Criticising the standard of writing in videogames has been an easy target since the medium adopted a third dimension and began to make some effort to explore the potential for interactive storytelling. On the one hand, these shortcomings can be justified as a new form of creative expression slowly but surely finding its own shape, yet progress remains conspicuously slow. Even leaving apart the need to significantly improve the quality of the dialogue and coherence of the plots in most games, there seems little consensus on the characteristics of good storytelling in videogame form: does a linear game diminish the medium's capability for distinctive narrative structures? Can story and gameplay exist interdependently, or must they always be treated as separate entities? How much control should a player have over the progression of a game's story and how does a writer deliver story beats if that player has too much freedom?
The mixed reaction to the expanded story and characterisation in the recent Nintendo/Team Ninja collaboration Metroid: Other M
shows how these questions, amongst many others, are becoming increasingly important as the games industry grows older and more influential in popular culture. That Nintendo, one of the most protective and conservative game developers in relation to its key properties, are experimenting with a greater focus on storytelling in one of their flagship games for the end of the year is evidence of how the demand for more narrative-driven games is growing. Tony Ponce's surgical evisceration
of Other M
's story unfortunately shows that there are still considerably growing pains to overcome, while this year's other big game with big storytelling ambitions didn't fare any better
Yet beneath the surface, there are signs that game writers are growing more confident in conveying ideas and themes through their stories, a voice muffled only by lacking the voice to communicate more clearly. Mass Effect 2
was underwhelming as a story experience, yet managed to throw together some interesting questions about identity and the definition of self. BioShock
didn't put much effort into linking its story to the gameplay (the only possible link being severed by a key event in the game's final act), but delivered a competent, if heavy-handed, critique of Randian objectivism.
is fully deserving of the scorn it has received for its lop-sided pacing and misguided characterisation (my review here
), yet has depths as a thematic piece which thus far seem to have gone under-examined. Perhaps this is because its key theme is one shared with BioShock 2
, but what gives it additional potency in Other M
are the gender questions that have arisen from the redefinition of female protagonist Samus Aran.
I've read many theories across the internet (God knows it's not short of those) about what the 'M' in the Other M
title stands for. Some have speculated that it links to the completion screen of the original Metroid
game on the NES, which states: "You fulfiled (sic) your mission. It will revive peace in space. But it may be invaded by the Other M
etroid. Pray for a true peace in space!" While I like the idea as a piece of fan-service in a game absolutely heaving with it, having the game called Metroid: Other Metroid
is clunky and makes no more sense than leaving the 'M' as a meaningless initial. Others have speculated, based on the cut-scene recreation of the Super Metroid
climactic battle which opens this game, that 'M' stands for 'Mother'. But where those speculators are seeing 'Mother' as a reference to Mother Brain, Super Metroid
's ultimate antagonist, it seems to me a far more general statement. For all its messiness, every branch of Other M
's story is tied together by a single thematic string: surrogacy.
This may be an insensitive comparison (if it is, I apologise), but the game seems to me rather autistic in its writing: it has much to say and considerable intelligence waiting to be expressed, yet lacks the tools to communicate its thoughts with the lucidity to do them justice. The more I think about the game through the lens of its theme, the more I appreciate how subtle much of its texture is.
Consider that opening cut-scene, where Mother Brain destroys the Metroid that has saved Samus after mistaking her for its mother. In another game, it's a meaningless plot device to give the protagonist enough power to complete her mission and overcome her nemesis. Yet writer/designer Yoshio Sakamoto, without changing anything about the event (apart from its representation with more advanced technology), has re-contextualised the scene as the thematic basis for an entire game. Before explaining exactly how this conclusion was reached, some context of the surrogacy theme throughout Other M
Gender has always been important to the series, yet never dealt with directly. The reveal at the end of Metroid
(NES) that its armoured warrior was, in fact, a woman might have been intended as a throwaway gag – starting the tradition of the player being rewarded for fully completing the game with scenes of Samus in decreasing states of dress – but the reversal made an icon out of its character, distinguishing her from the countless other generic commandos which littered the gaming landscape even then (remember what I said about there still being much progress to be made?) and placing a woman in the rare videogame position of combatant rather than helpless damsel perpetually awaiting rescue in another castle. Apart from those harmlessly saucy reward screens, Samus was not seen as sexualised or fodder for male lust in the same way as subsequent heroines like Lara Croft. Her standing in a world of stereotypical macho male heroes was absolutely even.
If that game was an accidental pioneer for (representational) gender equality in gaming, Other M
has been hit hard with accusations of sexism. The arguments supporting this view have some merit, especially with regard to Samus' new personality, but are perhaps alleviated to an extent by looking at why the game's events and people turn out the way they do. Samus' relationship with commanding officer Adam Malkovich has been put under considerable scrutiny, not least for weighing down our heroine with previously unhinted at 'daddy issues'. Of course Adam is represented as a surrogate parent to Samus, but it doesn't seem to me that the gender of the two characters is of any importance to how their interactions play out. Samus does not look up to Adam because he's a man, but because he's her commanding officer and the kind of focused, emotionally detached figure she will later become.
In the flashback sequences, she recognises her own immaturity and lack of self-control, an issue of youth rather than sex. Adam becomes the figure she can rebel against (the thumbs-down) but who also gives her a stable anchor as a symbol of authority who recognises her need, as an orphan, for guidance. Samus' gender marks her out from the squadron of male soldiers under Adam's command, but his acknowledgment of it is not to reduce her into subservience, but to say: 'I can't ignore that you're not like the others, but you're still under my wing. Any objections?' The young Samus' whining may be irritating, but they are representative of her immaturity, not her gender. Returning to the Other M
time frame, Samus' choice to obey Adam's commands (hokey a plot mechanic as it is) is not driven by deference to male authority, but because she needs to resolve her guilt at becoming a disappointment to Adam when she was thrown out of the Galactic Federation army, proving that she can be the disciplined soldier he was training her to be. These are scenarios which could have played out identically with a male Samus and a female commanding officer without losing their power. While the strong feminist cultural currents in Western society mean that the way the game represents these scenarios (woman accepting a man's commands etc) gets frowned upon for its perceived implications, it seems unfair to accuse a game based on our own biases rather than objective analysis.
To prove that the game deserves to only be seen as sexist through accidental implication, Adam and Samus' story is mirrored in the relationship between scientist Madeline Bergman and the gynoid 'MB'. Like Samus, MB is a directionless but brilliant child who finds a sense of identity through an adult mentor. Bergman's adoption of MB, giving her a name and teaching her to interact with those around her from whom she cannot deny her inherent differences (she's a machine, they're human). By acknowledging that she is different, Madeline gives MB a sense of self-worth as an individual and teaches her to be confident in presenting herself to the other scientists with whom she works. To put it another way: any objections, lady?
The single big difference between Samus and MB's stories relates to the darker layer of meaning that the surrogacy theme leads onto. If Other M
can be seen as a treatise on the difficulties of adoptive relationships, it also invokes the trauma that a person must take on when they are responsible for that relationship collapsing (a whole other form of surrogacy, I suppose) and how much feeling that kind of guilt can teach us about ourselves. In this context, Samus' decision to obey Adam by only activating her equipment at his command becomes more understandable – although Adam is unquestionably still a bastard for not giving Samus the order to activate the Varia Suit ten minutes earlier! Samus' guilt at her responsibility for the breakdown of their relationship and determination to resolve it give her the tools to fulfil her potential as 'galactic saviour'. As a teenager, she witnesses Adam sacrifice his brother when she believed she could save him. Now older and wiser, she understands his strength in being able to make the impossible decision to sacrifice one member of his family to save another, the people under his command. When the time comes for Adam to end his own life to save others, he recognises Samus' growth and her readiness to assume the role of protective parent from him (only where he protected his men, she has a whole galaxy to look after).
Returning to the mother-daughter relationship of Madeline and MB, the game shows what happens when guilt cannot be understood and overcome and the person in the parental role is incapable of making the necessary sacrifices to protect their child. When the Galactic Federation decide that it is time to take MB away, Madeline is too frightened to help her. The result of this betrayal is MB turning against humanity, feeling as distant from them as when she was newly created, but with that isolation now driven by a groundswell of hatred. When MB discards the hair-pin that Madeline gave her, it is a symbol of her rejecting the desire to connect to her human peers. But where Samus' guilt propels her to become a stronger person after she betrayed Adam, having the adoptive relationship broken by the cowardice of her 'mother', whose love was limited as far as not being able to sacrifice her own life for her daughter, MB is denied the means of understanding why conquering her trauma is important. Where Samus' maturity is reflected in her greater emotional self-control, MB's abandonment of her emotions (witness how utterly unemotive MB is the first time she and Samus have a conversation) signal a return to her isolated gynoid mentality.
All of which neatly returns us to that opening cutscene, where Mother Brain destroys the Metroid that has taken Samus into its protection. The thrilling but emotionally empty climax of Super Metroid
suddenly becomes a condensed foreshadowing of a drama that will take in the responsibilities and self-sacrifice of parenthood, and how identity can be formed through trauma. The dying shriek of the baby Metroid as it gets ripped apart by Mother Brain, with parent figure Samus too weak to save it, is echoed both in the signal received from the derelict Bottle Ship (a 'baby's cry'), Samus' pleading with Adam to reconsider his suicide mission, and MB's screams for help from her cowering surrogate mother Madeline. Other M
may not tell its story well, but let's not pretend that it has nothing to say.