On the surface Metroid Dread is a game about being hunted. Samus starts the game off in the position of the prey which fits in nicely with the feeling invoked by the title but is also reflected in the gameplay progression and story. The story begins with Samus coming down to ZDR, finding a Mysterious figure, being defeated and then waking up without any of her previous abilities. The rest of the game's events involve her having to work her way through the unknown planet and gaining old powerups as well as new abilities to defeat the various villains that come up. The progression of the exploration adventure genre maps almost 1-1 with that story’s progression so these two parts of the game are in harmony, they express the idea of the prey becoming the hunter. The new, heavily advertised mechanic of the EMMI reinforces this theme further. You start off with only the option to flee and/or hide from them but eventually the “becoming the hunter” aspect comes in and is the most prevalent here where a large part of overcoming these enemies is not only about the acquisition of power but also an understanding of the terrain and luring them into places where you can take them out. So each EMMI interaction is essentially a microcosm of the game as a whole. In addition to all of that, the map is an inversion of normal where the ship is no longer the starting point but is a goal that you must get to in order to escape. Normally the map is something you build off of with the path to the safety of the ship always clear but in Dread you begin in the unknown, in enemy territory, and wishing for the safety of the ship but not knowing how to get there.
Sounds like a slam dunk for that narrative right? It’s just… I can’t help but feel like that’s not actually the full picture… For instance, there’s a bunch of stuff that feels really odd. Expansion packs have a separate sound from the regular power ups which is abnormal and they (at least in my opinion) sound a little bit ominous to boot. The Screw attack is also not the final item that you get and if the game is about becoming the hunter AKA gaining the power to be free from being hunted then why would the emblem of freedom of movement be devalued in Dread? The ending begins by giving you the most powerful suit in series history but then right at the conclusion it’s just removed. If the goal is to gain power shouldn’t the Metroid Suit’s overwhelming power be celebrated? The bosses have an air of sadness to them (the ones with cut scenes at least anyway) rather than triumph as would normally be the case for boss kills which is another oddity. On top of all of that, finishing a run doesn't reward the player with Samus in a more revealing manner as is tradition.
Thankfully for us Metroid Dread is a game with a twist! One that beautifully re-contextualises everything that has happened and illuminates the hidden narrative.
The twist for Metroid Dread is that all of your exploits on ZDR as Samus have been a ruse. Raven Beak has been giving Samus orders as Adam for the entire game, only to fall apart at the end when he gives the game away by pushing a little bit too hard and not saying "any objections, lady”. What this reveals is that Samus has not been in control this whole time. She was merely a rat in the maze of Raven Beak’s experiment to coax out the Metroid DNA. So the surface narrative of overcoming the state of being the prey and becoming the hunter is actually a smaller part of a broader narrative about autonomy and control. And while it is good to talk about this through the lens of those without power, it is nothing without the context of the power that controls them and as the twist revealed, the one with that overwhelming power is Raven Beak.
Raven Beak worships at the altar of power. That essence is core to his being and manifests even when corrupted by something else. We see though through our time on ZDR and the Chozo stories, what this leads to, what you have to sacrifice for that mindset. In broad strokes Raven Beak is a classic villain wanting to control the galaxy he needs more power in order to achieve that though and literally everything is expendable in the pursuit of that power. Fellow Chozo, fellow Mawkin and even who you might consider to be family; none of them mean anything if they get in the way of the acquisition of power. It is a fundamentally de-humanising and amoral view point and the events of ZDR make that clearer. Kraid who is a former ally(or slave or clone depending on your interpretation) is chained up and used as fodder for Samus development as are the other experiments and creatures of ZDR. Eventually even the X-parasites are willingly set loose upon the planet because its entire ecosystem, which is probably incredibly important to your long term plan, doesn’t matter and neither does the potential bond of parent and child. Power is everything.
This is what I think makes the bosses a bit sad in Metroid Dread, it’s that they lack power, agency. Raven Beak has full control over their lives and whether it be experimentation or torture or whatever, they will be subject to his whims. When Samus comes across them and defeats them, there’s much less triumph because these creatures weren’t in control of their fate and often in environments or conditions that handicapped them. This sadness is then reflected after Samus defeats them with the framing of the shots and her readying up pose slowed down to evoke a more contemplative feel. The next set of bosses are also entirely corrupted so are also not in control but they aren’t given cutscenes to amp them up since they all represent the same thing and can be summarised with the experiment No. Z-57. this X-Boss does get a cutscene and we are reminded that even in death and perhaps especially in death, you have a frightening lack of power. Did this creature know what would become of its corpse, how it would just be splayed out, poked and prodded and then finally being controlled like a puppet by beings that are completely indifferent to it?
This is an interesting thread because all of the “antagonistic forces” in Metroid Dread, the EMMI, the X Parasites and if you really think about it, Raven Beak all share that mindset, they are all indifferent to what they are doing. The EMMI are robots and so only carry out orders to collect DNA. The X are parasites which mindlessly infect hosts, are killers in so much as to ensure their own survival. Raven Beak treats all creatures, no matter how close they may be to him, essentially the same as if they were objects. Things to either be discarded or used to gain more power. From our perspective this apathy to other life is a little scary(hopefully) and so when Samus goes through a similar progression the concern, or the Dread if you will, comes from whether or not she will become just as indifferent with her application of power. It turns out though that there is something worse than indifference and that is hatred.
Every boss battle, every power up and especially with the release of the X-Parasites. Raven Beak is feeding Samus’ unconscious hatred for the Mawkin and as her body becomes this battle ground between Metroid DNA and Mawkin, that hatred begins to manifest and corrupt her. The last two Mawkin X battles end with her using her Metroid absorption powers and the game gives Samus this pose when she is done. This is framed like she is holding a heart and crushing it without remorse and right after this she gains the final Power up, the Power Bomb.
I want to spend a little bit of time going over the item progression before covering the finale because Mercury Steam/ Sakamoto do some interesting things here. Ok so similar to everything else, item progression has been tweaked from the standard formula to make a statement. In regards to the Screw Attack not being the final item. I think I have made a solid case for this game being about control and for those without power, like Samus throughout most of the game, the very point of progression is the acquisition of power and so the final item is the Power Bomb. To me, the shifting of items makes this statement and it lines up perfectly with the overall narrative of the story which is all about trying to gain control, and even works with the framework of Raven Beak’s plan of feeding her power level. Additionally, the expansions packs sounding so ominous, I suspect, is because the more missiles, health and Power bombs you have access to the more likely you are to just frivilously use that power. Since the other power ups are necessary for progression, they are given the regular fanfare but while all that gaining of power is happening, the expansion packs are sprinkled through to consistently give off those ominous vibes. Either as another way to foreshadow that there is something sinister happening behind your progression ala the twist or an omen in regards to the concept of pursuing power in the first place or perhaps even both.
Heading up to Itorash is where the twist occurs and Raven Beak spills the beans. We learn that it doesn’t really matter if Samus finds out about his plans or not because Raven Beak can clone Samus and so he is happy to kill her if she doesn’t agree to help him. We get the final boss fight of the game and though Raven Beak gets the upper hand in the cut scene, his mistake is thinking that he can control the hatred in Samus that he has been feeding thus far.The problem is that hatred is not something you can control from either end *politicians please take note*. Even Samus loses all semblance of control herself so much so that she has manifested a new suit; one that is designed to be completely alien with its chitinous plating being a stark contrast to the Dread powersuit’s exposed muscle tissue-y design which is much more human and vulnerable.
Now the reason why all of this is framed as not good, and technically worse than the indifference of the villains, is that there is nothing gained from hatred. Everything is destroyed. This is expressed within the cutscene where the Raven Beak X is completely eradicated rather than absorbed but also during the escape sequence where just bumping into enemies will disintegrate them.
So the real issue at heart in this ending is that hatred is what we should fear because it is not only unrivalled in its destructive potential but also something that leads to a loss of autonomy which ends up hurting your own survival. This is what happens in the ending cinematic where Samus can’t control her absorption powers and will destroy her only means of escape. Luckily for us, Quiet Robe X realises the existential threat of an unleashed Metroid and sacrifices itself to give Samus control. Though it doesn’t feel like it this moment here where she just escapes the planet is the first time in the entire game where she has control. So in essence the game is played to get Samus to this point of control, that is your reward for beating the game and so the ending to a run is this: Now what’s really interesting about this move by the devs is that it was basically tradition at this point, when you finish a game to show Samus without her armour on. How much of Samus you get to see is determined by how the player plays. Control belongs to us and not to Samus. Functionally the reward in Dread remains the same as it ever has been, you unlock images but this time none of them involve seeing Samus in a more revealing manner which, fittingly, gives control back to her. In fact the only time you see Samus in her Zero suit is when she dies. Her other death is less revealing but hits just as hard on that theme of losing control with the EMMI pinning her down and penetrating her.
Technically the Zero Suit is seen as a reward in Dread if you beat the game in under 4 hours in both Normal and Hard. Though this does absolutely make this reading weaker, I would say that due to their making it that much more difficult to obtain and the previous games’ reward structure tied much more closely to Samus’ body/face reveal, the reading is still somewhat valid.
What I love about Metroid Dread’s narrative is that it isn’t as reductive as “power is bad”. Power is necessary for progression and when you are prey, you basically need more of it, if only to wrest control over those that hunt you or to gain autonomy in a hostile world. Without the overwhelming power of hatred, Samus would not have been able to overcome Raven Beak. But the game is also not about power being good. Power is used to explore The underlying fear of losing your autonomy. Samus goes through the arc of being both prey and hunter and throughout there is always fear, always a force that can take control from you.
Whether it is something external like taking orders or being manipulated, or an internal force like an ideology or an emotion, control can be lost. Throughout Dread Samus is never really in control. Other than just being manipulated by Raven Beak, she is also under the control of the player and I don’t think it is a coincidence that when Samus looks her coolest, the times where her characterisation shines through the most, is through cutscenes. Now I know this is the norm for your average game, but it is not for Metroid. Characterization and emotion in the mainline series has always been told through the mechanics primarily so I think it is quite the statement for this game to upturn 35 years of tradition and not only have cutscenes but also change completion reward in order to take away just a smidge of the player’s power and give it back to Samus.