There’s an immortal passage in William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying in which a schoolteacher describes the intense feeling she gets from beating her students: “I would think with each blow of the switch: Now you are aware of me! Now I am something in your secret and selfish life, who have marked your blood with my own for ever and ever.” It’s a ghoulish confession with a frightening idea at its core: Sometimes the strongest connections are formed by pain.
That idea struck me recently when I was replaying Metroid Prime 2: Echoes, a 2004 Gamecube game that I find more memorable than its acclaimed predecessor because of the pain it inflicts—even though actually playing it makes me want to strangle someone.
Eleven years after it came out, Metroid Prime still enjoys near-unanimous critical regard, and with some reason. Fans expected the worst—in 2002, “American team makes Metroid into a first-person shooter” was a bloodcurdling notion. But Texas-based Retro Studios pulled it off by hewing closely to the template established by Super Metroid on the Super NES: a smoothly-paced adventure that deploys new secrets, new terrain, fair challenges, and genuinely useful new abilities on a regular schedule. Retro replicated the fluid progression of Super Metroid and artfully brought the series’ 2D structure into 3D world.
Few critics were quite as thrilled about Metroid Prime 2: Echoes. It’s now remembered as the black sheep of the series. For instance, TJ Rappel, the guy who founded the biggest Metroid site on the internet, gave up halfway:
That graphic I slapped up on the front page reads “TJ vs. MP2.” To put it bluntly, MP2 won. […] I do feel kinda guilty […] I should be all about Metroid and everything, I guess—but I really just was not having fun playing MP2 and made the decision that my time would be better spent playing games I actually enjoyed[.]
If you play Prime 2 for more than an hour, you’ll understand where Rappel is coming from. It’s not even that Prime 2 is hard. It is significantly harder than the first game, but more than that, it’s exhausting. Punitive. A slog. One third of the game takes place in a swamp, but it might as well be the whole thing.
Looking for a new twist on the formula, Retro borrowed the dual-worlds mechanic from The Legend Of Zelda: A Link To The Past. There are two parallel dimensions, the Light Aether and the Dark Aether. In the already dense world of Metroid, this also means double the backtracking. That in itself wouldn’t be such a problem if Metroid Prime 2 equipped you with the robust arsenal of earlier games. After all, on some level, backtracking is one of the essential pleasures of the Metroid formula. You get more powerful, and then you get to go back and smoke the enemies who gave you trouble before. It gives you a satisfying journey from weakling to demigod.
In Prime 2, you get new weapons, but A. they run out of ammo, and B. they kind of suck. That means you repeatedly fight the same enemies in the same places. A buddy of mine, using some advanced taxonomy I don’t quite grasp, has divided these characters into “fuckulons” and “space assholes.” Either way, they take dozens of hits, tend to turn invisible/invincible, and often have attacks that paralyze you or fuzz out your vision. You generally can’t run past them, either. They seal the doors.
Does this sound like fun? No. It is the opposite of fun. Yet I must confess: On some perverse, miserable, why-am-I-doing-this-to-myself level, it hits me like Addie Bundren with a switch.
Can “bad” design decisions make a game “better” in some sense? If “better” can include “more interesting,” maybe they can. Here’s the same question, inverted: can good design make a game less interesting? The original Metroid Prime hits all the right beats. It rewards you when you feel you deserve it. It ticks off all the classical motifs: woodland area, fire area, ice area, ruins area. It never sticks you in one sector for too long. It’s colorful. Getting around is a smooth pleasure.
Prime 2, on the other hand, somehow always feels like you’re on the far side of creation from where you need to be. I can’t think of another game that better captures the feeling of, “I want to go home, but it’s 3:00 in the morning, I’m on the wrong side of town, and the buses stopped running four hours ago.” Yes, that is a shitty feeling. But in some ways, it’s a more memorable and distinctive feeling than the feeling of “I am playing an immaculately designed video game” that Prime gives you.
Overall, critical acclaim will favor games that are designed “correctly.” In this context, “correctly” means the game’s relationship with you is essentially sane and just. It’s hard to argue with that as a basic principle. Yet there’s a wider range of potential relationships that a work can have with its audience. And sometimes the feeling of safety and security offered by a sane and just game universe can undermine other pleasures.
You don’t have to range far to find another example in video games. Consider the original Metroid. Conventional wisdom would have it that Super Metroid is the masterpiece and Metroid is the rough-around-the-edges first attempt. It’s glitchy, meandering, and full of red herrings, repeating bleak corridors to nowhere. (The memory limits of NES cartridges in 1986 forced the developers to reuse a lot of territory.) But in contrast to its successor’s polish, Metroid’s general falling-apart feeling make the whole experience feel more sinister and Lovecraftian.
The more a game makes sense, the more it reveals the creator, reminding you that you’re not actually alone exploring a dangerous alien planet. For example, let’s say you drop down a long shaft to get the Bombs, and then you have to use them blast a new path back to the surface. That makes a lot of sense as a design ploy—it teaches you how to use your new item. But it’s a little too convenient, isn’t it? It makes the game feel a little more like an intricately constructed puzzle box, and a little less like a sinister, overwhelming world of chaos. It tips the hand of the creator. The first Metroid does this a couple of times (with the Ice Beam, for example); Super Metroid does it almost every time. It makes more sense and is more “correct” as a design in one sense, but the game also loses something subtle in the tradeoff.
It’s not exactly fun to muddle around in the middle of nowhere in Metroid, any more than it’s fun to drag your sorry ass across miles of bad road every time you want to get anywhere in Metroid Prime 2. But you’ll not soon forget it. That’s not to fault Super Metroid or Metroid Prime. (Frankly, nor is it to suggest that I ever want to play Prime 2 again.) It’s just to say that as game budgets increase and designers face more pressure to smooth out players’ experiences, they’d be wise to remember that too much sanity and justice can be dull. If they really want to leave a mark on you, games may have to risk bewildering you or even pissing you off—approaching not with a gold star, but with a ruler to the back of the hand.