Skip to main content

Mazes and Labyrinths: Speedrunning Metroidvania - CScottyW

This interview for "Mazes and Labyrinths" is with CScottyW. Scotty is a Metroid speedrunner, and holds numerous world records in Metroid Fusion, Metroid Zero Mission, and Metroid 1.

"Mazes and Labyrinths" interviews speedrunners and Twitch streamers about disempowerment in Metroidvania and survival horror games. The series follows a pretty set of research goals that specifically examine how mazes and labyrinths, along with their historically "heavy" content, disempower players. To read more about these research goals, and more about Metroidvania and survival horror in general, please refer to the series abstract

To read other interviews in the series, refer to my interview compendium.

Introduction

Nick: I'm a Gothic ludologist who writes about horror in videogames. My specialty is Metroidvania, but I also research FPS (first-person shooters) and survival horror.

Scotty, can you tell us a little about yourself? How long have you been speedrunning and what got you into it?

Scotty: I've been speedrunning since late 2016. I started watching lots of Metroid runs that summer. Since that was around when AM2R was released, I was inspired to start running that; it was new and not very well run. I saw that any% and 100% had both been run somewhat extensively, but nobody had done a complete low% run of it, so I started practicing and became the first to record and submit a full run.

Nick: Awesome! I've divided the interview into five sections, which we'll complete one at a time:

  • Ludic, Closed Space
  • The Gothic Chronotope
  • Gothic Affect
  • Historical Contributions
  • The Quest for Mastery
Before we start, just a reminder that these are my arguments; they're not universal truths, but extensions of my own research. So if you feel like you disagree, feel free to do so!

(artist: Moonshen)

Ludic, Closed Space

Research point #1: The Metroid franchise ludically disempowers players by forcing them inside a closed space that spatially limits the power and quantity of their equipment, maneuverability and speed.

Nick: What about closed space appeals to you? Why not play something more open, and with a stronger protagonist?

Scotty: I'm drawn to the progress that comes from finding items and equipment. That sort of helplessness at the start of the game can be built upon until you reach the end of the game and you've become a sort of unstoppable juggernaut. With more open games, I tend to lose a sense of progress, or I may become distracted from my main quest, or not know where I want to go next. Having something closed gives me a fixed objective that every action I make takes me closer towards.

Another thing about closed space is how the environment itself can be a challenge. You're put inside this maze where you may or may not know where the exit is, but trying to figure out shortcuts and ways around those limitations that the maze forces onto you is very appealing to me—like trying to figure out a puzzle. 

As with having a stronger protagonist, I prefer the progression from weak to strong but also variance in gameplay that provides (even on different visits to the same area); if going through the same area asks the player to complete the same challenges every time, it tends to feel a bit more dull and repetitive.

(artist: François Coutu)

Nick: Each of these games has a different flavor of closed space. Metroid 1 introduced the classic, non-linear maze, but is also less refined than Zero Mission (re: no map system). Zero Mission included deliberate sequence breaks and more intricate routes. Fusion is incredibly linear, behaving like the Castlevania-style labyrinth but inside an an Iga-vania-type grid.

What about non-linearity appeals to you, and why might you choose such a gameworld over something linear?

Scotty: With non-linearity, there is a sense of accomplishment through exploration. You don't know where to go and you must search every corner until you do.

With the Metroid games, not every dead end is a punishment. In fact, it seems more often than not that hitting a dead end will yield a small reward; even if it doesn't obviously [advance your position in the game], it may make your quest just a little easier. This encourages the player to explore beyond simply completing an objective on their quest, despite seemingly having no reason to be in that area of the game. 

Something much more linear may not have that benefit. You are sent on a straight path; your challenges are the obstacles or enemies put directly in front of you, and the sense of accomplishment is more directly through going down that path and overcoming that obstacle. In a non-linear game, if you are having difficulty overcoming some obstacle, you could either find some way around it; or you could leave, try to find some item to make the obstacle more manageable, and then come back. In a more linear game, if you are having trouble with an obstacle, the game can much more easily say "tough luck, pal" and send you right back to that obstacle.

As a result, there can be more of a choice on the player's end on how to play the game.


Nick: What do you enjoy about Fusion's linear approach to closed space (if anything)?
 
Scotty: Other, more open Metroid games will allow you to come upon parts of the story on your own. This comes at the cost of being funneled into specific paths more frequently. Fusion tells its story through its linear design, and wants to show you all of that story. Even so, the game opens up in each area to allow for some exploration.


Nick: Does the true boss in Metroid ever feel like the space itself—specifically the maze/labyrinth as something to move through, ignoring its cosmetics features? 

Scotty: In each game it's certainly something that we've been fighting against for a long time. Finding some way to bust open the maze can be viewed as a much greater accomplishment than simply beating the game. When we route each game, we have to keep in mind all the different locks the game puts down and what keys we need to get through those locks. For example, in the original Metroid, the more knowledge you have of the game, the more the labyrinth can feel alive. With all the ways we can trigger transitions, there are many ways to take a door and end up in a different location than one may expect, or even mess up the way that the camera scrolls (changing vertical rooms into horizontal ones and vice versa). These ways introduce more challenges than the game itself normally presents.

Nick: Do you still regularly experience emotional feelings of disempowerment—relative to your in-game character and her limited resources—despite your speedrunner expertise?

Scotty: In Metroid, trying to finish the game with limited resources is a pain. You enter the final area, Tourian, with barely the capacity to complete the final challenge of the game. However, you must expend resources before you are able to reach the end, so you are reliant on getting drops from enemies to have enough. If you don't get the drops you need by the time you run out of ammo, you're stuck with no way to finish. On top of that, even if you do get the drops you need, the final challenge is incredibly difficult to perform without dying or running out of ammo! So the stress that one can feel when going through that challenge can be quite intense.

You really do need to value your resources, and running out of them when the game decides to give you a chance can be painful. Ammo management can often be very tight, depending on what route is being used. The tighter it is, the more often it can be left up to the game to give you drops to allow you to pass to the next section quickly. So despite how good you get at the game, in the end there is still some reliance on the game to cooperate [re: RNG].  In the end, the game very clearly does not care if you win or lose.

The Gothic Chronotope

Research point #2: The Metroid franchise visually disempowers players through spatiotemporal themes conducive with the prison, graveyard, institution or tyrannical home.


Nick: 
The narrative approach in Metroid is typical of Gothic stories: the chronotope, or time-space. The space in Metroid isn't just a bare, clean-swept maze; it's littered with markers of the historical past. Metroid specifically treats the Gothic castle as "retro-future"; its walls are covered with hauntological markers of time—relics, effigies, hieroglyphics that serve as dated images of the future, while simultaneously promoting the grim reputations of old structures.

To this, Zebes (and Samus other destinations) typically feel like a prison, graveyard, institution and home—often all at once, and to varying degrees. Ostensibly derelict, they're occupied by dragons and powerful, archaic monsters; however, while these agents threaten Samus with physical and mental destruction,, the space also attacks her mind, promoting sensations of involuntary incarceration, live burial, hereditary trauma, and dynastic power exchange.

You control Samus; tied to the space and its historical reminders, do you ever feel:
  • Jailed?
  • Buried alive inside, within a tomb that may or may not be yours?
  • Part of a larger scheme, one meant to transfer power to you, which turns you, at least partially, into a hideous, tyrannical destroyer?
Scotty: I think with the amount of time I have put into each of these games, I may have become desensitized to any of the emotions that the environment and icons may elicit. I could see how one might feel this way on initial playthroughs, but with the amount of time I've put into the game, it's hard to feel emotionally jailed or buried alive. 

As for feeling like a tyrannical destroyer, sure. In the penultimate section of Zero Mission, everything that you've been gathering is taken away from you and you are forced to pass enemies you cannot kill. At the end of that section, and beginning the final one, you are given all of those items back and more. Going directly from your least powerful point, even less powerful than when you start the game, to the most powerful point, one can get overzealous with his power. Killing things that may not even be in your way, just for the fun of it.

By comparison, Fusion is a slow power build, until suddenly at the end you realize that you have all of the power and that nothing can stop you. Same result at the end of the game, but accessed differently through the story.

(artist: ?)

Nick: Often there are no "guides" to speak of in Metroid—no cutscenes nor dialogue to communicate your peril; these world communicate simply by isolating the player inside the chronotope and having them move around. 

Fusion is an exception, and Adam spells out much of what's going on. Does this feel more empowering than Metroid 1, which doesn't even give the player a map?

Scotty: Adam fills you in on what's going on, and sometimes that's scarier than not knowing what's going on. Adam gives you just enough information to let you know that there's this thing that's currently unstoppable and that trying to fight it would be suicide. You encounter this thing several times, and each time it's frightening. For Metroid 1, you may not know where you're going, but you do have the means of dealing with everything every step of the way. Often, even when you're in danger, Metroid 1 gives you a way out. Adam, who is able to control the doors in the ship, locks you in rooms with massive bosses and will not let you out no matter how close you are to death.

Another characterization of Adam is that he will allow you to die if it means that a greater threat is prevented.

Nick: Regarding these spatiotemporal themes: 
  • Do you feel more aware of them when close to death, or when being deprived of resources?
  • How heavily do they weigh on you during runs, especially when you're grown physically weary?
  • Does controlling a stronger, better-equipped protagonist help shield you from these sensations?
Scotty: I think if I'm locked in a room and low on resources, I'm more aware of what I'm up against than the themes within the room. What's coming toward me? What do I need to keep away from me? How do I get more ammo? Am I safe in this spot? But if I'm trying to go through several unlocked rooms low on resources, I would say I'm more aware of those themes. I become more fearful and more likely to misstep.

Being more powerful in a casual game, or just being better equipped in a game I'm familiar with, allows me to overstep whatever dangers there are and keep moving forward.

Gothic Affect

Research point #3: The Metroid franchise reliably exposes players to Gothic sensations (re: the hauntological, uncanny or abject) through popular tropes (re: doubles, the Promethean quest) and taboos (re: infanticide, cannibalism, abuse fantasies, etc). 

(artist: Xavier Garcia)

Nick: 
This section is more of an invitation to think about this material thematically. For example, the uncanny—for our purposes—is generally a sense of the alien and familiar occurring simultaneously that causes the viewer to freeze, stuck in an oscillating state. More than that, Metroid often features uncanny homes (or residents) that force the player to confront something they've thrown off of, or abjected from, themselves. 

In this sense, abjection is something of a dark mirror that defeats the self-actualization of the Heroic Quest; it disempowers the player in what would normally be an empowering affair. Does Samus' dark transformation, from weak to empowered, feel connected to the home, specifically the boss key system, a blood ritual rooted historically by the space (re: the dragon effigies)?

CScottyW: To make sure that I'm understanding the question properly: Is Samus' empowerment a result of infiltrating someone else's home and stealing their belongings to become more powerful or to make progress?

Nick: Partly, yeah; and generally the whole procedure is enshrined in the miniboss key system, specifically the statues that you have to "water" with blood. It's almost like the world is designed for her to infiltrate and murder. I can't help but feel that the pirates and Mother Brain stole the space, and its very design is the Chozo's revenge, which Samus [their prodigal adopted child] is the executioner thereof. I hope that makes sense.

CScottyW: Oh sure, sure. In a way it doesn't feel like you have a choice in the matter. You're forced into killing [the pirates] to progress, and the game basically gives you a list in the form of the statues of who/what your victims are, especially in Metroid, Super Metroid, and Zero Mission.

I suppose you could say that the pirates are the ones who force you to do this killing, as they ostensibly designed the locks that would only open upon the deaths of their generals. However, I would say the theme of executioner is more appealing than one who is performing a sacrificial rite. An exterminator of some infestation, it's Samus' rightful home and she wants them out, but the pirates literally say "over my dead body!"

[editor's note: The Neo-Gothic novels of the late 18th century generally featured "banditti," cutthroats living in non-British lands. Often holed up in isolated buildings or abandoned homes, banditti would wait to bushwhack weary travelers, or lie to them once discovered. In one story the bandits even pretend to be ghosts to scare people away so they could steal the castle's treasure! Usually the female characters were damsels in distress, guarded by men who'd have to protect them. I always loved how Samus subverted these tropes, gradually transforming from delicate novice to fully-armored space knight.]

(artist: Oliver Silven)

Nick: Doubles can intimate past atrocities tied to the hero's sense of self. They can be the actual home, or its inhabitants. For example, Zebes is an ancestral ruin, but also Samus' foster homeworld; following its second, total destruction, she's pursued by the ghost of her own stolen might: the SA-X. This dark clone mirrors Samus at her strongest, albeit inside a shiny new space the SA-X tears apart trying to kill her.

Symbolically doubles can also promote a sense of constant death and rebirth, with hostility of one iteration towards another, but also a paradoxical bond. In a casual sense, did you immediately feel any sort of ambivalent connection or repulsion towards the SA-X?

CScottyW: Casually, if you've played the previous games and have felt the rush of emotions during their climatic empowerment, you know that this creature is a tyrannical destroyer—just like you once were—but that it's on the other side this time. You know what it's capable of because you know what you were capable of. I would say there's an ambivalent connection, yeah. You understand the SA-X to some degree, but being on opposing sides naturally—instinctively, even—causes a degree of repulsion.

Nick: 
Do you ever feel similar confused feelings regarding Samus' foster home, Zebes—something akin to a haunted house that kind of feels like home, but also doesn't?

CScottyW: I know, with regard to lore, that Zebes is Samus' home, but I never experienced that through her eyes. The only glimpse of that feeling is during the ending of Zero Mission, where we see a drawing engraved in a wall of (presumably) Samus and her foster parents. There aren't really any reminders of this fact during the game itself. Maybe if the Chozo had hung more pictures of Samus up on the walls, I'd have felt more of those feelings?

(artist: Zeronis)

Nick: Samus' destroyer persona allows her to ascend as top predator, wherein her home (or any civilized destination she visits; re: the B.S.L. station, SR388) is totally destroyed.
Does Samus' victory always feel semi-hollow or bittersweet in your eyes? Will there ever be "true peace in space!" or do doubles illustrate how Samus is doomed to constantly repeat the past? 

CScottyW: I think Fusion illustrated that there's always another threat that pops up when an older threat is gone. To me, yeah, that is a bit bittersweet. Maybe there will be an end to the line of threats, but at least until then there's always something to do (without them, Samus would be out of a job, which is sad to me, but for the greater good, I suppose).


Nick: Fusion's monsters are quite grotesque, and thrown at the player in a linear fashion. Trapped in the room with them, you must watch their bodies disintegrate; often their faces gradually fall apart, exposing a nebulous, ghostly imposter underneath (re: the Nightmare). 

When you're close to death, does the Nightmare fight ever make you panic, on account of its rotting face or other gory details as it approaches you?

CScottyW: Nightmare is fast, moves erratically, and hits like a truck. It could look like the Mona Lisa and I'd still panic. Though it being horrifically ugly certainly doesn't help—with you desperately trying to squeeze in as much damage as you can as you watch it approach.

(artist: Bryton Spurgeon)

Nick: 
Regarding the various emotions we've talked about in this section, do you think casual audience members can still experience them while watching a pro like yourself speedrun the game?

CScottyW: Yeah, and I think sometimes they feel it more strongly than I do. When I'm close to death, I might be focused more on playing well than I am focused on avoiding death (as playing well usually means not taking damage in the first place), while the audience may be more focused on my condition. Of course, everyone experiences emotions differently. Some members may be more experienced in the game and know when to and when not to worry. Others may not. 

Plus, when you're watching a game, you can take in more—or at least different—information. You can look at the scenery, the environment, anything else you want. Conversely [a player must focus on the avatar they control—the platforming she must do, or the enemies she must kill, avoid, or otherwise watching out for].

Historical Contributions

Research point #4: The Metroid franchise successfully communicates its diegetic narratives of disempowerment historically through speedrunning metaplay—at various speeds and routes, with various glitches and tricks.

Note: For this section, I'm largely referring to that runs that are recorded and uploaded online as historical documents. I'm also focusing on NMG (no major glitches).

Nick: The story in Metroid is generally historical, and concerns the gameworld's literal past. This past includes the diegetic elements that exist strictly onscreen, but also their emotional and ludic connections to the player, who exists offscreen. Speedrunners like yourself incessantly record your playthroughs for other people to watch. These historical documents extend "the screen" to include whatever metaplay you vocalize (re: cries of joy or frustration, small talk, etc). 

In your opinion, can the on-screen historical markers (re: the corpses, gargoyles and icons) in Metroid intimate the player's off-screen emotions—their private joys, terrors, and inside jokes? Quick example: Green biker dude from MMX2, or that dead guy in front of Kraid in Super Metroid as reminding some people of a particular runner's repeated bad luck in those particular games; or perhaps more literally the note system from Dark Souls (re: "huge chest ahead").

CScottyW: Perhaps. I'm usually not too attuned to certain markers unless I'm using something for some sort of visual cue, and even then I don't tend to associate any emotion with it. In any case, if there is some marker that is affecting my emotions, I'm generally not aware of it.

Nick: Do you think that's more of something your audience might be aware of?

CScottyW: It's certainly possible. Speedrunning is a sort of shared experience, I think. If someone would know, it would more likely be other speedrunners.

Nick: 
Do you feel like your historical contributions as a speedrunner add to whatever "symbolic freight" the games' diegetic markers convey—i.e., the countless times you've been killed onscreen; or otherwise felt trapped, lost, or traumatized? 

CScottyW: I would like to think so.

(art source: Rainfall Film)

Nick: I recall you saying during a stream that a lot of history is still being made in Zero Mission. Repeatedly recording your own footage of these games: 
  • Do ever you feel like you're adding to the chronotope—i.e., the total history of the space? As something for the game to communicate, does this total history include the glitches, tricks and other metaplay performed by speedrunners, even if its not strictly a part of the gameworld?

    For example, does a runner's performance anxiety conflict with the story's intended sense of death (re: dead Samus)? Or can the intended story—one of disempowering motion through a historically weighty location—still occur when all of the drama is centered on an off-screen speedrunner, pulling their hair out? 

  • What about RNG? Do all of the reminders of death make you think of unfair dice rolls?

CScottyW: I feel like I'm definitely adding to how players may view the space of the game—and I would say that all of those are included in what the game communicates. Even if they were not intentionally put into the game, these things direct our attention to some things and away from others. Also, finding and looking out for ways to execute certain tricks and glitches can change the way that we look at the map and how it's laid out. 

For example, using enemies to clip into walls only works on the right side, so we may be especially attuned to the right side of a room when trying to route something out. Looking for these sort of things, you can see a lot of information that once was harder to see. As for my own recordings, and the recordings of others, in making them we sometimes shape the language in our community. We can see not only how others move through certain rooms and what cues they use, but also how they fail, how they die, how they miss something. There's a lot of information to be gathered just by watching others if you know what to look for.

As for the off-screen drama of the frustrated runner, that definitely affects the sense of death. If I see other runners, especially good runners, take an unintended death in a difficult section, I'm going to be more worried, if even slightly, when I'm at that section next myself. The game has already affected one runner emotionally. This can be through themes of death or disempowerment, or perhaps through a simple mistake. Regardless, the next time someone is at that spot, there will be a bit more tension, and this results from the repeat reoccurrence of those dangerous cues.

As for RNG, there certainly may be feelings of unfair dice rolls. Spending so much time in a game just to have a success torn away feels unfair, but you have to know that the RNG isn't unfairly biased toward or against you and you just have to deal with that in the end.

(artist: fabianlpineda)

The Quest for Mastery

Research point #5: This final section concerns the runner's quest for mastery amid all of this history.

Nick: The speedrunner's challenge is a kind of metaplay informed by the gameworld's coded instructions. The more runners move, the more they record; the more they record, the more history the space accrues.

Despite instructing the player to map them, there's an ostensibly "unmappable" quality to Metroid gameworlds. Do you feel like there always one more map to fill in? For example, you've played Zero Mission for hundreds of hours and are still surprised by it. Does this sense of elusive mastery ever make you feel disempowered because always one more map to fill in? Or do you enjoy it for precisely that reason?

CScottyW: I enjoy being able to keep improving, even when it's difficult. Others have responded differently and would say things such as "no matter how good your time is, you will never be satisfied." I may agree with this to some extent, but I don't think the sentiment is necessarily negative either!

So I suppose, yes, I do enjoy it because I can just keep playing the game, and I enjoy playing the game.


Nick: Do you feel constantly drawn back to the maze, thus unable to escape, because its somehow "greater" than you are? For example, speedrunners dissect games, but games give them the tools to do. Metroid in particular introduced many staples to the speedrunning practice: a maze-like, deconstructible world, and hidden, time-based reward system helped lay the groundwork for speedrunning as a practice. 

CScottyW: The game rewards you for playing fast, and it is internally rewarding to play fast. That seems like a pretty deadly combination to me to keep someone doing something. I have taken a break from running these games many times, but I do always return for some reason or another. Sometimes it's to participate in a tourney and other times it's just because I feel like playing the game. Maybe the latter occurs when I'm simply drawn back into the maze. I wouldn't personally say that it's because the game is "'greater' than me" or because it has some power over me, but does an addict say that their addiction has some power over them if they are not trying to quit?

(artist: gears2gnomes)

Nick: Given how destructible the world is, does it feel easier to learn, as a speedrunner, but harder to master?

CScottyW: I don't know! I don't have a lot of experience with non-Metroid games to say for sure. I can say for sure that there's a lot of hidden intricacies that take a long time to become aware of and even longer to control. That may go for many or all games. There's a lot of opportunities for new runners to take safeties if they don't feel comfortable going with the most aggressive routes, so perhaps it is easier to learn those than games that force you through a given route.

Nick: Don't the best Super Metroid times come from players who use PKRD, which is a fundamentally harder route to navigate than the intended boss route?

CScottyW: The PRKD route, and yes. It is much harder to even finish the route, regardless of the safeties one might take.

Nick: "No time for caution."

CScottyW: Only if you put the time in to learn it; someone said that speedrunning is about putting an insane amount of time into a game to finish it in as little a time as possible.

(source: "The Sky Calls" screencap)

Nick: Do you ever feel feel "taught" by the game, even though it contains no active instructor? That is, do you feel conditioned to respond not only by the walls that guide your steps, but also by the game constantly robbing time from you? And once you become aware of the rules, do you submit to them willingly? 

CScottyW: Sometimes, sure. There are options that may be possible, but more risky to go through as you need the game to cooperate with you with drop luck or enemy patterns. Sometimes that option saves a lot of time and is then worth going for, but sometimes it doesn't so you learn to not try it.


Nick: As a runner, do you feel like your sense of self—your mark on the world—stems the gameworld, especially its never-ending history that you contribute to according to its instructions? Do you feel like this history will somehow outlast you, if only because the gameworld will attract new players over time?

CScottyW: I love the games that I run, and I would love for others to love them as much as I do. I know that records are broken, but I also know the amount of time it takes to break records, and how much time it took me to get mine. My times on top of the leaderboard—both the records themselves and the duration that I've had them—will come to pass, just as the records that stood before did. Likewise, the culture around the games—the routes, the community, the tricks—may change again, just as I've seen it change in my time in the community. As long as I'm able, I will be around to see that occur!


Nick: Is the past you're struggling to defeat is essentially yourself, mainly your personal best? Do you ever visualize this former, past record as being represented by Mother Brain or the SA-X? Effectively a historical marker to run against, that only grows more and more powerful over time?

CScottyW: Yeah, I'd agree with that. I'm always trying to overcome myself at my best. I certainly may have different stress levels fighting these bosses as a result of my personal best, or what my pace is going into those fights, but I don't consciously refer to them as a representative of it.

(artist: u/mr_merns)

Nick: This concludes the interview! Thanks so much for taking the time to sit down with me and answer my questions, Scotty!

Where can people reach you online these days, if they want to follow your work?

CScottyW: Absolutely, thanks for the interview!

If people want to follow my work, I stream regularly on Twitch and upload my personal bests to my YouTube channel, CScottyW.

***

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!

I'm an artist and a writer. If you're interested my work and are curious about illustrated or written commissions, please refer to my website for more information. If you want to contact me about a guest article, please use this contact form or reach out to me on Discord (vanderWaardart#5394)!

If you want to make donations, you can directly support my artwork on Patreon and my writing on Ko-Fi!




Comments