I’m not sure what it is about the Russian accent, but it makes everyone sound like a cartoon villain when pushed through the English language. Compared to native Russian—a brooding, often dangerous sounding tongue—it’s comical. I started playing Metro 2033, a sadly overlooked Ukranian-developed shooter set in a post-apocalyptic Russia overrun by mutated beasts, with English flipped on. That’s the default setting. But then I switched Russian with subtitles—and everything changed.
The option to switch everything to Russian is sometimes mentioned during the loading screens, though it didn’t come up for me. Matthew Burns, former Bungie Studios producer turned poignant games columnist and Shadegrown Games founder, pointed out the ability to swap voices on his Twitter account.v The concept gave me pause. I’d previously rolled my eyes at the idea for Assassin’s Creed II, which also gives players the option to experience everything in Italian. Some friends switched it. I’m not sure why I didn’t think it was a good idea then, except to admit that while I have no problems reading subtitles, I would rather hear dialogue in the language most familiar to me, English. I don’t think that’s unreasonable, though in an ideal world, I’d have a Babel fish to get the best of both.
Metro 2033 provides solid evidence that I was wrong. Given that it was actually developed overseas, fully immersing yourself in the world via language only enhances the experience. Removed from my own aural familiarities, I often have very little idea of what’s going on. The signs are in Russian, the voices are in Russian — heck, the game feels Russian. The game mechanics are my constant, a way to get around the world, and switching the language does introduce some oddities.
One, having never spent an extensive (any?) time listening to Russian at length, I have trouble differentiating between voices. If there are two characters speaking at the same time, I can’t often pick up on the subtle differences between characters, forcing me to spend more time paying attention who is actually talking, instead of relying on the audio cues and pointing the in-game perspective somewhere else (ooh, I wonder if there’s some ammunition over there…).
Two, the subtitles encourage player imagination, even if by accident. See, subtitles only exist in Metro 2033 for story moments, as main characters are speaking to, around or about you. Weapons dealers and side characters in towns speak in nothing but Russian. No subtitles. You can interact with them through a button press, but nothing they say will mean anything to you unless you speak the language. There are a disturbing amount of tattered children strewn about Metro 2033’s world, and I often find myself trying to piece together their roles in this maddening society as I explore further and further.
It stands to reason Metro 2033’s dark, lonely world (unlike the bigger, brighter landscape of Assassin’s Creed II) makes my inability to completely understand the world around me that much more immersive, but as someone who dismissed abandoning my language for a game’s native one, I now see the worth in not exactly knowing what’s going on. Sometimes, you’re better off for it. As the game’s strongest suit is the intoxicating atmosphere of humanity’s tendency to err on the side of destroying one another, total immersion through a different language helps seal the deal.