Metroid: Other M

September 8, 2010

Since I had been posting about narrative in games through the example of Super Metroid, I thought this here space defined by walls of text would be the only suitable spot to place this review of the latest Metroid. I am not so sure it is a pure review, in the sense that there is a score or a scale that I put it on, but it is a thorough examination of the game.

Metroid: Other M, as its maternal wordplay implies, is a confused and conflicted game searching desperately for its mommy, but not the mommy she’s always known, but some other mother that has never existed. The title does not know quite where it wants to go, does not understand where it came from or where it has been and lacks the sort of polish and refinement a fully grown piece of gaming is. The game really needs some sort of caring, cohesive guiding hand to ladle it out of the software soup of mediocrity, but Sakamoto and Team Ninja continually get in the way of each other and their product.

Other M was touted as a few things, a return of the series to Japanese shores, a return to its 2d roots and the first game to really emphasize story in the franchise. Knowing what a bath in game studies will teach you about narrative design, the last claim already sounds suspicious, but the first two claims I had assumed would come through. I was disappointed then when I found that the simplification of controls actually made the game less simple to play and that this was not because they had not found a solution, but because Sakamoto and Team Ninja nixed the solution out of a stubborn and shallow sense of nostalgia. While including the nunchuk in the controls would have brightened up the first person segments, allowed missiles in 3rd person and allowed far more reliable aiming, the attachment piece that comes standard in every Wii console was thrown aside because they had decided to do the entire game via the Wiimote, succeed or fail.

I am not sure there is a level of critique that would rah-rah such a decision. The fan critique would be upset that a better feeling game was ousted, the designer critique would be upset that an obstacle in design was reached and then settled for, and my ludology/narratology or “ludonarrative”(as Clint Hocking terms it) critique is upset at how aware I am of the controller and the constant reminders that this is a game.

On a value judgement, the control choice leads to two major annoyances: the game always guessing what you mean to do and the sudden change in perspective moments which cause you to switch brain schemes and reorient yourself from third person observer to first person aimer. To overcome the restricted controls, the game features a sense dodge maneuver which allows Samus Aran to whip around, flip around and barrel roll away from attacks. This element of gameplay was simplified as well, and simply mashing the directional pad will often allow you to go untouched amid a bevy of blows, but sometimes it does not, depending on the mini-boss’ pattern. The game itself is full of mini-bosses which become regular creatures that act as a sort of evaluation for how powerful you are that point, which is to say, that at first encounter they feel like a mini-boss but on subsequent encounters they are just another mob that you can run past or destroy if you wish. This is an interesting change from the one and done mini-boss setup of previous games, but the extended and repetitive combat featured in these battles becomes tiring as the game progresses on. A sense dodge, charge beam blast, missile shot or finish move combo plays out the starting combat pattern of these fights and never really changes through out. A boss here or there will provide a welcome if small change, but for most of the game you are doing the same thing. This element is nothing new to Metroid, but is surprisingly shallow for an entry that wants to tout its combat focus.

What the combat also does is guess, since there is no dodge button and no direct aim, the game must always guess what you mean to do. This leads to Samus shooting into blank air with enemies buzzing above her head, dodging forward when the player only meant to turn around, or shooting an enemy behind you instead of the more fearsome one in front of you. These moments never break the game, but repeatedly annoy the player and snaps them out of the game’s world. These are the short sighted mistakes you would expect in a budget title. These moments of clear lack of refinement show a poor awareness for the situations the game design thrusts upon you. The gameplay is never broken, just constantly flawed and restrictive.

The term restrictive can account for much of the game’s design, as it seems intent on wrestling choice and control away from the player. It was suspected that the game would be more linear, but I do not think anybody would have thought that the game would continually lock you out from places you had been to before. The opening segment of the game is a large docking bay full of invisible walls. Each room normally has an entrance and exit, there is the way you came into the room and only one way out from the room. If you want to try attacking enemies solely through missiles, you will likely suffer from the lack of movement in first person, so you end up going back to the same dodge and charge patterns. Samus does not aim as much as hopes the game knows what she aims at. Then there are the lurching, slow moving segments and the universally panned Wheres Waldo segments that restrict most of what the player can do until they guess or find the random bit of pixels the game wants the player to find.

The difficulty and length of the game is minimal and most player deaths and progression pitfalls will come via the flaws of the control choice or the aforementioned Where’s Waldo segments. There are also slightly hidden events which are like Quick Time Events, yet somehow worse. They do not announce themselves like a QTE normally does, nor offer any clue or logic on what to do. You just die over and over until you figure out which button or action to enact. The story’s final boss features a solution which uses this lack of game logic as well. The entire game suffers from poor and inconsistent game logic, and the puzzles suffer poor visual logic. Even the finding of extra items, all of which amount to unused resources due to the recharge system, play like a game of needle in a haystack. This would not be so if the environments were not so visually bland. Finding the slightly darker gray morphball chute on an already dark gray wall feels disappointingly uninspired. While the 2d games normally established where a bombable wall might be via the shape of the wall and the Prime games used scanning and clever visual clues, and both of these starting discoveries often lead to new rooms or undulating tunnels, Other M seems content to have little holes in the background filled with missile tanks.

I have spent enough time on the gameplay, as people reading this blog might expect of me more commentary on the narrative. Unfortunately, Other M is such a failure at the conceptual level at story that I cannot fathom wasting much time going over it. As pointed out, the gameplay decisions constantly breaks the contract with the player, breaks immersion and even makes certain moments designed to instill fear actually humorously silly. The game fails at the first step in telling a game story, but then what story it does provide it does so in a lazy cinematic style that the rest of the industry is learning to move past. Jeremy Parish posted a non-review of the game commenting on Nintendo being fifteen years behind on story telling, and then later wisely retracted this comment. The reasoning is still flawed though, since the retractment did not acknowledge that Super Metroid was way beyond Playstation level game narrative and many current game narratives. Parish may not be into the game studies scene, but since he calls for more in-game narrative he sounds like he should be hip to it.

Yet, ignoring the misguided aim of the narrative design, the story itself would be horrible in film form or prose form. The characterization of Samus ignores the character as she has been in the past, and because of the poor character writing, the game has evoked images that feel disturbingly sexist. As many have commented, if this story had taken place at the very start of the game chronology, it would not be as offensive, but taking part near the current end of the chronology makes the entire plot inconsistent with everything the player already knows. Sakamoto completely throws out the ludonarrative of twenty-five years and disregards the dual identity of player as Samus. The dialogue itself would not get past a freshman creative writing class. The game tells you, tells you again, then repeats the info once more in case you had been deaf and blind momentarily for the past minute. The crux of the story depends on a trust relationship between Samus and a former commander named Adam. Samus as a federation soldier has hardly been a part of her character and Adam hardly a part of the series, and its presence in the game asks for much explanation. Even though Samus monologues endlessly on how she feels she must prove to Adam she can be trusted, we the player know to trust Samus. She’s conquered worlds and escaped exploding planetoids. What we do not know is why we should trust Adam and the game never shows us why we should. Instead, Adam comes off as a emotionless prick who puts Samus into greater danger for no explainable reason. Adam and Samus are a great opportunity for dramatic irony, but that is giving Sakamoto way too much credit. It is just a case of poor characterization ruining an iconic character. Instead of a mysterious bounty hunter, we have Samus the Asian stereotype, a trope of an emotionally damaged teenage girl that borders on the edge of being the hysterical woman. The morals of the story fall into typical Asian story morals of parental authority and the rebellious female learning her lesson and coming back for forgiveness. (Hell, compare Samus in Other M to the wife in the Chinese nationalistic Ip Man.)

And then, whatever mystery and plot line the game establishes through its intrusive manner, it drops them in the end for a silly twist and robs the player of a true final encounter. It is not so much that the story is bad that it ruins the rest of a game experience you might enjoy, but that the story is bad and its need to trammel the way the game is designed leads to a lessened gameplay experience.

Overall, so much of playing Metroid: Other M is playing through a game in conflict, a game compromised by choices that fail at meeting any of the original goals the designers may have had. It feels on one hand like a mediocre action title and on the other hand it feels like an insulting Metroid title. Somewhere, there must have been some hand in the creation of this series that should have come along and said “no” here and “yes” there, until something fulfilled had emerged.

Advertisements

I am going to put this here as a reference point to refer back to later on. The worth of this post is not in my pedigree with literature or due to any game design experience on my part. These guidelines are constructed upon the universal rules of narrative and my experience with playing videogames for twenty-five years.

To push a button is to turn a page with purpose

The interface of a game is the gateway that allows the reader control over the action of game and story. We do often call these interfaces “controllers” for a reason. We are controlling some part of what goes on in the visual/audio action.

It is important to understand this difference from turning a page in a book or sitting in a theater seat to watch a film. The writer of a novel cannot account for which page the reader is on and does not pay much attention to the act of page turning in a novel in any way other than to keep the story interesting enough to keep his reader turning the page. The film director is conscience that the viewer is likely sitting when watching his film and taking in the information passively, but I would suggest there is not much needed to account for this way of viewing the story. You understand the reader is watching, so you pay attention to what they are watching. The game designer must account for the way his reader is experiencing the story, because the reader does not just turn the page or watch the visuals but determines the nuances and paths of the story via their input.

What is the difference? Well in the act of page turning, the reader expects something to happen on the next page and though they may have an idea of what to expect, they are at some point in their mind aware they are without the ability to determine what happens. The videogame player as reader of the game does have control over what may happen next and thus assumes some natural responsibility for what happens. There is an born in guilt associated with game narrative and a built in identification with the character/avatar. While many movie heroes are made to be identifiable to an audience and many viewers place themselves in the hero’s shoes inside their head, the videogame reader is actually within the shoes and is at the same time the hero and not fully the hero. They realize they have control but are confined from total freedom by the game design and interface.

In order to maintain this identification the interface must become transparent in action, and natural enough to not remind the player of the true nature of their limits. The true nature of their limits being that this is a game. The designer wants the reader to become immersed enough so that the control and interface becomes an unconscious action. You work to make the reader forget they are stuck in a game for this allows your reader to believe the illusion you present. Once you remind them that they are confined by the limits of the game then you snap that identification factor and suck them back to the real world and out of your story. Essentially, you want to get them lost in the book, forgetting they are turning the page by pushing the buttons.

Before you can create a successful game narrative, you must accomplish this.