Posted by: Chris | October 10, 2009

Going overboard

A lengthy rebuttal to the video I posted earlier from Destructiod, as if it needed one. The guy points out the obvious: that the IGN/ABC reviewer basically lists things irrelevant similarities when comparing Metroid to Kane, while missing why certain cinests revere Citizen Kane so much (and why no game so far is comparable in quality to most movies), and only briefly touches on the aspects that make MP good.

I do, however, object (largely because of previously stated fanboyism) to passages of this flavor:

Metroid Prime uses its graphical touches to express the story of Shooting Space Pirates in the Face…

Then why not talk about games where actual gameplay conveys ideas and emotions rather than pointless cosmetic crap? Why not talk about the mechanical metaphors at work in Braid, or the murder mechanics of Shadow of the Colossus, or a thousand other games that actually attempt to explore the aesthetic power of interactivity? I would never argue that any of these games represent the Citizen Kane of gaming, but they’d be infinitely better examples than a game whose artistic merits don’t extend beyond the surface-level nonsense Thomsen cites…

Yes, sure, you can infer some relatively shallow plot details from the environment, which is a completely game-specific method of conveying story. However, a hundred games accomplish this goal with much more depth and efficiency than Metroid Prime (Portal, BioShock)…

Now, I am sure a lot of this has to do with the author’s repeatedly stateddislike of Metroid games (for stupid reasons to be dealt with elsewhere).   But this line of argument is both wrong and undermines the wider point.

First, it relies heavily on some pretty significant misrepresentations of the game in question.  Metroid Prime is about “shooting space bugs” like Shadow of Colossus is about poking giant statues with a sword.  In fact, it’s even less like that, because at least in Shadow of the Colossus, the majority of the time is actually spent poking things with a sword.  More to the point, it is completely false to argue that MP does not use its interactive elements in concert with its aesthetic ends. Metroid Prime of course is about the perils of hubris and fallen nature of our world (one even might call it Oakeshottian if they were feeling particularly obnoxious). Man plays God, gets pwned, and you arrive in time to clean up the mess. Its cliched as hell and Michael Crichton did it best (from the schlocky, pop-culture point of view that is) way back in 1990, but for some reason it still makes for good games (Bioshock is a variant on the same theme).

However, what makes Metroid Prime good is how it uses its principal game mechanics of exploration and discovery (note: not bug-shooting) to slowly reveal the decreiptedness of its world. The game makes repeated use of environmental cues, written records, level design, and music to drive this home. I think a reviewer of the game from when it came out said it better than I could:

“And what a world you are presented with to explore. Tallon IV reverberates sorrow and loss, with crumbling rock structures and decrepit, decaying statues looming overhead. Enemies cry and screech in agony, almost seeming as terrified to be meeting you as you are of them. Every part of the game – be it a sun-filled chamber or a mucky, darkened mine – portrays a tortured, lonely face; one which will both intrigue and haunt the player as he or she battles through it.”

As the goals of the game revolve around exploring deeper into the planet and unravelling more areas (the main objective of the game is quite literally “Find out what happened on Tallon IV”), thematic development that primarily uses the environment and atmosphere lines up nicely with the innate game design. Thanks to expert pacing, foreshadowing, and level layout, the themes slowly revealed and expanded on as the player searches deeper yet is perpetually propelled onward by more intriguing details.

The game also makes good use of the other elements intrinsic to its genre. Metroid games are known for their overwhelming sense of loneliness, and Metroid Prime is no different. In the 2d Metroid games, it is used to create an oppressive atmosphere of hostility and tension in the world, underscoring that you are all alone fighting the virtuous fight against an entire world that hates you (see especially Super Metroid, which is basically a bare-bones revenge flick). But Tallon IV is much less dark and aggressive than Zebes (to many a Super Metroid fan’s disappointment) and thus the pervasive loneliness serves a different end: it gives the player sufficient distance and disengagement from the world to see the sadness and even tragedy of its situation. As you wander all alone through the flooded and forlorn downed frigate, for example, it’s near impossible not to lament it’s demise. Perhaps a few crying NPCs would have had the same effect, but it would lack all the subtlety of MP’s approach and would risk coming off maudlin. With Metroid Prime, its thematic elements bubble up rather than come handed down, and they feel all the more convincing and organic because of it.

This brings me to the final point about the game (and about all Metroidvanias): that progress has an aura of being self-directed and the designers let you believe that you set your own goals. You follow a certain path because you choose to rather than some in-game NPC telling you. Of course, this choice business is all a lie and the progression in the games is generally fairly linear. But, through exclusive and clever use of item-gating and ample suggestion (coyly show some area intriguingly out-of-reach), Metroidvanias/MP can convince players of their own autonomy. This game mechanic creates an incomparably immersive experience, crucial to the success of the thematic-exploration-through-atmosphere approach to game design. It also, as suggested earlier, makes the point of the game feel self-realized rather than imposed by the designers, making it more authentic and convincing.

Metroidvanias generally, and Metroid Prime specifically, are hardly the only games to use a similar atmosphere to pursue similar goals. Bioshock 5 years later uses the same atmospheric conceit of the ruined world to pursue similarly Crichton-esque themes and Shadow of the Colossos also makes use of loneliness and emptiness to convey tragedy and sadness. Indeed, atmosphere is absolutely integral to the thematic ends of basically any game. Without it, SotC would simply be the simplification mentioned earlier: a game where you poke giant monsters until they die. What sets Metroid Prime apart is it puts exploration front and center and thus emphasizes the true main character to most good games: the environment in which they happen.

Sorry, guys, went a little overboard there.  Back to frustrating video editing I go.  Watch this space for the fruits of my labor.



  1. “No game so far is comparable in quality to most movies” elevates a lot of mediocre movies and dismisses some excellent games.

    Grim Fandango
    Planescape: Torment
    Beyond Good and Evil

    All games for which the narrative and environment were superior to that of the average movie released over the past decade. In fact, the games on that list could compete with some of the best movies of the last 10 years. And that’s how old they are (ok, Grim Fandango is 11 years old, but I couldn’t leave it off this sort of list).

    I also would argue that Mass Effect, Half Life (1), and Braid meet the “not worse than most movies” standard. I’m sure numerous other games would as well, but those games are ones I’ve played.

  2. An addendum…

    I noticed that all the games I mentioned (and, in fact, just about every game I can think of except some strategy games and blood-crazy WWII FPS games) are grossly fantastical. I’m forced to wonder whether if, for example, you could make a quality video game “based on a true story,” or as a documentary.


    Almost as elegant as its url.

  4. Miles, I suspect your addition might fall into the “some strategy games” category (unless thats a cheeky comment on one’s ability to enact strategy in the game).

    JJ, if we were judging these things as entertainment properties or good yarns or as something I would enjoy spending my time doing, I would agree with you wholeheartedly. But movies as an artform have been about more than that at least since “The Battleship Potemkin”. The same goes doubly so for novels.

    Games are still slowly groping their way towards that point and I suspect many of the games you or I or others have mentioned as artistically satisfying games will be seen years from now as somewhat analogous to Potemkin (clunky, overt uses of the medium to make some deeper points), but modern cinema accomplishes all that with much more depth and finesse than any game out there. Just as a small data point, how many games have you played given you that lump in the back of your throat? I can only think of one instance, in a throwaway part of Majora’s Mask, that I have ever had that happen to me, while I regularly get that feeling in even some of the schlockiest movies (perhaps I am just a sap).

    As for realistic games, I would check out Heavy Rain if I were you. Unfortunately its a PS3 exclusive, so I will never know if it lives up to the hype.

    Finally, as someone else who I know has played Metroid Prime and a number of the other games in question, I am as totally off base as some people seem to think in regarding it as artistically satisfying. Also, a jab at Half-Life 2? From JJ Alger? What has Alyx Vance done to you to make you so suddenly bitter?

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