Art by Ivan Flores.
Few revelations could have placated the long time Nintendo faithful at E3 this year more than the announcement that another Metroid title was in development. The applause within Club Nokia was instantaneous, and I’m certain the person to my right started convulsing almost immediately; the person to my left added “new Metroid game” to his notes as if he’d forget, but that’s another story. As gamers have absorbed the news, there’s a nagging concern as the knee-jerk excitement gives way to a recognition of what was shown in the footage. The Team Ninja project consists of video sequences focussed on developing a back story for the bounty hunter, presenting characters and emotional elements through externalized story telling tactics. In other words, aspects that are largely foreign to the series. Nintendo told me that the project was about telling a different story in the franchise, and for now that appears to rely on anime-styled cinema to wedge a new entry into the series. I can’t help but think that this has more to do with selling units in Japan, where the series has proved less popular compared to Nintendo’s other storied franchises. Yet there’s more at stake than that.
As Hideo Kojima wisely pointed out at GDC this year, technical limitations played a definitive role in the design and narrative aspirations of early videogames. Designers were forced to find unique ways to tell stories, often achieving fresh narrative approaches by nature of the marriage between what was desired and what was technically possible. While that caused Kojima to create a stealth-oriented genre that continues to thrive today, it also gave birth to a science fiction series that represents the single most symbolically significant franchise Nintendo claims ownership over, linked to the best examples of a genre where the primary goal is to think harder about who we are and where we are going. With technical limitations fading and giving rise to unparalleled design possibilities, there is every reason to be concerned that this most preciously-guarded franchise will be raided and exploited, lessening the significance in the attempt to broaden the appeal.
While the isolating and hostile environment of the original Metroid created the relationship to classic science fiction films, it was the title screen for Super Metroid that forever enforced the connection. The stark, eerie laboratory with its lone Metroid in captivity was reminiscent of films like Alien and the solitary interior of the Nostromo, where computers chirped away bereft of any signs of life.
The comparison is crucial, because like Alien, Metroid is a merger of thematic elements from both science fiction and horror – that hybrid of symbolism that maximizes the exploration of our fears and identity. Metroid depicts a universe overrun with the chaos of uncontrolled life, filled with mutating monsters that represent chaos as the natural order versus the delusional structure of order humanity wishes to impose upon life. But life cannot be controlled absolutely, and planets teem with ravenous creatures and monstrous abnormalities beyond our comprehension. These creatures largely represent the more natural order, with the human equation and attempt for reason presented as the foreign contaminant. Races face a constant fight for survival against these life forms, while space pirates consist of more bizarre creatures bent on the abuse of power through the disruption of the natural order. Attempts to control and tame life only lead to the creation of even deadlier creatures that threaten to devour what life has managed to survive against this harsh landscape.
Art by Transfuse.
This isn’t just a universe where life “runs amuck,” but a story about the true nature of life – of messy, uncontrolled, and thereby terrifying realities that are beyond our control. In the best tradition of both horror and science fiction, the audience is confronted with these fears, and challenged to overcome them and thereby come to terms with our fractured relationship to them. Having already alluded to the relationship Metroid shares with Alien, there’s a more crucial significance to touch upon. Both franchises represent a simultaneous empowerment and fear of femininity and the female identity – the subconscious horror of the uncontrolled nature of the internal female body and the symbolic relationship we share with it.
Again, Metroid presents a universe overgrown with uncontrolled life where creatures and environments exhibit a chaotic evolution against our inability to truly comprehend and thereby control it. This is a story about birth and development, of parasitic infections and monstrous mutations. Ultimately, it is the externalization of the physical female interior. While the series is built upon themes of isolation, exploration, and empowerment, Samus’ entry into Zebes is like entering the womb itself, where themes of motherhood, separation anxiety, and maturation reign. This environment is full of complex secrets, hidden meanings, and elements of identity that are gained only through self-discovery.
In Metroid 2 players were introduced to the life cycle of the Metroid, culminating in a bond occurring when Samus essentially adopts the hatchling Metroid at the end of the game. Her relationship with the life form continues into Super Metroid, where it ultimately saves her life, and doubly so in Metroid Fusion where her DNA is merged with samples from it.
There’s an intensely complex relationship formed within these early titles, an exploration of the mother/daughter dynamic where Samus’ adopted childhood meets an awkward relationship with that hatchling that believes her to be its mother. The dynamic is further complicated by the abomination that is Mother Brain, representing a technological attempt at controlling the creation and development of life versus the natural order. And these themes continued to mutate within the Metroid Prime series, where Phazon thrives within Samus’ body only to be used by Metroid Prime. The emergence of Dark Samus further develops these ideas despite tapping into a familiar habit of Nintendo franchises. But Dark Samus wasn’t simply the cousin of Dark Link, who within the Zelda franchise represents a strict polar opposite of the noble hero to exist as the dark representation of everything sinister within the world. Instead, Dark Samus represents not just the corruption of Samus’ powers, but of Samus’ body – existing as a mother figure in a sense as the protector of the dark forces Samus seeks to eradicate.
Of course the most significantly referenced element of Metroid is the presentation of an empowered and heroic female character – the concept that only a woman can bring balance to the universe. Yet, as empowering as this idea is, it is simultaneously undermined by the artificial enhancement of the power suit that grants Samus the ability to confront these challenges. When Samus loses her suit in Zero Mission, she is forced to play a stealth game until finally able to regain it. The suit empowers her while also masking her female identity beneath a generic male template of power that relies on technological augmentations: again, the disruption of the natural order. Power missiles, charge beams and bombs are all traditionally symbolically male means of overcoming opposition.
So perhaps as a consequence of this, the task is never truly accomplished. The universe never realizes true balance and harmony. Instead the unpredictable nature of life continues to thrive and finds the means to keep the story unresolved, returning time and time again, never conquered so completely by that masculine approach.
If the player achieves a certain measure of success, the reward consistently provides a glimpse of Samus in the flesh, stripped down to her zero suit in most entries. There’s a sense that only after the conflict is resolved can Samus again embrace her femininity, as if that identity is only acceptable after the fight has concluded rather than proving the strength that allows her to meet the fight to begin with.
There’s a very faux sense of empowerment here that has plenty to offer toward understanding our own delusions of social acceptance. Only through the use of this power suit can the slim and feminine Samus overcome the obstacles in her path. Perhaps there’s room to view this as the protection of the female identity, with the series representing the inherent prevalent force of life through that protection. Samus is sealed away or partially removed from the environment in an antiseptic state. Is there a fear of direct contact with this raw form of life at work?
What is certain is that the crucial developments of the series have taken place not within filmic sequences that imply narrative – excusing the brief detours made by Fusion and Hunters. It isn’t possible to directly imply these ideas, which instead emerge subtlety, often the result of subconscious intentions we can’t fully comprehend. Narrative development has instead taken place directly behind the visor and within the course of gameplay. This is the way of natural narrative, which emerges and bonds with the player as a direct experience resulting from their own actions. Gameplay-driven narrative earns that connection and grants a greater comprehension to character identity in a personal way. The player isn’t told who Samus is nearly so much as they learn and develop her character from a mixture of the personal experiences they bring to the game and the direct interaction they take in guiding her character through these challenges.
So there’s every reason to fear the outcome regarding how this newest endeavour will capture the spirit of the series. The idea of pursuing a direct telling of Samus’ past brings upsetting remembrances of Perfect Dark Zero to mind, leaving me sceptical about how the game could possibly grow the connection between Samus and players. While it stands to reason that a treasured gameplay experience could arise from the work, there is also a looming threat that the greater significance of a subtle narrative will be undervalued and subsequently sacrificed in the attempt.