One of my favorite characters of all time is Samus Aran from the Metroid series.  From the gamer’s perspective she’s a cool badass heroine, and from a writer’s perspective she’s absolutely brilliant.

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What makes her design so ingenious?

Look at what her creators had to work with in the original Metroid game released in 1986:

– Eight bit graphics.

– No cutscenes, no prologue, and barely any exposition at all.

– Only ONE character, who is a silent protagonist.

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How do you take this and, Apollo 13 style, turn it into one of the most iconic characters in gaming?

The answer, and the key to this character is:

Negative space.

Samus Aran is a character based entirely on what we DO NOT see from her.

By taking elements of what the game necessarily would be and turning each one into a subtle expression of character, the game’s designers gave us a character we could connect with despite a almost total lack of narrative, dialogue, or other characters for Samus to interact with.

Let’s explore these one by one:

1) Samus is Alone

The developers took a game whose data space could only support one character and made it into a story about a loner.  And not just any loner, but a bounty hunter who travels alone to hostile alien planets most wouldn’t dare visit by themselves.

This tells us two things about this character.

First, she is a loner socially.  She doesn’t have companions or friends and probably doesn’t want or need them either.  She’s works for long spans of time completely on her own and she’s fine with that.

Second, she doesn’t NEED anyone else.  In a practical sense.  In other words, one has to assume that most people in her story’s universe wouldn’t dare visit these planets even without backup or at least a few partners, if not an entire army!  Yet Samus is more than willing to land her little ship in the middle of the alien wilderness and set out to hunt some space pirates.

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So from a single game element: the presence of only one character, we already have a personality that is emotionally independent, most probably antisocial, and not only capable, but confident in her skills.

And speaking of confidence…

2) Samus Doesn’t Back Down

It’s a fact of platformers that you keep playing and playing until you die.  But most games present us with enemies, bosses, and environments that do not emphasize the kind of grit it would take for a real person to endure in this calibre of adventure.

The settings of the Metroid games are punishing.  Samus is often outnumbered by her enemies.

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At times, her missions take her inside volcanoes or highly toxic environments.

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The bosses she must face are often much bigger and stronger than she is.

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But all the same, she holds her ground and fights until she no longer can.  Mechanically, this is due to the normal gameplay of the platformer genre.  But both narratively and experientially, even when YOU, the player, are exhausted and need a break, Samus is as tireless as ever and is more than ready to push on.

This is emphasized by another negative quality: her lack of expression.

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If you look at a game like Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, you’ll see similar hostile environments and giant boss battles, but the game developers have augmented the gamer’s emotional experience by at times showing a shocked expression on Link’s face when he encounters a particularly intimidating foe, and having him cry out when he’s hit.

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Not so in Metroid games.

No matter what is happening around this character, no matter whom she’s fighting or how close to death she is, her expression is, for all we can see, the same: stoic, all business, quietly confident until the very end.

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3) Samus Doesn’t Make a Show of Who She is or What She Does

Having witnessed such a strong personality, our perception of this character is further reinforced once we remember that she is all alone and, to our knowledge, never interacts with anyone at all.

None of Samus’ adventures are for fame.  None of her strength is for us to admire.  It’s all for her.  It’s what fulfills her or what makes sense to her or what she believes in–even that we don’t know.  She’s not telling us.  She has no interest in telling us.

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Samus is not one of those loners who longs for recognition or a sense of belonging.  She’s the real deal.  It might be that no one ever hears of all the obstacles she overcame or everything she endured, but that doesn’t faze her.  And more importantly, it enriches your experience as the player, making you feel special knowing that you were a fly on the wall of this privately heroic life.

4) Samus’ Life is full of Unanswered Questions

Samus’ backstory isn’t talked about at all in the early games, but we never assume she doesn’t have one.  A personality like hers MUST have some long and fascinating history behind it.  Of course, she’s not telling us.  She has no interest in sharing her past with us, or anything else for that matter.  But that only makes us more curious.

The one fact about her that doesn’t come from negative space is the most intriguing:

She’s a woman.

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There HAS to be some story there.  Are gender roles so vastly different in the Metroid universe that she isn’t unique in her line or work?  That’s an interesting story in and of itself.

Or, as we’re more likely to assume, she is unique.  Did she grow up knowing she was different and not feeling like she belonged a more “normal” life?  Or was she brought up in this life and never a part of society to begin with?  Does she know how most people live?  Does she know what is a normal life for a normal woman in her universe?  What does she think of it?

This isn’t even touching the basic questions like:  Where did she acquire her skills?  Why is she doing what she does?  What IS important to her?

It is the presence of all these questions, infinitely more so than the possible answers, that draws us into this character.

—–

It’s unfortunate, but inevitable that the later games in the series slowly departed from this methodology.

The introduction of simple plots in Metroid 2 and Super Metroid didn’t intrude much on Samus’ mystique, but in Metroid Fusion with the introduction of a character named Adam from Samus’ past, the game developers began to stray onto shaky ground.  It was finally with the release of Metroid: Other M that they went too far, answered too many questions, gave her too much of a voice, and disappointed many of the franchise’s fans.

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It’s no surprise that Other M received such poor ratings so universally for its writing.  While they definitely did create too fragile and vulnerable of a Samus than the fans wanted, I didn’t even think the story they told was so bad on its own.  In my opinion, once they decided to tell any of Samus’ story at all, they were already destined for failure.

Samus doesn’t need her story to be told and she doesn’t want her story to be told.  That’s what we love about her.

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