When Abbie Heppe submitted her review of Metroid: Other M (2 out of 5 stars) for G4, I'm guessing she hit the SEND button and ran for cover. The backlash from fans was immense (459 comments, and counting) and personal ("It sounds like the reviewer had just had an argument with her boyfriend or something and was is a particularly "MAN HATING" mood when she played the game.") G4 removed a fair number of comments they deemed inappropriate, so there's no telling how many people stopped by to tar and feather Ms. Heppe.
To be fair, Heppe received supportive comments as well, and many commenters defended Heppe's credentials and agreed with her point of view about the game.
In a nutshell, Heppe objects to the game's depiction of its protagonist, delivered via two hours of cutscenes narrated by the formerly silent Samus in a confessional "dear diary" style.
In short, you're asked to forget that Samus has spent the last 10-15 years on solitary missions ridding the galaxy of Space Pirates, saving the universe and surviving on her own as a bounty hunter. Instead, Other M expects you to accept her as a submissive, child-like and self-doubting little girl that cannot possibly wield the amount of power she possesses unless directed to by a man.
Heppe also takes issue with Metroid: OM's controls, first-person mode, puzzles, and other elements; but her main complaint is that Nintendo and Team Ninja's effort to 'flesh out' one of the most iconic female characters in video game history has resulted in a depiction of Samus that's "insulting to both Samus and her fans." And that's where Heppe apparently crossed the line for many readers.
I'm struck by this brouhaha, not because it's new or especially rancorous. If you've seen one flamewar, you've seen them all. But it does illustrate what happens when a writer for a high-profile outlet chooses to address a game critically - I mean when he or she functions as a critic instead of simply a reviewer. All too often the backlash is severe and ugly. It suggests that, for a sizable portion of the gaming audience, genuine criticism is perceived as inappropriate, unnecessary, or even unprofessional.
Heppe engages Metroid: Other M on several levels, including as an evaluative reviewer. She observes, for example, that certain elements of the game's design don't work well (e.g. auto-targeting, sideways control scheme). She likes the combat, but she doesn't like the puzzles. As a "should you buy this game" reviewer, Heppe offers her take in a format familiar to anyone who's read these sorts of reviews from mainstream games media outlets.
Silly feminist and their emotions geting in the way of professionalism. [sic]**
When Heppe views Metroid through a critical lens, she applies a perspective and a methodology that informs her thinking. This is what critics do. Observing Samus as the embodiment of an empowered female hero - a perspective, by the way, that Metroid creator Yoshio Sakamoto reinforced in his GDC talk last March - enables Heppe to engage her subject in a rigorous, yet personal way. She applies standards of character construction that any responsible critic might apply, and she brings her own interpretive experience with Samus and the Metroid series to bear as well. Again, this is what critics do.
Heppe's approach is valuable because it contextualizes Samus as a fictional character in an unfolding narrative universe, and Nintendo has clearly gone out of its way in Metroid: OM to deepen our understanding of that universe and Samus' place in it. Heppe is meeting the game at precisely the point where its creators have lavished so much attention: Samus and her story. The game's first bit of dialogue, "Why am I still alive?" sets the stage for the story to come. Nintendo and Team Ninja stumble badly in their attempt to answer it, and Heppe tries to explain why.
The backlash takes a variety of forms. There's bald misogyny:
I'm not even a Metroid fan, I just think they should have a better criteria to rating games. Maybe they shouldn't be reviewing games during their time of the month?
Oh wah wah.. it's not empowering to women anymore.. wahhh...
Who are videogames like Metroid made for? Boys! (This isn't Cookin' Mama)
There's the familiar "it's just a game" argument:
To the reviewer I say this CHILL OUT! its not supposed to be some sort of deep docudrama geared and showing us all how to understand the inner-workings of women hood. ITS A FREAKING VIDEO GAME! You buy it to have fun not to make a political statement about our man controlled society.
There's the "stop shoving your political agenda down our throats" argument:
The female reviewer turned it into her opportunity to let loose her feminist and anti-sexism views about the story and said very little about actual GAMEPLAY, GRAPHICS, and all the things that really matter when playing A VIDEO GAME!
And you're trying to tell us that this game is sexist, are you freakin kidding me. I get so freakin sick of women claiming that something is sexist, even though it isn't. If it was a man it samus's place, would you call it sexist?
And there's the argument that contends Heppe has no right to interpret the game:
The way I see it, the players of the game create these preconceived notions of what a Metroid game should be like, or how Samus should act and feel, and I'm here to tell you that you're all full of shit. There's only one party that can decide on what the content of a game is like, and that's exclusively THE DEVELOPER. In this case, it's Team Ninja and Nintendo.
I could go on, but I realize I'm shooting fish in a barrel. The point is that, all too often, the greatest resistance to thinking critically about games comes not from academics, luddites, or old-school critics like Roger Ebert. The most vocal resistance comes from gamers.
In his keynote address at PAX last week, Warren Spector warned that marginalizing casual games and gamers will ultimately limit the industry's ability to grow and mature. I think he's right, but that's only half the story.
Shouting down writers who adopt a principled, intellectual, political, theoretical or other disciplined approach to thinking about a game is ultimately no less self-defeating. There is no single "game culture" anymore, if one ever existed at all. There's a place for everyone at this table, and Ms. Heppe may have just helped the folks at Nintendo make the next Metroid a better, smarter game.
I have more to say about Metroid: Other M (hint: I somewhat agree with Heppe, but see the game as a failure of execution, rather than conception), but I'll save that for another post.
**All italicized quotes are taken from comments posted on Abbie Heppe's G4tv article.