SPOILERS FOR METRO EXODUS FOLLOW.
The chaotic streets of Racoon City, fog-drenched Silent Hill, and derelict USG Ishimura are among some of the best settings in horror game history. They instill us with feelings of dread and help make the terror feel real. Great level design can craft a unique sense of unease and act as a foundation for all of the player’s fears to be built on.
Enter Metro Exodus, the latest entry in this fan-favorite series from developer 4A Games. Set in nuclear ravaged Russia, players assume the role of an elite commando called Artyom. While his journey sees him visit a number of unique locations, Exodus doesn’t really ramp up the terror until they reach The Caspian Sea. Now a barren desert, Arytom is tasked with retrieving a map from an abandoned bunker hidden filled with mutated spiders. What follows is a potent cocktail of tight level design mixed with absolute terror.
For the unfamiliar, the mutated spiders in the Metro franchise are fast, volatile, travel in packs, and heavily armored. This makes them a nightmare to deal with in any scenario – especially when ammo is such a finite resource. Thankfully, living in the dark has made these bothersome bugs vulnerable to any kind of light. So all one has to do is shine their flashlight on a spider for around 15 seconds until they burn up and die. Simple, right?
Things get complicated thanks to the former bunker turned nest of man-eating arachnids’ claustrophobic corridors. Filled with narrow passages and rooms cluttered with debris, 4A Games gives the player just enough room to navigate through the base. The spiders don’t have this issue since they can climb on the walls and traverse through log-sized holes littered throughout the environment. Normally, this would signal areas where the bugs would crawl out from an attack, but the developer’s show an impressive amount of restraint.
Instead, these spider-holes just tease the player, acting as a visual reminder that these monsters could attack from anywhere. You can constantly hear the bugs moving behind the walls or in other rooms, threatening to pounce on Artyom at any moment. Sometimes you’ll chase one of the arachnids into a hole, only to learn that they can emerge from any of them throughout the level. You never feel safe in the bunker and even if you kill every bug that crosses your path, Exodus constantly reminds the player that there are more.
There are also dozens of spider cobwebs strewn throughout the bunker. Since the start Exodus has been conditioning players to set these ablaze, but doing so may cause a bunch of smaller bugs to crawl across Artyom. It’s a minor visual flourish that doesn’t cause any harm, but their movements over his arms and face can easily fool a player into thinking they’re being attacked. I’ve lost track of how many times I reflexively meleed the air when one of those baby spiders crawled across my screen.
4A Games escalates the tension by laying out the level in a very linear fashion. There’s only one way in and out of the bunker, meaning the player will need to backtrack if they want to escape. Your first trek through is quite simple and there are a ton of lights on. This not only helps users understand the general geography of each room but eases new players into combating the spiders. Then the lights go out and the realization of backtracking completely in the dark sets in.
Even with a flashlight, your safety isn’t guaranteed since your back is always exposed to the spiders. This causes a sense of panic, as you’ll constantly whip around only to see nothing is there – most of the time. Those holes in the wall you blissfully walked by are now potential death traps and the cobwebs you forgot to burn up will only slow you down. Most of the time you’ll find yourself huddling in a corner, frantically moving your flashlight around to scare off the mutants. All of this culminates in a mad rush for an elevator as dozens of arachnids chase you down.
Then Metro Exodus winds up and throws a curve ball at players. Much later in the game, you’ll have to traverse a building that full of spiders. But you can handle it, right? Just do the same thing as before! That plan falls apart almost instantly when Artyom’s equipment malfunctions and that all-powerful flashlight dies on him. Now, with only a lighter in hand, players have to fight off swarms of spiders. It’s a unique feeling of vulnerability that tears away everything you learned in that dark bunker.
Despite how much of a horror cliche the giant spider is, Metro Exodus manages to make them the scariest monsters in the game. This is not only thanks to their terrific design but the way that 4A Games utilizes their environment. Instead of just making them another foe roaming the world, these nests are used scarcely and punctuate moments where the player feels like they finally have control. We’d take the man-eating catfish over a bunker of spiders any day of the week.