(I’m thinking of building this post into my paper for the seminar…hope this isn’t a problem!)
This week I want to explore Hayles’ concept of hyphen and splice, and the role that these two concepts play in the architectural design of Sakamoto’s Super Metroid. Specifically, I’m interested in the posthuman/glitch literacy patterns that Super Metroid teaches to its players. Through this analysis of the game’s geographical and architectural structures, I attempt to articulate a literacy of the glitch/posthuman that Super Metroid conveys to players as it subverts the traditional role of space and time in games. I draw concept of hyphen and splice from chapter five in Hayles’ How We Became Posthuman, which explores the relationship between writing, prosthetics, and the boundaries of the body. Specifically, Hayles examines the truncations, cleavages, and splices that occur within and at the level of the textual body in Bernard Wolfe’s Limbo. The narrative itself is split by the revelation that Martine’s mark i notebook, which contains a satiric fantasy of Western society that preempts the immobilizing outcomes of war by severing off their limbs, has become the blueprint for the Immob doctrine and society that emerges after World War III. The present narrative, told through Martine’s mark ii notebook, “tries to heal the split narrative by renouncing the first notebook and destroying the second” (126), but Hayles observes that the narrative continues to fragment at the level of the text itself. This fragmentation is significant as the body of the text parallels the
geography of Immob. The text splits into a trunk, consisting of the main narrative, and prosthetic extensions constituted through drawings that punctuate the text and lines that scrawl down the page where the trunk ends. Prosthesis and trunk are connected through puns that act like cyborg circuitry, splicing the organic body of the writing together with the prosthetic extensions that operate in a subvocal margin. 126
Although I haven’t had an opportunity to read Wolfe’s book, Hayles’ summary and description of how the main narrative (the trunk) is intersected and expanded by prosthetic extensions joined in the splice “pros/e” that names this new body that is both prose (the name of the text’s body) and pros (the name of the prosthesis) is reminiscent of the stage design in Super Metroid.
Zebes, the planet on which the events of Super Metroid occur, consists of six main areas, which are typically joined together with doors and elevators. Doors lead to new rooms in one of the six areas, and elevators typically lead players to a new area. Using Hayles and Wolfe to read this design, the door and elevator exist as a conventional threshold, a hyphen holding together (but still dividing) two different areas, whereas the concealed passageways literally create a circuit that splices together various areas of Zebes in unpredictable and unmapped ways. Hayles provides a useful contrast of the hyphen and splice that should help us better understand how space informs the player’s experience in Super Metroid, “The difference between hyphen and circuit lies in the tightness of the coupling…and in the degree to which the hyphenated subject is transfigured after becoming a cybernetic entity. Whereas the hyphen joins opposites in a metonymic tension that can be seen as maintaining the identity of each, the circuit implies a more reflexive and transformative union. When the body is integrated into a cybernetic circuit, modification of the circuit will necessarily modify consciousness as well…the ideology of the hyphen is threatened by the more radical implications of the cybernetic splice” (115). In Super Metroid, the splice is deeply embedded in the environment. The doors’ high tech appearance contrasts greatly against the often organic environments through which Samus navigates, and the elevator rooms are actually environments unto themselves very much unlike any other areas in the game. While the hyphen sets itself apart from the environment on Zebes, and in doing so contrasts technology with nature, the splice is embedded within the environment itself. The player learns that it is she and the other organisms on Zebes who creates the splice between areas, whereas the hyphen is a coupling device left behind by an unnamed architect. The player also learns to use her abilities to circumnavigate these traditional doorways and is often rewarded for doing so. Many of these environmental splices will reward the player with new power-ups, which allow the player to suture together the surface areas of the planet with those buried deep within Zebes. While the player’s map visualizes these splices on a linear X Y graph, the player generates an entirely different image of the game world cut through with circuits that dig deep into the body of the planet – one that argues that the player has escaped the parameters established by the map that the programmers provide the player.
Super Metroid’s splice-based design is an important shift in gaming as it moves the medium from merely representing space as a static field, to rendering it as a malleable resource. I would go so far as to argue that Super Metroid, through its assortment of power-ups and level design, in fact enables the player to actually produce space. This is a radical departure from most 2D side-scrollers that treat space as a predetermined element that the player can play in, but never transform and alter in the way geo-mod games like Minecraft, Portal, and Red Faction enable their players to. I locate Super Metroid in the same canon because the game has often been compared to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night for featuring similar styles of non-linear exploration and aesthetics. However, I’ve always found this categorization problematic as Super Metroid stands apart from SotN for its malleable environment cut through with organic tunnels and passageways created by the player and other organisms on Zebes. Whereas SotN does feature breakable walls that lead the player directly to a reward, architecturally and topographically these corridors rarely loop back into other areas of the Castle. Super Metroid, on the other hand, contains a myriad of hidden rooms that constantly result in loops that guide the player back into other areas from an unexpected or unreachable entrance point. A floor might unexpectedly collapse and drop the player into a new area, an enemy might prompt the player to shoot at the ceiling and expose a hidden passageway, or the player might activate the speed boost and unexpectedly charge through a wall to produce a tunnel to a previous area. The player is not always the agent of these changes, and often these walls and floors will regenerate themselves, which are two radical departures from the architecture of SotN that helps the game to model the living, dynamic ecosystem that it visually represents. In terms of a literacy of the glitch, these contortions in the environment teach the player that she can manipulate space to her advantage in order deviate from the map that the game supplies. The logic of the glitch, or glitching in terms of slipping or escaping the visible and physical parameters in the game, very much underpins the experience in Super Metroid.
Super Metroid teaches and rewards the player for finding ways to splice together the game world with augmentations to Samus’ Power Suit, all of which dramatically change her relationship with the environment. As the player finds ways to create a fluid circuit through Zebes that circumnavigates the traditional hyphenated means of stage navigation through doors, pipes, portals, stage cleared screens and other thresholds, players develop a specific literacy of how to pass through the game’s barriers. At the same time, the player is transforming Samus into a goddess of space and time, enabling her to transcend the physical limitations that once inhibited her own body from exploring much of the game world (which, it should be noted, isn’t located behind doors, but through concealed passageways that the player creates by applying her abilities and powers to the environment). By teaching players to transcend environmental and physical boundaries, Super Metroid argues that it is desirable to find a way to liquidate the boundaries of space and the flesh to ultimately master time – the glitch is merely the next step in this literacy practice.
To ground my analysis, it’s important to first contextualize Super Metroid by laying out the design choices behind its construction. Anna Anthropy’s essay, “to the right, hold on tight,” argues that the original Metroid is very much inspired by Shigeru Miyamoto’s verb-based design, which Super Metroid largely echoes. Verb-based design begins by selecting a key verb that the character will use to interact with the world, such as “jump” in Super Mario Bros., and then constructing the world and character around this verb. For example, “Mario jumps into a block,” “Mario jumps onto a Goomba,” “Mario jumps on top of a pipe,” and “Mario jumps across a pit” demonstrate how this design method is based in linguistics. Player activity in the game effectively constructs a sentence from the player’s use of a key verb, which is activated whenever the player presses a button (in this case, the A button). Anthropy explains that “this is why almost all of the doors in metroid are opened by gunfire, even though i’ve never encountered a door i had to shoot to open: samus aran, having a gun for an arm, interacts with her world primarily by shooting. it makes sense, within the context of that game, for doors to open upon being shot.” Super Metroid, like its predecessors and unlike many recent games that overwhelm the player with tutorials, never overtly states the application of these verbs. Instead, the game slowly teaches the player how to read places that will respond to her application of various verbs through certain adjectives and adverbs. The super missile, for example, is colored with a green tip and can therefore be applied to doors with green shields. It can also destroy super missile bricks (bricks with the missile icon) that are embedded in walls, ceilings, and floors. Similarly, the power bomb can open doors with yellow shields (corresponding to the super bomb’s yellow blast radius), as well as power bomb bricks. Additionally, the screen-covering blast radius also enables it uncover hidden passageways to other regions on Zebes. The player learns this advanced application of verb from certain rooms in the game that feature power bomb bricks that draw on the player’s literacy pattern and cause her to activate a power bomb. The power bomb will erase the power bomb brick in addition to other bricks in the room that had originally appeared to be a inconspicuous wall. The game never needs to directly tell the player to use the power bomb to discover unmarked secrets, it instead allows the player to learn this application from its environmental design. The numerous upgrades to Samus’ Power Suit constitute a form of speaking (to follow Anthropy’s metaphor) to the game that enables her to bend, contort, and manipulate space in unexpected and beneficial ways.
While the verbs in Super Metroid allow the player to manipulate the external world, these verbs also transform the body’s physical relationship to space. The space jump and screw attack are jump upgrades that shrink space by enabling Samus to indefinitely (and swiftly) jump through any corridor without taking damage, whereas the morph ball enables Samus to transform into a tiny ball thereby expanding the space in which she navigates. The bombs that Samus acquires allow her to bomb-jump to inaccessible places until she finds the Spring Ball, and the Speed Booster compresses time by enabling Samus to accelerate through lengthy corridors. Samus eventually acquires the Ice Beam, which she can use to transform enemies into platforms to access previously inaccessible spaces. Finally, Samus receives two suit upgrades in Super Metroid, the Varia Suit and the Gravity Suit. The Varia Suit enables Samus to navigate through extremely hot areas that would normally damage her, and the Gravity Suit allows Samus to move through lava as well as water without slowing down or taking any damage. What all of these upgrades have in common is that they allow the body to transcend the environmental and physical hurdles that prevent Samus from completing her mission, positioning the environment and the body as two bosses which Samus must struggle overcome.
Once the player starts to pick up on how to read the environment in Super Metroid, the game really begins to test the player’s literacy by challenging her apply specific verbs to some less-than-obvious situations. Between Brinstar and Norfair there is a glass tube surrounded by water that the player must pass through. At first glance, this tube looks like a normal passageway through a hazard that could potentially harm Samus, but it eventually turns out to be the only access point for the game’s underwater area: Maridia. What’s interesting about this tube is that the game expects the player know that power bombs can in fact shatter glass. At no point does the game let on to this fact. Super Metroid never requires that the player break glass with the power bomb prior to this area, which results in not building the necessary environmental literacy and forcing the player to discover this application entirely on her own. Other hidden applications of the player’s verb set involve two species of non-violent animals that live on Zebes and teach Samus how to use her mechanical exoskeleton: Etecoons and Dachora. When the player first encounters the Etecoons they sing the fanfare that typically plays whenever the player acquires an item and begin jumping from wall to wall up a narrow escape shaft. Their motions mimic the player’s spin jump and teach the player that she can perform a wall jump with proper timing when spin jumping into a wall. Similarly, the player encounters the Dachora after she has acquired the Speed Booster and fallen into a pit. The Dachora will run until flashing, crouch, and then shoot off into the air, teaching Samus how to perform the “shinespark” jump. Each of these three examples illustrate the brilliant design that grounds Super Metroid, which plays on the assumptions that players make about the programmer’s spatial rhetoric. Whereas obvious applications of verbs (i.e. super missile for green doors and super missile blocks) tend to define the player’s experience of space, Super Metroid subverts this expectation with an interesting sleight of hand that suggests that power bombing the glass tube, wall jumping, and shinesparking were abilities not written into the game by any programmer. In these moments, Samus seems to discover her own voice and escapes the pre-ordained language granted to her by a game designer and in doing so points towards a literacy of the glitch whereby the player discovers her own verbs to interact with the game environment in a way that is completely outside of the programmer’s design.
What I find so interesting about the literacy patterns in Super Metroid is that if the game is built around verbs such as “shoot,” and if the rules and environmental design both develop out of verbs that construct limits to the avatar’s body, using “glitch” is a verb that de-stabilizes the limits of the avatar’s body and, in the context of verb-design, literally communicates to the program in a language outside of its parameters. In this sense, videogame glitch is a form of writing and communication with the program to which the program is forced to generate a response to compliment this new body. Ultimately, glitch re-defines the language and limits of the avatar’s body, but also reflects this body in the new environment that it generates.