You Don't Know Samus—and Neither Do I

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I played the Metroid games in the “wrong” order. I began with Metroid Prime before working my way back to the 2D Metroid titles. I also played them relatively late in life—in my twenties, in fits and starts, after a bad break-up. I played them in the midst of a dark depressive storm, unable to separate the misery of my own inner life from the desperate stakes of Samus Aran’s tragic beginnings and occupational hazards.

Even without the benefit of childlike wonder or nostalgic lenses, I found myself developing an unbidden fannish fixation with the game’s leading lady, in part due to my own insecurities at that time. I could see through my adult eyes that the Metroid games had flaws: needlessly difficult platforming sequences, pacing problems, narrative gaps. Even Super Metroid, which I often cite as one of the franchise’s strongest and most accessible entries, features confusing sections (e.g. wall-jumping). Do the games hold up? Would I recommend them to a modern player? Only if that person had a whole lot of free time, and needed to distract themselves from an intense bout of depression. In that specific circumstance, Metroid games not only hold up, but excel beyond expectation.

What flusters me about Metroid fandom is the constant disagreement about what makes the games “good.” Usually this disagreement results in harmless, boring arguments about what order the games should be played in, and which games are the “best.” Fans of the 2D Metroid games in particular seem most willing to settle for rote copycats; personally, I can’t stand copcats. I will only accept the real deal. Why? Because it’s not that I like Metroid games, per se—I like Samus. Or, I like the character that I’ve decided Samus must be.

I’ve written before about my own emotional attachment to Samus, some of which I’ve also detailed above. But I’m not the only one who’s imposed her own narrative onto Samus Aran. When I talk to other fans of the series about how they picture Samus, what they think she’s like, everybody seems to have their own conflicting idea—and who could blame them? The Metroid games themselves have had several different creators and writers, and the extended universe runs the gamut from goofy one-off storylines to a hyper-serious manga series detailing Samus Aran’s dark childhood and teen years. That manga is actually considered canon, and its story was used for the most controversial Metroid game: Metroid: Other M.

I can’t help but smirk when I hear someone surprised at the events in Other M. I’d be the first to agree that the game makes a lot of mistakes—but they’re mistakes that the manga made first, and that other Metroid games foreshadowed, if only we had been looking hard enough. The manga came out many years before Other M, and its version of Samus is a much more feminine and emotional version than the one that many fans picture. She starts the story as a three-year-old child, and within a few pages, she’s aged to 14 years old and is living with the Chozo, learning their alien-bird ways and training to be a galactic warrior. She coos at cute aliens she meets, including a race of butterfly-like creatures who turn out to be evil; she displays pacifism early on by attempting to avoid killing even the most deadly of creatures, always holding out hope that they can change. In the manga’s climactic moment, she exhibits the symptoms of a full-blown panic attack, and the Chozo seem ill-equipped to help her. This version of Samus has its inconsistencies and faults, and the story is just as confusing and bizarre as most Metroid games; how many times must Samus fight the same handful of antagonists over and over, revisiting the same old ground to collect the same old set of items? How many evil clones of clones, how many resurrections, how many DNA makeovers must Samus endure? It’s no wonder she’s a bit of a cry-baby, right?

Yet, this emotional depiction of Samus never made it in to the early Metroid games. Players interpreted Samus as a stoic, voiceless character; she navigated pathways in isolation, with no ally in sight other than the occasional wall-jumping benefactor. Even in Fusion, her diary entries always struck me as jarring. Why is Samus talking?, I wondered, irritated. Why does she have to keep a diary? Never mind that in the reaches of space, while combating cabin fever and intense loneliness, I can see the benefit of keeping one.

In almost every Metroid game, Samus manages to refrain from speaking almost entirely, with rare exceptions; the Fusion diary entries are about as long-winded as she gets, up until Other M. Many fans of the franchise that I have spoken to (especially male fans, in my very anecdotal experience) seem to view her as a sort of gender-swapped Master Chief-meets-Batman character. She’s got dead parents, plus a cool power suit, and bonus boobs—but the boobs part isn’t that overstated, or so the die-hard fans will assure you. Samus strikes all the “strong female character” check-boxes. She’s a conventionally hot Amazonian blonde, but she’s never “sexualized” (debatable) and she doesn’t throw her gender in your face (because wouldn’t that be annoying).

Samus also happens to embody what I see as a particular type of “gamer girlfriend” fantasy. She works in a male-dominated field, and dresses in traditional masculine attire, and she doesn’t ever draw attention to her own gender—up until she’s finally off the clock, at the very end of the game. In the very first Metroid game, the length of time that the player took to beat the game would determine how much clothing Samus would be wearing at the end. If you look up images from the final screens, you’ll see that she might be wearing her suit without a helmet, or a long-sleeved practical red leotard, or … if you beat it super-fast … a miniature red bikini. In other words, Samus’s body has been presented as a reward for the player since day one. People get very angry when I bring this up, let alone the fact that this practice continued in several Metroid games.

All of this contributes to why Other M shouldn’t have come as such a huge surprise to the gaming community. The game felt like a disappointment because it included moments where the camera slow-panned over Samus’s long, lean body, or hovered over her glistening backside. It felt like a disappointment because Samus had not only learned how to talk, she had also begun to audibly cry and complain, particularly to the men in her life. She had not only begun to pose for the camera in a sexy way (which, need I remind you, she had already been doing for decades)—now, she also had feelings. About the Metroid that saved her, a Metroid that she determinedly refers to as a “baby” throughout the game.

My anger about Other M isn’t just about that one game. It’s about how Samus has been presented across the board; Other M is just one more example in a long string of them. The disappointment that I hear most people share about the game is that Samus didn’t continue to be a stoic Batman character who never shared her feelings at all. I’ve seen anger and resentment that Samus bows down to her former male colleagues at the Galactic Federation, particularly in the squicky “father figure” relationship she has with CO Adam Malkovich. In the flashback sequences in-game, she’s depicted as a headstrong, impulsive jerk. As an adult in-game, Samus is presented as … headstrong, impulsive, and also, emotional to the point of complete unprofessionalism. She hasn’t grown up—she’s only gotten worse, and it’s a depiction of Samus that I have to admit I can’t stand.

On the other hand, I’m not sure that the rest of the Metroid games are good enough that it’s entirely fair to rest all of the blame on Other M alone, and definitely not on Team Ninja, the development team behind the game. Team Ninja may well want the “blame” for the camera’s obsession with Samus’s thighs, but who do we blame for the script? The bizarre directorial choice to tell Samus’s voice actress to deliver all of her lines in a robotic monotone, which presents a confusing contrast to the highly emotional dialogue provided?

Unfortunately, I think the blame for many of these decisions lies with Yoshio Sakamoto, co-creator of the franchise, who directed Other M and who also helped with either directorial and/or narrative guidance on several other Metroid titles (Super Metroid, Fusion and Zero Mission). He’s not the only one to blame for some of Samus’s dubious beginnings and some of the more unforgiving design decisions made in her stories over the years; Hirofumi Matsuoka, for example, has made some transphobic jokes about the gender reveal at the end of the first Metroid game. However, it seems that Sakamoto was the creator most interested in depicting Samus’s “human side” according to how he saw it—complete with the “baby” fixation that most players, including me, find odd.

I don’t have much sympathy for players who are angry that Samus has emotions in the first place. In some ways, I applaud Sakamoto for taking a risk and making Samus into a character with unabashedly feminine traits, like crying and care-taking. In fact, it’s a shame that the parts of Other M that failed have resulted in a complete abandonment of the ideas that it introduced; it is one of the only Metroid games to pass the Bechdel Test, for example (along with Prime 3), given the introduction of Madeline and Melissa Bergman in the latter half of the game. Although the dialogue, pacing, and actual gameplay feel painful to play and even to watch on YouTube in cut-scene form, Other M introduced some unusual ideas to Metroid canon—none of which will ever come to fruition in the hands of more deft creators.

When Samus finally speaks to us, she reveals how her creators had always seen her, and for me, this casts a depressing shadow over the rest of the Metroid games, particularly Fusion, Super Metroid and Zero Mission. Personally, her depiction in the Prime games bothers me the least, but those games were not done by her “original” creators at Nintendo. I’m basically saying that I don’t think that the actual people who created and wrote canonical Samus Aran did it correctly.

I do recognize that this assertion makes no sense for me to make. They made her; they know her; I can’t feasibly or logically argue with the canon of a character that someone else created. Even going back to the manga proves that this vision of Samus, at least in part, has been in conception and on the books for some time. This Other M Samus probably was always how her original creators envisioned her—even if that’s not how I saw her.

I don’t necessarily see Samus as an emotionless Batman, nor do I see her as a sobbing would-be alien mom—I think the best Samus would be one that splits the difference between those two states. She’s a character who has grown up away from Earth, away from normative gender roles. Her body has been infused with Chozo DNA; later in life, her body gets several other alien modifications. She has a lot of conflicting sources that might contribute to her personality, given her diverse upbringing. When she returns to human society as a late teen and decides to join the military, she should have brought her unique outlook on the world as an outsider to human culture and human biases, her hopefulness and strength. This is what I think her creators wanted to do with her—or at least, it’s what I wished they had done. That isn’t what happened, unfortunately. And the result has been a lot more complex than just “now Samus is sexualized” or “now Samus wants a baby.” It was always a lot more complicated, and more depressing, than that.

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This is my last column for Paste, at least for the foreseeable future. As I’ve written it, I’ve thought back several times to the first piece that I ever wrote here: a review of the reboot of Tomb Raider. Lara Croft and Samus Aran have a lot in common; they’re both white, conventionally attractive women with creators who don’t seem to entirely understand them. They’ve both been allowed to express emotion and vulnerability in ways that male gaming protagonists never seem quite “allowed” to do. And their games struggle with similar problems: is the player supposed to identify with them? Or watch them and try to protect them?

The Tomb Raider reboot doesn’t entirely solve this problem, nor does it solve some of the latent issues endemic to the game’s premise—it’s a gender-swapped version of a story that has classically been about men, whether they’re Indiana Jones or Nathan Drake. The simple gender-swap isn’t quite enough, anymore, and Metroid’s growing pains are another good illustration. It’s not just that the “gender swap” always seems to result in a conventionally hot white woman, although that’s part of the problem (why aren’t we “swapping” anything else?). It’s that the writers aren’t quite sure how these classic stories would play out if the role wasn’t portrayed by a “default” … which is probably why, although Lara and Samus are women, they are as “default” as a strong female character can get.

I come here to bury Other M, not to praise it. If the Metroid series must continue, let it be with a reboot and a completely new collection of writers (including some non-male ones). Let Samus be reborn with a personality—perhaps even a vulnerable one—but let her have that personality from the get-go, rather than just a bikini and a power-suit. Or if she must be a cipher, then let her be a cipher forever, until she quietly fades away into the blackness of space.

Maddy Myers was Paste’s assistant games editor. She tweets @samusclone and co-hosts a weekly gaming podcast called Isometric at Relay FM.

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