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September 13, 2010

Narrative Accommodation and Gameplay Growth

This article partly touches on themes I've been discussing in my series "On Being a Thug" about GTA IV, you may want to read articles one and two.

Note: this article contains spoilers both about GTA IV and Metroid: Other M. The spoilers are from relatively early in each game, I'm a long way from finishing them. Fair warning given, though.

Recently I’ve been playing both GTA IV and Metroid: Other M ¹, two games which have asked me to re-examine my identification with their protagonists. In one case, it was a little unsettling and in the other, downright disturbing.

From the opening moments of GTA IV, I identified Niko as a striving immigrant who was looking for a new life, running from a violent, war-torn past. I suspected he had done and seen things which left him damaged, and I looked forward to negotiating a storyline which threatened this humanity by dragging him back through that past. His relationship with his cousin appeared to provide a likely catalyst to the action.

Here was a character I felt I could identify with, and through this lens of seeking a better, nobler life had a historical resonance and genuine appeal. Perhaps it was a recent viewing of The Godfather Part II that made me see parallels with immigrants from nearly a century ago.

Before long, however, Niko was killing a low-life boss who had put the moves on his cousin’s girl. This was extreme but could maybe, with a little squinting, be made to fit with my existing thoughts on the character. But then came the confession -- Niko was in Liberty City not for a shot at redemption, but instead a shot at revenge.

Now, having only put a dozen to twenty hours into the game at that point, I didn’t have a lot invested, but it was still enough to be a little off-putting. I played a little bit beyond that, and haven’t been racing back to the game. It’s not even that I don’t enjoy a good revenge fantasy; I love pulp fiction novels, Kill Bill, kung fu and Hong Kong films, those sorts of things. They could have started with the revenge story and it would have made sense to have Niko laying low, learning the ropes, getting to know the city and making contacts before he made a run at whomever. This way, I’m left wondering what else he’s hiding from me, this character with whom I’m supposed to spend so much time.

But the bigger narrative problem has by far been Metroid: Other M; others have pointed out its narrative flaws. I haven’t finished the game by a long stretch yet, having put in only a handful of hours (three or four), but already I find myself chafing at the character strictures they’re putting on heroine Samus Aran.

The problem here, as far as I can tell though, is purely narrative. I’ve come to identify with a certain set of traits in Samus -- independence, stoicism, fierceness among them -- and this storyline simply strips those away entirely. I’m no enormous fan, having come to the series starting with the Metroid Prime trilogy and also playing through Metroid Fusion on the GBA, but with the number of hours I had put in, I had definitely formed a fairly strong attachment to a certain type of character. Certainly, this character was largely in my mind; the discovery elements that I had to interpret narratively in the Prime series were almost entirely about the departed civilizations on the worlds I was visiting. But she was no less firmly placed there for all of that; indeed, she was perhaps more firmly placed there because I had identified with her characteristics through hours of repeated action and life behind the visor.

Formally speaking, the game isn’t much changed from earlier games, at least thus far. Samus arrives with few powers and gains them over time. But what doesn’t work is that exploration and discovery aren’t part of this process -- always before it was finding different suits, beams, and missile upgrades, and it reinforced the spatial exploration with constant rewards that allowed you to explore even more.

I had viewed Samus as independent; now she is subservient, owing to a former relationship with a former commander. I had viewed Samus as stoically accepting the battles she had to face, in a militaristic, Marcus Aurelius sort of way, the warrior heroic in the face of death; now she mewls and remembers pasts in which she was emotional about her relationship with him and with a Metroid³. I had viewed Samus as fierce, adjusting her combat style and approach to an area based on the arsenal we had built up together over time, missiles aplenty from finding nearly every power-up.

The accommodation here is simply too much -- I am asked to cede my own independence, stoicism and fierceness. The role of the General might as well be called “Game Designer,” and Samus instead called “Player”, so direct is the dealing out of rewarding abilities. I am asked to cede my stoicism, and instead become emotionally involved in an anime-like storyline. I am asked to cede my own fierceness, and not use weapons I know Samus to have, only using what I am allowed.

I wonder what newcomers to the series will have to say, though I don’t know that I know of any. I do think that the game plays fairly well -- I’m still getting used to switching between different configurations of using the Wiimote, but it doesn’t feel terribly awkward. Visually I think it really looks like a 3D incarnation of something like Fusion (though much higher res, obviously); I think it looks really, really good.

But it’s really nagging at me, feeling as if the Game Designer has come along and told me I can’t play that character I liked to play, just as the General tells Samus when she can use what weapons. We’re still in synch, Samus and me. Just not with the character in Metroid: Other M. It might better have been called, Metroid: Other Samus.

Still planning on blogging once more about my first art game (and maybe a little about prototyping my second), as well as a few other things I've been working on. Subscribe to the feeds or check back; cheers.

¹As well as Little King’s Story, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, and some PC indie titles. I do not have this kind of time. I don’t know how I am finding it.
²1UP and Destructoid also gave the game poor ratings, and Mitch Krpata mentions his story concerns on his blog.
³I know, WTF, right? Granted, I didn’t play *that* Metroid. Still, it doesn’t fit even remotely with my idea of the character.

Posted by Brett Douville at September 13, 2010 11:58 PM


Oh, you might hate tonight's game, because it's all about realizing your character wasn't who you thought they were.

About Niko - I haven't played it, but maybe the revenge plot is just a ruse? Maybe part of the story arc is he realizes it isn't worth it, that revenge won't make him feel better? Or maybe they'll let you choose whether to kill him or not. Though I doubt it's worth playing another 20 hours to find out...

Posted by: Jamie Fristrom at September 14, 2010 01:58 PM

Well, I think it's okay to do this if you know it going in. I didn't know this about GTA IV -- it might be what the series does with its characters, but I haven't played the games enough to know. And I realize that narrative drama requires some moving about, but in narrative games, I think you need to be careful with how you treat a player's identification with the character.

Narrative changes in character in games should follow mechanics: in other words, if you want to fool around with what the character can *do*, that's legal. I think if you want to fool around with my motivation, you should do so in a forward manner, not a backward one.

Bioshock, for example, has a big narrative change in the character, but it works because they plant all the evidence in advance. You are at once surprised and at the same time shown the clues that might have made it possible for you to know. It feels fair. In GTA IV, it doesn't feel fair. And in the case of Metroid: Other M, it *really* doesn't feel fair, against the arc of the other games.

I'd be really curious about what hardcore gamers who haven't played other Metroid games think about the Samus in this version. And I wonder if they would feel similarly betrayed if they started with this and then went on to the Prime series. I wouldn't think so, but it's hard to know.

Posted by: Brett Douville at September 14, 2010 02:16 PM

I've read the Other M reviews and they do sound disturbing. But I can't go another two years without playing Metroid, knowing that a new game exists, can I?

Posted by: Andrew Kirmse at September 15, 2010 01:37 AM

I know, and that's the kicker. Maybe the thinking is this: they have the hardcore fans anyway -- why not try and make an emo Samus that might appeal to a wider audience? Doesn't seem sensible here in the US (where a strong female lead just took the weekend box office), but maybe that's right for Japan?

It just leaves me wondering whether the hardcore games that were shown at E3 this year are going to work for the hardcore audience that loves their predecessors. What next, Link with a pump action shotgun?

Posted by: Brett Douville at September 15, 2010 05:45 AM