it's an open game in those sandbox environments.

metro 1 Follow the rail and kill things. 4A

How do you approach a game like this, from a design perspective, to differentiate it from all of the other open-world, post-apocalyptic sandbox experiences out there ?

JB: One of the ways we're different is we're not fully open-world. There's not one big environment, there's many different environments.

How do you decide where to put the boundaries on these environments?

JB: We try to design everything very naturally. That comes from a core belief and a core design strategy that the studio has in all aspects of game design. The weapons are very realistic. Our weapons guys are sort of engineers, so they've all been designed to be mechanically feasible. Even those cobbled together things that don't exist at all are mechanically sound.

The environments are designed specifically. Even within a house, when an environmental artist goes in and places all the objects inside the house, it's not just "oh this is a table so we're gonna put this stuff on it." We ask "who lived here?" and they think in their mind who lived here, who was here last, and try to make it feel like it actually exists and there was someone there before you showed up that wasn't just a level designer.

That even comes through in landscape design. We take cues from the real world, especially in previous games parts of Moscow were accurately reproduced in the game. The region we're demoing today is off the Volga river, which is 776 km outside Moscow to the southeast. So we looked at reference photos, some of the locations we have in the game some of the guys have been to, so we've taken a mixture of that kind of stuff and tried to design things as accurately as possible. We also don't want to have miscellaneous walls or cars piled up to make a boundary. It needs to feel natural and look natural.

Do you feel Metro Exodus achieves a cumulative, immersive effect from all of these small decisions the team has made along the way?

JB: There's one thing I think that can definitely be said of the Metro series: attention to detail in every aspect across the board. There always has to be a reason. It can't just be put in for the sake of "oh this is a normal thing you do in games," there has to be a reason why that feels explained, feels natural.

Like, you walk up to a boundary and there's an invisible collision and you accept that because it's a video game. So what do we need to do to make sure it feels like it makes sense? Even if we can't put something to block the road you just walked in on? How do we make that seem real? A lot of thought goes into that, and there's a lot of care and attention in even the smallest detail. It's pretty ingrained in the design process.

metro 3 A softer, more hopeful Metro only serves to provide contrast for the harsh realities you'll face. 4A

Is this game and narrative a little more hopeful than previous Metro titles?

JB: I don't want to comment too much on story that might give things away, but certainly in the beginning there is potentially more hope. The last two games were pretty damn bleak. Certainly the idea that Artyom, the main character, has been thinking there must be something out there and then the idea that he figures out there is. There's all these possibilities, so the beginning of the game has more hope than the other games probably did.

What was the biggest challenge you faced approaching this new game? On one hand you want to give fans what they want and have been asking for, but on the other sometimes those ideas are at odds with each other.

JB: Yeah you get 10 people in a room and they all want different things, and you can't do everything, right? Some of the biggest challenges we had was finding a way to blend the classic Metro experience — the linear, story-driven experience — with the more open and free environment. In past games, the linear nature allowed us to hold the player's hand through the story and carry them along. You put somebody in an open area and they can go wherever they want.

That breaks that reliable situation for us as designers, where we know where you're going to be at all times. We know exactly what you're going to be doing, or seeing, so we're able to craft things specifically for that. Whereas here the possibilities are endless. We even said at E3 last year that by that point we had been working on the game for two or three years and we still didn't have have that formula down. We were still trying to do it. We thought it was going to be pretty easy in the beginning because we had that experience from the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. days, but blending those two things was one of the biggest challenges we had, aside from the technological advancements we had to make to the engine to be able to handle the big open environments. There's a totally different strategy, technologically, from what we were doing in the past.

We're pretty tech-oriented studio, so we're constantly making improvements to the engine. But that was one thing that we'd not had to deal with in the past when we were making improvements across 2033 and Last Light and even Redux, that wasn't something we had to worry about. Then all of a sudden it was.

How do you compel players to explore an open world without side quests? What is there to entice people to wander off?

JB: Some of it is the balance between signposting things, like your main questline and your main missions that you need to do, and also potentially signposting things that are off the beaten path, like landmarks that look interesting from afar and you want to go investigate. Some of those survival-horror elements in the game, scavenging for resources and things like that. If you're out of resources you're gonna go wander into an area you haven't been in yet to see if there's stuff you need.

There are things you can find in the environment, or people you can talk to, that will maybe hint at things you can go find somewhere else. When you're looking through the binoculars and you look at something in particular in the distance you haven't been to yet, then you'll make a little mark on your map you can go back and check out. So there are various ways to do that without saying, "hey we need 10 rabbit pelts, go over there that's where the rabbits hang out and kill me 10." Someone might say something idly that's interesting about a particular area. Or if you help somebody out, they might give you a key that opens a door somewhere else. He doesn't send you to do that, it's optional, but it's incentive. Not your typical fetch quests though, we didn't want to do that kind of stuff. It feels really gamey to us.

Metro: Exodus is set for release Feb. 22, 2018 for Xbox, PS4 and PC.