Features: Don't Touch My Samus: Metroid's Controversial Turn

Why the latest Metroid game's depiction of Samus isn't a complete departure for the series

Metroid isn't a franchise that is known to rest upon its laurels. While each entry maintains the same basic elements that made the first game successful, one could hardly say that the series has gotten comfortable over the years. Whether it's adding a narrative, introducing immersive motion controls or completely changing perspectives, Metroid has been able to stay fresh and unique while still managing to resonate with fans and critics alike.

And then Metroid: Other M came along and rubbed seemingly everybody the wrong way.

It's been a while since we've had a Metroid game that hasn't been hailed as the second coming, and while some (us included) quite liked the game, there seem to be just as many that flat out despise it.

Much of the venom-spitting regarding Other M actually has very little to do with the gameplay; most of the complaints have risen from the game's portrayal of the classic heroine, Samus Aran. It's been controversial, to say the least, with critics calling it everything from inconsistent to downright sexist.

Now, as mentioned earlier, we at Nintendo Life don't feel the same way; in fact, it's one of our highest-rated games of the year. That's not to say we're fanboys blind to its flaws, though: we'll fully admit that the game's script is mediocre at best, and the voice acting is far from perfect. But we'd like to do a bit more digging before making any further judgments regarding Samus's allegedly inconsistent portrayal.

IGN's Audry Drake opened up her article, “Killing Samus,” with the statement: “In Metroid Other M, the formerly silent character is given voice for the first time, a voice that goes against everything her character once stood for and backtracks on the trails she once blazed.”

Let's examine that phrase, “formerly silent character.” We'd like to consider as a counterpoint the concept of a book-to-film adaptation. For example, think about this: was James Bond a silent character before Dr. No was adapted into a film? Obviously not. He was in countless books, in which he had thousands of words worth of dialogue. Just because Sean Connery hadn't spoken those words out loud on camera doesn't mean James Bond was a silent character before the films. So why is Samus Aran, who has spoken numerous times throughout the series prior to the latest game, suddenly a “formerly silent character”? This isn't just a rant about the incorrect usage of the word “silent”, here — Samus's dialogue prior to Other M is imperative to understanding her character. Just because it wasn't voiced by an actress prior to this year doesn't make it any less important to her history.

Take, for example, this quote from one of Samus's many inner monologues:

As for me, one life ended... yet I survived, reborn as something different. Pondering this fact, I realise... I owe the Metroid hatchling my life twice over.

If you've played Other M, you've likely heard your fill of this kind of introspective brooding for which some critics panned the game. But this isn't a quote from Other M; it's from Metroid: Fusion, a game released eight years prior. Even this long before Other M was released, Samus was still presented as a largely emotional and introspective character. More important still, it shows that the bounty hunter's feelings for the baby Metroid did not come “completely out of the blue."

Suggesting that Samus, prior to Other M, was the stereotypically emotionless “loose-cannon [insert profession here] who doesn't play by the rules” character, with absolutely no feelings towards anything or anyone living, would be a tad short-sighted. You would have to completely ignore the emotional ending to Metroid II where Samus, tasked with obliterating all the Metroids on SR388, completely disregards her orders in order to spare a baby Metroid's life when it mistakes her for its mother. You would also have to ignore the tragic ending of Super Metroid, where her relationship with the baby comes to a peak when the Metroid hatchling sacrifices its own life to save that of Samus. Other M's reflections on this relationship may have fallen a little too much on the side of melodrama, but they certainly weren't a complete incongruity for the series.

Then again, her feelings toward the Metroid were the least of many critics' concerns. More than anything, it was Samus's relationship with Adam Malkovich that sent a good chunk of the gaming media into a catatonic shock.

The fact that there was shock, though, is actually a little shocking in itself. Miss Aran's feelings for Adam Malkovich were actually well established long before Other M came along in Metroid Fusion – and it was just as eye-rollingly sentimental even then:

For some reason, this awoke a nameless fear in my heart, and now I am being sent there to investigate. My mission on the B.S.L station will be overseen by my new ship's computer. Following the commands of this blunt, computerized CO is something I have to bear, as it was a condition of my taking the ship. For someone who dislikes taking orders, this is the second time I've found myself having to do so. It makes me recall my other CO [Adam]...The real Adam would have said the same thing about that incident, but he would have softened the blow. He was relentless in his criticism, but he always cared... He was not a machine obsessed with duty. No such compassion could exist in that computer.

Try reading that in your best, “emotionally detached” monotone – sounds like a quote right out of the pages of Other M's script, does it not? Everything, from the “nameless fear in my heart” line (which sounds eerily similar to the “pierced my heart” line in Other M, by the way) to the way she quietly reveres her former commander, just smacks of the latest Metroid game — in fact, if you put excerpts from both of their scripts side by side, it's almost impossible to tell them apart.

There's also an incredibly important line in that above passage, where Samus refers to herself as "someone who dislikes taking orders." That might be construed as an inconsistency right there – after all, she does take orders in Metroid: Other M – but it could also be looked at as an example of just how consistent Other M really is. Samus dislikes taking orders from commanding officers, something she makes clear in the game, but Adam Malkovich – a man whose importance was first hinted at in Fusion – is someone she “views as a father figure” (as she clearly states), and so she respects him enough not to go chucking around Power Bombs and Super Missiles willy-nilly and eviscerating every human aboard the Bottle Ship.

Now, as for why she couldn't use her Varia suit from the beginning of the game... well, what can we say? The authorisation aspect of the game was ridiculously contrived, no question. But then, so is the idea that Space Pirates have Morph-Ball mazes and Spider-Ball tracks built into their spacecrafts. Or the idea that they have missiles and purple balls of energy-refilling spheres packed into their bellies for you to collect once you kill them.

Not everyone will agree with this, of course – G4 took Samus's willingness to submit to Adam's authority as an example of Other M portraying Samus as a “submissive, child-like and self-doubting little girl”. Yet for us, this is one of the most fascinating parts of the game – the duality of Samus. On the outside she's still a stone-cold bad-ass, shoving her arm cannon into enemies' mouths and blowing their heads off or grabbing them by the tail and whipping them around the room like a lasso.

Inside, though, she's conflicted, distracted by her past decisions and mistakes. The fact that she sometimes questions her own abilities to the point of even seeing herself as a child in the face of a massive monster adds some serious depth to her character. Suddenly, she's not just this blank, emotionless avatar who happens to be good at killing stuff – she's a human being with emotions with whom the player can relate and even sympathise. After all, who of us hasn't ever felt helpless and childlike in the face of a huge challenge, even if it's one we've faced many times before?

But then there's the big question: is Metroid: Other M truly sexist, as some have suggested? Well, the answer to that question is really up to your own personal beliefs, and depends upon how exactly you interpret the word “sexist.” But we will say this: if Other M is sexist, then Fusion and Corruption are, too.

The biggest sexism argument seems to be the fact that Samus is forced to submit to a man's authority. Interpret it as you will, but let's not forget that she views the man in question as a father figure. The game tells us that she submits to him not because she's forced to, but because she wants to prove to him that she's not the immature, authority-hating youngster she once was. It may read in part as sexist for a female youth to feel this way, but to disregard all other aspects of her character and reduce her to her gender for this interpretation is a bit sexist as well. Still, it's not a completely closed case: Metroid Prime 3: Corruption and Metroid Fusion both place Samus in a situation where she is forced to obey orders from a male (or in the case of Fusion, a computerised male) officer, yet somehow both these titles managed to slip past the ol' sexism radar and gain huge amounts of critical acclaim. At least Other M tried to give a reason as to why she decided to submit, something that even Corruption failed to do. There's nothing inherently sexist about submission or self-doubt, and the notion that female characters must always avoid both to be considered strong is a bit sexist in and of itself.

G4TV complained about the game's flashbacks portraying Samus as “bratty and childish,” but in the flashbacks in question, Samus was still in many ways, a child. In her Galactic Federation days she was a teenager; “young and naïve,” as she puts it. Is it really that big of a stretch to assume that Samus didn't come out of the womb as a stone-cold, perfectly mature, alien-blasting lone wolf? Teenagers, both male and female, are somewhat notoriously bratty and childish. Those flashbacks are supposed to show Samus's often immature nature during her Galactic Federation days.

Metroid: Other M is a massively polarising game, and there's a good chance that it won't be your cup of tea. It's quite linear compared to Super Metroid or the NES original, and the emphasis on cinematic cutscenes is bound to rub some the wrong way, not to mention the tendency toward melodrama. However, there's a lot to consider before we can write it off as sexist or inconsistent.

How much more deeply should we consider dialogue in a cinematic cutscene compared to the written speech of games past? How sexist is her portrayal, and is it sexist for reasons we've left out? Is it sexist at all? Do you believe Samus's fear and naiveté, or do they resound falsely to your ears? It's a case not worth shutting at this point, and we'd like to hear your thoughts on the matter in the comments section below.

[via wii.ign.com, g4tv.com]

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