Author Archives: Michael Lin

Metroid Prime: You must be this tall to enter Tallon IV

In Metroid Prime the world is divided into five major areas. Each one is generally designed to fit some sort of theme independently of each other. The more obvious themes are that of Magmoor Caverns and Phendrana Drifts, representing lava/fire and ice worlds respectively. Chozo Ruins is emblematic of a long lost civilization a la Indiana Jones. Phazon Mines is somewhat more difficult to classify, but it appears as the most sci-fi of the regions with Space Pirate technology strongly integrated into the environment. And then lastly is the Tallon Overworld, a smaller jungle based region that acts as a sort of central hub access to all other places.

Metroid Prime specifically separates regions in terms of themes.

Although the world is presented as supposedly diegetic, none of the major areas overlap and are always specifically connected by elevators. Nothing “exists” in the gaps between them, we never get a sense of the whole of the planet Tallon IV. While at first frustrating to categorize in terms of chronotopes, It occurred to me that this explicit designation of separated regions within a world resembled of all things an amusement park.

Consider how Disneyland is designed. It too has major areas based on various themes. Each region is carefully built to take as much space is needed, never spilling into the next so as to not create conflicting impressions/perceptions. Within Disneyland, people usually explore one area, experiencing attractions specific to it, and then choose another to visit. As long as people aren’t tired, the process continues until boredom occurs. This is quite similar to how the operator explores in Metroid Prime, constantly going between regions to progress the game.

A liberally cropped portion of Disneyland‘s Map

Furthermore, the regions are often exaggerated representations of preexisting physical or conceptual themes. Like how Frontierland, Fantasyland, and Tomorrowland exemplify the most blatant aspects of westerns, fantasy, and sci-fi, Metroid Prime also exploits preconceived notions in its areas. Just look at the most obvious ones, Magmoor Caverns drips lava all over the place while Phendrana Drifts constantly barrages you with ice structures and whatnot. Both of these areas are screaming hot and cold respectively.

This also explains the usage of time, or rather the lack thereof. When in Disneyland, the point of being there is to experience attractions and not care about other issues. The specially designed regions aren’t meant to remind you that time is ticking, attractions exist as constants instead of evolving features. It’s easy to lose track of time, to be focused on discovering new things and ignore everything else. We get a similar result in Metroid Prime, that the game has no temporal focus. One simply does not pay attention to the passage of time, rather instead on the passage of space.

To sum it up then, an amusement park chronotope is one that is strongly spatially angled. It is most clearly defined by thematic regions, areas with unique/distinct differences usually exaggerated. Traveling between these regions is frequent, even encouraged to gain the full experience. Time in this regard is always about the present, on what is currently happening. Through this, one gains a sense of the larger world through smaller extreme representations of it.

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Metroid Prime – It’s about how you look at it

In discussion of spatial matters, I think it’s quite telling that Nintendo decided to market Metroid Prime as a “first person adventure” rather than a “first person shooter”. Initially, the distinction seems minimal, for surely all journeys could be considered adventures. However, further contemplation brings forth differing focuses. Where the latter is all about the narrower action (or perhaps art?) of shooting, the former is a broader category more involved in the details of how and where one is going.

Of course, to go somewhere entails a sense of space which Metroid Prime does indeed emphasize heavily. The most obvious aspect of this is Samus’ methods of movement, of which a third of her equipment is dedicated to. Morph ball, boost ball, space jump boots, and grapple beam to name a few, the game is obsessed with giving the operator more and more movement options in response to machine constructed environmental blockades.

Yet despite all of these upgrades, the environmental space itself remains rather aggregated. Examples include how the Plasma beam melts only conveniently placed ice walls and how the Ice beam can’t seem to freeze running water. Interaction is predetermined rather than self-determining. Freedom of movement is merely an illusion, Samus remains staunchly stuck within the constraints of appropriated rooms, most of the time at least. Better worded, the operator is not intended to find paths where none are originally planned. A perfectly systematic version of Metroid Prime would allow such navigation naturally, everything within the world would be theoretically interconnected.

No ice cubes for Samus.

Given that this is nigh impossible, I want to turn our attention to another more interesting perspective, literally. I’ve mentioned before the scanning visor and its importance to gameplay, but several more exist, the thermal and x-ray visors. Fairly self explanatory, these visors allow Samus to access the thermal spectrum and also to see through objects respectively.

Initial starting point as seen from Thermal Visor

Both exist predominately for puzzle solving and combating poor vision conditions. What makes them relevant to a discussion on space is how they redefine the world. Or rather, their filtering of the world in Metroid Prime enables a more complete systematic illusion of aggregate objects. Using either one allows Samus to see the interconnectedness of spatial objects, layering upon the static environment a sense of actuality.

Initial starting point as seen from X-Ray Visor

Retro Studios may or may not have intended this effect, but it helps greatly in masking technical constraints. Perception of space is just as important as manipulation, without the former we have no real understanding of it. And given that video games rely so much on sight, simple heat signatures or skeletal imagery goes a long way in making the world more alive.

Initial starting point as seen from Combat Visor

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Metroid Prime: Breaking narrative

After the initial frigate space station intro, Samus starts out with no equipment save for her power armor and arm cannon. As the game goes on, one is often forced to find upgrades in order to move past various obstacles. A door may only respond to a specific weapon or a canyon could be not traversable until jump boosters are found and so on. These are easily conceptualized as “keys and locks”, that progression is not possible until the appropriate tool is found.

The Map system in Metroid Prime designates doors. Here we can see the clear “key and lock” design of the game.

Metroid Prime documents the number of upgrades you’ve found as a percentage, listing the final number upon completion. As expected, many gamers are compelled to “100%” the game and find everything. On the other hand, this mechanic has also induced gamers into finding the lowest possible completion percentage since many upgrades can be considered unnecessary. These unneeded upgrades are mostly stat boosters which increase maximum health and missile count.

Or at least, that was the original intent. Some crafty folks have found ways to avoid needing important “keys”, liberally abusing glitches to bypass “locks”. A fair portion of the gaming community is dedicated to this sort of exploitation, termed as “sequence breaking” as one purposely breaks the developer’s intended sequence of necessary events. This is tied closely into speedrunning, pursuit of fastest completion times, but the two are not necessarily the same given that not every instance of sequence breaking is useful for finding a faster path.

In consideration of Metroid Prime, this business of refusing what are effectively constituent events adds another dimension to the debate on games and narrative. Certainly, the game itself has narrative elements, ofttimes literally in the form of ancient alien lore and space pirate logbooks. Yet on whether or not we can consider the game as a whole a narrative is questionable.

In one sense, being able to break the game implies that there is a predetermined order, that an ideal version of gameplay exists. Something broken must logically have a complete state. This supports the idea of narrative’s duality, that it is in the present and past at the same time. The developers didn’t spontaneously jumble together random areas and game elements, there was careful planning to dictate how the operator would progress. An extrapolation would be that playing through once without foreknowledge of sequence breaking could count as “mystery/suspense” while subsequent playthroughs with intent could count as “dramatic irony” in consideration of the nature of narratives.

At the same time, it could also be argued that being able to avoid constituent events denies the possibility of games as narratives given that the latter would not make sense with important events removed. As a Cinderella story doesn’t make sense without a sympathetic figure rising to fortune, Metroid Prime might not make sense without Samus acquiring all of her necessary upgrades. This is assuming that narratives exist consistently rather than optionally.

Nonetheless, glitches are an inherent aspect of video games given the medium. Although development of computer science has propagated better programming strategies to reduce errors, all games are still subject to human workmanship, which is never perfect. More to the point though, this possibility of avoiding constituent events shouldn’t be ignored in trying to define the boundaries of narrative. I may perceive Metroid Prime as a reasonable coherent narrative in my “regular” playthrough, but throw sequence breaking into the arena and it becomes much less clear what the game actually is.

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Metroid Prime: Who is Samus Aran?

Ask any random gamer to list off good female protagonists and you’re bound to eventually get Samus Aran. She’s one of the most recognizable heroines in video game history, famed for making people exclaim “It’s a girl!” since 1986. Often described as tough, resourceful, or strong-willed, it’s kinda odd then that we don’t actually learn much about her from within the Metroid games themselves. Up until very recently, Samus has virtually never spoken her own mind, leaving much of her character to the imagination of the gamer.

Much of what we actually know about Samus is detailed in paratexts like instruction manuals or developer interviews. The fact that she is a human orphan raised by the bird-alien race Chozo is only ever briefly referenced in the games, we have to look up outside sources like officially published manga to find the whole story. Though useful for understanding her more fully, this sort of material must unfortunately be excluded in examining her presence strictly in-game.

Metroid Prime presents a complicated case in this regard due to the mostly first person perspective. Compared to previous 2D games where Samus’ “avatar” was always explicitly displayed on screen, we cannot always see how she reacts to her environment anymore. Though this initially seems like a big drawback to interpreting Samus via avatar, the fact that third person perspectives are now mostly dedicated to cutscenes provides us with an interesting juxtaposition on player perceptions.

Cutscenes serve as the major insight into the actuality of Samus, of her presence in the game world. They are for the most part divided into two scenarios, either the act of entering vulnerability or escaping vulnerability. The scene where Samus loses her equipment is an early example of the former, but it can also be found in representations/entrances of bosses (apparent size vs Samus) or sweeping views of locations and contained hazards. The latter is often encountered through usage of save/map stations, acquisition and display of upgrades, and transitional scenes (such as most elevators) which guarantee safety.

Samus vs Parasite QueenSamus vs Ridley

The sum of these scenes creates a projection of Samus onto the operator, that she must frequently flirt with danger. Though Samus never says a word about her goals, the cutscenes provide us with the theme of constant conflict. It is a struggle to survive, a constant rollercoaster of heights and dips that threaten to destroy her at any moment. In-between these heights and dips are the meat of the game, the gameplay in first person perspective.

Before loss of Upgrades After loss of Upgrades

As I mentioned before in my last post, the “dromenon” of the game is to learn to think like Samus. The game directs you in the path she would take. At the same time, the operator begins to project onto her the trait of persistence. In becoming Samus, we see in her our own continual attempts to overcome trials. Cutscenes confront and confirm our hard work, developing a dynamic relationship between the operator and machine.

Herein lies the truth of the matter, of who Samus Aran really is. She is the embodiment of persistence amongst opposition. Some may play the game more defensively or offensively, carefully or carelessly. But constant among these playstyles is dedication to overcoming troubles. In persistence we find a character who is strong-willed, who doesn’t give up despite the odds. And in a world full of fantastical monsters along with ever expanding environments, persistence necessitates courage of which much is found in Samus through our actions.

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Metroid Prime: On Isolation

Facebook addicts, be glad that you aren’t Samus Aran. Poor girl keeps getting stuck on far out planets with nary the sight of a bar or two on that wireless connection. It’s an unfortunate circumstance, but it’s also one of the defining features of a Metroid game, the sense of extreme isolation amidst a sprawling environment. Given that iterations previous to Metroid Prime were constricted to 2D side scrolling, this aspect is particularly interesting to consider in light of the challenges of designing in 3D.

A good starting point is the POV. Although Retro Studios originally planned the game from a 3rd person perspective, development eventually shifted to a predominantly 1st person perspective with a few exceptions, namely cutscenes and usage of the morph ball ability. The result? A complete POV directly from within Samus’ helmet. Just about everything displayed on screen during game play can be considered diegetic.

The HUD presents information as if it is actually communicating with Samus. Energy is displayed at the top, weapons and visors to the bottom right and left respectively, and even a “threat level” meter to the far left. Tutorial instructions are also evident as actual in-game responses, although that kind of jives against the idea of Samus being a seasoned do-it-yourself warrior. Perhaps her operating system was recently reinstalled to her ire?

Regardless of the reason, it is clearly evident that these HUD elements fall into the category of “Pure Process” as defined by Galloway. The machine is generating feedback in a manner consistent with the world reality. This extends to external forces as well, with vents clearly producing perspiration on the helmet visor. All of these elements build toward a sense of actuality, that the stimulated world isn’t just a set of unresponsive walls.

Mind you, the perception is hardly perfect. Although Metroid Prime excels in labyrinthine like maps, explorable areas are very blatantly divided by actionable doors. There is little room for literally free exploration, you are governed by the constraints of 3D map design. Each region may have many nooks and crannies to poke into, but the game has to in the end continue on by loading maps one at a time.

However, this point leads into a discussion of actionable objects in general, of which there are many. One of the more unique things here about Metroid Prime is the idea of scanning objects. Anything highlighted by an orange/red icon has potential information available to be obtained. Players typically become obsessed with scanning pretty much everything.

Given that there is no direct communication with any other intelligent life form in the game, scanning becomes an essential aspect. The information varies greatly, from mission critical to purely informative, to the story narrative and even humor. Curiously, most scanning is completely optional. Knowing this however, we can begin to understand the implementation of isolation in Metroid Prime.

As operators, we are effectively tricked into thinking like Samus. The “dromenon” in Metroid Prime is not simply busting into ancient ruins and blowing up the bad guys, it’s about interpreting the world as Samus does. As a completely voluntary aspect, scanning entices the operator not only to look where Samus would, but consequently to search and walk where she does. In combination with an immersive feedback system, our mindset begins to recognize patterns, to find paths not in our world, but hers. And her world is a hostile one, lacking in allies but abundant in countless crossways to lose oneself in.

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