Art Tickles – Of Doing and Being

Originally written for Haywire Magazine.

Taylor Hidalgo feels that his behavior says a great deal about him, but most especially when he plays Patapon in public without headphones.

Weeds drift in the wind, their whispers occasionally punctuated by the calls of the wild. Planet Zebes is a network of underground caverns and a mix of valleys and mountains. A small ship drifts to the surface, rapidly getting swallowed on either side by colossal mountains. The ship opens to reveal an armored figure, who calmly exits the ship, and departs into a nearby cavern. A single sentence punctuates her thoughts as she takes an elevator into the subterranean deeps, a single thought to pre-amble her very first mission as a bounty hunter.

During the time she is in the caverns, Samus says nothing and speaks to no one. It is in these moments, where we see Samus acting that we are best able to see who she really is. Samus is more than just her dialogue: her characterization occurs largely through her body language and capability, rather than what she says. She is single-minded in her duty, finding the secret lair of the space pirates and the construct therein known as “Mother Brain.” Her mission sees her dealing with countless perils, including the natural creatures who reside both in and out of the planet’s caverns, alien-infested ruins, lava and acid pools, complex networks of trap-laden corridors, manufactured fortress defenses, and life-stealing aliens immune to her native beam technology.

Throughout these challenges, Samus perseveres. Her manner is constant, her body language strong and unyielding, with her weapons at the ready as she moves efficiently from room to room suppressing threats. You could speculate how Samus uses save rooms for pause and introspection, but otherwise the only behaviors Samus exhibits are those of purpose for the mission. By the end, she’s survived a fierce battle in a heavily restricted environment that denied her movement and agility options. Upon completion, she must race from the planet to escape, wounded, and weak. She does so wordlessly, fleeing the planet as it literally comes apart around her.

Only after she has escaped the planet does she really settle in to speak and ponder further. Even then, her musings seem to center on an ensuing escape that manages to destroy her ship and critically damages her power armor. From that point, she returns to the surface of Zebes, seemingly in the hope of infiltrating the space pirate mothership, effectively unarmed, to steal a ship that will enable her to leave.

Metroid: Zero Mission is a game that gives Samus three or four lines of “dialogue,” but spends much of its time characterizing her behaviors. She has quiet introspection, but is steadfast and goal-oriented, able to rise to numerous challenges with simple practicality and seemingly ruthless efficiency. There is a great deal more to Samus than the words she writes, or the cutscenes that accompany her. Every part of her stance, her weapons, her abilities, and her behaviors stand as a testament to who she is and how she behaves, a wordless Valkyrie that descends upon planets before taking off again, mission completed.

By comparison, Metroid Fusion is a much more verbal game. Set in a hauntingly quiet research laboratory, Samus is tasked with investigating an explosion within the satellite. The atmosphere in the station is much more subdued, with smaller, tighter corners. The halls are gray, the conditions are much more manufactured with fewer slopes and less gentle lines. Everything is sleek, sharp, precise, and metallic. The shutters of a spaceport close around the ship, dropping Samus into a quiet space station. A computerized voice of authority commands Samus’ operations, giving her clear objectives and preventing her from moving forward until she’s checked into home base for new objectives and mission updates.

As the story progresses, she unlocks access to various environments, going to more familiar territories and planetscapes, all habitats to emulate other environments, but while still feeling somewhat manufactured. Punctuating each new area is a visit to a Navigation Room, in which Samus interfaces with her ship’s A.I., which assigns her specific objectives and demands of her certain behaviors. These asides, while not unwelcome, set a decidedly different pace.

These scenes are distinctly at odds with her previous outing in the planet Zebes, replacing the organic caverns populated with alien fauna with steel hallways and robotic dialogue. Most every transition from one part of the station to another is accompanied by internal monologues from Samus as she reflects on her ship’s computer and her history with her commanding officer during her stint in the Galactic Federation. The progression structure of Fusion feels very different from Zero Mission, with the pacing constantly stopped by an an overseeing A.I. with mission commands determined to make Samus move in clear, precise patterns. Instead of natural barriers to progression, there are artificial ones defined by security hatches and narrative checkpoints.

In terms of player-input, the results are identical, making it so a certain objective is accomplished before the player can proceed. In many other regards as well, both games are mechanically similar. The actual player mechanics are functionally identical, with the strategies employed in either game beingquite similar, and aside from the shifts in color palette, the visuals are resemblant as well. The narratives, on the other hand, almost could not play out more differently. Fusion favors longer exchanges of dialogue, more written introspection, and story characters that are a constant influence on players. These all seem to create a game that is much more busy, despite having roughly the same running time as Zero Mission.

Zero Mission is very hands-off by comparison. The only sort of external influence to exploration is a series of Chozo statues that offer advice on where the next objective may lie, and even those are mostly optional for the player to decide whether or not to use them. The time spent between optional objectives is also longer, letting the player come to terms with exploration rather than getting brief snippets of story or having the game offer a more hands-on guide to the player’s progression.

Even accounting for that difference though, there’s relatively little difference between Samus’ characterization in the Zero Mission and Fusion. With the exception of one dialogue-chain between the computerized A.I. and Samus in Fusion, Samus’s dialogue is still exclusively internal, providing monologues for herself. When Samus does reference her commanding officer or contemplates previous missions, those thoughts reveal the same traits her outward behavior does already. For the most part, the games tend to personify and characterize Samus in much the same way.

Samus’s actions define her characteristics. Her mannerisms when alone are subdued and muted. When pressed into combat, often with opponents several times her height and weight, her movements are minimal and efficient, ruthlessly practical in the face of significant threat. Her mission comes first, and she approaches problems directly, resolving them with swift application of force. Often, Samus’ only noise in any given Metroid game is her death scream, assuming the player dies over the course of a game. Otherwise, Samus is quiet and stalwart in the face of changing plans, troubling revelations, and against increasingly challenging opponents and perils.

For comparison, the text in Zero Mission accounts for a grand total of 87 words across the entire game, as compared to Fusion’s 4,730 words throughout. This sort of disparity between how a story is told as compared to how much is said, and what manner of characterization can come from such designs and behaviors, is what Left Unsaid was talking about. By and large, any dialogue communicated by Samus reinforces character traits her posture and behavioral response to in-game events have already elucidated.

Actions speak louder than words, or so the adage goes. So too with games. Characterization, story, and dialogue are all interconnected, each serving to fulfill an aspect of a story. Characterization and story come as much from what is done rather than what is said.

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