Metroid: Othering Samus

This post has spoilers for the the Metroid series in general and Metroid: Other M in particular.

Similar to the box art for the Japanese version of Other M, an image of a red overlay of her suit's helmet, slightly pixelated, surrounds a green visor through which Samus peers. Metroid: Other M is situation to the right of her face.

Similar to the box art for the Japanese version of Other M, an image of a red overlay of her suit's helmet, slightly pixelated, surrounds a green visor through which Samus peers. Metroid: Other M is situated to the right of her face.

On the surface, there seemed a lot of promise for Metroid: Other M (and yes, I’ve already given my hand), particularly in the beginning. When giving her rather loquacious introductory thoughts and history, Samus mentions that she felt pressure on her for being the only female soldier, which led to some of her refusal to fall in line (even if sometimes through childish rebellion). As part of a plot, that could become a rather salient point, and one that could certainly be expounded upon more. However, as the game progresses, this fact gets lost in Samus’s attempt to prove herself to Commander Adam Malkovich, her former commanding officer. Of course, this leads to another problem in that the game tries to give the player so much information to process through cutscenes and internal monologue, that it divorces itself from the gameplay.

In a series where plot has been relatively thin and usually guided bit by bit through the beginning and ending of the game, there was a lot that could not be conveyed to the audience except through playing the game. Therefore, when Samus chokes at fighting Ridley, I sensed that they wanted this to happen way back when, during Metroid. After all, this arch-nemesis of Samus’s killed her parents, and her initial encounter with him might well have been devastating. Her canonical third encounter (counting Metroid and Super Metroid, as somehow the Primes don’t count), should not leave her paralyzed to be saved by a black male who then seems to sacrifice himself for her.  Placing such a debilitation on Samus from seeing Ridley (already brought back once after she defeated him) at this point in the series speaks to a problem of wanting to flesh out the narrative they may have wanted in a previous incarnation, but is now a bit late.

Screenshot from Other M with Samus Aran, left, jumping up and kicking out her right foot to connect with a Space Pirate's face, right.

Screenshot from Other M with Samus Aran, left, jumping up and kicking out her right foot to connect with a Space Pirate's face, right.

I say a bit late because players have had time with Samus, who has fallen into a trap I have witnessed occurring a few times (or have witnessed fans worrying about occurring): giving voice to a previously quiet character. In my mind, having played all the games that led up to Other M chronologically, Samus’s quiet manner was due to a stoicism present in a hero on whom much depends. It has been said that the entire Metroid series was heavily influenced by Alien, and in such a case, it is hard not to see a resemblance between Samus Aran and Lieutenant Ripley. However, as Ripley shed more and more of her absolute terror of her alien menace through her own series, Samus never was allowed that emotional depth on-screen. Given her status as a mercenary, and willingness to hunt down this menace, it is hard to read it as a terror she wished to avoid completely, but was resolute on facing–on top of her military background with which to begin, rather than being a pilot caught in a violent situation.

As I said, stoicism.

In my review on GayGamer, I mentioned one of my complaints was the voice acting in Other M. Samus sounds full of ennui, and has a way of draining the emotion and expression from her voice. She sounds like a stereotypical teenager writing in a journal, to be quite frank. The betrayal here is the lack of meshing with a concept of my play. In my playing of Samus, even in Other M, I never get the sense that she is so full of self-doubt or the need of approval from a father figure. There is a dissonance that occurs when suddenly confronted with this in a cutscene, where I am asked to be passive and fed narrative, particularly in a series that had based itself so much on a sense of autonomy expressed through Samus’s exploration of her environment and eventual mastery of it.

In fact, the sense of loneliness that was present in most of my time spent with the series (excepting Metroid Prime 3: Corruption) helped this fact, and the gameplay for Other M has not changed in this regard, with other characters being relegated to cutscenes or disembodied voices. It is the latter that makes the restrictions Samus is willing to take from Commander Malkovich so aggravating on top of it hampering her capabilities. As has oft been cited, while it might make sense to restrict her use of all her suit’s weapon functions (a convention the game uses instead of losing them), as they might not wish to damage portions of the ship they are exploring, having her run through overwhelmingly hot environments without the use of her Varia suit, which protects her from such environmental hazards, is something done purely out of a game convention–one that clashes with both the narrative (why would her suit’s ability to resist heat endanger anyone?) and the sense of who Samus is.

Commander Adam Malkovich, a middle-aged white male with black hair, speaking into headpiece that allows him communication with his squad and Samus.

Commander Adam Malkovich, a middle-aged white male with black hair, speaking into headpiece that allows him communication with his squad and Samus.

It speaks to a willingness to subjugate and prove herself to Commander Malkovich. While it might make sense in the plot that Team Ninja and Sakamoto (one of the co-creators of the series) created, it does not speak well for the Samus who is primarily a loner. Given how it is presented, it serves as a parable for the double-bind in which women often do find themselves to receive approbation: Samus must work harder for the recognition of her former commanding officer, but her reward is simply being allowed to stay. Her only autonomy comes at the expense of his death.

Given the earlier statements of her feeling out of place due to her female sex in a male-dominated workplace, it could have even worked so that had she communicated to us, the players, her annoyance at jumping through hoops; she could have remained a consistent character. Instead, she is broken into two parts: the one I control and the one who speaks at me, but not to me.

Of course, as our own Brinstar will state, this is a trend that is not wholly out of the blue, nor presented to us just in this title. From the beginning Samus has been a character who has been painted as a myth, with speed run trials being able to de-armor her to a space bikini. This situation only became more annoying as she donned her zero suit in Zero Mission, a retelling of Metroid that added a bit of story after the completion of the original. While she always had an element of being sexualized, she has now continued on to be mired in the bind of a female character who can stop an entire alien parasite race, but is generally portrayed as weak and submissive otherwise.

About Denis Farr

Denis Farr is a white, androgynously gendered, TAB, German-born and U.S.-schooled, male-sexed queer person (with a penchant for other male-sexed queer persons) who started writing about games at Vorpal Bunny Ranch (in other words, he's loquacious). He has continued with this endeavor, expanding his writing to both GayGamer.net and here at The Border House. A strong proponent of expanding diversity in games, his focus is often on how characters are depicted in games, and exploring the language we use to explicate games themselves.
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23 Responses to Metroid: Othering Samus

  1. I have little to add, except for noting that Sakamoto has said that he sees Samus as his “daughter”, which is just plain creepy.

  2. Doug S. says:

    Metroid: Other M was developed by Team Ninja – who also developed the Dead or Alive series and post-NES Ninja Gaiden games. :(

  3. John Nesky says:

    Team Ninja also made Dead or Alive: Xtreme Beach Volleyball.

    This game is such a weird mix of endearing nostalgia (baby ridley!) and writing that is both offensive and just plain bad… I guess the writing is just mediocre “for a video game” but I never liked lowering the standards for video games so I’ll continue calling it bad.

  4. Nana says:

    I really wouldn’t have had a problem with the PTSD moment. Really not.

    But when they add her complete subjugation to random guys (she’s a woman, after all), I just can’t divorce that from RL attitudes I need to deal with in real life. This made the game plain and simple not fun to me. Would a male hero have gotten such scenes? We all know the answer to that. Imagine the uproar if an iconic male hero suddenly had to follow arbitrary restrictions like that, would have gotten random PTSD moments…? It’d not have gone well at all. And if the one subjugating the male hero had been female? Oh dear. The misogynic language would come out full force.

    If she had rebelled against it, used the Varia Suit anyway, for example – okay. But she doesn’t.

    It just adds up, and the end result isn’t a pretty picture at all. It saddens me. OtherM has managed what not even the badly designed MetroidFusion did: It has made me dislike the Metroid series.

  5. Matt says:

    “I really wouldn’t have had a problem with the PTSD moment. Really not. But…”

    Had I seen that cutscene only up to the point where she’s paralyzed in fear, it might almost have looked forgivable… but the way the scene subsequently unfolded it’s like they specifically looked for the worst ten possible ways to do it and synthesized them.

    As for analogies, I honestly, literally cannot even imagine something similar being done to say Gordon Freeman or the Doomguy. The culture I live in doesn’t even have the semiotics to deal with this kind of subjugation being done to man – this sort of deprotagonizing and emasculating cutscene would just come off as absurd and comical, if not downright backfiring by coming off as ironic.

    Anyway, that line of thought is just getting way too depressing so in the off chance that anyone hasn’t seen it I’ll just link to this thing a friend found on 4chan (sfw except for the word “shit” in large block letters):
    http://members.shaw.ca/vaecrius/temphost/other_m.jpg

  6. Maverynthia says:

    Honestly I quit playing Metroid when it was made into an FPS. I like my sidescrollers thank you. There IS something to be said when it is a genre namer “Metroidvania”. When this came out I just knew it would be bad. I preferred a silent hero, who we only get a bit of info about and then we are left to play the game. This was just… it seemed to me that the creator finally wanted to put Samus in “her place” as a woman. To do that they made up the most horrible series of events ever. Lest to say I’m never touching another Metroid game again, unless it’s some remake of the original with better graphics and doesn’t acknowledge Other M’s plot at all, nor give me any form of story past “kill mother brain and metroids”.
    Even when they tried to give Adrian more story to him in the Castlevania Aria and Dawn games did they go so far to wreck his character completely.

    There is some form of protection that afforded to male heroes VS female ones. I’m getting tired of seeing it.

  7. Alex says:

    Really excellent analysis, Denis. This is by far one of the biggest gaming disappointments in recent years =/

  8. Denis Farr says:

    @No one important: Agreed. At least within this context.

    @Doug S.: Yeah, I had given them the benefit of the doubt at first, though most of the sexualization they put in of Samus is something that has just snowballed over the years.

    @John Nesky: I have the same problem. Just because it is a videogame does not really excuse that level of bad writing.

    @Nana: Had they approached it as such, I would have liked to see that fleshed out (for any characters in a game really–don’t believe PTSD has been handled much in games). As you said though, elements of the game had been building up a steady distaste in my mouth so that by that point it just seemed another in a horrible line of decisions.

    @Matt: It is rather sad that such would happen to an iconic character pretty much because she’s a woman. Of course, in the case of Gordon, I would also probably state something about Valve never wanting to force-feed us so strong an emotion. Would have liked to say the same about Samus (and would have before this game).

    @Maverynthia: While it may not have been everyone’s cup of tea, I found the Primes did a pretty decent job of keeping the tone of the previous games.

    I’ve yet to play those Castlevania games, though I have some interesting thoughts on the later ones. However, that is a series that has rather stark gender binaries which they encode in their characters. I can only imagine the direction Lord of Shadows is headed, however.

    @Alex: It really felt disappointing. Particularly as I was new to the series, found this awesome character, and then saw her dashed to pieces in some pitiful attempt to ‘deepen’ her by making her a stereotype–rather than the champion for sex equality.

  9. Laurentius says:

    Interesting post, the only thing I would disagree is fragment about silent protagonist. We old time gamers know where it came from but in modern games I think it doesn’t work well. So I would actually defend idea of giving Samus the voice but i agree that it came as a vary bad execution.

  10. Denis Farr says:

    Oh, I agree Laurentius. I don’t mind the shift from silent protagonist to otherwise, but it’s a lot like the shift from silent films to talkies–make sure the character can match up to her role. This game just didn’t accomplish it.

    It’s amusing how people have been voicing anxiety over their heroes starting to talk for a good decade or so now, and will probably continue to do so. Then again, the voice acting in games still has yet to reach a generally passable level.

  11. nanasuyl says:

    I’ve just beaten Other M and came running here to see what was being discussed.

    I too was disappointed by Samus being so emotional. That’s not bad, it’s just inconsistent with her personality during the game. When you’re playing, she’s fearless and destroys all enemies right away. In the cutscenes, she’s all emotional and afraid. What?

    I guess they wanted to make her more human. Well, it didn’t work so well, it’s a pity. She could have been a little bit more like Ellen Ripley.

    That said, this didn’t ruin my experience with the game, I loved it. I really like Samus and, even though this is the Samus I expected, I enjoyed all the action and puzzles of the game. I much preferred this to the Prime series, I’m not a fan of FPS and think it limited Samus a bit. I also loved the graphics in Other M, was amazed by them.

    I do hope they continue Metroid as a side scroller. This time with a tougher Samus that doesn’t cry all the time and doesn’t take orders from anyone! That would be brilliant.

  12. Maverynthia says:

    @Denis The difference however between movies and games, is that in games, the main character is supposed to be you, or suppose to be able to relate to you. Thus giving the character a voice kills that kind of connection. I know I felt it playing Suikoden Tierkreis, I wanted to shut the main character up and kick him every time he told a female character to shut up or be quiet (he does it often… the males don’t get it much at all) It’s why in Japanese Visual Novel style games, if the main character does have a voice there is always the option to turn it off (you can even turn off the other characters too, even some have individual shut off so you can ONLY hear your favorites character if you wanted too.)

    To me, Samus has always never had a voice. Then they give one to her and.. well.. it’s sucks. It’s not the stoic voice I want to hear, it’s something else.

    Then there’s the actual voices themselves… I can rant for ages about how I don’t EVER like English voices for Japanese games… and hate the fact that I’m force fed them with rarely the option to switch…

  13. Denis Farr says:

    @Nanasuyl: Agreed. The gameplay? I rather enjoyed it. While I did love, love, love the Prime games, I also really liked this one from a gameplay angle. It just was the polar opposite of how I felt about everything else. I hear you can skip the cutscenes when you finally play it again…

    @Maverynthia: I suppose it depends on the game. I do wonder if they will ever voice Link, but doubt it. I’m okay with the protagonist not being me, but with long-standing characters, there will always be the issue of “this doesn’t sound like it did in my head, I liked my own version better.” However, given the choice between Dragon Age and Mass Effect, I preferred the latter for giving my character a voice (mostly because my character felt so disconnected from the story). Mileage will vary with that, however.

    I suppose the loneliness of Samus is really what worked, and I enjoyed being able to think with her, rather than listen to an internal monologue I heard. Imagining it was much more… it aided the games (for me particularly in the Primes–though it then bled into replaying Super Metroid).

    As a whole, the voice acting in games needs to improve, though I can’t speak for Japanese-voiced games. My only other experience is in German, where it is just awful. It often does seem that localized Japanese games suffer quite a bit, however, primarily in the pauses.

    It would be interesting if more games had the option to turn off the voice, and would likely have saved this game for me.

  14. nanasuyl says:

    @Denis Oh, I wouldn’t want to jump the cutscenes, they’re so graphically beautiful… although it would save us from Samus’ voice.

    I liked “the loneliness of Samus” you said. I think this is missing in Other M. I like that in the Prime series. I actually Prime a lot and want to finish all the 3 games, but I’ll take some time since it’s first person and I admit I’m not very good at them. Prefer side scrollers all the way.

    I’m getting Super Metroid so I can see what it was like (never played it, had a Mega Drive).

    Voicing Link would be a big mistake… I don’t think they’ll have the courage. I liked what they did in Twilight Princess, giving tiny clues on what the characters would sound, but not giving them a voice.

  15. nanasuyl says:

    Just wanted to say I got Metroid Zero Mission instead and I feel like I’m playing the Aliens film. Liked a lot.

    The game has some drawings of Samus and Mother Brain and Samus talks… throught text. She doesn’t seem very emotional, unlike Other M.

  16. Maverynthia says:

    @nanasuyl Misson Zero was really fun and a bit scary at times. It’s games like that one that represent Metroid to me. Not… this :/

  17. Ikkin says:

    “As for analogies, I honestly, literally cannot even imagine something similar being done to say Gordon Freeman or the Doomguy. The culture I live in doesn’t even have the semiotics to deal with this kind of subjugation being done to man – this sort of deprotagonizing and emasculating cutscene would just come off as absurd and comical, if not downright backfiring by coming off as ironic.”

    Well, I think that Japanese storytellers are much more likely to allow their characters to be shown at their most vulnerable regardless of gender, so Gordon Freeman and the Doomguy might not be the best points of comparison. A male Samus with PTSD, depending on the framing, while still deprotagonizing and emasculating, wouldn’t necessarily come off as absurd when held up against, say, Cloud Strife’s trauma-fueled catatonia.

    On the other hand, it almost seems like a male Samus would automatically be immune to most of the elements that make the current scene offensive instead of merely bad. Having him move the same way as Samus currently does would never even be considered, because her movements are weak in a specifically feminine way, and his vocalizations of shock would be more forceful and not just feminine gasps because he’s a man. Even if the suit malfunction was left the same, the implication would be completely different, because his body wouldn’t be on display in the same way that hers is in the Zero Suit.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is, I don’t think there’s anything necessarily wrong with traumatizing a hero to the point of incapacitation. That scene’s problem isn’t that Samus is allowed to be weak – it’s that her weakness is both feminine and sexualized, and she’s not really given a chance to recover from that.

  18. I didn’t find the game intentionally sexist, but the choice to give a female character PTSD and have parental issues rather than a high profile male character is almost certainly so. Given that she’s working with the military, submission to rank and hierarchy is kind of the name of the game so I didn’t have as strong of a reaction on that point as many others.

    The other side here is that I’d really like my characters to have flaws (and flaws that matter in game), and we really need more, better character studies in games if we want them to be more engaging in the future. I just have this feeling that the games industry is about 13 years old right now, and so we’re getting painfully obvious critiques of philosophy (Bioshock) and not very deep character studies (Other M). I really, really want the industry to grow up faster, but I don’t know how that happens. All we can do right now is keep pointing out that the industry is still painfully immature.

    Anyway, other than the clumsy plot and shallow character study, I loved this game. It felt great, and it felt like they really made 2.5d work. It would be a shame to see this gameplay disappear because the directing was bad and the emotional consequences of their mechanics weren’t thought through. (I don’t think nintendo, of all people, would hire bad actors so I’m blaming the director.)

    I wrote a lot more about the game at http://zerodagger.blogspot.com/2010/09/other-mechanics-and-moving-games.html

  19. Apolo Imagod says:

    This is so far the best discussion of this game I’ve found. Great writing and exposition of the issues with this game. As I’ve read about this game, and the problem with its narrative, I can’t help but wonder… How can things like these be avoided? It is obvious to me that the problems we see in this game are the direct result of almost exclusive male involvement in the production of this game…

    The game industry is still mostly male-dominated, meaning that most of the people in important positions (like game designers) are men. But, does this have to be a problem? Aside from the problem of proportional representation of females (if it is caused by discrimination), is sexism really so imbued culturally in this sphere, that it is basically impossible for them to portray a female character without having to make use of stereotypes?

    I’m a father of two girls, and these things deeply worry me. So, I just wonder…

  20. Doug S. says:

    @Ikkin: I’m reminded of Raiden in Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, actually. At one point, he even has to go through the humiliation of losing his clothing and ends up literally running around the battlefield nude, with his hands covering his crotch. And it’s not just a cutscene; it’s a gameplay sequence, during which you’re not only unarmed, but completely defenseless, because having to cover his crotch makes Raiden incapable of fighting hand-to-hand.

    Raiden was not a popular character.

  21. nanasuyl says:

    I agree with The_Hanged_Man that the weak story shouldn’t overshadow the amazing gameplay. I had a lot of fun with this game (except when Samus was crying…) and am hoping for another game with the same mechanics (minus crying Samus).

    I guess the best we can do is discuss this matter and, hopefully, the developers will take notice. I hated that Samus was receiving and obeying orders. Isn’t she a lonely bounty hunter? She should only obey herself.

    I also didn’t like that her life was saved by other (male) characters three times in one game! Where were these guys in the other games to save Samus’ life? That’s right, they weren’t there, she could managed herself fine.

    Hey, developers, are you taking notes? I know you’re trying to make Samus more human, but ignoring her past is not the way to do that. Ah, and put some girls in the development team for the next game (thanks for pointing out, Apolo_Imagod)

  22. Ikkin says:

    @Apolo Imagod (“…is sexism really so imbued culturally in this sphere, that it is basically impossible for them to portray a female character without having to make use of stereotypes?”):

    I suspect that part of the problem could be that videogame writers have trouble with writing complex characters in general. Creating a character who’s recognizably female (ie. not a palette-swapped man) without having that define her takes a good deal of thought in conception and subtlety in execution. Using stereotypes to show that she’s feminine is, unfortunately, a whole lot easier. =/

    @Doug S.:

    I was actually going to mention Raiden myself, but I figured my comment was getting long enough as it was.

    Raiden’s a fairly interesting case, because he’s basically an attempt on Kojima’s part to troll his own fans. That scene in particular seems designed to be as humiliating as possible, using that male fear of vulnerability to make the player himself uncomfortable.

    But I don’t think that necessarily proves that audiences can’t accept a vulnerable male character, just that that’s not the right way to go about it if you want to make a vulnerable character who retains the audience’s sympathy.

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