Metroid and the Sanctity of Non-Human Life

[Originally published June 22, 2015]

The Metroid series is known and lauded for its stellar sci-fi aesthetic and gameplay. In addition to presenting iconic, brooding environments and enemies, the Metroid games – like many great science-fiction works – asks questions of the player. It challenges their perceptions of identity, and humanity. Ultimately, the core 2-D Metroid games – those directed by Gunpei Yokoi and Yoshio Sakamoto – trope off of the genre’s frequent examinations of humanity, unpacking and celebrating this concept through their presentation and incorporation of non-human characters.

There’s not a lot to say about the first Metroid. Due to the technological limitations, it doesn’t have much in the way of narrative, nor does it have much to say. In blunt terms, the game is a preachy support of animal activism. Samus’ – and, by extension, your – goal is to prevent the abuse and misuse of the Metroid species at the hands of the evil space pirates. This game is – like so many others from this era – morally black-and-white. It doesn’t have much interesting depth about what’s “good” and “bad.” The malformed, alien creatures are selfish, and using animals to your own gain is bad. This is a pretty easy conclusion to come to, and is about as deep as this game goes[1].  There’s not much more to say about this first title in terms of its thematic goals. The ideas it sets up are expanded upon in many interesting ways in the later – and much deeper – titles.

Metroid 2: Return of Samus complicates the presentation of preservationist themes. Samus’ prime directive is to hunt down and exterminate the Metroid population of planet SR 388, so as to prevent their power from falling into the wrong hands. All right, now we’re talking real moral quandary. Does a potential danger – one even as dire as the relatively contained Metroid species – justify the destruction of an entire ecosystem? It’s an interesting twist on the narrative motivations of the previous title. The fate of a species was once in the hands of the evil space pirates, and the government federation sought to liberate this species from their captors. Granted, there was an alternate, self-preservative agenda motivating this conflict, but the Metroids were ultimately the real victims of the original Metroid. Now, the Federation is the entity playing God, slicing an ecosystem apart with a bureaucracy-coated scalpel.

The final encounter with a Metroid is perhaps the most impactful narrative encounter in the series, as its ripples affect the entirety of its following continuity. Countless variations of the species have fallen to Samus’ hand, but, after happening upon an unhatched Metroid Egg, Samus hesitates. It hatches, and the baby Metroid mistakes Samus for its mother, hovering affectionately around her[2]. Make no mistake, the game still treats the baby Metroid as an animal, but this moment completely reverses Samus’ prime directive. At this point, you help the Metroid escape, and it also helps you. Samus’ empathy overcome her sense of duty, and causes her to act in direct opposition towards her objectives. This mutually beneficial relationship spites your role in the course of this planet’s ecosystem. This is where we really start getting into the meat and potatoes of what this series is trying to say. Samus’ decision to save the Metroid is based on its autonomy as a being. Though it may not be human, its childlike instincts are similar to our own, preventing Samus from pulling the trigger. She feels a kinship that transcends species, validating the Metroid’s autonomy as a being.

Super Metroid extends these ideas of the sanctity of non-human intelligence, broadening the scope of the series’ thematic examination. In many ways, it’s a more elegant restatement of the first game. Once again, you find yourself on an alien planet – Zebes, for the second time now – murdering the wildlife in a self-preservative attempt to stop space pirates from exploiting Metroids[3]. This time around, however, there are far more players in the game, and they all serve to expand the scope of the Metroid series’ thesis.

Super Metroid introduces the Etecoons and the Dachoras – a speedrun favorite[4]. They are the first non-hostile creatures ever encountered in a Metroid game, aside from the baby Metroid in Return of Samus. The animals actually help you along the way. These creatures are actively invested in your success, from both a narrative and mechanical perspective. At first glance, the exist merely to visually represent high-level mechanical techniques – the shinespark and wall jumping; however, they are also the first outlet in the entire Metroid series that allow the player to either accept or reject the series’ conservationist values. During the climactic final run of the game – as Samus runs to escape the bomb that will ultimately destroy Zebes – the player has the implicit choice to either save the animals, or leave them to die[5]. This is the greatest moment in the series. Have you absorbed the message? Have you not? Or do you just not care? This is when the series grants you the opportunity to make a statement, even if only to yourself[6]. These animals are the Metroid series’ most explicit presentation of sympathetic, non-human characters. They exist only to help the player, and are entirely harmless. Fear doesn’t motivate them – compassion does. It’s what makes them such a unique, stand-out inclusion in the series.

 

Though the Etecoons and the Dachoras are perhaps the most direct presentation of the series’ values, the titular Metroids make a thematic comeback too. The baby Metroid larvae from Metroid 2 returns, as do many of the game’s narrative tricks. Super Metroid once again tasks you with hunting down the Metroid in an attempt to prevent the misuse of its power. Once again, the game twists your perception of these beings. The Metroid larvae attacks you at first, not realizing who you are. Then it pulls away, out of either guilt or love. Regardless, it pays back what it took when it rescues you from your death at the hands of Mother Brain, sacrificing itself to save your life. The Metroid shows rational thinking, loyalty, and love – all human emotions. The game never tries to say that animals like the Metroid or the Etecoons/Dachoras are human, however. Instead, it chooses to present them as they are – as highly intelligent animals. By bringing them closer – intellectually – to humans, while maintaining the physical and communicative barriers, the game attempts to push its conservationist message.

Finally, we come to Metroid: Fusion. In many ways, this game brings all the pieces of the previous games together, while offering extensions of the series’ celebration of non-human intelligence. Before you even have control of Samus, the baby Metroid saves her life again. This time, its cell cultures are used to combat an X-parasite infection Samus has contracted on the Metroid home planet. In this installment, the X are the new galaxy-ending threat. Samus is told that this parasite consumes all, and feels nothing – much like the spiel the Galactic Federation fed her about the Metroids in Return of Samus. Her A.I. companion, Adam – named after her deceased C.O. – directs her through much of the game, telling her how to kill the parasite. She dislikes the program – she finds its existence to treat her friend’s death with irreverence, and mistrusts its programmed loyalty to the government. During the finale, it is revealed that the Federation has been growing Metroids under the pretense of harnessing their power for galactic protection. Samus condemns this tactic, pointing out that this makes the Federation no better than the space pirates. She destroys the laboratory housing the Metroid cloning project. Fusion inverts the government’s role as “the good guys,” claiming that the abuse of a species is wrong, no matter the intent. It’s a thoughtful response to ideas posed in previous Metroid games, and offers up a more nuanced, yet clearer restatement of the first game’s conservationist message.

 

Not one to present a totally evil protagonist, Metroid Fusion applies the series’ positive view of non-human intelligence to the X parasite. In a moment that deliberately recalls the finale of Super Metroid, Samus is weakened, facing certain death at the hands of her foe. In her most helpless moment, the X parasite appears, mimicking the arrival of the baby Metroid in Super Metroid. The X sacrifices itself, allowing Samus to absorb its power and escape. These similarities are an intentional choice, whose narrative and mechanical mirrors to Super Metroid drive home the similarities between the X parasite and the Metroids. We are told to think of them as unintelligent beings throughout the series, driven only by instinct; however, it would appear that they exhibit feelings of empathy and loyalty. They are shown to act autonomously, and forgo self-preservative instinct in favor of loyalty. Metroid: Fusion takes this message one step further, applying it to A.I. as well.

Adam, the artificial intelligence, takes on the personality traits of a human being. In the end, he ignores his programmed orders to keep Samus from destroying the space station, and instead assists her in her escape. Samus reminisces about her dead C.O., thinking on the things that made him human. She thinks about the way he would talk to her – calling her “lady” in a casual, yet respectful, way. In the conversation where the Adam program chooses to assist Samus, he assimilates this quality, asking her “any objections, lady?” In this moment, we see the way that this non-human character exhibits humanity – even if it is appropriated. The game ends with Samus and the Adam A.I. affectionately talking to one another, like two reunited friends. Her apprehension for the program is gone, since it has come to exhibit humanity. The final shot of the game looks on at the Etecoons and Dachoras resting in Samus’ ship, reminding us of the thematic legacy of Super Metroid as Metroid Fusion forges its own.

The question behind all of this is really about survival, and what we’re willing to do to achieve it. The Metroids, the X, the Galactic Federation, the Space Pirates. They all just want to survive – to varying extents. They all have their own goals as a species or group, and these games – in their own way – wants us to respect that. Though some may have darker motivations than others, there is no point where they celebrate passivity. These games are all about ecosystems. You visit them – sometimes change them – and experience their breadth and beauty; however, for an ecosystem to survive, so must every group within it. There is a balance that must be maintained. It must be expanded to account for new arrivals to the ecosystem of humanity – like A.I. Though its focus may be on the sanctity of non-human life, the Metroidseries is ultimately a nuanced love letter to the expanse of humanity – animal, artificial, and human.

[1] And that’s fine, by the way. Video games were still trying to figure out how to present a cohesive mechanical design, let alone tell nuanced stories.

 

[2] This moment also evokes some interesting and nuanced gender ideas relating to power, tenderness, and maternity, but that’s another essay.

 

[3] It’s at this point that I feel like I should say that I don’t believe that this series points any fingers at you, or wants to pull the “you’re the real villain!” play from its deck of cards. Much of the visual and spatial designs of these worlds are about ecosystems. These animals likely hunt and kill each other in a predator-prey relationship – as evidenced by Fusion’s X parasite’s fear of Metroids. Aside from Metroid 2 – whose ending directly confronts and rejects your primary goal of extermination – you aren’t a particularly impactful intruder. Samus is no Virginia Snakehead.

 

[4] Watch this speedrun from AGDQ 2014 it’s so entertaining and insane.

 

[5] Ah! Implicit moral choice in a video game! Love it.

 

[6] For the record, I save them.

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