If there is any one concept to point at in Metroid: Other M, one that defines what the game is about, then it is control. This isn’t just because of the idiosyncrasies in way the Wii controller itself is used: holding it sideways while in a third person perspective then turning it to point at the screen to change to a first person perspective. In almost every aspect of it, there is a constant struggle that plagues it, a struggle that somewhat plagues video games as a whole: the disconnect between the authorial control most designers want and the freedom a player expects.
In Other M, this desire for control by the designers is almost the polar opposite to the approach that Retro Studios took with Metroid Prime. Prime was all about putting the player in the shoes of the character, attempting to create the sense of “being there”, a sense of agency—feeling like there is a meaningful effect on something because of your actions. That kind of feeling—feeling like things are highly interactive—is what games do best, it is what’s special about games.
It is also because of interactivity that one of the biggest strifes in games is how to tell a story. Narrative is innately non-interactive, while games are. In Prime, there is very little explicit narrative, but there is still a story that is told through the world by scanning objects like logs and other writings. The story of Prime is of a collective people, their land, the history of what happened to it and discovering what is going on. Instead of revolving around any specific characters, it revolves around the place. This removes the issue of designers not being able to account for who the player is by not focusing on them. The largest part of the interaction in Prime is navigating through the world and the narrative is about that world—it is harmonious.
On the other hand, the story of Other M revolves more around the characters, and as a result, Samus, the player controlled character, is given a very specific characterization. She is portrayed as a frail minded female, with the nickname of “Princess”, given high heels and troublesome paternal issues. These traits are directly contrary to what is expressed about this character through play. While playing Other M, Samus moves fast, quickly dispatching enemies and thinking to get out of situations. There is nothing frail or princess-y about it.
The narrative can’t be simply ignored or dismissed either because of the control it dictates over other elements of the game’s design. The upgrade of powers in Other M are only allowed when the narrative says so, when the commander of the mission, Adam, says so. Samus has almost all of her capabilities at the start of the game yet agrees to not use them unless Adam says she can, even despite the danger that this can put her and her teammates in. Again, a disconnect is created, though this time between what the player knows and what the narrative says the player character knows.
For example, there is the Varia Suit upgrade, which negates damage suffered from being in areas with high heat. There are large areas in Sector 3 that will cause damage to the suit due to the lava that runs through much of it. Regardless, this area must be transversed, while enduring damage the whole time, because this suit upgrade is not yet allowed. It is clear to the player that this suit upgrade would help yet the narrative doesn’t allow it.
In another event, a teammate is at the top of a large, cliff-like wall being held by an enemy creature and it is obvious that he is in need of help. There is a grapple point hanging in the air that would allow one to reach the top of the platform and help him out. When pointing at the grapple point, the only thing that happens is that the game says it requires the grapple beam. A few seconds after this, the permission is granted but as it came too slow, the character ended up dying, resulting in a game over, where the sequence then had to be repeated.
In Prime, the upgrades are earned, either through navigating the world or defeating a creature, and the player can use them when they have them, when they see fit. If there is an area that one can’t reach, it isn’t because of an illogical narrative conceit, but because the ability hasn’t been found by the player. The player’s actions have more meaning and purpose this way.
Metroid: Other M removes certain layers of meaning in the interactions for the sake of a highly constructed narrative, whereas a game like Metroid Prime tailors what narrative there is to go with the interaction. The narrative and play need to be harmonious, with the player and designer meeting halfway, otherwise it doesn’t work at all.