Context is king

But it wasn't really the way that Other M played that ended up leaving such a bad taste in the mouths of most people, myself included. It offered less than I expected and wanted, but I had fun with it all the same. No, the real source of ill-will toward Other M was the story.

Xantar: Samus didn't talk in games before Other M and we were left to project our own thoughts and feelings on her. Honestly, it worked pretty well. But Other M makes you wonder that if Sakamoto had been able to give Samus speech all the way back in the NES days, she would have been quite a different character from what many of us imagined.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it turns out that Sakamoto's writing in Other M is terrible... the story we've got isn't a bad idea in its broad strokes. Samus goes to the Bottle Ship. She works a mission with her old commander, Adam Malkovich. We find out why she became an independent bounty hunter. Adam dies to stop something on the Bottle Ship from escaping. With good writing, I think the story could have been a lot better.

Sakamoto was obviously very proud of his story. After all, he included a movie version of it on the disc and I sat through it twice, ruminating on "the rights of the author" versus "the expectations of the fan base."  When any writer does something in a story or portrays a character in a way the fan base dislikes, you can easily run into the following conflicting arguments: "the author created this and has the right to take it in whatever direction the author wants" versus "the author has an obligation to please the fan base, because it's the fan base that made the subject popular." What's an author to do?

I would feel pretty damned annoyed if my readers tried to dictate to me how to write my own material.  On the other hand, if I created something popular, I'd consider it my obligation to at least keep a finger on the pulse of the fan base to try to avoid disenfranchising them. In short, I think it's responsible to avoid working in an echo chamber.

I found Samus' portrayal in Other M extremely off-putting, and after a year of reading various message board threads and the reactions of journalists and bloggers, I think I can say my opinion sits firmly with the majority. Leaving Samus herself aside for a moment, Xantar's statement about the basic elements of the plot were true. Other M's story wasn't bad at all. The plot-twists and revelations within were fun to watch unfold. My favorite subplot covered Ridley's metamorphosis, something I didn't see coming until the beast's second molting. The assassin subplot was also interesting, though other than killing off the cast of extras it didn't seem to have any lasting impact.

The thing I had a big problem with was the way Other M's story was told. Apparently the writers thought their audience was collectively as dense as a lead brick and had the memory span of a goldfish. Did you know the game has a motherhood theme, and that Samus has a relationship—bordering on an unhealthy obsession—with a baby Metroid? If you somehow missed those thematic elements in the first cut-scene, handled with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, don't worry. The story merrily pounds them in with the deadly force of the endless monologues.

Once upon a time, Samus Aran was a character who rarely spoke a complete sentence. Then, she got pretty talky in Metroid Fusion. In Other M, her soliloquies were a conceptual power drill to the cerebrum. One of the fundamentals of good writing is "show, don't tell," and for pity's sake, don't have a character explain everything that's happening as it's happening! The audience has eyes. What's more, Samus' robotic monotone tended to kill whatever emotional quality the actions on screen may have once possessed.

Not content to let the story merely be the thread on which the component parts of the game were hung, the designers also saw fit to replace the traditional upgrade system with the dreadful "authorization" progression. From a game play perspective it was frustrating, but from a storytelling perspective it was infuriating. There was a grating, slavish, mindlessness to how Samus agreed to disable the bulk of her abilities until Adam authorized their use.  The weapons restrictions I could understand to a point.  The armor and tool restrictions made no bloody sense.  What's more, Adam didn't put any such limitations on his other soldiers.  He admonished one marine to go easy with the explosives, but that was about it.  He left weapon use up to their judgment.  Not so with Samus.  He basically sent her into an extremely dangerous situation half-crippled and she was frigging fine with that!  The story would have been much more interesting, not to mention satisfying, if there had actually been tension and perhaps distrust between Samus and Adam (well, there was distrust, but it was all one-sided).  I wanted very badly to see them butt heads.

While this nonsensical theme of self-handicap ran throughout the game, it culminated in the reviled "lava run" sequence, where you had to rush Samus through an inferno of deadly heat, all the while in possession of a functioning heat shield that had merely "not been authorized." Orders or not, no one possessing that equipment would charge ahead with it disabled, ensuring potential survival depended on a desperate race from cool zone to cool zone. In addition, no responsible military leader would ever withhold permission for a subordinate to protect herself from such a dangerous environment, unless said leader happened to be a sadist. True story: when that moment of truth hit and Adam finally authorized the heat shield, I found myself struck dumb with disbelief, then yelled some ill-remembered imprecation at my TV. I've played through some stupid moments in video games before, but I don't think I've ever been so insulted on behalf of a fictional character. Samus, you should have been pissed.

The worst moment in Other M's story, many will say, came when Samus and Ridley finally met for their big fight. Anyone remotely familiar with the Metroid series knows that Samus and Ridley are arch-enemies. Samus has blown Ridley to pieces in almost every game they've been in. In Other M, upon facing her old foe, Samus had a total mental shut down. She froze up and stood helpless before him, and was even portrayed briefly as a small child as Ridley advanced. Whaaaaat?

Xantar: My thinking evolved along very similar lines as yours. I was annoyed and shouted at Samus to pull herself together. Later on, I read an article which argued that the scene is actually a fairly realistic portrayal of post-traumatic stress syndrome. Quite simply, she couldn't just "pull herself together."

PTSD. The most hardened of soldiers can break down helplessly as the memories of what horrors they've experienced overwhelm their senses. During her childhood, Samus' home was destroyed, her parents ripped apart before her eyes by none other than Ridley. During the original Metroid game, Samus steeled herself for a confrontation with her family's murderer and prevailed. She confronted the creature again in Super Metroid, but had some knowledge of his presence, having walked in on him stealing the larval Metroid. (And the Prime Trilogy apparently never happened, leaving the Metroid canon split into non-overlapping lineages after the first game.) If you happened to know Samus' back story, the scene in Other M could have actually made sense, and been quite effectual in its dramatic intent. But that's the problem with this scene—the back story which would have allowed this scene to be put into context was never addressed.

Nowhere in any of the games did we learn that Ridley killed Samus' parents and destroyed her home.  That information, as far as I know, exists only in an obscure manga few people have read.  Relying on an outside source to inform your audience about what's going on is sloppy when it comes to a pivotal dramatic scene.  Why Samus would freak out at seeing Ridley needed to be explained in-game.  It's not like there was no precedent for it, either—Other M was loaded with flashbacks. At least one of them should have dealt with this critical piece of the puzzle to bring this scene into context. Cut off from any context, it just looks like an utterly stereotypical and highly inappropriate portrayal of a "weak female." Male character Anthony rushing in to rescue "the princess" really didn't help clear that up, either. And what's the deal with the complete ineffectiveness of the Varia suit in this scene, anyway? If the Chozo armor could be shut down so easily, it's no wonder they're a functionally extinct species.