Leaping Lizards, Part 3
Attack and Defense
So what of the rest of the defenses, those that are specifically targeted against certain attacks? Well, the most common attack on this scene is the most obvious. And the dialog between the two sides usually goes something like this:
- Good God that sucked. Samus pussed out in front of Ridley.
- Why is it wrong for her to be scared of Ridley? He killed her parents and he destroyed her home colony when she was three!
- She's fought Ridley seven times before.* If she were going to be terrified, it'd have happened before now.
- But... he was on a planet that exploded. He should be dead. Deader than dead! Him coming back to life after she thought him finally dead freaked her out!
- Also: only 4 times; Primes don't count.
- She's killed him 5 times in the past. The fact that he might somehow come back after that shouldn't be surprising anymore. There's plenty of time between when Ridley is killed and when Zebes explodes, during which the Space Pirates could remove his carcass. Oh, and surprise doesn't make you turn into a crying, 3-year-old; it also doesn't last for 20 seconds and make your suit turn off.
- But... PTSD!
- Again: she fought him 7 times in the past. If it was going to trigger, it'd have happened by now.
- But most of those were 2D games. You can't show this sort of thing in a 2D game. Not without dialog or something.
- Just like you can't show the player that a giant Metroid is really the infant Metroid they saw at the beginning of the game? Or how you can't show that the infant is willing to sacrifice its life to save Samus?
- Didn't you read the manga?
- You mean the manga where she got over it at the end?
- It's PTSD; you can't just get over it!
- Again: she fought him 7 times in the past. If it was going to trigger, it'd have happened by now.
- It's PTSD; it just works that way sometimes!
From here, the discussion generally bogs down into the specific minutiae of PTSD and other fanwank
. That's why the PTSD defense is so strong; it carefully sidesteps important issues like "story" and "appropriateness for the character." The discussion becomes derailed into talking about the arcana of a real-world psychological condition. And while that may be interesting, it ultimately misses the point.
To understand how requires an understanding of how to discuss elements of a story. You can rationalize and justify any
story element if you bend over far enough to do it. That is after all what fanwank is all about: fans of a story "wanking" about some story element, providing explanations for why it happened and such for it. The ultimate question for any such rationalization is this: is it actually in the story or is it being deliberately read into
it? Whether or not it is intended by the story itself.
See, the question isn't whether PTSD can
be used to explain and justify what happens here. The fact that such an explanation exists which fits the facts of the scene is not enough to say that this explanation is correct
. Many such explanations exist. To say that it is indeed what the writers were saying requires corroborating evidence and/or other argument from within the story itself. Otherwise, it is simply a theory that happens
to fit the facts, just like any other rationalization or fanwank about why Klingons gained forehead ridges or whatever.
The way to ascertain this is to look at the work and see how well the particular justification fits within the work. If the work shows through progression of an idea, then it's clear that the writers put it there (whether accidentally or on purpose). The explanation needs to fit the story being told, not just the facts of the story. If it doesn't, if it is forced or otherwise not indicated positively by the work, then that is clear evidence that it was not intended by the authors.*
Therefore, for the purpose of this conversation, I will concede that what we see in Samus Aran's behavior here can legitimately be explained as a result of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. I will also concede (again, for the purposes of this
conversation) the question of whether this use of PTSD is (in terms of the facts of how PTSD works) consistent with her prior characterization and behavior in the other games. We will stay focused on one point: what evidence is there for PTSD being the intended explanation
for this scene?
First, let's look at communicating the idea of PTSD. If the PTSD defense is true, if PTSD is the author's intended explanation, then it is poorly communicated by the writers. Why? Because the complexities and exact nature of PTSD are not
well understood by the populace at large. It's mostly well understood by scientists and so forth. But the general public doesn't know all of the details of the condition.
When most people think of PTSD, they generally think of something that is consistent: when presented with the object of the trigger, the trigger happens. The reality may be more complex, but most people don't know that. For most people, when they see the inconsistency between Samus's prior behavior and her behavior here, they see this as evidence against PTSD. Regardless of whether they are correct or not, that is what most people think.
Storytelling is communication. And effective communication requires two things: a common language and understanding how the other person/people will interpret what you say (the latter being a stronger version of the former). If you use words that they don't understand, then miscommunication will result. Being an effective communicator means finding out what your intended audience knows/understands and tailoring your message to fit them. If you use terms or ideas that they don't understand, it's your fault
for not properly explaining it.
If this scene can only be justified if you have a detailed and in-depth knowledge of PTSD, then it is incumbent upon the game itself
to provide this knowledge. It is not good writing to have a moment that can only be interpreted correctly by the viewer thanks to a 1000+ word dissertation on the details of a particular psychological condition.
This is doubly true if that moment is at all controversial or the viewer might have other reasons to doubt and dislike it.
You can get away with this sort of thing if the scene is awesome
or something, but not when it's brutally savaging a character. You have to remember: there are very good reasons to not
accept this scene, whether PTSD justifies it or not. So if you're going to expect people to accept such a scene, you need to make sure that all necessary information for accepting it is properly presented. Looked at from outside of the story, if the necessary information is not present, then this is evidence of one of two things. Either the writers don't know how to talk to their audience, or the writers don't actually intend
this to be a portrayal of PTSD.
There is another matter with communicating PTSD to the audience, and it's right there in the name: "Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder." It is a Disorder caused by Traumatic Stress that a person previously encountered (ie: Post).
So I ask a simple question: what Traumatic Stress did Samus Aran previously experience at the hands of Ridley? And I'm going to throw in one simple condition: you may not answer this question with anything outside of Metroid: Other M
See the problem? The game never tells us why!
It never explains what Ridley did to cause this PTSD. Indeed, the only thing we ever heard about Ridley before this scene was that he was Samus's "nemesis," and even that was a throwaway line from the intro cutscene. The player likely forgot about that, assuming that it was just so much backstory.
You need an extensive knowledge of the Metroid franchise to know where this supposed PTSD comes from. How extensive? In order to know what trauma Ridley actually caused, you must be such a Metroid fan that you've tracked down an obscure Metroid comic. A comic that was only ever published in Japanese, so you also need a fan translation of said comic (unless you can read Japanese). Because, outside of Ridley's statue in Super Smash Bros. Brawl (not exactly primary research for Metroid fans; how bored do you have to be to read statue descriptions?), that's the only place that explains what Ridley did to cause this. The instruction manuals to the games only say that the Space Pirates in general killed her family.
And again, it's not like this game didn't have a solid hour of cutscenes before this to explain it. They even came close to it back during the first flashback with Samus and Adam, when she talked about how Adam was like a father to her because she didn't have parents. Indeed, the game could easily have had the "Samus turns into a girl" part become
a quick flashback of Samus watching her parents being killed by Ridley. It would then be self-explanatory, and
it would fit better with experiences of PTSD.
Look at it from the perspective of someone new to the Metroid series. They walk into this room, do some stuff, then a giant dragon appears. They see Samus go catatonic, then scream "Ridley" and turn into a crying, 3-year-old girl. Even if their first thought in response to this is "she's having a bout of PTSD," there is never any discussion in the game about where it comes from. The cause of the PTSD is never stated or implied, so for such a player, it comes right out of nowhere. Even if the player thinks it might be PTSD, the lack of an explanation for the trauma itself works against that idea.
If a story can't stand up without out-of-story research, either of the nature of a condition or the storyline source of it, then it fails as a story. Therefore, we again have the dichotomy. The story does not explain where the trauma came from. Therefore, either the writers suck at communicating PTSD, or the writers aren't trying
to communicate PTSD.
And the possibility that the writers are simply bad is irrelevant. It's purely speculative (though unquestionably true in general): you cannot know
that they intended PTSD and were simply incompetent, because such a case looks exactly like writers who were not intending PTSD at all. You can't tell one from the other, so there is no reason to prefer one explanation over the other.
Remember the most important point: people aren't hating this scene because of what they tried
to communicate; it's about what they did
communicate. This scene is basically "Samus Aran is Weak!" written in 72pt font, bold-face, and all-caps. You can try to add justifications like PTSD, but the story as presented by the game simply doesn't provide enough evidence to support those justification.
There are many explanations for why Samus behaves this way. PTSD may explain it, but it could just be that Samus is a weak individual who can be cowed by the reappearance of a 30 foot dragon she thought was dead. Without direct evidence for PTSD as a storyline idea, then it cannot be preferred over any other.
Consider the PTSD defense in light of Occam's Razor: the simplest explanation is most likely true. So which explanation for this scene is simpler:
That the writers are trying to tell a complex tale of a character with PTSD confronting the source of that ailment after thinking he's dead? This despite not mentioning the source of the PTSD (even when presented with several opportunities). And despite not explaining how PTSD can be justified given her prior encounters with Ridley not triggering it.
Or that the writers are using Ridley to show Samus to be weak? Note that the writers showed her to be weak in her engagement with Furizard. Note that the writers showed her to be weak in her relationship with Adam. And note that this scene is most certainly not the end of the writers showing Samus to be weak.
The former requires erudition about the complexities of a psychological disorder as well as outside story knowledge. The latter requires nothing more than recognizing the patterns already evident in the work. The latter is the simplest explanation and therefore more likely to be correct.
Indeed, there's even more evidence to support the "Samus Aran is Weak" angle than just the prior patterns in the work. There is the lack of explanation of what traumatized Samus itself. Yes, the same evidence that works against PTSD works for
"Samus is Weak". See, if you show the context, if you actually show Ridley murdering Samus's parents, then the audience understands why Samus freaked out. It makes the freak out justified; the audience is allowed to sympathize with her plight.
If the goal of the scene is to make Samus sympathetic and human as a PTSD victim, then the explanation is mandatory. However, if the goal of the scene is to make Samus look weak, then making Samus sympathetic and human works against
that. If you can sympathise with what she's feeling, then she comes off as less weak. Thus the lack of this explanation is another data-point in the pattern. This could
simply be bad writing, but along with all of the other stuff in the game, it points to a clear and consistent pattern of weakening the character of Samus Aran.
Even more, look at how the Ridley plotline is resolved. In this scene, Samus fails to the point of getting her brother-figure killed. Yes, she fought off Ridley in the end, but Anthony died to save her. In even the most basic of hack stories, Samus would track Ridley down and confront him. She would get some form of redemption for her prior failure, overcoming her weaknesses and all that. This would be a minimally functional
character arc about a person who has to deal with PTSD.
But that doesn't happen. The Ridley plot will be abandoned for more Deleter action and then going back to the "main" plot. After that, Ridley will be killed by something else, something so tangential to the plot that it's ridiculous.
Samus never gets payback. Samus is denied closure; she never overcomes anything. There is no character growth or a character arc. This plot arc is not resolved; it just stops.
Because it makes Samus look weak. If Samus actually got payback, if she confronted Ridley and faced her fears, then Samus wouldn't look as weak. She would have grown, become more confident and overcome her fears. If the goal of this plotline is about PTSD, then overcoming it must
be the ultimate character resolution.
it be about overcoming PTSD? Well, if it's not about that, then what is
it about? The purpose of introducing a flaw in a character in a story is ultimately for them to find a way to work around
the flaw. That would show character development. If that doesn't happen... then why introduce the flaw in the first place? Character elements must ultimately drive the character to do something; otherwise, they are superfluous.
And when you have a scene like this, which spent all this time for the Ridley reveal and Samus's breakdown, then it's clearly supposed to be an important character element. And remember: this is the exact same character arc as the aforementioned manga, where she gets over it in the end.
If the goal is just to weaken Samus as a character, then having no resolution helps achieve that goal. By denying Samus character growth, she becomes a weaker person in the eyes of the audience. She is weakened, but never has the opportunity to grow from that experience.
So even if we accepted the statement, "the scene gives Samus added depth as a character," the simple fact is this: nothing is ever done with the "depth" created.
There is no character development. Samus never overcomes her personal failures. Her character is actively damaged without any subsequent growth. The Ridley plot isn't even the main plotline of this story; it just comes out of nowhere and disappears just as quickly. This would be the equivalent of Bruce Wayne freaking out in front of the Joker, Vicky Vale being killed because of it, and then... the Joker is killed by his henchman Bob
So no; I'm not buying the PTSD defense. If they were writing that story, then they failed to tell that story effectively; there is simply no through development of that idea within the work. But if they were writing a story where they systematically show Samus Aran to be weak and ineffectual, then I'm making a note here: huge success!
Could this be the result of really badly communicated PTSD? I accept that this is possible. But without any evidence to back this viewpoint up, it simply cannot stand against the simpler explanation: that the writers wanted to show Samus to be weak.
So, Shitting on Metroid
#6: for taking every appearance of Ridley and letting us know that Samus is secretly crying in her suit every time she sees him. By all rights, I should count this 8 times (it taints Fusion as well), but I'll keep it at just one. I really don't need to pad out the count.