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"

1 comment:

  1. Ah I know this game, I just collected it from PIJ.
    Great setup there. You wouldn't think these pictures were created like this just from looking at it. That's a compliment of course. http://bit.ly/METROIDOtherM