Supple Think: The Other of All Game Protagonists

The Other of All Game Protagonists

by Zen

Posted on Monday, December 7, 2015
Labels: , , , , , , , , ,
Two games came out on the NES with the same design goals, but with different inspirations.  Both games were open-world action games that emphasized the hero's gradual mastery over an environment, but while The Legend of Zelda attempted to capture the spirit of adventure of a young child playing in the woods Metroid was inspired by the solitude and anxiety of the film Alien.  Understandably, this led to two very different protagonists.  Zelda's Link as the chosen hero, guided by destiny to rescue his princess, is a trope that even as a child I couldn't stomach.  His rise to victory is pre-ordained, a series of formalities the game, like its world, is obligated to bestow.  Metroid's Samus shows up similarly under-equipped, and similarly unlocks the secrets of her environment to gain the power to achieve her goal, but the game inherited Alien's emphasis on its heroine's personal struggle.  Even after awkward world-building was forced into the series Samus retained her potency, her desperate strength.

Metroid 2's only indication
that Samus is a woman

It is mercifully mundane nowadays to note that Samus, like Ripley who inspired her, is a woman.  At the time it was something we talked about at recess.  "But the manual calls Samus 'he'!" Those of us who knew the code for her second quest (of course we couldn't beat the game ourselves), where the armor came off and her hair came down, knew the translators had just made the same assumption we had.  Seeing this made me think, probably for the first time, about where these assumptions came from.  But in the end Samus acted as a glorified peep show, rewarding the player with a flash of skin for completing the game quickly.  The positive impact of this representation was overwhelmed by objectification.

A few years ago I read a story about a man whose daughter loved playing Zelda games but wasn't interested in playing as another boy saving a girl.  He hacked the game script for Wind Waker so that it was a story about a young girl saving her brother, and it ended up working perfectly.  This is a really sweet story, one that highlights many of the imperfections to which "typical gamers" have the luxury of blindness.  There was a time I'd have sworn that gamers would cling to this anecdote as being indicative of video games' universal applicability, that the girl's desire to play Zelda at all meant vindication that games were more than mere focus-grouped novelty and had genuine cultural value, for everyone.  I now know better.

The backlash, in a smirking equivocation that has become all too familiar, came in the form of a version of Metroid hacked so that Samus is a man.  Neither hack was a high-profile event, but the audacity of this absurd rebuttal presages GamerGate's core tenet: that even one heroine is too many.  That young girls should stay out of the treehouse.

How powerups are acquired in Other M
This juvenile tantrum presaged something else: Nintendo itself rescinded Samus's heroic status, releasing a new Metroid game whose only purpose was to retroactively excise all agency, power, and courage from its once ground-breaking protagonist.  This game, Metroid: Other M, is the most aggressively sexist game I have ever played, made all the moreso by its determination to undo the barely-progressive "mistakes" of its forebears.  Its purpose was to reassure us that Samus, while she may have done cool stuff once, is ultimately nothing but a pretty vessel for male will, delirious with her desire to procreate.  Her newfound weakness illuminated a path of unconscionable derogation.

At the center of the most important moment in gamer culture right now is a series of videos made by Anita Sarkeesian on the representation of women in games.  A lot of nerds have responded with threatening vitriol, and while no video she could possibly have ever posted to YouTube justifies death and rape threats, I was somehow still surprised by how calm and careful her videos are. All she does is follow a trope from its origins in other media through the history of video games and then point out that, while these are mostly very good games that she can enjoy despite their problematic elements, those elements are still troubling enough to warrant attention and discussion.  It's the product of someone who clearly has a great love of the art form and wants to see it rise above its shortcomings.

For any element of the gaming community to react badly to this is confusing on many levels.  First are the obvious ones: I don't like to think about how people in our society could ever be this morally bankrupt, and that anyone could watch this video series and not only find fault with it but feel the need to make a "rebuttal" that attempts to invalidate rather than engage her points takes an uncomfortable degree of dishonesty and intellectual laziness.  What keeps me wondering, though, is how wrong I was about gamers' priorities: I have always known gamers to be so obsessed with the art form that they see as "theirs" that they want it to be all things to all people.  It isn't just that they like games, it's that games are the best.  It's that a higher class of people like games, smarter people who see the value in something the rest of the world doesn't understand.  There's a smug pretense about it all, and I always found this overcompensating myopia to be constitutive for gamer culture at large.

The controversy over Anita Sarkeesian, as well as GamerGate, highlight the shameful truth: that these gamers are more interested in abusing women than they are in video games.  Rather than wanting to see games eliminate those qualities that lead to justified derision, rather than shepherding a fledgling art form into true cultural relevance, they lash out at anyone who suggests they overcome their deep and protected bigotry.

Of anyone who still thinks this is an example of "boys will be boys", or of a vocal minority, I ask simply to consider the example of Samus Aran.  An already-problematic character, she nevertheless blazed a trail of representation that, if supported, could effect real change in how young boys are taught to think about women.  I have already written about the power this art form can have over the way that we care; to not only shout down any attempt to listen to women about how our art affects them but to find whatever meager sprig can grow in the wasteland of mainstream representation and pull it up by the roots represents a degree of hatred and willful oppression that nobody can afford to ignore.
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