This post contains spoilers for Metro Exodus and Far Cry New Dawn .
In one nuclear post-apocalypse, I’m desperately searching through the irradiated Dead City while monsters gather around, eager for an easy meal. In another, I’m a god floating through the air, hurling buzzsaw blades and turning invisible at will among mutant, neon flora.
The first post-apocalypse is that of Metro Exodus, and the second is Far Cry New Dawn—two new video games (simultaneously released on February 15) about life after an apocalypse.
On the surface, the games’ setup have a lot in common—they both take place roughly 20 years after nuclear war—but they present hope for a future world in radically different ways. Metro Exodus (set in Russia and developed by Ukrainians) is a downbeat tale about competing visions of the future, and people’s ability to affect that future for the better. Far Cry New Dawn (set in America, developed in Canada), in contrast, is a neon-blasted, deceptively nihilistic saga about becoming a god in an endless churn of violence and suffering.
Both games had an opportunity to do something interesting—using video games to tell a story about a world we’re presently trying to avoid—and only Metro Exodus succeeded. This is important right now, as it feels as though we might be on the precipice of nuclear annihilation once again.
America has decided to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which eliminated Russia and America’s deployment of short- and limited-range intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM). President Trump has indicated he’ll pull the US out of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) as well, which is set to lapse in February of 2021 unless revived. New START was an agreement that gave America and Russia the goal of halving their nuclear stockpiles.
At the same time, a new nuclear arms race is being fomented as both the US and Russia work to modernize their nuclear stockpiles. Russia is building hypersonic missiles it claims can nuke cities faster than anything the world has seen before. The Trump administration wants to build up Space Force and use the F-35 to shoot down ICBMs.
The stories that we tell ourselves in such times of crisis—whether through video games, books, TV, or movies—matter. 1983 TV movie The Day After, which depicted a nuclear attack on American soil, famously depressed Ronald Reagan so much that he made note of it in his personal diary. One biographer has speculated that the film led Reagan to pursue nuclear deterrence. Later, in 1987, Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.
It’s a shame, then, to see Far Cry New Dawn waste its opportunity to tell an empowering story about living after a nuke. At the end of 2018’s Far Cry 5, nuclear missiles flew and the world ended. New Dawn picks up almost 20 years later as the game’s nameless protagonist tears ass across the fictional Hope County, Montanna killing bad guys, rebuilding the community, and eventually defeating the villainous twins Mickey and Lou. Joseph Seed, the previous game’s religious fanatic villain, is now contrite and becomes an ally.
New Dawn, unlike a lot of post-apocalyptic games, is bright and colorful and has a kick ass soundtrack featuring artists like Run the Jewels and Die Antwoord. A post-nuclear super bloom of pink verbena litters the world. It’s a joy to move around, and I felt like a god—running through the game world, shrugging off damage, and, later, using super powers to float through the air and turn invisible. Every moment of the game is geared towards making the player feel superhumanly powerful, and I felt it in every snapped neck and crushed larynx. Video games are often power fantasies, but New Dawn takes this to the extreme.
Throughout the game, I liberated outposts and fought against Mickey and Lou, killing hundreds of bad guys in the process. New Dawn constantly asks you to repeat the same old cycle of violence again and again.
Midway through the game I met Hurk, an ally from the first game now aged two decades. “You look familiar,” he said. “As if we’ve done this before in some endless haunting loop from which neither of us will ever escape.”
For all of New Dawn’s bright aesthetics, the game suggests that violence will always reign. Even after the old world is destroyed by its violent ways, only a bloodthirsty superhuman can survive in the new one. We’re stuck in a haunting, endless loop from which no one will escape. There is no hope here, only varying degrees of suffering and oppression for everyone who isn’t the player.
Metro Exodus, by contrast, is a dreary game firmly rooted in the sins of the past. From its opening moments to its final hours, it never let me forget I was playing in the ruins of a world destroyed by nukes. Radiation and mutants are a constant problem, and many areas required that I wear a gas mask to survive. I was not a god, and my ability to affect the world was limited, but profound.
Metro Exodus follows the story of Artyom, a soldier in an elite squad protecting the underground civilization living in the Moscow metro system twenty years after a nuclear war. Artyom and his fellow soldiers hear a radio signal that hints at life above ground beyond Moscow, so they grab a train and set off into the countryside, hoping for a better life.
From there, I explored a rain-soaked marshland along the Volga river, a sun-scorched desert near the drained Caspian Sea, and a lush forest along the Taiga river. Every area felt distinct and, in their own way, oppressive. Metro is about survival. Artyom moves slower than Far Cry’s nameless hero, and can only take a few hits before dying. A stray bullet, a bad fall, or unseen radiation can kill you. Ammo is scarce, and monsters don’t drop any loot so they’re best avoided. Unlike Far Cry, I always felt powerless and scared playing Metro.
In Metro, especially late in the game, avoiding human enemies entirely is often preferable to killing them and stirring up trouble. Far Cry’s narrative asks the player to break the cycle of violence, but in practice actively encourages mayhem and destruction. It makes violence easy, fun, and the only option. Metro Exodus, on the other hand, subtly encourages the player to break the old world’s cycle of violence by incentivizing them to avoid combat encounters and take a peaceful route through its world. Peaceful playthroughs tend to have happier outcomes.
On the Volga, for example, I avoided killing people connected the religious community and even helped a few out of trouble. At the end of the area, I needed something the religious fanatics could give me, and they let me have it without much problem. I had been kind to their people and helped to make a better world. A colleague played this same area more violently, and the chapter ended with a profound loss.
That’s the biggest difference between Far Cry New Dawn and Metro Exodus. The world of New Dawn is beautiful, but there’s only one way to interact with the game’s villains: murder them. Avoidance or diplomacy aren’t possible, only death. In New Dawn’s world reborn, I was fighting the same old battles over resources and territory.
Artyom and his band of travelers, on the other hand, don’t need to destroy the lives or dreams of anyone else to make their hopes for the future a reality. Metro Exodus is smart enough to let the player choose to live and let live, or slaughter everyone they see, but either way the player has to face the consequences of their actions. In Metro, aggression is unequivocally the worst possible option.
That message—that violence and Armageddon is something we should fear and be humbled by is one we dearly need right now, as the old treaties and norms that we once depended on to keep us safe from nuclear Armageddon are fading away or degrading. There’s no technicolor party waiting for us after the bombs go off.
Stories will not save us, but they can give us hope. They can tell us how to move forward. They can serve as warning and comfort. Metro Exodus does that, while Far Cry New Dawn simply distracts with a pastel color palette while saying there’s nothing to be done, except to kill and enjoy it.