The most engaging aspect of a game, one that fully draws players into the fantastical realm, is the interactive narrative. Where the plot is the set of main events that enable players to complete the game, the narrative is the entire scope of the story that includes the plot but also the other side stories and extraneous details the player decides to complete. Being able to choose where to go in an adventure gives the player narrative agency, meaning they get to decide what happens to their character, other characters, and their surroundings. Different games provide various amounts of agency, from virtually none (simple games such as Space Invaders) to almost full agency (“crafting” games such as Minecraft or “sandbox” games such as GTA). The more a game allows for player agency, the greater incentive the player has to explore both the paths of the landscape and the paths of the narrative, seeing all the different possible outcomes of their choices. Interestingly, the most engaging games tend to “hide” the plot from the player: instead of stating the mission at the beginning (“Rescue Princess Peach from Bowser” or “Defeat the Joker and take back Arkham Asylum”), these games do not tell the player the ultimate goal, leaving the player to figure it out on their own. This narrative technique of “hiding the plot” exemplifies and takes advantage of one of the strongest human feelings: curiosity. Our curiosity to discover our own journeys in life push us to walk down the paths that will take us to new and exciting places. For games in particular, the Metroid franchise effectively uses the “hidden plot” to drive our need to create our own adventures, allowing us to feel fully in control of our own virtual destiny.

Before we continue, I must make the distinction between linear gameplay and the “openness” of the virtual world. Nintendo’s Metroid series are heavily exploratory to the point where the explorative world defines the series in general; however, despite the praise the franchise gets for its “non-linear” landscapes, Metroid games are not “open-world”. Today, open-world games drop players into a huge and expansive realm and allow them to go and do whatever they want. A seemingly infinite number of paths to take, jobs to do, side quests, quests, people to interact with, and powers to receive awaits in the world,. Some areas you may never discover in your first attempt at the game, while different weapons may allow you to certain areas and not others. Choices in open-world games are essential, for choices determine someone’s playthrough and gaming experience. The player has the freest range of character development, deciding whether the character will be more charismatic than intelligent, amoral than immoral, or rescue a group of children rather than destroy a group of raiders. Though many of the games provide an initial plot to get the player going (“You must defeat X boss to save the world”; “Your child is lost on an apocalyptic planet and you need to find them”), whether or not the player completes this task right away is up to them – players may instead overthrow a corrupt king, explore and raid an entire dungeon, or find a legendary weapon known in ancient myths before going to finish the main plot of the game. The Fallout series, Elder Scrolls series, and World of Worldcraft all fall into the open-world category, and, you will notice, are immensely popular because of their vast options, diverse gameplay mechanics, and hands-on character building.

Metroid, on the other hand, is not open-world: the player is Samus Aran, and the player cannot change this. Her characteristics are certain, yet implied: she’s mostly a silent protagonist, with a few speech texts to express her thoughts (I am not counting Other M in this discussion), but the texts portray her as a courageous and strong willed woman who keeps pushing forward in order to save a world or space station. You can only get certain power-ups along the way that correspond to her ultimate power, the Varia suit; you cannot find lightning magic and choose to equip it to your gun. Also, more importantly, only one plot exists, not multiple paths and story arcs that Samus can venture off to. What the one plot entails, however, is something that player must figure out on their own.

Metroid games are not open-world, but, to many players, they feel open-world. This is because the games exemplify a true immersion into the world by not giving the player an explicit goal at the beginning. With many games in the series, the only plot you get is Samus’s reason for being on the planet: to destroy a pirate army, to find the last metroid, to discover the dimensional anomaly of the planet, and so on. Once Samus lands on the planet, however, the player must discover, basically, everything : where to go, how to get to a door across a cavern, why the chozo disappeared, what Phazon is, and a seemingly infinite pile of other questions. Samus has to run into the dark and foreboding planet of SR388, the peaceful and mysterious environment of Tallon IV, or the eerie silence of space stations with barely any weapons to transverse the terrain or defeat most enemies. The journey into an unknown world with no clear direction is the distinct “openness” of Metroid games: it creates a virtual world that seemingly holds many possibilities and paths. Even if this is not actually true (which I will prove shortly), the “openness” of Metroid games fools players into thinking that the entire world is theirs to explore, and that the path they choose to explore shows their skill and intelligence in solving the giant puzzle that is the Metroid world. It was their explorative genius, they think, that found the plasma gun or found the hidden pirate base, and players take great ownership in their discoveries.

Super Metroid Map

Metroid’s “openness” tricks the players into thinking the whole world is theirs to navigate, yet this is actually not the case. There is only one goal to achieve — no separate side quests exist — and there is only one way to achieve this goal (for Metroid games, this means either defeating the “final boss” or escaping the collapsing planet/space station, and usually you have to do both). The trick with most Metroid games is that no game mechanic tells you how to get from point A to point B. Sure, there is only one way to beat the game – you must get item X in order to access certain areas of the map – but mystery clouds the entire way. For example, in Metroid Prime, players must traverse a pirate ship submerged in water, but Samus’s Varia Suit is not equipped to move freely in water. Presumably, an anti-gravity power-up exists for that, but players do not know where to find such an item. Sometimes, too, players need to find another power-up to get the one they initially needed. Because of this game structure – a structure of finding certain power-ups before others to access different areas – the world is not “open-world” but instead an “open maze.” The games give you a certain number of areas, and small rooms connected by access doors compose each area, creating maps of different shapes of sizes. Metroid worlds are mazes that force you to backtrack, retrace your steps, and find a branching path from one you previously took. When you look back at a completed Metroid map, they look huge and complicated; but if you traced Samus’s path, there would only be one line that never branched out to different areas but was consistent in its journey, sometimes returning to previously visited rooms but only in order to reach previously inaccessible room. This is, of course, assuming a perfect run, or a playthrough that shows where all the power-ups and hidden secrets are without making any mistakes. First-time Metroid players (and, most likely, others who do not have good memory) will take paths that are all over the place, showing the lost and confused struggles of a player who does not know the right path. Metroid games may not be as “open” as many initially think, but by keeping silent about where certain power-ups are, by keeping silent about how to get from point A to point B, and by keeping silent about the narrative details of the story, the Metroid games give their players a true exploratory experience: one of trial and error, of cracking the code of a maze, and of struggling to find the right path in a seemingly vast and complicated world.

Since we compared Metroid games to the vastness of open-world games, let’s compare Metroid to a game on the other end of the spectrum: The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. A common complaint about Skyward Sword is that it is too straightforward, which providesan example of how linearity can be bad game design if not implemented properly. Earlier Zelda games presented an aerial view of a 2D world in a square frame, and it was up to you where in the square you need to be. Later Zelda games presented a 3D world that was not necessarily a square, but rather a large field, a desert, a castle town, or the entire sea that you had to navigate through, and you had to determine who to talk to and what mission is more important to take. In Skyward Sword, however, maps mostly resembled a snake, twisting around a one-way path until you reached whatever plot point that is essential to the game. Other one-way paths are opened later, but you always needed some kind of weapon or ability to unlock these paths. Even in the Lanayru desert area where you use a time stone to navigate an ancient sea, there are only two paths to take. Compare that to the Great Sea of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker and the difference is immense. (Granted, Wind Waker’s entire landscape is based on the sea, while Skyward Sword’s sea area is only a fraction of the game, but it feels too limiting to a sea. Too many surface rocks block your boat, making it feel more like a river.) Skyward Sword, instead of letting you travel across Hyrule Field to different parts of the world, only lets you traverse a one-way path of Hyrule until you get to a dungeon or temple. The only real “open” world is the Sky, but most of the plot’s action is not there: aside from finding the Isle of Songs, the Sky mostly holds small side quests that you do not need to undertake in order to complete the game. Many fans, though they enjoyed the game, found the linear game structure a disappointment.

Metroid might seem similar in structure to Skyward Sword – the world is just a one-way path, and you have to unlock weapons in order to open up more one-way paths – but two differences counteract this similarity: the flawless merging of weapon placement and gameplay, and the lack of direct information on where to go. I will compare two Metroid games, Super Metroid and Metroid Prime, to Skyward Sword and show how games can use linear game design in both genius and frustrating ways. Both Super Metroid and Metroid Prime are classic examples of Metroid games because they are the most representative of explorative-yet-hidden narrative with corresponding gameplay mechanics. Ignoring them in a general discussion of the Metroid franchise would be a disgrace.

First, the merging of finding a weapon and gameplay is nearly flawless in Metroid because the finding of a weapon is usually accidental: players do not know beforehand where a power-up lies hidden. In Skyward Sword, on the other hand, players find most weapons in isolated dungeons, making it more of a task. Legend of Zelda games are built on a dungeon system, meaning that a weapon Link needs always waits in a chest in a dungeon – i.e. a structure containing an isolated puzzle. There’s nothing special about finding the weapon because you know it’s going to be there. The only sense of mystery in this mechanic is what the weapon will be, and even that can be obvious. If the dungeon has many areas where you have to shoot orbs from a distance, expect a bow and arrow in a chest. If the dungeon has unreachable platforms with strange-yet-obvious targets, expect a hookshot. If the dungeon has walls that are loosely held together, expect a bomb. This can even apply to the world beyond dungeons, though questions of which item to use and where to use them become a bit less clear. In Super Metroid, however, not only do players not expect the wave gun or power bombs, but they also do not know where to find power-ups. The Metroid franchise, like Zelda, has its iconic weapons : rockets, grapple beam, screw attack, ice beam, etc. However, when you get those beams is totally variable]. This is especially true because sometimes the player will find an area that can only be unlocked with the Power Bomb, but players do not find the weapon until they are three-fourths done with the game. They discover the weapon in the course of their natural progression through the world, not through a dungeon that they already know the basics of (“solve puzzle, defeat mini-boss, get weapon, more puzzle, defeat final boss with weapon”). And even though in Metroid, the bosses drop upgrades as well, these bosses also appear without the player expecting them: the music changes and grows eerie as Samus travels through a couple of rooms until she suddenly tumbles into a large and quiet room with the strange foreboding of an ominous presence. The music changes again, the ground shakes, and all of a sudden the giant green beast of Kraid emerges from the floor, or Phantoon phases into thin air. The timing of the boss fights is quite unexpected – not necessarily random, but not telegraphed either. Nothing leads up to in-game boss fights except for one or two hints – like the giant boss statue in Super Metroid of Kraid, Draygon, Phantoon, and Ridley –  or partial sightings of the boss, which players sometimes do not realize is a boss at the time (see Metroid Prime 3: Corruption with the bounty hunters constantly threatening you just out of sight). Even the Chozo statues that hold Samus’s power-ups spring to life sometimes and fight her as a mini-boss. The game makes it seem as if you stumbled into the boss by chance, as opposed to Zelda games in which bosses wait for you at the end of a structured and formalized dungeon.

In addition to the placement of power-ups and bosses in Super Metroid, the game sometimes forces the player to look at background and the planet Zebes’s environment. For example, you will see dead scientists in certain places,which signals disaster; you see the golden statue that reveals the four main bosses, which was mentioned above; and you see the creepy wrecked ship, which holds secrets that explain what has happened to the Federation on Zebes. In two sections in particular, Samus comes across strange creatures: a Dachora, and Etecoons. Screen Shot 2015-12-08 at 7.51.42 PMWhen Samus arrives in these creatures’ dwellings, she is stuck, for the terrain is impossible to navigate with her current weapons, or so the players think. The creatures, though, give some hints: the Dachora starts sprinting very fast, and then, glowing weirdly, flies up to the top of the cliff. The Etecoons start leaping back and forth between the walls, climbing up to the top of their cliff. The Dachora and the Etecoons show Samus (and thereby the player as well) how to use the Shinespark ability and the Wall Jump ability, respectively. Both abilities are not necessarily power-ups — Samus already has the Wall Jump ability from the start, and the Shinespark ability comes from the Speed Booster power-up — but players do not know about these additional game mechanics beforehand. The Dachora and Etecoons show Samus her inherent abilities, but it is up to the player to figure out the corresponding controls – it can be a little frustrating, but the feeling of accomplishment is worth it and adds to the gaming experience. You figured out how to get Samus out of the cavern; you showed Samus a new ability. No formulaic dungeon telegraphed a boss fight and revealed a chest holding an item that you already knew was there. The impressive thing about the Dachora and Etecoons in Super Metroid is that you can complete the entire game without even finding the creatures, so learning their secrets is all the more satisfying. It’s just one example of how Super Metroid puts exploring into the player’s hand, testing their learning abilities and skills, instead of presented them with gifts in chests. Players must earn their weapons in Super Metroid and other Metroid titles, or else they will never succeed in beating the game.

Dowsing in Skyward SwordThe second difference between Metroid games and Skyward Sword can be summed into one word : ‘dowsing’, Skyward Sword’s term for “telling the player directly where to go.” Fi grants the player the ability to find necessary objects with the Goddess sword, giving players a first-person perspective as they track the object in the world until the sword locates the object. This game mechanic takes exploration – which is iconic to Zelda – completely out of the game. The player no longer explores the terrain and discovers where they can and cannot go in the world, figuring out the landscape for themselves. Instead, the game tells you specifically where to go. The first-person perspective hardly gives you room to look around, because once you switch to this mode, Link is immobile. Now, the Skyward Sword does allow the player to explore sometimes: players can ignore the dowsing mechanic and roam around; but the problem is that Skyward Sword’s plot will not move forward unless the player uses dowsing. This is extremely annoying because you can find the source of dowsing all by yourself, but the game will not register your new find until you point your sword at it and it signals a plot point. This is not exploration, but rather hand-holding. The only games that should do this are those that contain missions in which the player has to get from point A to point B within a limited amount of time, and the game tells players which paths are the quickest through a map or beacon on the screen. Super Metroid refuses to show its players the way and insists that they solve the puzzle of the maze-like landscape on their own. Even when Samus’s Varia Suit gives you hints in the later 3D games, it will show a location on the map, but never shows how to actually get there: the only clue that players see is a floating room they have not visited yet (usually), not connected to any of the previously visited rooms. Metroid gives players hints, whereas Skyward Sword directs players to each new area through straightforward level design and game mechanics. The game structure diminishes the explorative experience and makes players think that they are only moving forward on a designated path, not discovering anything on their own but rather taking orders from a higher power. This is not the point of an exploratory video game.

Screen Shot 2015-12-08 at 7.56.58 PMIn contrast to dowsing and hand-holding that takes away exploratory gameplay, Metroid Prime introduces an ability called “scanning.” The player uses Samus’s vision in first-person view to scan objects and databases, learning about an enemy’s weak point, determining an object’s material composition, and reading historical, ancient texts that reveal what has happened to the Chozo. These texts in particular are sometimes out in the open, and other times hidden in secret rooms, so you will find the texts out of order. They are spread throughout the game so as to not reveal everything at one time. This enables players to discover the narrative gradually — learning about bosses like the sun-fueled Flaaghra, piecing clues together about the “Great Poison,” and eventually finding the Chozo artifacts that lead to the final boss. Scanning also helps the player discover pirate logs: they help see what the enemy is doing, including breeding Metroids, much to Samus’s dismay (Samus thought she had destroyed all of these creatures in Super Metroid.) The scanning mechanic allows players to take in information that they want to take in: if they wanted, players could get through the entire game and scan virtually nothing, except for panels that are necessary to open different areas. Unlike dowsing, which forces the player to use the mechanic in order to proceed in the plot, scanning remains a tool for learning, one that the players can choose to use in order to piece together the puzzles of Tallon IV. It is a mechanic complementary to the exploratory maze of Metroid games, not telling players directly where to go, but not leaving them completed lost either.

Even though Metroid games are more linear than they feel, unlike Skyward Sword they do not diminish the exploratory essence that most players prize in video games. Whereas Skyward Sword’s dungeons telegraph necessary weapons and implement the “dowsing” mechanic to force players through a plot, Super Metroid and Metroid Prime allow the player to make mistakes, backtracking and finding clues to the plot themselves. In Super Metroid the player must search and look closely to find hidden power-ups, while Metroid Prime’s “scanning” mechanic gives information without revealing everything the player needs to know about the gameplay or narrative. Both games may have a linear plot and gameplay, as there is only one true path by which to beat the game, but how players find the path is what provides both of these Metroid games with their true nature of investigation, trial and error, and narrative discovery. The plots of the games depend fully on Samus and how she finds certain power-ups and bosses, not on external plot points that interject themselves into gameplay. The player’s solving the puzzle of Zebes or Tallon IV is the narrative, meaning that gameplay and narrative are fully interlocked with each other: rather than cutscenes or dialogue telling the story between periods of gameplay, the gameplay itself is Samus’s entire journey. Instead of the game showing the narrative to the player, the player is the one that reveals Super Metroid’s and Metroid Prime’s narrative completely through explorative gameplay, allowing Samus to discover the hidden truths that await her on Zebes and Tallon IV.

Super Metroid and Metroid Prime are the true most exploratory games in the series, making them the most enjoyable because players are using their minds to the fullest to discover the hidden narrative within the game. To emphasize this, let me compare them to two other Metroid games, Metroid Fusion and Metroid Prime 3: Corruption and show that the latter games slightly diminish the players autonomy in exploration. In these games, Samus has to explore a space station (in Fusion) or several planets (in Corruption), but the plot is clear: figure out why communications were cut off on the space station and destroy the X parasite invasion, or track down the mission bounty hunters and stop Phazon from spreading (notice that both of the games’ end goals are to destroy a corrupting force of nature that seeks domination). As you proceed in both games, an artificially intelligent computer tells Samus what impedes her progress and what needs to be done. Your computer in Fusion, Adam, tells you how the X parasite has invaded, that you need to get to data rooms to download weapons, that a boiler is going to explode, that Nightmare is a biological gravity weapon, and so on. Your computer in Corruption, Aurora Unit 242, tells you to stop the bounty hunters because they too have been corrupted with Phazon, how to prepare your ships with missiles, advises you to track down an attacked airship (which is vital to finishing the game), discovers the planets Phaaze on its own, and so on. Both computers are essential in discovering the main plot in Fusion and Corruption, but because of the two presences, Samus now takes constant orders from them. The player discovers the whole narrative less as they are told certain key aspects for understanding the dire importance of the surrounding events. For example, Aurora Unit 242 must keep updating Samus on the properties of Phazon since the entity is slowly corrupting Samus herself. Samus cannot figure out Phazon properties on her own or else she will succumb to Phazon and eventually die, so the Aurora Unit 242 must warn her against constant uses of Phazon and how it affects not only her, but also the planets she explores.

This “telling” dynamic does not make either Fusion or Corruption frustrating (they are still some of the best games out there) because they do not take away the core element of Metroid games: the computers still refuse to tell you how to achieve your goal. Both games still hide much of the story and keep the gameplay and narrative nearly indistinguishable from one another, creating a sense of genuine accomplishment when players actually do stop the boiler from exploding or discover the cause of plant overgrowth in the engine room. Everything still feels like your own achievement – you figured out the right way to succeed. You did the right thing. Dowsing did not command your every move and pull you along like a toddler. You cut off pirate communication and deactivated the shield all by your own wits. This is a feeling of satisfaction that the creators knew could not leave the franchise (even though Other M tried really hard to do so). Unlike Super and Prime, however, Fusion and Corruption fall short of true exploration: they tell you the end-goals in mission gameplay instead of letting players find the overall problems, giving a bit of the discovery authority to the computers instead of the players.

Narrative dynamics in Metroid games

Even though some Metroid games differ slightly from the classic explorative gameplay, all of the entries in the series still retain the beauty, the adventure, and the fun of the Metroid franchise. They do not focus their attention on fighting the bosses, on becoming better equipped for the final fight, or on cutscenes or extraneous dialogue; instead they let players take full control of gameplay and thus the narrative, creating a true sense of exploration. By comparing the series to both open-world games and more linear games, we can clearly understand its mode of narrative presentation: while open-world games allow players to invent the path, and while linear game make players follow the path, Metroid games lie in the middle, focusing more on discovering the path. Metroid’s gameplay might be linear, as there is only one way to actually beat the game, but the linear plot does not create linear gameplay: it instead creates the maze-like worlds that Samus must navigate and conquer. Metroid also feels open-world because, at the beginning, no clear path stands before Samus. Though some paths are locked (because Samus does not have an upgrade or she has not done something important), the world in which she arrives seems vast and mysterious, waiting for someone to discover its secrets. It’s a bit of a mind trick, and we all fall for it. The trick, though, is essential for making the game even more enticing: since the game’s one plot is hidden, it is up to you to discover what it is, or else the game ceases to progress. With little more than your own skill and problem-solving, you must discover the real cause of Samus’s mission, and help her find the weapons and resources she needs in order to defeat her deadly enemies in space.

The world through the eyes of Samus

Laila Carter

Laila Carter - Video Game Analyst

Laila Carter is a science fiction/fantasy author with a background in English, folklore, and mythology. She discusses what video games inherited from older forms of storytelling.  Learn more here.

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