This week, Anthony John Agnello delivered an On The Level looking at how Metroid Prime’s opening introduced the Scan Visor and with it a new, more wordy language for the series. His dissenting opinion about a major part of a true classic spurred a ton of great debate down in the comments. PaganPoet thought the flood of new information was an inevitability of modernization:
I happen to think Metroid Prime did what was best to progress the series: divulge more information about what’s going on with a healthy dosage of fan service, but do so in a way that is consistent with the mood of the game. I think keeping everything as mysterious as the first few entries would have led people to getting bored with the formula. But by taking a note from survival-horror games and having your hero discover the setting’s story through computer logs and environmental scans (the sci-fi equivalents of audio logs and crumpled up handwritten notes), the feeling of solitude that has been so key to the series remains intact.
For Jakeoti, Prime’s attempt to keep its text in line with the series’ mood was a success:
I will say that, whether scanning and information is invasive or not, the game does go the right route of having the text be cold, distant, and emotionless. It’s well-written in that it is as basic as it can be, without sounding stupid. A different game might have had the scan function be an easy way for some comic relief, supplying more snarky commentary, like Goombella from Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door. But whether it’s some all-knowing Chozo encyclopedia in Samus’ suit, her ship, or even just her who’s doing the talking, the logs sound so distant that the sense of cold isolation still remains.
That said, there are still a few bits of comic relief, especially when scanning Pirate logs. Science team does indeed have vapor for brains.
Wolfman Jew agreed and elaborated:
I always got the impression that Samus was writing at least most of these, as they feel more like field journals that try to understand what makes these giant plant monsters tick. Plus, I don’t really see how, say, explaining how the Pirates died on the Frigate is exactly ruining the mystery. We know that there may be limbs or incredible force or acid involved, but “parasite” is a pretty ambiguous term for explaining what killed an alien terrorist with a laser cutlass.
I do get the idea that demanding text does kill the mystery, and sure, it does limit the unknowable, incomprehensible tone that permeates much of the Metroid series. But there are a lot of empty gaps in the events of the Prime trilogy, even if you scan everything. Phazon, outside of its mutagenic properties and “origin,” remains enigmatic. Exactly how the Chozo fell on Tallon is hinted at but never concretely explained beyond being pushed out through the corruption.
Also, just on a technical level, I think if you’re going to include an option like the Scan Visor—and you really should, as it helps make the first-person aiming about more than just shooting and furthers a sense of exploration, both things deeply important to what Metroid Prime was—you also need to be able to use it on anything the player might want be interested in. It wasn’t just about scanning a lock or getting hints; it justified the move to 3-D by making players try to analyze the world through the visor in a way that was comparable to what they may have done with Super Metroid’s map.
Merlin The Tuna picked up where that last paragraph left off:
I totally agree, and this is worth reiterating as a subtly important part of transitioning from 2-D to 3-D. Super Metroid works in part because its 2-D nature means that we’re forced to accept a lot of video game abstractions. Interacting with doors and switches solely via missiles and plasma blasts is profoundly weird, but they’re easily dismissed as the nature of the format. You could cynically call this lowering the bar, but I’d rather say it immediately puts the audience in the appropriate mindset for the experience. The game works as atmospheric not because it’s a high-fidelity recreation of a world, but because it colors in details within a framework that we can accept as unobtrusive.
As soon as you enter 3-D, the uncanny valley starts coming into play. Yes, we know intellectually that Metroid Primeis a video game, but if you’re making the presentation more “realistic,” at some level I expect that to be in service of something interactive or experiential. Prime’s first-person shooting is certainly fine, but it’s not exactly groundbreaking. The Scan Visor pointedly shows an understanding that the old assumptions don’t hold under the new framework and that new verbs like “look at [thing]” are a natural, crucial addition to making the experience hold up. And even if that’s not something you might jump on right at the start of the game, if it’s not there, it’ll likely annoy you at some point later on. That’s far more damaging to the experience than accepting some artifice up front.
That said, I do think Anthony’s on to a good point. The ability to intentionally examine objects and creatures—as opposed to non-interactivity or automatic “new lore” pop-ups—does help the feeling of filling in details as you explore, and most of the writing in the Prime series hits the right tone. But it can get wordy at points, and alternate vision modes in particular can introduce tedium. Sometimes that takes the form of constantly flipping back and forth between visors, and sometimes it means that you rarely see the world without a game-o-vision filter that highlights points of interaction. (Dishonored is another amazing game that I’d levy the latter charge against, especially since its alternate vision mode was entirely sepia-toned.) And even acknowledging that the Prime games hold their footing on those slippery slopes, scanning inevitably feels like it takes half-a-second too long after you’ve done it dozens of times.
DL used a musical metaphor to explain what Prime’s lore scanning added:
This piece is almost describing the game as if it were music. The 2-D environments were like a tune, playing for the appreciative audience, but in Prime, we’re suddenly treated to a symphony, complete with written score. You don’t need to know how to read a bass clef to appreciate Yo Yo Ma, but those that do can delve into a greater understanding of his art.
Parker Johnstone is an accomplished former Trans Am, IndyCar, test, and stunt driver, and did a brief stint as an announcer for the IndyCar series. During his announcing tenure, my friend was out with him at an orchestral event as VIP guests. Parker stepped up to the Conductor’s podium prior to the performance to leaf through the score—where the music for every part of the orchestra is written, all at once, line-by-line, page-by-page. As he was flipping through it, the Conductor inquired about his viewing, to which Parker replied, “This is really nice. I like how the trumpets come in here.”
The conductor didn’t realize Parker is a classically trained trumpet player whotoured with Van Cliburn and declined a scholarship to Julliard to study Engineering and become a race car driver. He could not only read the music, but could hear it from the page. Every part was playing in his head, all at once. He could put himself into the music at any time, and derive it from first principles.
Sure, in Metroid Prime some of the text belabors points about the environment or enemies, but so much of the other text builds a voice of how the world you’re exploring came to be. Those that study and invest into reading that information can move through time and live in the world before, during, and after the meteor—the entire story becomes part of them. All of the events, lives, and intentions are laid out all at once, like a conductor’s score, and it becomes more than just pixels and polygons— more than just a tune.
That’ll do it for this week, Gameologiamigos. Next week is E3, and while I’m sad to report we’ll be dialing our coverage back a little bit, we will be hosting live chats for both the Xbox and PlayStation press conferences on Monday, which are scheduled at 9:30 a.m. and 6 p.m. Pacific, respectively. These are always a blast, and I look forward to yukking it up with you all once again. I trust you’ll join us?