Super Metroid Tells a Story as a Game, not an Interactive Movie
It’s not contested that games have become a much more story-driven medium in the past five years, but when one thinks of the titles leading this charge, odds are that they will think of something akin to literature or film; there’s probably lots of well-acted dialogue, maybe a fair amount of reading, audiotapes… The usual. Though these methods can be put to use in the creation of a truly compelling tale, gamers seem to forget about much simpler but equally important stories. These are the stories without a plot. Rather than use a particularly savory triumph or heart-breaking character death to bring emotion, feelings are conveyed entirely through features inherent in a game, such as music, art design, and the actual gameplay. Super Metroid is a perfect example of this, and as such a showcase of the unique artistic potential of gaming as a medium.
In Super Metroid, the plot is barebones. Ridley killed some scientists and took a Metroid, so hunt him down on Zebes. Nintendo of America translator-come-voice actor Dan Owsen’s eleven word incipit is the exclusive line of spoken dialogue in the game, and the few screens of backstory at the outset have the only text seen outside of the UI or item acquisition for the remainder of the experience. The plot is introduced through these utilitarian means and isn’t developed any further up until right before the game’s climax. Even so, Super Metroid maintains careful control of the average player’s first impression of an area, as well as the difficulty curve throughout and in so doing conjures up an emotional arc for its four-to-ten hour runtime and even beyond .
Though player’s have a great degree of freedom in how they navigate Super Metroid’s areas, each player’s progression through the game is largely controlled chaos. This guidance allowed for the developers to control the overall pace and tone of the game; even if a player gets lost in Maridia for way longer than should be humanly possible (as I know I have), the next major event will be a boss fight with Draygon and then a trip to Lower Norfair to pay our friend Ridley a visit. Super Metroid’s created story is most apparent when looking at, or rather listening to, the themes of Norfair and the surface of Crateria. About halfway through the game, players have to defeat Crocomire in order to acquire the grapple beam and thus gain entrance to the Wrecked Ship. In order to find Crocomire, however, we need to delve even deeper into Norfair than before. Enemies deal unprecedented punishment on contact, heat waves rise off of prolific amounts of magma, and the overall atmosphere is oppressive. The accompanying music is suitably moody and dark. Once the grapple beam has been attained, though, players make a quick incidental run through Brinstar on their way to the surface of Zebes, where they are treated to this triumphant fanfare.
This track and its placement in the game drastically alters the mood at a very specific time. The few minutes players spend grappling around in Crateria to this tune’s uplifting brass perfectly complements the low-stakes gameplay of the area, and contrasts the oppressive mood created by the music and volatility of Norfair.
The average novel is composed of a gradual rise in tension, periodically punctuated by key events with slower moments in between. Super Metroid applies this philosophy to its gameplay and ambience. In the example above, the tension was escalating as players dove deeper and deeper into Norfair, encountering more challenging enemies with each new room, before a shockingly violent battle with Crocomire.
After this ordeal, players are granted a brief respite swinging around Crateria, the consequences of failure being lessened accordingly. While missing a jump in Norfair would result in Samus taking a magma bath, her health dropping like a rock, misjudging the distance between two platforms in Crateria only dumps players into a pool of water with a clear path out and few enemies. Just as the plot progression in a novel will tug the audience’s heart rate up and then give them a break before the next major plot point, Super Metroid positions slower stretches of platforming in between high-stakes portions, like boss fights or the exploration of a particularly hazardous area.
Story isn’t just built in to Super Metroid’s area order, though; its core gameplay concept lends itself perfectly towards bringing players into a unique narrative. Every tale shows its characters overcoming some form of hardship; no one would watch a movie in which Rocky began a champion and then creamed every opponent unfortunate enough to come in his way. In a style of game that Super Metroid made famous, players begin with only the most basic of abilities and, as the game progresses, gain more tools and thereby the ability to access more areas. Obviously, it’s satisfying to open up entire regions of the map, but there are few feelings better to me than absolutely annihilating formerly dangerous enemies while cleaning up those last few missile expansions, thanks to a fancy new death beam procured in the last area.
This feeling is compounded by the multitude of tricks and hidden maneuvers buried in Super Metroid. These techniques are in no way required to see the credits, but they can make the game’s subterranean hazards far more navigable when integrated into gameplay. In Maridia, for example, there is a large chasm players must grapple across in order to access the fight with Botwoon and defeat Draygon shortly thereafter. On my first play through, I struggled with the grapple points and bizarre jelly fish-like creatures for what felt like hours, before finally surmounting the challenge. On subsequent playthroughs, however, I used the large empty space at the bottom of the room to charge a Shinespark and then shoot up to the top of the room, making quick work of what initially took up half of my time in Maridia. The satisfaction to be gained from mastering these little tricks and bringing the completion time lower and lower is what formed such a tight speed running community around the game and, though I’m not that fanatical, I certainly see the appeal; it’s fun, and the player’s understanding of Zebes grows proportionally to Samus’, really drawing each and every explorer into the adventure.
This mastery over the player’s emotions makes Super Metroid an example of how games can tell stories using elements all their own. Sure, it doesn’t go beyond the most basic elements of an actual narrative, but Super Metroid cuts straight to the heart of why we love a well-told story: feeling. The game manages to create the emotions of a good film or book without the use of traditional storytelling elements, and it’s something that I wish we would see more of. Though all games accomplish this to an extent, Super Metroid and most of the later entries in the Metroid series do it so much more completely than the average game. Wordy games like Metal Gear will always have a place in both my heart and the industry, but if we want the general public to see the true narrative possibility of games we need to show it through exemplars like Super Metroid, games that pull players into an emotional journey through gaming’s defining characteristic: interactivity.