You OK, Princess? Rape Imagery in Metroid: Other M

Anna Anthropy is a white transwoman, game designer, critic and sadist, a classic dyke in the “Elizabeth Bathory” mode. Did you know her first book is coming out in March? Now you do, and you’re so excited for it!

A friend loaned me his copy of Metroid: Other M, which has been out for a year now, so that I could play it without having to buy it. I was, of course, expecting the game to be sexist and stupid. I’m unfortunately accustomed to most mainstream games being casually sexist and designed by men who have unhealthy, unrealistic ideas about how human relationships work. I played the game Sunday night while my partner / consensual slave and our friend watched, with a few more people spectating on the internet via webcam. I was totally prepared for the game to be sexist and misguided. I was not prepared for a scene in which the protagonist was held down and raped by a dinosaur.

If the discussion of rape imagery in games is triggering for you, you might not want to read further. I won’t be including any images or video of the scene in question, but I will provide links to videos of the scenes I discuss.

Even before the game begins, Metroid: Other M has placed a huge emphasis on its protagonist’s femininity. “Other M” is an anagram for “Mother,” the game’s title acronyms as “MOM,” the word “Mother” is said not a minute into the game. Samus Aran, the battle-hardened mercenary protagonist of the Metroid series, typically depicted in her genderless robot “power suit,” appears at the outset of Other M in a skin-tight catsuit with high heels. She then flies to a spaceship called the “Bottle Ship” on a mission dubbed “Operation: Crying Baby.” On the Bottle Ship, she meets some Men.

The Men are some sort of soldiers in Halo-style combat armor. One of them, Adam Malkovich, is revealed to be Samus’s former instructor and commanding officer. Samus Aran, battle-hardened independent mercenary, immediately begins attempting to prove herself to a domineering, callous Adam – whom she describes in a flashback as a “father figure” – taking his orders even at the expense of her own safety. For example, if you try to press the “bomb” button before Adam’s given Samus permission, the message “Adam has not yet authorized the use of bombs” appears on screen. There is a scene later in the game where Adam knowingly lets Samus suffer in the heat of a fiery lava hell for minutes before authorizing the use of her heat-resistant Varia suit.

Snapshot from our webcam broadcast of Other M. The television is obscured by a piece of paper on which a penis has been drawn. It is labelled "Adam's cock."

Typical play screen of Metroid: Other M.

 

Adam’s abusive manipulation of Samus reaches a climax late in the game when, apparently, he shoots her in the back, to keep her from entering a dangerous room and, seemingly, because he enjoys humiliating her. I didn’t get to see this scene for myself, as I didn’t play that far. This link provides a good summary of Samus and Adam’s unhealthy relationship and how it’s portrayed in the game. I didn’t get to that point because I quit shortly after the dinosaur rape scene.

Here’s a summary: Samus, looking out the window of some sort of control tower, sees her compatriots, the Halo bros, fighting a huge monster lizard. She rushes out to aid them. The lizard, spying a female, jumps on top of her, pinning her to the ground with its huge mass. The game then switches to a first-person perspective, in which the player is asked to shoot at the lizard’s tail as it penetrates her over and over. I actually “died” during this scene, and had to start over. Eventually one of her male teammates shoots the creature off of her. He then asks, with a smirk, “You OK, Princess?”

To Samus’ credit, she immediately punches him.

Of course, since the object that the creature uses to assault Samus is a prehensile tail which jabs at her face – there’s nothing a medical textbook would describe as “sexual” depicted her – people will ask why I identify this as “rape” imagery instead of simple violence. Rape, of course, isn’t about sex but about power. And there are a number of reasons why this scene, especially in the context of the larger game, screams “rape” at me.

There’s the way the creature, who is much larger and heavier, pins her down with its weight. There’s the helplessness. The player – seeing through Samus’ eyes from a first-person perspective – is unable to actually attack the creature itself, but can only try and fend off the appendage with which it tries repeatedly to penetrate her. She’s helpless to stop her assault until a man rescues her. Then there’s the creature’s leering face, a thick drooling tongue hanging from its grinning mouth, which dominates Samus’ view and hence the player’s television. And this scene is backgrounded against the overemphasis on Samus’ femininity that pervades the game, and the unhealthy relationship with her “father figure” who repeatedly infantilizes and humiliates her. And of course, in the aftermath of the assault, a dude calls her “princess.”

Screenshot from Other M. A dude in Halo-style combat armor (that is, it looks kind of like a college Football uniform) has flipped up his visor to ask, "You OK, Princess?"

Are you fucking kidding.

 

I played through the scene with my two friends, neither of whom is unfortunately a stranger to sexual assault. We all agreed on what we were seeing. “This is making me really uncomfortable,” my partner said. You can see the scene for yourself here.  One can argue that we’re reading the scene in a way the developers hadn’t intended, but nevertheless we all saw it as triggering, sexualized violence, and who is “one” to tell us that what we saw wasn’t there, or to tell us what should and should not be triggering?

There’s another, similar scene later in the game where Samus cowers in terror before another (or the same?) giant lizard monsters, who beats her and picks her up, her armor disintegrating until she’s in her skin-tight catsuit again. This scene has received much greater attention, to the effect that when I tweeted my anger over a “dinosaur rape scene” in Other M, people thought I was referring to it. (It’s worth mentioning here that Metroid: Other M received a “T for Teen” rating from the ESRB.) But I think the earlier scene, the one the player is forced to play instead of merely watch, is far more troubling, especially in light of just how little it’s been discussed.

People have assured me, in defense of the games press, that most media outlets gave very little praise to Other M. (Although IGN gave it an Editor’s Choice Award.) But neither do they seem to have devoted many words to the fact that it’s a very fucked up game, one that not only depicts a romanticized abusive relationship, but also a triggering sexual assault scene. It’s disturbing and hopefully alarming that games culture can have such a unilaterally male eye that neither game designers nor games journalists even blinked at what, to us, seemed so clearly an image of rape.

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21 Responses to You OK, Princess? Rape Imagery in Metroid: Other M

  1. Sean McNair (@S_McNair) says:

    Have you played any of the previous versions of Metroid? If so, what is your thought on those?

  2. I’m the last person to defend Other M–I’ve spent at least double the amount of text here trashing it on my own site–but I find your analysis kind of facile. One of the major inspirations of the Metroid series is the Alien series of films. H R Giger’s xenomorph is, to most peoples’ analysis, a biomechanical construct that’s the very incarnation of the threat of rape–the creature is terrifying precisely because it’s a metaphor for sexual violence. And yet the series, for various reasons (prime among them is the fact that the movies’ heroine draws on her own intelligence and resources to combat the threat), is generally not considered to be an anti-feminist work.

    Other M does not, of course, handle its imagery nearly as deftly, but I think your discussion of these elements comes off as facile at best, especially without examining the larger context. My problems with the game stem from the treatment of Samus’s character in the game with regard to her reactions to events. We are not, as we are with most games (including other games in the Metroid series, some of which even stay in first person for the entire game, thereby creating a very strong intimacy with the character), asked to identify with the protagonist–playing Other M one gets the sense that one is intended to *guide* Samus rather than *become* her. If we accept the thesis that the enemies in the game represent the threat of rape–and I’m not sure that this theme is widespread enough to make a blanket statement of that–we are not witnessing a character drawing on her extensive training, talent, and weaponry to overcome that threat, we are witnessing a character that we, the gamer, need to protect and nurture.

    I also found it interesting that normally The Border House makes a point of captioning its photos with a description of what the image depicts, as a courtesy to those who are unable to see the images. Being sighted myself, it doesn’t bother me that you’ve chosen to override the policy in favor of jokes, but they could have at least been funny.

    Also, the mission is called “Operation: Baby’s Cry”, not “Operation Crying Baby”.

    • [I've just noticed that the descriptive captions are used as the alt-text for the images. While that's different from the normal style, which is to place description as the regular caption for the image, I would like to amend my original assertion that the images went undescribed. The jokes still aren't funny, though.]

    • Sas says:

      In Alien, the sexual metaphor was right there from the beginning and is part of what makes that movie sci-fi horror. Metroid may have drawn inspiration in having gross aliens and a strong female protagonist (well, used to), but it never had sexual or rape imagery the way Alien did. Metroid has always been sci-fi action, where the heroine is meant to be a badass, and so making her suddenly be under a man’s command and suffer simulated rapes is antithetical to the way the series has gone so far, and has some really disgusting implications.

      You only have to look at the creatures to see how different the series are. In Alien, the monsters are big rampaging penises who reproduce by raping other species, thereby making them solid horror monsters (and it’s given appropriate gravity; the characters are always more afraid of being impregnated than simply killed). In Metroid, the iconic villains are a giant alien brain, a genital-less dinosaur, and the titular creatures are flying, disembodied, vampiric mouths. The symbology is totally different and the fact that the creators list Alien as an influence doesn’t mean that a sudden introduction of sexual and rape imagery is appropriate.

  3. Maverynthia says:

    Looking at the scene myself, I can see that in the attack the monster also bites at Samus’ head. You can probably see that as a forced kiss. I’m not sure if the monster does it more than that as the player seems to be skilled enough in that video to keep shooting the tail.

    I also want to point out that she doesn’t really “punch” the guy. She more or less give him a “bro punch”, that kind of punch of “haven’t seen you in a while!” Stuff. A punch without force. :| Which bothers me as I kinda see that as her thinking his comment was “OK” rather than a punch to the face with him on the ground.

    Other: M has done a good job of eviscerating a character and killing the series for me.

    • Retro Legion says:

      Yeah, that punch was of the “oh, shucks, you big jerk! *tee hee*” variety.

      I hate to bash games that I haven’t played yet, but scenes and synopses that I’ve seen have bothered me so much that I don’t think I WANT to play it.

      • Maverynthia says:

        Most of the games today you really don’t NEED to play and they are more or less movies with interactive bits in them. As long as you see all the bits, you’ve gotten the whole story.

        Even some games people have flamed me about “You can’t say anything until you play it!” Have turned out WORSE after I’ve played it and found all sorts of little things that add to the horrible of the game.

  4. muteKi says:

    Other M is a game that is just so much wasted potential as a narrative vehicle.

    In a gaming market where the top-selling games are of the FPS variety, generally reveling in a “boys’ club” mentality and offensive exploitative setpieces (OH HI THERE CALL OF DUTY), Other M, being placed in a series whose more recent entries have been based on FPS conventions, should have been about breaking that sort of mentality that pervades the gaming community. (Right now I’m watching a livestream that was interrupted by a Battlefield 3 commercial using “99 Problems” as music. Yeah. That’s the sort of thing I’m getting at.)

    By all accounts, women in gaming communities are regularly made to feel shame and harrassment by strangers, especially when playing games online; discussing games in forums doesn’t seem to be as bad from what little I can tell, but I will make no claims to this not happening. Certainly sites like IGN and Kotaku serve as convincing counterarguments.

    I feel like Other M is trying at times to do this. The flashback scenes place Samus as the only woman in her platoon, and inititally having a strained relationship with her crewmates, her resentment at their special treatment of her (as though she couldn’t hold her own) despite her feeling otherwise, have lots of potential. However I can see this ending in no other way than her managing to prove herself in combat, gaining the respect of her peers, and being placed as equals with them. This would eventually end in an honorable discharge of some sort. This is how this ought to have been done.

    But then, no, running into her old crewmates again is just creepy and maddening. She wants to be ordered around by Adam despite having no reason to do so; her obedience to his commnds takes precedence over her own life, the game allows us to discover (there were several game overs in the stream). Even if such a parting might have occurred, this shows it to be a fully hollow and meaningless series of events, as clearly they have no respect for her autonomy, and Samus…is ok with this. Perhaps it’s because I like games with less rigid sequences, but I would have been perfectly happy to let Samus use weapons as necessary depending on her situation and proximity to the other soldiers or (in theory, as none were seen during gameplay) civilians.

    The scene discussed in the article, I dare say, had potential as well. A disturbing situation in which Samus had near powerlessness could have been made into a commentary on the sorts of issues women face when trying to be part of the gaming community at large (I called the scene “Samus meets a Metroid fanboy on the internet” on Twitter a few times). A sort of distressing call to action, a source to use for intuition when people wonder why women don’t “do gaming” as much (much as one could point to Bayonetta being sexually intimidating and say, “THIS IS A LOT LIKE WHAT WE HAVE TO PUT UP WITH ALL THE TIME”). Unfortunately, all the impact this scene could have is lost since the player is too busy trying to follow the tail with the wiimote to actually understand what makes the game creepy; thus it is only distressing to people who are already aware of how awful such situations are.
    There are still lots of reasons I’d be frustrated with the scene regardless – the dudes are just standing around and not doing anything (which could also be made into a point about stopping sexual violence) as it tries to attack Samus, there likely wouldn’t be a scene like this if we were dealing with a male main character, the situation still wouldn’t quite fit in with Samus’s characterization thus far (including within this game, given the previous battles), and the sort of point I’d want the scene to convey might need to be stated more directly by the game anyway.

    And of course to make these points you’d also have to drop all the pervasive elements of female essentialism (I find the idea that WOMEN ARE NATURAL CAREGIVERS AND NURTURERS meme idiotic and harmful as it glosses over both male caregivers and abusive mothers), and the SAMUS IS EMOTIONAL BECAUSE SHE’S A GIRL schtick, which doesn’t match her characterization (though it may have been true as a trainee; perhaps her emotional range was larger before she became a soldier) and has the unfortunate implications mentioned in the linked article (i.e., the Ridley bit later in the game).

    So it’s extremely frustrating to see these setpieces like this that, I feel, have potential for impactful and meaningful storytelling ruined by bad mechanics — and all the rest of the story.

    • Maverynthia says:

      From what I recall, Samus was raised by Chozo and they gave her the suit so her emotions were probably established by then. You also have the other Metroids that come before this one and yeah.. it looks like a trainwreck when it’s done.

      • muteKi says:

        Ah, right, forgot that part of the backstory was established. As someone else had pointed out (madamluna, in fact) “A Metroid with this much dialogue would be much better if Samus just made bird noises the whole time.”

    • Ikkin says:

      Unfortunately, all the impact this scene could have is lost since the player is too busy trying to follow the tail with the wiimote to actually understand what makes the game creepy; thus it is only distressing to people who are already aware of how awful such situations are.

      The scene just seems badly designed in general, to be honest. I think the point they were going for was “scary monster trying to kill you!” but the two elements with the most sexual subtext — the penetration attempts with the tail and the long tongue — actively reduce the physical threat that the monster offers.

      One problem, as you said, is that the player’s attention is all drawn to that tail. The rest of the monster is, essentially, meaningless in gameplay terms, since it won’t attack you in any other way in the first-person segment, and the tail is moving around so fast that the player doesn’t have much time to think about anything else anyway.

      On top of that, the monster attacking with its tail just doesn’t make sense. Its entire body is between its tail and Samus, so it’s a rather awkward way of attacking. Besides, its teeth are much closer to Samus than its tail is, which makes it seem like it’s actively toying with her with its failure-prone stab attempts instead of trying to turn her into a meal.

      Of course, the monster’s mouth is compromised by its long tongue. The monster’s teeth — its actual weapon — are sidelined because of the giant, attention-grabbing tongue. Tongues almost universally represent a threat of violation rather than a threat of death; they’re scary because they’re gross, and you don’t want them on you (personal space violation), around you (at which point the tongue is essentially the same as a tentacle, which has some pretty strong rape connotations), or in you (which moves things out of the realm of connotations entirely). So, basically, they made the monster seem less deadly through the addition of some really nasty subtext.

      No matter what they wanted, though, the monster is compromised. If they wanted the player to be afraid of the monster’s ability to kill Samus, it would have been much more effective to make its weak point the inside of its mouth (so you have to stare down its throat and wait to time your shots properly to throw it off instead of following its wildly-moving tail). If they wanted the presumed-male audience to consider it a rape threat… well, I don’t think they’d be capable of doing that without being exploitative, but what they have now certainly isn’t the most effective at making that impression to anyone who isn’t attuned to it (I’m not sure I would have noticed anything more problematic than Samus needing to be saved again on my own =/ ).

      There are still lots of reasons I’d be frustrated with the scene regardless – the dudes are just standing around and not doing anything (which could also be made into a point about stopping sexual violence) as it tries to attack Samus, there likely wouldn’t be a scene like this if we were dealing with a male main character, the situation still wouldn’t quite fit in with Samus’s characterization thus far (including within this game, given the previous battles), and the sort of point I’d want the scene to convey might need to be stated more directly by the game anyway.

      To be fair, the game made a point of showing that the guys were fighting other monsters when Samus was attacked — I don’t think anyone was supposed to be standing doing nothing.

      Though, yeah, the scene definitely would have been different if she were a guy; it wouldn’t seem that odd if Seamus Aran was surprise-pinned and forced to fight back like that, but he would have shot the monster off himself instead of waiting to be saved (which would have made much more sense for Samus herself, too, of course). There’d probably be less cutscene-induced helplessness and third-person expression of fear, too. =/

  5. 0thello says:

    What, I call my white female friend whom I grew up with princess too. She knows damn well not to hit me for it though. I don’t play that shit. Anthony on the other hand got on my nerves more than Samus. For different reasons than you though. To me: he’s the embodiment of the ‘black best friend’ trope and I hate that shit personally. C’est la vie.

    • Maverynthia says:

      Wait “She knows damn well not to hit me for it” and “I don’t play that shit”? What exactly do you mean by that. It sounds abusive.

      • 0thello says:

        So I should allow her to hit me when I call her princess?

        None of my friends hit me, female or otherwise, simply because they respect me. If a friend hits me then they don’t respect me. If you don’t respect me you are not one of my friends. If you aren’t one of my friends and you hit me, I’ll beat you up.

        She and I are friends; she knows not to hit me. In turn I don’t hit her or any of my friends. I save that to defend my friends or myself. Violence isn’t something I share with my friends; it’s something I share with ‘not my friends’.

        So no it’s not abusive. It’s just the modus operandi of our friendship.

  6. Marchantia says:

    Very interesting analysis! Thank you for that. I’m glad more people pay attention to what lies beneat the story. Have you seen the video review by Abbie Heppe on G4? http://www.g4tv.com/games/wii/61992/Metroid-Other-M/review/
    She’s one of the few who pointed out the problems in the female chararization. And she got a lot of crap for that from the “fans”.

  7. Sas says:

    Ugh, I just watched the first video and after the bro-punch, the guy talks about how long it takes his big weapon to recharge, and how he’ll save the next shot for Samus. UGH. Is this Metroid, or Shadows of the Damned? :P

  8. Gospel X says:

    While I definitely do appreciate your discussion of the game’s possibly offensive imagery (and I do find it quite insightful, so I want you to know that as clearly as possible), I can’t help but say that I had difficulty reading this piece. Not because of the content but because from the beginning it’s stated that you were expecting the worst. From that point on I’m not sure if you’re nitpicking or finding actual problems with content because, well, you already told me your outlook was prejudiced and not worth much consideration. You linked a video, fortunately, but your attitude convinced me that it wasn’t worth the follow-through. I’m not going to doubt the imagery is there, mainly because imagery like that is perhaps all too common in modern media, but I just wanted to say that there’s a way to present articles as, “This is a problem in need of address,” rather than, “I made up my mind already, so I may sound like I might be raving.”

  9. JeninCanada says:

    I didn’t see it (the first dinosaur rape scene, as you call it) that way at all, but I certainly wont say that your interpretation or feelings are wrong. The only thing I want to point out is that the creature doesn’t rush over to Samus because she’s female, it’s because the creature is Ridley and it/he hates Samus. I hated Metroid: Other M’s story and dialogue and can’t be bothered to finish the game, even though I’m a BIG Metroid fan.

  10. I don’t think realistically you can blame this game on the director.

    Yoshio Sakamoto directed all Metroid games save for the original 2 up until now, and it’s not correct to say she’s a “Blank Slate”. There have always been things implied about Samus, and we outright hear her thoughts on various things in Metroid Fusion. She is a character, moreso than Link or Mario.

    It doesn’t seem reasonable for me that a character that was handled so well from a feminist perspective up until now would suddenly flip in this manner because of the director. We would have seen some hints of it up until now as we all know how subtle video game creators can be.

    I think there’s one thing Yoshio Sakamoto doesn’t want to admit here – he lost control of his character. Writer, Director, etc., these positions were only held in theory as again the game was essentially a Team Ninja title.

    He had an idea for a game exploring Samus’s relationship with Adam and fleshing her out as a character. Part of that, presumably, was to show Adam as less than godly, introducing some kind of character flaw to Samus in her respect of her. Somewhere along the way, it got turned into this misogynistic mess, probably due to lack of communication.

    There’s a good Extra Credits that seems to agree with my general position on it, I recommend everyone take a look:

    http://penny-arcade.com/patv/episode/learning-from-other-m

    It especially explains the reasoning for why I say Samus isn’t a “Blank Slate”.

    I’m actually kind of glad Other M exists since it’s been such a fascinating talking point, and has just been so blatantly instead of subtly bad that it really highlights things about video games we weren’t paying attention to before.

    • Ikkin says:

      My understanding of the situation is that Sakamoto was given far more power over the minutia of Other M than one would think. He’s demonstrated control over things not nearly as important as Samus’ overall characterization — for instance, he was the one who insisted that the localization team refer to the baby Metroid as “the baby” constantly.

      Sakamoto was the scenario writer for Other M; it’s been mentioned in interviews that the cinematic director created storyboards directly from his scenario, which suggests that Sakamoto had fairly tight control over the story’s events. The cutscene director even describes Samus’ personality directly later in the interview in front of him, saying that “Samus is a woman who is poor at coping with life’s problems,” and Sakamoto doesn’t correct him. From all appearances, he bears the brunt of the blame for Samus’ characterization — he’s said that creating a set personality for Samus was one of his main goals with Other M, Team Ninja has said outright that they had nothing to do with the game’s story, and D-Rockets worked directly from what he gave them when making cinematics.

      Other M’s characterization of Samus certainly isn’t the only reason to question how he sees Samus, though. He was responsible for the addition of Samus’ beauty mark in Other M, which appears to have been something he’d come up with all the way back in 1994 (Also mentioned in that article: Samus’ measurements, a scrapped plan to have a single frame with Samus naked when she died, and a rather insensitive joke about Samus being a “shemale”). He’s also mentioned that he sees Samus as a daughter, which is problematic in light of her father-daughter relationship with Adam (and all that other stuff from the Super Metroid interview).

      Overall, it seems like the generally-good treatment Samus has received throughout the years was, unfortunately, more an accident of technological limitations rather than a real choice made by the games’ developers. =/

  11. proletariat says:

    I like how you linked to a video with the description “NIGGA DIES”

    When talking about potential developer oversight leading to insensitivity, one should avoid doing the same thing themselves.

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