The atmosphere in good games

I’m a big fan of the Metroid series.

It took me a long while to get used to it though. Back in the day, where there was just Metroid, I never got very far in it – and I’ve only seen the game running at a friends home.

Then came the emulators and I gave Super Metroid a shot, but I didn’t get it. I didn’t know what to do, where to go and how to progress – the whole thing didn’t make any sense to me.

Then came Metroid Fusion on the GBA which I actually bought.

And this was when I got it.

The concept is the same as it’s in Zelda: You walk as far as you can go with your current equipment, you get better equipment, opening new paths and then finally, you meet the last boss.

Of course there’s another element to a real Metroid game: Brilliant level design. The designers have thought of so many places where you can “cheat” and break the obvious sequence of events. Doing so varies in difficulty from quite difficult to pull off at first but easy later on till insanely hard to do.

Metroid Fusion is a bit off in this regard though – its sequence is quite linear and there’s only one relevant part in the game where you can skip some content and are rewarded with some extra movie sequence. Additionally, it’s hard as hell to pull of. Much, much harder than the linked video may make you think as it’s dependent on your reaction in tenths of seconds.

But now to the topic: Metroid Prime. And Prime Echoes.

When I started with Prime, I had the same problem as I had when I started with the 2D Metroids: I had no idea where to go, what to do or even finding out how to navigate the world.

This was partly caused by a bad projector with very, very bad contrast in dark areas of the picture – everything was more or less dark gray or black on that projector. Not much fun to play like that.

On the other hand, I played the game like I would play a 3D shooter, expecting the usual smaller levels, lots of shooting and shallow gameplay. Of course this is totally the wrong approach to a game like Metroid: Prime. For 10 minutes, force yourself to think you are playing Super Metroid. Immerse yourself into the world – you have to force yourself for these 10 minutes. And of course, get a better projector.

Then it clicked.

This was a real Metroid. It felt like one and it played like one.

But then something more happened. Something that’s the reason why I don’t play either Prime or Echoes any more. And the reason is the most impressive thing a game could ever accomplish: I stopped playing out of plain fear. Plain and simple fear.

Fear of the bosses. Fear of the lights turning off and these awful chozo ghosts spawning. Fear of small, cramped rooms. Fear of darkness. And in Echoes it was even worse: Fear of being alone in the dark. Fear of dying alone on the dark side of the planet. Fear of being eaten alive by the darkness surrounding Samus (and actually hurting her).

Notice though: This is not the usual fear of losing an extra life by missing a jump and landing in a hole. It’s not the fear of running out of life energy. That’s plain old style video game fears.

No. Metroid is real. The fear is real. You see, both games have an incredibly well balanced learning curve. You practically can’t die. It can take you longer to accomplish something when you aren’t that good/precise, but you don’t die. At least I never did.

The atmosphere created by the games is what make it seem real. There’s that encyclopedia with an entry for every creature – even plant life – you encounter. Then there are no visible borders between levels. Sure, you zone between different places, but all is connected. Progress isn’t something allowing you to leave zones behind you. Progress is fluent. You go there, come back, go there again… The world feels real.

Samus is all alone in that big world, while there are still artifacts reminding of that old civilization. And there are real dangers in that world.

And the music works very, very well too. Light tunes, sometimes menacing, always fitting.

The graphics art too helps completing the illusion of reality. It’s not very detailed (it’s a GC game after all), but it fits. It creates a believable world.

All those little parts come together to create something I’ve never before seen in any game I have played. It brings emotions to a new level. The fear I had when playing Prime and Echoes was real. Real fear of the darkness. Of loneliness. And of drowning in that crashed space pirate ship in Prime – I know there is no limit on how long you can be submerged, but still, it felt so incredibly real.

In the end, it was too much for me.

I couldn’t get myself around to boot up the game any more – out of fear of dark areas or enemies jumping at me.

So what to say? Both GC Metroids are what I’d like to call the perfect game as they awaken real emotions. Something I never felt then using any other entertainment medium. Watching a movie feels like watching a movie. Reading a book is always reading a book. Playing Half Life (with much better graphics but much less credible atmosphere) is like playing a game. Even playing WoW is obviously playing a game.

But playing Metroid is living the game. It’s living the world created by these talented designers.

Unfortunately, even though they have created the perfect game, I’m unable to play it. The perfection put into the design made me too afraid to actually play the game.

Now, after around two years, I finally realized that. And I’m just plain impressed.

Do you know the games I was writing about? Did you feel the same? Do you know other games making you feel like that?