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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.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Pierre Metroid Smashes the Canon: 5 Ways AM2R Transforms Metroid II

AM2R--Another Metroid 2 Remake--made the news a few months ago when its long-anticipated release was immediately followed by a DMCA takedown demand from Nintendo. But is AM2R really just a copy of Metroid II, or is it a transformation? And what does a Jorge Luis Borges story have to do with contemporary fan games?








It's no secret that I REALLY like AM2R, the fan game remake of 1991's Metroid II: The Return of Samus. I liked it so much that I launched an entire series to cover fan games like it!

So it shouldn't be surprising that I'm not thrilled with the game's development being squashed by Nintendo immediately upon its release. Look, I'm a big proponent of fan projects of all sorts, and I, like the Organization for Transformative Works and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, think copyright is only worthwhile insofar as it can make fan works viable (and, importantly, legal). But for me, AM2R means more than just an abstract battle over the legal handling of copyright claims. AM2R is doing some incredibly special things that deserve to be acknowledged and defended! Previously I discussed the fact that we might understand the game as telling a story about environment. Today, though, I want to go broader and look at what the game represents in terms of transformation.

See, part of what defines Fair Use in the US--what makes fanfic legal regardless of what a lot of authors still believe--is the idea of a work being transformative. Transformative works take source material and copy it, but the copying is justified by the addition of new value, new ideas, and new perspectives.

All this might be a hard sell if you look at AM2R as just copying Metroid II. But AM2R does far more than that. Here's five ways that AM2R is a transformative work.

AM2R transforms through accessibility




What really makes AM2R great as a project is the way it makes a part of the games canon accessible when it otherwise almost certainly wouldn't be. I've never had the kind of money available to me to play Metroid games except where I could grab the controller at a friend's house--or really most games full stop. Even having a computer that sorta worked (it was a Windows Millennium Edition...) and a PS2, we didn't have a lot of cash for games, and I tended to gravitate towards stuff with huge replayability either through sheer length and toughness (Final Fantasy; Rayman) or potential for permutations (Age of Empires II; Gungan Frontier yes really). So, I appreciate this and other fan games for giving me a chance to experience something that isn't The Original (and could never be, but hold that though for the moment) but gives me a window into something that I would otherwise have missed.

As a reworking of a previous game, though, it has an inherent tension between a two types of transformative experiences. One experience is transformative-curatorial, where you're taking the original and converting it to a hi def experience that structurally is unchanged, where you retain layout and mechanics from the original. This approach attempts to faithfully bring the original to a new audience. The most straightforward version of that engagement with canon is emulators, finding ways to take older games and make them directly accessible to new audiences by mimicking the hardware that they were tied to.

And make no mistake, an emulation IS transformative! This is how Google got away with putting all books ever onto the Internet. Seriously, that's literally the defense they used, and the courts agreed: Google Books may have copied every book they could get their hands on, and then put those books in an online database, but that action was not copyright infringement. It was Fair Use.

This might come across as a little strange. How is just sticking something up on the Internet transformative? To understand, we have to look at the way the courts in America view transformative works: transformation can mean adding value. If in copying a work you're adding value to it, your copying may be protected.

This is exactly what Google did to ALL the books it copied, en masse. I'll let the Electronic Frontier Foundation explain:

Writing for the majority, Judge Pierre Leval, a well-respected authority on copyright and fair use, used this case as an opportunity to revisit his seminal work on “transformative use” – meaning, a use that has a new and different purpose from the original. If it does, the use is more likely to be fair.
Today’s opinion stresses that the reason “transformativeness” matters is that it helps justify the copying: “the would-be fair user of another’s work must have justification for the taking.” Google’s justification is plain: to provide otherwise unavailable information to the public. Relying on the court’s earlier ruling in the Hathitrust case, the opinion finds that Google’s use is highly transformative.

There's a whole bunch of other reasons why this use is transformative, and some of them cause more problems for AM2R. Google Books, after all, only provides snippets of the texts in its database, whereas AM2R might be more likely to be competition for a future [snicker] sorry a future [snort, chortle] a future 2D Metroid game that doesn't blow chunAHAHAHAHA it's never gonna happen. But the point of this isn't that this is absolutely always going to be Fair Use under all circumstances, it's to show that according to the courts, copying for the purpose of providing otherwise unavailable information to the public is, in fact, the kind of justification that makes something transformative. Google has added value to the books it scanned; sites like NESbox add value to the games they make available. Whether it's ENOUGH value to constitute Fair Use is another argument. The baseline transformative nature of emulation simply can't, as far as I can see, be called into question.

Like I said, though, AM2R has some tension inherent in its nature as a remake between a curatorial kind of transformative process, and other kinds of transformative processes. AM2R goes beyond just adding value through access.

It adds value through aesthetics as well.

AM2R transforms by elaborating on existing aesthetics



Last time I dug into the ways the environment of AM2R creates a narrative through play. As we make our way through early levels, we conquer the terrain and gain mastery over it. Then, we're abruptly pushed into a set of regions where the terrain is much more strange, winding, difficult to navigate even with our new powers, and generally frustrating. This creates a narrative where we first see the environment as merely a resource to be exploited, and then we're forced to see it as something that exists in its own right, predates us, and can't be assessed in its totality.

All of this is stuff done through a modification of the environment from the original game, transforming Metroid 2 mechanically. But just as important is the way the game expands on the aesthetic possibilities of the original. I mean, look, at its core AM2R is just a gorgeous game. As someone who cares a lot about the way colors go together (as someone who's actually studied Impressionist color theory, specifically) I gotta say, AM2R continually blows me away visually.

It's not just the upgrade to 8 bit graphics that makes the game so visually arresting, though. It's the use of technologies not available in the original game. Certainly some of the sense of space we get from AM2R comes from the parallax backgrounds, multiple layers moving along with us naturalistically as we traverse the game environment. True, we don't have a full 3d environment here, but in terms of creating a sense of depth and even vastness, these multiple layers of environmental detail add a lot to the game experience.

Beyond that, though, I think the moment in the game that most blew me away visually was in the strange, crystaline lava tubes you must traverse towards the end of the game. The region is in near total darkness, but there is a kind of wavering, undulating that moves over everything. Occasionally this light is enhanced by the sullen glow of actual lava, which makes for some pretty incredible theatrics as you combat the last remaining Omega Metroids. On both of my playthroughs I actually found myself sitting and simply observing the environment around me, captivated by its alien beauty.

This is also absolutely something that was fundamentally impossible technologically for the original version of this game. The undulating light and dark, the floating entities drifting across the camera, the layers of translucency and crystaline structures... this is all stuff that the greater processing power of a computer enables. This is transformative: it is "adding value," adding effects that could not be present in the original.

An HD Remake, when you understand aesthetics as part of the makeup of how a game conveys narrative, can never be the same game as its predecessor. It's always a transformation, not just an upgrade but a process of adding new meaning. AM2R certainly does take the environments of Metroid 2, transform the colors to 8 bit, up the pixel counts, and makes use of visual effects available on a new platform, but this is not just an upgrade but a transformation, one that brings to the forefront new narrative possibilities.

AM2R transforms by reassessing mechanics




A while back I really laid into the whole tendency within games fandoms to prioritize really abstract technical understandings of difficulty, but at heart I have to admit I'm kind of a game mechanics wonk. I've been fascinated in the way games operate since I was real young (the multiple rulesets applicable to Mancala for example seemed way more interesting than the rigid systems of Chess) and I'm a sucker for really deep-level analysis of game systems.

AM2R is great in part because it allows for a reassessment of the systems of the original game and a reworking of things that didn't work, allowing the things that did work to become more apparent. This was clearly a part of the design ethos of the game. The Metroid wiki lists a variety of changes made to the way weapons interact, stack, and are accessed at different points in the game, sometimes diverging wildly from the original. The Ice Beam, for example, is moved from the early game to the late game, making it a final cool upgrade providing the power necessary to take out the last few metroids before the final boss. Check out the discussion on the wiki:

[This version of the Ice Beam] instead of freezing enemies in place to be used as a suspended platform like in other 2d games, almost all frozen enemies would fall to the ground and shatter or if frozen on the ground they would simply shatter after a few seconds. This change was made as there was no situation where the platforming feature could be used, and was quickly rendered irrelevant with the Spider Ball and Space Jump being acquired shortly after. As the most powerful weapon in the game, the Ice Beam was moved from the first area in Metroid II to just before the penultimate area as the final suit upgrade.

So, the game is taking the existing systems and rethinking what mechanics are the most interesting, most fun, and certainly most sensible within what contexts.

This kind of mechanical engagement encourages, I think, a little more criticality, and a greater awareness of places when older models of gameplay take over the game, sometimes to AM2R's detriment. Part of me really loves some of the more obtuse puzzles, for example. Part of me, however, questions the idea of designing puzzles around sheer bloodymindedness, sheer obsessive searching for every possible way of tackling a space. Similarly, some bosses are punishing not because they demand a particular skill level but because they demand a patience with a series of rote memorized strategies that leave the player immobile and bored for much of the fight. I'm not sure willingness to Put Up With Bullshit is a productive thing to posit as the mark of a true master gamer.

This kind of stuff feels to me like something from the NES and SNES era of gaming, when pixel hunts, hidden traps, and endurance tests were more the norm. Part of what makes AM2R interesting to me as a critic is the fact that these mechanics persist in the remake--they haven't been smoothed out necessarily, while others have. The game negotiates all over the place with its predecessor, making choices about what to retain and what to rework.

This is the second possible tendency in transformative works like AM2R. If our tendency already discussed, the one pushing for a retention of existing mechanics, is curatorial and emphasizes the preservation of and access to an experience, the other side of that is an elaborative approach, where the transformations take original materials and radically alter them.

While my Reload The Canons! series is only just getting started for you folks, I've been playing a LOT of fan games in preparation for the series launch. One of the most interesting things to see is the way the games fit on this spectrum. Something like the expansive Pokemon fan game Pokemon Uranium can occupy a further end of the spectrum towards the elaborative, introducing a whole new delightful fan generation of Pokemon, while Pokemon Infinite Fusion cleaves as close to the original games as possible in order to make the central conceit--the horrifying combination of multiple pokemon into single freakish organisms--stand out as much as possible. Both, however, retain mechanics both good and bad from the canonical games, including things like grinding, type-memorization, more grinding, deep mechanical obscurity, and even more grinding that maybe don't hold up so well under modern game design scrutiny, alongside elements like the famous evolution system and the ability to develop a party of pokemon that represent your strategic and aesthetic interests that make the games interesting.

AM2R falls somewhere in between the curatorial and elaborative approaches to transformation, and this adds an interesting layer to any analysis of the game's mechanics.

AM2R transforms by releasing the game in a new context




The mechanical conversation does tend to dominate, though, and push aside some of the other perspectives on games that also have importance. One thing we could perhaps analyze more is the way games fit within a particular context not just mechanically or even culturally but thematically.

For example:

This is a game that I'm playing post-Undertale. Now I've always kinda wanted to make friends with the monsters, it's a big part of who I am, as like, a person. But in the context of a post Undertale cultural sphere it's difficult to ignore the fact that we're tromping around a landscape that w're treating as our sort of resource-at-hand, on a mission of ecological extermination because the metroids have been spread throughout the galaxy as biological weapons and they're too dangerous to be allowed to live. AM2R is, inherently, the Genocide Run, from the perspective of the Metroids.

Then the game ends with a baby metroid imprinting on you, and helps get you out of the planet, and this metroid is allowed to live. That takes on a much different tone post-Undertale I think!

Now, certainly, there's something a bit ahistorical about analyzing AM2R after, in a sense, something it technically predates by 25 years. Still, taking a game out of its original context like this isn't as crazy as it might first appear. If nothing else, Reader Response Theory tells us that what we bring to a text will inevitably influence our interpretation, and the games that I'm playing right now in 2016, and all the other media for that matter that I decode, have an inevitable impact on my interpretive process of anything I approach for the first time in the present.

The status of the game as a new object that's nevertheless the same in some sense as an old object makes AM2R extra interesting. Jorge Luis Borges has a short story called Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote, in which, basically, he writes a spirited defense of a fictional author who singlehandedly, through obscure writing processes, managed to recreate, word for word, a few chapters of the famous Don Quixote. The whole piece is basically an exploration of what it might mean to have the story recreated in an entirely different context historically, culturally, and politically. If you're interested in learning more, you can check out the recent Idea Channel video on the subject.

What's really wild about AM2R is that it is, in essence, Pierre Menard's Don Quixote. It's a replication in a totally new system of an existing text. And like the new Quixote, the new Metroid by necessity has a new social and political context, and new information that the reader will bring to the table. By releasing the game in 2016, it becomes a fundamentally different game than it was 25 years ago. This is a game post-Cyborg Feminism, post-Cyberpunk, post-Braid and Limbo and a generation of other art platformers, contemporary with Undertale, contemporary with Gamergate god help us, contemporary with Object Oriented Ontology (and therefore intrinsically after the phenomenological turn in criticism)...

This is a game being released into a radically different world than Metroid II: The Return of Samus was born in. This is another way in which the curatorial approach remains fundamentally transformative: by making the game not just available but a newsworthy item 25 years after the original game's release, the development team has actually altered the game itself, by allowing time and space to alter us, the players.

AM2R transforms by challenging our ideas about canonicity




I think there's a limitation to how much a game like AM2R can be transformed before it becomes an act of developing into the game critical themes that weren't there to begin with. That can be ok, but it's somewhat different from and even in conflict with the goal of taking and making accessible older materials. This is a complex balancing act because on the one hand I think it's important to make games even in their flawed form available, so that we can analyze them as scholars and consider the issues brought up by the original, but on the other hand part of what makes a project like Reload The Canons! viable is the way it allows us to see canonized games the way their most devoted fans see them, even if that means some reassessment mechanically.

The final transformation AM2R offers, then, is one of transforming the game's relationship to canonicity. By treating the game as something that CAN be "remade," rather than either just emulated on the one hand, or just treated as an untouchable source of distant inspiration on the other, AM2R suggests that maybe we can interact with the games canon without elevating games beyond the reach of players.

This is important to me because I think there's a strong sense in geekdom that stagnation is the paragon state for our engagement with culture. Fan games can risk feeding into that dynamic by encouraging a constant return to the familiar and nostalgic, but also implicit within fan games is a willingness to go beyond the original canon and reassess it, to transform it on all the levels already discussed: access, aesthetics, mechanics, thematics, and historical context.

AM2R is not what I'd call a complete game the way something like Braid might be, where all the mechanics and thematics are deeply interwoven (though Braid has its own issues mechanically). I like that though. Releasing this game in a form where some of the puzzles are incredibly obtuse and some of the boss battles are frustratingly boring, in a form where not all (or even most?) of the game fits the themes I'm interested, does good work culturally even if the game could be, in some sense, more complete.

I think that idea of unassailability can become a block to our ability to appreciate something like Metroid II in all its complexity, and by producing a transformative response that freely messes around with the original fan game creators do, I think, pose a challenge to the unassailable canon. I would hope that the response to something that retains its limitations while also demonstrating that the original  would prompt a response that acknowledges critiques of the canon, and space to move forward.

And yet, authorship is something embedded deep within games fandoms, encouraged by game companies that, like comic companies, bank on having fanatical brand loyalty. Certainly, Nintendo has managed to achieve that fanaticism--you never seem to see Nintendo getting the same blowback your EAs or Ubisofts receive for comparable bad behavior. Part of that encouragement is the holding of intellectual monopolies: copyright, trademarks, and patents. Intellectual monopolies allow single entities to have absolutist power over a piece of art. And while, as the EFF article linked to earlier points out, the ostensible point of intellectual monopoly law is to benefit the public, in practice it largely works in the favor of huge, fickle, inhuman corporations. Gamers certainly have cause to be suspicious of these dynamics: after all, it's the absolute hold Konami holds over Metal Gear and Silent Hill that resulted in eccentric creator Hideo Kojima (and by extension the fandoms for those games) being fucked over repeatedly.

I've focused heavily in this article on the US legal interpretation of "transformation" in terms of Fair Use. This is because while the American system has MANY problems--the Digital Millennium Copyright Act being the most glaring, and the inherent power differential created by capitalism posing deeper, unresolvable issues--it nevertheless provides a robust and ever-expanding defense of fan works. Unlike more limited systems like Canada's Fair Dealing (which, unlike the American system, only includes "uses" that are explicitly listed within legal code) or Japan's uh... well I mean it honestly just from my very casual reading seems like Japan's system is a clusterfuck of perverse incentive structures, draconian punishments, and horrifying censorship, the American system is grounded in the idea that a far greater variety of transformative acts are possible than can be enumerated in a law code.

This is, bluntly, a threat. AM2R is a threat. Not necessarily to material profits, nor really to brands (no I'm not going to get into the problems with trademark law; Bing that shit), but to the entire idea of authorial control that intellectual monopoly law is based upon. If we see Metroid II as like Don Quixote, something that can be recreated entirely while being a fundamentally different text, then the Canon is a lot more fluid than we might think, and for a company that literally supports itself by appealing continuously to nostalgia for major canonical games, a system like Fair Use which says that, actually, the canon is open for anyone to dick around with so long as they do so within intrinsically fluid and flexible parameters...

Well, there's no amount of "transformation" that will ever make AM2R acceptable in the eyes of Nintendo.

For all these reasons, though, AM2R's transformative status is important, and the complex ways it negotiates the curatorial and elaborative approaches to transformation make it worthy of criticism. I mean, I sure HOPE they do, since I've now spent two articles and some 7000 words babbling about the game. This isn't just a defense of AM2R; it's a defense of my entire project here!

At its core, though, I fell in love with AM2R because it gave me a chance to experience something I otherwise couldn't have. The fact that this is not the "original" experience is beside the point. The 90s were a long time ago. We're not getting the authentic experience back, if it ever existed at all outside of an after-the-fact construct of nostalgia.

No, AM2R in offering something old has done more than given us nostalgia. It's given us something transformative.

AM2R, in offering us the old, has given us the new.


Let's Play AM2R

Exclusive to my $3 Patrons, the podcast this week is 2.5 hours of me playing AM2R, fucking up hilariously, kicking the final boss's ass, and rambling about Heidegger.

Ennuigi: More Than It Seems?

Luigi feels Ennui. Ennuigi. The game is won, Mushroom Kingdom is a wreck, and the staging is that of a Literary Play with Luigi simply wandering the ruins and monologuing to himself.

Keeper vs The Omega Metroid

AM2R may be a good game on the whole, but some bosses are more... contemporary in their design philosophy than others.

I've made this incredibly inept portion of my AM2R playthrough available publicly; if you want to see more please subscribe to my Patreon!

A Bodyless and Timeless Persona

A Bodyless and Timeless Persona: Essays on Homestuck and Theme covers four previous essays from Storming the Ivory Tower exploring everything from Gnostic themes in Homestuck to the way the comic makes use of difficulty. Additionally, the collection features an exclusive triple-length article, "Is There A Text In This Classpect?," which explores all the different possible answers to the question "just what is a character in Homestuck?"

At the end of Homestuck's seven year journey, this collection aims to be a starting point for anyone interested in delving deeper into the meaning of the comic and its complex and rewarding mythology, symbolism, and narrative experimentation.

A Horizon of Jostling Curiosities

This collection features four articles on Homestuck's experimentation with comics and hypercomics as a medium, and the uniquely experimental fandom that these experiments spawned, as well as an all new exclusive article on the wave of hypercomics that Homestuck inspired. This collection will be the first pop-academic look at Homestuck's place within a wider history of the comics medium, and will be available to $5 backers of the Storming the Ivory Tower Patreon.

Too Much Horseman

Is BoJack Horseman more driven by the sitcom reset button, or by continuity? And what does that say about its themes?

Metaroid

Check out the draft version of this week's article here.

AM2R--Another Metroid 2 Remake--made the news a few months ago when its long-anticipated release was immediately followed by a DMCA takedown demand from Nintendo. But is AM2R really just a copy of Metroid II, or is it a transformation? And what does a Jorge Luis Borges story have to do with contemporary fan games?"

Suicide Squad vs Hot Topic

There's plenty of jokes about Suicide Squad bringing back mall goth culture, but just what IS Mall Goth exactly, and why is Suicide Squad such a dead ringer for it?

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