On a whim, I booted up a copy of Metroid Prime a few weekends ago. About an hour in, I came across a place called Ruined Fountain – and then, something surprising happened. I did a sort of double take, and genuinely laughed out loud. My ten-year-old memories of this game were that it was atmospheric (yes) and demanding (yes) - but I’d never appreciated that it was also wonderfully clever.
Welcome to the Fountain
The gunk is an implicit threat. Most players will know from their experience that this slime can kill Samus in mere seconds.1 Even if you don’t, the hazard bar on the display will flash Warning! if you get too close, and the scan visor will inform you, “Contact with contaminated water extremely hazardous,” if you point it at the floor.
This, then, is a jumping puzzle. You’ll look towards the islands, trying to figure out the safest path across.
You can probably deduce that this room’s exits cannot be reached unless you leap from platform to platform, hugging the right-hand wall; an ostensibly more direct path to the left will tempt a reckless Samus to a toxic grave. (You just can’t jump that far.)
Before you go bouncing off, there’s one more complication. A handful of plump fireflies trace agitated paths across the Fountain, throwing shadows onto sandstone. These critters, called Plazmites, are relatively harmless,2 but are still capable of hurting you on contact. Their random motion means that as you pick your way across the chamber, you’ll have to time each jump if you want to avoid damage - unless you opt to shoot the Plazmites first.
A savvy player will notice there’s no natural lighting in the Ruined Fountain. Indeed, the only light is coming from the flies. If you do shoot down the Plazmites, the room is plunged into darkness. The challenge of jumping from island to island becomes easily twice as hard.3 (If the player is quick enough to realise the likely outcome of their slaughter, they can of course stop mid-way. This will help: one dead Plazmite is a minor inconvenience; four means the room is pitch black.)
Players who killed the Plazmites must make another decision. Do they jump across the platforms in the darkness, or wait to see if the Plazmites respawn? The second option is the safer one: hang back, and the fireflies will return.
Needless to say, I fell into the trap of killing every one of the poor Plazmites, despite being an experienced player. I felt humiliated: how could I have made such an obvious mistake? But as I sat there in the darkness, the thought occurred to me: maybe the game wanted this to happen. In the Ruined Fountain, the player is invited to think before they act, and above all to observe their surroundings closely. And the more I thought, the more I found that this particular sense of watchfulness was what defined my experiences with Metroid Prime.
Samus as Hunter
Miyamoto-san said to us that for surveying the environment around you, switching to first-person perspective was the best solution. So since the main objective of the game is exploration, it was ideal that it would be played from this perspective. Therefore, with this set in our minds, we went on to create a world in which the player would have to look around in order to discover things." -- From a translated interview with Retro Studios, courtesy of Metroid Database.
Visually, Prime is filled with fine detail that rewards close attention: water streaming down Samus’s cannon; fish flitting to and fro in lakes; tiny plants that encrust uneven, organic terrain. A lot of the game’s charm comes from these small strokes, which add definition and character to the environments the player inhabits.
On a more practical note, vital missile expansions and energy tanks lurk in obscure regions, and divining their location takes effort. Sometimes, a scannable item will suggest the presence of a hidden object; other times, scrutinising the overhead map might help a player find a secret area. The best way to discover missile expansions is simply to stand still and listen carefully to your surroundings: these upgrades emit a tell-tale throbbing hum.
Prime has other ways of making you think. Say you scan a suspicious-looking statue and the game tells you, helpfully, that the object is sculpted from Cordite (coloured in red for emphasis). That’s your cue to pause the game, access the main menu, look through your weapons, and see if any of them are capable of breaking Cordite (you need the Super missile, which will be listed under “Missile Combos”, three menus deep).
Daniel Primed argues that Super Metroid, Prime’s predecessor, coaxes the player to embark on a voyage of mental cartography:
The in-game map works as a crutch for players to refresh their own mental map. Wisely, R&D1 chose to segment the main map away from the core gameplay by virtue of the pause screen, only offering a mini-map of surrounding rooms while the player navigates Samus. In this way, where pausing to check the map disrupts the flow of gameplay, players are persuaded into relying upon their established mental map.”
This intrigued me, because one of my enduring memories of Metroid Prime is staring at the main map for maybe minutes at a time, laboriously working out which specific elevator of twenty I should take to get from A to B. Perhaps this is because I have the spatial awareness of a sack of half-bricks; nevertheless, the game encourages this behaviour. Take Prime’s central puzzle – a quest for a series of Chozo Artifacts which unlock the game’s last area. To find these artifacts, the game asks you to scan the Chozo Totems in the Artifact Temple, open your menu, and read the clue that they provide. Each hint subtly references the name of a particular room (coloured in red for emphasis).
Here’s the clue for the Artifact of Nature:
"A molten Lake lies within the tunnels of Magmoor. Shatter the column at the lake's center to reveal the Artifact of Nature."
There are literally several molten lakes in Magmoor Caverns, and once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen ‘em all. But if you look at Magmoor via the main map, the game will list the name of each room as you’re viewing it. You may then discover that there is only one true Lake: “Lava Lake,” where the Artifact is to be found.
Far from disrupting the flow of gameplay, in Prime, “pausing” to access the main menu, the main map, the logbook entries, and the weapon information is a critical part of how the game works on the player, and how the game is played.
Many of Prime’s enemies punish the hasty player who fails to appraise each room. For example: Zoomers patrol platforms on a set path. If you tackle these platforms without removing the creatures or timing your jumps, they will hurt you, and may knock you to the floor. Innocuous-looking mushrooms will scar you if you fail to scan them first: they are Blastcaps, and, as their name suggests, they will explode on contact.4
The Plazmites also fit into this broad type of enemy design: passive in nature, they only cause Samus harm when she collides with them. In fact, most of the regular enemies in Prime will never attack you directly. If you want a great litmus test for this – walk into any room in Prime and stand perfectly still. Almost every time, Samus can stay there indefinitely without getting hurt. This sort of design empowers the player to work out the best way of dealing with each creature before being forced to act.
(I think that’s part of the reason why, in Prime, I feel like I inhabit the character of Samus so closely: I am the Hunter, free to track down and obliterate the enemies of Tallon at my leisure.)
Ruined Fountain as Theatre
But what of my experience in the fountain? Perforce, I did not sit there in the darkness forever. In a few moments, a bright light from the sandstone ceiling interrupted my reverie.
The Plazmites of the Ruined Fountain are not like other enemies. This is the only room where the player is punished so explicitly for shooting creatures.5 The pitch-black of the fountain teaches you that sometimes (just sometimes) murdering everything that moves isn’t your best plan. This is valuable information: there are areas of the game where conserving Samus’s resources (health, and missiles) will give you an advantage, and sections spent backtracking through cleared areas where not killing every creature will save significant amounts of time.
But I think this unique set-piece is deployed primarily for another, subtler purpose, suggested by the layout of the room on your first visit:
The symmetry of the wall emplacements draws your eye to the fountain, but also to the dark rectangle visible behind it – a tablet of Chozo Lore; the centrepiece of the room. You can flip over to your scan visor and see that the Lore is coloured in red (for emphasis). Yet you can’t scan it properly from where you’re standing at the entrance of the stage.
The Lore serves as an incentive to get you over to the Fountain; it also acts as a reward for when you get there. But there is something else about this ancient tablet which means that the game wants you to read it after you’ve taken your first leap through the room.
Our sanctuary grows by the day. We Chozo know much of technology, but we do not worship it. Our home here on Tallon IV will be a place of simplicity: structures hewn from the stone, bridges woven with branches, hallways caressed by pure waters. We build around the ancient and noble trees, drawing from their strength and giving them our own in return. All that is wild will flow around us here; our race will just be one more group of creatures in the knit of nature. It is our hope that such a state will bring with it great wisdom and a greater understanding of the nature of the universe.
“Our race will just be one more group of creatures in the knit of nature.”6 So much for that: the knit of nature has been ripped apart and rewoven into a hideous fabric; Space Pirates injecting Phazon into harmless creatures to turn them into monsters. And the Chozo? The Chozo are extinct. So, then: were the Chozo of Tallon hopeless idealists, with a philosophy that left them powerless in the face of disaster? Does asserting dominance over other living things lead invariably to evil?
It is no coincidence that Prime has chosen this room to show you that not shooting something is also a valid option. The Ruined Fountain stages one of Prime’s central concerns: the tension between civilisation and the natural world. Your interaction with the Plazmites has been a tiny drama upon this very theme. Before you read the Chozo Lore, you have to make the decision either to shoot the Plazmites or to leave them alone. You are either in harmony with nature or have elevated yourself above it; you are no longer some dispassionate outside arbiter of justice. After all, the suit you wear and the gun you carry are symbols of Chozo technology.
And this is why I had to stop and laugh for joy. I couldn’t believe that the game had placed this text here deliberately, almost as if issuing a challenge: do you think that you aren’t culpable? What have the creatures of Tallon done for you to casually destroy them? By casting Samus in a morally ambiguous light, Prime gave me an opportunity to reflect on both my own morality, and my motivations for making further progress. What did I really hope to achieve?
Later on, the Ruined Fountain becomes a stage for a different type of revelation. After defeating Flaahgra, the monstrous plant which has poisoned the wellspring at the heart of the Chozo Ruins, any contaminated areas within the Ruins revert to their former state. The floor that was toxic gunk has now become clear. You can wade through the room instead of nervously hopping about. You can even curl up inside the fountain, where it will shoot you to the ceiling in a jet of pure water.7
I felt that this was Prime doing its best to reassure me, and perhaps even attempting to answer its own question: Yes, sometimes the exercise of power and technology can be used to help promote a state of harmony with nature. In this way, your victory over Flaahgra also anticipates the final battle of the game - maybe if you kill the Monster at the Centre of the World then the planet of Tallon IV will eventually revert to normal?8
But once again, the Ruined Fountain introduces a note of uncertainty. The purified fountain is difficult to make out in the darkness, because one of the Plazmites lighting the room has disappeared - never to return.
The environment of Tallon IV is constantly in flux. Creatures grow and move as you make progress through the game, like the baby Sheegoths of Phendrana Drifts, who mature into larger, deadlier, beasts. Samus’s relationship with the environment also changes: glutinous underwater mazes that halve your speed and jumping power feel open once you have the Gravity Suit; yawning chasms become minor problems once you have the Grapple Beam; even Phazon - midwife to monsters and lethal to the touch - becomes sterile once Samus’s suit is suddenly saturated with the stuff.
All of which makes me think that Prime does well to endorse Samus’s middle way – a philosophy somewhere in-between the two extremes of Space Pirate genetic meddling and Chozo abjuration of technology. Academic environmentalists rarely advocate the “primitive state” idolised by the Chozo of Tallon IV. Instead, they acknowledge the power humans have to affect the ecosystems they inhabit, and suggest that we use this power to manage our environment responsibly and sustainably. Conversely, they do not suggest that we use our power to exploit the planet – or, while we’re at it, to selectively mutate Corgis to create potent biological weapons.
Now. I really don’t want to go off about how wonderfully relevant Metroid Prime is to Real World Issues; how you could read the game as an environmentalist tract (although you could); how the final boss represents, I don’t know, the dangers of deep water drilling enfleshed and given gruelling attacks. That is an entirely different article. The problem with this game is that the more I study it, the more there is I find to merit study. I could talk about Prime all day.
The Ruined Fountain reflects the brilliance of Metroid Prime. That one little room should evoke all these disparate notions: watchfulness; wistfulness; themes of technology opposed to nature; the mutability of the environment; the moral ambiguity of power – as well as being a clever and instructive puzzle in its own right? That shows such ambition, such confidence in the power of games, that I had to stop and laugh for joy.
But I very nearly missed this joyful moment. Ten years ago I didn't think that games could be like this. It is only because our culture, and our criticism, is being broadened by writers and creators alike that I could stop and think the game was up to something, that I could find the tools to even write this piece.
If we only pause a moment to reflect, sometimes we glimpse hidden depths beneath the surface.
Acknowledgements and Endnotes
Articles / authors which informed / inspired this one
- Liz Ryerson’s Adventures in Level Design, which sparked the whole thing off
- Robert Yang’s What makes “good” writing on level design? and Thief 1’s Assassins and Environmental Storytelling
- Anna Anthropy’s Level Design Lessons
- Hamish Todd’s articles on enemy design in Castlevania and Half Life
- The Game Design Forum’s Reversing the Design of FF6
Other thanks to
- Wikitroid; Metroid Database: for making researching around this article so much easier – without fan-sourced maps, interviews, data, this wouldn’t have been possible
- S: tireless proofreading; putting up with my tedious bullshit
- BC and JC: for working with me to really polish and improve the article.
- The Hive Mecha boss spawns Ram War Wasps, who’ll try and knock you into the acid gunk surrounding the raised platform where you fight. This will probably kill you. [↩]
- You were forced to encounter them in Totem Access. [↩]
- You can see this happen in the playthrough video available here, from 12:50-13:15. [↩]
- They are used to set up a rather nasty trap in the Ruined Gallery. When you enter the level, War Wasps spawn around the door, and so you might be tempted to jump down onto a Blastcap-coated platform, seeking to put some distance between them and the wasps. Needless to say, doing this without taking out the Blastcaps first will get you mauled. [↩]
- Plazmites have appeared before in Totem Access, but shooting them does nothing nearly so dramatic to the lighting situation. This is because Totem Access has light sources other than the Plazmites. [↩]
- There are three main versions of Metroid Prime – the NTSC Gamecube version, the PAL/International Gamecube version, and the Wii Trilogy version. In the updated PAL/International and Wii versions, the Chozo Lore in the Ruined Fountain is “Purification”, quoted above. This replaces “Hatchling”, from the original NTSC version. This was part of several changes made to “improve” the game. [↩]
- When pumping gunk, the fountain hurt Samus if she touched it. Once you have the Spider Ball upgrade, this water jet will help you find a hidden missile expansion. [↩]
- At the moment the environment has a poor prognosis: “Tallon IV was a biological paradise...at current rate of decay, [it] will be a barren Class XIII wasteland in approximately 25 years." (Quote from a scan of Tallon IV in the Observatory area. [↩]