Super Metroid – Gamer in a Strange Land

It happens relatively early on in Samus Aran’s dreadful journey through the depths of Planet Zebes. Obtaining the bomb ability — a tactical powerup necessary for level progression and aidful in combat utilization — reveals the Chozo statue which holds it to, in fact, be sentient and hostile towards the protagonist, opening up a world of possibilities in regards to storytelling. For whom were these upgrades produced, and for what purpose? Is every Chozo statue that Samus Aran comes across alive and aware of its surroundings? Does this specific Chozo label Samus Aran as an inherent threat to its species or even Zebes; or is it inherently protecting the item from being taken?

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Such a moment arouses curiosity and posits more questions than the game ever unequivocally answers, which makes the overall experience all the more engaging for it. Much of the brilliance behind Super Metroid’s design is demonstrated through this notion of narrative ambiguity. The game was and remains an appropriate product of its console generation: utilizing the limited hardware of the SNES to its fullest extent in regards to game design sophistication, while minimalizing the plot details in efforts to oppose any abstractions from tone as well as facilitate a genuinely convincing world. This concept strikes a unique balance between these two mediums, focusing on delivering an intuitive and challenging gameplay experience, all the while subtly implying an established universe to be discovered and discussed.

The fiction of BioShock functions in a much similar approach, and in regards to narrative progression can trace most of its methodical methods back to the roots of Super Metroid’s storytelling. Call it a modern-day reimagining of sorts, complete with introspective commentary on the nature of evolution within mankind — a concept which the Metroid series as a whole explores in depth — as well as meticulously-devised pacing and level structure. However, with its more advanced systematic potential, thanks to its three-dimensional environments and contemporary generation of console exclusivity, what Irrational Games has developed is far more capable of showcasing the lore prominently, inviting thematic discussions as opposed to ambivalent hypotheses.

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Both games present multiple pathways to uncover, but only to players curious and engaged enough to prospect. And fortunately, the developers behind both separate entities understand that such presentation of optional discovery will only spark interest if the reward suits the effort. The Chozo statue encounter from Super Metroid grants players access to the bomb ability while also giving insight into Planet Zebes’ history. So regardless of whether or not the player feels inclined to delve deep into the lore behind the setting, a mode of progression is delivered to them to continue forward.

A similar sequence occurs early on in BioShock. While exploring Neptune’s Bounty, the player may come across one of the numerous Accu-Vox tape recordings littered about the decaying city of Rapture: this one in particular features a mother longing for her missing daughter, a supposed victim of the Gatherer initiative which turns young girls into Adam-scrounging Little Sisters; as well as a code to a locked hotel room so Masha may one day return to her parents. The game’s developmental path will eventually lead the player to the Fighting McDonagh, and upon further investigation, a certain hotel room housing two deceased bodies (one male, the other female) lovingly holding each other, a picture of a young girl which is covered in a pile of sleeping pills, and another Accu-Vox recording entitled “Saw Masha Today.”

The tape describes a happenstance occurrence where Masha’s parents are bewildered to discover what their daughter has become. “We barely recognized her {…} ‘That thing? That thing is our Masha?’” the mother recites, painting a clear picture of the identities behind the two lifeless individuals taking residence on the hotel bed. In response to the immense grief which has overcome the couple, they chose to take their own lives than live knowing that their daughter has become something less than human.

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This dramatic side-story represents a deeper purpose to the intricacies of Irrational Games’ development of Rapture as a versatile setting: players who involve themselves with the world’s backstory, who make an effort to explore the crumbling halls to search for answers to the disarray, a sign of hope, a sign of Life; are in effect rewarded with such. These vignettes paint a portrait of the tragic downfall of the once-great city, further eliciting insight into the chaos infused within power-hungry individuals and the inherent consequences of repurposing Man’s genetic code.

But the developers also understand the importance of rewarding players through strict game purposes, as well. In the aforementioned segment regarding the suicide of Masha’s parents, upon discovering their room, players are treated to in-game currency and a Tonic power-up. This further engages interest to unravel the mysteries left behind by citizens of the past in the wake of a crumbling Rapture because it aids in player-character development. BioShock thus effectively strikes a delicate balance between developing a story while also retaining a focus on game design, never forgetting which medium the overall product is representing, while also striving to significantly push the medium forward through environmental narration. Rapture often speaks for itself, telling its story through its ravaged hallways, savage denizens, formidable apparitions, and deteriorating memorabilia.

So while both games retain a similar philosophy on rewarding player exploration with narrative insight as well as progressive commodities, the differences lie in a level of ambivalence. Super Metroid makes little explicit in regards to the overarching plot that follows Samus Aran throughout the depths of Zebes; whereas BioShock’s storytelling is explained relatively straightforwardly, in respect to the player effort given towards understanding every intricate detail. Nintendo seems more encouraged to deliver a stimulating gameplay experience, complete with a compelling lore behind the player’s progress through the world, while also focusing on maintaining explicit motives which drive both the player and Samus Aran forward. Irrational Games are far more interested in the reasonings behind their game’s systematic design, giving a clear purpose to every story detail or gameplay mechanic to incite discussion regarding the underriding themes rather than the overall plot.

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Perhaps Super Metroid then can be considered the more ‘effective’ example of worldbuilding within video game structure. BioShock paints a vivid picture of its corrupted Rapture, complete with minute details and an abundance of explorable environments; but its method disallows any personal intrigue into the city’s past. The game disregards any speculation from the player themselves and somewhat-pretentiously explains its lore definitively. Super Metroid on the other hand retains an accessible method of encouraging player interest by actively alluding to a bigger picture to unravel without ever necessarily providing a straightforward arc.

The result is a living world, pulsating with mysteries, kept alive by its ambiguity; truly functioning as a distant planet featuring a protagonist lost in space: a stranger in a strange land, forced to adapt to a radically-different landscape. The contrast in environmental sentience portrayed by both games is a direct result of just how much influence the player seems to actually have on making a difference in the world. Whether it be through discovering a straightforward side-story arc, or instead speculating on the ramifications of a specific enemy’s placement in the established universe, what maintains the supposed liveliness of a setting is the player’s direct influence on reshaping its history.

Ultimately, Super Metroid’s functional design conveys an impression much like that of a player roaming a game’s exciting new setting for the first time. Call it the ultimate gaming experience; an approachable world can thus be defined by the riddles it leaves behind for adventurers to uncover. But what ultimately sticks with the player long after a game’s completion is how much there is left to unravel for themselves. There’s always a locked door we miss by the end of a gaming experience, begging us to come back to the game once again, all in efforts to finally reveal what secrets it’s hiding from us.

Andrew Gerdes

Gamer, musician, writer, film buff, 'foodie,' aspiring baker, critic, intellectual self-reliant, optimist, health-obsessed kid who only wants to explore the infinite possibilities of artistic expression. Also, people tend to think I'm an all-around awesome guy

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