Samus Aran Has Always Been Sexualized
Whether intended or not, the progression of achievement in Metroid resembles a kind of virtual striptease. Playing well results in seeing more flesh.
Abbie Heppe's review of Metroid: Other M over at G4's web site provoked a bit of debate a few weeks ago. It's an interesting review that goes well beyond a discussion of game mechanics by considering the significance of the presentation of Metroid series protagonist, Samus Aran, within the context of the newest game's plotline. Much of the discussion surrounding the review concerned Heppe's focus on the infantilized version of Other M's Samus: "Other M expects you to accept her as a submissive, child-like and self-doubting little girl that cannot possibly wield the amount of power she possesses unless directed to by a man" ("Metroid: Other M for Wii", G4, 27 August 2010).
Heppe offers a number of interesting examples of this phenomenon throughout the review, to which commenters to the thread responded in various ways. Some agreed with Heppe's criticism of the game. Some merely found it refreshing that a game reviewer would consider such issues at all. Some dismissed the criticism given that Other M is "just a game" and, thus, unworthy of gender analysis. Still others noted that the presentation of women as submissive and child-like is simply indicative of developer Team Ninja's standard approach to female presentation (after all, these are the folks responsible for titles like the voyeuristic Dead or Alive: Xtreme Beach Volleyball) and that Nintendo's choice to place development of this newest iteration of the Metroid series in their hands would, of course, necessarily lead to this kind of representation.
I am, likewise, unsurprised that Team Ninja would present Samus in such a way. Their "aesthetic" and "themes" are pretty obvious. However, what did surprise me is the sense that many players had that Samus is a female figure in gaming that has previously been presented in a non-sexualized way. Even Heppe herself says as much about the bounty hunter when she calls Samus, "the most iconic (and nonsexualized) female characters in gaming history".
The Metroid series is one deeply embedded in discussions of video games and gender, an idea that I doubt that Heppe would deny. However, sexualization was also part of the gender issues raised by Samus's body since the very first game in the series.
What I refer to, of course, is the famous multiple endings of the first game and their curious and seemingly almost inadvertent plays with gender issues. Every version of the story of Metroid's development that I have ever heard include the detail that Samus's identity as a female bounty hunter was almost an afterthought. Apparently, at some point in the development process, a staffer simply suggested that it might be cool if Samus were female ("Metroid: Zero Mission Developer Roundtable", IGN: Gameboy, 9 February 2004). Indeed, Samus's gender is never made apparent in the game and is, in fact, kept from the player throughout. Samus's body armor looks masculine, eschewing a more feminine shape for a broad shouldered and narrow waisted masculine type of figure. Additionally, Samus is referred to in the original game manual as "he". It would seem that the manual was either written before the decision to change Samus's gender or that it is deliberately deceptive in order to provoke a response from players at the game's endings. Either way, it did provoke a response.
Samus's gender identity is presented as a revelation at the conclusion of play, though that revelation is an earned one. Metroid includes five possible endings that are contingent on the speed with which a player takes in completing the game (the first is achieved for simply completing the game in over 10 hours, the second in under 10 hours, the third in under five hours, the fourth in under three hours, and the fifth in under an hour). It is the third ending that may be the most famous of the five because it is the first of the endings to include the revelation of Samus's gender, as Samus stands on the surface of the planet Zebes and her helmet dissolves to reveal the face of a woman. The ending tended to provoke a response that might be viewed positively by female activists of the Riot Grrrl variety. The largely male (and largely very young) demographic of NES players tended to be surprised, "Hey, I kicked ass, and I'm a girl!", suggesting a the potential for a kind of gender equity for video game warriors and that little boys might think of women's roles as warriors in a slightly less traditional way.
However, at the time of its North American release in 1987, most players of the game had probably seen the second ending (completion in under 10 hours is not exceptionally difficult), which simply shows a fully suited-up Samus raising a hand in victory and some smaller amount of others had seen the third ending. If they had not, rumors at school of Samus "being a girl", likely drove many players to try for another playthrough to verify this "unlikelihood". It is notable to remember that in a pre-internet world that most gaming secrets were ones passed around via word of mouth and that many players were left unaware of multiple endings and the like if they didn't have a friend or two who likewise were gamers.
While I had seen the third ending, rumors of a "bikini ending" and "bikini code" were generally felt to be an urban legend at my junior high school. I disbelieved the whole premise until a friend of a friend passed along a note card with the "continue game" code that represented a game played in under an hour for me to try out.
Indeed, the final two endings of Metroid reveal Samus's gender in a dramatically more sexualized way. In the fourth ending, Samus's suit dissolves and leaves a victorious Samus in a long sleeved leotard of some sort. In the fifth ending, the dissolve results in an image of Samus in a bikini. Once again, the revelation of Samus being female and kicking ass is there, but these final two endings also put Samus's body on display as a kind of visual reward for playing well. Whether intended or not, the progression of achievement in Metroid resembles a kind of virtual striptease. Playing well results in seeing more flesh.
Modern gamers may not think much of a bikini clad 8-bit image of a woman, but this was probably the most provocative image to appear in a mainstream NES game (barring maybe Super Macho Man's pulsating pectorals in Mike Tyson's Punch Out!). Frankly, it is probably the first foray into mainstreaming sexuality in console gaming and may have opened the door for the idea of providing provocative visual rewards for good play (including the games made by folks like Team Ninja). Certainly, the imagery presented in Metroid is tamer than that of, say, Dead or Alive. Basically, this is Victoria's Secret or the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition version of presentation of the female body. It isn't the Hot Rod Magazine or Frederick's of Hollywood approach of modern gaming's DoA or Soul Calibur series. In any case though, it is hard to deny that Samus's gender was revealed both to surprise little boys but also to become something to admire as flesh, not merely as an icon of female equality.
Certainly, Samus is not the most egregious example of objectification in gaming. However, the developers of Metroid: Zero Mission claimed that "We've tried to express her femininity a little more without trying to turn her into a sex object" ("Metroid: Zero Mission Developer Roundtable", IGN: Gameboy, 9 February 2004), yet, the imagery of the original Metroid endings have been recreated in later titles. The bikini remains and her flesh "improves" (now rendered in better resolution and greater detail). The skin tight Zero Suit "expresses femininity" I guess but, also unsurprisingly, has been fetishized by fans -- probably because a skin tight body suit is kind of provocative and the body in it has been pretty clearly put on display.