I bought Metroid Other M when it came out last week. It practically defies description. It’s a 3D side-scrolling(ish) adventure game with some puzzles. Except when it’s a first-person game, or a third-person “over the shoulder” style shooter. With a decent dose of platforming elements.
I’m not saying it combines genres. That would be terrible. If you combine genres, you get your basic Movie Franchise Video Game. In level one, you are stuck somewhere and must solve a puzzle to get out. Levels two and three have you running around in a first- or third-person POV. Level four is the racing level, where you are either trying to catch up to someone, or attempting to flee destruction. In levels five and six you have to jump on platforms. And it plays exactly like it sounds- like a discordant collection of genres mashed together.
The beauty behind Metroid isn’t that it combines genres. It’s that it ignores them. At almost any point the game can change from a side-scroller to a first-person shooter. That’s not tremendously cool by itself. I’ve occasionally seen that in games before. What really blows my mind is the camera work in Metroid. Not because the camera is always where it needs to be, but because the developers used it the way a movie director does- to change your mood and impart feeling.
For example, there’s an alien that jumps around a lot. It’s easy to avoid being jumped on in side-scroller mode, but I can only shoot my missiles in first-person view. And this thing is really hard to kill without missiles. Which means you wind up avoiding it with a flourish (seen from afar for maximum effect) and then switch to a first person POV to blas it to hell. This is awesome, and it’s exactly how this scenario would go down in a movie:
From a vantage point near the ceiling, we see a wide angle shot of the hero dodging the alien. We watch her leap and roll in a complicated gymnastic display, then bring her gun around. The camera immediately switches to the hero’s point of view so that the audience feels as if they themselves are delivering the killing stroke.
Now, there’s nothing that says I have to play the game that way. But the controls are set up with this perspective switch for a reason, and I’m rewarded for playing in both of them. It also adds an incredible cinematic feel to the game. Sure, some elements I can only see or get to in one perspective or another. But Other M rarely feels as though it’s forcing the choice on me.
Sometimes it does force me into a perspective. It’s clearly done for the same reasons I’ve mentioned. And those times that it does, it’s made me smile.
At one point I had killed enough baddies to trigger a cutscene. I watched my character look around cautiously. It was clearly quiet. Too quiet. Then the game let me take control, but forced me into a first-person view. At first I thought it was a glitch, then I figured out what they were doing. In a movie, this is exactly the sequence of camera angles calculated to build suspense.
We see the hero advance cautiously. They’re moving slowly, looking over their shoulder ever few steps. Then the camera pans back and forth across the area the room- as if we’re seeing it through the character’s eyes.
That’s exactly what was going on. Except I had control over where my eyes swept. The game was controlling the cutscene, but only to a point, allowing me to help write the script in small ways as we went along. Sure enough, something dramatic happened. And it was far more emotional watching it “through my own eyes” than it would have been watching it happen to a character on a screen.
I’m not saying this is perfect. There are times that the developers, in the hopes of creating a mood, disable character controls. And I think that sucks. There are rooms where you switch to a third-person over the shoulder view. There’s no enemies in these rooms, and you move with a cautious, slow walk, gun held at the ready. But you can’t jump. Or shoot. Pressing those buttons does nothing.
Why? Because they want me to respect something about this setting. In most shooters, you can always loose a couple of bullets at something. And that can really ruin a moment.
The hero dramatically enters the room where he will find a final clue. He sneaks around quietly, getting his bearings. Then, becoming bored, he unloads a clip of 9mm rounds into a glass mirror over the dresser, just to see if anything happens.
There goes your ambience.
Still, I’m against disabling buttons. I say replace them instead. Jump would become a lifting of the chin, bringing the ceiling into better focus. Shoot could be replaced by a request to interact with objects, like twisting a locked door handle or rifling through some papers. That would have enhanced the feeling of creepiness and solidtude without making me feel like I had been forcibly handicapped. Same number of options, just different ones appropriate to the scenario. The genius behind Other M is that while I’m seeing things the way the developers want me to, I still retain the ability to make decisions within those scenarios, effecting them in small ways. In these rooms I can’t. And that sucks.
People keep asking when video games will basically become playable movies. I feel like Metroid Other M is the first solid step in that direction. No matter what actions I take, the game is designed to try and make them look cool. It doesn’t always succeed, but the controls, gameplay, and perspective are all woven together in a way that creates the most movie-like experience I’ve had yet with a game.