SR388: A Spelunker’s Nightmare

[ The following post is assembled from fragments of discussion from July 2014, October 2014, July 2016, and August 2017. ]

Long before that¬†AM2R thing, which is exactly what a cynical observer would predict from a fan remake, I’ve often rambled about ways to do a sensitive update of Metroid II, that (unlike AM2R) honors the original game’s tone and thematic material and develops it even further, makes the game even more awkward and upsetting to play:

I still think the best way to tackle a remake is to consider the affect of the original, and try to recreate it.¬†The original is claustrophobic, in part due to feeling lost — sameness, lack of a map — in part to the screen.

So, make light a scarce quantity.¬†The world would be desaturated and have a big focus on environmental light sources — lava, certain bioluminescent plants or animals, Chozo technology. At times it’s hard to see anything.¬†Sort of a Silent Hill aspect.

Samus’s suit may project a slight glow around her, reflecting on things.¬†Generally the glow would extend about as far as the boundaries of the GB screen. Occasionally more or less.¬†The glow from Samus’ suit would give things a sort of monotone hue. Maybe greenish, from her visor.

If you wanted to expand on the game, you could give her various kinds of light beam. Or make her suit glitch out. Maybe special heat and X-ray visors would be needed to navigate certain areas. Glitchily. It would be all grainy and prone to error. Make it go totally dark, for a scripted segment here or there, in the spirit of those segments where you have to blindly fumble around in ball form. Maybe you have to navigate by noise and touch. Maybe a sort of a sonar, so you can hear when the Metroids are getting close.

There might be an attempt at a map, but it doesn’t work right. Glitchy. Staticky. Suggests non-Euclidean space. Some key parts of the interior may not make any sort of euclidean geometric sense. They kind of don’t, already.

This would also play up some of the Zelda-style risk-and-reward progress limitation. You CAN go down there, but… should you?

Also see: Dragon Warrior, Phantasy Star II, Lost in Blue.

But, that’s if I were pressed to reinterpret the game. Insofar as its native form on the Game Boy, Metroid II is basically perfect.¬†The worst I can say is that the control can get a little mushy at times. Speed up Samus’ movement by 125%, maybe tighten collision and response time. Little stuff like that.

Something I really dig about Metroid II is that as designed, it¬†wouldn’t really make as much sense on another console. If you play through as an adult, with a modicum of design literacy in hand, it soon becomes clear to what extent the game actively uses its technical and conceptual limitations to say its own thing.

Unlike Super Metroid the world that it draws doesn’t feel like a playground set up for your benefit. It’s just there.¬†If it’s confusing, then it would be, wouldn’t it. You’re invading this space that was never meant for a thing like you.

The game’s affect is just so subjective.The way the Spider Ball is used nails down how unfriendly the space is.¬†This is a space where we really shouldn’t be, and it’s just by the skin of this overpowered miraculous thing that it works.

When you get to the cramped corridor forcing you to draw a visual parallel between Samus in ball form and the unhatched Metroid egg,¬†there’s not a lot of space left (as it were) to question how expressive the design is meant to be.

It’s supposed to be claustrophobic. It’s meant to be disorienting and upsetting. You’re supposed to lose your way and freak out, the way you probably would in reality if you were dropped into an unmapped hole in the ground on an alien world. Or even ours. Even if mapped.¬†It’s meant to be distressing, in no small part because you shouldn’t be there. The mission is wrong. You are playing the bad guy.

That’s not reading into it. In its closing moments the game tells you how you messed up, and Fusion‘s plot is based on this revelation.¬†(Another irritating thing about Super Metroid is how it not only glosses over this failing; it compounds it. But Fusion gets the story back.)¬†Fusion also gets the claustrophobia and tension back, in a shifted form, where Super throws them out in favor of Whee Shiny Perfect Action.

As far as how Metroid II uses the resources it has, the only thing I would treat differently is the lava. To quote one of many earlier discussions on the topic,

That goddamned lava. What is that? Of all the ways to limit progress. I mean… I can make up some silly theories that kind of work. But how arbitrary is that? At least it’s an apparent phenomenon of the gameworld, even if it’s triggered by discrete player-dependent flags.

Instead of progress clearly resulting from the player’s action it’s just, “What the hell was that rumble? Oh… there’s… a route here. Was it here before? I don’t think so.”¬†Granted, it doesn’t affect me when I’m playing. It’s just in retrospect that it’s so incredibly clumsy and weird.

Of course the game is pretty linear, and it can’t let you miss a Metroid.¬†If there were some narrative rationalization, maybe that would be enough. But then you’re in danger of needless exposition.

On reflection, I would add a horrible piercing screech after the extermination of each set of Metroids and before the earthquake and lava drain. Each time, as Samus strayed deeper into the caverns, the screech would get louder and longer, while the screen would shake with ramping violence. Toward the end, it basically would peak all of the sound output and leave the game a nauseating shaky-cam mess for minutes at a time.

This would serve many purposes.

  • It would make the game more disorienting and upsetting to play.
  • It would introduce the Queen early as Samus’s opponent.
  • It would establish the Queen’s growing pain and anger.
  • It would help to underline that maybe Samus isn’t quite doing the right thing here.
  • And it would resolve the structural weirdness around the lava, which as it stands is a VERY CONVENIENT and unexplained progress limiter.

All of this would be totally doable on the Game Boy. Pretty easy, even, in this engine. Everything’s already set up, pretty much.¬†Just add a screech that gets louder and longer each time, and make the screen rumble longer and more violent each time. That’s all!¬†But, it would make such a big difference to the game’s narrative flow, logical consistency, and thematic unity.

Would this change be on-the-nose, in terms of the game’s themes? Maybe. But done well, it wouldn’t be clear what was happening at first. It’d just add a layer of “huh?”, growing to “oh hell.”

Right now there’s little feedback to completing each wave, and the mild rumble has little impact, the lava drain nothing like an explanation.¬†This would add at least a sense of intentionality to the design, which as designed leaves room for interpretation, yes, but also feels sloppy.

Significantly, all of the scream’s and the rumble’ thematic resonance becomes clear only in retrospect. You get ramping uncomfortable chaos as you burrow in, but aside from feeling increasingly intimidated, it’s only clear what’s happening when you finally meet the Queen, which snaps it all into focus.

Currently there is no clear moment of epiphany, and the Queen’s role consists of sitting there, unseen, until you burst in and kill her.¬†The epiphany comes with the egg, which is great. Really great, actually. But its significance would be enhanced, coming out of the catharsis of that encounter with the thing that had been expressing pain the whole time. “Oh hell,” you’d think, “so that’s what has been happening all along. What… does all of this mean? What have I done?” And then, a baby Metroid imprints on you.

You’re still free to interpret however you like, but this gives a touch of emotional feedback and clarity to undermine any sense of bravado.¬†And all it is is a screech and a more violent screen shake. That’s all it takes to snap it all into focus.

The Return of Samus, But Hold the Uterus

As with many recent posts, this isn’t going to go in deep; I’m retreading a Twitter rant/discussion, with a bit of framing information so that it makes sense as a block of prose.

So there’s this Metroid II remake project that just finished. I’ve seen progress before, and dismissed it on the basis that it seemed to miss the point of the original almost entirely. It looked like the idea behind the project was that Metroid II was the “bad” game in the series, or at least the one that didn’t match the others, and that for anyone to enjoy the game it ought to be brought up to the standard of Super Metroid or Zero Mission (a remake of the first Metroid, made to look and play more like Super Metroid).

This is… kind of an offensive way of thinking, no matter what subject we’re talking about; that the nail that sticks up has to be knocked down, that the strange voices have to conform, that everything needs to be of a sameness. That the game in question is actually one of my personal favorites, one of the most expressive and artistic games that Nintendo has ever published, makes the project all the more irritating.

What it looked like they were doing was stripping out all of the atmosphere, the tension, the thematic intensity that made the game worth playing in the first place, under the misapprehension that all of this was a flaw because it made the game strange and difficult to play. Every game should play like Super Metroid, especially another Metroid game — and the first game has already been “fixed” to match, so that just leaves the one everyone hates. Let’s try to change their minds by turning it into another bouncy chapter of the Samus Zappy Puzzle Room Adventure.

So — and here’s where the tweet storm starts, I relented and I played it. A little of it, anyway. It really is very well-made, as fundamentally misguided as it may be. That said, I tuned out when it started to insert random puzzles.

Because it absolutely has to have the fucking shinespark, I guess (a convoluted ability introduced in Super Metroid that fans have taken, er, a shine to), we now have a charge beam as the second pick-up — which totally changes the focus of the narrative. Originally, you got the bomb, and then the Spider-Ball, because this is of fundamental importance. It’s pretty much what the whole game is about.

Now, the Spider-Ball comes almost incidentally, in an afterthought chamber after the big reveal of the charge beam and lots of distracting puzzles that take away from the significance of the event.

The charge beam is just one of many features from later Metroid games retrospectively crammed into here for no reason other than that people liked them. The idea being that game design is a constant march of progress, and this game was dated — so let’s incorporate all of our modern concessions. Let’s let the player grab ledges! Does it fit what the game is out to accomplish? Don’t understand the question; why wouldn’t we put it in?

Now. I haven’t played too far yet, but on the basis of what I’ve played… for all of this laboring the game with later concepts that it doesn’t need, I bet they missed a thing. I can’t verify if it’s in there, but it seems unimaginable to me to revisit Metroid II now and not reference the X parasite.

The X parasite was introduced in the fourth Metroid Game, Metroid Fusion. That game revealed that the player did a very bad thing back in Metroid II, by wiping out all the Metroids. As it turned out, over the course of that game Samus totally unbalanced the ecosystem, allowing a much worse threat to take hold. As that game began, Samus even paid for the mistake with… not her life, exactly, but her being. To save her from the X parasite, she had to be infused with Metroid DNA. Her old armor had to be physically cut away. Basically, she would never be the same again.

So if I were remaking Metroid II, you can bet I’d keep this development in mind. You couldn’t make a big deal about it, but for people who knew what they were looking at, some foreshadowing would be obvious. Considering that these guys are basically upgrading Metroid II to play like Fusion (by way of Zero Mission), you’d think they’d pay attention to the game’s greater narrative significance. And yet, something tells me the thematic development is going to be pretty low here. In messing with the flow leading up to the Spider-Ball, they’ve already diluted the first major beat.

The whole game is supposed to be womblike. The Spider-Ball and final Metroid egg (which the player first rolls past in ball form, emphasizing a similarity between Samus and the egg — and then which hatches in the game’s final moments, leaving one last Metroid alive and imprinted on Samus as its mother) just being obvious facets of that. This being the game where Samus finds her compassion and becomes a “mother” is not a coincidence. The womblike way you hold the game, the claustrophobic display, the dark, the atmospheric soundtrack.

I mean, the whole story is about the Metroid queen and her babies, about hatching. You spend most of the game in ball form. You can keep picking away; the metaphor extends as far as you want it to.

Here, they’ve basically stripped the progesterone out of the game and turned it into a dur-dur zappy puzzle adventure. So, no, I don’t think that thematic resonance is high on the list of concerns. But if you were to go the sensitive route, and do a remake that emphasized and further explored the game’s original themes, then having that retrospective concern about genocide and ecological destruction and unforeseen consequences would make the discussion even deeper. It’s not the immediate point of the adventure, and it can’t be, but seeding in the occasional overt hint would be nice.

Imagine a version of Metroid with the building suggestion that You Are Fucking This Up, that you shouldn’t be doing this, that this is wrong. That would be welcome. Shadow of the Colossus was 12 years ago now. You know what came out 13 years before Shadow of the Colossus? Metroid II. You know how long ago Zero Mission came out? Also twelve years ago. Some fucking selective education in this system here.

Game design isn’t an objective thing, and there is no such thing as progress except in our growing understanding of how design mechanics can be used to express ideas. Game design means nothing in and of itself, and its application as an intellectual exercise or a means to entertainment only makes the most facile use of the potential for material betterment available to us through forty years of study and (often ineffectual) experimentation.

Ultimately, though, this remake is just one take on an existing story. It won’t supplant the original. The mentality guiding the remake is troublesome, but it is on its way out. Other perspectives are available, and many enlightened ones have made themselves heard over the last decade or so.

Though there’s no real need to revisit Metroid II, I can see an advantage to calling back to its affect — on what the game actually does, artistically; what it serves to communicate. We have the tools now to convey this all more clearly. Any such emphasis would help to underline the greatness in the original work, to make it easier to appreciate. In the process, there’s also a bunch to learn for future work.

So, here’s an idea. What about a game jam? How about a bunch of voices get together to trade alternative readings of Metroid II. Give their own concerted personal interpretations, emphasizing their own themes. Draw on the contrast between experiences.

That’s probably the way forward. Despite what this remake would serve to insist, there’s no one truth to be had. There are no Platonic forms. Our experiences are what make us what we are, and in the end that’s all that we have to say for our lives. So, we might as well respect our individual experiences for what we are. That’s the only way we’ll ever grow, ever achieve something great as a people — by acknowledging the limits of our own two eyes in our own skulls. If we want to expand our views, we need to pool our resources. Every perspective we accept makes us richer, makes us better, makes us wiser, makes us more kind.

All of which videogames could use.

Crackles in the Dark

Another excised bit that I might as well post here. Unsure if I’ve blogged about this before, though I’ve certainly mentioned it to everyone under the sun. So here it is for posterity.

*   *   *

Imagine a proper remake of Metroid II that focuses on the confusion and nervousness of being stuck down a dark, claustrophobic hole where everything looks the same and you can’t see more than a couple of yards in any direction. That’s the way the Game Boy game plays, and that’s why it has always felt the most emotionally authentic game in the series. It’s the limitations of the hardware that lend the game its power. Fan remakes always focus on making the game exactly like Super Metroid except with different levels.

The Playlist / Those Tenuous Twos

by Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh

You may have read the first part of this column in the December 2009 Play Magazine. It was intended as a single article, and the start of a whole series of such lists. In the event, I was asked (due to my incorrigible verbosity) to break the article into three pieces; only the first found its way to print. Here is the column in full.

Used to be, when a game was successful enough to demand a sequel, the design team would do its best to avoid repeating itself. Though I’m sure they mostly wanted to keep their job interesting, the practical effect was that if the games were different, they would both remain relevant. In an arcade,¬†Donkey Kong Jr. could stand handsomely by its father, each shilling for its own share of the coin. You might call them companion pieces, rather than updates or replacements.

When home consoles hit, design teams were even more modest, and were generally left to do their own thing. So starting on the NES, you will see a certain trend: successful game spawns weird, only tenuously related sequel; fans of the original scratch their heads; a greatly expanded dev team releases a third game, which is basically just the first again, on steroids; fans think it’s the best thing ever, because it’s exactly the same, except better! And to hell with that weird second chapter.

Thing is… usually the second game is the most interesting you’ll ever see. Continue reading “The Playlist / Those Tenuous Twos”

The Process

Following some earlier points, a forum I frequent saw some discussion on the apparent deification of the Doctor over the last few series of Doctor Who. Someone strongly objected to what he saw as Davies’ “all-powerful, all-knowing, ‘he’s a Time Lord, he can do anything’ approach to the Doctor”. Thing is, that’s not really what’s going on.

Generally Davies tries to undermine that concept, and show that it’s just bravado. Both in and out of the fiction, that myth is just the way that people perceive him, and the image he tries to project.

There’s a long discussion of this on one of the Moffat commentaries, amongst Davies, Tennant, and Moffat himself. They talk about how, for all of the facade he puts on, all the mythology that springs up around him, some of which he encourages, there’s nothing really special about the Doctor. His only real asset is that he can (usually) talk his way into anything.

“He’s almost a charlatan,” Moffat said, “in a good way. He poses as this god-like figure, but he’s just a bloke under there.”

Man and Myth

So much of the new series is about people’s perceptions of the Doctor, counterposed with the reality of the Doctor. This is precisely what “The Girl in the Fireplace” is about. Look at the way Reinette mythologized the Doctor in her own mind, and turned him into this huge figure from her childhood, a man of magic and awe. And there he was, just bumbling around, doing his thing as best as he could. Occasionally showing off. Occasionally acting like a complete ass.

And we, as adult viewers, see both sides. We know that the Doctor is just this guy, doing the best he can, yet we also know him as a figure of myth and legend who brings us monsters and death, because that’s what he chases and that’s what we tune in for — but then he does his best to put it right, and usually succeeds.

It’s not that he’s innately special; he just operates on a different plane from what most people see as normal life. Specifically, he lives the life of the protagonist to a long-running TV fantasy adventure. In that, he sees things that most people don’t see, and does things that most people don’t do. And to be credulous and put ourselves in the weekly companion role, that allows him to introduce us to fear and wonder, and just maybe expand our perspectives, with the assurance that everything will be all right in the end. Roughly. Usually.

So basically the new series is just being postmodern, and aware of itself as a modern myth. And it toys with that. (See “Love & Monsters”, that Clive guy in “Rose”.) Granted, in execution it’s gotten a bit lazy of late… But going by the commentary, everyone still seems to be working on the same wavelength they were in 2005.

Jesus Guises

Of course, “Forest of the Dead” plays a lot with the notion of an all-powerful Doctor, from River Song’s tale of the man Tennant becomes to his apparently new ability to enter the TARDIS by snapping his fingers. As far as River Song is concerned, though, that’s her mythologizing him again. It’s just her own personal impression of the man. Assuming she’s referring to a particular event, and knowing how the Doctor does things, you can imagine the sort of circumstance in which a whole army would run from him. As much as she talks it up, the actual event was probably some bizarre and desperate slight of hand on the Doctor’s part. Yet it sounds impressive if you don’t know the details! As things do.

Everyone believes in the Wizard of Oz, but he’s just a schmuck behind a curtain.

The snap is a little different. I halfway expected that to be revealed as Donna opening the door for him, but no. Then again, you know. TARDIS. It likes him. If anything is truly special, it’s his box. With a little thought, given the Doctor’s bond with the TARDIS, the snapping really isn’t that remarkable. It’s a bit of a parlor trick, really. Consider that Rose flew the thing just by staring into its console and wishing.

Then there’s that ridiculous floaty denoument from last year, which a lot of people point to. That’s not a good example either. It really, really wasn’t executed well, but that’s supposed to be about the power of humanity and hope and faith (to contrast with the Master’s message of despair), with the Doctor as just a focal point of all of those emotions. It’s only in encouraging everyone to believe in him, in becoming a legend, that he gained his power — which is sort of the concept I’ve been talking about, except made clumsily explicit and practical.

Bibliocranium

The encyclopedic knowledge business is getting tiresome, however. “Silence in the Library” is probably the worst offender yet, on this front. As “Midnight” shows, often it’s dramatically better not to have a clue what you’re facing.

The problem, as I see it, in the Doctor already knowing what he’s facing most of the time is that it removes a sense of discovery and danger and wonder from the proceedings, and all the emotions and ideas those might conjure up, and skips right to the business of solving things — a process that the new series (rightly) considers so obligatory as to use all of these shortcuts (sonic, psychic paper) to speed it along.

It’s meaningless to hear someone name something fictional, then watch him fiddle together some random fictional nonsense to defeat it. What really gets the head and heart going is something like The Empty Child, where — although there are hints along the way, and the Doctor may have more or less figured it out by halfway through episode two — the threat largely remains undefined until the end of the story, leaving the protagonists to react the best they can to their immediate circumstances.

Which isn’t to say that every story need be a mystery; it’s just that having bottomless resources is boring, especially when all you’re conjuring up and babbling about is fictional fact. Show, don’t tell! If the Doctor has seen it all before and can defuse any situation by pulling random convenient facts out of his hat, that basically tells us that what is happening right now doesn’t actually matter; that the show is just a sequence of doors and keys, and the Doctor already has most of the keys on file. So why are we watching it?

Keys are for Doors; Heads are for Thinking

You can do a certain amount of this with a smirk and call it postmodern, but you have to be deliberate and do it well — as in “Rose” or “Aliens of London”. “Doomsday” treads a bit close, but gets away with it on the basis of sheer chutzpah. Lately, I think the handwaving has just become a smug excuse.

It’s a similar feeling to what I get with post-NES era Nintendo games — Zelda, Mario, Metroid. It’s all about hunting for the correct key to pass the appropriate tile, and moving on to the next section. Interpretation, picking away at the cracks, the sense of endless possibility you get in something like the original Zelda or Metroid — all gone, in the face of cold, arbitrary mechanics. Which ties into the whole modern fallacy of the Videogame, that assumes that doing things, simply pressing buttons, is and should be rewarding in and of itself.

Mind, this isn’t a crippling problem with the show — yet. As I said, though, it is getting a bit tiresome. And I think this year in particular, it’s starting to undermine the storytelling. As with the dismissal of killer shadows as “Vashta Nerada — the piranhas of the air!” God, what’s more interesting: shadows that can KILL you, or some kind of gestalt entity with a pretentious name, that the Doctor conveniently knows how to detect and whose canned history he can spin off at a drop of his bottomless hat?

Finding and Doing

So basically, yeah. I see the things that people are complaining about. I just think the explanation is a bit off. The Doctor isn’t particularly powerful; he’s just arrogant. The sonic screwdriver and psychic paper and occasional ironic doodad like anti-plastic work in the favor of efficient storytelling. Take away his ability to quickly solve problems and the story will become cluttered with meaningless procedure.

Take away his ability to quickly identify problems, though, and stories may become far richer. Allow him to dismiss any scenario by identifying it off the bat, and unless the writer really knows what he’s doing, the entire story is in danger of collapsing into meaningless procedure.

I’m reminded of an old review of the Dreamcast version of Ecco the Dolphin (narrated by Tom Baker, don’t you know). It’s a beautiful, atmospheric game with a clever story by David Brin. I’ve described it more than once as an underwater Shenmue. The problem is that it’s just about imposible to play. You can know exactly what you have to do (and it’s usually not that tricky to figure out), and still you need to fight with the game for half an hour, trying and dying and trying and dying and waiting for the game to reload each time, to get through a simple hazard.

I think it was an IGN review that praised the game’s difficulty, saying it was the perfect balance — you always know what you need to do, and the challenge just comes in doing it!

… What? Just, what? I mean, granted, IGN. These guys probably give extra points to a game that comes in a bigger box because it looks more impressive on the shelf. But what?!

Meaning comes from extended and nuanced exploration of a topic. Yet you have to balance the reward of any insight against the frustration involved in realizing it. You don’t want to labor too much in the exploration or in the solution; smack your hand too long on anything, and you will lose grip on the threads you’re grasping, along with any sense of perspective you might have been developing. What you want is to cover as much ground and see as many sides of the issue as you can, collecting strands and weaving them together until you’ve completed the picture as well as you may.

In all things, logic should be always a method; not an impediment, not an answer. When process becomes a barrier to development, or is mistaken for development itself, there is an inherent flaw in the system.