Review by KMAnsem
Reviewed: 07/23/14 | Updated: 07/24/14
A sad, strange little game. It has my pity. And my compassion.
Other M isn't an offensive game.
It's not a deliberately malicious game.
It's not even a particularly bad game when all is said and done.
I mean, Sonic '06, Big Rigs: Over the Road Racing, and, more recently, Ride to Hell: Retribution are all examples of what happens when you build a game that just physically does not work, and Other M isn't that. Meanwhile, Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes and The Last of Us are examples of what happens you build a game that's deeply, personally, and morally destructive, and Other M isn't that, either. Instead, Other M is more like a...perfectly sweet, perfectly well-intentioned game that just didn't know what it was doing. It's an example of what happens when you build a game that's totally workable on a functional level but breaks too many fundamental rules along the way. Allow me to enumerate.
1) Show, Don't Tell.
It's the cardinal law of storytelling: Something will always, always, always always mean more to your audience when the members of your audience can see and feel and experience it for themselves. I could tell you right now that I personally own a copy of Half-Life 3, but would you believe me? Of course you wouldn't. All you'd have is my word, and words can lie -- and, as a matter of fact, they usually do. But what if I posted pictures of the case and the disc? What if I scanned the manual? What if I uploaded video of myself in the very act of playing the game -- enough to show you weapons, enemies, locations, and other assets that no mere mod could ever produce, up to and including brand-new bits of dialogue recorded by the official voice actors of the series? Suddenly, the idea that I might actually have a copy of the game becomes a lot more compelling, doesn't it? Each and every piece I show you, each and every thing you see with your own bright eyes, makes the fact itself easier to believe and harder to deny.
Showing is powerful, and Other M doesn't show. It tells -- constantly, incessantly, and excessively. Ninety percent of all the plot points in the entire game are delivered not through organic action but through cheap, mindless, monotonous monologues. You never get to see two characters just have a conversation. Something as simple and as natural and as humanizing as that is for some reason beyond the ken of the writers here. Everything is given to us in narration. Even when people are standing face-to-face, clearly talking to each other, we don't get to see the way they phrase things, the expressions they make while they talk, or the real-time reactions of the other parties. Instead, the scene breaks away and all we hear is a lifeless narrated summary of the conversation.
You know, in the iconic scene from Star Wars, we get to hear the ominous, taunting, and almost masochistic tone in Vader's voice when he says, "Obi-Wan never told you what happened to your father." We see Luke's bitter, vengeful expression as he spits, "He told me enough. He told me you killed him." We hear the glory in "No, I am your father," and we see the pathetic sniveling defeat burned into Luke's face as he moans, "No...! No...!"
Imagine if we didn't have any of that. Imagine if, instead, the camera cut away and all we got to hear was Luke narrating, like a robot, "I saw Vader in Cloud City. We fought, and he said he was my father. That hurt me."
Imagine what a letdown that would be. Imagine how cheated you would feel because you didn't actually get to see that climactic, defining moment. That's what we're dealing with here. It's that level of detachment and apathy from the work itself and that level of disappointment from the audience. It's unsatisfying. It feels like a rip-off.
And it's not just the dialogue, either. It's the entire narrative: every story beat, every character trait, every piece of mood or atmosphere is dictated to us, never shown to us. We're told that the commander, Adam, is the closest thing our main character ever had to a father figure, but on-screen, the two of them have less chemistry and less interaction than most random strangers on a bus. We get a few flashbacks to their past together, but even those are beaten to death by the narration stick instead of playing out naturally for us to see and consume and evaluate for ourselves. In a well-constructed, effective scene, the emotional meaning of a significant gesture could be clearly constructable by the viewer, but here, since the flashbacks are so brief, so few and far between, and so totally lacking in tonal and contextual clues, it has to be spoken to us instead, and we're just left to believe it without a single shred of evidence. As a result, the entire relationship -- the character dynamic that the whole game is built around -- rings false and completely hollow. It feels like a lie, as big and as stupid and as forced a lie as my claim that I have a copy of Half-Life 3.
Heck, a large piece of the plot revolves around the idea that the series' signature enemies have become a hundred percent immune to their one iconic weakness, and this news sends shivers down the spines of all the characters who hear it, but do we ever see it for ourselves? No. All the enemies we ever actually encounter, all the ones we fight, are still just as weak to low temperatures as they ever were. So, how are we to believe the characters when they say the weakness is supposedly gone? A smart game would have used such a glaring discrepancy to its advantage, maybe revealing or at least implying that the entire thing had been a ruse or something along those lines, but Other M never does that. Other M never even acknowledges that the discrepancy exists. In this case as in essentially every other case, what we're told contradicts what we're shown, and the game doesn't care for a second because the game doesn't seem to realize that showing and telling are two different things to begin with. The game seems to be under the illusion that if it says something, that something is automatically true, no matter how demonstrable false it actually is in practice.
Ironically, the one scene where the concept of "showing" is actually used to convey poignant, endearing, genuine human emotion with stunning effectiveness is also the single most controversial scene in the entire game -- because it contradicts what we're shown and told in every other game in the franchise. The emotion, though well-portrayed, makes no sense in its context and therefore jars the player from what should have otherwise been a moving moment, so the one time they get it right, they still get it wrong.
If the story had been delivered properly, what we would have ended up with is a very generic and very predictable science-fiction story with a lot of heart and a lot of compelling emotion. The plot of Other M is the most distant thing in the world from innovative, but it still would have been fun, and it still would have been engaging. The primary theme here, theoretically, is the bond between parents and children, and that's something universal, something everyone can approach with familiarity, with their hearts already on their sleeves. It could have been good. But as it is, it's presented from such a bizarre emotional distance that we never get the chance to feel for the characters or their problems because we never get to know them. Human beings have an amazing capacity for empathy, but you can't empathize with chronically detached, inappropriately emotionless narration.
2) The Construction of A Game Has to Match Its Primary Aesthetic of Play.
An aesthetic of play is basically a fancy term for the main reason an audience might engage a game. Traditionally, there are eight or sometimes arguably nine, but the one we have to focus on here is called "discovery."
Metroid games are all about discovering, and this one is no exception. Everything you do in the game is all about discovering what lies beyond the next locked door. Sometimes, you have to kill enemies to progress, but the combat isn't your main reason for playing -- it's just what you're doing in the meantime, what you happen to be doing on the way to your next big goals, which are seeing new sights, traversing new environments, unlocking new weapons, finding new upgrades, and seeing the world of the game slowly unfold before you as you explore more and more of it. It's about "ooh, I found a hole I can Morph Ball into!" and "ooh, I found a wall I can bomb!" and "ooh, I found a missile tank!" and "ooh, I found a neat cave!" That feeling of "ooh!" is what Metroid is.
The problem is that Other M, while theoretically all about discovery, doesn't actually give you room to discover much at all. The game is linear. It's completely linear from start to finish, just one long series of narrow corridors trying and failing to masquerade as a freely explorable space. The game holds your hand as it leads you down each one, never actually allowing you the chance to break off and explore something else just because it happened to catch your eye or spark your curiosity. You want spontaneity? Well, it's not here. You want adventure? Well, it's not here. You want mystery? Well, it's kind of here, but only the one single mystery you're explicitly and deliberately presented with at a time. You can't create your own or pursue a future one before you're supposed to or revisit an old one from the past because you accidentally passed it by the first time. There is only one correct order to progress through the game, and if you don't follow it, you're not going anywhere. You have no room to innovate the same way you did in the earlier games. Guided discovery is...okay, but it will never hold a candle to the tantalizing sense of danger and excitement and fear involved in true independent discovery.
I don't mind the so-called "hallway" school of level design in something like Final Fantasy X or Final Fantasy XIII because I don't play Final Fantasy to explore a world; I play it to experience a story. But here, the approach almost seems to defeat the very point of the existence of the game, and the final result is so much less powerful than it could have been.
3) Narrative and Play Have to Come Together to Work As One.
This is the biggie, the sole granddaddy of all the game's biggest problems.
The two essential elements of almost any game are narrative and play. Games always have play; that's what makes them games. And games almost always have at least some form of narrative, even if it's something as small and as silly as "The little yellow pizza wants to move through the maze to eat delicious dots, but there are ghosts who want to kill him."
So, we have these two elements, and these two elements will always interact. Hopefully, they interact for the mutual benefit of both, each one making the other more interesting, more compelling, and more appealing to the player. A good example of this might be the classic Mega Man games, where, in the story, Mega Man is tasked with finding and destroying the evil boss characters one by one, while, in the game play, the act of destroying each boss gives the player a really unique and really fun new power to play with for the rest of the game. Here, the relationship between narrative and play is symbiotic: Progressing in the story gives you neat stuff, and the implicit promise of more neat stuff down the road makes you want to keep progressing in the story. Other M, on the other hand, is an example of the exact opposite, a game where the narrative and the game play actively wage war against each other, and it results in nothing more and nothing less than the mutually assured annihilation of both.
And, actually, it's incredibly fitting that such a massive and devastating fallout should rear here -- in a Metroid game -- because Metroid is almost universally infamous for how clearly you can see the conflict between these two forces brewing in even the barest concept of the series. Traditionally in Metroid games, you step into the shoes of Samus Aran, lone wolf interstellar bounty hunter, and with little more than your courage, your cunning, and Samus' iconic armored suit, you explore the darkest, dankest, grimiest depths of typically horrifying alien worlds, slowly but surely finding awesome new weapons, armor, abilities, and gear all the while, right? The problem is...well...what can the developers do with that massive collection of stuff in the sequel?
On one hand, the stuff can't just disappear. All the players would be left wondering why in the world Samus would simply chuck so many incredibly valuable and incredibly useful tools. The continuity and internal logic of the story would suffer.
But on the other hand, Samus can't be allowed to keep it all. The game would have no difficulty curve because the players could never be challenged. Every problem in the world could be solved instantly and effortlessly with the gizmos Samus already had in her pockets. The mechanics and aesthetics of play would suffer.
So, the stuff can't be ignored, but it can't be kept, either. It's a paradox -- one that aptly illustrates the way game narrative and game play can affect each other in a distinctly negative way. And, to remedy it, the developers traditionally opted for a clumsy but generally accepted compromise: At the beginning of each new game, something would happen in the story that would rob Samus of the inventory she collected in the last game. That way, each story still acknowledges that her equipment existed, but no game play is ever harmed by its presence. It was a vaguely clumsy and probably less-than-ideal solution, but it worked, and the series continued on smoothly for years and years and years.
But then came Other M. And Other M decided to be creative. Other M said, "You know what? You still have your entire inventory from the last game. Everything you found, everything you learned, everything you made is still with you. Every suit. Every gun. Every ammo upgrade. Everything. All of it. The whole shebang. The one catch is...you can't use any of it until your commanding officer tells you to."
And this ruined everything.
In effect, the play is the same as it ever was. You move from room to room, fighting enemies, scaling walls, rolling through air ducts, and every so often, you come to a piece of the fictional world that you just can't overcome, so you gain access to a new weapon or a new suit that will help you handle it. Sort of conventional, right? No deviation from the norm. Entirely standard. It's time-tested. It's what works.
But the change in narrative inherently automatically changes the way the play feels. See, in the old games, the narrative said that Samus always discovered her new equipment. She didn't have it until the moment you, the player, found it and gave it to her. So, there was never any question of why she didn't use it earlier, why she didn't blast her way through the opening levels with the super-awesome laser beam from later on. She didn't have it earlier. She didn't have it in the opening levels. She only got it later on. I mean, duh. Right? And because of that, the ability to use this kick-butt new gun almost felt like a reward for the time and effort you spent finding it.
But now the narrative says that Samus always had the gun. She always had every gun. And every piece of armor. And every explosive and every tool. And every everything. So, now, that feeling of reward is gone. You're not using that gun because you earned it anymore. You're using that gun because some random, arbitrary guy you don't even care about suddenly said that you were allowed to.
Now, like I said, the play really hasn't changed. In both the older games and Other M, the bottom line is that you can't use a big bad gun until the game decides you can use a big bad gun. But because the story tweaked the terms of the contract, because the story calls it "gaining authorization to use what you already have" instead of "using it what you find," the story has made the game play so much less satisfying, so much less compelling, so much less rewarding, and so much less effective.
And it's a reciprocal relationship, so the opposite is also true. The game play features weaken the story, too. Since the pacing and mechanics of game play itself haven't changed to accommodate this new dynamic, this new feeling, they try to stick to the old, traditional difficulty curves, and that ends up making the characters in the narrative look bizarre, awkward, uncaring, inhuman, and occasionally downright psychotic. In a typical Metroid game, you might make your way through most of a lava level before you find a fireproof suit, right? And that makes sense because the game play wants to create a feeling of progression. It wants you to feel the heat -- literally and metaphorically in this case. It wants you to have to deal with Samus' health constantly dropping uncontrollably because of the unrelenting fire so that later on, when you get the fireproof suit, you can remember how it felt to have to handle the flames and feel stronger because you no longer have that burden. It makes you feel like you've evolved. You're big now. You're strong. You're so accomplished and impressive, fire can't even hurt you. Like, God, you're practically superhuman now -- and all because of what you earned it with your own hard work. You paid for that fireproof suit in sweat and first-degree burns.
But when the narrative says that Samus already has the fireproof suit and just needs authorization to use it, it no longer makes any sense for you to get the suit eighty-five or ninety percent of the way through the level. Adam should have authorized that suit the very second you set foot in this virtually apocalyptic wasteland of fire, volcanoes, and pyromaniac demons, and the fact that he didn't...just makes him look like an amoral monster. And that's not an implication the narrative ever meant to make, mind you. In the story, Adam is a good guy, a distant but benevolent father figure -- and the greatest military mind the world's ever seen, to boot. You're not supposed to doubt his motives like this. You're supposed to like him. Heck, you're supposed to admire and worship him. There is so much dialogue about how great he is and how brave and how smart and how he's the only person Samus has ever truly trusted. It's purely the antiquated pacing of the game play causing this effect, skewing the player's perception of the story in a way that the story itself never, ever meant to happen. You're not supposed to view Adam as a heartless, masochistic, unlovable, unlikable, cruel, dictatorial devil in human guise, but, God help me, I do. I do because I had to replay the same three godforsaken screens over and over and over and over and over and over for a godforsaken hour and a half because I kept dying because he, the godforsaken wretch, wouldn't authorize the godforsaken fireproof suit that I was apparently already carrying with me!
And, oh, Lord, what does that say about Samus? She is literally carrying around a fireproof suit in her backpack, but because the big man on campus didn't "authorize" it yet, she's not going to use it? Is she really supposed to be that passive, that weak-willed, that spineless and...weird? I mean, my God, she doesn't even call him up and say, "Sir, I think I could use the fireproof suit right about now. I mean, I am kind of surrounded by fire, brimstone, and actual oceans molten rock. On all sides. Right now. Like, now now. Please? How about it?" Nope, she doesn't make a peep. She doesn't say a word. It doesn't even seem to occur to her that she already has a fireproof suit right there with her until the big strong man in charge tells her to use it.
It's no wonder this game is so often accused of shameless, blatant misogyny. It took Samus Aran, probably the biggest, most prominent, most proactive, and most longstanding feminist icon in the entire video game industry, the woman who could desolate entire armies, the woman who seized entire planets, the woman who stares down more psychological horrors before breakfast than most people see in a lifetime, the woman who could survive and conquer and triumph over anything, and it turned her into a person who would literally rather suffer and boil and wither and die than do something she wasn't explicitly given permission for beforehand. Her desire to submit literally overwhelms her inborn survival instinct. She is subservient to the point of suicide. It comes off looking like some perverse male fantasy: a beautiful woman who could destroy a planet yet still beckons to your call.
And, again, I know this is not the intention of the story. It's purely the influence of the game play projecting on the character, but you know what? That still matters. That still makes a difference. That still affects the player's perception of her, and it always will, and, frankly, it always should because the game play is part of the game, too, and its power as a tool to color the narrative cannot be understated, and in this case, the impression it produces is a ghastly one. And when the players take that impression from the game play and combine it with scenes that are in the narrative -- scenes like Samus weeping, helpless and immobilized, as a man performs an act of heroism in her place -- they walk away horrified, and rightfully so. It looks like the writers deliberately sought to make her look weak and ridiculous and completely at the mercy of the men around her.
Having played the game and felt its impact, I feel confident that's not true -- that the writers were only trying to inject more human vulnerability into character who previously didn't have a super wide emotional range -- but it looks like they were doing something conniving and wrong, marring the spirit of this great, empowering figure, and that's a shame. That is such a shame because I think it would have been so fantastic to show that women can show fear and insecurity and helplessness and inadequacy without being made less, that they can run the whole gamut of the human experience without being made smaller, without it costing them their status or their respect or their dignity -- to show that Samus is still Samus even when she's afraid. But you have to have the right kind of context to do that, a very sensitive and supportive context, and thanks to the weird and unseemly relationship between story and game play, Other M doesn't have that context. And so the portrayal fell apart.
There was a misjudgment here, a miscalculation, and it's a grievous one whose effects are felt very powerfully in the hearts of the fans, and it all stems from the fact that the balance between play and story is entirely out of whack, each one casting haunting shadows of death on the other.
Other Various Odds and Ends.
Pro: The graphics are pretty, and the art direction, while never groundbreaking, is generally strong. As usual, Metroid borrows from the greats, taking plenty of visual cues from science-fiction titans like 2001, Star Wars, The Matrix, and, of course, Alien.
Con: The music is nearly nonexistent. You hear the occasional ambient sting, but there are no memorable melodies and, often, no music at all -- and not for any distinguishable purpose, either. Granted, the level design doesn't lend itself to a lot of bouncy themes or anything, but there's no reason the boss music couldn't have been more epic or distinctive. The soundtrack just feels arbitrarily empty.
Pro: The ending is particularly well-written and also visually stunning.
Con: It feels like the ending to a completely different game because it's so emotionally divorced from what we actually experience in-game.
Pro: Combat is nothing super special, but what's there is generally solid. The simple act of firing your arm cannon feels oddly satisfying, and there are lots of neat little features that make the whole experience a lot smoother. I especially appreciate the ability to refill your missiles on the go and the power to heal.
Con: The controls are clumsy, at best. Most games aim to immerse the player so much that the player enters a mental state of flow where they're so consumed by the game itself that they forget the controller is even there and every action seems to translate directly from the mind to the screen with no perceived intermediary. Other M bizarrely takes the opposite approach, reminding you that the controller is there at every opportunity, requiring you not just to use the motion controls but also to change the orientation of the controller on the fly to perform specific moves, and this rarely works out. The number of times I went into Morph Ball when I meant to be healing myself isn't...outrageous...but certainly isn't right, either.
All told, Metroid: Other M is not a bad experience. If I had played it when it first came out as a fully priced blockbuster, then, sure, I would have been disappointed, and I might have regretted spending the money, too, but nowadays, you can find it used for ten or fifteen bucks, and that sounds about fair to me. It's useful as an educational tool for everything it demonstrates about the principles of game design, and as a game in and of itself, yeah, there are plenty better, but I still had fun with it. If you're in a curious mood, give it a shot, blow up some aliens, and form your own opinion. My final score is a very average five.
Rating: 2.5 - Playable
Product Release: Metroid: Other M (US, 08/31/10)
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