Metroid: Other M - The Elephant in the Room
This essay started life as a review of Metroid: Other M, on its release day. Since that time, it’s been tempered by extensive discussion and perhaps also become more editorial in nature. Despite the use of the first-person singular, this represents both my thought and that of fellow fan Tuvia Dulin; having independently reached similar conclusions, we took turns writing it together. Also, many thanks to Xscapist for her thoughtful feedback. The essay does contain some necessary spoilers.
by Tuvia Dulin and MenTaLguY
August 31st marked the release of Metroid: Other M, the latest installment of Nintendo’s Metroid franchise, and the most aggressively marketed game in the series. Produced, directed, and written by franchise patriarch Yoshio Sakamoto, with game design by Team Ninja, it represents a significant change of direction for the series. Plenty of reviewers have already dissected its gameplay, with mixed but mostly favorable impressions.
But this is not a gameplay review.
I’m here to address the game’s writing — not so much where it failed artistically (though there are some legitimate complaints to be made on that front), but unfortunately where it succeeds. When it comes to the game’s story, there is an elephant in the room which very few reviewers have addressed head-on.
To put it bluntly, Metroid: Other M is a story that consistently portrays an abusive relationship between two of its main characters, and romanticizes it, painting the depicted behavior as justifiable, even laudable. No single moment in the game bears the blame for this (though a couple are problematic on their own); the entire story, taken as a whole, is the problem.
A few individual parts of the game’s story have already been causing a lot of controversy among fans. These include a military officer insisting on explicitly authorizing all of of Samus’ equipment use, the subsequent “hell run” sequence where she follows orders not to use her Varia Suit in a superheated area, and her protracted meltdown during a confrontation with her old enemy Ridley.
Each of these do pose narrative problems in their own right, but few of the game’s critics have treated the story as an organic whole. The implications of Other M’s story are much worse than what is implied by the sum of its parts. Most of these parts aren’t even that bad when considered individually, and only start to look especially bad when considered in light of the relationship between Samus and Adam — the elephant few people seem to want to address directly. I have to wonder whether the controversy over some of these individual aspects is serving as a substitute for talking openly about the real problem.
For the sake of providing context for my argument, however, I’ll start by going over some of the complaints which have already been frequently raised.
The game’s “authorization” mechanic has ended up becoming one of the more controversial aspects of the game. Unlike most Metroid games, where Samus wanders around the game world searching for weapons upgrades to give her suit new abilities, Other M has the bounty hunter starting with all her equipment, but waiting for a military officer to explicitly authorize its use.
Let me say this up front: there’s nothing wrong with Samus taking orders in this situation, per se. On the other hand, when she finds herself in immediately life-threatening situations, it’s bizare that she would wait for new orders rather than taking initiative to protect herself. An acquaintance of mine who is on active duty in the military was particularly vehement about this — soldiers in the field do have a certain amount of autonomy, and during the course of the game Samus isn’t even formally under Adam’s command.
Even so, the game does try to offer something like a reasonable explanation for it: in an early cutscene, General Adam Malkovich explains that the area is full of sensitive equipment and (potentially) civilian survivors. Adam, monitoring events in realtime from his position in the control room, and having prior knowledge of the facility, is also in a better position to know when dangerous weapons might be safe to use without risking civilian lives. For this reason, it makes sense for Samus to wait for Adam to authorize the use of weapons like missiles and bombs, even if it feels a bit arbitrary from a gameplay perspective.
In itself, there isn’t anything strange or untoward about this justification. It makes sense, although at times Adam seems to make things unnecessarily hard. What the story doesn’t offer is a mission justification for Adam’s refusal to authorize non-weapon equipment like the Space Jump, the Grapple Beam, or the Varia Suit, particularly in situations where they are urgently needed for Samus’ safety (and at times to protect other characters as well).
There are really two things at work here: the gameplay mechanic, where Samus’ equipment is activated once she reaches particular waypoints, and the narrative that Sakamoto created around it. I find myself wishing that Other M’s story had accounted for this gameplay mechanic in a different way, or not at all. (Many other mechanics, like health expansion pickups, are simply left unexplained.) As it is, we’re left with a story about the gameplay mechanic which at times reflects poorly on both characters.
The “Hell Run”
This issue comes to a head in the all but universally-reviled “hell run” sequence, during which Samus is ordered into a high-temperature area without authorization to use her Varia Suit’s thermal protection. Samus is left to struggle through intense heat for a dangerously long time, losing health the whole way, until Adam finally radios in to inform her that now, suddenly, the Varia Suit is authorized. This is a point where the story and the game mechanics crash into each other head on. Why would Adam wait this long before authorizing the Varia Suit? Why would Samus obey a suicidal order and needlessly march into an inferno without thermal protection? The obvious answer (that the game’s designers wished to include a grueling, health-sucking gameplay sequence) doesn’t account for the narrative choices which were made surrounding it.
There are multiple ways Sakamoto could have worked in such a gameplay sequence without doing this. Just off the top of my head, I can imagine the game’s villain sneaking into the heated sector’s control room and turning up the heat beyond the Varia Suit’s capacity, requiring Samus to race to the controls to turn it back down. Or perhaps the emanations of a powerful monster could interfere with Samus’ shielding, requiring her to kill or distract it to allow the Varia Suit to function (this one would work especially well, since the “hell run” ends with a battle against a giant lava creature). If you got to rewrite even just the scene’s dialogue from scratch, you could probably think of more yourself.
Considering the multitude of easy, sensible options for justifying a “hell run” (some of which would require only dialogue changes), why would Sakamoto have Adam simply neglect to authorize the suit? I think the most charitable explanation is that Sakamoto wrote the dialogue without thinking about its implications for the characters — simple bad writing, in other words. The alternative would be that Samus and Adam are acting consistently with the way he imagines the characters, which would be unfortunate given that the least damning fan-explanation for Adam’s delay that I’ve seen offered so far is that he fell asleep on duty.
(Source: ~DejitaruDavis, used with permission)
The Ridley Freakout
Another major complaint many have had has to do with what has probably been the most controversial scene in the game (though I’m not sure it should have been). Samus, upon confronting her old archenemy Ridley, suffers a crippling nervous breakdown, apparently costing a comrade his life before she finally recovers the will to fight — and then loses the nerve to finish Ridley off.
There are several reasons why this scene is problematic. One is that the game fails to explain Samus’ apparently crippling fear of Ridley. Some very hardcore Metroid fans (like me) knew beforehand that Samus is supposed to have been severely traumatized as a little girl when she witnessed Ridley killing — and possibly devouring — her parents. However, the only place this bit of background is actually related is in an obscure 2004 manga, which was never widely published or officially translated. Other M itself provides no context or explanation for Samus’ episode, which naturally leaves the vast majority of players wondering just what the hell is going on in this scene. We aren’t really given the opportunity to understand or empathize with Samus when she shuts down.
(Samus stumbles backwards, cowed. Then she turns into a whimpering little girl and gets mauled by Ridley until a big strong man steps in to save her — which is not hyperbole, but a literal description of what happens onscreen.)
Another difficulty with the scene is that, even if we go into it knowing that Samus is supposed to have been emotionally scarred by Ridley as a child, by this point in her life she’s already killed the beast several times (at least twice, in the original Metroid and in Super Metroid; twice more if you include the ambiguously-canonical Metroid Prime trilogy). Even the manga has her overcoming her childhood trauma by this point in her life.
(Samus belting out a primal scream over Ridley’s smoking ashes after she missiles him to death, taken from a scan by CCHHunter. I didn’t like the manga, but I have to admit that this was more satisfying than what we got in Other M.)
The best fan-justification I’ve seen offered for Samus’ breakdown in Other M is that it was really prompted by Ridley’s totally unexpected return from the dead. Unfortunately, that explanation still doesn’t make a lot of sense. As far as we know, Samus never expected him to come back to life after the original Metroid, but she had no trouble battling him when he appeared again in Super. (Indeed, if Prime was meant to be part of this continuity, Samus has no reason to be surprised by Ridley’s apparent immortality at all.) On top of that, her encounter with Ridley in Other M takes place fairly late in the game, when Samus has already learned that most of her previous enemies have been cloned back from extinction aboard this space station; she has no reason to suppose that Ridley couldn’t have been among them.
Then there’s the issue that the scene actually undermines Samus as a sympathetic character. It wouldn’t really matter who the game’s protagonist was, whether we were talking about a Samus Aran with an established history, or a Jane Doe (or a John Doe, if you like) who we’d never met before. We watch the supposed protagonist cave under pressure and literally devolve into a sniffling child onscreen while Adam shouts in her ear to use her weapons (he isn’t stingy with authorizations in this case). We see the most likeable character in the game step forward to defend her, only to get flung to a presumably grisly offscreen death while Samus struggles to get it together. Even after Samus snaps out of it and confronts the beast, she ultimately walks away from the stunned Ridley without delivering the necessary coup de grace, allowing him to get back up and escape.
All these failures come without context or explanation. The overall effect of the scene and the way it’s presented isn’t so much to get the player to sympathize with the protagonist in her vulnerability as it is to belittle her. I hesitate to think that this was what Sakamoto intended, but the scene really does make Samus look bad.
(The voice actress’ delivery doesn’t help either.)
Now, if I were to consider this scene individually, divorced from the rest of the game, I would conclude that Sakamoto probably just wanted to acknowledge Samus’ childhood trauma as part of fleshing out her character. But, as with the “hell run”, his way of doing so makes very little sense by itself, and in this case even risks the player losing a lot of respect for both Samus and the story. If this scene had been set much earlier in the Metroid timeline (before Ridley’s repeated resurrections), with an in-game explanation of Samus’ childhood trauma, this scene could have worked. As it stands, however, it’s not only bad storytelling, but it makes it seem unlikely that this inept, fragile character could have possibly done the things she’s supposed to have done in the past (or even does during the gameplay portions).
If it weren’t for everything else, I would be left to wonder why Sakamoto chose such a poor implementation of a potentially good idea, when a better way would have been so easy. Did nobody, at any stage of the production, notice this and point it out to him? In context, however, there’s a pretty straightforward justification for Samus’ passive behavior.
The Elephant in the Room: Samus and Adam
The central problem of Other M’s story, the “elephant in the room” that colors all the scenes we’ve already discussed, and unfortunately ties them all together in a way that makes too much sense, is the relationship between Samus Aran and Adam Malkovich.
For fans of the earlier Metroid titles, “Adam Malkovich” shouldn’t be an unfamiliar name. In the 2001 release Metroid Fusion, Samus tells the player that she once served under a military officer named Adam Malkovich, and that she admired him greatly. Throughout that game, it is implied that Adam was more than just a commanding officer to Samus, and that she saw him as a mentor and confidant. At the end of Fusion, we are told that Adam sacrificed himself to save Samus’ life, establishing him as even more important to Samus’ backstory. Adam himself receives little direct characterization; nearly everything the player knows about him is learned from Samus’ descriptions. The end of Metroid Fusion, which has Samus reunited with the dead Adam’s computerized intelligence, was one of the most happy and uplifting scenes in the entire Metroid series. When Adam’s presence in Other M was revealed at the game’s unveiling in 2009, featuring Adam’s signature line, “Any objections, lady?”, fans were eager to see who this mysterious military man was for themselves.
In Metroid: Other M, as in Metroid Fusion, Samus tells the player that she looks up to Adam for support and advice. Other M goes even further in having Samus admit that, as an orphan, she even saw Adam as a surrogate father figure. Quite a lot of Samus’ narration in this game is devoted to Adam; it might not be inaccurate to say that she talks more about him than anything else. She describes him as her “father figure”, her “best friend”, her “closest confidant”. But the kind of relationship Samus describes — both here and in Fusion — is very, very different from what we get to see for ourselves in Other M, even in the flashbacks she herself relates.
From the first flashback of Samus serving under Adam in the military to the end of the game, we are never shown Adam acting in this benevolent role that Samus has been so eager to tell us about. On the contrary, his behavior toward Samus ranges from indifferent to, on occasion, outright cruel. Some of this is accounted for by the falling-out they had prior her career as a bounty hunter (more on this shortly), but even during the flashback sequences that depict Samus and Adam during their alleged “good times”, this characterization remains unchanged.
In a lengthy cutscene early in the game, Samus tells the player that she used to be a soldier under Adam’s command, at which time she came to see him as the father she never had. Why does she see him this way? Apparently, because he called her “Lady” during mission briefings…which Samus even admits was a backhanded compliment. As the only woman on her squad, she says she’s fed up with sarcastic references to her gender and stuck-up attitude — but when Adam makes them, they’re supposed to be a tender gesture? If there was ever anything better, Samus never tells us about it, and we aren’t shown it. Most of the time, he seems barely willing to give her the time of day.
This cutscene was Sakamoto’s opportunity to let his audience see why Adam is meant to be a likable character, how he earned Samus’ respect, and the nature of their intimate friendship. The fact that he not only failed to do this, but only ever showed Adam treating her with what appears to be cool condescension, left me wondering whether Samus was meant to be an unreliable narrator. The game offers little to suggest that her supposed close friendship with Adam isn’t all in her head — in terms of what Samus (or Sakamoto) actually has to show us, Adam really doesn’t seem to be anything special, either in Samus’ life or even as a character.
From that point in the game onward, Samus spent much of her narration talking about Adam, Adam’s opinions, Adam’s expectations of her, Adam’s convictions, and so on, often to the exclusion of her own. Also, as her praise of Adam increasingly contradicted the events she recounted onscreen, it really reinforced the impression that Samus was obsessed with Adam and was idealizing him in an unhealthy way. It got worse when Adam un-officially re-recruited Samus, who reflected:
(Yes, this is exactly how the dialogue goes.)
Finding herself under Adam’s command and forbidden to use her signature weapons makes Samus Aran feel “confused and strangely exhilarated.” Samus’ fixation on Adam, as portrayed, seems less and less healthy.
Adam, for his part, doesn’t seem especially thrilled to see Samus again. As I mentioned before, an “incident” that led up to the end of Samus’ military career has apparently driven a wedge between them; Samus seems intent on earning Adam’s forgiveness for it. In the meantime, Adam makes a point of being hard on her.
So, what was this rebellious incident that Samus needs to atone for? Turns out it was leaving Adam’s command.
Towards the end of Samus’ military career, her unit (under Adam’s watch) was performing a rescue mission while another soldier, Ian (coincidentally Adam’s younger brother), was working on repairing a faulty drive unit that abruptly went critical. Samus begged Adam for permission to retrieve him before the engine core exploded, but Adam judged that there wasn’t enough time. He forbade Samus from making a rescue attempt, instead ordering the drive section to be immediately detached from the ship with Ian still on board. Ian was killed in the explosion, but hundreds of lives were saved.
Although she protested, Samus did obey Adam’s difficult order. However, not wanting to go through this again, she ultimately resigned from the military to find independent work as a bounty hunter. And… that’s it.
The implications of this? To put it simply, Adam is apparently angry at Samus because she left his command, and Samus herself sees this as a personal slight that she needs to make up for. In effect, what Samus expresses regret for here is the independence that, in previous titles (and the Prime games in particular), seemed such an important part of her character. It doesn’t seem like an especially healthy regret.
The unhealthiness of the depicted relationship becomes more dramatic as the game progresses. One thing which quickly becomes evident is that Samus seldom offers her own opinion on a subject. A particularly plain example of this is when Samus finds evidence that the Galactic Federation has been conducting illegal bioweapons research and immediately condemns it with the words “Life, whatever form it takes in this often cruel universe, should not be tampered with,” but suddenly concludes, “That was always Adam’s belief.” We never get to find out what Samus’ opinion on the matter is, though presumably she agrees with him.
Also, despite her desperation to rescue Ian, we’re never actually shown that Samus has any sort of personal attachment to him; at one point we even get a glimpse of a photograph of her and Ian together in which she’s uncomfortably shrugging off his attempted hug with a look of disgust on her face. The sole justification she offers when she desperately begs for permission to risk her life in a suicide mission to save him? That he’s Adam’s brother. She wasn’t determined to save him (and crushed when she couldn’t) because of her own attachment to Ian, but because she was worried for Adam’s sake.
Throughout the game, Samus, in expressing herself and in her self-image and relationships, constantly defines herself in reference to Adam; she often doesn’t seem capable of taking ownership of her own beliefs and emotions.
All this culminates in what is by rights the single most shocking scene in any game produced by Nintendo; the scene where Adam shoots Samus in the back.
Crossing the Moral Event Horizon
In this scene, Samus is walking down a corridor that leads to a dangerous part of the space station, potentially inhabited by powerful enemies that she may be unprepared for. Adam, who knows of the danger but had lost radio contact with her, leaves his post and runs after Samus to intercept her. But instead of shouting at her to stop, he… shoots her. In the back. Without provocation. With an actual, potentially lethal, weapon. Her armor fails, and she collapses to the ground gasping in pain. Adam stands by, watching, until she passes out.
If this weren’t bad enough on its own, there’s also the fact that there was a live enemy in the room only a few feet away from her when he did it. Setting aside the issue that he had no way of knowing in advance that the shot wouldn’t kill her if it breached her armor, his decision to shoot Samus first, leaving her vulnerable and defenseless until he took care of the enemy himself (rather than letting her shoot it), represents a casual threat to her life as well as to her dignity.
(By this point, she’s been lying there afraid and in physical agony, with a metroid hovering over her, for almost fifteen seconds.)
Needless to say, some people have remarked on the illogic of her armor failing in this situation, but once again a straightforward justification is available if we recall the relationship between them that’s been depicted so far. Earlier in the game, it is suggested that the suit relies on Samus’ willpower for its integrity, and Sakamoto has even said as much in interviews in the past. Given this, being casually shot by the person she worships to a such an extent could easily cripple her defenses. It’s certainly apparent from subsequent dialogue that Samus realized it was him at the time — her first question to Adam when she eventually recovers consciousness, still gasping in pain, is why he shot her, not who shot her.
(A reasonable question.)
He never really gives her a straight answer. Instead, she’s treated to a monologue about the dangers of the next few rooms. Adam then explains that someone will have to sacrifice themselves to destroy this nearby threat, and that Samus’ combat ability makes her too valuable to sacrifice. So he will do it himself. Adam walks away into the dangerous sector as sad and heroic music starts playing, and Samus, still gasping in agony, stumbles to her feet after him, begging for him to come back. Adam doesn’t feel like letting Samus get in the way of his heroic sacrifice, so he locks the door in her face and marches off to his honorable death, leaving Samus in tears. If he had been developed differently, and his sacrifice set up differently, this could have been a crowning moment of awesome.
Unfortunately the moment is considerably undermined by the fact that he’s saying this just after he’s blithely endangered Samus’ life, and caused her considerable pain and humiliation, idly standing over her while she writhes and gasps like a fish. The scene continues without apology, and even Adam’s flattering “savior of the galaxy” line never actually goes beyond praising her utility to him as a weapon. She can defeat Ridley, he can’t. (Though the game doesn’t actually let her redeem the chance she blew earlier.) This could represent a moment of genuine concern for her welfare, but (in part because of the way he’s just treated her) it comes across as manipulation to achieve a military objective. Towards the end of the scene, he does finally add “I’m sorry for getting a little rough with you,” a very belated non-apology that minimizes what he just did. The omissions are also glaring: presumably, if he hadn’t meant to hurt her, he would have said as much.
(In real life, battered women don’t posess advanced Chozo healing factors.)
The maddening thing is that he had no reason to hurt her. Samus has repeatedly proven her loyalty in hard situations. She obeyed Adam’s order not to try to rescue Ian, even though it pained her to do so. The game even flashes back to that very scene as she’s in the present begging Adam to let her go instead of him. Even now, when she is no longer officially under his command, Samus has still slavishly followed all of Adam’s instructions in the game so far, even in situations where doing so put her in unreasonable danger, like the “hell run” or the time she gets trapped in a killbox penetrable only by wave beams. The one time during the course of the game when she didn’t wait for his order was the one time when he wasn’t able to give it. Yet, after all this, Adam doesn’t trust her enough to reason with her like an adult or at least rely on her to follow his orders once again (despite her having followed one very much like it in the past, against her strong emotional reservations). He decides he has to preemptively shoot her. And afterwards, she loves him for it.
It All Makes Sense Now
Remember when I said the “hell run” sequence made no sense on its own? Look at it again in the light of everything we’ve discussed. Like most of the rest of the game’s WTF moments, it suddenly makes too much sense. If we take the characterizations we’ve been presented with seriously, it appears that Samus really is anxious enough for Adam’s approval for her to charge into a volcano without heat shields, and Adam really is cold and domineering enough to watch her do it. As established early in the game, he even had a direct audiovisual feed from her helmet the whole time.
At this point, it’s hard to escape the idea that Adam wasn’t simply withholding authorization of Samus’ non-dangerous gear because it was in the interest of the mission (certainly we’re never given any reasons why it would be). It really ends up looking like he was doing it to throw his weight around and make sure she knew her place after running away from him before. “You don’t move unless I say so; you don’t fire until I say so.” This isn’t nonsensical writing at all. Unfortunately, it’s a romanticized but pretty internally-consistent depiction of an incredibly sick relationship.
There is a moment, late in the game, where Samus seemingly gets fed up with Adam’s unreasonable orders and starts activating necessary movement equipment with the slightly snarky line, “Any objections, Adam?”
I cheered. Unfortunately, looking back on it, the moment was spoiled for me when I realized:
- Samus only says this after she’s lost radio contact with Adam and thinks he can’t hear her.
- As soon as Adam catches up with her after this, he shoots her.
With respect to the first point, it’s telling that Samus starts to regain her nerve when she thinks Adam is absent. With respect to the second, it’s hard to escape the impression that Adam (or at least the writer) thought this meant that she needed a lesson in submissiveness.
(Apparently he had objections.)
The depicted relationship also provides the straightforward justification for her breakdown in front of Ridley that I aluded to earlier. Samus has certainly faced Ridley many times before (indeed, a similar breakdown in past games, when there was no one around to save her, would have gotten her killed). What’s different this time? Back under a vengeful Adam’s thumb, with him staring through her helmet-cam and barking orders through her earpiece, Samus is effectively infantilized; in keeping with the game’s overall lack of thematic subtlety, we’re even shown it happening in visual form onscreen.
Throughout the game, Samus consistently loses her nerve whenever Adam is around, and only starts to regain it in moments when she isn’t being reminded of his presence. In keeping with this pattern, the moment when Adam is dead and gone is also the moment Samus suddenly finds herself feeling more confident than she ever has before — although she naturally attributes this to his heroic example. As she explains it, it’s not her confidence she feels inside, but rather his, which he has now granted to her by his actions, which (for anyone keeping score) also included brutalizing her and coldly shutting the door in her face when she was still distraught.
Now, if Other M acknowledged that what was going on between Adam and Samus wasn’t right, I could have at least lived with it. It’s entirely possible to write about something like this without approving it or painting it in a romantic light. It would certainly have been jarring to learn that what was previously believed to be such a strong character is really so submissive and codependent, but if the game showed any awareness of how messed up this all is, I would have been able to accept it. But until the very end of the game, the script and soundtrack go out of their way to paint Adam as a heroic figure, possibly even a romantic one. The game spends an extended eliagic scene on his death, and as mournful music plays, Samus monologues about how she will have to struggle with the loss of her beloved father figure. The very ending of the game features a post-credits sequence in which Samus sneaks back to the condemned space station — risking her life — to retrieve Adam’s helmet as a memento of him.
Chronologically later, in Metroid Fusion, Adam Malkovich will be reborn as an immortal computer companion, coming back from the grave to give the game its happy ending. Or what we thought was a happy ending. If this is the Adam who will return to her life, the ending of Fusion has (as of Other M) been transformed into a complete and total nightmare. Yoshio Sakamoto apparently sees nothing wrong with this.
Some reviewers have described this game as “sexist.” Sexist is a loaded word, and one used inappropriately far too often. But is Other M also sexist?
While I’ve avoided the question of gender so far, Sakamoto doesn’t really let us ignore it in Other M. Samus’ womanhood is emphasized so often that it becomes less an issue of reading between the lines and more an issue of getting constantly being hit over the head with it.
(Wait, are you telling me Samus is a woman?)
To begin with, in contrast to the earlier games, Samus’s sex is made pretty obvious early on — near the beginning of the game, we get to see Samus in her skin-tight Zero Suit, the camera lingering over her ample anatomy in classic “male gaze” cinematography. We are also afforded plenty more excuses to see her without her armor later on. (By itself, this partly simple fanservice, and to Sakamoto’s credit he insisted on toning down what Team Ninja wanted to do.) But even when Samus is wearing her armor, outside of cutscenes, we’re still occasionally confronted with reminders that Samus Is Not A Man, some subtle, some less so. For example, Samus can walk into women’s restrooms (complete with furnished nursing lounges), but the adjacent mens’ rooms remain permanently closed to her.
(Perhaps the door mechanism can detect paired X chromosomes.)
Motherhood and stereotypical “female emotions” are also recurring themes. Including Samus, there are three female characters in the game, all three of whom exhibit dramatic failures of judgement due to their maternal instinct. The heavy-handedness with which the “maternal emotion” theme is driven home throughout the course of the game is even evident simply in its title: the initials of Metroid: Other M spell out “MOM”; as if to remove any doubt, the awkward subtitle “Other M” is itself a trivial anagram of “Mother”. Samus races to the baby-bottle-shaped “Bottle Ship” in response to a distress signal dubbed the “Baby’s Cry”. The entire plot of the game even depends upon and repeatedly refers to Samus’ original decision (in Metroid II: Return of Samus) to spare an infant metroid — which Sakamoto insisted the localization team have Samus refer to as “The Baby” and only “The Baby”.
(If the game’s creators think that there is more to the experience of being a woman than being an emotionally-driven womb with legs, the game doesn’t really seem to acknowledge it.)
In light of this obsession with Samus’ femininity, is the story’s treatment of her sexist? Frankly? Yes. Yes, it is. It’s impossible to ignore that the same game which goes to such ridiculous lengths to emphasize Samus’ sex is also the game that romanticizes her submission to abuse at the hands of a male authority figure. At best, this was a very unfortunate coincidence. At worst, it may be that putting Samus in this kind of relationship reflects the author’s female ideal.
Unfortunately, in addition to simple sexism, the way Other M idealizes the sick relationship at the heart of the story unavoidably gives the real appearance of misogyny. If the sexes had been reversed and a comparable story had been written about male bounty hunter Seamus Aran and his former commanding officer Eve Malkovich, I’d be forced to wonder whether the author had a poorly-disguised femdom fetish, and possibly serious issues with men.
How This Happened
There’s little in the game to suggest that Sakamoto set out to write what he saw as a violent or abnormal relationship. This leaves us with two main possibilities:
One is that Sakamoto, in the tradition of hack writers, simply put no thought into the human implications of the script. An untalented writer might well rush through the story without taking the implications of each event into consideration or looking back on his own work with a critical eye. During the scene where Adam shoots Samus, the player knows that there is a traitor running around on the space station; Sakamoto doubtlessly wanted us to see Samus getting shot and assume the traitor had ambushed her, so he threw it in. When confronted with the problem of why Adam would do this, he justified it with the flimsy excuse of Adam not wanting to risk Samus disobeying his order to not advance, not realizing or caring how this would mesh with the characterization up until this point. An unfortunate mixture of melodrama and a serious but incompetent attempt at psychological realism, perhaps. It could really be that he was just too lazy to come up with a better excuse for the “hell run” (hard to believe though that may be). It could also be that he just wasn’t thinking clearly when he had Samus break down in front of Ridley. In this case, Sakamoto is just an incredibly incompetent writer who created a monster without realizing it.
The other, which I am very reluctant to believe, is that Sakamoto sees nothing wrong with this story, and believes that a relationship like Adam and Samus’ is an acceptable, even desirable one — that this is what caring looks like. If this is true, then Yoshio Sakamoto has much, much bigger personal problems than poor writing ability. I would much rather believe that this is not the truth, but it’s difficult to imagine how the relationship could be developed so consistently in this way if it didn’t owe something substantial to his worldview. It’d be one thing if the game just had a few unfortunate moments. The problem is that it just. keeps. doing. this.
Why This Matters
It’s no secret that the video game industry tends to have very low writing standards, so unless a game’s plot or characters particularly stand out, gamers (and reviewers) have been conditioned to tune out the storytelling and focus on shooting stuff. Many players can tune out a game’s story completely and enjoy the gameplay on its own. This raises an obvious question: if it’s so bad, why can’t we just ignore Other M’s story and move on?
I don’t think we have that luxury, for three reasons:
The first reason is that Yoshio Sakamoto, Other M’s producer, director, and writer, clearly wants us to pay attention to it. Not only does the game have the usual unskippable cutscenes, it actually devotes an entire section of its in-game menu to keeping track of plot points and the characters you encounter over the course of the game. Every time you load a save game you’re greeted with a plot recap. Your reward for beating the game is even “Theater Mode”, all the game’s lovingly-rendered cutscenes strung together with pre-recorded adventure footage to make a feature-length movie without the distraction of gameplay. He meant for the story to be appreciated on its own terms, and went through great lengths to ensure that players would get the whole thing.
He didn’t intend for his story to be ignored.
Second, because Other M is Yoshio Sakamoto’s definitive statement on the character of Samus Aran, one of the oldest and most iconic video game heroines (Metroid is arguably the second-oldest surviving franchise with a female protagonist). Until the release of Other M, Samus had received very little canon characterization. We knew very little about her, except that she was a woman, evidently powerful and brave enough to enter enemy strongholds and confront alien horrors alone. As a result, over the course of two and a half decades she became an empty vessel for the dreams and aspirations of at least two generations of gamers (many among them women). The characterization of Samus Aran is both personally and historically significant to many.
As Sakamoto put it in an interview with CVG:
Depicting the story of Samus Aran in this game was one of the most important game design concepts from the very beginning because before Other M I did not think about what kind of person Samus Aran was and how she thinks and her personality….Plus because of the existence of the Metroid Prime series many people might have different ideas about what kind of person Samus Aran was….So with Other M I really wanted to determine and express what kind of human Samus Aran is so that we can really tell what kind of natural step she should be taking in the future.
This is the bounty huntress who laid low the Mother Brain and destroyed Zebes. This is the woman who ventured alone into the caverns of SR-388 and exterminated the feral metroid bioweapons. This is one of the the first and most enduring heroines of gaming, an icon for female gamers. After all these years, it turns out that Samus Aran is a battered housewife who takes it and likes it. This is the way in which Yoshio Sakamoto chose to “correct” the popular conception of Samus Aran.
Third, because the relationship Other M depicts in such an idealized light is seriously screwed up in its own right. It also represents something which has been uncommon in video games until now; offhand, I can’t think of any other mainstream video game which has idealized this kind of relationship in this way. This deserves to be openly challenged, particularly given the rising popularity of similar relationships in other media.
Why We Didn’t Notice
Since the release of the game, there have been numerous objections to scenes like the “hell run”, Samus’ breakdown in front of Ridley, complaints about poor plotting and dialogue, and broad accusations of sexism, none of which are individually that damning. By contrast, many fewer words have been spent on Samus and Adam’s relationship as depicted, even the scene where Adam casually shoots her, and I think it’s worth asking why.
I suspect the unfortunate truth is that the glorification of abusive relationships and disempowered female characters has become prevalent in modern pop culture. Look at books like Twilight or Hush, Hush. Female characters, completely in the thrall of emotionally abusive (and sometimes physically abusive or even murderous) men whose domination of them is painted as romantic. On the Internet, Twilight is often mocked, but that doesn’t change the fact that these books are popular, with a devoted fanbase of millions. When this cultural trend was only visible in trashy romance novels, and then melodramatic young adult fiction, it was easier to laugh at. What Other M demonstrates is that the trend is present in other forms of media as well, and that we, the consumers of said media, are mostly lapping it up — because it’s already part of our broader cultural landscape. As the old saying goes, fish tend not to notice the water they’re swimming in.
This is one reason why I think Other M’s story is important enough to call attention to. If you liked the story, that doesn’t automatically make you a sick person. Most people haven’t really had reason to think about these issues. But the perverse model of male “heroism” and female submission embodied by Adam and Samus in this game needs to be called into question, because it is all around us and we’d do well to start thinking about it.
The fact that Samus Aran has long stood as a feminist icon within a genre dominated by male characters adds insult to injury. When Metroid first began, its vague (but intriguing) plot and mysterious, armor-clad heroine had almost as much appeal as the gameplay itself. Metroid could have worked perfectly fine without story. It could work even better with a story (and for decades, it did, even if the story was relatively faint and unobtrusive).
For the last few releases, the games have been getting more and more story-based, with Sakamoto’s very strong emphasis on narrative in Other M turning Metroid into a series with a story that literally can’t be ignored except through well-timed bathroom breaks. This might be fine if the story were different.
If Metroid: Other M is indicative of the direction the Metroid series will be going from now on, I’m afraid I can no longer be a Metroid fan. For that matter, if Other M represents what Metroid’s creators had intended all along but hadn’t made clear until now, then I was never really a Metroid fan to begin with.
Fortunately, Sakamoto himself admits that he hadn’t thought deeply about Samus Aran’s characterization prior to Other M. Now, however, it may be time for Nintendo to think more deeply about Yoshio Sakamoto.
Update 2010-12-06: We added a few sentences to the end of the penultimate paragraph in the “Sexism?” section, which some people found unclear.