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Dan Root Analysis Video #1: Metroid Fusion - The Script

This is the full, unedited script for my YouTube video analyzing Dan Root’s video, “How Metroid Fusion Creates Fear.” Throughout the script, approximate timestamps for Dan's video are supplied in parenthesizes.

Today’s aim is to analyze Dan Root’s video, “How Metroid Fusion Creates Fear.” The focus of Dan’s video is not animation, but aesthetics and how they’re used to generate atmosphere, in Metroid Fusion (2002). This atmosphere, according to Dan, is fear.

Before I begin, I wish to add that “fear” is an imprecise word—more of a placeholder to generally highlight what is actually going on than accurately describe it.

fear = X

X = potential for many symptoms and events… but which?

I can say something is fearsome; what has been communicated amounts to almost nothing. Is it terrifying or horrifying? Does it instill awe, dread, or devotion? Is it uncanny or abject?

uncanny = A state of being neither wholly familiar nor alien, but somewhere in between.

abject = The process by which an object or quality is thrown off of the subject to normalize the subject and alienate the object.

Alas, the descriptor “fear” is vague—some might say intentionally so—and fails to denote the relationship between the player and the source of their fears in more complex ways:

fear =/= the object of fear, or how fear occurs between the subject and the object

Fusion says “Metroid” on the tin, but behaves narratively like a Gothic novel. As Samus, the player is the heroine trapped inside, reduced to a largely passive role while their imagination is overstimulated by spooky sounds and stories about the castle, itself. Consider the “nameless fear” (2:22) Dan highlights, from Samus’ soliloquy. She is the in-game narrator that tells the player she is afraid, and the signature iconography and situations the player finds themselves in are meant to support this statement thematically. To that, the so-called “nameless fear” actually has a name, one with signature effects.

This is true for the key themes Dan assigns to each game, as well (1:54):

These words are given by Dan to highlight certain effects or their causes. They are not simply vague and interchangeable, but maintain these qualities (vagueness and interchangeability) relative to the franchise they belong to. This being said, I agree with Dan. Fusion utterly depends on mystery for its story to work. The power of the Gothic castle—in this case, the BSL—needs mystery to scare the player from moment to moment. But how does the game actually generate fear according to Dan?

Summary of Dan’s argument: First, Dan cites Fusion as being laden with “breadcrumbs.” This piecemeal structure might not be possible in a non-linear game design, which is why Fusion is incredibly linear. Dan explains how the game teases with small bits of information that you learn about more and more. As you gradually experience them first-hand, it builds up to extremely tense situations (3:37).

Second, Dan posits that tension is disguised as fear in horror videogames. To explain Fusion’s generation of fear, Dan supplies a model: a door and a monster. The door is tension, which is objective—a goal to accomplish, lest the player perish. The monster is subjective, not scary by itself (not for everyone, at least). The way it works is simple: As the player tries to open the door or complete the objective, the monster slowly closes in; the ensuing confusion causes the disparate elements to fuse, making the game objectives seem fearful. Or as Dan says, the game convinces “us” that this is fear (3:48) by disguising tension as fear.

My counter argument: I respond that most of this tension is told to the player by the game’s narrators; it is an illusion of impotency whose effect is equally subjective because it requires the player’s participation in a very targeted way. The narrative in Fusion cannot affect the player by itself; it needs the player to cooperate. In turn, the player must believe they are in danger even when they are not.

Over the course of the game, the player is repeatedly told how dangerous their situation is. The fact remains they are seldom imperiled outside of the game’s many boss chambers. Unlike Dan, I insist that Fusion’s tension is barely objective at all. For one, most of it is imaginary and seldom manifests in the door-monster model Dan provides. The example that best supports Dan’s model is the Nightmare, whose giant body lumbers towards the player in a way that must be witnessed and purged:

The most literal example is the SA-X chasing the player through a series of tunnels and switch-activated doors. The latter example is not just rare; it happens once in the entire game. To that, much of the game is an elaborate lie. The player must believe this lie for tension to exist. It isn’t objective or even actual tension, from a ludic standpoint; it’s fake—a cinematic-style narrative designed to affect the player through a story that is told more than played. A testament to the game’s quality is its signature ability—of taking power away from the player (and Samus) to tell a much more cinematic story with “scary” themes and images. The fear comes not from the act of doing that a videogame traditionally offers, but from the audiovisual presentation presenting as “fearsome.”

For this to happen, the veteran player must choose to submit to the story’s rules. By putting themselves in Samus’ shoes, they internalize her ignorance and insecurities despite knowing better. This has little do with Dan’s model of the monster and the door, save as a story to tell. Active tension—centered on game objectives that fuse with fearsome images—is thin on the ground, relegated to boss chambers. The remaining tension is almost entirely passive. It is subjective because the player must choose to let it affect them by adopting a position of vulnerable ignorance. They must become the Gothic heroine of a Radcliffean novel—at least, until the fight commences and they can put their fears to rest in a very active way.

The SA-X is easily the game’s biggest lie. Seldom intervening with objectives in the present space and time, “she” is more of a boogeyman that lurks in the shadows and, more to the point, stays in them. Many encounters are simply puzzles for the player to solve, while the SA-X remains permanently off-screen. On-screen, many of these “close encounters” make it almost impossible for the player to die. Should the player manage to be killed, this only leads them to sit and wait for the SA-X to leave, next time. In either case, the SA-X never actively hunts the player. She is entirely scripted; the lack of a random element removes any tension, objectively-speaking.

For there to be any tension at all, the player must take the game’s story at face value—easy enough for a maiden voyage. Future visits to the BSL, however, feel far more cinematic, once the player realizes the SA-X will never actually hunt them down. Adam is full of it, and so, for that matter, is Samus. Instead, the story becomes a series of told objectives. Over and over, the player is told SA-X will get them if they aren’t careful. It’s a wonderful story and clearly designed with that in mind. It’s just not the model Dan supplies to explain where the game’s fear comes from—not predominantly.

I wanted to use my ideas to modify Dan’s argument. Dan is spot-on about the breadcrumbs motif. However, to simply call it “fearsome” would miss the finer points of its attack. Dan describes the early-game experience as “You’re told of the disturbance; you see evidence of it; you face the disturbance” (6:14). Yet, a large amount of this experience is imaginary or hidden. The source of tension is intimated, resulting from carefully maintained obscurity and concealment that is gradually revealed and explained away later.

In Gothic terms, this device is called terror. For Edmund Burke, terror was quite literally fear of pain:

Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger, that is to say [...] operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling. I say the strongest emotion, because I am satisfied the ideas of pain are much more powerful than those which enter on the part of pleasure.

—Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757)

For Ann Radcliffe, terror was a form of exquisite torture, of the imagination heightened by a concealed threat to high degrees of life that horror would otherwise obliterate:

[terror and horror] are so far opposite, that the first expands the soul, and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life; the other contracts, freezes and nearly annihilates them [...] and where lies the great difference between terror and horror, but in the uncertainty and obscurity, that accompany the first, respecting the dreaded evil? 

—Ann Radcliffe, "On the Supernatural in Poetry" (1826)

This is a trick the game excels at, insofar as the unknown quantities are hidden for as long as possible, with a great deal of terrifying theatrics to pump up the viewer’s imagination. This allows the viewer to imagine the monster, even when they know exactly what it will look like when they actually confront it. Everything is scripted, but it works like a proper Gothic story.

The Nightmare, for example, is largely hidden; the terror of its concealment forces the player to imagine an active danger that is actually passive in nature. The boss fight itself activates the danger by revealing to the player what has been hidden behind the curtain—the horror! Here, “fear” is an inadequate descriptor. More useful terms would be “abject” or “uncanny,” which denote a specific quality of fear mid-confrontation. The Nightmare, when viewed, oozes slime from the eye sockets of a melting face. It is literally the station’s dirty little secret—thrown off of, or abjected from, to be viewed with shock and disgust, like the Gorgon.

Dan describes tension as objective. For him, tension amounts to a fuse burning down, its completion threatening the failure of imminent pain, trauma and ignominious death. This being said, his door-monster model is an active model. The objectivity of tension only applies to specific in-game situations where the bomb can actually go off. During the Nightmare battle, it can; the Nightmare can crush Samus while appearing abject, gross. Outside of this room, however, tension is subjective because it relies entirely on the player—their faith in it as genuine, and their adoption of it as a point of view that informs their experience. Dan explains how Fusion constantly reminds the player of their impotency (6:22). But this quality is told; it isn’t the result of gameplay that demonstrates how weak Samus actually is.

The best illustrator of this is the SA-X. The computer tells you to run (9:50) but Samus is seldom  granted the chance. Most of the encounters are illusions. The player wants to run, but can’t. Dan says, “That’s already pretty tense” (9:58). However, the objective tension from his door-monster model only works if the bomb can actually explode, or if you ignore the fact that it cannot explode. Movies relay bomb threats to the viewer all the time. These threats are not anything the viewer can influence, on-screen, and this makes the tension from them a lie. For it to work, the audience must believe the explosion can still happen, even though the bomb can never actually detonate.

Likewise, Fusion’s passive tension is carefully constructed to appear active. This makes it subjective, insofar as it requires player participation to achieve its menacing effect—“Knowing that this could happen at any point from now on,” as Dan says (9:58). You feel exposed, and this is where the tension comes from (the feeling of exposure). Yet, the moment you acknowledge this fact, the tension is lessened. It is, in fact, an illusion, and illusions, I would argue, are subjective by nature: To function, they must be perceived in a particular way. This process is hardly immutable. “Total, exposed vulnerability” is less of an actuality and more of a subjective tension provided by in-game storytelling devices.

The fact of the matter is, you’re not exposed at all. Nor is “the encounter is always unexpected” (11:30) as Dan says. The SA-X encounters aren't unexpected or random; they are scripted. They are meant to feel unexpected in such a way as remind Samus (and the player) how weak she is. This is, of course an illusion: Not only does the SA-X's arrival become totally predictable, when revisited; in most instances, it can never destroy Samus despite the game wanting you to think otherwise.

Dan is right about how Fusion constantly promotes Samus’ weak points. However, it is not actual impotency from a gameplay standpoint, but prescribed impotency through a narrative the game tells the player. For all of this to work, the player must buy into the story and enjoy it as a viewer, first and foremost. Contrary to Dan’s claim, the player wishes for the monster to exist. In other words, the player wants the SA-X, an omnipresent monster, to make them feel at a constant disadvantage. This is true even if the player is not currently at risk of encountering the SA-X; this is where the game's passive tension comes from, and why it is subjective. This relationship is largely a terrifying one, left to the viewer’s imagination. “Remember that nameless fear in your heart?” (10:40) Dan asks. This fear is less of the creature as an icon, and more how the player as a passive agent relates to it as something hidden, obscured.

Dan’s model is largely situational and not applicable to Fusion at large. However, I agree with him when he acknowledges Fusion’s storytelling devices as seminal. These provide a signature, “fearsome” narrative—one earlier Metroid games do not. This is Fusion’s claim to fame, and a commendable one. As a Gothic story, its attention to detail is impeccable throughout, and the number-one reason I remember Fusion to this day.


About me: My name is Nick van der Waard and I'm a Gothic ludologist. I primarily write reviews, Gothic analyses, and interviews. Because my main body of work is relatively vast, I've compiled it into a single compendium where I not only list my favorite works, I also summarize them. Check it out, here!

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