FPS, genre, and Metroid Prime

This semester, I’m taking a class called Video Game Studies, where we analyze games as works of media. We present and play games thinking critically about elements of design, interface, visual, sound, etc. Each week we tackle a specific topic, and this time it’s genre.

One of this week’s readings, “Origins of the First Person Shooter” by Alexander Galloway, is about the evolution of the first-person shooter (FPS) genre, which has its origins in the point-of-view shot of classic Hollywood cinema. Below is my analysis of Metroid Prime, one of my favorite games of all time and a great case study of the genre:

Galloway’s text briefly mentions Metroid Prime when talking about training levels incorporated into the narrative, and a few pages later shows a sequence of screenshots showing one of the game’s most memorable moments: when the cinematic camera pans behind Samus and flies into her head, merging the first and third looks as the author described in the beginning of the text.

Galloway states that cinema is composed of four looks: The first is the camera’s look; the second is the audience’s look; the third is the character’s diegetic look; and the fourth is the look at the viewer by a character.

I was disappointed to see that no further mention of the game was given, since Metroid Prime is arguably my favorite first-person game that involves shooting and that it’s a great case for analyzing POV vs. subjective shots. Galloway spent a good number of pages talking about film and giving examples to demonstrate the difference between the two types of shots, so I expected him to dive into that subject in gaming.

According to Galloway, a point-of-view shot only approximates what the character is seeing through position. A subjective shot will feature obfuscation, blur, shaking and other aspects to make it seem as if the camera is actually attached to the character’s neck.

Most FPSs, especially the ones earlier to 2002, are much more POV than subjective: vision is clear, stable and the head-up display (HUD) is totally non-diegetic. Even Halo: Combat Evolved, released a year earlier than Metroid Prime and also featuring a power suit for its protagonist, features a relatively generic viewpoint and HUD. Metroid Prime effectively puts the player inside Samus’ suit: elements like the health bar and radar are both diegetic features of her Power Suit, our perception of the world changes as we switch from X-Ray to Thermal visors, we can see as the visor gets wet, foggy or dirty and at times we see our protagonist’s face reflected on the visor.

Aside from all those visual features that were unique at the time of its release, Metroid Prime also touches an important question of genre. Yes, it’s an action video game which primarily uses a first-person perspective and with an arm cannon (gun) as the player’s primary weapon. But is it a first-person shooter? Fans of the series like to say the trilogy is in the first-person adventure genre, since we’re not in that world to shoot stuff up (although we must occasionally) but instead to explore it and engage on the adventures it proposes to us. Even boss battles are usually structured as puzzles of finding and exploiting weak spots instead of a straight-out gunfight. Few other first-person games are so invested in immersion and exploration, and even BioShock (which learned a lot from Prime on how to tell a story through messages and logs) has too much shooting to fall out of the FPS category.

In my opinion, Metroid Prime is not an FPS, although it definitely contains many elements common to the genre. What do you think?

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