How Metroid Prime 2: Echoes Creates Fear, Anxiety, and Frustration
Imagine being a world that utterly hates you. Creatures of this world hunt you relentlessly, attacking you without mercy or relief. The very atmosphere of this world is toxic to you. Every door you open could lead you into a fight for your life. In this hostile world, survival is an achievement.
The concept of a hostile, hateful world is one of the core pillars of Metroid Prime 2: Echoes, a game that I quit for almost a year because I found it frustrating, draining, and full of intimidating puzzle design. I decided to return to the game in an effort to finally complete the Metroid Prime Trilogy, an acclaimed trio of games released for Nintendo GameCube and Wii between 2002 and 2007 (packaged together on Wii and Wii-U virtual console). When I revisited Metroid Prime 2, the same feelings of fear, anxiety, and frustration started coming back to me.
However, this time I began to realize the feelings of fear, anxiety, and frustrations were not accidental inclusions or mistakes made by Retro Studios. Often, those feeling I felt were the result of decisions made by the developer. Retro Studios had decided to create a sequel that was challenging in every sense of the word: enemies hit harder, environments leached your health at a dizzying rate, and puzzles were longer and more elaborate than its predecessor. The developers succeeded in creating an incredible experience, a game that creates fear, anxiety and frustration which results in a feeling of accomplishment for the player who chooses to continue playing the game. In this article, I will analyze the game play and storytelling decisions that create the incredible atmosphere in Metroid Prime 2.
Alone in The Darkness
In Metroid Prime 2, Samus arrives on the planet Aether looking for a group of Federation marines. These marines have lost contact with the outside world and Samus is sent in to discover what happened to them. As you reach areas with signs of marine activity, the feelings of isolation and dread began to develop. Samus encounters marine corpses that attack her, reanimated by mysterious enemies. Terrifying scanning log entries detail the marines’ desperate and futile attempts to fend off an endless hive of insects who are closing in. With the addition of voice acting for minor roles, the player can listen to audio of marines being taken by monsters, screaming in pain and terror. These early moments of discovering and horror fit perfectly in the sci-fi horror genre pioneered by films like Alien (one of Metroid‘s primary inspirations), and begin to develop the hostile atmosphere that is an iconic trait of the game.
Prime 2 doesn’t stop at the plight of the Federation marines, which turns out to be a small symptom of a larger and far darker disease that is consuming Aether. Split into two parallel light and dark worlds by a mysterious interstellar impact, Aether is a world at war with itself. An advanced sentient race of aliens known as the Luminoth are at war with the Ing, a horde of monstrous Dark Aether inhabitants. By the time Samus arrives on the planet, the Ing have all but eradicated the Luminoth in a brutal and soul-crushing war. The last of the species have been sent into hibernation, with a sentinel U-mos watching over them. This entire back story, detailed through log entries and U-mos’s own accounts, builds credibility that the Ing are formidable enemies. Throughout your travels, you are constantly reminded that the Ing are a powerful and ruthless enemy.
Unlike many other games, Metroid Prime 2 doesn’t simply tell its story through expository cut scenes. Instead, the developers at Retro Studios use game player experiences and mechanics to deepen its lore and unsettling atmosphere. The bodies of fallen Luminoths are scattered throughout the landscapes of Aether. You are required to travel through these areas multiple times to complete your journey. The sights of dead bodies and warnings messages work to fill the player with trepidation about what lies on the other side of a door or across a room. Many of these Luminoths’ leave their own messages, detailing their personal attempts to fight off the Ing and save Aether from its own dark side.
Visually, Dark Aether is a descent into hell for Samus. Everything in Dark Aether is twisted and mutated. Looking at your map reveals the names of rooms, many designed to fill the player with apprehension. Names like Feeding Pit, Sacrificial Chamber, Culling Chamber, and Accursed Lake are similarly name to develop a foreboding atmosphere and to build trepidation as you examine your map.
A World That Hates You
One of central game mechanics of Dark Aether is that the environment is fundamentally toxic to Samus. This toxicity is critical to influencing the player’s experience with the game, as well as the storytelling of Metroid Prime 2. Every single element of Dark Aether is based around the concept of the toxic environment, which will burn through Samus’s health as long as she is within Dark Aether. Many rooms in Dark Aether have Samus must travel between safe zones (reminiscent of light posts), which serve as brief respite from the punishment of Dark Aether’s environment.At these safe zones, the player can rest and regain health slowly.
In the early stages of the game, the toxic environments make traveling into Dark Aether a stressful and tense experience. Even in a room without enemies, solving a puzzle might mean leaving the safety your bubble to work on a puzzle, taxing your health reserves. Failure at something as simple as a morph ball puzzle can cost your precious health due to the caustic atmosphere. These sections require careful execution and planning if the player wants to maintain their health. Additionally, the enemies of the Dark Aether rarely leave you alone to rest. They often follow you throughout a room, attacking relentlessly. The effects of the toxic environment, along with the stronger enemies means that you lose health at a faster rate in the dark world.
The toxic environment and the relentless enemies combined to make me a very cautious player in Dark Aether. I was often forced to waited at safe zones to regain health, which was often stuck at low levels. This also added to my feeling of stress and tension, as I was often exploring with low levels of heath, worrying that a strong enemy might kill me and force me to lose the hard-fought progress I had made. In Dark Aether, I took more time to observe rooms carefully before stepping out of the shelter of a doorway or safe zones. Combat became different as well. My new weakness in Metroid Prime 2 forced me to evolve into a careful and tactical fighter. I fought minor enemies less in the dark world, and desperately plowed through enemies I couldn’t avoid, positioning myself in safe zones to conserve my dwindling health. the combination of these elements create incredible tension and stress as the player battles through Dark Aether.
More Bosses and Sub Bosses
Metroid Prime 2 ups the ante considerably with bosses and sub bosses. There are more sub bosses scattered throughout the game than in the original Metroid Prime. Some of these battles are difficult, especially the early ones where you have extremely limited health, but even later sub bosses can deplete your health considerably. The introduction of more sub bosses means that there are more encounters where you are forced to fight. While strong enemies in the over world can often be avoided if you are careful, these sub bosses and bosses cannot be avoided. If you stumble into an encounter with a difficult sub-boss, you have no choice but to fight your way out. These “do or die” situations create an incredible amount of tension for the player, who may lose significant progress if Samus dies.
The Grapple Guardian is an excellent example of how Metroid Prime 2 makes boss fights tense and difficult. The Grapple Guardian is a enormous reptilian creature, capable of firing energy blasts at you. The fight takes place in small caged arena, making it impossible to avoid taking significant damage or staying far away from the beast. The enemy AI ruthlessly punishing you for any movement and positioning mistakes that the player makes. The creature is fast and it has attacks that are difficult to avoid. While you have enough health to take some serious hits, making the same mistakes too many times can put you too far behind to finish the monster. You have to learn the timing of the attacks and pick your opportunities carefully. The complexity, difficulty, and power of these boss encounters create a massive amount of tension during these boss encounters. When you go into a boss encounter in Metroid Prime 2, you need to be prepared for a long, grueling battle, one rife with tension and risk.
Puzzle Solving in Two Worlds
One of the most brilliant and difficult aspects of Metroid Prime 2 is its complex puzzles solving. The interconnected nature of the Aether and Dark Aether will require you to move between these two parallel worlds to solve certain puzzles. It’s a brilliant way to illustrate the connection of the two worlds, and leads to some genuinely incredible puzzles, but it also complicates the puzzle introduced in Metroid Prime. The developers of Retro expected returning players to know the systems used in-game, creating challenging puzzles that went beyond those found in the original. Additionally, the player now has two world maps to consider, two layouts to think about, and many portals to consider. Some areas in one world are blocked off and require careful navigation of the opposite world to enter and fully explore.
The nature of using portals and backtracking in Metroid Prime 2 means that is not always immediately rewarding, as it might be in other games. In Metroid Prime 2, unlocking an item or finding a portal might lead you to new areas, yet your progress might be blocked by another door sooner than expected. Some areas of the light and dark world lead to dead ends themselves or require power up that you do not yet have. This means that sometimes a player can track through the world only to find themselves blocked by an immovable piece of metal that cannot yet be destroyed or a sonic door that they have so solutions for. These moments can create frustration in the player, as it can feel like progress is slow, yet the ultimate reward for patience is…
Becoming More Powerful Than You Could Possibly Imagine
After hours of battling fiendish enemies, solving difficult puzzles, and trudging through toxic environments, Metroid Prime 2 rewards the player with a feeling of power that is extremely special. There is incredible satisfaction in facing once powerful enemies and destroying them with ease, using your advanced knowledge and arsenal to obliterate the Ing, space pirates and other fiendish enemies.
Metroid is one of the few franchises to truly make you feel powerful and it does this by making you feel weak and helpless at first. As the players grows, so does that feeling of power. It’s a testament to the work by the developers that when early in the game, you feel weak and unprepared. That’s a conscious decision made. The feeling of helplessness, that frustration, can turn off players, yet it is also fundamental to the overall experience, and the eventual payoff. Metroid Prime 2 rewards the player who pushed through the fear and frustration to leave the player with a lasting feeling of accomplishment for completing its grueling journey.
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