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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

A Metroid And Its Human: What Does 'Another Metroid 2 Remake' Tell Us About Environment?

The Chozo Temple Complex is beautiful, golden, expansive. It is a space of lurid yellows, soft oranges, and shadows shading almost into violet, and while much of one's time spent navigating the space and avoiding the various still-active ancient defense systems, it's hard for me not to stop and admire the scenery of this ancient and crumbling structure. Walking across the top of the structure in particular is delightful (if you avoid the native life trying to kill you) as you can see layer upon layer of cavern opening out into mountains and an acid sunset beyond. There's a real sense of depth and space.

I'm not talking about Metroid 2: The Return of Samus. I CAN'T be talking about that game for one major reason: I haven't played Metroid 2, not even once. I didn't grow up in a family where expensive game consoles--and yes, I'd count a gameboy as "expensive"--weren't really a big economic priority, and even if we had the disposable income for them, I get the distinct impression that my parents would've put them in the same highly suspect category as tv shows not on PBS, and music not performed by a symphony. I missed out on most of The Games Canon.

Oh, and well, I guess the other dead giveaway is that Metroid 2 was in black and white.


And yet, I can talk about the vivid colors of the Chozo temple because while I have not played Metroid 2, I have played Another Metroid 2 Remake. AM2R hit the Internet about a month ago, causing significant buzz before basically immediately being slammed with a DMCA takedown notice from Nintendo. Thankfully, the game is still fairly easy to access.

This is a good thing, because AM2R offers up a pretty incredible experience, one that doesn't deserve to be buried under questionable intellectual monopoly laws. AM2R is doing something very special here. It's not just making accessible once more a game made for an obsolete platform. I mean, making the game itself accessible would probably be enough to justify its existence. But AM2R goes a step further, and setpieces like the Chozo Temple help us understand the new value it adds:

AM2R turns Metroid 2 into a game about our interaction with space, our use of space, and possibly, by the end, new ways of thinking about our place within an environment.





This isn't too big a leap to make, I think. AM2R's environment is pretty self-evidently beautiful. Expansive, detailed, gorgeously colored, and dynamically alien, there's a pleasure just in moving through its various areas.

But AM2R's environment is also--is almost exclusively--useful. This is a game environment that we learn to navigate in order to deal effectively with enemies, solve puzzles, gain powerups, and progress through a series of goals and bosses. For much of the game, the environment exists primarily in these ludic terms, as something primarily of interest to the player for its use value. In fact, as we advance more of the environment takes on this quality, as the growth in our number of abilities allows us to conquer more aspects of the game (including the native life of planet SR388). By the time we get the ability to simply jump through enemies, blowing them up instantly with a whirling forcefield, enemies have long since become less a threat and more fodder for missiles and energy. They are, simply, a resource to be exploited.

The environmental nature of the puzzles and secrets in the game reinforces this sense of environment-as-resource. Being aware of what's around us--in particular, being aware of what spaces can be run across, what blocks can be broken, what spaces can be passed through--is critical to solving most of the puzzles in the game. Surprisingly, a lot of the puzzles have much less to do with agility than this kind of environment navigation, and few of them are designed to demand that we search every damn block on the screen for a secret. 

The game goes out of its way in fact to make discovery not random but part of careful searching. Circles on the map in the corner of the screen indicate a hidden pickup item somewhere within that tile. This removes some of the guesswork about where a secret will be and encourages us to think about how logically we might access the prize, given our surroundings. We're invited, in other words, to think geographically. And once we find the secrets, our success is more a factor, usually, of whether we can correctly map out the geography for our use than whether we can press all the right buttons with pixel-perfect precision and speed. A missile pack in the ceiling of a cavern, for instance, might demand that we carefully plot out where we can best get a running start from so that we can rocket our way upward to the prize, while also mapping out where on the ground we must be to hit the target far above. This might take a few tries with timing and button mashing, but it's much more cartography than twitch gameplay. 



The result of this is an experience of the environment that emphasizes use values and our ability to instrumentalize space. We identify space as a potential resource, then mine that resource. When geographical features or, even worse, breakable blocks appear to have no purpose it might frustrate us, might make us feel cheated out of a reward.

This might actually give us some insight into Samus. I mean, it's not like we know a lot about this character: she's probably some sort of cyborg, because how the heck do you compress a human into a little metal ball that drops bombs, and she's definitely a trans girl because look I gotta add lines like this periodically to weed out gamergaters and their ilk, but besides that she's a pretty archetypal silent protagonist. Not only does she not talk, there's not really anything in the way of animations showing her response to things like seeing a bunch of space marines getting ripped to pieces by the nightmare baby of a warty t-rex and a lava lamp. So we don't have a lot to go on.

But what we do know about Samus is that she's on SR388 for one thing: killin' metroids.

What does that mean though to us? We're here to personally effect the extinction of an entire alien species. I'd find that a pretty heavy burden, personally. Or I would if the game didn't train me so damn well to both A. be pissed off at the metroids for being so frustratingly difficult to kill and B. see them as an obstacle to be overcome so I can progress in the game, a stopping point to overcome.

The ideology behind this is pretty interesting. Metroids need to be wiped out primarily because they, like the very environment of SR388, are useful. Too useful, in fact. They make excellent biological weapons, and as such have been used to decimate whole planets. Metroids, as a resource, are simply too useful to be allowed to exist in the galaxy any longer. So, I think that it's not unreasonable to say that Samus, like the institutions that hired her, and like the players that command her, interacts with the world and with the metroids in an industrial way, a way that sees the world through a lens of use-extraction. If Samus has a character arc here, it starts with a relationship to SR388 as a thing to be overcome and dominated.

This is an idea that comes out of the work of philosopher Martin Heidegger. Not this interpretation of Samus, I'm pretty sure Heidegger never played any of the Metroid games. No, I mean the ideas about environment primarily as a resource. Now, Heidegger is a bit of a dubious source, given the whole "is he or isn't he a Nazi" thing but the guy's had a pretty big impact on theories on environment and our place in it. For Heidegger, the rise of industrial capitalism turns the environment into something that we extract material from. We see our surroundings as having use primarily, and we tend to interact with tools in a way that turns them into extensions of ourselves. We turn them into instruments--we instrumentalize them.

I mean this is pretty weird to talk about because this is just the ideological framework we've largely grown up with. I'm sure there's people at this point going, "Well, how the hell else would you see it?" That's what makes theorists and philosophers like Heidegger important: they point out that the way we see the world isn't necessarily something that's lasted forever. And if you go back just a century and a half you get people relating to the environment in a position of much less power and assumed authority.

Nevertheless, this seems to be how we, and Samus, enter and interact with SR388. What's more, we're doing so not as the first people to use the planet this way, but as relative latecomers to this industrializing process.

If you've been paying attention to the environment of SR388, you'll have noticed that the ostensibly natural environment of the metroid home world has been totally instrumentalized and industrialized centuries before Samus arrived. And that industrialization, carried out by a species of bird aliens called the Chozo, is actually pretty damn weird if you spend much time thinking about it. 

The Chozo seem to be full of contradictions. They're ostensibly a "peaceful" race according to the game text, implied to be highly enlightened, but they are also a race that had incredibly advanced and destructive weaponry, and while it was a little ambiguous to me it seemed like they may have deliberately bred metroids. We encounter the Chozo first through their beautiful temple complex (weirdly full of powerful defense systems), but then encounter massive power plants, superweapon testing facilities, and laboratories.

So, SR388 is an industrialized landscape both in the sense that the landscape has been comprehensively industrialized by the Chozo, and in the sense that we perceive the landscape from that industrial framework where the land is raw material for our use. We've had that set up for us since long before the game begins. Samus's mission of extermination is just the natural counterpoint to the work the Chozo started: while one is creative and the other destructive, they are fundamentally linked in the way they both depend on an understanding of SR388 and its native life as an instrument for the use of intelligent life. In this reading, Samus's use of Chozo tech to upgrade her suit, and her ability to activate functions of the ancient Chozo megastructure, serves to thematically link two distant eras and goals. She is an inheritor of the Chozo industrial project.

The world of theory doesn't end with Heidegger though, and AM2R doesn't end when the last of the Chozo ruins have been surpassed. In fact, despite the ways in which early areas encourage instrumentalization and geographic use-analysis, there's a whole bunch of places where space seems to exist for its own sake. Whether winding tunnels that are difficult but not threatening to traverse, or large open areas that are beautiful to look at and varied but don't have much in the way of content, there are areas in the game that exist on their own, seemingly in defiance of our desire to put them to use. Areas that are, in effect, pointless, and areas that cannot be thought through in a puzzle fashion the way we navigate various other sections through our acrued powers.


This is a point where the game's status as a remake is pretty interesting. Some of these areas, from a contemporary perspective, might be easily pegged as bad game design. And just to be clear, I do think there's stuff in the game that doesn't quite work mechanically! But I think these moments of geographical confusion actually do a lot to counter the industrial understanding of SR388, and that makes them interesting... more so because AM2R, as far as I can tell from maps of the original game, actually dramatically increases the number of weird spaces like this at the end of the game!

Late areas in the game are extremely rough in a way that's very difficult from what we've seen elsewhere. This terrain seems untamable, and unusable as resource. The environment itself frustrates in a way that enemies, which you can just blast through for the most part, can't really do. This is sort of the object of the game world making itself disturbingly apparent. Heidegger talks about how we see the tool as an extension of ourselves until the tool breaks, at which point it becomes apparent in itself through its resistance to our use. The fundamental pointlessness of the geography in this late part of the game makes this kind of move: it asserts itself in a way that doesn't feel like a ludic challenge, it feels more like you're in a space that hasn't really been designed for you.

In particular, the strange clustery geography of the weird crystaline lava tubes baffles our ability to moon jump, our ability to fly essentially, which is something that up till this point we've taken advantage of fairly heavily, probably. We can no longer hurtle through the landscape, we're stymied and stalled by these strange concretions. This is a beautiful portion of the game and part of the beauty comes from the way the landscape is alienated from our concerns as players.


This really reaches its peak at the end of the long winding lava tube sequence. There's a zone late in the game full of waterfalls that drop you into a previous area (which you can't jump back up through). It's a whole set of horizontal rooms with these not particularly obvious deadfalls. There's no mechanical point to this. Nothing about it provides a deep challenge. It invites a level of spacial awareness--where are we, where are the waterfalls below us, how can we avoid getting knocked back to the start--but the ease of avoidance means that it never demands that engagement, not really.


This opportunity to make sense of a geography with no goal-oriented purpose is wonderful and it's something I wish the game explored more. And then at the end of the waterfall sequence we emerge in this absolutely massive underground lake, and because we've experienced the path leading up to this point as a highly constricted, winding area, the vastness of the space, and the wonder of entering that space, can really have a major effect.

At this moment we can get a sense of the way this game, even through its limited construction, creates a sense of place, and drama, and majesty for an environment that we are only visitors to, that we don't fully understand. Samus is a mercenary, not a naturalist or a historian, and I think that the resultant mystery of the setting's complex geography and ecosystem is a feature not a bug. It provides gaps within the game's storytelling for us to fill in. 


In return, it helps us fill in an interpretive gap left by the ending. In the finale of AM2R, having defeated the Queen Metroid, Samus arrives in the last cave chamber to be confronted with a single egg, containing the last living metroid. The metroid hatches and imprints on Samus. You can't shoot the metroid at this point--the game takes that option from you (though it might have been more interesting, frankly, if it hadn't, for reasons that will be apparent shortly).

Now.

Apparently the baby metroid's adoption by Samus is supposed to represent something about motherhood. At least this is the popular interpretation, backed up by word of god and later games such as the lazily named "Other M."

There is nothing textually to support this.

Sorry, but there just isn't anything there, nothing really screams that as a thematic thing in the game. Nowhere else in the game does this theme of motherhood come up, nowhere do we get an implication that Samus is desperate for Make Babby, nowhere do we see a damn thing that reinforces this reading of the final scene.

Except, of course, that Samus is a woman, and Nintendo execs are a bunch of old crusty fucking men, and so making interpretive HASH of their own game is practically an inevitability. This is the company, remember, that refuses to make Zelda the protagonist of the series named after her because [wanking motion]. And well, not to put too fine a bloody point on it but this is also the company that's done fuckall with the Metroid series for six YEARS since Other M but slammed a Cease And Desist down as soon as AM2R came out. Not that I'm bitter or anything.

What AM2R lets us do though is, admittedly, something pretty threatening: it allows us to decenter interpretation from the way the rest of the series has gone, to understand the game as its own object within the canon.

And analyzed on its own, it's impossible for me to ignore the way the REAL meaning of the ending seems to be one of Samus moving beyond an instrumentalizing interaction with SR388 towards one that interacts with the environment as an entity unto itself with its own goals and drives and agency. None of this is by design of course--I doubt that anyone working on this game or its original have read Vibrant Matter (though I recommend checking out my coverage of the book if this topic interests you). But well:

The game ends with you exiting the planet through not your own agency but the agency of the baby metroid, which consumes crystals around you, opening your path. The little baby metroid for what remains of the game mostly does its own thing. We can to an extent guide it and use it but it moves the way it wants to move, sometimes in a way that's inconvenient to our goal of progressing. It exists as a tool making itself known, something we want to see as an extension of ourselves but which resolutely misbehaves and acts according to its own directives and agency.


So having spent the entire game exploring this highly industrialized environment, in the sense that we perceive it as existing for our use, we end by passing through a series of strange and baffling environments that exist outside of reward-based gameplay, defeat the final boss, and ultimately leave the planet because we happen to have goals intersecting with that of an alien intelligence. If we accept that Samus starts the game seeing everything on SR388 as being there to be conquered, I think we can't deny that she ends the game in a different place. It's hard to read character development into such a thinly painted silent protagonist, but nevertheless I think AM2R gives us the information we need in order to draw out a character arc.

A character arc that has fuckall to do with motherhood.


We end the game with this beautiful natural imagery as we run along a plateau with our companion creature toward our ship. This isn't a complete thesis on Object Oriented Ontology or whatever, and as a game with a thematic throughline it isn't without faults or problems or omissions or places where things might have been emphasized more, but the value of a project like this is that just by opening up the scope of our experience, by transforming the original into this new experience rather than merely emulating the original game on a different platform, it also makes possible a new kind of engagement with the original and its traditions. We can, if we're inclined to think this way, see Metroid 2 with fresh eyes and find an interpretive lens for understanding Samus's journey and our own interaction with the planet SR388.

For this reason, because the sheer joy of experiencing these ideas for the first time when I missed out on it as kid, and because I do think that thinking deeply about the canon of video games is important, I'll happily defend projects like Another Metroid 2 Remake till I go blue in the face. This is our culture being given back to us, being opened up to us, like emerging from a narrow tunnel into a vast new possibility space. And that experience deserves our praise and our support, even if it means engaging in one of the ultimate gaming culture taboos: actually calling Nintendo out for fucking something up.

Another Metroid 2 Remake deserves our support, both for its own sake... and for ours.

AM2R isn't the only fan game deserving of praise, though, and it's not the only project centered on a part of Gaming Canon that I never got to play as a kid. With this in mind, I'm thrilled to announce that this is the first of a new Storming the Ivory Tower Ongoing Series: 

Reload The Canons!


In this project I'm going to play through the canon of video games--all kinds of stuff that, like Metroid, I never experienced growing up--through the fan responses to these games. Remix or remake or weird orthagonally inspired reworking, I want to see these games through the eyes of the people who love them.


Next on Storming the Ivory Tower I'll be taking a break from this series to cover more mainstream material, but keep an eye out for the next piece, which will continue the discussion of AM2R as well as the similarly newsworthy Pokemon Uranium, and dig more critically into just what projects like these, and my own analysis of these projects, means for our understanding of games canon.

Additionally, I'll be creating Let's Play videos for this series. My $3 patrons can access all the videos uploaded so far (in addition to the usual podcasts these backers receive), but I've made the following video of one of the parts of the game I DIDN'T like very much available to everyone below:





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Storming the Ivory Tower is produced because of the generosity of my patrons. You, too, can become one of these generous patrons by subscribing to my Patreon. For $1 you can read the rough draft of this article which also contains the very rough draft of the next metroid article, as well as the rough draft of next week's article; you can watch the Let's Play for this article for $3. And don't forget that for $5 you can read my most recent article collection A Bodiless and Timeless Persona: Essays on Homestuck and Theme, as well as my previous collections on My Little Pony and on toxic masculinity in superhero media, Neighquiem for a Dream and My Superpower is Manpain.

Alternate title for this article suggested by Zomburai: 
"Chozo vain, I bet you think this game is about you"

2 comments:

  1. "This opportunity to make sense of a geography with no goal-oriented purpose is wonderful and it's something I wish the game explored more."

    Ever play Small Worlds by David Shute? It's a 20-minute Flash game, a 2D side-scroller, and it's basically this exact idea taken to its logical extreme – pure exploration, minimal goals. Gameplay solely for the sake of observing the game world. It even illuminates its maps as the player observes them, something I've only ever seen in RTS games otherwise. The world is also similar to Metroid's – an abandoned post-industrial space setting, but one where the pixel graphics themselves are a source of narrative ambiguity. Well worth checking out for anyone interested in this type of thing.

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    1. I have actually! It's a delightful little game. It's interesting though that people keep recommending that game to me and kinda... just that game? It feels like it's a case where we've got this one really stellar example of a principle but I don't know that people have iterated too much on it yet if that makes sense.

      The game can be found here for anyone interested in playing:
      http://jayisgames.com/games/small-worlds/

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