Tuesday, April 24, 2012

My Relationship with Samus Aran - Part 2

 Last week I explained how Nintendo had done something amazing with the character of Samus Aran by portraying her of as a woman of action and determination. Her fans have known her for twenty years as a no-nonsense bounty hunter – the best hunter in the galaxy we were told. From 1987 to 2010, the Samus we grew to know was fearless in the face of exotic and haunting locales filled with all manners of hostile creatures. Her long-term fans thought she was capable of anything the universe could throw at her. Then in 2010, the producers at Nintendo decided Samus needed to be redefined so players could relate to her humanity more and so they created Metroid: Other M which the title implies is not your average “Metroid” title. In fact, as far as the character of Samus Aran is involved, it’s far from it.

Now I have to point out that Metroid: Other M is not a terrible game if all you are concerned with is music and gameplay. It can be fun and it does a good job of keeping the general dark tone of the “Metroid” series as you are fighting your way through the Bottle Ship. The exploration which marked the “Metroid” series was stripped down in order to facilitate the comprehensive story they are attempting to tell, and that required a much more linear track to follow than most other games in the series. That’s really all the nice words I can say for this game, because the story destroys the rest of it. It’s difficult for me to even begin to describe how much the story of Metroid: Other M is abysmal compared to all other entries in the franchise.

Great action sequences almost make up for terrible story!
The “Metroid” games are typically void of narration or exposition to force plot on you. The original trilogy (Metroid, Metroid II: Return of Samus, Super Metroid) gave you some back story in the player’s manual, or opening sequence, and then just left you to your own devices to work your way through the labyrinthine corridors of Zebes and SR388. The “Prime” trilogy (Metroid Prime, Metroid Prime 2: Echoes, Metroid Prime 3: Corruption) allowed you to scan points with your visor to pick up pieces of the story like well hidden clues. It was there for you to explore, or ignore, as you pleased. Keep in mind that these stories were only more information about the current mission or present situation, it did little to explain Samus as a person or delve into her background. That type of story was never necessary, but it certainly wouldn’t have been something undesirable. There were two games before Metroid: Other M that did attempt to put a bit more narrative and plot into a game driven by exploration, and our long silent protagonist actually found herself with some lines of dialogue, but these two games didn’t undermine her core personality. She remained resolved and determined as any previous incarnation. Those two games are Metroid Fusion and the retelling of the original Metroid story Metroid: Zero Mission.

As a story lover, I was excited to hear they were building a “Metroid” game that was driven by a narrative. I was interested to hear Samus speak for the first time. I think filling in the blanks of Samus as a person is a great idea and could have led to a fascinating game about her past and her personality, but unfortunately what we got in Metroid: Other M can only be described as a tragedy. It took those great ideas and created a character whose personality is the most one-dimensional I can possibly imagine. It’s as if the game is saying to me, “Samus is a woman. She leads one-woman genocides against the most dangerous and terrifying, life-draining aliens in the universe, but don’t forget: she is still a woman. Over the next few hours, let us reinforce that description in the most stereotypical way possible.” Here’s a brief list of fundamental changes they made to Samus’s core character in Metroid: Other M.
  1. Samus now obsessively refers to the Metroid hatchling who saved her life as “the baby”
  2. Samus now has daddy issues when confronting her former CO, Adam Malkovich.
  3. Adam calls her “Lady” (established previously in Metroid Fusion)
  4. Her former teammates call her “Princess.”
  5. She freezes up in shock or fear when faced with a particular recurring enemy, Ridley
  6. Although she is replying to an open distress call, she submits to Adam’s authority.
  7. Sector Zero (the Metroid storage sector) is destroyed by Adam.
  8. MB (final boss) is ultimately defeated by the Space Marines.
Am I authorized to shoot that thing? I better ask Adam.
Number 6 through 8 on that list don’t add much to her personality as they do tell me that Samus needs men to take care of things for her. She needs a man to tell her when it’s acceptable to fire a missile. She needs a man to destroy the Metroids once and for all since she’s failed to do it 6 or 7 times now. She needs men to land the killing blow the MB intelligence and save the day. They even give her a nice little commendation for her “participation.” While this doesn’t express her personality outright it does paint a completely new picture of Samus the dependant. So long to one woman alone on a hostile planet, scouring every inch for new powers for her suit to take down the seemingly endless, insurmountable perils.

Over the course of the game, I’m forced to watch cutscene after cutscene of self-doubt and flashbacks of Samus’s rebellious teen years where she boldly gives her CO, Adam Malkovich, the “thumbs down” instead of a “thumbs up” during mission briefings. It’s not easy to sit there and watch her take orders from a father figure through some sense of repressed, misguided loyalty. It’s unbearable to watch her freeze up in the face of danger and watch as an ally presumably falls to his death in an attempt to protect her. It all seems like a coming of age story being told through the words of a teenager’s diary, but instead I’m expected to believe these are Samus’s current thoughts and fears as she’s fighting her way through yet another Metroid infested space scenario. This would all make sense in context if it took place much earlier, before she was the best bounty hunter in the galaxy. Instead, you are forced to watch a narrative destroy what you know and love about a character piece by piece in scenes you wish you could skip, but cannot.
This is how Samus fans rate "Other M."
It’s easy to say in retrospect what would have made a story more compelling, but it’s an exercise I often find myself doing when I see a worthwhile project that’s gone horrible wrong. Pulling back the veil of mystery and fleshing out Samus as a character is not a bad idea at heart. I’ve already said that creating Samus as a character filled with self-doubt and hesitations would work much better in a story being told prior to the whole “saving the galaxy” Metroid saga. It might have been interesting to see her develop from a troubled teen into the galaxy’s most notorious bounty hunter. However, seeing her self-doubts and hesitations with flashbacks of her troubled youth in a story taking place after she’s a galaxy saving badass simply doesn’t sit well.

It's not what you do that defines you,
but that you're a woman underneath.
The narrative of Metroid Fusion talks heavily about Adam Malkovich and his choice to sacrifice himself for Samus so creating a game that delves into that story was an easy choice. I think that it would have been wise to focus her flashbacks on her training with the Chozo instead of inventing her rebellious years in the Federation. I’d be most interested in learning about how she was raised and trained by Chozo. It would be interesting to see her referencing Chozo philosophy and contrasting that with humans around her when making decisions on the Bottle Ship. It would have been interesting to see her compare what she learned from the Chozo to what she learned from Adam and show us why she respects him so much, rather than constantly remind us he’s like a father to her. I never would have wanted to see her as an immature, petulant teenager talking back to her daddy-boss. When focusing on her years with the Federation, I would have preferred pride and arrogance to naiveté and immaturity. I feel her insolence should have been derived from being “too good” compared to her companions and the term “Princess” (if it must be used) was one of contempt rather than endearment to express their unhappiness at being constantly one-upped by this woman. There’s a lot of different angles that may have captured some of the same story and not tarnished Samus’s character as a resolute and calm warrior. These are just some ideas I’ve had while trying to piece together what they were attempting to create in Metroid: Other M.

I want to finish my illustration of this deviation in Samus's character by embedding a video for the first time on TOP Gaming. I want to compare and contrast Samus fighting the Space Pirate leader, Ridley, the last two chronological times - Super Metroid and Metroid: Other M

Samus runs into a room. Ridley appears. Fighting ensues. No one tells her which weapons to use. She doesn't have flashbacks of herself as a child. There's no 15 minute monologue about her feelings. The enemy stands before her and they fight. You may want to take note that her Chozo battle suit stays on the entire fight, because she'll probably need it for protection.

If you watched this video you may notice a few things. First, Adam has to tell her to use Super Missiles and Plasma Beam. I assume if he didn't, Samus would just die at the end of this scene, but fortunately daddy knows how to fight Ridley. You're then subjected to the infamous Samus "freeze up" scene where she flashbacks to herself as a child with Ridley screeching over her (in a real show of compassion from Ridley). Then he gets tired of her flashback and grabs her King Kong style and flies around the room menacingly. Samus struggles to act still and her suit dematerializes. It reveals her to be the damsel in distress she is turning into for this scene. Fortunately there's a strong man in the room to save her. Anthony draws Ridley's attention and for his efforts is treated to a nice lava bath while Samus sits there and watches. Finally she decides to get up and fight. The contrast between these two scenes speaks volumes to how this Samus in Metroid: Other M is not only inferior, but completely unbelievable compared to her previous incarnations.

All women need a big, strong, powerful man to watch their six.
 Metroid: Other M apologists often push the idea that this game is dealing with Samus’s posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but the game neither addresses this nor resolves it. It simply shows Samus to have a weakness. We don’t know why she freezes up. It’s not clear what it is about seeing Ridley for the 5th or more time stuns her into inaction. The ever ranting, often rambling narrative doesn’t explain what caused it, only how it made her feel helpless as she was unable to protect her ally. If they wanted to build an entire game about Samus dealing with PTSD, that would have been one thing (unwelcomed), but to say that’s what they did when the game itself doesn’t even bother to acknowledge it is just adding an extraneous justification to a tremendously poorly written plot.

When I played this game in 2010, I was prompted to write a short eulogy for Samus Aran because I felt the character I had known, loved and respected had died when I thought this was how her creators imagined her all those years ago. Looking forward, however, I can hope that they would learn from their mistakes. I realize that she is not exactly dead and going forward the developers have two choices. They return the Samus of old to us, or they continue to expand on the woman beneath the power suit. Perhaps the now that her daddy issues are resolved, she can spend “Other M 2” looking for a husband or trying to fill the hole in her heart that the baby Metroid left. If they choose the latter, I won’t be buying any more games in my favorite adventure/exploration series, but I now retain some hope that the former woman of action will return someday. In the meantime, I don't have to mourn her or miss her because the Samus I always loved is available in Super Metroid and every other great title the "Metroid" series has seen in the last twenty five years.


Related Links
My original 2010 pseudo-eulogy "The Death of Samus Aran"
G4 Game Review of Metroid: Other M
"Killing Samus" IGN Article
"The Psychology of Samus and the Roles of Adam and Ridley"

Friday, April 20, 2012

Week in Review - 4/20/2012

I apologize for ignoring this column for two weeks.
Truth be told I've only been playing two games since April started.

 Dungeon Defenders

Since April began, Dungeon Defenders has been running an Easter egg hunt which runs until the end of the month. The normal eggs are rather rare, but 24 unlock a Bunny costume for the Squire character. After getting the costume for both my own and my wife’s account, I began farming and selling the eggs and have made quite an extraordinary profit. After completing the original campaign on “Insane” we have turned our attention to the expansion “Eternia Shards” content and are finding it quite challenging. My enthusiasm for this game is still going strong.

Xenoblade Chronicles

Xenoblade Chronicles was released on April 6th and I’ve been playing it ever since. I dare say I’m not terribly far in the game, but I am always kept busy with seemingly never-ending side-quests and projects to work on within the game. This builds relationships and affinity with people and places in the game and my characters grow ever stronger for their challenges ahead. So far I am enjoying the story and characters, but what truly shines in this game is the exploration and the music. Every piece of music I’ve encountered thus far has been absolutely stunning.


Tuesday, April 17, 2012

My Relationship with Samus Aran - Part 1

A memorable and powerful quote from one of my favorite films, Batman Begins, has Rachel Dawes express to Bruce Wayne with contempt, “…it’s not who you are underneath; [but] what you do that defines you.” It’s ironic at the time because she does not yet know that (SPOILER!) Bruce Wayne is Batman and is doing more than most to help clean up Gotham City. This parable succinctly characterizes exactly what I love about Samus Aran. From 1987 to 2010, Samus Aran has been defined by the culmination of her actions and not by the person under the power suit.

I was seven when I first met Samus Aran while playing Metroid in 1988. It was among the first handful of games I owned for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), the first game console I ever owned. Metroid was the first game for the NES that allowed the player to revisit previously explored areas in attempts to find more hidden secrets with newly acquired abilities. It allowed movement not only from left to right, up and down, but also vice-versa which was unique at the time. Contemporaries such as Kid Icarus and Super Mario Bros. only progressed in one direction and did not allow you to move your screen back left once you had proceeded to the right. Metroid also had some surprise endings in store for me, which made it the second game to have multiple endings after Bubble Bobble.

Metroid is such a difficult game on the NES that I guarantee it took me over a year to beat. This was mostly a testament to how awkward and difficult the pass-code system was for a seven year old. They were 24 characters long and you were done for if you put a “0” instead of an “O” when writing it down. It was truly terrible and I was not the most organized seven-year-old. Therefore it took me a long time to work my way through the fortress planet of Zebes and stand toe-to-toe with Mother Brain. Times were different back then. The internet as we know it didn’t exist. Playing video games wasn’t the mainstream thing all the cool kids were doing (quite the opposite) so it wasn’t a heavy subject of recess conversations. I lived in a spoiler-free world. I had no idea what was about to happen once I defeated the final boss. I had no idea that Samus would remove that suit and personally congratulate me. I was not prepared for it.

He's so cool.
The ending of Metroid is ranked #1 in most “Memorable Moments in Video Games” for me. That moment when Samus sheds the power suit and reveals for the entire world to see that she is actually a woman underneath was monumental for me. It isn’t really so much that Samus is a woman that’s important, but that I had been led to believe otherwise prior to her unveiling. In the wonderful world of 8-bit gaming, the only story you got was detailed to you in the manual itself and then you were left to your own devices to work out the plot as you progressed through the game. Most games only got a paragraph or two, but games like Legend of Zelda and Metroid got considerably more. Metroid got 8 pages of background story explaining in detail the rise of the Space Pirates and the Federation turning to their last resort, Samus Aran. I remember rushing to consult this story while keeping my eye on Samus on my TV in case she was about to do anything else equally mind blowing. Just as I had thought! It continuously refers to Samus as a man. What was Nintendo of America playing at here? Had they intentionally tried to deceive me or was this some horrible inattention to detail while translating from Japanese? I honestly would not know for many, many years (again: no internet). 

Great!! You fulfilled your mission. Also, I'm a woman! Suprise!
As a child, I thought it was so cool that Samus is “a girl.” It endeared her to me for reasons I couldn’t adequately express. I couldn’t articulate why it was cool in any other way than it surprised the hell out of me one fateful afternoon. I didn’t see then that it was so rare to be playing a woman rather than saving one from a castle and so the entire concept was stimulating to me. It was the first time I ever played a strong, independent female character. The video game industry has always been so overpopulated with male protagonists that it didn’t even cross my mind to question the ruse laid out in the game’s manual.

In 1994, I was next reunited with Samus in Super Metroid, after missing out on Metroid II: Return of Samus for GameBoy. Now, Super Metroid is my favorite action side-scrolling game ever made and I won’t dwell on that, but I think it is video game perfection. Super Metroid does not attempt to hide Samus’s gender in any way. In fact, every time you fail as a player, you see her power suit fall apart and the woman within die. It is a constant reminder that while she is strong and powerful, she’s also only human.

It's true we get to see her underpants for a brief instant, but hey, it's hot in Chozo battle suits.

There is a stark contrast to my reaction of seeing Samus in her power suit and without it. When I see the image of Samus as a woman, it strikes me as beautiful and delicate. Although I still wouldn't say she appears weak, she certainly appears vulnerable. When I see her in the power suit, I still know she is a woman underneath, but all I see is strength and power. She appears indomitable and invulnerable. I think this contrast is what makes Samus so unique and important. Most women in video games are under-dressed for their occupation, so even the strength of their role is undermined by their lack of clothing. Those types of women ask me to suspend disbelief that they can wage wars in their underpants, simply so I can see quite a bit of skin. This is not so for Samus. Much like Batman putting on his suit to do the things he knows Bruce Wayne cannot do, Samus wearing her suit is doing the things many of us are groomed to think women cannot do – and that’s why it’s so amazing she can do them and she does so without sacrificing her dignity or suspending my disbelief with her outfit. Samus defies and redefines gender roles unlike any other character in video gaming. That’s why I thought Samus being a girl was so cool when I was young, but I just didn’t understand all the implications and nuances of society to express it. 

There is something to be said about the dark tone of the "Metroid" series as well.  Unlike Nintedo's other series which feature bright colors and backgrounds, the "Metroid" series is dark and eerie. While Mario might have to look for his Princess in another castle, he can be sure that his trip there will be bright and cheerful, slapping shiny stars and picking fire flowers. Samus on the other hand will be scouring the dark corners of Brinstar, colored with a darker pallet and emphasized by haunting music, to find her power-ups. Not only is Samus strong and brave, but her game environments and the accompanying music were among the first to test the bravery of the player as well. While Metroid titles aren't on par with Silent Hill, I can certainly tell you I have been nervous running through the dark corridors of Super Metroid, and literally scared out of my seat by Space Pirates in the dark rooms of Metroid Prime.

Samus has more evolutions than most Pokemon.
Samus Aran is an amazing character. Not only is she a warrior and a hunter, but she is the best at what she does. Raised by an ancient, mysterious race of anthropomorphic bird warriors who were thought to be extinct, she was trained in their combat style and given her powerful suit of armor that only she can utilize. She has saved the Galaxy numerous times, and driven a dangerous, powerful species to the brink of extinction. She is strong and quick-thinking. She is fearless. It is her determination and her skill as a warrior that defines her. Everything else about her has always been a footnote. It is an important footnote, however, because Samus's ability to defy stereotypes and be a proud, strong woman is part of her identity. This article wouldn't exist if she weren't a woman, and while she would be a cool character, I wouldn't feel quite so enamored by her strength if she was simply meeting the status quo of most video game characters - either a man, or a scantily clad woman.

Playing as Samus remains a unique and rewarding experience for me even 25 years later.

In 2010 Nintendo attempted to redefine Samus in the Wii title Other M. Next week I will discuss how well I feel this redefinition did at fleshing out Samus Aran as a character.


Tuesday, April 10, 2012

What Could Kickstarter Mean for Video Games?

Kickstarter” appears to be a buzz word of 2012 in gaming right now. Over the last two months, I’ve heard this term at least once a week, but I only had a vague idea of what it entails through context. I decided to look into it and was so impressed with the idea that I wanted to contribute to perpetuating the buzz. Kickstarter has been around since 2008, but its recent success in the video game department has perhaps put it more prominently on my radar. In March 2012, “Double Fine Adventure” took the #1 spot of highest amount of funds raised by amassing $3,336,371 with an original goal of only $400,000. This has made it quite a success story and word of it has gotten around fast.

Kickstarter is an online fundraiser, or “crowd funding,” website which utilizes fan interest and support to create new projects. Those projects include all forms of literature and art, not just video games. Crowd funding itself has been developing online as early as 2001. This system is mostly used to help fund indie projects that otherwise may not get off the ground without relying on bigger publishers who not only take their share of the profit, but also often influence design decisions and steer projects away from perceived risks that might negatively impact sales. The system instead turns fans of the project or project owner into a form of investor. Although the donators do not actually own any part of the projects made, the developer often promises perks depending on how much money is donated in the form of goods or services. For example, many indie games I looked at offer you a copy of the game when it is released for a small donation, and lead up to meeting the developers or invitations to gaming expo for some of the large donations.

The idea this picture represents is worth $3.3 million!
When the Kickstarter project for “Double Fine Adventure” ended in March, it proved that customer loyalty can be tapped in an all new and direct way. This allows smaller game developers to work independently without the influence of big-time producers and publishers. It has shown that the system can work when the conditions are right.  Double Fine intentionally chose to make an “adventure game” to provide a type of game that current publishers refuse to touch and classify as a dead genre that appeals to only a limited, and unprofitable, crowd. The response on Kickstarter is certainly an eye-opener then. This project has shown that fan interest in supposedly “dead genres” can certainly surprise you, and that game publishers are perhaps not in touch with what consumers actually want anymore. They are attempting to mitigate financial risks by eliminating risky ideas or game projects, but as a result the entire industry is flooded with game regurgitation and stifles growth in creativity and innovation. – This is something I’ve felt personally throughout the last decade and am happy to see that there is a developing alternative to signing over your projects to the big label publishers.

The recent success of “Double Fine Adventure” has certainly encouraged more developers to seek fan support in their projects, some of which include Wasteland 2, The Banner Saga, and Shadowrun Returns. These games are still running their fundraising on Kickstarter as of today and are already slated to take their spots in the Top 10 highest grossing projects as soon as they close. Wasteland 2 in particular will be sitting right next to “Double Fine Adventure” in 2nd place if it closed today, and still has 6 days left to collect donations. As I mentioned, Kickstarter has been running since 2008, but in just a three short months video game projects have risen to take the 5 of the 10 top grossing spots in the last 4 years. Though its doubtful that bigger publishers will see this as a threat, I’m sure gets the attention of many aspiring developers with limited budgets out there. As far as I’m concerned, I’m just glad to see that quality games that are true to their developers’ visions will still have a means by which they can be made without any outside influence or interference.

Wasteland/Fallout fans everywhere fainted at this announcement...
then woke up and got out their wallets to donate $2.2 million as of April 10th.
Anyone who read my article about Downloadable Content knows that I sometimes see publishers as money-grubbing liege lords of the gaming industry, sacrificing the quality and integrity of video game making in order to milk their customers for money by nickel and diming them for content and upgrades that could have (and should have) been released in the game itself. It also comes as no surprise that they continue to put a hold on projects such as Wasteland 2 which they see as financially risky, but fans see as the best thing to happen to post-apocalyptic genre since Fallout 2. I had heralded content released by Steam as a way to combat the over-pricing of video games put out by big developers, and now happily add Kickstarter to the list of potential ways to contribute to the quality of the gaming industry by investing in projects YOU want made, and allowing game developers insight into games we actually want to play rather than be spoon-fed games by the big names of the industry.

I’m momentarily filled with hope that video games will continue to grow and flourish as art and literature rather than remain stagnant and mass produced to maintain a market status quo as I’ve felt it’s been over the last decade or so.


Related Links

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Defending the Dungeon's Crystals

Some of you may wonder why “A Breton in Skyrim” has slowed down considerably in the last two weeks. Anyone looking at my Friday column “Week in Review” may notice a game called DungeonDefenders continues to pop up. I am tremendously caught up in this game, so please direct all blame at it and its developers at Trendy Entertainment for why I’m not playing much Skyrim. Even now I’d rather be playing it than writing this article. I’m currently thinking of the Barbarian I may create, ready to dual-wield his way to fame and glory. Since it’s Tuesday morning and I’m honor bound to post for you all, I’ll tell you of this gem that’s been hidden away on Steam since October, 2011.

It was just two weeks ago that Steam hosted a free-weekend of Dungeon Defenders. That means players were allowed to download and play the full version of the game for 48 hours or so before the content became locked and unusable again until purchased. A friend of mine owned the game and suggested I try it out since it was free. I downloaded it on both my computer and my wife’s computer. We were instantly hooked. Our whole weekend melted away inside that game and we have yet to run out of things to do together.
If strategy isn't your thing, try big guns on for size.
 The game is a very well put together hybrid of two separate game genres. It cleverly combines a genre of game referred to as “tower defense” with all the excitement of an action role-playing game. Each level of the main game is split into two phases. There is an initial Build Phase, during which you assess the battlefield and determine the best place to build your defensive arsenal of towers and traps. Then the game shifts into a Combat Phase where you have the option to sit back and watch your constructs tear through the enemy lines, or leap into the fray yourself to hack and slash your way to victory.

Roll is my current favorite character, the DLC "Series EV"
 The game starts with 4 character classes which each have their own unique defenses to build, and unique combat styles. The PC version (as opposed to its console version cousin) also has for purchase 4 mirror classes which are gender-switched versions of the original classes but boast their own unique combat abilities making them play somewhat differently on the battlefield. It also has released 2 new and completely unique classes, also available for purchase. The game also takes a very Diablo approach to loot as it randomly generates each piece of gear that drops from monsters and chests as you play the game. Finding and leveling your gear is perhaps one of the most intricate systems within the game, and comes with its own set of challenges. If you enjoy games where you are directly rewarded for grinding out your stats (like my love affair with the “Disgaea” series) then the armor system of Dungeon Defenders will welcome you with open arms as well.

Monks are tough.
The base game comes with a full Campaign of 12 maps and an additional bonus map once you complete it. It also comes with a variety of unlockable Challenge maps which provide unique ways to play maps you’ve already conquered in the Campaign. Since its release the game has seen a steady stream of downloadable content, including a developing expansion and a slew of Challenges to reward you with unique weapons, armor, familiars and costumes for your characters. Considering the game was just released in October (approximately 6 months ago) I’m surprised at how much content there is available for the game. There appears to be new content released roughly every month to keep the game fresh and exciting with new maps to explore and occasionally new classes to level. This dedication to constant updates and new content hold a promise to keep us entertained for weeks to come.

Anyone interested in playing with me on Steam, let me know. I’d be glad to help get you started.

Play Dungeon Defenders or NiCad will arm buster you to death.