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Saturday, October 2, 2010

Samus' portrayal in Other M: Appropriate or diminishing?

When it comes to female video game characters there are few, if any, that are as successful, iconic and beloved by fans as the lead for Nintendo's Metroid franchise, Samus Aran.

Appearing first in the action-adventure game Metroid on the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1986 Samus is a bounty hunter that used be a marine of the Galactic Federation, who still stand for most of her employment. At the age of three she was orphaned and subsequently brought up by the bird-like alien race known as the chozo. They trained her to be a warrior and gave her the armor she's usually depicted in, it's known as the Power Suit. The Metroid series spans ten games over several Nintendo consoles, most of which have been praised for their high standard of quality, and she frequently appears at the top of several list of the best heroines in gaming. She's helped blaze open a path for other strong female video game characters like Lara Croft (Tomb Raider) and Yuna (Final Fantasy X). And the funny thing is that in the first Metroid game players didn't know that Samus was a woman until the very end of the game.

Up until that ending players only saw an 8-bit version of the armor above. This meant that they most likely believed Samus to be a man or manish robot and they had no idea that it was a woman that they'd been blasting the crap out of aliens with. Ever since that revelation the premise of the games haven't changed much. Samus still goes around on her own and blasts the crap out of the aliens that can be as tiny as pigeons or as big as houses. She's equal to the men and is treated as such. In short, she's a badass game heroine and people love her for it.

Other traits that Samus has is that for the majority of the games she's a silent and mysterious protagonist, though she has communicated through text and soliloquising (none of it was audio). Besides her unconventional childhood not much has been revealed about Samus' past except that at some point during her time with the marines she respected a commander named Adam Malkovich and that he sacrificed himself to save her. So we don't know much about her.

The latest game in the series, Metroid: Other M, however puts much more focus on story-telling. Which meant that not only would players finally hear Samus speak but that they would also get an extended glimpse into her backstory. Naturally fans were excited as all hell. Then the game came out and the end results have been controversial to say the least. Be warned for there be spoilers here.

The main complaint has been that the way Samus is portrayed makes her appear to be not only less interesting that many believe her to be but also less competent. However, this isn't an all-pervasive opinion as the other side has praised the focus on the story as well as the insight into Samus' past and mind. After looking into the matter from several angles I've decided to write this article to analyse the matter simply because I think that it's interesting. But before I get into the matter of disecting Other M's story I think that a deeper look into the tragic life of Samus Aran as well as what we can discern about her character from it. This way we can better analyse her behaviour in Other M more appropriately.

Like I said, Samus was orphaned. What I didn't mention was that this happened when she was three years old and that the cause was an attack from the evil organisation known as the space pirates along with their leader, the saddistic and destructive dragon monster known as Ridley who would've killed Samus as well if her mother hadn't saved her. Ridley and the space pirates would become Samus' most persistent enemies in her adult life.

All alone Samus was picked up by the chozo she would come to know as Old Bird and she became intergrated into the chozo society. Chozo-blood was even infused into her being so that she'd have a better chance of surviving. For eleven years Samus was trained by the chozo and even got her signature power suit as a gift. When she was 14 Samus left to join the Galactic Federation. She would later return to the chozo home planet and find that assaults from the space pirates have forced the chozo to abandon the planet and left the main temple in ruins.

Other tragedies include being unable to do anything but watch when Adam is forced to sacrifice his little brother, and her friend, in order to save countless other people. Then there's the time she's forced to fight and defeat three other bounty hunters, one of which saved her life while another was a really kind individual and the third a young woman that considered Samus her main rival, all of which had been corrupted by the radioactive substance phazon. After defeating each of them Samus could only helplessly watch as a dark version of herself put in the killing blow and absorb them. Then there's of course the death of Adam Malkovich, again she's forced to watch as he willingly sacrifices his life.

Lastly there's the loss that's probably had the most impact on the series as a whole. A baby metroid, a specimen of a parasite species (of which the baby is the last one) that serve as the primary threat throughout most of the franchise, hatches close to Samus and believes her to be its mother. This baby later on grows into a giant metroid and saves Samus from certain doom at the hands of a monstrous adversary. But as with seemingly everything else the metroid is killed and all Samus can do is to lash out at the monster with renewed strength and rage.
See a pattern here yet? Everything Samus loves basically ends up dying. At least that seems to be the case. There's only one person that truly remains constant in Samus' life. That person is Ridley aka the monster that killed her parents. She frequently battles Ridley and frequently kick his ass no matter what new ability he's given himself. She's even killed him a few times. And yet he ALWAYS comes back. In short, the one person in her life that won't die is the monster that ruined her life to begin with.
Despite so many horrible tragedies Samus doesn't seem to be all that miserable. Sure she's probably somewhat vary of getting close to other people and is largely an introverted person. But that's really understandable considering the circumstances. But she's also a lonely person who travels around space on her own and does good, heroic things by saving and helping those in need, even if that wasn't on any mission statement. None of it will bring back what she's lost though so she's left with trying to avenge the deaths of those that she's lost. Most sources will also point out that Samus seeks revenge against the space pirates and Ridley for what they've done to her.

Despite her tragic life, loneliness and feelings of revenge Samus lives on. She's able to feel, emote and sympathise perfectly fine, though a bit stiffly from everything I've seen and read, an she doesn't engage in destructive behaviour. Her mind most likely isn't a happy place but she isn't crippled for life or anything like that. She just pushes all these problems back, looks ahead of herself and walks on. That dear readers is an interesting and strong female character that is still full of delicious human weaknesses.

Of course, this is just my interpertation of Samus. Others might disagree on some points but overall I think that it fits what we know rather well.

So what in Metroid: Other M and its characterisation of Samus is it that has upset a large amount of the metroid-fans so greatly? First, let's go through the story. Now, I haven't actually played this game but thanks to the wonder that is youtube I've been able to see all the cutscenes in the form of a movie like experience with some of the more epic gameplay moments added in to great effect. So in regards to the story I do know what I'm talking about. To sum up the game's story; it takes place after the death of the metroid baby, Samus has answered a distress call from a derilict space station and once there she finds out that she isn't the only one to do so. Her former commander Adam Malkovich has brought a team to the station and they decide to team up in order to fix the situation. Everybody got that? Good.

I'll start out by looking at the game's two most infamous examples of what fans feel makes Samus appear weak and incompotent.

The first is that at the beginning of the game Adam gives Samus the order to deactivate most of her armor's weapons to make sure that they don't accidentally damage the station further. Adam will communicate with Samus from a com-central and authorise use of her equipment when needed. Gameplay wise it's a way to make sure that Samus isn't over-powered at the beginning of the game so that the players can power-up as they progress, most of the games have their own excuse for doing this. It's also fairly logical. Samus has a lot of fire-power in that suit of hers and her stronger weapons might very well punch a hole in the station. She also has the equipment to survive such an incident but the much less well-equiped federation marines wouldn't be so lucky.
The problem comes from a situation where Samus is running around in a lava filled area where the air is so hot that it's actually hurting her. She makes it through and reaches a large boss monster that she has to defeat. In the middle of this fight Adam calls in and tells her to activate the function of her suit that will protect her from the heat. Let's go through the problems with this.
First of all, why was Samus supposed to turn off her defensive systems along with the weapons? They weren't exactly gonna blow a hole in anything.

Secondly, why the hell did Adam wait until the boss fight before authorising Samus to turn the damn thing on? Did he go to the bathroom or something?

Thirdly, why didn't Samus call Adam when she was about to enter the hazardous area and ask if she could turn on her harmless defensive function?

And that's not the only situation where the descision to deactivate seemed none-sensical. Samus was also made to turn off her grapple beam, a thether-like beam weapon that she normally uses to swing across large gaps and to pull shields away from enemies and similar things. In short, it's not a particularly destructive weapon but it's still turned off. In Other M there's a situation where Samus needs to save a friendly marine but he's on a place that she can only reach with the grapple beam. It's immediately activated at that point in the game but there was still a risk that she wouldn't have been able to do that in time.

Again, the deactivation of certain items makes some sense and from a gameplay perspective it's just a standard staple of the series to not start out with all of Samus' equipment. But from a story perspective the reason for deactivating the equipment just doesn't make much sense. A lot of the upgrades Samus deactivated weren't all that destructive at all or even weapons at all. That Samus is willing to deactivate them so easily without protest simply because Adam ordered it left a bitter taste in a lot of peoples' mouths. I'll get into that relationship later.

So overall, the reason for denying Samus her upgrades, while clever, doesn't hold up all that well and doesn't reflect well on Samus. Someone with her experience should know better than to downgrade her abilities like that. And Adam himself should realise that she'd be an even greater asset with her full capabilities. Overall, it just didn't work out and that Samus roled over and allow it without a single protest made her look bad.

The second instance in Other M that fans really seem to have a problem with is the encounter with Samus' arch-nemesis, Ridley.

Chronologically Other M takes place after the SNES game Super Metroid where Samus has not only defeated Ridley rather thoroughly, he falls to pieces after the fight, but she's also left his remains on an exploding planet. So understandably Samus is relieved that the monster is FINALLY dead. In Other M Samus discovers a tiny creature whose scream pushes other creatures to more aggresive behaviour. This little fellow is later on revealed to be the first evolutionary form of Ridley. When the bastard, or rather his clone actually, appears again in all his purple dragon glory Samus reacts rather strongly.

Really strongly.

The guy in clip with Samus is an old friend from her time with the federation, just so you know.

The main reason this scene angers a lot of people is because that generally isn't how Samus behaves around Ridley. Normally she'll just blast the crap out of him, a feat that she's pulled off almost ten times by this point in the series. They were even in a free-fall once and she kicked his ass in an awesomely epic boss battle. So if she's defeated this hated enemy then why does she go into a despairing fit when she sees him this time?

It is heavily implied that she's reliving the nightmarish day of when her parents were killed and the shock of that is causing her to lose  focus so badly that she can't even keep her armor on. Added to that is probably the shock of seeing Ridley alive again after his previous death, though it isn't really hinted at in the game but it makes sense. So seeing him again, even if it's a clone but that's probably an unimportant detail, was bound to incite a strong reaction from Samus. She is still human after all, as I described in detail above, and in the end she does get it together and kicks his once again.

However, despair might not have been the reaction I would've chosen personally. I agree with the game that the situation would get a strong reaction from the armored heroine but instead of despair I think that she'd get angry. Really angry. So furious that she becomes reckless and gets smashed down by Ridley when she tries to take him on without thinking ahead.

So while I don't entirely agree with how it played out the scene in question doesn't bother me as much as it does others. It can't be denied that it's a weak moment for Samus but that doesn't necessarily mean that it's a bad moment. Though I do understand how it can be seen as such. But even badasses like Samus are allowed to spaz out now and again. It shows that they're human underneath all of their ass-kicking glory.

Now those were only the two most controversial individual moments that made Samus look weak, incompotent and/or less interesting than first percieved in the eyes of a lot of gamers. There's still lots of other reasons why they frown on this story. But they can all be sort of be summarized by one individual aspect of the game. The writing just isn't all that good.

After years of being a silent protagonist you'd think that they would treat Samus fist fully voiced game with meticulous care. In some aspect that was the case. In a lot of other cases that it wasn't. For example, the writing is about as subtle as a boulder launched from a catapult. By the end of the game the theme of motherhood will have been hammered into your head so intensely that you'll never want to read The Joy Luck Club ever again. Then there's a rather hilarious cut-scene towards the end where we get to see a corrupt officer from the federation. I don't know about other people but the way this character looked, moved and grunted brought on the following thought from yours truly.

"Ten bucks says that your name is Puppy-kicker McBadguysson."

The story's un-subtle nature is further displayed by Samus narration. She will describe the things that are happening on screen in teeth-grindingly annoying detail. Even freaking really obvious things will be described in this manner. It's made even worse by the fact that Samus won't ever shut up.

It's honestly like she's trying to make up for the being silent in the nine previous games by filling each second of each cut-scene with her narration. It grows tiresome rather quickly. Most of it is her own inner monologuing and the introverted character I describe above is very likely to have a lot of thoughts running in her head. So it is reasonable that she has a lot to say in her narration. But there are ways having a character narrate excessively without making it annoying, one of them would've been to get a better voice-actress. Which leads into the next great problem that comes from bad writing. Crappy dialogue.

I don't know if something got lost in the translation from japanese to english but the dialogue just does not work. It's stilted, sort of clich├ęd and it just doesn't draw me in. All the big moments and surprises in the movie-esque youtube clips I saw were sort of ruined because the dialogue, probably aided by bad and tedious voice acting, just made me role my eyes and wish for the parts where I was watching somebody else play the game. There were some bright moments here and there but Samus was only part of one of them, and that was a four word sentence at the beginning of the game.

But there's one example that just really shows how poor the writing of this game. Some time into the story it's revealed that there's a traitor in Adam's team. A person sent in to kill all the other members for some evil conspiracy bruhahaha. He even attacks Samus while riding around in large robot-tractor thing with hi face hidden from the audience. This sub-plot is never resolved and the entire team dies, though all aren't killed by the traitor. How's that for lazy writing.

Well, I've danced around it lon enough now so let's get into the part that really is a hot-button topic among Metroid fans. The relationship between Samus and Adam. Like everything else in the story it is without subtlety to the point where Samus flat out narrates how she sees Adam as a father figure and the only person that understands her. She also tells us that they had falling out after Samus left the federation. And from a previous game we know that Samus always respected Adam and that he saved her life.

Throughout most of Other M Adam mainly communicates with Samus via radio-contact and tells her when and what weapon/equipment to use. That alone might irk some gamers. You see, in most Metroid games Samus usually gets told where to go and what the problem is but at the end of the day she's the one that actually has to come up with how to fix the problem. In this game Adam often ends up telling Samus which weapon to use, not all the time but enough that I can imagine some fans getting annoyed by it. Samus has been doing this for long enough to not need some man telling her how to do her work, at least that's how I think some might see it.

Other than providing unnecessary advice people think that Samus is too submisive to Adam, exemplified by the whole deactivating weapons dealy. Now while I do agree with that assesment it is sort of understandable that she would let Adam act as commander for her. He was after all her boss earlier and is still a father figure. For a lonely person like Samus I can imagine that falling into routine isn't unlikely at all. Besides, it's not like Samus ever actually asks for advice on how to do her job or begs him to allow her to use any equipment, even in situation where she should do that. Adam just provides it whether Samus, and the players, needs or wants it.

There is a scene however that not only demonstrates the submisive way the game has Samus act in but also the bad writing. It's a rather important scene at that, namely when Adam sacrifices himself to save Samus. The problem is that he doesn't actually save her as much as he puts her in harms way, for illogical reasons, and she doesn't even get a bit miffed about it. Hell, he actually shoots her in the back, completely disabling her armor (which is weird since Samus has taken way stronger hits without losing it), to save her from a threat that it turns out she could've destroyed easily on her own. Then his great sacrifice comes and it just seems like it could've been averted by Samus just going into the same place doing her job and then going down to the final boss a bit later than planned. In short, bad writing strikes again.

I'm being deliberately vague here because the scene is so stupid that if I went into more detail I'd make his a lot longer than it already is, which is alreadly a lot. So let's conclude.

Samus taking orders from Adam, freaking out at the sight of Ridley and generally not thinking in fluent badassese is all rather understandable and in and of themself none of it make Samus weak or incompotent. It makes her look human. What does make her look weak though is the way the that the game presents all these aspects. The execution, at least on the writing department, is horrible. All the ingredients and intentions for a good story about Samus' past and a look into her psyche are here. But none of it is handled with the finesse that it deserves.

And for all those that think that Samus isn't badass in this game think about this. She's still able to kick the crap out of all the big bad bosses and monsters that show up in the game all on her own, even the building sized ones, some times with limited weaponry. Also, this is just one game with bad writing. Samus still has nine games of ass-kicking awesomeness, and better written stories, to fall back on. So at the end of the day she's still a badass and interesting character. Don't let one poorly written story tell you otherwise.


  1. Darksoul #7,

    This is probably one of the best writes up about Metroid Other M I've seen on the web. It's fair, concise, and addresses the points in a well though out manner. If this game was handled by better writers, this could have been a landmark game in the Metroid series. The one where we see a the human side to the female ass kicking machine. But, instead, we get a depeiction that shows someone who goes against over 15 years of what was established by her. I hope that they get the writers from the Prime Series, and do a game where we also get to see the human side of Samus, but done in a way where it makes sense.

  2. I am loving Other M, and am bemused my using an NES controller as you are,I love the story so far... But what I do have to say, is that I have to train myself to not think of it as a metroid game. I just collect my Metroid games from at PIJ. Its really amazing.

  3. I am loving Other M,In Other M Samus discovers a tiny creature whose scream pushes other creatures to more aggresive behaviour. It's also weird. I mean, Nintendo trained me to us analog sticks and camera control for 3d and that it was complicated. I just orderd for myself from at PIJ.

  4. "But they can all be sort of be summarized by one individual aspect of the game. The writing just isn't all that good."

    I know you wrote this ages ago, but just... thank you. This is precisely why 'Other M' appears sexist and infantalising to Samus, and nobody seemed to get it; you have, and it makes me happy. It wasn't done through intention, but through poor writing. More importantly, poor writing that leads to unfortunate implications not only for Samus' character, but for her relationship with Adam.

    There are a huge number of moments where Samus narrates to the player things that do not match what the player is shown. A vaguely skilled writer does this intentionally to create narrator fallacy, which allows the player/viewer/reader to glimpse the denial or ignorance of the narrator and can be used to create dramatic irony or plot twists by distracting one from the real action. Or, if an unskilled writer does it by accident because they fail to reconcile their 'show' with their 'tell'... well, you get 'Other M'. Or 'Twilight'.

    Oh, and pro tip - if you want to introduce PTSD in your character when faced with an established antagonist who they have killed about six times in the chronology up until this point with not so much as a tremor; make a prequel to the franchise.