When Metroid was first introduced in 1986, the game’s main character was completely unknown. Armored in a suit that covered her from head to foot, the mysterious figure known as Samus navigated the world of Metroid, unbeknownst to the players that underneath the suit was a woman. The game’s manual referred to her as a him, keeping her identity concealed until the very end of the game. When the game is completed under a certain amount of time, Samus takes off her suit to reveal that she is light-skinned with long, brown hair (though later games have made her much blonder).
In recent years, there’s been a resurgence of games inspired by Metroid’s backtracking-heavy design philosophy. Not to say that these games weren’t being made until recently, but that they are experimenting more with the theme—and with the heroes they present. Games like Guacamelee, Dandara, and most recently Timespinner differ from other Metroid-style games like Iconoclasts, Axiom Verge and Shadow Complex because of those heroes: they are all people of color.
To understand how a game inspired by Metroid works, first you have to understand how Metroid works. Typically, that means that there is a large open world that is mostly closed off at the start of the game. As you explore you’ll collect new items that gradually unlock those areas, and you’ll have to journey backwards through places you’ve already been to return to get to those newly open areas. For example, in Metroid, there may be an area that can only be traversed once Samus has a certain upgrade to her suit, so she must travel around and explore to find the upgrade before she can proceed. Because the game is also non-linear, there are many paths that are completely optional; this helps to encourage the player to set their own paths, and to explore as much or as little as they desire. Metroid, its sequels, and the genre it inspired are all about going backwards to go forwards.
Out of the two listed, Dandara and Timespinner are the most similar, and the most exhilarating to me. Dandara follows a woman of the same name who awakens to fight against an oppressive force that is harming her world. She has dark brown skin and a thick, round afro. The map is incredibly dizzying, specifically because Dandara doesn’t move like an ordinary character. She ignores gravity and leaps from place to place. Enemies can stand in any direction, making combat particularly difficult, but also invigorating.
Timespinner also follows a woman of color, named Lunais, who must travel back and forth in time to search for the people who killed her family. Whereas Dandara’s dizziness stems from its lack of gravity, Timespinner’s use of time creates unsteadiness. Getting lost in the present and past is amazingly complex and enjoyable. Both games accomplish an uneasiness in their worlds that is addicting to get lost in.
These women aren’t hidden behind a suit, only revealed to be themselves later. Their hair isn’t covered by a helmet, or skin concealed by armor. There’s no shock to their oppression, to the hatred they face and must defeat.
Black and brown women still lack representation when it comes to videogame protagonists. There are certainly more women of color in games, such as Twintelle in Arms, or Nadine Ross and Chloe Frazier in Uncharted: The Lost Legacy. But most female characters of color find themselves in secondary roles to white protagonists. Dandara and Lunais are alone in their adventures; they may find powers from other people along the way, but the fate of the world is entirely dependent on their actions, and how much of the world they decide to travel in.
Being a Black woman means having to navigate in an ever-growing, ever-changing, oppressive map. It means finding the strength to overcome challenges and obstacles. It means returning to the same spot over and over, with new perspectives and tools necessary to get past an old barrier. It also means being a leader, and being tasked with that job, even if you did not want it. It was only until I played Dandara that I realized how seamless a fit a person of color is to this kind of game. If you wanted to find Black people in games in the past, you’d have to look to sports games or something like Grand Theft Auto. Even newer titles like Mafia III, while revolutionary in its look at racism and revenge, places a Black man into familiar territory. Sports and crime were the only times Black people (specifically men) could be lead roles.
But Metroid-style games complicate the placement of people of color. To have a woman of color in a this type of game feels freeing to me. Because of their non-linear nature, these games rely heavily on the character’s actions. The character and story can grow in complex ways depending on how much of the world is revealed. It’s all up to her, the character, to decide how much of the map to traverse, and how much of herself to be shown in the process.
I never felt an affinity towards Metroid games or any of the games they inspired. I recognize their importance in gaming history, and the impact they have on players both young and old, but the titles never interested me. But looking at it through the lens of a person of color, I see its appeal, its ability to create a sense of wonder and discovery. The form may have started with the reveal of a white, blonde woman, but time has shown how much this style of game belongs now to women with darker skin and darker hair. Dandara and Lunair don’t flinch at the new places they uncover; they merely keep moving, determined to finish their quest. But as I play I feel my own excitement billow out around me, as if I’ve unlocked something new within myself.
Shonté Daniels is a poet who occasionally writes about games. Her games writing has appeared in Kill Screen, Motherboard, Waypoint and elsewhere. Her poetry can be seen at Puerto del Sol, Baltimore Review, Phoebe, and others literary journals. Check out Shonte-Daniels.com for a full archive, or follow her for sporadic tweeting.