I must say that Metroid: Other M has me very confused. On some levels, its very good, on others, not so much. I’m torn because while the flaws are more than a little glaring, I don’t think that they entirely detract from what the developers did get right, and thus the product as a whole.
I guess I’ll start from the top. Metroid: Other M, was co developed between Nintendo and TECMO/Team Ninja (of Ninja Gaiden and Dead or Alive fame), and released right before PAX10 (those bastards :p). With story by series creator Yoshio Sakamoto, it bridges a minor story gap between Super Metroid (SNES) and Metroid Fusion (GBA). Now that is an interesting point, in and of itself. While some of them may contain stories, many Nintendo franchises, the most obvious being the Legend of Zelda series, do not actually contain any real continuity between each entry into the franchise. Metroid has been the only outlier, and proof that it can be both a blessing and a curse, as it were.
I’ll be straight up here. There is a story, and its good, but its badly executed. In this game, we learn about Samus Aran’s backstory, specifically the time she spent in the military, before leaving to become an independent bounty hunter. This information is told to the player as flashbacks during the current mission: the investigation of the Bottle Ship, a seemingly abandoned research station. Big hint, metroids are involved, though as always it isn’t readily apparent until well into the game, and even then there aren’t that many…
Anyways, the story is good, but its presented badly, and depending on your point of view, potentially hurts the Samus character. When Samus gets to the Bottle Ship, she meets up with a squad of marines lead by her former commander and surrogate father, as it were. Most of the flashbacks seem to be about their surrogate father/daughter relationship, despite the fact that is her commanding officer, and Samus is the rookie in the unit. In fact, despite the Federation being composed of many worlds and races, the military is shown as being primarily human, and male, like the Empire in Star Wars (realistically because Lucas didn’t have the budget, which in canon became Palpatine being a bigot). Due to Samus being female, it seems, in the cut scenes and her own inner monologue at least, that she is treated differently because of it, and she acts out in a typically (teenager-like) rebellious way.
Why would it matter? Presumably, that far into the future, gender in the military shouldn’t mean anything at all. In fact, much of science fiction deals with this exact thing. As bad of a movie as it was, Starship Troopers displayed it perfectly, a co-ed military where no one bats an eye at the female troops, and everyone is expected to pull their own weight, or risk injury and death. There is no “just one of the guys” or “girls club”, everyone is just a trooper.
I realize that Japan is still a little wonky when it comes to gender politics, but this is science-fiction/fantasy. It is a work of fiction where any world the creator wants can come alive. There are no constraints. There are no rules except the ones the creator decides to impose on the creation. There is no need to be burdened with real world expectations when the creation isn’t the real world.
One of the biggest strengths of the genre/style is, since the world isn’t real, the ability for it to deal with real world issues without actually talking about them. Religion, human/alien rights, foreign affairs, torture, anything can be talked about. Anything can be made relevant, because just about everything can be relevant. Yet here in Metroid: Other M the creator is regressing back to gender politics, possibly without even realizing it. Why? This is a game made by the Japanese for the Japanese and, especially, the American market. And in the US, gender is practically a non-issue, at least in fiction. It may work in Japan, but we Americans, while still a little iffy on the subject of women in the military, are more than happy with women as protagonists, antagonists, action heroes, and even in the military (in fiction anyways).
Now that isn’t to say we don’t have our issues with female characters in leading roles, but science fiction seems to be one of the few places where we Americans can seem to drop many of those pretensions. The love interest? No longer required. Emotional instability? Guys hagve I too. Being saved by a man? She’s got a gun and martial arts. Subserviant to someone or something? She commands an entire fleet of armed-to-the-teeth battleships.
In the previous Metroid games, Samus Aran has always been displayed as the strong and silent type. Now, the fact that all but one of those games had zero dialogue to begin with helped maintain that appearance. Samus Aran is a bounty hunter, she goes into hostile environments, alone, with nothing except her power suit and her training as a former military trooper in order to survive. And she succeeds time and again. And the plot of Metroid: Other M effectively turns her into someone who emotionally stunted, distant, and has “daddy issues”. Now admittedly, Samus’ backstory is tragic, with being orphaned by a pirate attack. But her early life after that was spent training to take revenge on the pirates, which any term of military service would only reinforce. Yet, as I stated earlier, during the flashbacks to her time of military service she is shown acting like a petulant teenager opposite squad mates and a commander who treat her differently because of her gender. During the game itself, she is shown being indecisive, and even freezes when faced with threats that she’s already faced before. This is not the character we’ve seen over the series, and is quite possibly a step back for her as well.
I understand Sakamoto has a story to tell, but in the end he just seems to have failed because he fell back on using gender politics in a genre and universe that, generally speaking, had seemingly not even included them in the first place. The only thing that can really save it, story wise, is that we’re really only seeing a microcosm of the universe. We deal with only a small handful of characters, but at the same time we see a lot of the universe in other ways. Things end up muddied, and in the end we are left with a story with a strong primary plot thread, but the peripheral things like this end up being unneeded, negatively impact the character, make the plot unnecessarily melodramatic, and paints the author as potentially chauvinistic and/or mysoginist, more out of cultural naiveté than actual intention.