30 Days of Video Games: Day 22, A Disappointing Sequel

We all know the feeling: you’ve played a game and loved it dearly, and then the sequel is announced!  The release date is given; you go pre-order, and may even spring for the limited edition.  You count the days until the midnight release, and come said release date you’re waiting in line eagerly.  You get home, pop it in, begin playing and… it’s not really that good.  So you give it a while longer and you still don’t really like where it’s going.  You begin to pine for the original, the one that you loved so much and got you hooked.  You start comparing.  You become resentful and then angry.  You throw controllers.

Okay, so maybe not quite that extreme.  But the sequel that most disappointed me did indeed have me throwing a controller at the wall.  It’s not my proudest gaming moment, but I think it speaks volumes about just how much I did. Not. Like. This. Game.

I’ve played games that were just okay, or that I didn’t like and just didn’t care for (see my apathy toward Dead Space).  But the sequel that most disappointed me was Metroid Prime 2: Echoes for the Game Cube.

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30 Days of Video Games: Day 6, Most Annoying Character

Every game has one: the annoying character who makes you want to throw a controller at it to make it shut up. Tingle in Zelda, for instance; or Navi, when she buzzes nonsense at you. It gets annoying in Halo 3 when Cortana is going crazy and interrupts your game with her moments. Wynne, lecturing and sermonizing in Dragon Age. Justice, coming in all self-righteous and screwing things up for Anders and for Hawke in Dragon Age 2. Isaac Clarke in Dead Space annoyed the heck out of me, because he felt really passive to me; all I did was bring him back and forth based on what other people in my comlink told me to do. I only got through half that game, because it just got boring playing after awhile (though I did like seeing how many awesome ways I could die). But I think he annoyed me so much because he reminded me of the most annoying character I’ve yet experienced.

I present to you: Adam, from Metroid Fusion.

One of the more salient features of Metroid gameplay has always been the exploration. Samus strikes out after a bounty, loses her suit items, and through the course of the game, must regain them and finish her mission. There’s a lot of exploration involved, and the ability to explore freely, discovering secrets and the like, is awesome. As a result, Metroid has also lent itself well to sequence-breaking challenges. It was one of the major elements of the early games, and even Prime on the Game Cube was broken by tenacious individuals eager for a challenge.

But when Metroid Fusion came out for the GameBoy Advance in 2002, Nintendo clearly wanted to go in another direction. Much of the formula remained the same: Samus was alone on a giant derelict space lab, searching for suit upgrades and ways to complete her mission. But they introduced the element of Adam. Adam was an AI unit in her ship’s computer, who disseminated throughout the lab’s computers, and communicated with Samus during and in between missions. It added more to her mysterious back story, which was fine, but Adam also told Samus where to go and when, and what upgrades to look for. And there was no way to bypass it.

Yes, it provided a new challenge: can we sequence break Adam, who is part of the game designed to force gamers into the sequence? Can we speed run a game that has all these interruptions? People did manage to speed run it, but not with the same sorts of speeds achieved in other Metroid games (at least early on: some research has shown me that someone managed a :48 run of Fusion, in 2008. In the early heyday of Fusion, that I’m recalling, no one had done that yet). Red Scarlet managed her :55 110% Super Metroid run because she could sequence break. You could play Super Metroid in just about any order you wanted. Not so with Fusion, and it was because of the addition of Adam.

The other annoying thing about Adam is that what he added to Samus’s back story added a huge amount of inconsistency to her character and her story. Until then, we knew Samus had been a bounty hunter; we knew she’d been raised by the bird-like Chozo. But suddenly she’d also served in the military? Under the name Samus Aran? Most of the effect of original Metroid was in the fact that no one knew exactly who Samus Aran was, down to gender. Adding in Adam, as Samus’s former CO in the military, added a whole new dimension to her past, but also made the story inconsistent. And inconsistencies in stories are one surefire way to jolt people out of the moment.

Not only does he make the game far too linear, but he changes Samus’s character. I like the kick-ass-and-take-names Samus; I don’t mind her being introspective, I mean, she does it in Sky Town at the end of Prime 3, and it’s really well done. She’s thoughtful and sensitive, but still strong. But Adam makes her less introspective and more…well, she questions herself. She doesn’t have any of the usual self-confidence.

Adam doesn’t let Samus do her own thing, so she questions whether or not she’s doing the right thing. Initially I thought this was my own over-analysis of the characters in the game, but after Other M came out and I saw videos and read articles about Adam’s role in the game (play-wise similar to Fusion), I realized maybe I wasn’t too far off the mark. He turns her from a confident, ass-kicking bounty hunter who’s the best at what she does, into an uncertain, scared, childlike version of herself. And as someone who grew up thinking Samus was awesome because of what she represented to me, Adam just plain annoys me.

So therefore I think Adam Malkovich is one of the most annoying video game characters out there, for what he did to my favorite character, and what he did to the gameplay style of Metroid overall.

Tomorrow: Day 7, Favorite Game Couple. Love is in the air? Or is it just platonic?

30 Days of Video Games: Day 2, Favorite Character

I’m a gamer, but as I’ve said before, sometimes I wonder if I really am because my gaming collection is scant by many standards. But the games I do have usually involve good story, and by extension, good characters. I’m drawn to character-driven books and stories (in what I choose to read, and what I myself write), and have found that I have the same taste in games. I actually could not finish Dead Space because I had no connection to the character. I couldn’t get into his motivations, or care about him. So I find that when I’m into a character and enjoy them and their story I enjoy the game more.

So how do I decide what my favorite character is, if most of the games I’ve played are character-driven?

When I was younger my favorite character was Samus Aran. I grew up gaming on the NES, and the early games of its heyday focused on male protagonists. The Princess was relegated to other castles; Zelda waited for Link to save her from Ganon. Mario and Link had the adventures; Orpheus went to save Helene from Hades in the underrated Battle of Olympus. These were the games I enjoyed, but I felt something missing in my experience.

Imagine my surprise when I read a Nintendo Power issue that exposed the JUSTIN BAILEY code, where you could start Metroid as… a woman?! Of course I put that code into the game, and played the galaxy’s biggest badass bounty hunter as a green-haired woman in a purple unitard. And for the first time I connected to the game in a new way, because I was playing as protagonist I could understand. Metroid had atmosphere; it had rudimentary story, that sort of made sense (more sense than a plumber saving mushroom people anyway). And it had a character I related to; because of that I could get into the game, and experience the loneliness of Zebes and the fear of the space pirates and the Metroids themselves.

Samus Aran worked alone; she never spoke, and you only saw her face if you finished the game quickly enough and with enough items to get the ending where you saw her in her true form. Early on it was probably fanservice, to show her in her swimsuit-like under armor, but as the games advanced the more she became a character unto herself. Sure, many other female protagonists came up after, but for me at least, Samus was the first.

I liked Samus because she was smart and confident enough to go into those lonely scenarios, kick ass, take names, and go collect her payment at the end of the day. She was capable and didn’t wait to be rescued, instead doing the rescuing herself. She brought down pirates; she blew up planets. And she did it with finesse and without apologizing for any of it.

She’s since changed as a character; I don’t care for the direction Nintendo’s taken her. It started with Fusion when we saw a more introspective sort of character. I didn’t mind that, but I did mind the way they started to make her dependent upon the Adam AI. She’s been a different sort of character since Metroid Prime 3, when she was pitted against and put with other bounty hunter characters. And then Nintendo went and made Other M, where they expanded upon the Adam character and it changed everything about Samus’s character. I haven’t played Other M because I don’t have a Wii, but what I’ve seen of videos and trailers and listened to of cutscenes, I’m not a fan. Maybe someday I’ll try it, and maybe it’ll change my opinion.

In the last few years I’ve started playing other types of games, and among them RPGs that allow for character creation. My favorite game so far is Dragon Age: Origins. I’ve played all the origins, but like the human noble most. My personal character, Fianna, is among my favorites, though I feel like it’s a little bit cheesy to say that my favorite game character is one I’ve made. However, DA also has that character of King Cailan, whom I’ve come to really love.

The irony is Cailan’s not playable, and he dies within the first 90 minutes of game time. Maybe it’s because I created my own personal headcanon/backstory for him. Maybe it’s because I thought he was cheated by his writers. Maybe it’s because he comes across as foolish, then dies violently, and I wanted there to be more to him. He’s not even that vital a character to the game. And yet I love him and think he’s fascinating. Again, maybe it’s because I created what I thought he could be through fanfiction. I don’t know; I do know that there’s something about him that makes him a favorite.

So when all’s said and done, I really love characters and how relating to and loving a character can make the game more enjoyable. But from past to present, the characters I find as favorites are characters who seem to have more to them than the game lets on.

Tomorrow: A game that is underrated…

Women Gamers, Women in Games: Statistic vs. Stereotype

I just read a list on Cracked.com about being a gamer.  Some of the things it had to say were right on, and some things tended to pertain to a small portion of the gamer demographic.  But it had some interesting things to say about female gamers.  I know this issue is talked to death, and I know I’ll probably offend some people, and probably miss some points of discussion.  But 1.)it’s my blog and I haven’t talked it to death, 2.)if you’re offended at least you think about things (and give me the opportunity to learn more about others’ perspectives) and 3.)this is such a huge topic that I’m bound to miss things, and accept that.  So: what does it mean for me pesonally to be a female gamer, and what do I think about women in games?

Interestingly enough, current statistics show that nearly 2/3 of online gamers are women.  Normally I like to defy the statistics in my ongoing quest for individuality.  However, this is one case where I’m proud to be part of the statistics, and a member of the majority.  I’ve been gaming in earnest since I was young, and owe much of that to Samus Aran of Metroid fame.  Growing up I was used to the idea that the Princess was in another castle.  So imagine my delight when the end of Metroid revealed that the badass bounty hunter I’d taken all over Zebes was a woman!

I’ve never been one of those female gamers that complains much about the portrayal of women in games.  I’m happy to see more and more female characters taking the lead and going out to kick arse and take names, and when I play online (mostly Halo: Reach) I play as my female Spartan.  But what was troubling to me was that I recently read that many women prefer to play online as males.  Granted the study is nearly four years old, but conversely, I was having a conversation with a friend once about males and females online and he said that sometimes he intentionally plays as a female character because people underestimate him.

Now that got me thinking.  Around this time last year, Halo: Reach launched the weekly challenge of 77 online matches in seven days.  Luckily we had two snow days and one delay that week, because I spent my time playing online Halo matches.  I played as my female Spartan, but I kept my mic off mostly because I find in-game chatting distracting for me.  Normally it isn’t an issue, but during one match I got a kill, but then fell and my character made a noise.  The chat got very quiet, and then I heard one person say to the other, “I think there’s a girl playing.”  I had to ask myself, “Why does it matter?”  I can guarantee that if I was playing as a male Spartan it wouldn’t have been an issue; with my mic off, I would just be an anonymous male Spartan trying to kill everyone while they all tried to kill me.  But because I played as a female it started question and discussion.

Usually statistics go hand in hand with developing stereotypes.  However, the Female Gamer is not one such case.  66% of online gamers are women, and yet people are surprised to learn that they’re playing in a match with a female.  Is it because the stereotypical female gamer plays a different sort of game?  Or behaves in a different sort of way?  For me, when I go into a match as an openly female character, I don’t expect to be treated any differently, and I don’t behave any differently.  For me, we’re all gamers and we all have an objective, and it usually involves killing everyone else.  Why should gender matter in that objective?

It also seems to me that the perception is that stereotypical female gamers also will spend time complaining about the oversexualization and objectification of women in games.  I went to a panel at PAX East last year about female characters, and the focus wasn’t on the necessarily overly sexualized characters, but the ones that were portrayed either as realistic in terms of build or personality (Morrigan from Dragon Age stood out, which I remember because I picked up Dragon Age for the first time about a week later); or the ones who were portrayed not as overly sexual, but as helpless.  The princess in another castle, if you will.

For me, I’m less worried about female characters being objectified sexually, and more concerned about them being written as more passive, damsel-in-distress types of characters.  People may voice opinions about Lara Croft’s bust size, but at least she’s out there being proactive.  Kat, in Reach, would kick your arse if you suggested she was attractive in any way.  The stereotye of a female character as overly sexual overshadows the reality of passive DiD sorts of characters.  And since the focus is more on how women are objectified sexually, there’s no real look at how they’re objectified through being passive.

Princess Toadstool was always in another castle; theobjectof Super Mario Bros. was to save her.  Thank the gaming gods for Samus, coming along and blasting her way through Zebes!  Even after she was revealed as a female, she was still blowing up planets like it was her job.  Then in 2002, Metroid: Fusion came out.  Samus was stalked around a deserted space station by an over-powered clone of herself, and had to rely on the guidance of a computer AI, who reminded her of her dead Commanding Officer if she were to survive.  It was a different sort of game, and it portrayed Samus as slightly more vulnerable than in the past.  Coming at it from my perspective, where I enjoy character depth and whatnot, it was very interesting to see a new side to her. 

The Metroid formula changed some as the technology did, and with it, Samus changed.  The lone bounty hunter got teammates in Metroid Prime: Hunters for the DS, and in Metroid Prime 3: Corruption for the Wii.  In Corruption, Samus wound up having to kill her team when they attacked her; while it followed the boss fight formula, it was interesting because Samus had worked with these people earlier in the game, and become more of a character defined by those around her as a result.  And then came Metroid: Other M.  I don’t have a Wii, but even if I did, and even as much as I love Metroid, I wouldn’t play it because of this article.  As someone who’s been in an emotionally abusive relationship, these things resonate with me to begin with; but then seeing Samus, who started out so strong and competent and capable and unapologetic reduced to that?  To see her written as a lost little girl, when she left that behind with the Chozo long ago?  Her strength was something that defined her and made her different.  To take that away demeans her not as a woman, but as a character in general.

Not all characters have gone that way.  Zelda went from the kidnapped prisoner in Ganon’s dungeon to Shiek, a highly trained fighter.  And Dragon Age: Origins has Queen Anora, who will even stand up to her father in spite of the fact that he’s one of Ferelden’s most celebrated generals.  She knows what she wants and what she has to do to get it.  And most of all, she’ll do that if it means achieving her endgame.

And that’s where I feel I am now as a woman who is a gamer.  I’m sure I’ll raise some hackles with all I’ve said, and that’s okay.  This is a difficult issue, where even people on the same side will have different reasons for why they’re on the same side.  But one thing is clear: the statistic and the stereotype don’t always match up, either in the case of the games’ characters, or the gamers themselves.  I may fit a statistic, but I’m not steretypical.  And you shouldn’t be, either.