Further Chitchat on Narrative and Button Mashing: Part II

July 31, 2010

Now we venture into the spatial storytelling part of Jenkins’ article. Spatial storytelling is partially world building, that space which is a fictional reality we the audience accept, a moment of our lost time during a read, when a mind slips into the silky sheets of mental-wired architecture, or that image you start to lose separation from on the screen. Gaming must go many steps further and give this world physics, objects and choices for the audience to push, pull, feel.

Let’s take a look at how Super Metroid uses its spatial elements towards building an atmosphere, evoking familiarities, telling a story and embedding narrative. The major setting of the game is a planet, and the majority of the setting takes place below the surface. This is a theme repeated from the original Metroid and its sequel. The weather on the surface features a constant storm which echoes thunder and exhibits cloud layers scrolling in the background. The color palette of the game is made up of orange, green and purple against a black backdrop. Many areas feature a visual theme, or their own color palette theme. Part of the underworld is a pollinated chamber of pink rectangles and killer plants. Another area is made up of multiple bubbles. Areas of lava feature a predominately red palette.

The images of the Metroid series have always evoked the Alien movie series, but the underworld procession of the game evokes hero stories and travels into hell. Gone from the Alien movies are the phallic Gieger aliens, and gone are the other members of the crew. Metroid is an isolationist’s world populated by its own flora, but a flora that never seems farced into the world. The creatures seem a natural part of the world and the truly alien element seems to be that which has landed or crashed here, meaning you, meaning lost frigates and pirate ships. The game creates a package of atmosphere, where sci-fi alien films are evoked but not copied and made instead in the designer‘s image, and you the player are the masked hero on your own, without help.

“Spatial stories are not badly constructed stories; rather, they are stories which respond to alternative aesthetic principles, privileging spatial exploration over plot development. Spatial stories are held together by broadly defined goals and conflicts and pushed forward by the character’s movement across the map. “

Each hostile enemy in Super Metroid presents a conflict. This conflict becomes part of the game’s rules, and these rules teach the player about the world. This creature X will react like Y, so you can do A or B or C, and so on. Not all creatures are hostile, a few creatures follow scripted patterns of escape which act as a tutorial that teaches the player how to escape themselves. While the player learns the planet is dangerous, the player also learns there is some helpful life forms to be found. While this seems minor, it plays a part in the overall story of the game.

Let’s take the use of helpful creatures as a micro-narrative. First, we learn from them, so we as a player gain from their efforts. In the end of the game, do we remember this help? There is an option in the game’s final segment, where the planet is set to self-destruct and you must escape. There is a flashing door hidden away near the final exit that if you open, all those helpful creatures come flowing out and you help them escape. A little bit of narrative that does not deal directly with the greater story, but is there to add to the world and give the player the option of finding story by exploring.

Let’s take the rules to the main story:

“It makes no sense to describe musical numbers or gag sequences or action scenes as disruptions of the film’s plots”.

This is a major flaw most game designers and game fans make. When they speak of the story they seem to think it is all played out in the cinematics or in only certain parts of action. The entirety of the game is the story and those that realize this more fully realize their stories. The action sequences between cinematic break-ins are just as much a part of the story as the cinematic. Maybe you got to see what was at the end of the level, but the story is you fought your way to the end of the level. Super Metroid features an expositional intro and then the game follows, but both these elements are the story. To break down Super Metroid’s story to the introduction and the final sequence would hardly be telling the full story, yet the recent Metroid: Other M plans to feature a Theater Mode which does exactly this. Somewhere along the way the lessons Metroid 3 taught were forgotten.

“Carson suggests that part of the art of game design comes in finding artful ways of embedding narrative information into the environment without destroying its immersiveness and without giving the player a sensation of being drug around by the neck”

With this above quote in mind, lets get into the full story of Super Metroid. The narrative here is that of mother, of bounty hunter/mercenary and of underworld travel. There is an element repeated in the story four times, and a particular character repeated three times. The opening introduction features the baby metroid saved from the previous game, here it is brought to a research station. The opening gameplay segment shows the player the baby metroid being abducted by nemesis alien Ridley. The next metroid that Samus/player encounter are hostile metroids, hostile creatures that establish the rule that metroids are dangerous. Through this segment of the game, the hostile metroid reappear as one of the more problematic enemies in the game, but once the player dives down past the defeated statues of bosses, and into the greater depths of the planet, spelunking further into the dark, we encounter enemies who are static and gray. Gray is a strange color amongst the purple, greens, red and orange featured so far. When the player touches these creatures they fall to dust. Samus has come upon a disturbed area, and soon she runs across a larger metroid, one which attacks her and then stops. It leaves Samus weakened but alive, as opposed to the space pirates that it had just sucked dry. From this battle, we learn that there is something different about this particular metroid. Later, after leaving this area, we return to the hostile types of metroid encountered through most of the game.

So now, Samus knows metroids are hostile but that there is an individual metroid with strange behavior. In the climax of the game, which is as well, the climax of the story, a fight with the Mother Brain is interrupted by a metroid that comes in and shelters Samus the same way it previously drained Samus. At this point the metroid takes the brunt of damage aimed towards Samus, effectively saving her, and then converts the energy back into Samus before dying. At this point, the player becomes aware of the protective behavior, that this metroid is the same baby metroid fully grown. Here the mother is saved by child.

How do we come to understand this? We know the baby metroid is abducted, we see Samus follow the abducter to the planet where she encounters the metroids, and we learn there is one powerful but somehow friendly metroid. We recognize this metroid as different via the rules of enemy/friend established earlier in the game. We learn because we have learned metroids suck energy but only attack you, but this metroid attacked space pirates. As we play, we discover the story in the spatial environment, in the colors(gray in comparison to green), in behaviors, in how deep into the game/story we have dug ourselves. Samus may only emerge, may only conquer Mother Brain and the underworld by the sacrifice of the metroid. These events not only happen to happen, they must happen for the game to reach its true end.

So we have:

“In each of these cases, choices about the design and organization of game spaces have narratological consequences.”

In play.


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