i owe you two apologies (this one’s about metroid prime)

Doc Burford
53 min readDec 14, 2022

I knew people liked Metroid Prime. I knew people said it was magnificent, that it was best of the best. In 2009, some guy named Michael Thomsen told ABC news that it was gaming’s equivalent to Citizen Kane, triggering a whole wave of “are games art?” from gamers who’d never even seen Citizen Kane, but knew it topped Sight and Sound’s list of “best films ever made” and had practically since the list was conceived.

Citizen Kane is a work of peerless craftsmanship, a rich, deeply told tale that pushed the boundaries of the medium forward and executed everything to perfection. I am not writing an essay about Citizen Kane today, but I am doing something in an essay that will require explanation.

I hear a lot of talk about boundaries being pushed, about using the medium to its fullest potential, and so often, what’s actually happening is that some big AAA video game told a story that gamers have seen millions of times before, but now the budget is better, so the CG cutscenes are better, and gamers loudly proclaim “this is pushing the medium forward!”

But do you actually know what that means? Like, what does it actually mean to transcend a medium’s boundaries and do something else?

This is, ostensibly, an essay about a game many call the best ever made.

This is actually an essay about what the fuck it means to push a medium forward.

And Metroid Prime?

Metroid Prime ain’t it.

The First Apology

I should have written this essay years ago.

I tried. I tried so many times. It’s a commission, you see, and I’ve taken far too long to get to it. I feel horrible about that, and it’s not just about the hell I’ve been through; I mean, even in the worst years of my life, I was still playing plenty of games. But this game?

This particular game?

I tried, man. I tried so, so many times. I tried to play it and I kept struggling. Once, I made it to the plant boss, then put it down for a while, forgot about it, and came back later. Another time, I think I made it all the way to the snow area, and, again, same problem. I kept trying, picking away at it, and failing. I ran into hardware issues as well — first trying the game on GameCube, having the controller fail, eventually getting it to work on my Wii, then having to fix my Wii… all these things added up, weeks, months, and finally years.

But I think, to be honest, there was another problem: I was afraid of letting the people who’d commissioned me down.

I got the sense they were hopeful that I’d write something to show my love for Metroid Prime, but every time I played it, I didn’t love it. My heart wasn’t in it. I played games for a lot of reasons — to escape from pain, to de-stress, to hang out with people I cared about — and I’m notorious for putting off games for long periods of time (I think I started Company of Heroes in 2011, and six years later, I started God of War 2018, realized I didn’t enjoy that fuckin shit, and went “I have to play something, ANYTHING else.” So, hey, 2018 rolled around, and I finally finished Metroid Prime. I wouldn’t finish God of War until two years later.

okay so i can only find three screenshots i took of metroid prime, and now i’m out of screenshots. oh no. guess i’ll have to post completely unrelated screenshots now

ADHD sucks. I go where the winds take me. But dammit, I took a commission and I promised I’d do it. Now, well, I hope this is good enough.

I just wish it was favorable, and I hate to say that, well, it isn’t.

So genuinely, sincerely, I am sorry. I am sorry it took so long.

The Second Apology

Metroid Prime is not a good video game, and I know a lot of you love it. I am going to do my best to make my case. I am going to do my best to have a fun time making that case. I am sorry, genuinely sorry, that I cannot tell you that it is a great game, or even a masterpiece.

I can tell you that the graphics still hold up, and the game is gorgeous on an HDMI-modded Wii. I can tell you that it sounds and looks great, but, well… you ever eat a cake that’s got too much salt in, or is maybe just way too dry, or someone didn’t stir the flour up right and there’s little gobs of flour in?

Well, great visuals and great audio can put any game over the top, no matter how bad. Doesn’t matter if it’s the atrocious Red Dead Redemption, a poorly-written slog of a game with awful controls that demands, inexplicably (and very disability-unfriendly) that you mash A to sprint, or the absolute waste of a rush job Half-Life 2 (don’t believe me? tell me why the alpha, a year prior to release, is nothing like the final product — my pet conspiracy theory is that Valve rushed out a new game slapped together in the time between leak and ship, and that’s why Half-Life 2 is such a flaccid experience, weaker in every way from its predecessor), one rule remains without exception:

Sound and Art will elevate the experience, but that’s the icing on the cake. If the cake is still a dry, mealy thing, then the cake ain’t all that good.

So here’s my apology: I’m sorry, but I’m going to be completely honest with you about the miserable experience I had playing Metroid Prime. If you were coming for validation, this is not the essay for you. If you want to know what I think about a game I didn’t like, and want to get an insight into the extremely rare “Doc’s thoughts on a game he didn’t enjoy,” well, here you go. For the most part, I try not to talk shit about games that aren’t doing the whole “we’re making an Important Cultural Work” thing that The Last of Us does; I figure any studio that sends PR people after review websites to ask for higher scored reviews doesn’t have legitimate scores to begin with, and with hundreds of millions spent in development, it’s fair game.

But I do recognize that humans worked on these games. They did their best. I try, as best I can, to avoid tearing apart a game needlessly. But Metroid Prime… look, I’m not here to tear it a new one because it’s well liked. If I was gonna do that, you’d see me writing takedowns of every popular game.

My general rule of “if you can’t say something constructive, don’t say nothing at all” has served me well, and I’m going to keep doing that. I’m going to do my best to be constructive.

I’m sorry, this won’t be praise.

sorry, i ran out of metroid prime screenshots; i didn’t have a good way to grab screenshots as i was playing. this is sleeping dogs.

I am fully aware this opinion is unpopular. Completely. I am not trying to say anything about anyone who enjoys this game. Just, hey, I’m a dude who had a bad time with a game, and people seem to think I’m articulate enough to at least explain my position.

As gamers, many of us want validation of some kind; because games are interactive, we become part of them. I am Master Chief, I am Cate Archer, I am Shinra, pilot of the Ikaruga. If you play those games, you are as well. A movie, a book, an album — those can all be personal experiences, but I believe that by putting ourselves in the games we play, through the sheer act of interaction, those experiences become just as real as any other experience we have in our memory.

Sure, I know I did not actually go to the Halo ring, but my memories of the spaces are just as three dimensional as the memories of going Baldwin Lake in Colorado and climbing a nearby summit. I can still visualize those spaces in my head; I still participated in them, even if I was not literally in the game space. So to me, as strange as it may sound, a game experience is real in some way; our brain still processes these experiences as having happened, even though we know they did not happen in the material world.

So yes, I realize that by detailing my issues with an experience you may enjoy, I might inadvertently tread on your toes. I am very sorry if I do; I’m hoping you’ll find some use in this piece. If anything, maybe me explaining what didn’t work will help you appreciate it more.

What I’m going to do, though?

As with all my pieces, I’m going to try to explore and explain why I felt the way I did so that you, hopefully, will get something out of it that you can apply to other games you play.

If you think my work has value and you want to help me out financially, that would be great because being disabled in America is expensive. I’m putting all this out there for free because hey, I used to be in poverty and couldn’t get by without government assistance; I know what it’s like not to have resources available to you that other people have in spades. I don’t believe people should be denied access to educational materials like these just because they’re poor. My hope is that those of you who are able to support are willing to help not just me, but the people who can’t afford a lot of access to other game design materials. If you’re able to help and you think this goal of providing access to people who need it is good, here’s how you can help me keep writing:

paypal: paypal.me/stompsite

patreon: patreon.com/docgames

venmo: @forgetamnesia

cashapp: $docseuss

ko-fi.com/stompsite

Other ways to help include sharing my game Adios with people, leaving reviews if you liked it, and telling people about my articles. Also, if you’re a publisher, I literally have the best narrative team in the entire world (consisting of television and movie writers who have written some absolutely stellar stuff), and we are about to begin pitching a strategy RPG that is like nothing you’ve ever seen before. If that seems up your alley, slide into my twitter DMs.

this is from ‘it takes two’

What’s The Context? How Did We Play The Game?

Alright, so, hey, how’d we play the game?

Metroid Prime is twenty years old. No, really. I am writing this exact sentence on December 5, 2022 (though the rest of the essay may take some time to materialize), and the game came out November 18, 2002. Wow. Been a while, huh.

The thing about games is that games are technology. A book comes out and you can reprint it on new paper with a new cover, but the experience of reading it is essentially the same — the mechanics involved with reading a book are mostly just you turning the page with your hands, right?

Movies are a bit different — first we had film reels, then the Video Home System, or VHS tape, then DVDs, then Blu-Rays, and now, finally, 4K UHD Blu-Rays, which are the highest possible quality way to watch a movie. There’s also streaming, but a 4k stream will have lower quality than a 4k blu-ray, because it’s got narrower bandwidth and all sorts of other stuff. Still, aside from a resolution difference, it’s pretty easy to watch, say, Casablanca, from 1942–80 years ago — on VHS or 4K UHD and have basically the same experience.

With games, things are different. Technology changes, controllers change. Playing Metroid Prime’s contemporary (released the November prior) Halo: Combat Evolved on a mouse and keyboard is different than playing it on an Xbox Series X controller, which is different than playing it on an Xbox 360 controller, which is different than an original Xbox controller, which it was built on, you know? The controller might not seem that different, but the game was initially built to be played with sticks at the standardized Xbox Duke stick sensitivity and dead zones.

Mouse and Keyboard is much, much faster and more precise than Halo. The game becomes easier — all the precise tuning that went into making Halo feel a specific kind of way goes out the window the second you go from Duke to Mouse and Keyboard. It might not seem that different to you, but everything from how accurate the enemies are to how many can target you at a given time to how accurate your weapon spread is? All of that was designed for a specific input, and it takes a lot of work making sure a game is meant for other ones.

I could have played Metroid Prime on an emulator with “Primehack,” a specific version of the game designed for standard dual input controls like most players expect in a game.

I almost certainly would have had a better time.

But… that would mean we’re criticizing a game that the developers didn’t make. There can be some value in discussing it, but at some point, you’re not really discussing Metroid Prime, you’re discussing Primehack. It’s a bit like saying you want to talk about George Lucas, but then you watch a version of Star Wars that the fans have edited and altered; at some point, you’re no longer talking about the decisions George Lucas made.

superbrothers: sword and sorcery

With games, technology changes over time. It’s easy to get a copy of a movie like Casablanca, because they sell the 4K for $23.79 on Amazon (as I type this) and that disc will run in any 4K player I put it in, but with games, things are a lot harder. Because of technological advancement, developer bias, technological changes, inputs, and even outputs, it’s much, much harder to access older games.

On PC, it’s relatively easy — the industry lets fans do the work. You like this game? Great. Won’t run on Windows 10? No problem, we’ll jump into the ini file, do a few tweaks, maybe mess with the game’s executable a bit so it can handle more RAM. We might need to manually shut off some cores or run the game in compatibility mode.

A really, really good developer will update old games to run on Modern systems, and that’s awesome, but often, games on PC are just… sold, and remain selling. Hardware gets stronger, but there are very few games that can’t run on PC, and fewer still that weren’t designed to be played with a Mouse and Keyboard, a format that has not changed in any real way since the first PC games came into existence. The Qwerty keyboard layout remains.

Most computers are running on an “x86” CPU architecture. One of the reasons you can’t just put a Windows game on Mac is because Macs have used several other instruction sets, like PowerPC. This was the core problem with consoles as well.

Take the Xbox, for instance!

The original Xbox was based on x86. The Xbox 360 was on PowerPC. The Xbox One went back to x86. Older consoles have even more spread — the NES is different from the SNES which is different from the N64 which is different from the PowerPC-powered Gamecube, Wii, and WiiU, which was different than the Tegra-based Nintendo Switch.

Most game developers coded console games — especially exclusives, “to the metal,” which meant they were taking advantage of consoles as best they could and eking out some games that would’ve given PC contemporaries a run for their graphical money until the 360 generation, which lasted from 2005 to 2013. That generation was so long that computer GPUs and CPUs dramatically outperformed the consoles by the end of the generation. I recall at one point, some game site was trying to claim the objective best graphics of any game in 2010 was God of War 3, but Metro 2033, a PC exclusive, absolutely blew it out of the water and it wasn’t even close.

With a film, you’re just taking a picture and sending it to a display. The image does not change. Decisions do not have to be made. Whether there’s light being transmitted through film onto a screen like an old film reel or a laser reading data off of a 4k blu-ray disc, nothing’s really that complicated. Even the process of restoring an old film print is easy compared to a video game, because a film is just a lot of images and sound in order. A game is images, sounds, files, instructions, flags, display, and everything else.

Never mind the complexity of just… taking a texture and improving it. If a frame of a file on a DVD is considered one art asset, that means this episode of Ultraman (Episode 39, if you want to know) that I just compressed using a software called Handbrake has around 36,500 equally sized assets.

lollipop chainsaw

In a game, you could be dealing with orders of magnitude more assets in textures alone. Then you’ve got all the sounds — which aren’t a single audio track like on a disc, but are programmatic. You’re dealing with the stems of a song, which is how the guitar part for “A Stranger I Remain” can play without the vocals and on a loop until the player hits a certain part in a boss fight in Metal Gear Rising, where the lyrics kick in based on how well the player is doing. Then you’ve got code that needs to process that!

When a player moves around in a 3d space, you’ve got more code figuring out how to make sure the sound adequately mimics the doppler effect — a car driving by on the road can’t be a prerecorded sound of a car driving past, it needs to change in pitch to mimic the way a car does when it drives past us as sound waves compress and contract.

To build a game is to build an imitation of a universe, especially when that game is dealing with objects moving realistically in 3D. In a movie, I can tell an actor “reach into your pocket.” With a game, I have to say “okay, we made a character, but now we need to put bones in the character, and then we need to weight those bones, and then we need to make sure the bones move, but when the hand gets to the pocket, we need to make sure the hand appears to collide with the fabric in a way that seems real, because if we forget to do that, the hand will just clip into the pocket and — wait why did the hand just disappear? Why is the hand invisible????!?! AHHH OH NOOO

Shit’s hard, man.

And since computing has changed so much over the years, because tech companies were focused more on “more powerful tech” and not “advancements in the tech we have,” it means a whole heck of a lot of games require a lot of work to get running on the console.

Then you’ve got to think about how to connect those games to a display. With a computer, I can go run a Windows 2000 game on my brand new PC, and the game will be translated through my graphics card’s outputs to whatever display technology I want. Not so with a console! The ports you have on the back are tied to the box you have. You’re going to have to get some adapters if you want your NES to display on your brand new TV.

Oh yeah, and let’s not forget about different input methods. With a movie, you’ve got pause, play, whatever. With a PC game, you’ve got mouse and keyboard controls. But a console?

The NES controller didn’t have any joysticks or bumpers. The first ‘modern’ controller on a console was the PlayStation’s Dual Analog controller, which had the standard sixteen button layout we still use today, and even that came like two years into the PlayStation’s lifespan.

Even then, Nintendo did its own thing with one of the worst controllers in history, the Nintendo 64 controller, followed by the divisive GameCube controller (some people love the big A button, other people who are way cooler, sexier, and more intelligent think that the C-stick sucks ass and the form factor overall isn’t that comfortable), then the Wiimote, which was like a weird stick thing, then the WiiU game pad, which wasn’t very comfortable to hold and had a screen in the middle… and on and on I could go.

If games need to be interacted with, but the inputs aren’t standardized, then it becomes difficult to move a game from one platform to the next. Metroid Prime, for instance, had to be completely reworked from the GameCube to allow for the Wiimote’s aim system, since the Wiimote is not a dual analog controller.

If I wanted to play the game as it was designed, or at least in a way that approximated it, I was out of luck. I have no CRT television, unfortunately, which already means the image won’t have that beautiful framerate and brightness that only CRTs provide. In fact, without specialized equipment, I didn’t really have a good way to put the game on my television at all. Plus, both of my GameCubes are Japanese and I haven’t been able to afford to region mod them.

So I ripped my Metroid Prime disc onto a hacked Nintendo Wii, a console that has backward compatibility (the ability to play software meant for older devices, like the GameCube). I had to make sure I had a Wii that could use GameCube controller ports. Then, unfortunately, my Wavebird died, and then, while I was streaming the game, the replacement off-brand Wavebird I bought died too. So eventually I found myself using an original GameCube controller with a very, very, very long extension cable.

But the first time I tried the game, I used a Wii to HDMI adapter; you see, the Wii is still built to be plugged into those shoddy old Red, Yellow, White cables called Composite Video. Component Video, with three separate video cables (red, green, and blue instead of just the yellow) and two audio cables (red and white, like Composite) has a bit more quality — if you’re lucky enough to own a GameCube Component cable, that’s the best way to play GameCube games originally, provided you can use Component.

But, hey, that still doesn’t look great.

You know what does?

HDMI.

And I’d need HDMI if I wanted to stream the game easily.

guardians of the galaxy. better than all the movies

I’d have to figure out a way to make that happen. Luckily, Black Dog Technologies made (currently, the owner is making N64, Dreamcast, PSX, and soon PS2 products) HDMI mods for the Wii. It requires delicate soldering work that I have no skill to do, and tracking down the parts, getting someone reputable to solder them, and getting everything set up took a bit of work. At the end of it, though, I had a Nintendo Wii that could connect seamlessly to a modern television, using a Mini-HDMI to HDMI adapter cable.

So! The version of the game I played, which a compromise between “how it was designed, so we can understand what the designer is going for” and “how to make sure it can work on my TV and on Twitch,” is the original GameCube version with an original GameCube controller on a backward-compatible Nintendo Wii.

It is as faithful as you can get, but the images look a lot more crisp because HDMI is much higher quality than Composite Video.

Game Time

One thing I think has made gaming a lot better is the standardization of control schemes over the past fourteen years. Why fourteen? Well, while the “left one aims, right one shoots” control scheme has been around forever — Bungie introduced mouse look with Marathon, and Half-Life was one of the first games to use WASD as standard (though Dennis Fong’s use of WASD for Quake tournaments deserves a mention) — consoles only really started experimenting with it with Quake 2, Medal of Honor, and finally, the first ‘modern’ representation of the control scheme, Alien: Resurrection for the PlayStation.

Gamespot’s reviewer didn’t enjoy it, saying:

The game’s control setup is its most terrifying element. The left analog stick moves you forward, back, and strafes right and left, while the right analog stick turns you and can be used to look up and down. Too often, you’ll turn to face a foe and find that your weapon is aimed at the floor or ceiling while the alien gleefully hacks away at your midsection.

A year later, Halo — another Bungie game — would translate the WASD/Mouse controls everyone uses today (unless, shout out to my boy Jayson, you’re a weirdo who uses ESDF) to the dual-analogue Xbox controller.

…aaaaaaaaaand most people didn’t pay attention to that, other than Jason West and Vincent Zampella, who released Medal of Honor: Allied Assault with 2015, Inc in January 2002, just months later, and Call of Duty, which released in October of 2003. Man, that game did not have a long dev time.

That said, most game developers were still trying to figure out 3D. Even though the right answer was in front of everyone, and had been since gamers first figured out how to use mouselook and WASD. By 2008 — you know, when Borderlands released, three whole years into the the Xbox 360’s life — developers were still doing dumb, awkward bullshit. I love the storytelling of The Darkness, but man, that weird “the reticle kinda moves around the screen” shit was bad. Darksiders’ third person shooter bits were similar, and they sucked too.

In the end, dual analogue might not have been initially intuitive — there is still a learning curve, so many developers still attempt other control schemes — but it is simple to understand. Left hand controls your position in space, right hand controls where you are looking. Push forward, and you move the direction you are looking. Push backward, and you move backward.

phoenix wright: justice for all

You may be aware that Metroid Prime does not use this control scheme.

And this is the biggest problem I have with the game.

Dual analogue is a fantastic control scheme for 3d spaces because it requires the least amount of work to think through. In movies, we have the 180 degree rule, which says that generally, you want two characters in a scene to have the same left-right relationship.

Like, imagine you have two people facing each other. To keep the audience feeling oriented in the space, you generally want to make sure the guy on the left side of the frame is always on the left side, and the gal on the right side of the frame is always on the right side. You don’t want to, say, show the two talking, cut to one of them sipping a glass of water, then cut back… with the camera on the other side of the room, so now they’re facing opposite directions. While there’s no rule saying not to do it, what you end up doing is making your audience’s brain work harder to follow along.

Now, in a movie, this can lead to eye fatigue — it’s why heavy action like Mad Max: Fury Road doesn’t just do its best to maintain the 180 degree rule, it also makes sure there’s continuity of motion between shots and tends to keep its subjects in the center of the frame.

What’s continuity of motion? Basically, in a movie, you’ve got two different shots. Everyone loves to talk about the match cut from the bone being thrown up in the air to the space station in 2001, and that’s a good cut, but continuity of motion is more prevalent because it has to be. Let’s say a character is walking from left to right in a scene, and you want to cut from that to the next scene where a car is driving; a good way to make sure it feels right is to make sure the person is still walking when you cut to the next shot, and the car is moving in the same direction.

Generally, you want to do this between scenes; you can change the camera movements and the movements of objects within the camera however you please within a scene, but when going from one shot to the next, the most fluid transition will be one where the overall motion of the image is the same through the cut. Fury Road keeps that a lot.

As for the center of the frame, an important rule for static composition, the rule of thirds, says that for more pleasing photography, we should keep subjects in the sides of a 3x3 grid. Thing is, Fury Road is series of images in linear order, as with any movie. The rule of thirds only goes so far.

Since these images are moving — and not just the frames, but one shot to the next — we need to make sure the human eye doesn’t start searching around the frame for the ‘subject,’ so director George Miller and his editor, Margaret Sixel, did their best to keep the subject in the frame between shots. You might see Max one second, then there’s a cut, and boom, now it’s Furiosa, but your eyes don’t have to travel far to see theirs (humans tend to be drawn to eyes in any image) maintaining the same coordinates.

We do all of this stuff because we are trying to reduce friction and make it easy to get engrossed in what we’re actually doing, which is watching a movie.

In games, it’s the same way; if you press a button and then… nothing happens for a minute, it feels bad. If you press it and immediately get little audio beeps and buzzes, it feels good. We call this “feedback!”

edf: world brothers

Feedback is basically “the game responding to the buttons you press,” but in the sense of like, I pull the trigger, my gun fires immediately, and I hear, see, and feel the gun firing. We wouldn’t consider feedback to be “I picked a dialogue choice and the story progressed,” unless picking the dialogue choice maybe made a little clicky sound when you pressed the button, and some visual effects popped out when you did it.

There was a really neat interview (on Rolling Stone’s short lived “Glixel” site, which has since been removed from the internet) with Vince Zampella years ago where he straight up gave away the secret to why Call of Duty was so successful and Titanfall was so damn good: at Infinity Ward, and later Respawn, Zampella and his teams made sure that input priority always took precedence over anything else.

In games, you have two basic kinds of input styles: animation priority and input priority. You nearly always want input priority — for some reason, teams like CD Projekt RED keep forgetting this lesson. When The Witcher 2 released, everyone complained that Geralt felt sluggish — CD Projekt RED patched the controls to be more input-friendly. They’d been animation-dependent, which looks really good in video, but feels bad to control, because it’s like telling your body to do something and watching it happen like a second later.

Then they did it again in The Witcher 3, everyone complained, and they changed it once again. One of the reason The Witcher 3’s combat feels as bad as it does (I love the game overall) is because CDPR keeps prioritizing what looks good over what feels good.

Some studios do animation priority really well — a good example of this is FROM and the Dark Souls games, where you’re committing to an action that takes time — but they generally still make those animations quick and snappy. They’re usually hand animated, rather than motion captured, and so they’re superhumanly fast! No human being alive can actually move like a hunter does in Bloodborne, but that snappiness makes it feel like moving quick in real life.

industria. full disclosure: i was approached to help polish the script but my air conditioning failed in the middle of the summer and i literally couldn’t even keep a computer running without it overheating. loved the game a lot! very cool project from a small team

The Witcher 3’s motion-captured animations are playing out at real human speed — they’re still processed very heavily, like hand animation, but they’re targeting movement that looks realistic over anything else, so it feels like it takes forever between pressing the button and seeing the animation play out. Better game feel is often unrealistic, and animation priority really only works if it’s moving at superhuman speeds. Bloodborne feels better than The Witcher 3 because of how fast it is — not quite as fast as input priority combat, but still really fast.

Games are meant to be played, not watched like a movie; it might look a little strange, but in the heat of the moment, you, the player, are more likely to pay attention to how it feels than whether or not it’s got gorgeous, realistic human movement. If anything, the realism is likely to feel awful.

In any game, but especially 3D games, game feel matters more than anything when it comes to making sure a game experience is satisfying.

The more friction between your desire and your avatar’s action, the less likely you are to enjoy the game. It’s why so many people hate tank controls, a movement system where characters move forward relative to their model, rather than the perspective of the player. People who like tank controls usually argue that they make horror games scarier but that’s silly —tank controls are a limitation of old games not having dual analogue control schemes; if your game has to suck ass to be scary, it probably isn’t very scary to begin with.

See, humans move by thinking in directions relative to their body; for a fun experiment, try rotating your computer display 90 degrees, then, keeping your mouse as you normally do, try to navigate your computer desktop. Not very easy, is it? Your brain understands “mouse up means the cursor will move up from my perspective,” but it has a harder time dealing with “when I move the mouse up, it now moves directly to the right.”

If you try it long enough, you’ll find you’re expending a lot more energy just to handle basic tasks, just like reading upside down is harder than reading right side up.

Dual analogue controls are a lot like that; our brains are optimized to go “yeah okay, forward is the direction I am generally looking, and when I think “walk forward,” I step in the direction I’m looking.” Your body will usually automatically rotate to align with the direction you’re looking when you walk towards an object you’re looking at. The dual analogue scheme is the one that plays best with how our minds work.

army of two: the devil’s cartel

Metroid Prime… sorta uses tank controls, but translated into first person.

With WASD and dual analogue, pressing the W and D keys or moving the stick left to right will result in your character moving left to right without turning. “Forward” is always directly in front of you, and “in front of you” is controlled by your right stick or your mouse.

Games like Resident Evil use left and right on the D-pad to turn the character, then up on the D-pad to move the character ahead of where they are facing. It isn’t great, and it still requires more mental effort than necessary, but because the camera is usually fixed and you’re looking at the character, you’re steering them around as if they’re a remote control car.

If you’ve ever driven a remote control car, you know that it’s a lot more awkward than driving an actual car, because you’re having to think about depth, you’re having to translate directions (like the mouse on a monitor rotated 90 degrees) in your head, it’s taking way more of your brain’s spatial reasoning abilities to do anything. That computational friction in your brain is an excess load that makes it more difficult to get into the game than it should be. Rather than tracking your position in space, you’re steering a third object around.

(this is, by the way, why a lot of games with puzzles where you have to move objects in space, like a crane puzzle, will usually have a laser, clearly defined shadow, or other targeting system for moving boxes around — because it’s much harder to envision an object moving in space separate from you than it is to envision your own position in the space around you)

In Metroid Prime, you’re in first person, where your brain is going “okay, I am moving forward, I am moving side to side,” but it’s a lot more fiddly, because now there’s no really good, quick way to look around. You have to think about looking around by holding down one button and then moving your stick and you can’t move very well while you do this because your fingers are occupied holding down so many more buttons. You’re having to think about a lot more inputs for the most basic of human actions.

In real life, most of us make a decision to, say, walk from wherever we are to the door into the next room. Our head looks at the door, our feet start going in that direction. We don’t really think about it. We just kinda want to go somewhere and hundreds of muscles kick into action and start pulling us in that direction.

Metroid Prime turns all of that into way more effort needed than it has to be, and none of it’s fluid. Rather than being able to look and move as you go, you’re limited to looking around only when standing still. Say goodbye to any kind of complex movements like circle strafing and adjusting for objects in the environment. In Metroid Prime, you can hold down a button to lock onto an enemy and then move left to right, and you’ll circle around the enemy.

cyberpunk 2077

But let’s say a hallway corner is right in front of you. In a normal dual analogue setup, you just hit right or left and align yourself; now you can keep walking forward. In a game with Metroid Prime’s tank controls, you have to turn the camera right or left, walk forward, then turn the camera back. The movement is more disjointed and less fluid; all these little adjustments you could do quickly and precisely in a dual analogue scheme are just gone. It’s much less elegant and requires a lot more inputs and holds to achieve. It’s like using a butter knife to try and carve a block of wood.

This results in some pretty frustrating fights, which I have no desire to go recapture footage to provide an example for because it wasn’t fun. One enemy is invisible, requiring you to quickly look at and target them; so you look around the room frantically — except you can really only look left and right while standing still, and the turn speed is pretty slow. What should be a fun, tense fight ends up just kinda feeling like awkwardly flailing and just missing a guy because you need to develop new muscle memory for this game and this game alone.

Years ago, I recall a comedian making some joke about how games were weird because they’re basically the only medium that requires you to pass a test (really more of a skill check, but you know what he means) to continue enjoying the story. Well, one of the things that we, as designers, can do to make sure people don’t feel quite so tested is to make sure that players don’t have to relearn controls every time.

You know how annoying and awkward it can be to mainline a game on your PlayStation and your Switch? Like, I’ve been playing Pokemon Violet, where the confirm button is on the right side of the face buttons, but then I go play Uncharted: Lost Legacy, and it’s on the bottom side of the face buttons. Juggling the two is irritating; throw in a game like Vagrant Story, which I’m emulating on an Xbox controller, and it’s just a constant mess of “wait, what game am I playing again?”

Since I finished Pokemon Violet, a game where I repeatedly struggled to remember that the map button was, for some ungodly reason, put on the fucking Y button (my muscle memory for most games has me pressing the back/select/minus button to open the map, and even Pokemon Legends Arceus from earlier this year had you pressing that button to open the map! but no, for some reason, Violet had to go with something weird and different, constantly fucking up that muscle memory!), I have picked up Middle Earth: Shadow of War, a game I’m having fun with.

While the controls are super intuitive — there’s still a lot I’ve forgotten, like the “press A to run faster” button that has a weird flow to it because you have to hold down A to run, but also press A to speed up, which means awkwardly holding it down until you see the prompt, then releasing and tapping it again. Would’ve been way better if it was just “tap A to sprint,” (toggles are better than holds for reasons I’ll get into soon), and then you tap occasionally when the prompt to run faster comes up.

A major issue with games is that because controls in a lot of games still have lots of pointless variation, you’ll find yourself having to redevelop muscle memory when coming back to games you’ve put down for a while, or constantly change your muscle memory if you play with more than one game in your rotation. Obviously Owlboy and Doom are going to have different controls, but if you’ve got a third person game with aiming in it, why not just make it so left trigger is aim, right trigger is shoot, and so on? Why not always have map be on the back button, as long as the game has a map?

yakuza zero

You can reduce friction here, where the player is more concerned with “moving from a to b,” so that you can put the friction where it belongs, in the actual gameplay. The less fiddling the player has to do, the better. You want them engrossed in the game, not frustrated because they’re getting tripped up with the buttons or having to fiddle a lot more than they need to.

So Metroid asks you to put in a lot more work to get way less precise control. As I recall, there is a way to strafe in the game but it requires holding down a lot of buttons to pull off; whether or not I’m remembering correctly, the fact is indisputable: moving left to right in Metroid Prime is way more complicated than a normal dual analogue game.

ghost recon: wildlands

The Disability Problem

I am disabled. I talk about it a lot because, well, who else am I gonna tell, but also, because being disabled fuckin sucks and it’s important to advocate for people whose lives are much harder than the average person’s. Like, imagine you’ve got a difficulty slider in a game, and one of the sliders is “player has to do a quick time event for getting up stairs. If you fall, you get an instant game over and have to reload from a checkpoint and watch a whole cutscene before climbing the stairs.” Most of us wouldn’t willingly select that because that experience sucks.

Well, being disabled is like that. I have to do more things than most of you to live a life that’s equivalent to yours. Because I’m disabled, I have to go through more pain, I can do fewer things, and, heck, it costs me more money to be alive. Are you spending the equivalent of a two brand new Nintendo Switches every week just to be alive? Do you have to spend more money on food because sometimes you can’t cook for yourself at all and being malnourished would only make it worse?

Shit sucks!

Well, I don’t mean to complain, but I do have to explain this particular thing so you understand where I’m coming from. My disability involves a great deal of chronic pain. Remember when I said earlier that Red Dead Redemption sucks because it requires you to mash A to run? Yeah. That literally gives me hand cramps. When I wrote about Dark Souls and disability, I talked about how just playing for a little while could hurt me for days after; that’s still the case now.

If it wasn’t bad enough dealing with the actual physical pain of the disability (imagine getting into a boxing ring with Mike Tyson every day and getting the shit beat out of you. I wake up every day feeling like that’s what happened, because chronic pain sucks), being physically abused, losing out on work opportunities, being denied fair pay, getting yelled at, being told I deserve to die, having to pay most of my income to medical care and food prep so I can stay alive, the one place I go to escape from my troubles, games… isn’t always the most helpful place.

Whether it’s the inability to pause in Dark Souls so I can stop and stretch my hands or deal with a hand cramp, or bad button placement, or the refusal to allow toggles for sprinting in Shadow of War and the insistence I hold down certain buttons for long periods of time, causing a lot of pain, being a disabled gamer with my specific chronic pain issues really fuckin’ sucks!

Metroid Prime, a game that requires you to hold down a lot of buttons on a controller that is very poorly designed and absolutely not ergonomical in the slightest, especially when the buttons themselves are really bad (like the Z button and the triggers) because of how aggressively springy they are… yeah, that games not super disability friendly, not by a longshot. The game is actively painful to play.

“But Doc, why not simply use the Wiimote instead! That’s the definitive way to — “ shut the fuck up.

Look, maybe you don’t deserve this harshness, but from where I’ve been sitting, this condescending bullshit’s been going on way too long. As a person with chronic fatigue and chronic pain, doing more physical action is not superior to doing less. A wiimote requires more motion, more muscle control, more effort to use. It is extremely unpleasant (and it’s also less intuitive!), which is the same reason why gyro aiming fucking sucks. Might work for you, but it absolutely, definitely, one hundred percent does not work for me. So if you’re gonna suggest that shit, please don’t. Just… shut the fuck up instead.

genshin impact

Okay, Is That All? You Don’t Like Bad Controls?

Well, remember the whole “this is gaming’s Citizen Kane”? We talked a lot about that in our essay on the extremely funny story behind auteur theory, so I won’t relitigate the point, but basically, if you ask “what makes Citizen Kane the Citizen Kane of film,” the best, quickest answer anyone can give you is that a lot of people learned things from Citizen Kane and put those things into their own work.

Like another game that gets lots of praise as being a landmark game despite coming and going and influencing very few works, Half-Life 2, nobody really pulls much from Metroid Prime… because there isn’t much to pull from. If you want gaming’s Citizen Kane in terms of influence, you’ll want to look at Ultima, Half-Life, or Call of Duty (but hey, most major gaming innovations start in the PC space before moving over to consoles, very few console innovations have taken the industry by storm — if you want to know what’s coming next in games, make sure you’re keeping abreast with developments in the PC gaming space. The future nearly always comes from there).

Metroid Prime is not at all like Citizen Kane, a treasure trove of new techniques and experiments that continues to impact creators to this day. Nintendo barely acknowledges the game’s existence — there’s no way to even buy a new copy legally to play on your Nintendo Switch, despite the rumors that a collection has been finished swirling around.

Some people think that Citizen Kane is the Movie That Made People Take Cinema Seriously As Art. That’s not really the case; it wasn’t exactly a commercial success, in part because William Randolph Hearst felt attacked by the movie and tried to sink it. Like Moby Dick or Blade Runner, it took years and years to really begin to be appreciated and learned from.

Even if that’s what made Citizen Kane the Citizen Kane of Cinema, that’s not something Metroid Prime did — the world did not suddenly put games in museums and in school curriculum because of Metroid Prime. It came, did well within gaming, and went. It’s out of print now, remembered fondly, played by far fewer people than it could be because Nintendo neglects anything that isn’t on the newest console.

I literally rewatched The Matrix a couple weeks ago. Do you know what console Nintendo was selling when The Matrix came out?

The Nintendo 64.

freedom fighters

Fuck.

Metroid Prime is beautiful. It sounds great too. As presentation goes, I’d say it’s impeccable, right down to the beautiful little details like the way the helmet visor fogs up and you can sometimes see your eyes in the reflection. The art is impeccable.

But uh… I have a rule, and the rule came from a series of blog posts made on the Insomniac blog a long, long time ago.

Way back when the PS3 came out, Insomniac, who released games at 60 frames a second, asked “do people really want games to be made at 30 frames a second? After all, nobody ever talks about framerate in reviews unless it’s really bad.” The people writing the post explained that they’d dug into a bunch of game reviews, and they found out that the single biggest factor that game reviewers would discuss was always graphics.

From this, Insomniac claimed, we could reasonably assume that no one cared about framerate.

For a few years, that seemed to be the case.

But… as you might remember from the essay on auteur theory — we don’t make note of the things that please us nearly as much as the things that trip us up. The best quality of life features are often invisible — they’re so good because they don’t call attention to themselves. In the PS2 era, which the Insomniac data people were pulling their review data from, no one talked about framerate that much because most games ran really well. It was only when the framerates were really really choppy that people would comment on them.

You don’t miss 60 frames per second until it’s gone, y’know? Insomniac’s data people had made one of the biggest mistakes anyone can make in data: not coming up with a good way to interpret the data they were seeing. “Do people care about framerate?” is a great question, but “well, nobody talks about it, so I guess not,” was not the right answer.

A few years later, influencers like TotalBiscuit and journalists like the fine folks at Digital Foundry, frustrated by the industry’s abandonment of the snappy, great-feeling 60 fps standard in favor of slightly prettier games at 30 fps, began calling attention to game framerates. PC ports were so bad back then that games that could run faster on better hardware were locked to lesser framerates that required modding to fix. We took high framerates for granted on the older consoles; it wasn’t until the HD gen that we realized we’d actually have to ask people to keep that shit in.

The lesson I learned from this was simple: most game reviewers are wowed by the superficial. They see a pretty game and they go “oh man, this is awesome.” It’s why Naughty Dog games get praised — they look really good, even though they’re poorly-written and poorly-designed video games that are only memorable because of the amount of money Sony pumps into them to make them feel expensive. There’s better game design in, say, A Plague Tale: Innocence, but the budget was so much smaller than The Last of Us, so the lesser game gets all the awards because it feels more expensive.

Earlier, before I began this piece, as I thought about how to write it, I decided I’d frame it like this: great frosting can really put a cake over the top, but if the cake’s dry, or got too much flour in it, or whatever, it’s not gonna be a good cake, no matter how much frosting you got.

I love Halo: Reach, and I love how the game’s absurd draw distance (as I recall, Halo 3’s was 17 kilometers, and Halo: Reach’s was said to be twice that, making it 34 kilometers, which is mind-boggling) helps the spaces feel bigger, which enhances the game… but hey, Killzone 2 is a very pretty game, and it has like 150ms input lag, shoddy AI, poor level design, boring weapons, and an uninteresting story. Killzone 2 feels like ass, and as such, nobody loves it nearly as much as Halo 3, which is as stone-cold classic.

Style matters, but only when there’s substance.

i finally found another metroid prime shot

So I tend not to talk all that much about how great the visuals are unless I’m doing a deep dive into exactly why that is. With Metroid Prime, the game holds up because it’s not worried about being “as realistic as it can be,” it’s going for a distinct stylization with clear, legible environments. It carries a lot of mood through its lighting, it breaks up the visuals with shapes that feel way more organic — this is a game with tons of curves to really make things pop.

My favorite God of War game so far is probably Ascension — most people don’t like it because it only takes place in two biomes. One thing Metroid Prime does really well is keep its biomes varied. You got lava, snow, swamp, whatever; it’s all there, and that leads to a psychological factor where players feel like the game has a lot more variety. Ascension might literally be a bigger game with more to do, but because there is more visual distinction in, say, God of War 3, then God of War 3 gets the praise, despite the superior gameplay of Ascension.

I’ve heard this described as the idea of tangibles, that is, if you play a game and you like it, you will point to what stood out to you as exceptional rather than what actually was exceptional. The tangible things are going to factor more into your evaluation than the intangibles. If you play a game with nice graphics, you might say “wow, the graphics were really nice! That makes it a great game!”

But if you have issues with, say, the gameplay feeling unresponsive because the gameplay is going so hard for verisimilitude that its animations are motion captured and designed to be as realistic as possible, the game feels a lot slower than it should (because of how our brains work, what we do feels much faster than it often is, so a game that ‘feels’ real will be way faster than realistic animations). That makes it feel unpleasant. I’ll write more on this later, in my review of The Callisto Protocol (yes i’m announcing a new article oops).

Now, you might not know about, and therefore, be unaware of, the psychological impact that realistic animations have on you. Taken alone, those realistic animations make perfect sense; you can watch them over and over and over again, and they look perfect, so you might go “great graphics! Gameplay is not very good though, for some reason.” The tangible quality of the graphics is overwhelming the direct limitations those graphics impose on the gameplay, so you might end up missing the actual problem.

Tangibles do not have to directly obfuscate the problem either; they can be a distraction. When people like gimmicks — like for, say, Titanfall 2’s “Effect and Cause” level — they may say “this is the level that makes the game!” But for me, that level is actually The Beacon, which puts Titanfall 2’s actual gameplay to the test (and has the best duel, with the shotgun/katana wielding enemy boss; I feel that really, really sold the Titan fights better than any other) and, more importantly, stresses the relationship between BT and Jack. The Beacon is the one where BT gives you a thumbs up; it’s the one where BT tells you “Trust me” and then throws you. It sets up the dramatic finale of the game. That level is super super important to making Titanfall 2 work! But… it doesn’t have a Big Gimmick, so it’s often forgotten.

What I’m getting at is… Metroid Prime absolutely excels at its most tangible qualities. The gimmicks — like seeing Samus’ face reflected back at you in the visor — and the audiovisual presentation are top notch. Even now, decades later, Metroid Prime is practically peerless — it creates a space that is an absolute treasure to dive into.

lost odyssey

I could, perhaps, discuss at length why, but I’m not sure what to say, really. The color composition is great. The environments still feel fresh; they don’t feel like they’re just pulled from common sci-fi tropes or color schemes. The game is wholly and uniquely itself, and while the graphics are, admittedly, dated, it’s the strength of that art design that keeps it going. When you realize “oh, wow, this isn’t just a half-pipe-like structure in the environment, it’s literally a half-pipe designed for me to use the ball in,” that’s awesome. While I don’t love some of the fixed camera stuff in the game, overall, I do think the presentation is, well, like I said: peerless.

What could you take from it now, years later?

Well, I’d say the big thing is: consider the value of organic shapes, color theory, and weather as you design a level. Think about how that opening jungle area has persistent rain and uses lots of greens and greys, but they’re richer than, say, The Last of Us 2, a game which uses a ton of green and grey (red/green contrast in the original The Last of Us is everywhere). Consider the blue and white of the Phendrana Drifts and how that’s distinctly different. Consider the chunky distinctiveness between each space in the game, not just visually, but mechanically.

Of course, it makes sense things would be orthogonal in a Metroid game.

I mean, that’s what they are, and it’s what makes them so good.

What’s orthogonality?

observation

It’s A Mix of Good and REALLY Bad Design

I would love to make a Metroidvania one day. I had a discussion with some friends a while back about what the difference between a Zelda game and a Metroid game is, because on the surface, they both do the same thing: you go to various places in the game world, find that you need a specific tool to progress, obtain that tool (usually through a fight with a really tough enemy or challenge), and use that tool to access places and things you couldn’t access otherwise.

I think it was my buddy Curry who said that he felt the difference between Zelda and Metroidvanias is that Metroidvanias are usually in a single location, while Zelda games are usually big worlds you can explore, with various dungeons you find in the world that let you get the tool that helps you progress. Fair enough.

Still, what I’d say is that both styles of game are rooted in the same kind of chunky progression. Rather than the tediousness of something like Insomniac’s Marvel’s Spiderman, where you can pick up a skill that says like “more range on this move,” which could mean anything and is rarely felt at any kind of intuitive level, or something like Diablo III, where you have a gem that gives you 1.2% more damage, which mathematically ends up being a rounding error that doesn’t feel any stronger than the last weapon you had… chunky progression games, like Metroid Prime.

A few paragraphs ago, I asked a question I’m sure some readers may have: “what’s orthogonality?”

In English, the word “orthogonal” refers to things that are at right angles to each other. That doesn’t seem super useful; in game design, orthogonality seems to have emerged as a metaphorical term to describe mechanics that are distinct and different. Rather than “grappling hook that lets you swing” and “grappling hook that pulls you directly to an object,” orthogonal mechanics would be like “you have a grappling hook and you have a bomb.” These two mechanics are orthogonal to each other — they aren’t just slight variations.

That’s the good design that really makes Metroid Prime, or any progression system, in my opinion, truly pop.

The way our brains work, things can often be fuzzy. The closer things are, the more cognitive load we have to consider in order to go “is this the right mechanic to be using?” In Insomniac’s game “Marvel’s Spider-Man,” (I think all Marvel related games have “Marvel’s” before them now), we have a ton of different kinds of webs to shoot, but they’re all webs. It can get hard to remember which icon refers to which kind of specific webshot. Is that the one that knocks people around or the one that sets a bomb on them? They’re all webs, so they’re very close together within our headspace.

In Metroid Prime, it’s like “this door requires a missile. This door requires a plasma beam.” They are all color coded to make things a lot easier, and while that seems silly, it works really well, though, as any smart designer knows, colorblind people deserve to be able to see it as well, so physically distinct patterns also help — the purple doors look very different from the red doors, so you could tell the difference even if they were black and white, though not as quickly as if you can see the color.

little nightmares 2. i loved it.

That chunky progression also means you can easily see something and go “oh, I cannot do this yet, this is not a mechanic I recognize.” Once you learn it, you are likely to be able to remember “oooh, so that’s what this red door is! Cool! Now that I have a missile, I can open it!” So you figure out where it is, you head back there, and you discover some new path you didn’t know. Maybe it’s a shortcut, maybe it’s a new region, maybe it’s an upgrade and you can now carry 5 more missiles, doubling the amount of missiles you were able to carry (even the upgrades are appreciable! They’re not like “2% extra health,” they’re always like “100 more health” which, in a game where you begin with, I wanna say, exactly 100 health, means essentially getting one complete new life to continue being able to use.

Metroid Prime proved that combining chunky progression with 3d level design, where you have to think and remember things spatially, is an extremely potent combination; I would personally love to see more games following that approach.

The bad design is the backtracking.

A while back, I mentioned I was pretty annoyed with Genshin Impact for placing a teleporter a long way away from a place that players are expected to visit routinely. I’ve talked before about how no matter how good your level design is, eventually, players will get tired of having to waste time walking between points A and B.

A lot of game designers love to make a realistic level that players can walk around in, but that really just amounts to a ton of busywork; one smart thing Bungie has done with both of its social media spaces, the “towers,” is ensure that players don’t really need to do that much walking around within them. They’re not perfect — Amanda Holliday is still a bit far — but the core places you, as a player, are most likely to visit are all nice and close. It’s not quite as fun navigating the base in Monster Hunter World, and putting nearly everything a player would need to visit in the gathering hub in Monster Hunter Rise was a really good move. The Sunbreak expansion has even more.

Metroid Prime, by its very nature, is going to have some level of backtracking. Because the regions are distinct (ruins, volcanoes, snow, etc), it can occasionally be difficult to understand where things are or remember how to get to them. Personally, I would have loved a map marker system where I, a player, can mark a location I’ve already visited on the map and then the game would go “okay you need to go through this door to get to the next to head the direction you want.” I can’t begin to tell you how many times on the stream I’d go “okay, these three rooms all have three doors in them, and I have to remember which door leads to the right room for me to actually go where I want.”

I’d routinely walk in and constantly be checking my map because — since the game is 3d — there might be three or four different exits to a given room on different levels of the room; remembering which goes where could be a big challenge at times, something that 2d metroids don’t deal with as much because, well, it’s only two dimensions. Bit easier to keep a mental map when you’ve only got two dimensions to contend with.

destiny 2

The Genshin problem is that I found myself going through the same places way more often than I really needed to; enemies always respawn in the individual rooms, so that can lead to some tedious fights I had done plenty of times before. I’ve already proved myself; do I really, really need to fight this exact same fight again?

Personally, I think a — dare I say it — fast travel system would have helped? Just a few different points on the map I could teleport to would’ve been nice and would’ve saved a significant amount of backtracking.

It’s one thing to become familiar with a space and enjoy navigating it, but in a game with unintuitive and frustrating controls, a super narrow field of view (FOV; basically, if a monitor is your viewport, then the FOV is the degrees of vision you have — during the 360 generation, 60 degrees was common, on PC, 90 was usually the default, but I tend to get headaches at anything under 110), first person platforming (which is great with a wide field of view but hell with a narrow one), and a whole lot of individual rooms with a ton of doors, it can end up being tedious to navigate.

Instead of working to mitigate that, the designers did something way worse.

Ever heard of the concept of “second order thinking?” The basic idea, as formulated by G.K. Chesterton, is that maybe you see a fence in a road. You don’t know why it’s there, so you remove it. But maybe there was a reason it was there, and maybe removing it is actually a bad thing?

Chesterton’s argument was that before you intervene with a system, you figure out why decisions were made. You can’t remove the fence until you understand why the fence was erected to begin with. Maybe the reason is dumb and it’s fine for you to remove. Maybe it’s not!

What matters is that you understand.

Now, I’d not heard this term before, but it’s how I think about things; I grew up reading lots of “how things work” books, so I loved understanding the “why” behind anything. Second order thinking is extremely powerful, and I’m so lucky that my interest in the “how” of things enabled me to default to this mode of thinking. It lets you make much better, more informed decisions than just first order thinking.

As a critic, this is what makes me as astute as I am. I’m not some super genius, capable of seeing the hidden mysteries of the universe; I’m just a normal guy, asking why people made the decisions they did.

necromunda: hired gun (underhive wars also exists but i haven’t played it)

Now, speculation can be bad — one of the worst kinds of internet comment is when someone says something like “this person is like this,” and someone follows up with “I bet…” and then creates an entirely fictional person that satisfies their beliefs about the sort of person who would do the thing. It’s completely constructed, it’s entirely useless, and it servers absolutely zero purpose. It’s just a person trying to justify thinking a certain way about a person. That means that you do have to be careful with it — keep your speculation as informed as possible! Become an expert by studying the subject at hand!

As a game designer — and I got into game design because of the second order thinking process, which allowed me to teach myself how people make games — I often ask myself “why did someone choose to make this?”

See, video games are entirely constructed. Nothing can exist in a game without explicit direction for that thing to exist.

You want a “cancel” prompt on a menu? Someone has to make that. You want to press the button “A” and have the game respond to it? Someone has to do it. Someone’s got to reach into a bag or open a door? Oh man, oh man. You’ve gotta do a lot to make that work.

There is always a reason for something, even if that reason is fuckin’ dogshit. Like, some people stupidly think “bad controls make games scarier” because they don’t understand that tank controls were a product of early 3d environments and a person kinda thinking about how to make movement intuitive from a fixed camera perspective, and someone thought “well, a person walks forward, and forward is up on the D-pad/Stick, so we should invent tank controls.” Other people went “what if where the person facing didn’t matter, and you were just steering them around?” and it turned out that one felt way better.

So some people tried to apply tank controls to 3d, like Metroid Prime, and it turns out that really isn’t that satisfying to play. Resident Evil 2 remake is a way better game than Resident Evil 4 on a core level because its movement feels so much more intuitive.

mass effect. my character is supposed to be an undead john dimaggio, resurrected 500 years into the future.

We like it when we push to the right and our character side-steps to the right. We don’t like it as much when we push to the right and Leon turns right, steps forward, and then turns left, having successfully moved a step to the right. One gave us more fine control, the other was just… it looked and felt unnatural and took longer than it had to and didn’t really change anything about the way the game played.

Therefore:

  1. in a game, everything that exists has a reason to exist. someone decided things should be that way.
  2. just because someone made that decision doesn’t mean it was a good decision. deliberate choices are not inherently valid choices. it’s execution that determines the validity.

And I have absolutely zero goddamn clue why Recore would make you go back and do a big collectathon before the game ends.

Sorry, did I say Recore? I meant a game made by some of the key people on Recore, Metroid Prime.

You see, Metroid Prime also makes you go on a big collectathon; you have to track down a bunch of stuff strewn throughout the game. You may have found some, but you may not have found others, and the only way to figure out where they are is… well, either poke around, backtracking a lot (in a game that isn’t fun to control)… or… look up a guide, and then backtrack all the way back to the places you missed (which elevator takes me to Phenandra drifts again? oh no, not this one… oops), until you can put together all the symbols you need to unlock the final boss.

the best game on here. smt3 nocturne

Even at the time, everyone complained about this, so why they would return to it in Recore, I legitimately do not know. Someone who worked on Metroid Prime really liked the mechanic for some reason, but I genuinely do not know why. Why is it possible to miss the keys required to unlock the proverbial door to the final boss… why? Seriously? I literally do not know. It just meant running around in places I’d already been in a game that was already a bit too long.

In a game with bad controls, backtracking is hell. In a game with a not-that-great map, backtracking is hell. It’s okay to become familiar with a space, but familiarity does have that unfortunate tendency to breed contempt. Doing it with awkward, unintuitive controls, and, well, it stops feeling fun.

Also most of the bosses kinda suck. Cool presentation, but most of them are frustrating because of, well, the controls. So that also wasn’t great.

evil genius 2

It’s No Citizen Kane

I began this piece by saying that Metroid Prime was compared to Citizen Kane. Personally, I don’t see it.

Let’s say you disagree with me; let’s say you love the controls, the backtracking, the fact that you have to frequently bring up your map to figure out which door leads to the room you want to go to. Okay, fair! I’m not writing these pieces with the belief that you ought to be swayed; I am doing my best to persuade you, because that’s the point of a persuasive essay and I’d be doing a terrible job if I didn’t try to make a compelling case, but like, if I fail to persuade you, well, that comes with the territory.

I might be disappointed if I can’t persuade you, but I’d be a lot more disappointed if you said it was boring; that, to me, is way more important. I want to be interesting and I want to be useful. Persuasion is the name of the game, but it’s not a requirement for me personally.

I think that even if Metroid Prime is a perfect game… it’s no Citizen Kane.

Like I said, Citizen Kane was influential. What it did was not force society to instantly take movies seriously as an artform — nothing could do that and nothing ever has to any art form; there is no single work that creates a sea change in people like that — it was that it helped filmmakers make better films. People learned from the shot language, the performances, the set design, and yes, the script. Citizen Kane is the Citizen Kane of movies because it left an impact on the people who worked within the medium.

What has Metroid Prime done, concretely? What lessons have been learned?

Okay, first question: where are the clones? Half-Life initiated a sea change within games when it helped standardize WASD controls and scripted sequences that gave life to video games. For a while, everyone was influenced by Half-Life, and you can see its effects in games like Call of Duty afterwards. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare was so influential that just about everyone tried to imitate it in the years that followed (and missed the point — Call of Duty 4 offered players far more flexibility than anyone who copied it). Grand Theft Auto III kicked off the entire open world boom that gave us everything from The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction to The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker. Do I really need to explain how Dark Souls moving attack buttons to the triggers, away from the face buttons, had a big influence on combat design afterwards? On and on I could go.

What has Metroid Prime done?

Are people making first person metroidvanias? Not really. Did the industry see an uptick in chunky progression systems? I can’t say it did; the series that had it kept it going, plenty of series followed Diablo II instead (I can see why; easier to randomly generate weapons with slight differentiation than design a game with a series of discrete tools and figure out exactly which dungeons to deploy those tools in).

I don’t think Metroid Prime is gaming’s Citizen Kane. I think it’s an audiovisual feast, a game that gets the lizard brain pulsating as it tries to navigate and process spaces. The delight at finding a chunky, meaningful upgrade? I love that feeling.

But… it didn’t really leave much of an impact. No skeptic took gaming more seriously because of it, few designers took the lessons it taught into a future game, and Recore sucked for trying that. Metro: Last Light has a physical mask the player is wearing that can get smudges, and that’s pretty cool… but it’s a gimmick, it’s not really game design.

So here’s my second apology, once again: I’m sorry, but I didn’t love Metroid Prime.

I don’t love telling you that I didn’t love a game; I want to be enthralled, excited, delighted by games. I want to be captivated! I want to have a good time! Yesterday, I found myself excusing The Callisto Protocol’s two bad combat encounters because I’d had so much fun with the rest of it, and that’s generally my default when I’m not consulting (because then I have to look every flaw right in the face and tell the team, so they can ship without those flaws).

I want to love every game I play.

dragon’s dogma, which i love

Truth is… sometimes, I don’t.

I think, if I had the cash, I’d make a first person metroidvania. I know how I’d do it. I know what it would be about. I can see how it begins and ends. I’ve thought about it for a while, but it was Metroid Prime that crystalized some of the ideas for me… and hey, if I make a game that kicks off a Metroidvania boom, then yes, Metroid Prime would finally become gaming’s Citizen Kane.

But right now, it just… it isn’t really influencing that many people’s design decisions. It might inspire people to get into games, it might strike awe in the hearts of the players. Those visuals have seared themselves into my brain because the game’s art is superb… but it’s no Citizen Kane.

If you think my work has value and you want to help me out financially, that would be great because being disabled in America is expensive. I’m putting all this out there for free because hey, I used to be in poverty and couldn’t get by without government assistance; I know what it’s like not to have resources available to you that other people have in spades. I don’t believe people should be denied access to educational materials like these just because they’re poor. My hope is that those of you who are able to support are willing to help not just me, but the people who can’t afford a lot of access to other game design materials. If you’re able to help and you think this goal of providing free access to people who need it is good, here’s how you can help me keep writing. My last doctor’s bill was $169! And I have to do another $90 on Thursday! It sucks being disabled!

paypal: paypal.me/stompsite

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cashapp: $docseuss

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Other ways to help include sharing my game Adios with people, leaving reviews if you liked it, and telling people about my articles. Also, if you’re a publisher, I literally have the best narrative team in the entire world (consisting of television and movie writers who have written some absolutely stellar stuff), and we are about to begin pitching a strategy RPG that is like nothing you’ve ever seen before. If that seems up your alley, slide into my twitter DMs.

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Doc Burford

I do some freelance work, game design consulting, and I’ve worked on games Hardspace: Shipbreakers and created games like Adios and Paratopic.