Ancient Rant: Videogame Edition- Metroid Other M

04/28/2011

So I’ve decided from time to time I will dredge out some ancient long-simmering rant about some movie or videogame that everyone has already discussed to death and try and hopefully present something new to at least some people.

Today’s edition is about a videogame released last year called Metroid: Other M. For those of my readers who are not gamers, Metroid is a series of games about a female bounty hunter named Samus Aran who is called in to various solo missions where she unravels the plots of a group of Space Pirates and often saves the universe from huge epic threats.

The games began as basically a form of side-scrolling platformer and were later turned into a first-person shooter. The character can often turn into a ball to jump higher or navigate tight spaces thanks to futuristic space armor with a host of weapons that are often acquired through the game for often arbitrary reasons. For more reading, here’s the wikipedia page.

Now, that’s the basics of it and I’ll be getting into the rest later.

Now, the reason I’m doing this rant (and specifically now) is because of a series of factors.

First, the release of this latest game in the series, Metroid: Other M. The game has been routinely criticized for creating a hideous mess of a game with an unbelievably offensive grasp of women.

Basically, the short of it was the game was handed to a company called Team Ninja who are famous for a game called Dead or Alive: Beach Volleyball which was game based around watching women in skimpy outfits bounce up and down, so basically an even more objectified version of The Man Show.

Said company made a number of questionable decisions regarding the titular character, deciding to give her an “epic backstory” which basically presented her as a PTSD mess unable to accomplish anything akin to the tasks she had in other games without the assistance of men.

Worst of all, they included a game mechanic wherein Samus had massive daddy issues and an Elektra complex that caused her to doff any sense of competence and actually take ongoing damage from environments until the object of her affection told her she could protect herself. In the game this would consist of walking into flames and getting burnt until the male authority figure known as Adam told her she could protect herself.

As an exploration of abusive relationships or possibly BDSM, this mechanic could have been interesting, but instead, it was presented as straight. Samus was unable to think for herself because this was the developer’s idea of a reasonable depiction of how a woman would act.

But I’ll get into further rants on that after I point out the other “recent” events that have excavated this rant.

Second, has been a video response to the controversy by MovieBob who is a movie and games critic who also has a show called The Game Overthinker. During this show, he had a video up defending the game, which I have link below:

The Game Overthinker: Heavens to Metroid

The episode gave me quite a bit of an urge to rant. But that gets us to the final prompt.

Another gaming critique show called Extra Credits, which may be one of my favorite shows on the site for its frequent deconstructions of the medium of video games and various cultural issues, recently had a video about Other M embedded below. This followed an excellent video on Female characters in video games, which is a must see:

Extra Credits: Learning from Other M

This video was posted today and takes care of a lot of the issues of Other M, pointing out the broken mechanics and a number of other creative missteps that created the game.

There even was some brief addressing of Other M’s most egregious faults (the sexist protrayal of its central female protagonist), but both it and MovieBob’s review ended up glossing over it to a large extent.

And the sexism shouldn’t be glossed over, because it is a large part of the backlash.

No, not because the sexism is just a way to attack Japan for having a different culture as MovieBob tried to deflect to, but because how women are presented in video games is a real subject with some real problems.

Video games doesn’t have a wealth of good female characters. Worse yet, it has an even smaller pool of female main protagonists and an even smaller pool of good ones.

I own many of the games that do and love many of them. Silent Hill 3, Portal, Beyond Good and Evil, Parasite Eve, Mirror’s Edge.

Sadly, many of these games are cult favorites, not so much remembered (Portal being a recent exception) and few being as fully recognized as the Mario or Sonic games in gaming’s lexicon.

As such female protagonists are few and far between and rarely are such characters non-sexualized as objectified pieces of ass for presumed male players.

Worse yet, such characters are rarely allowed to be competent badasses on the scale of male heroes, many female characters in gaming playing support roles, being the reward object (such as Princess Peach in the Mario games) or otherwise on the periphery.

This is especially true when you focus on the icons of gaming history. There are a number of male heroes that are considered gaming icons. Mario and Sonic, Simon Belmont of Castlevania, Pacman, Megaman, Bomberman, Link from Zelda, and so on.

Nintendo has a game series called Super Smash Bros which collects those gaming icons it has created as a longtime gaming company and in it there is a number of beloved characters.

And most of them have presumed penises. In the last Smash Bros game, of the 35 characters included in the game as characters, only 3 were women.

Two of those women were support characters. One the aforementioned kidnap victim Princess Peach, the other a homebase support character from the Zelda games (Princess Zelda) who basically kickstarted most missions by sending Link off to save the world.

And then there is Samus Aran.

Samus Aran is the first female main protagonist in gaming history. The revelation in Metroid where she takes off her suit to reveal herself as a woman to the player remains one of gaming’s most important historical moments. Furthermore, she is one of the few female characters in gaming who wasn’t sexualized to titilate male gamers.

Here she was, the games argued, a tough bounty hunter who will break into the Pirate spaceship and blow shit up, just like her male contemporary heroes.

So she was important, but it is even bigger than that. Samus is the only positive female icon in gaming.

Let me repeat that:

Samus is the only positive female icon in gaming.

She is the only figure of gaming’s history that is regularly considered one of history’s true defining characters, one of those figures from the early days of gaming that nongamers have heard of and that can be synonymous with gaming.

One of the figures who belongs in the medium. Not as an accident, not as a fad, not as a cult favorite, but because she has been beloved for decades and is a welcome part of gaming’s history.

This is important because this has been a rocky shoal that female gamers have clung to.

Female gamers have constantly been considered secondary in gaming. They are not the target audience of new games. Little attention is put into catering to a female audience and when it is, the attention betrays a complete lack of understanding of what women want.

Worse yet, female gamers have found themselves the trigger for a lot of hardcore vs casual debates. Every genre that finally posts equal numbers of fans of male and female varieties seems to end up being deemed casual and not real gaming shortly thereafter.

This happened to puzzle games (yes, Tetris used to be considered hardcore), adventure games (again, Myst was hardcore), simulation games (SimEarth and SimCity used to be considered for supernerds), and now recently with Japanese RPGs.

If women like it, it must not be real gaming. I can’t wait for shooting games to eventually have a 50% female audience to see how that became “pussified” and “casual” in the minds of the gamer community.

But that’s beside the point. What is the point of this is that women tend to be tolerated at best, and often just ignored or written out entirely in the gaming industry. We rarely get characters we can wholly identify with. We rarely get explorations of themes that are important to our day to day lives and we often have to slog through a bunch of “jiggle physics”, string bikinis, and ultramacho dialogue just to enjoy our leisure time.

But no matter how unwanted female gamers have felt in the general gaming community and in the eyes of developers, they have always known that they belonged in said communities.

Why?

Because of Samus Aran. As long as Samus Aran was an icon of gaming, as long as she was someone female gamers could drift into enjoying all the empowerment fantasies that their male counterparts took for granted. As long as that was true, then women belonged in gaming. There was proof we had been there in the beginning, that we’ve been along for the ride and that strong female protagonists and games that didn’t insult female gamers were worth exploring.

And that really illustrates why Other M is such a travesty and why responses like MovieBob’s fail to grasp why the backlash over the game is so intense.

If they merely screwed up on a character, one in a dozen, there is backlash from fans of that character, feelings of betrayal from those who loved that series. It’s bad, but it’s contained. People can go enjoy another character they love and can identify with.

Similarly if a game includes a sexist storyline, depiction or character. It’s bad. It can easily ruin the ability of a woman to enjoy the game and it will prevent a lot of men who can’t ignore those issues from enjoying the game as well. It’s bad, but meh, there’s a lot of garbage so what can you do.

But this was something even worse. They took gaming’s sole female icon. The one thing that women have consistently had to look up to and know they belong in the fan community. They took that and made it a sexist mess.

They made a badass competent professional into a mewling child unable to complete missions without men completing the important tasks. Unable to even protect herself unless the man she imprints daddy issues onto tells her she’s allowed. Every nasty stereotype of women seems packed into this game.

Women are emotional, check. Women are incompetent, check. Women can’t think for themselves, check. Women can’t do anything without a man, check. Women are willing to sacrifice and be puppets for men, because that’s natural. Dear fucking Bob in Himmel, why is there a checkbox for that!

There is no real way to explain the betrayal, the sheer punch in the soul that that kind of betrayal of character represents (and regardless of what MovieBob argues, it is clear she at least had enough humanity in early presentations to not be a walking “women are shit” bag of sexist stereotypes).

This is reducing gaming’s one female icon into a sick joke, a sexist nightmare.

It is nothing less than the developers of Other M telling female gamers that they simply do not belong in gaming. That they are unwanted and that there is no female character so beloved, so well crafted that it can’t be reduced into a steaming mess of sexist assumptions in order to appeal to the default male gamer.

And there is no real alternatives. Women do not have another icon to turn to and say oh well. The scarcity that made Samus so critical also made her fragile and hideously damaging. As such, we will have to wait for her character to be passed to a better studio and to get the apology game and retcon assuming such a game even surfaces.

Its also why the backlash is so intense. Not only was this a horribly offensive idea of a female main protagonist, but it was done to a beloved icon. And not only a beloved icon, but the female icon.

If there is one positive its that meek off-topic defenses like Movie Bob’s (where he argues with a straw man over arguments where he holds some small level of accuracy) are the minority.

For the most part, the mostly male gaming community has reacted with rage at Other M and better yet, the focus of that rage has been the sexist characterization and betrayal of the icon and what she represents.

People have repeatedly pointed out the most egregious sexist moments and called out the developers for it.

And I think this is proof of what Samus represented and represents to this day. That her presence as a good female character with a rich long history is important to gaming as a whole in its slim connection to a female audience and to the viability of female protagonists in games today.

Even men who would gladly ignore the objectified women or sexist typecasting in other games, realize that this was a step too far and a travesty to the character.

For the first time, the feminist argument is one heard by the majority of gamers, not a small targeted minority.

And that is good and to be cherished, but it also highlights the damage.

Which is why close to a year later, female gamers and those who wish to see more of us are still ranting about this game.

5 Responses to “Ancient Rant: Videogame Edition- Metroid Other M”

  1. Hey. Sorry to see how much we disagree about Other M. You have a great point about Samus’ unique position in teh iconography of gaming – but I’m not convinced that Other M Samus is really as bad as everyone pretends she is.

  2. Makyui said

    The politics with regards to gender are really fucked up in the gaming industry, and for some reason I’d come to expect Nintendo to be better than all that (it’s really naive, I admit, considering how conservative NOA was at the start). Unfortunately, they seem to be just as bad, and the fact that they’re also a huge icon in the gaming world that also… well, doesn’t focus on children per se but acknowledges children as gamers, makes it all the worse, because then they become an entity for children to look up to.

    They’ve been whitewashing gender nonconformity, too. I’m honestly surprised they didn’t censor Chrono Trigger’s Flea/Mayone more than they already did, considering in Birdo/Catherine’s case they went from misgendering but overtly acknowledging her transsexuality, to erasing that and making her cisgender, then just getting all wishywashy and erasing all mention of gender whatsoever, calling her an “indeterminate gender” (wtf, LOOK AT HER, how can you call that “indeterminate”?) and using the word “it”.

    Of course, the fact that trans women are represented in the Nintendo world by a scaly pink egg monster is pretty horrendous in and of itself.

    And then there’s Sheik. Being FTM, I’m actually literally afraid to play the Ocarina of Time re-release because Nintendo’s lately been rewriting Sheik as female, including giving him large breasts and hips in Brawl, even though the original Ocarina not only designed him as having a male body but outright called him male. I don’t remember anyone raising a stint when I was a kid about female Zelda dressing up as male Sheik, and pre-Brawl I never met a fan who had a problem with calling Sheik male even though he was Zelda’s disguise, but all of a sudden it’s become an issue lately, especially with fans (lots of people claim that it’s not child-friendly, and others claim that it’s an affront to women’s rights, which I don’t buy because 99.9% of them use female Sheik as a sex object, and they think it’s perfectly okay for Nintendo to make Zelda this helpless simpering damsel who gets disabled and captured without so much as a struggle the instant she sheds her disguise) and Nintendo seems to be trying their hardest to pretend it never happened. The trailers already show that they deliberately redesigned Sheik to be more feminine in body and movement, so I’m really afraid that they just retconned everything and started calling him by female pronouns, too. Maybe I’m wrong, but at this point I really doubt it.

    Obviously that Sheik had to be a male in order to be a legitimate ally is a problem, and if they’d made him female from the start, that would’ve been better. But now it seems that instead of fixing one problem, they’re just adding another. Not only are female gamers not welcome in the Nintendo world, transgender people aren’t either.

    • Transfolk really don’t fare well in teh video game universe. I can’t think of any other than Roxy and Poison, who are around just to get beat up (although to be fair, lots of characters especially cis-gendered heteronormative males exist in teh video game universe solely to be beat up) and were completely changed during localization.

      Wikipedia has a list and it doesn’t add that much.

      In DQIX, the revocation artifact for Minstrels is something that allows characters to cross-dress. Is this bad in that cross-dressing is only possible with a difficult to acquire artifact or good in that gender exploration is used here as a reward for in-game efforts. I dunno. Anyways, I haven’t had the Wear-With-All equipped much so I don’t know if NPC’s react differently to you when you have it on.

      Long story short, totally agree that teh video game industry, Nintendo included, not welcoming to anyone other than hetero-cis-males.

  3. Ing said

    Sheik as a male also fits from the story POV since at least at the time they were sort of hoping you wouldn’t guess that the normally passive Zelda was Sheik.

  4. I haven’t been paying attention to Other M much, since I never got around to getting a Wii (which is a shame; I do love Metroid). I didn’t even know that Nintendo had handed Other M over to Team Ninja, which is a bad idea on multiple levels. I certainly didn’t know about this.

    I think what made Samus so great as a female character is that, because she wears her suit most of the time, her gender doesn’t heavily define her. Yeah, it’s sad that you have to basically ignore her gender entirely just to get a strong female character, but the patriarchal assumption is, after all, that the generic “person” is male, and women are Others.

    So I guess what I mean is, the revelation Miyamoto and his team seem to have had when they were developing the original Metroid is that they looked at this bounty hunter running around in the armor, and realized, “Hey, that could be a man or a woman inside that suit!” And a revelation like that is critical to realizing that women aren’t Others.

    Team Ninja was obviously unable to look past her gender, or more importantly past their horrible stereotypes of her gender. Figures.

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