Note: Opinion article. Thanks to Cart Boy, NantenJex, and Ersatz for suggestions.
How do you tell a story in a game? Do you use dramatic cutscenes, or let the environment explain the context? How much is too much or too little for each game? Beyond that though, there’s the issue that “story” means a myriad of things in this medium. You have the action of the plot, the experience of playing through the game, and the backstory fed to you throughout the game. These all demand different things, and sometimes can be at odds with each other. Enter Metroid Prime, the GameCube classic from 2002 that took two staples of shooter games – audio diaries and the very act of aiming – to tell a story filled with drama, black humor, and a grand mythology told entirely at the behest of the player. It’s not operatic or melodramatic, but it carries a weight and interest because of its quiet approach.
This is another example of design having to overcome contextual problems. Prime was the first Metroid game released in eight years (albeit on the same day as Metroid Fusion, an ostensibly more “traditional” sequel for Game Boy Advance) after Super Metroid, which soon after its 1994 release was hailed by critics as one of the greatest games of all time. Super is utterly fantastic, a compelling trek through a cavernous, labyrinthine world and a pinnacle of the Super Nintendo era, but the previous console generation was rife with failed attempts to bring the dominant action genres of old into 3D. And while 3D started to really hit its stride by the early days of the PlayStation 2 and GameCube, the prospect of Metroid losing or failing at that for which it was loved – especially in being transformed into a first-person shooter, a genre seen as loud, dumb, and unsuited for the series – was scary. It’s a testament to Retro Studios, the Texas developer founded only four years prior (along with various Nintendo studios and producers who aided production) that its first title ended up as acclaimed as the SNES classic. The Metroid Prime trilogy, from 2002 until 2007, carry such a weight and respect that simply the announcement of a fourth game in development was one of the highlights at this year’s E3.
That respect comes from many factors: a targeting system that sidesteps aiming issues endemic to console shooters of the time, gorgeous audio and visual direction, a maze-like world that rewarded careful searching, a thoughtful, spooky tone, and an emphasis on movement that made exploring fun. I’ll be focusing though on one particular mechanic, the Scan Visor players use to read the world, because it’s both such a singular idea and gives the game a number of boons. Firstly, there’s the strict mechanical value: it allows clues to be at the behest of the player. Scanning monsters gives information on their biology, and specifically on their weaknesses. Logs from the Chozo or Pirates has clues for puzzles or upgrades or secrets. The game has multiple moments that force you to scan something to unlock a door, but the tool’s real strength comes allowing the player to come to these conclusions at their discretion or preference. There are few cutscenes in the Metroid Prime that obviously hint to a solution, because there’s rarely a need to make such a clumsy act of exposition.
But what differentiates this from a guide or cheat code is in its use. You never have to scan an enemy or include any logbook entries; the only required uses for it are to scan some minor sigils or computer terminals to solve a quick puzzle. The player, then, is responsible for how much information he or she receives, instead of relying on other characters or cutscenes or tips on how to accomplish a task (though those all exist throughout the series). It also allows the game to make those weaknesses part of a character’s biology; they’re arbitrary in practice, of course, but it allows interesting world building. It also takes a few seconds of locking onto any scannable thing to learn about it, and you can’t fire during that period, making learning about enemies an actual challenge, with a reward that’s personal instead of mechanical. And it’s a challenge that uses the same targeting mechanics you use throughout the rest of the game.
The Visor has another incredible benefit: it gives the game an unbelievable freedom for how it can impart information. There are only a few moments of actual, direct exposition in the first game, contextualizing why Samus is investigating this derelict frigate at the beginning of the game and, soon after, chasing the Space Pirate dragon Ridley to the planet Tallon IV. There are no non-player characters, nor is there any kind of “mission” other than to collect power-ups, find the artifacts the Space Pirates are trying to take for themselves, and learn about this mysterious, bioluminescent substance plaguing the land. It’s telling the latter’s name, Phazon, and its mutagenic nature can be found mere minutes into the game, something easy to ignore as just flavor text. Every piece of information you get, from the history of the Chozo race who built the structures to the Pirates’ savage experiments to documentation about the flora and fauna, gives you more insight into this world, and it’s all presented as material within the universe. The lore even has different diction and biases dependent on its source, leading to some brilliant bits of black comedy from the Pirates, whose plans are as self-destructive as they are villainous.
This is a method of storytelling that’s functionally unique to games, and works with the medium in several important ways. For one thing it allows players to make the story as deep or as quick as they wish, which is both a great way to give them control and a method that’s more “natural” than the more traditional cutscene (which, again, do exist throughout all three Prime games). Those can give too much information for puzzles, but they also inherently break the immersion by removing the interactive component. This is not to decry cutscenes or to say a scanning mechanic is superior, but the latter is less able to break the interactivity. Considering how decried the extensive cutscenes in Metroid: Other M turned out to be, it was a sensible choice.
There was also that issue of bringing the “essence” of Metroid into a first-person shooter, a wonderfully complex genre that was, at the time, known for bombast and violence devoid of all else. And while that wasn’t entirely fair – Deus Ex, System Shock 1 and 2, Half-Life, and Rainbow Six all had more nuanced approaches – the genre was still very much dominated by games inspired by the legacy of Doom and its chainsaws, demons, and Martian bases. For all their being action heavy side-scrolling shooters, the first three Metroid games had a very deliberate pace. They were collectively about trying to wrap your head around a cohesive world far more than its enemies, with upgrades based around exploration as much as combat. They weren’t quite “thinking person’s action games,” but you had to consider not only the maze-like level you were in but how it and three more of them all fit together. Doom had mazes, too, but Metroid had a degree of subtlety that people rarely associated with shooters, and usually as an exception to the rule. And fortunately, that’s largely how it stayed in 3D. Its three spinoffs, one of which was a pinball game, were pretty much entirely action oriented, but Prime and its two mainline sequels, Metroid Prime 2: Echoes and Prime 3: Corruption largely did their own thing as smarter, quieter, more exploratory shooters. The most action-heavy sequences, like Corruption’s bombastic, Halo inspired opening battle, are the exception.
The Visor – added later during production, at strong encouragement from longtime Nintendo producer Kensuke Tanabe – was a big part of that mechanically by helping to keep the pace more deliberate, but it’s also central to the game’s tone. It turns Samus into an archaeologist or biologist, exploring the ruins and life of this planet. You’re never told who wrote each creature’s entry into the logbook, but given how complete it is, even for monsters entirely unknown to the rest of the world, it’s hard not to think it was Samus herself, quietly studying this world even as she destroys so much of it. It was purely marketing copy that led Nintendo to calling these games “first-person adventures,” as opposed to the more traditionally loud “shooters,” but the phrase does get at how the worlds of the Prime games are far more than just arenas for fights, a design choice traditionally used for the stories of multiplayer-oriented shooters. They’re actual worlds, with histories and tragedies you’ll be exploring for ten to fifteen hours, regardless of how much of that you strive to learn.
This idea of the environment as something you can interact with primarily to learn in this fashion didn’t go out of style; in fact, that’s where you can see Prime’s influence. Play BioShock, or Dead Space, or Gone Home, or any number of games based around exploring and learning about a space. The game didn’t inspire audio diaries or solely invent the techniques used in environmental storytelling – many of those games it influenced also owe an amount to System Shock 2 and point-and-click adventure games – but it popularized them, and helped show ways they could be used and introduced. It showed that the ethoses of intense action and deliberate exploration didn’t have to be diametrically opposed, and even could support each other. And while later Prime games would use more traditional forms of exposition, the first showed how minimal narrative can still lead to strong writing and storytelling.
And the Scan Visor was central to that focus. It helped let players adjust the pace while lightly encouraging a specific way to play, one that had Samus moving more methodically and taking in the incredible world of Tallon IV. It allowed an incredible amount of world building without forcing players to learn it all. More than anything else, though, it differentiated Prime from the shooters of the 2000s, whose inspiration from Doom, Quake, and Halo emphasized action over all else. Following that influence wasn’t wrong, but there was a need for more contemplative, thoughtful shooters in the market. In 2002 Prime was the only FPS really doing that, and the Visor was central to cementing that approach.
I should note that without the Visor system, the game would’ve turned out fine. It still has the wonderful sense of immersion and wonder, and it remains a strong approach to movement from a first-person perspective. Prime would still have been a far smarter, more exploratory first-person shooter than most things on the market then and, honestly, now. It was not required for the game to work, the way Splatoon can only work if moving and shooting are constantly working in tandem. But it, and the ability to bring exposition and world building and a hint system into a single system, made Prime into something more than a “smarter, more exploratory first-person shooter.” The game wasn’t just a wonderful Super Metroid retread or an excellent console shooter but something of its own, as innovative as it was iterative.
However, while it was the central facet of the game’s push for its own identity, the Scan Visor was also only one main part of a distinct, though not separate push Metroid Prime made for immersion and storytelling, something supported through a number of unique and interesting design choices. Having recently played through the series once again, I’d like to follow up this article, then, by discussing one particularly interesting one: the concept and importance of diegetic game systems, an idea the Prime trilogy explored with absolute aplomb. I hope you read that as well when we publish it.