Monday, January 13, 2014

Raygun Retro - McVey Jetgirl as Steampunk Samus, Plus Some Media Theory

As soon as I saw Studio McVey's Jetgirl model, I knew I wanted to do something cool with it.

Some time after acquiring it, I realized just what the reference should be- one of my favorite characters when I was growing up, namely, Samus Aran (yeah, I guess the title kinda' spoiled the surprise...).

I envisioned her as basically the very down and dirty steampunk/sci-fi-western version of my favorite character. The tech-y gun, jump jet, helmet, and generally rugged look of the model all worked well. A gun arm would have been nice, but at least it was in the right hand.

I feel like the green glow on her helmet's visor and her two badges really establish the reference solidly. Since she was already kinda' rugged looking, I decided to go for a grungy and scratched up look, also re-emphasizing the merc aspect.

She'll also be playing the part of Von Schill in my Malifaux games: a mercenary action hero with an augmented jump, movement shenanigans, a pistol, armor, and even a last-ditch health recovery fit the bill quite nicely. About all that's missing is different ammo types and the ability to roll up and jet around as a ball.

Theory Time!
Okay, so, now that the reference and model is out of the way, time for some more thoughts on the matter.

The following started when I considered doing the model with a reference to both Zero Suit and the classic Varia suit. This would have been pretty easy, since Jetgirl had a jumpsuit (which would have been blue) and then the jet pack, bomber jacket, and helmet (for classic orange, yellow, and red).

Now, I would consider myself a feminist*, though I'll mostly call BS on a lot of the more theoretical or extreme aspects of it**, however, when weighing the pros and cons of referencing a blue jump suit,  I started thinking in more depth about what it meant, and I came to the conclusion that the Zero Suit is the single worst thing that's happened to the Metroid franchise.

Deep breath...

* As in, I support equal rights, etc. across genders, and, well, most things too I guess.

** As in, no, I don't believe that building bigger and more explody missiles is a matter of who can make the largest proxy wang, but is a product of aerodynamic shapes being aerodynamic, larger payloads and more fuel making a more threatening weapons, and them being a product of bloated military budgets that have the resources to make such things. Also, being a man, I'm pretty sure I don't represent a scourge upon the world, though don't have the objectivity to say so for certain.

Kinda' like ALIEN, but in space a video game 
There are quite a few parallels between the two franchises. Most notably, it was a twist that the protagonist was a woman. While we've come to associate Ellen and Samus with the franchises these days (see how I didn't feel the need to put spoiler tags anywhere?), their iconic roles were not what sold their respective media.

He's such a kid, but already has his old man vibe...
Sigourney Weaver didn't get any special billing in ALIEN, and it was John Hurt who we see first, and who is by extension implicitly the protagonist, getting quite a lot of the early dialogue, being inquisitive, being the second officer, and generally set up as a traditional lead, though he doesn't exactly look like hero material. This passive deception made the impact of the groundbreaking strong female lead in a horror movie even stronger.

What is that? A man? A woman?
Maybe some kind of robot or alien?
Similarly, Samus Aran, reputedly inspired by Ellen Ripley, was an act of deception. For some time, I believed that Nintendo's deception came from omission (i.e. never mentioning Samus's gender and letting the audience assume the heavily armored bounty hunter was male), but it was actually actively lying, as it referred to Samus as male in the introduction. Samus being female is actually such a secret that it's only revealed in an easter egg in the game. It was a pretty smart subversion of expectation, if you ask me.

While we still see both characters undress by the end of their first stories with some fanservice-y vibes to it- Ripley before the finale and Samus in a kind of awkward shot that I expect was somewhat forced by graphical limitations of an 8-bit system -both are equally undeniably female and badasses, who defined the space horror genre.

She'll kick your ass if you're some sort of space bug or space jellyfish.
Moving ahead, a shot from a later game manual. We're already seeing the proto-Zero Suit under her armor, but there's little question that she's portrayed as a powerful woman- I'd argue that she basically isn't sexualized, and what you've got the clearest picture of is her face (serious) and her arm (muscular, flexing, in a fist). She's also freakin' huge at 6'3 and 198 lbs. Those are aren't the specs of a slight gymnast archetype- that's someone you wouldn't want to get into a brawl with.

She'll kick your ass if your some sort of
space bug or space company man.
Continuing a bit with the parallel, Ripley's second appearance has her in a mother-action-hero role. Now she's upgraded from someone else's improvised flamethrower to taking her own initiative and creating double-machine-gun-double-grenade-launcher-flamethrower-with-a-trackamajig and finally the power loader, in the only movie I like that James Cameron has directed.

The mother image does not diminish her agency either, but defines her as a powerful woman.

Samus undergoes a similar transition, with a Metroid, one of the most dangerous beings in the universe, imprinting on her, again, linking her femininity to power (which is strangely enough repeated in Alien: Resurrection and that freaky skull-face xenomorph thing).

Jumping ahead a bit, the Metroid series continued with Prime, which repeated many of the same action-horror, with a bit more horror (because it was first person for the first time, so there are some seriously spooky parts of the game) and a bit more grit (because they weren't dealing with 16 bit processor).

Super suit? Check. Blasto gun? Check. Oversized shoulders? Check.
Low action pose? Check. Yeah, still Samus, despite some more feminine armor.

So far, so good, right?

I guess that... happened. :/

Well, then Nintendo went and remade the first (and IMHO kind of unplayable by modern standards) game, Metroid, with some pretty spiffy graphics and a few new levels. Oh, and did I mention that there's a new epilogue level where you play as Samus without her clothes on? No? Well, that's an exaggeration- actually, she's got her skin tight body suit (eventually referred to as the Zero Suit, based on the remake's name, Metroid: Zero Mission), but it's still pretty bad.***

*** Don't ask me, ask the memes. ...actually, don't do that, either. Seriously.

I'd argue that the emphasis on Samus somewhat diverged from the original sense of grit, action horror, and being a badass with a cannon. Also, your gun doesn't explode baddies' faces any more- it just stuns them.

Well, actually, I guess it does keep some of those horror elements. Problem is, it's gone from Samus as an agent (fighting the horror) to Samus as a victim (de-suited and running from it).

Here's a pretty solid compilation of Metroid ads that I stumbled across while searching for pics for this entry. Skip forward to 3:00 if I failed to queue up the video properly. You'll get treated to an american trailer to Zero Mission that I found reasonably clever, (though still a bit clichéd and limiting, remember that comment about Samus not being a gymnast?), and then... something out of Grant Morrison's The Filth?

Apparently in the Japanese version, Samus's job is to crawl around with her butt in the air while... umm... white stuff sprays at her.† For those of you who can't watch the video, the resolution of this is screaming a lot, which gives her power or something?

...which is at the heart of the problem. Post-Zero Mission, you see a lot more fanservice in the series, see the Zero Suit reappear in the cross-over Super Smash Bros. Brawl, and generally see Samus in compromising (not to be confused with threatened) positions, culminating in Other M, including random bits of Samus as a rookie in hamfisted backstory, more butt shots, one of the weirder weapon restrictions††, more losing her armor, and more Samus looking weak. It's the only game where she regularly interacts with team mates (other game examples being limited almost exclusively to opening and/or ending cut scenes), and if this is any indication of how people write Samus interacting with others, I hope it's the last.

†There's also kind of a cool reference to H.R. Giger, which I guess is fitting with the over-sexualization of the rest of the ad.

†† Many Metroid games have some excuse for Samus losing options after the tutorial, such as aliens jumping her and stealing all her shit, or her suit breaking. Other M's excuse of heeding her superior officer's orders is kind of awkward on its own, but no more artificial than the rest- the problem is really just in the context of the rest of the vaguely misogynistic elements of the game.

Final Thoughts
Well... I guess that's a very long way of saying, I wish people would stop and think about the narrative implications of appealing to the lowest common denominator. I'm not saying sexy stuff is bad on principle (far from it), but there are so many stories and characters these days that have been ruined by fanservice, LCD mentality, or the assumption that widely recognized tropes are a proper substitute for good writing, that I'm sad to see Metroid fall in the same way.

As an afterword, If you haven't played the games, I highly recommend Super Metroid (easy enough to find via emulator or Nintendo's downloadable games) and Metroid Prime as atmospheric and not particularly hard or gamer-y games. Also, I quite enjoy the Zelda-style target lock that does away with finnicky FPS controls that aren't really suited for console games. The rest of the Prime trilogy is solid, too, but I think the first one is still probably the best.

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