Saturday, July 18, 2015

Commentary on a video game (proceed only if fanboy/fangirl due to length)

I have been on a Metroid kick the last few days.  I've loved the video game series since the very first one came out when I was a kid.  So, with that in mind, let's talk about...


This game has been unfairly maligned since its release. The main complaint about this game is that it is "sexist" because the main character Samus Aran has to take orders from a male character named Adam Malkovich.

Before I comment further, here's a little background for those of you unfamiliar with the story of the video game series, Metroid:

The first game, conveniently entitled Metroid, was released in 1986 on the original NES video game system.  The main objective of this sci-fi adventure game was for a bounty hunter to infiltrate the base of a group of space pirates and stop their plan from using a dangerous alien life form (the aforementioned metroids) in a bid to conquer the galaxy.

The main character of the entire series is a woman named Samus Aran, one of the first female protagonists in video game history.  That fact has made her a feminist icon, at least for those aware of video games.

Throughout the entirety of playing the first game of the series, the player was completely unaware that Samus was female.  She was covered from head to toe in a body armor/space suit hybrid so, to be fair, it would have been possible for Samus to have been a robot and not human at all.  It came as a shock to players when she was revealed to be of the fairer sex.

In the latest game of the Metroid series, Other M, Samus answers a distress call from a vessel, called the Bottle Ship (a massive science vessel that contained labs and holding facilities for creatures used in experiments).  On board the ship, Samus meets Adam Malkovich and his team of commandos who were on the ship for the same reason.

Adam Malkovich is an officer of the Galactic Federation (that universe's version of the military) that Samus used to serve under before she became a freelance bounty hunter.  After an emergency where Adam wouldn't allow Samus to try and rescue a squad member, and instead ordering a protective barrier be closed to save the rest of the ship they were travelling on, Samus decided to leave Adam's team and the Galactic Federation.

Perhaps here would be a good point for another aside.  One of the staples of the Metroid series, from a game play standpoint, is that all the power ups Samus received from previous games are either taken away or ignored so that the player has to rebuild Samus' abilities to progress.

Instead of ignoring the fact that Samus has had to rebuild her arsenal in no less than seven (not including remakes) games or having her be damaged and thus having her arsenal taken away by a "malfunction", the creators decided to try something new.  In this case, they decided that Adam, the highest ranking member of the group (that also had jurisdiction over the Bottle Ship since it was a Galactic Federation facility), gave Samus an ultimatum:

If she wanted to stay and assist in the operation, she would not be allowed to use any of her abilities unless they were specifically authorized by Adam himself.  Otherwise, she was free to go and leave the investigation and rescue to the team of commandos.

Since Samus isn't one to quit leaving a job half done (and it would also make a short and boring game if she left), she decided to follow Adam's orders.  This served, in a story telling aspect, to show that Samus still respected Adam but also served the game play by returning Samus back to her basic level without having to resort to some deus ex machina explosion to cause her suit to malfunction... again.

Here is where I should explain something and make one tremendous caveat.  First, this is one of the most story driven Metroid games (most of them have only a couple of paragraphs in an instruction booklet, a few windows of text or information that could be optionally "scanned" from computers Samus encountered during the events of the games).  The methodology the creators chose for this entry made a game series that was famously nonlinear become more straightforward with Other M.

Here is the caveat:  The writing in Other M is not the strongest.  It's problems include shoddy localization (this game was produced originally in Japan) as well as poor characterization and a lack of background information for players new to the story line of the Metroid universe.

That being said, the only real "sexist" aspect of the game is the visual representation of Samus in her Zero Suit.  The Zero Suit is a relatively new addition to the Metroid mythology.  It is what Samus wears under her armor and the game developer, Team Ninja, decided to take take any and every opportunity to show the skintight suit off.  (Admittedly, Team Ninja has a reputation for doing exactly that with all the female characters in the games they produce so it shouldn't have been a surprise.)

Samus agreeing to take orders from a man wasn't because of his gender but because she had worked with Adam before and still respected him.  Otherwise, Samus would have likely left the Bottle Ship (which is likely why Adam was chosen as the character to lead the team of commandos to begin with).

My main evidence to this point is that in the events of the story, Adam goes missing.  The moment she doesn't have to answer to him, she decides to start using abilities when the situation calls for it.

One the flip side, this authorization system was developed strictly for the game play rather than story because Samus has a setting for suit of armor called the Varia that makes it resistant to heat.  Logically, if Samus felt the need to use it (if she'd have decided to turn it off at all since the logic of this system was in regards to her destructive abilities rather than her defensive ones), she would have asked the moment she entered the holding area that contained hot lava.

Instead, she didn't get authorization to use the Varia suit until the boss fight for that area.  That is the most glaring example of a game play system interfering with the story.  The only explanation I have for that is laziness on the writing side of the game development.

One aspect I liked of the story telling was that the events of this game took place immediately after the events of the previous.  Samus was experiencing symptoms that resembled PTSD and, while I found that interesting, to newcomers to the Metroid series it came off as whiny and annoying.  But I liked that they were showing Samus as a person rather than an emotionless, unstoppable killing machine.

(Another aside in regard to localization:  As I understand Japanese culture, they are not big on showing emotions so they actually talk about them in detail instead.  Samus does that in this game.  It comes off as sharing too much information to the American/western culture in which I've lived my entire life.)

The other unfortunate part of the game in the storytelling was that a lot of things that Samus could have done were often done off camera by another character (like finding and killing an assassin that had been hunting her and the commandos).  Again, I attribute that to substandard writing.

But the writing has never been the drawing point of the Metroid series.  It has been the game play.  I give credit to Nintendo for trying a completely different control scheme from past Metroid games with Other M.  It had great parts but also clunky, not as polished aspects.

Some of the new features they decided to add made this one of the easiest games in the series.  That was likely another strike against it with fans of the franchise.  It was one of the games series that set the standard for "Nintendo Hard" (meaning sometimes feeling almost impossible and the immense satisfaction when you finally actually succeeded) games back in the 80's/90's.

I generally liked the characterization of Samus (when I made the allowance in regards to explaining emotions rather than showing them) and the game was fun to play.  Those are mainly what I ask for in my Metroid gaming experience.  So I like it!

Sue me.

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