Show and Tell in Metroid Fusion

You know what you do when you can’t decide what game you’re going to cover in your next blog post? You look at what you talked about a year ago and revisit that franchise.

Now, the Metroid series knows its atmosphere; we’ve covered that. Super Metroid is arguably the penultimate atmospheric game of the franchise, but each of the others offers its own in-depth mood, too. This mood is most successful when imparted through subtle details and audience-driven discovery. The eerie isolation of Metroid wouldn’t work if people were telling you what to do all the time.

Ahem.

Let’s talk about Metroid Fusion, a game that straddles this fine line of audience intuition – though less in atmosphere and more in its plot. See, investigating a parasite-invested space station has its own creeps and curiosities. Though much of Samus’s mission is directed by a rather demanding A.I., and her exploration is broken up by long reminiscences in elevators, the atmosphere still generally stays true to what’s been established in the franchise.

You’ve got hints toward surprises to come – a sense of dread, for example, when you view Nightmare rushing by in the background of Sector 5, obscured behind glass. Yes, this is something you’re going to freak about later, the game seems to infer.

Metroid Fusion has more plot and set-up than its sisters in the franchise, and that doesn’t have to be a bad thing – when done right. And Fusion definitely has its moments done right:

In this moment, the real Samus has only just descended the elevator into a new section of the space station. There are no words, no explanations, just this shot of a duplicate, sinister Samus prowling about – and we know from playing up to this point the X-Parasite is capable of assuming the shape and features of its host. This has been demonstrated through (some) text and encounters with enemies. When SA-X appears on stage, we know what’s goin’ down.

This is the value of showing a point of the plot. It lets the audience develop their own conclusions and emphasizes their emotional reaction. It respects the personalized experience.

So it’s rather disappointing that this very same game also falls into the “tell” pit.

THIS, right here. Ugh. The hint of eventual betrayal. It’s a cheap, cheap trope that ruins what could’ve been a punchier reveal down the line. Contrary to what some seem to believe, this peek into a team member’s unexpected duplicity does NOT bring tension to the story, nor shock value for the audience.

Telling in a story is like vicing a person’s head in both hands and forcefully turning it to where you want them to look. There’s no personal discovery attached and therefore no authentic reaction. If anything, the audience is probably annoyed by your fingernails digging into their scalp.

In this instance, you could probably completely remove this offending cutaway scene in Fusion, and the story wouldn’t suffer a bit. When the moment arrives, we’d share Samus’s experience of the unexpected, and therefore empathize with her shock and anger. As it is, we watch the scene play out and sit back with our popcorn, disengaged until it’s time to press buttons again.

(I realize this might be an exaggeration, but I’m trying to get a point across here!)

It’s better to keep your audience clutching that handheld or controller. To do that: Show, don’t tell. Their attention must stay trained on the story with subtlety; what effort do they need to present when everything is spelled out to them?

 

Metroid Fusion is the property of Nintendo. You can purchase it to play via the Wii U or 3DS Virtual Console.

Immersion in Papers, Please

Ah, the cold white of winter. A season for staying indoors with a warm drink and cozy story. The time of year when a young gamer’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of…

…fictional Communist regimes*.

*If you think this post’s gonna get political, you’re on the wrong blog, son.

Papers, Please takes place in GLORIOUS Arstotska, which has just reopened its borders to residents, immigrants, workers, and refugees – provided they bring the proper documentation. You play the role of a checkpoint officer and must sift through the barrage of mandated paperwork as person after person files through your line.

You encounter everyone from the kind to the quirky to the downright rude and nasty. At the end of each day, you receive a meager paycheck and head home to a crowded apartment where you must decide whether your family can afford its heat or food…or not.

Now, there are plenty of books which pull off excellent realism and immersion through word choice and atmosphere. But I’d like to take a moment to make a considerably geeky argument: Some stories are just better told through video games. There’s a degree of involvement, high-intensity, and personal risk that makes stories shine in a virtual setting.

Papers, Please is an excellent example of what a game can do in this venue. I don’t pretend to understand socialist life perfectly after playing it, but I will say it did more to engage me than any other similarly-themed story has done. And the way I think it succeeds in this, is because the game mechanics demand personal control.

The first-person viewpoint of the game does two things: 1) It offers upfront interaction with a society under oppression; 2) It drives the protagonist’s personal struggles powerfully home.

For the first point, I think most poignantly of the moment when Arstotska’s government requires all “suspicious” persons to undergo a scanning process, which strips them nude (or down to their underwear if you choose to censor the game for modesty). While it may be a government mandate that requires the strip-search, you are personally responsible for forcing them through this demeaning procedure. You must swallow the guilt when an innocent person is robbed of their privacy.

…And sometimes the not-so-innocent. I smell contraband!

The second point is the bread and butter of the game, though. From the start you’re expected to complete transactions flawlessly, but at the same time you’re only paid per properly-handled immigrant. When you work accurately but slowly, you bring home pittance to your family and have nothing left after paying the rent. The stress of your work load then mounts that much more – PARTICULARLY when the checkpoint begins to require MORE documentation to double-check.

And as your weeks on the job progress, you become so buried in vetting papers you don’t even catch acts of terrorism happening right outside your booth.

This is the ability of a video game’s story. Through actions completed in gameplay you become so bound to the life of your lead character that you can feel what he must be feeling. The anxiety of earning a piddling paycheck. The mix of tedium and stress working with the unpredictable public. The shock of encountering violence on a regular basis.

Believe me, I’m a lover and proponent of books, but there’s rarely been a piece of literature that’s given me this deep of an experience. It’s a different realm of storytelling altogether and in some ways can’t be compared to other mediums. (I know this blog is all about learning writing skills from video games, but shh.)

So hey, while you stay in from the cold, feel free to pick up a controller as well as a book. Winter’s a great time for enjoying all manner of stories, right? *pours a cup of tea and calls in another immigrant*

 

Papers, Please is the property of Lucas Pope. You can purchase it to play via Steam.

The Proper Atmosphere – Super Metroid

[Currently listening to: More Dragon Quest Symphonic Suite. Once you start, you just can’t stop.]

It’s time to take a page from Sebastian’s book.

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Good stories know their atmosphere. Do you want to create a comedy? A mystery? An epic? Some funky hybrid of all three? You need to know the characteristics and voice of your genre, otherwise you’ll end up with some kind of mess that tries to appeal to different audiences but ends up angering everyone.

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Who knew it’d be a bad idea to give a light-hearted, action-packed tv show to a movie director notorious for grim, repressed storylines?

When the ingredients come together in just the right way, you get an unparalleled masterpiece that plunges you completely into the world that’s been created. It can become a story that transcends generations. Lord of the Rings knew its mood; so did Sherlock Holmes. This is one reason why their stories have lasted for decades to even centuries, and are still being re-imagined to this day.

And in the arena of games? One that’s arguably done it best is Super Metroid.

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Samus Aran tackled the loneliness of space long before games like No Man’s Sky attempted it. Exploring unpopulated planets solo is her natural state-of-being (as proven by the reception of games where she operates under supervision). To set the proper mood for a story like hers, you need all elements to express a solitary – yet vaguely threatening – atmosphere.

Metroid for NES and Metroid II for Gameboy created the foundation for this atmosphere, which would go on to be perfected in Super Metroid. The maze-like levels of Metroid instilled a sense of desperation as you struggled to remember where you’d already been and where you were going. Metroid II did a little more to guide you along the path, but it took you deeper into Metroid nests, emphasizing the idea that you were getting in over your head, and escape wouldn’t be easy.

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Encountering a Metroid deep underground.

These attributes and more heighten the Super Metroid experience ten-fold. A map makes it easier to find your way, but each world is so differently constructed and filled with its own unique threats that some mystery remains as you explore. You start in the quiet caverns of Crateria, moving from there into Brinstar’s more lively vegetation. On the way from Brinstar to molten Norfair, you pass through a glass tube looking into Maridia’s water world. You think, “What will I find when I get to THIS part of the game?”

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That’s the beauty of Super Metroid‘s mood: absolutely none of these worlds are explained to you beforehand; you play the true role of explorer as Samus delves deeper to find the baby Metroid. On first playthrough, everything is a new and eerie experience. It creates the inherent need for caution as you explore new rooms. The world is lonely and mysterious, so that when the boss battles come, you’re shocked out of isolation and given a feeling of being truly out of your element. A perfect compliment to the atmosphere already in play!

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Most of the Metroid games achieve this feeling, but Super Metroid was just a perfect culmination of the world-building already in place. (It also claims the coveted title of being the penultimate speed game.) How did it all come together so perfectly? Simple – it knew what its genre needed: isolation, exploration, awe-inspiring scenes coupled with looming danger, and of course a killer soundtrack for ambiance.

It would’ve been a completely different experience if Samus had spent her adventure running into NPCs everywhere and discussing battle tactics. The quiet would be broken and the spell undone. There’s plenty of stories that need those elements, of course, but it would have ruined the story Super Metroid was trying to tell.

So, hey, thanks for keeping us on track with what’s important, Sebastian. We couldn’t do it without’cha.

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Super Metroid is the property of Nintendo. You can purchase it to play via the Wii U virtual console.