Spotlight: Metroid | Creation in Gaming and Why We Love Sci-Fi

Surprisingly little has been written on  Nintendo’s black sheep space epic. For its many evocative themes, social commentary, its homage to the edifice of classic sci-fi, it remains largely a matter of obscurity. Most importantly, extraordinarily little has been written about its protagonist. But still, it retains its definition as a gaming classic, and more broadly, a sci-fi classic for a number of reasons.

The first question then, is how is it a classic? What can you reasonably consider to be a classic – in the gaming world or beyond it ?

This is not a short answer.

Enduring parables and iconoclastic characters are those in the history of story telling, of written thought and feeling, that are mercurial in conception and timeless in execution. That contain within them, an inviolate, skeletal framework of feeling and of response to interpretation, a political postulate that transcends the complications of plot, the longueurs of writing style and the unquestionably provisional, irrational role of artistic critique.

In literature, we have the likes of Emma Bovary, who – at a cruelly trivial level – manage to transmute the zeitgeist and personal life of their authors. Flaubert, in this instance, wrote, intentionally or not, on the maddening planar quality of L’Ennui, a world gone flat and grey in lieu of the romance of war a and revolution which the thwarted energies and barbaric impulses of Madame Bovary is so passionate a political discourse against.

Then there are those, like Prometheus, who from their various interpretations, from Hesiod to Aeschylus, to Hugo and Karl Marx, have become symbols. We speak of things as being ‘sisyphean’, of being ‘platonic’ or ‘kafka-esque’.  Callous, crude abbreviations that imply a pithy platitude to be the righteous distillation of the many complexities in a multifarious body of mythology.

Even the Fool from Lear is a conspicuous mouthpiece for Shakespeare’s sense of tragedy. His solidarity and sympathy with Man’s noble nature. The fool is a capable assertion of this. Embodied in his jaunty jesting, in his place as a comedic foil, ranging from babbling nonsense that would be more indigenous to a newborn learning to express and condense the synesthesia of its felt experience into more readily consumable words, to a kind of gentle, melancholy poetry (‘All thy other titles thou hast given away that thou wast born with.’). Shakespeare’s noble hope in the comedy of the fool, in the human folly, is that somewhere, far beyond and in spite of the Sophoclean injustices of the narrative, someone is cracking an awful joke, an undercurrent of sanity persists; telling his audience that life is continuing much as usual.

The context of each of these classics is a obviously a part of its whole. To each of these ostentatious civilizations, to Periclean Athens, Shakespearian England or Kafka’s Europe one can apply the ancient axiom, ‘a tree is known by its fruits’. Each of these works, instead of being a moonshine of the mind with no derivative genesis, is an alloy of individuality and the particular intellectual exigencies of a time period and culture. Bell Hooks says, ‘no aesthetic work transcends ideology’; perhaps we can clarify for present purposes and add, ‘no aesthetic work transcends the context of its creation.’ For Metroid too, it was created by people who were in the dying stages of the Cold War, people who had grown up terrified of bioweaponry, atomic bombs and fearful editorials about the possibility of mutually assured destruction. And it shows.

Also, all of these ‘classic’ stories are retailing a political position, a transcendental symbolic, syntactical slogan. Each of them, more importantly, could be imagined as bullet points, a comic strip, a painting, a TV series, a puppet show; a title.

One such title is eminent in the gaming world. The tale of a heroine who is two fold in her impact. Who is – like much of good science fiction – both a ‘dark mirror’ of the time and associated gyre of cultural vogue she was created in, and a perennial character in her own right that survives intact as an atmosphere, as a feeling and a concourse with aspects of human nature, every poor casting (Metroid: Other M) and sub-par detour (Zero Mission).

Of course, we’re now talking about Samus, who A-ran away with the hearts of many gamers from the time of her debut greyscale vignette on the NES to her extolled Gamecube incarnation.

What do Samus and Metroid say of their time period, their makers and consumer base?

To answer that, as Metroid is such a shameless sci-fi cliche, the first question has to be, what is our collective obsession with outer space? Metroid, along with many of today’s gaming progenitors, were created concentrically around the theme of outer space. Space Invaders, Galaga, even ROB the Robotically Operated Buddy is an adorable appendage of the fixation on futurity that consumed Western civilization in the post-war period.

Escapism is, I think, an over-simplification of this phenomenon.

An explanation of our collective fixation on futurity, on a space and reality beyond ours here on Earth, as we find it in Metroid, is perhaps a little more disturbing. In the Golden Age of Science Fiction, the time of The Day of the Triffids, certain events were fresh in our minds. The regress into barbarism of Western civilization, of which the Shoah (Holocaust) was only the most bestial example. The default of Marx’s loan of human energies and passions. The only partial fulfillment of Freud’s prognostication of thanatos (death) and eros (lust), the fact that not Milton, nor Dante, nor Shakespeare nor Proust nor Rilke or Wells – the power of poetry and the written word – was sufficient to educate the everyman against acts of profane ignorance and cruelty (Hans Frank, one of the men who were in management of the death camps, also loved to perform Beethoven); together turned a page in culture. This time period was the bookend of an ideological inheritance in the West that invested dogmatically in the notion that a Liberal education could sublimate humanity’s darker impulses, that the Humanities could Humanize.

We saw the flower of a generation, the untapped brilliance 0f millions turned to muck and ash – by what the West considered to be, in its previously held qualifications, ‘civilized’ people. We began to question the old notions of geographical-sociological centrality in the West, looking with increasingly more anxiety, to the wisdom of the East and the Orient, a more earnest return to the facile fad of the ‘Chinoiserie’, challenging the veracity, the plausibility of accepting unfiltered the Western axiom of historical progress. Most importantly, in this time period, the late 40s and early 50s, we started looking to the stars.

Whatever was ‘out there’, we held, was much more enticing than the awful prodigality, the grey shock of the Somme, the hopelessness of a world denied God and with no more hope in transcendental rapture or the enabling ignorance of old fashioned Liberals who genuinely believed you can educate the cruelty out of human beings.

The post war wave of science fiction, the resurgence of Modernism in art and cinema, the substitute mythologies, the astrology and mysticism and Messianic Socialism that attempted to satiate in a secular font, the feeling that ‘God is Dead’, to palliate our insatiable cravings for the absolute, models of totality that were once exclusive to theology and the claims of transcendental determinism in the doctrine of religious institutions. Science fiction, and by extension, Metroid, are pregnant with this same feeling of enmity and repulsion from the ‘old world’. Post-Cuban Missile Crisis, post-Atomic Age 80s was a flashback to the earlier anxieties, tainted with an even more unsettling relationship that was forming between Man and computer, between Man and AI.

If I were to describe the atmosphere of Metroid, the dark, rich colour scheme, the minimalist soundtrack, it wouldn’t be solely a sensation of creepiness, or of red-blooded baddie-bashing, blaster toting belligerency; but a feeling of profound loneliness. Of claustrophobia.

Zebes is not an accommodating world.

As back in the real world, Man floundered without God, without direction and validation, so too does our protagonist experience something of our loneliness – the mark of the programmers, the designers and creators of Metroid. The only real help that Samus is offered in her quest across nearly all Metroid titles is from an ancient, almost god-like, mythological race of creatures, the Chozo. Already, you should be thinking how odd it is that in science fiction, the most self-proclaimed of all ‘atheist’ genres, (scientific meliorists like HG Wells and outspoken Atheists like Asmiov being cardinal examples from sci fi royalty), that there exists a parallel to religious theology. That the bird-like god creatures who saved Samus, equipped her with the right armour (and the right attitude) for taking Mother Brain and the Metroid infestation to task share much with the mythologies of organized religion that science fiction tries consistently to debunk and replace.

Is it a coincidence that many sci-fi plots have in them, profoundly religious ideas? Of the Fall of Man (that once we were more perfect and pure and must strive to achieve that lost paradise), of Providence (that all is pre-planned and recollected as according to a Creator), of the Demiurge, of Testaments, the Creator.

Maybe we have a psychological need for creation myths? I think it’s obscenely crude to consider such a concept as we find it in Metroid satire. But even satire, as we know, is a dovetail of fear, which is ignorance, and cruelty, which is the exasperation of an inability to control. The Chozo are Metroid fulfilling that seemingly human need for the Architect, for a narrative of the Creator. Our ability – which seperates us from animals – to understand and utilize the past and future tenses, seems to be a toxic gift. We can plan on the past and for the future, which is great, but we must also worry about beginnings and endings and answers for these things. Isn’t it strange that in a gaming world, where we have full control of the reality and where Atheism is the propounded set of assumptions, thegrammar of interaction with the player, that we almost almost choose the inexorably religious narrative of creation and providence?

Funnily enough, the Chozo are also a technocratic race, who were brought to what is assumed to be, in the current Metroid canon, near, if not total extinction, by their beloved technology. Doesn’t the Metroid narrative ring with an eerie echo of the fears of atomic age science fiction, of the dangers of technology, the vivifying eschatological premonitions of crimson conflagration from the atomic bomb that haunted and coloured the visions of many writers and thinkers, of Bradbury and Wyndham and Sara Teasdale, in the post war period? After all, we live now in an age where Deep Blue has trumped Kasparov – maybe our anxieties in There Will Come Soft Rains, our written records of dread about technology are justified?

Even more pertinent in Metroid to our current culture of fear is the corruption, the insidious, unstoppable force of Phazon and a sneaky, shadowy villain appositely named Dark Samus that have all the characteristics of the radioactive waste and environmental depredation which are the current ammunition of punitive press hysteria and moribund left wing sensibilities which aim to terrify the public into conservation. Again, like much science fiction, in attempting to remove itself completely from the failure of civilization here on earth, it only manages to frame those problems – abstractly perhaps – in a more futuristic setting.

Maybe this is the appeal of science-fiction. A peerless propensity to phrase our most contemporary problems, the most notable predicaments that are spawned of current cultural trends – ‘at arm’s length’. Even the chosen symbology, the bird, the lightning bolt, plasma, are old superstitions and inescapably human concepts.

Even the nominal agitators of the piece, the Space Pirates, are an archaism haphazardly spliced into futurity. Close your eyes, think of the word ‘pirate’, what do you see? Nefarious, moustache twirling, parrot toting, ship sailing, ‘arrrr’ espousing, musket waving pirates. In evoking this image, Metroid is setting their protagonist up against images of the past.

So we have: A Bird-God race which is a substitute religious mythology, a fairly explicit warning about the dangers of technology, an artificial, environmental menace, and an antiquarian title for a motley crew of space marauders.

Metroid is a shibboleth of Science Fiction 101. A true classic. And maybe that’s why we love it?

Where is the character of Samus then? What was done with the character of Samus in Other M is nothing short of appalling. Now that we have access to visual story-telling, interactive media and coding to bring characters with as much depth as can be done in Incendies or Citizen Kane to gamers, it’s shocking to me that developers still insist on creating such flimsy, cardboard characters. Instead of Samus making huge leaps in her development, instead of us being exposed to something raw and unsettling in her motivation which must certainly be the precipitate of such a long time alone, embittered and at odds with the universe, the breadth of her emotion and depth of her decency that we get brief glimpses of in fond memories of the Metroid Baby and the satisfaction of putting down Prime; we get a sloppy love letter to Adam. And then Smash Bros comes along with gratuitous near-nudity. The latest in Metroid has been a prolonged exercise in containing disappointment.

My hope is that, with Shinya Takahashi’s tenatative confirmation of Metroid stirrings in Nintendo HQ of both a Prime successor and a revival of the retro Super Metroid mold suggesting a possible 2015/2016 release, that the team will make full use of the tools available to them on the Wii U and the 3DS to allow some of Samus’s idiosyncrasies, fears and talents to play out in the gaming world. I think many hopes for the future of successful female leads in gaming will be emboldened by the turn-around of Samus as a character, from her sycophantic antics in Other M to hopefully something more indicative of the keynote moody, tense atmosphere of Metroid in future releases. She is an archetype in her own right that can, I think, transcend the longueurs of her lesser incarnations. Just as the parable of Lear can transcend a poor rendition on the amateur stage. Think of the good you could do with a Prime successor on the 3DS, making use of a control system that worked brilliantly on the DS in Hunters and stereoscopic, face tracking 3D to make Zebes or Skytown or wherever really feel as if the Metroid mystery is pressing in from all sides. Or a retro Metroid for the Wii U in the style of Super Metroid with touch screen mapping, custom weaponry and suiting?

The allure of its homage to sci-fi, its ability to play with themes of theology and mythology, its unique setting, the way it paints the time period it was created in and its potentially form-defying female lead are that of Metroid which Nintendo fans can only pray the big wigs don’t let slip from this generation.


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Austin Small

Austin Small

If not writing about or playing the latest offerings of over-dressed simians and over-enthusiastic plumbers, can be found still trying to conquer the Ghost Ship in Super Metroid.

1 Comment

  1. Juan Andrés Morales
    February 19, 2015 at 8:28 AM — Reply

    I cried. No really, absolutely outstanding commentary on the game and on late cold war sci-fi generally.

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