Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Tools for the Job: Asserting Femininity in Super Metroid

I originally built this piece around a couple of Laura Mulvey’s ideas about how masculine empowerment fantasy works but I ended up abandoning the notion. Approaching games from the angle of how their rule systems and plot combine means abandoning conventional understandings of scopophilia. It’s there but it doesn’t account for everything. It’s a question of the behavior that the game is inducing in relationship to what the content is broadcasting back at you. In most video games this is gibberish when it comes to female avatars, the content is telling me that I’m a sexy athlete while the design induces psychotic killing sprees that have nothing to do with being sexy. I wanted to find a game that involved a female heroine that was critically acclaimed but didn’t lapse into absolute ludonarrative dissonance and ended up going back to the classic SNES masterpiece.

Ditching scopophilia due to its purely visual foundation meant identifying game designs specifically meant for a particular gender. The leading work on this is by Henry Jenkins, which I link to in the article. This should not be confused with telling someone what they’re supposed to like or do, these distinctions are drawn across cultural norms and very old ones at that. What’s striking about Super Metroid is that it’s essentially a blending of female and male game designs. If you play the original and go up to 3, the series distinctly scales back combat in favor of puzzles. Weapons go from being novelties to intrinsic to resolving elaborate puzzles, like items in an adventure game. This is broken up with the intermittent boss battle and shoot-out, but these eventually get scaled back for the exploring. It gives what Jenkins might call a female edge over the masculine ‘pew-pew’ in the behavior the design is inducing.

Narratively, the game is essentially a spin on Aliens. Getting between a Mom and her kids is not really a good idea and the game is tugging at this idea with little bits of content constantly. The game world is literally filled with Moms & babies if you know to look for it along with more than a few vaginally shaped death rays. It deviates at numerous points from any strict recreation of the film, instead drawing out the aspects that it needs to create a video game about similar themes.

Special thanks to Kateri for looking over the rough draft and offering a lot of helpful suggestions with all this.

To me, it’s still the leading example in the industry of how to do a female protagonist right.


RASS said...

Loved the essay, I'm glad you took the idea back. Out of curiosity, have you played the FEAR games? specially FEAR 2?, I ask this because the way Alma (the main antagonist of the series) seems quite distant from the sexualised role that female characters usually suffer in videogames (some what realted to you'r essay), and specially by her actions (the ending of FEAR 2) I find her really intresting, and would love to see the opinion of some one so well read in the field such as yourself =).

L.B. Jeffries said...

Thanks a ton! Outside of just an intro class from years ago I really don't know much about psychology. All the info I used I got off Google or JSTOR essays. I think once I read Jenkins and his theory of gendered game design the whole thing really came together for me.

I played FEAR 1 but the question of the little girl is interesting. It's definitely not tapping into the same vein as 'Pet Cemetary' or 'The Omen' where the fear is concern that your kid may suck. It's a Japanese motif, right? In the original Ring Samara was an adult though, I think being scared of little kids might be a distinctly Western thing. I'm not sure though, I'll have to try those games out.

RASS said...

Yeah, you are right, as I recall reading somewhere, much of the scare factor of FEAR comes from the japanese culture of portraying a little phantom girl. The player is set in a unsure position of how to react for unknowing his enemy, as well as attacking it(her)results ineffective.

But what really drags my attention to the game and it's sequel, it's the back-story of Alma. I'm not sure how far you managed to go, so I don't wan't to spoil anything. I hope you get to play them!.