Tag Archives: Metroid

Atmosphere and diegesis in games

The G-Man in the opening sequence of Half-Life 2.

I’m not going to lie. When we were first assigned Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture and Professor Mark “Sample Reality” Sample insisted multiple times that it’d be the hardest thing we read in college, I groaned. I assumed I would just sort of skim through the reading and pull a response out of my ass, because that’s what I’m good at. I was going to write, “You know what I don’t understand? THIS ENTIRE BOOK, it’s a load of shite!” I haven’t read any other students’ blogs on the reading, but I’m sure that was the basic thesis of multiple posts.

Against all my better judgement, I found myself actually enjoying Alexander R. Galloway’s first chapter. Real references to real video games, from cult classics like Ico to my favorite game of all time, the masterpiece Metroid Prime (which came out in 2002 on the GameCube, and is not to be confused with its 1986 NES predecessor Metroid, as Professor Mark “Sample Reality” Sample seems to have done in response to one of my previous blog posts).

A couple things caught my eye about the reading. First of all, since I’m a film major, I loved the idea of diegesis and non-diegesis in video games. I never thought of this before, but it’s very important to how players approach a game. One of my favorite games as a kid was Command & Conquer: Red Alert, a real-time strategy game that relied, as RTSes mostly do, on completely non-diegetic gameplay. While having no affect on the quality of the gameplay itself, it definitely made it harder to become as emotionally involved in the story and the characters as, say, Half-Life 2, which is 100% diagetic in its interaction with players. Both are great games, but I get much more emotionally invested in the Half-Life series.

Metroid Prime is an interesting case, because its seemingly non-diegetic elements are, in fact, diegetic.

A snowy vista in Metroid Prime. Note the diegetic HUD.

There is a very prominent HUD in the game, but it’s inside the visor of Samus’ helmet. The icons to denote switching weapons and whatnot are actually within the world of the game. When Samus gets wet, water droplets drip down the screen. When there is a blast near her face, you can see the reflection of her visage in the visor. But she never speaks. She is alone on an alien world, and the player is immersed in it through (mostly) diegetic gameplay.

I was also drawn to Galloway’s concept of “ambient acts” in video games: that in many games, when the player just sits back and doesn’t do anything, the game continues on its own, playing itself in a way. The world of the game exists even when the player doesn’t interact with it. There’s a certain zen to this idea. On a basic level, it’s a microcosm for real life–when the hero does nothing, Earth is extant. People go on their daily routines, the sun sets, day turns to night, and night turns to day. In a way, regardless of all the power-ups we’ve got, we don’t matter at all.

I know I didn’t really talk about anything I didn’t understand in the reading, but I thought this would suffice.

What Metroid teaches us

For my first blog post, I thought I’d explore our reading from A Theory of Fun as it applies to Nintendo’s groundbreaking Metroid, from 1986.

Metroid is most famous for being the first major video game with a female protagonist. Players assume they’re playing as a burly dude in manly armor until the very end of the game, when Samus removes her helmet to reveal her true nature–she’s a beautiful woman!

But the other major innovation with Metroid, and the one I’ll be addressing in this post,┬áis that it was one of the first non-linear platforming video games.

Raph Koster divides early video games into two paradigms: “get to the other side” games and “visit every location” games. Metroid combined the two. Producer Gunpei Yokoi wanted to mix the platforming of Super Mario Bros. with the exploration elements of The Legend of Zelda. While intrinsically, the goal of Metroid is to jump and shoot your way to the end of the game, multiple paths are presented to the player. Some are traversable from the beginning, and others require powerups to reach. So players, instead of only looking for the end of the “level,” must first search for said powerups to reach the end.

Before this point, platformers were seen as “go to the right of the screen, jump over obstacles, kill bad guys, win.” Metroid added another dimension, as it required *gasp* leftward movement, backtracking to reach new parts of old levels, and a higher level of critical thinking.

The Metroid series has continued to break new ground in adventure platforming, from 1994’s SNES masterpiece Super Metroid to 2002’s argument-for-games-as-art Metroid Prime on the GameCube. The gameplay style has changed other games as well, like Konami’s Castlevania series. But they’re all based on the concepts of the 1986 original: nonlinear gameplay derived from finding powerups to get to new areas.