Press G to Wipe Mask

There is a bandwidth asymmetry inherent to videogames. Millions of bytes of image data are streamed to our retinas every one sixtieth of a second and in return, our input devices send back, at best, several kilobytes of user input.

This asymmetry often leads to laughable juxtapositions.

Press X to Jason.

Press F to Pay Respects.

Or in the Metro series, you press G to Wipe Mask.

There is a moment early in Metro: Last Light, where Artyom, our protagonist, emerges from the dark abyss of the Metro into the light of post-nuclear Moscow. Rife with urban decay as muddy soil overtakes solid concrete, portions of the ground more closely resemble marshlands than Moscow streets.

Trudging into the mud elicits a bubbly splash. The effects span beyond just sound and particle effects though. The mud and grime fly through the air from Artyom’s footsteps, some of it landing straight onto his gas mask. Streaks of brown and green goop cover the player’s screen, like an old photo frame with mould growing on it.

Then the prompt appears. Press G to Wipe Mask, so you press G.

Artyom extends his gloved hand to his mask and quickly wipes it from right to left, cleaning away the grime. The dirt does not simply fade away or vanish immediately. You see it streak away, trails of stained water left behind, shrinking into minuscule droplets from the capillary effect.

You press G again. Artyom wipes his mask again. The remnants streak again and form back into water droplets again. His hand isn’t exactly dry. Your gas mask is not going to be squeaky clean for a while.

You are here. In this wasteland. You can see it stretch beyond. You can feel the dampness on your hand from wiping your mask. You can see the specks of dirt, the cracks in your mask, the moisture from your laboured breathing. You are here. This is no videogame.

First Person Shooters have tried various ways to make you feel like more than a floating camera. Sometimes you’re a full-bodied avatar, complete with head bob. Sometimes the HUD is diegetic, information displayed in the world or on your weapons.

The Metro series does all that and goes one further: it makes you feel dirty.