Knowledge and Fear in Metroid II

[Another old article reincarnated as a blog post. This will stop happening soon. I just want to save the few articles that actually contain some worthwhile ideas.]

Metroid II is, in my humble opinion, one of the best games on the good old Gameboy. It is also one of the most tense and scary games I’ve ever played – and that without the benefit of “hyper-enhanced ultra-3D graphics”, and without tons of blood and gore. I’ve always been fascinated by games that can actually scare me, so I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what it is that makes Metroid II work the way that it does.

Of course, there is no single answer to the question of what makes a game scary. There are very many different factors that contribute to the scariness of a game, and there are many different combinations of these factors that can make a game scary. Furthermore, much like films, games can be scary in qualitatively different ways, like The Mothman Prophecies is scary because of its visual style, Cube is scary because of its ideas, and Friends with Money is scary because it’s so unbelievably bad.

In this article I’m going to try to analyze one of these factors – the factor knowledge. They say that we are afraid of the things we don’t know, but that’s not the complete truth. Knowing something, or being able to anticipate something, can be just as scary (like seeing the words “Julia Roberts” in a film’s opening credits).

Now, a few words about the gameplay of Metroid II. You are Samus Aran, a woman in a fancy robot-like spacesuit, sent to the planet of the Metroids to exterminate the poor buggers. The Metroids are nasty flying alien creatures that suck people’s life energy and turn them into Harold Bloom. There are also three mutated versions of the Metroid, two of which look more humanoid (a cross between the creatures from the Alien movies and your other worst nightmare). There are forty or so Metroids on the planet, and you’ve got to explore it and kill them all. The planet is also inhabited by various other lifeforms, which can also be dangerous to you. All creatures except Metroids can be destroyed by your basic weapon with unlimited shots; the Metroids themselves, however, can only be killed with your secondary weapon, missiles – of which you have only a limited amount.

Now this is what happens when you get near a Metroid: first of all, the screen freezes for a second, and suddenly the music gets very loud and scary. This, in fact, is sometimes enough to make you almost drop your Gameboy (especially if you’ve got speakers attached to the thing). Then the Metroid charges at you – flies towards you, actually – and then tries to stay on you, draining your life energy. To defeat it, you got to run pretty quickly, dodge it when it comes towards you, try not to fall onto any spikes or similar unpleasant surroundings, and shoot missiles at the life-sucking bastard until it’s dead.
No matter how good you are and how well-equipped your character is (in terms of missiles, energy tanks, and so on,) fighting a Metroid is scary, and often quite difficult. Even if you don’t get killed, chances are that you’ll walk away with very few energy points left. Once you’ve fought your first Metroid, you know exactly what such a fight will be like. You fully realize that each time you meet one of those things, a difficult fight is waiting for you. And, having read the manual, you know that there are some even nastier versions of this beast waiting for you. As you explore the planet, you are constantly aware that there are more Metroids waiting for you out there, and that you have to fight them. You know that with every step, you’re getting closer to them, closer to the next time that the screen will freeze and the music will go loud and you will have to fight for your life.

It’s not just the way that the Metroids suddenly attack you that makes the game scary – it’s far more than just the ‘boo’-effect, so overused by movies these days. It’s the knowledge that they’re out there, the way that you try to guess when you’re going to meet the next one. In this game, you know your enemy, you know him very well, and you’re able to anticipate some of his behaviour – and it is this knowledge that makes every single moment of exploring new ground in this game scary.

This, of course, is helped by the game’s design. Quite often, you can guess that there’s a Metroid waiting for you in a particular area. Sometimes it’s because you’ve seen an empty egg, but quite often it’s because you’ve just started to understand the way in which the designers placed the Metroids – there’s sort of a pattern, if you know what I mean. What makes the game even scarier, of course, is that this pattern is not absolute, and you know that too (after the first time you meet a Metroid in a place where you didn’t expect it at all). This really makes you paranoid, and quite often you end up walking *very* slowly, hoping not to run into one of them.

Let me get back to those eggs for a minute. During the course of the game, you often find eggshells – in fact, the first Metroid is still in its egg when you find it, so you know what the eggshells mean when you see them. I find that these eggshells are one of the most brilliant game design ideas I’ve ever seen – so simple, yet so effective. When you see one, you know what’s going to happen… just not *when* it’s going happen. Every single time you see one of those eggs, you’ll think ‘oh shit’.

In a horror movie, you know that the killer/monster/whatever is going to strike, but there’s always hope that the good guys might get away. In Metroid II, however, you know that you will have to face the Metroids, because you’re here to exterminate them. You can’t run – you’ve got to go find them, fully knowing that it’s going to be hell.

If the Metroids weren’t a specific thing that you actually know something about, and they were just some strong bosses you ran into every once in a while, the game would still be scary – but by far not as scary as it is now, now that you know what you’re up against.

Conclusion: sometimes knowing what is going to happen and not being able to do much about it can be just as scary as not knowing. Sort of like elections these days.

The Music of Metroid II

[This used to be under “articles” on the old website. Now it’s a blog post. The older category might have been more appropriate, but this is easier to manage – plus, it allows me to feel more at ease with occasionally coming back to the topic and noting down any thoughts that may drop into my head. Anyway, I think this is one of my few game design articles worth preserving; not necessarily because it is well-written, but because not much has been said about this brilliant little game.]

First of all, let me say that I don’t know too much about the creative side of music and sound. I don’t know all the right words and expressions. In fact, I know as much about the creative side of music as I know about how to sing; and trust me, I’ve been in enough plays to know I can’t sing at all, except when I’m playing a character who’s drunk. But the sound/music of Metroid II impressed me quite a bit, so I felt that I needed to write this article, if only to clear up the matter in my own head, and maybe give the people who actually do have an understanding of how music works (and are interested in computer games) something to think about. Furthemore, since music is intrinsic part of game design, this article is also quite relevant to game designers.

In some places, Metroid II has ‘traditional’ music – music, that is, which has a melody and a rhythm and is played by (digital) instruments, or synthesizers, or whatever – you know what I mean. This music is pretty good, but it’s nothing terribly original – and certainly not worth writing an article about. But, as I said, this traditional music is only played in certain areas; what truly interests me is the music played in the rest of the game, and how it works to create (in combination with and contrast to the other music) certain feelings in the player.

In Metroid II, you are exploring an alien planet. It’s a pretty inhospitable place, full of lava, and spikes, and a whole bunch of really weird creatures that you better stay away from. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so close to being on a strange alien planet as when I played Metroid II. The graphics, although quite simple, manage to convey a certain amount of ‘alienness’ (and an article about this will appear at a later date). But I think that most of the atmosphere derives from the music.
Here the lexical gap sets in once more. It isn’t exactly music, you see – at least not by any standard definition. It’s very experimental/abstract stuff. Instead of traditional music played by instruments that has a rhythm and a melody, in Metroid II you have some very organic-sounding and insectoid-sounding (if that’s possible) …umm… sounds. And you also have strange humming sounds, and beeps, and something that sounds like little feet running, and similar… stuff (somebody shoot me, or give me a book of musical terminology). It doesn’t really form a melody. But believe me when I say it creates an atmosphere – an almost unbearably tense and sometimes extremely unpleasant one; which is just what the game needs, of course.

Personally, it reminds me in a way of Expressionist painting. In Expressionism, the artist tries to express an emotion by painting an image; the image does not have to make sense, or represent something physical – many Expressionist paintings are totally abstract – but it has to express an emotion to the viewer. (“An art movement early in the 20th century; the artist’s subjective expression of inner experiences was emphasized” – says WordWeb.) Good paintings of this kind truly ‘radiate’ emotion, or, if you wish, atmosphere. The experimental music of Metroid II works in the same way. It is not so much music inspired by the game world and graphics (that would be Impressionism, or a bad soundtrack CD), rather than music which expresses these in completely abstract musical terms. Of course, music is by its very nature abstract, but most music does follow certain rules (melody, rhythm, etc, how many more times can I repeat this before somebody rips out my throat?). But in this case all that matters is the emotion of fear, or alienness – and what is more alien to man than strange insectoid sounds? (A brainscan of George W. Bush perhaps, but that’s not the point of this article.)

What makes it even better is that there is ‘normal’ music in the game – in certain areas. More specifically, there is normal music in the first large area where the game starts out, which branches into several other areas – and in the ‘ancient civilization’ areas, where you can save, or get various special items. Thus, normal music comes to be associated with the things we are familiar with, the things that make us feel relatively safe, while the experimental/abstract music/sound/noise/whatever comes to be associated with all that is alien, that scares us, that makes us feel insecure.

Super Metroid, the SNES sequel, was not a bad game, but I think that one of the reasons that it wasn’t half as scary as Metroid II was that the music was far more normal. It was scary at some points, yes, but it didn’t sound so alien, so horribly unpleasant and strange.

I think that Metroid II is a game that sound designers and music composers should look to for inspiration and a better understanding of how to make music for games. Metroid II proves that music/sound need not be nice or pleasant, but that it must fit the game and express what the game is about, and that in this case it is the feeling evoked that matters, not technique, or adherence to the rules.