BEING SAMUS
And Other Metroid Musings

By Jamie Love - June 14th, 2009

Being Samus
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.

Being Samus

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.

Being Samus
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.

Being Samus

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.

Being Samus

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.

Being Samus

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.

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    15 responses so far:
  2. By TheMaverickk
    Posted on Jun 14, 2009

    I don’t often drop comments on Toronto Thumbs, but I must say this is probably the most thorough and true to form break down of the Metroid series.

    Excellent read and insightful points I must say. I feel your worry as well in terms of Metroid: Other M. As much as it looks great and was a dynamic and exciting trailer, I’m personally worried that it will stray very far from what makes a great Metroid game.

    For starters from what they’ve mentioned the game seems to tell stories and tales between different points in Samus’ life. This to me suggests instantly that the game won’t take place in a singular world/enviroment where you are expected to explore, solve puzzles, and back track like all previous Metroid titles.

    From the glimpse it seems to be episodic and will likely be level/mission based experience. Which is done to again aid the new more action based gameplay mechanics.

    I have my ample concerns myself… the one piece of hope I’m hoping for though is that this game may follow a more Super Metroid-Esque style game then anything else. It does seem reminiscent of that game on some levels and that eases my mind.

  3. Posted on Jun 14, 2009

    This was a totally interesting read about one of my favorite series in games.

    While you did present an entirely valid argument with a number of valid concerns about what the Metroid series has been and where it might be going with the next installment, I believe that all of the greater statements made by the game about feminine heroism and the chaotic nature of life likely began as a simple byproduct of Nintendo’s primary concern of making an entertaining game. While over time the developers may have realized that these concepts which they may have inadvertently stumbled upon were rife for exploring in future titles, I believe that Nintendo will always first and foremost be concerned with making a game that is fun that can exist within the Metroid universe as opposed to a game that can be considered “true” to the series. I mean, being familiar with the company and looking at every one of their franchises there’s the very clear theme that nothing supersedes gameplay. Even looking at Nintendo games that intend to explore certain stories like Other M is promising to do, it always seems that when Nintendo is involved the gameplay becomes more developed than the story. I think that in the case of the Metroid series, using Super Metroid as an example, the great story about very complex themes showed up as a result of good game design and not necessarily a hugely thematic script because they allowed for a huge amount of inferential leaps to be made in the minds of the players by showing many of the games events in scripted actions rather than telling them through text.

    So I suppose what I’ve been trying to say is that while you present very well your concerns about the upcoming Other M–and I actually agree with you that the story presentation seems so far a great deviation from how the wonderful franchise has presented itself in the past–I think that the only worthwhile concerns about this game should be about how it _plays_. Playing Nintendo games has always been about fun and enjoyability paramount to all other aspects of the experience. I think that if Team Ninja and Nintendo decide to experiment with how they tell the story in this game then that falls well into their justified creative license. It may turn out to be an unfortunate decision or it may be a particularly fortuitous one, but my sole concern is about how the game will play. I do not see anything wrong with Nintendo changing things up for this installment in the series as long as the product ends up being good.

  4. By overtninja
    Posted on Jun 14, 2009

    while the metroid series has always been about exploration and confrontation with the often terrifying unknown (i cannot tell you how often i’ve been afraid to go into a door in a metroid game, or how i’ve been so shaken by the physical appearance of a boss creature that it was hard to beat simply because of nerves), the idea of exploring samus’ backstory is not necessarily something that will stomp all over this central aspect of the series.

    narrative storytelling (with text conversations, even) has been done with metroid fusion rather successfully – and if the video trailer is any indication of what the game has in store, it appears that the developers are taking the events of that game as canon and fleshing out exactly why samus had such a thing for her now-deceased former commanding officer within the galactic defence forces (or whatever the thing is called). i look forward to this, as further humanizing what would otherwise be a chick in a suit can only add to the depth of her character. while i do appreciate the inferential clues to her personality and so forth that are presented throughout the metroid series, if further exporations of samus’ character can be achieved without being detrimental to the overall game experience, i welcome it.

  5. Posted on Jun 15, 2009

    bro, reading this article reminds me that i need to write more. Very well organized. Quite frankly this is the kinda of piece, that keeps me here, that gets overshadowed or over played at the big ‘default’ blogs.

    “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.”

    I would argue that the power suit doesn’t take away from her identity as a female. It’s just the nature of the powersuit and conventions in the genre that have newcomers thinking that Samus was a man until the end of the game. There’s no way to make a powersuit ‘feminine’ unless you make one of those hyper-sexualized powersuits that are really quite distasteful. Sure PSS doesn’t have the female curve that ZSS does but the power suit itself is pretty utilitarian in design I would argue.

    You do, however, make the point that the weapon choice is masculine in nature and while I would on a personal level disagree. I will concede it’s a stronger argument.

  6. By Ben Barry
    Posted on Jun 15, 2009

    You really over thought this. All those metaphors about femininity and identity are a in your head. Its just a game. Go outside.

  7. Posted on Jun 15, 2009

    Thanks to all for commenting. I’m a little surprised at the reactions I got from some people, more over because I never write anything with the intention of saying “this is the one definitive reading because I say so.”

    Ideally, we talk about works like Metroid from multiple perspectives, take chances, build arguments. There is no right answer however. This isn’t math class after all. And in these types of readings, its important to remember that what I or someone else might argue is present, doesn’t mean it was intentional but quite the opposite. The ability to discover meanings that weren’t meaningfully put there are incredibly vital, because everyday we commit subconscious acts that say quite a bit about us and our relationship with the world around us.

  8. Posted on Jun 15, 2009

    @Ben Barry – some of us think about the games we play. Some of us think about them a little *too* much, but this can’t be a bad thing.

  9. Greetings, from the MDb.
    I enjoyed the article, it was very well written. Have you read my Woman Behind the Visor article? I may have to add more to it once Other M comes out.

    I personally think no one has any right to complain or “be fearful” about Other M. Metroid is one of Nintendo’s “lower-selling” (aka <2M) franchises anyway; it’s just a matter of popularity. What I mean to say is that those who call themselves “fans” usually don’t even deserve to say they are because they have none or very little knowledge of the series. It’s a repeat of history: the game will be amazing, just like Prime was. And all the naysayers will promptly shut up and love it. Nintendo will continue to make the games and we’ll continue to buy them.

    Also — there’s absolutely NOTHING wrong with writing a critical essay about games or even a particular one. They are art, no matter what anyone else says, and art is meant to be enjoyed, reflected upon and thought about, even if that wasn’t its original intention. So don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. ;)

    –Infinity’s End

    P.S. – I personally met Mr. Flores at an Anime Con a while back. I have a signed copy of the Samus drawing you used for your headliner image hanging on my wall. :)

  10. Great article, Jamie. These themes are certainly present in the series, though I agree with some of the comments above (esp M_Tucker) that they mostly aren’t specifically designed into the game but are more an unintended result of design decisions. That’s not to say some of these concepts weren’t considered and designed as themes, but the majority are probably emergent rather than constructed.

    Games are a completely new medium for storytelling and meaning-making, and one that is poorly understood. This is why Hideo Kojima, despite his kudos for experimenting with and developing the stealth genre, continues to tell his stories through cutscenes (while ironically wondering if there’s another way of doing so). The work of ludic media artists like Jason Rohrer and Daniel Benmergui and persuasive game development from people like Ian Bogost are exploring how we can take those implied themes that emerge almost by accident from design and readily build a game specifically about expressing these.

    Unfortunately, until we figure that out, story will always be secondary to gameplay. Nobody is going to read the story if the game stinks, which is why Miyamoto is quoted as saying ‘the less story, the better.’ Trying to smoothly integrate cutscenes with play is therefore a valid experiment, though one whose results and extent of ludic storytelling simply cannot be discerned from a 2 minute trailer.

  11. Posted on Jun 24, 2009

    @Commando – “why Miyamoto is quoted as saying ‘the less story, the better.’”

    whoa. whoa. whoa. Miyamoto was talking specifically about Mario not about games as a whole.

    “I’ve always felt that the Mario games themselves aren’t particularly suited to having a very heavy story, whereas the Zelda series is something that lends itself more naturally to that idea.” – http://www.wired.com/gamelife/2009/06/shigeru-miyamoto-interview/

    This is why it’s dangerous to put words in mouths of others. next thing you know Miyamoto is branded a “games aren’t art” freak and there are few crimes worse than that in the gaming press.

  12. I’m not going to give a long, boring comment. I’m not going to dole out the repetative and uninspired adulation you’ve probably come to expect for this article. All I have to say is that this was an amazing read. Your words lose base fall into themselves, collapsing until they form the world where your mind is, and depict perfectly the Metroid universe.

    So there you go. Keep writing.

  13. Posted on Jul 2, 2010

    I’v never understood why so many internet writers have had this need to use Metroid as a jumping point to launch their thesis on gender politics. It’s entirely irrelevant, especially as Samus’ gender has always been more-or-less incidental to her character.

    The suit is an extension of Samus herself. She is never entirely sealed away from anything. It can be thought of as a part of her body. When the suit runs out of energy, she dies. Yet if she is separated from the suit, she is still a considerable threat. The only difference is she can’t kill space pirates as quickly. The suit was a gift to her from the Chozo race who raised her to be their representative warrior. Samus doesn’t work because of the suit, the suit works because of Samus, and she is the only person it works for. She isn’t just some Master chief-style shell character. All the misguided Freudian analysis in the world can’t change that fundamental fact.

    To quote a reviewer in the Toronto Star: “Metroid Prime’s heroine is not a woman for the benefit of the sweaty/excited crowd, and neither is she a standard-bearer nor a courageous leader in the struggle for video game civil rights. She is a supremely talented action figure, and in the closeups on her helmet you can kind of see that she wears mascara, but that is all.”

    Projecting themes of motherhood onto her character are similarly misplaced. She only let the baby Metroid live because she wanted to donate it to science.

  14. By im Samus husbund
    Posted on Jul 31, 2010

    samus aran zero suit samus is the most sexy and beauty blonde of all games. i love her. i wish her as a real person. i want meet her cosplayer and have sex. I LOVE YOU SAMUS.

  15. @Samus’ Husband – If you’re Samus’ husband, why would you need to wish her to be real? Why would you want to meet a cosplayer of your own wife to have sex?

    WHY?

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