Introduction: Understanding Gothic Space
The function of space in the Gothic tradition is to manifest externally the internal horrors which inhabit the text. We may broadly categorize Gothic space along two distinct axes; artificial spaces (castles, dungeons, vast manor homes), and natural spaces (forests, mountains, wind-battered moors). The function of the former is to compound a sense of claustrophobia, to make literal the squeezing, confining sensation of terror which the Gothic seeks to evoke. In the case of the latter, we enter into the realm of the horror of the sublime, in which the overwhelming scale and indifference of the natural world threatens the solipsistic perception of humanity as the axis around which the world turns. In either case, space is employed as a function of externalization, onto which the subject’s anxieties are projected. In Shelley’s Frankenstein, the endless Arctic wastes to which the monster exiles itself make plain its alienation — a stark figure drawn against the blank whiteness of the landscape — furthering the text’s underlying anxieties surrounding the breakdown of established notions of humanity in the wake of the advancements of science. In Dracula, the self-ensnaring psyche of Victorian society — ensouled in the suicidally polite Johnathan Harker — is made manifest in the Count’s castle, prison to Harker, home to the looming spectre of its own decaying future, Dracula himself. In Peter Weir’s Picnic At Hanging Rock, the Australian landscape becomes a sun-bleached nightmare, in which the oppressive heat and jutting, rocky maw of the mountainside reflect the biting, smothering propriety and ideals to which the girls of the school are subject. The Gothic tradition extends far and wide in literature and the arts, expanding well beyond the scope of this article, permeating almost three centuries of popular culture. In all cases though, space as a tool of Gothic horror remains consistent. The purpose of this article, then, is to examine a Gothic text — the 1994 video game, Super Metroid — in order to explore how the game utilizes space to articulate innate societal anxieties surrounding the notion of reproductive futurity, mediated through the image of the abject female body. In order to do so, it will be necessary to examine the body as a Gothic space in its own right.
Conceptually, the world as we perceive it consists of subject-object relations. The individual — myself, the writer of this piece; you, the reader — is the subject, bearing all which that entails; subjectivity, bias, perspective, etc. All else, including other individuals who bear their own subjectivities, are rendered as objects, external to the subject. The Gothic operates within the fuzzy in-between of these two states of subject-object, generating horror through the subversion of the subject’s understanding of the world. In European Gothic texts, the heterosexual subject my be confronted by their own latent homoerotic desire, the irresistible, monstrous allure of the vampire. In the Southern or Black Gothic, both black and white subjects are terrorized by the legacy of slavery and its accompanying atrocities, as bloodied history is soaked into the earth itself. In Future Gothic, or Gothic sci-fi, humanity is forced to reckon with its own insignificance, as the subject’s self-importance is stripped away by the cold emptiness of space, visions of mastery of the universe quashed by colonization of the human form itself. It is indeed the human body which presents the clearest site of dissonance between the subject-object relation. The human body operates as an extension of the subject, a corporeal injection of the consciousness into reality. Thus, horror arises when this perception of the body is forcibly shifted, when the subject is made to reckon with the body as an object in its own right. Kristeva gives name to this horror in her landmark essay, Powers of Horror — the abject. The abject is that which makes explicit the object nature of the body, thereby evoking horror in the subject by dismantling the barrier between the internal and external worlds. The abject horror of the body is integral to the Gothic tradition, as can be observed in any number of Gothic texts, in which monstrosity — another key component of the mode — emerges as a site of horror. The body transfigured, invaded, corrupted is a hallmark of Gothic media in which horror emerges at the disruption of the subject’s point of connection with the external world. It is then appropriate, I argue, to consider the body to be a space of Gothic horror, as much as any castle, manor, or moor may be.
Traditionally, Gothic spaces rely on a sense of historicity, wherein the past haunts the present, embodying implicit fears surrounding the breaking down of familiar systems of established order. In the Future Gothic, this sense of haunting is reversed, as the spectre of a nebulous, chimeric future looms over the present, disrupting ingrained notions of stability along a myriad of paradigms. In Super Metroid, this future is informed by the notion of reproductive futurity, which permeates the text. Reproductive futurity, theorised by Queer critic Lee Edelman in his 2004 book No Future and furthered by Berlant, is the paradigm through which the hegemonic order seeks to perpetuate and replicate itself through the figure of the Child. In other words, the future is predicated on an imagined figure which serves to uphold hegemonic constructions of reality — including but not limited to; gender, sexuality, class, race and ability. Paradoxically, this image is simultaneously informed by those very conditions, creating a fragile loop, constantly under threat from anything outside of the bounds of that hegemony. The function of the Gothic in this context then is to expose this underlying fragility, eliciting horror in the subject both by imagining a vision of the corrupted Child, who bears the future-gone-awry, and the monstrous Mother, who engages with the abject reality of this subjective ideal.
Examining Super Metroid
The planet Zebes itself may be understood as a maternal figure, in the context of the game’s narrative. It is Samus’ adopted home, an ancestral world of the Chozo race, since taken over by the Space Pirates after the mutiny of Mother Brain against her creators. Relationships between mother and child underpin the narrative structure of the franchise as a whole, with Samus existing in an unmoored, orphaned state. Prior to the events of the first game, Samus is a human child, whose parents are killed in an attack on her colony by the Space Pirates, led by the dragon Ridley. From here, she is adopted by the Chozo — who alter her DNA in order to grant her access to the use of their technology, and thus their society. In this instance, Samus is alienated from both her biological and adoptive parental lineages, her body no longer wholly human, nor wholly Chozo. This liminal state of being remains with her throughout the franchise, as she pursues a career as a bounty hunter, forever on the periphery of a society to which she does not belong. The connection is rendered explicitly here — the purity of the body has been breached, rendering Samus as abject, and thus horrific. She is the corrupted Child, the anti-ideal of a society predicated on the perfect replication of itself. Indeed, the planet itself has undergone something of a shift in DNA during her absence, as the Chozo have been replaced by an installation of Space Pirates, who — under the eye of Mother Brain — use the planet as a stronghold. Her return to her ancestral home, the maternal figure of Zebes, can be read in this light as a method through which her subjectivity is re-established through a reunification with the landscape of the planet itself, a return to the womb, as it were. Further to this, Samus’ return to Zebes is precipitated by the theft of the Baby Metroid, with which she had formed a maternal bond similar to that between her and the Chozo. Mother seeks child, child seeks mother.
Samus’ status as an unwelcome visitor is compounded in the game’s first area — Crateria — which encompasses (at the beginning of the game) a landing site, as well as the ruins of Old Tourian, the lair of Mother Brain from the first game. The planet’s surface is battered by an acidic rain, creating an already-inhospitable environment for life, urging a retreat beneath the surface. Once there, Samus and the player are confronted immediately by emptiness; there are no enemies in Crateria until a certain point has been reached, after Samus passes through Old Tourian. She is haunted in a very literal sense by her own past — forced to relive her own scarred history; her confrontation with the ultimate monstrous Mother. Within the context of Samus’ own journey to retrieve her adopted child, this maternal lineage is mirrored, two journeys reflecting against one another. Upon retrieving a power-up left behind by the Chozo, Samus is caught in a spotlight — the parental link between her and the Chozo has alerted Mother Brain to her presence. From then, enemies appear in the once-empty tunnels of Crateria. Mother (Brain) has enlisted Mother (Zebes) to eradicate the intruder who threatens to disrupt the carefully cultivated order.
Arriving into the game’s second area, Brinstar, the player is immediately presented with an altogether different vision of the planet. Brinstar is teeming with life, the game’s colour palette dyed exclusively in shades of green, save for a few rooms. In exploring the geography of Brinstar — tumbling down its long vertical corridors, looping around on oneself as the terrain blends seamlessly with itself at every turn — a sense of Gothic scale begins to emerge. The space is at once artificial — Chozo statues reside in hidden rooms, blast doors and locking mechanisms block the player’s progress at several turns — yet this artifice is swallowed by natural growth. The present emerges to subsume the past within itself. Samus, the abject intruder into the ersatz maternal space, squares off against a profusion of life, suggesting that the fecundity of the maternal body triumphs over the artificial constructions of the historic past. In other words, the game articulates a narrative of futurity in which life-bearing is central to the dissolution of the corrupted or archaic past. In this way, Samus’ nature as a DNA hybrid leaves her outside of this maternal paradigm; and thus, without a future. I have previously written on anxieties surrounding futurity and the maternal body in Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation. In a similar presentation to Super Metroid, the text posits a zone of alien biology, in which human notions of futurity centred on traditional values of biological reproduction are severed, replaced instead by an inter-species sense of community/continuity, reflecting the text’s own anxieties regarding human relations with the environment. This same system of inter-species kinship is expressed in Super Metroid, again through Samus’ various parental relationships between different species. In both texts, the sublime confrontation with nature overtaking artificial constructs serves as the catalyst for these alternate conceptions of futurity.
Elements of maternal monstrosity are evoked in the boss enemy of Kraid, who resides in an area of the map named after itself, but which remains a part of Brinstar in its own right. Kraid begins the encounter half-buried in the dirt, rising only once Samus inflicts a certain amount of damage on it. Once emerged, Kraid towers over Samus, suggesting once again this insurmountability of nature, the looming figure of the Mother. Its stomach distends, evoking the abject horror of the pregnant female body, a source of primal terror in the psyche, reminding the coldly detached subject of the visceral, bodily origins of the self. This reproductive aspect is further reinforced by the presence of the mini Kraid, which patrols just outside the encounter room, an initial roadblock for the player. Complicating this maternal imagery are the projectiles Kraid fires from its stomach, vaguely phallic, which assist Samus in the destruction of Kraid. Understanding the monster in Gothic fiction as an externalised representation of internal anxieties, we may read Kraid in this case as the repugnant — to the subject — pregnant form of the woman. In terms of reproductive futurity, the body of the Mother is to be revered, if only for the fact that it may produce the Child. When this futurity becomes threatened by the emergence of Gothic monstrosity, it produces horror, as the abject reality of reproduction is rendered explicit.
In the following area, the Wrecked Ship, the player and Samus encounter an altogether more familiar Gothic space. The Wrecked Ship represents a sort of wound on the planet’s surface, a sudden intrusion of alterity which clashes with the native geography of the landscape. We may infer that it belongs to the Space Pirates in some capacity, as the interior fixtures bear vague resemblance to the Space Pirate ships featured in other Metroid games, namely Zero Mission, the remake of the first in the series. Thus, with Zebes under Pirate control, the Wrecked Ship is a welcome intruder, embodying the same paradoxical liminal state as Samus herself — beckoned forth by a sense of kinship, yet ultimately rejected, cancerous and half-sunk into the landscape. In discussing the haunted spaces of the Gothic, I asserted that the past acts as the dark mirror of the present, reflecting back the anxieties which lie beneath the surface of modern constructions of the self and reality. In the Future Gothic, this sense of historicity is transplanted forwards, with the spectre of the terrific (here in the sense of inspiring terror) future looming over the present, representative of those same fears, here articulated as if they have already taken place. In that sense, the Wrecked Ship again interrogates the notion of reproductive futurity brought forwards in Brinstar, here translated into a future-gazing perspective. In other words, where the overflowing abundance of life in Brinstar articulated fears surrounding the fecund maternal which underpins reproductive futurity, the Wrecked Ship poses the horrific future of the barren womb. The interior of the space is devoid of activity — not only are there no lifeforms present on the ship when Samus arrives, there is no power to its systems. The Wrecked Ship represents not a future in itself but a lack of any future whatsoever. The space manifests the ultimate fear of the collapse of the system of reproductive futurity on which the future is predicated.
The player is forced to descend through the Ship, kept in a constant state of movement due to the ghosts which spawn on top of Samus whenever she stands still. The sprites of these enemies — who are impervious to all weaponry — are standard Gothic fare; clusters of moaning skulls which blink into existence at a moment’s notice. This sense of pursual is compounded by an acute sense of claustrophobia and instability, as the player must break through broken floors and walls and roll through the resulting spaces in order to reach the very bottom. Upon arriving at the boss room, Samus is confronted by Phantoon, the source (or rather, the void) of the Wrecked Ship’s state. Phantoon is a non-corporeal entity, phasing in and out of reality whilst pelting Samus with spectral flames. Its physical form blurs female and male genital imagery — the bulbous head of the penis marred by the toothed maw of the monstrous vagina, which in turn bears the cyclopean eye, casting its subjective gaze outward, objectifying both Samus and the player. In this way, Phantoon complicates the relationship between the player as active observer and agent and the game as passive object. Furthermore, this eye is the one connection Phantoon bears to the physical plane. In other words, it is the gaze, representative of subjectivity itself which anchors the subject to its object/abject state. Through its own shifting corporeality — slipping in and out of physical (i.e. objective) reality — it renders explicitly the disconnect between the immaterial subjective self and the material form which it must inhabit. When Phantoon is defeated, power returns to the ship, along with enemies. The meaning is clear; the abhorrent non-future has been negated, which allows life and reproduction to continue. The system renewing itself in perpetuity.
Previously, I discussed Brinstar in the context of reproductive futurity, arguing that the evocation of simultaneous Gothic landscapes — the cramped artificial and the expansive natural — put forward an idea of history swallowed by the fertile present, with this same fertility underpinned by anxieties regarding the monstrosity of the feminine form. In the Wrecked Ship, these anxieties are transplanted onto a barren future, in which the processes of reproductive futurity have collapsed in on themselves, reducing the subject to the cold confrontation with the objective self as alien and monstrous in its own right. In Maridia, the subject descends into an amniotic past, the biological naissance of consciousness in the gestation of the abject body. This biome acts as a return to the moment before the separation of subjectivity from embodiment, the synchronous half-existence of the womb. The suggestion of any aquatic environment as automatically indicative of a uterine space is perhaps reductive; yet, in Super Metroid’s Maridia this connection is rendered explicitly through the region’s connection with its boss enemy, Draygon. Throughout the area, Samus encounters enemies which bear vague resemblance to the fetus in utero, which she must confront as she makes her way through to the boss. Already, we have Samus, the monstrous abject child, returning to the womb-space, clearing it of these fetal apparitions. This process is compounded once the boss area is reached, where the player confronts Draygon itself. It appears as a larger version of the previous enemies, bearing a protruding stomach-like region which changes colour as it is damaged. The room in which the boss is fought is spacious, its shape suggesting the uterine space, as the boss thrashes to rid itself of the player. One of the boss’ attacks involves taking hold of Samus, at which point the player may attach the Grappling Beam power-up to one of the electrical nodes on the wall. The image created is immediately evocative of the umbilical cord yet, rather than granting life, it channels electricity through Samus and into Draygon, killing it. As the creature’s form sinks to the floor of the room, the earlier enemies swoop in to devour its corpse, completing this ominous death cycle of the maternal/fetal body. In Maridia, the subject squares off against its own historical self, confronted by the biological reality of its own development. The resolution of this conflict between the abject body and the subject is decisive, and results in self-annihilation. In other words, when faced with the horror of the self-as-object, the subjective agent commits historical suicide, scrubbing the past. The child devours the mother, and in doing so devours itself.
Super Metroid’s penultimate region diverts from abstract representations of the body as a Gothic space and veers directly into a vision of the body as a Hellscape. Norfair is marked by extreme temperatures, requiring Samus to acquire protections from the other bosses before descending fully into its depths. The topography is marked by an aesthetic of jagged geological features, lancing upwards, creating the sense of a toothed maw or protrusions of bone. Upper Norfair gives the player the impression of being devoured, of crawling into the mouth of some vast, incomprehensible beast. The sulfurous liquid — perhaps magma, perhaps acid, the game is unclear — suggest the original markers of the abject body in Kristeva’s work; the blood, bile, saliva and various other fluids which come to symbolize abject embodiment. Norfair as a space is intimately unwelcoming, a fact reinforced by the multiple occasions in which the game steers the player into the area, only to force them back out again almost immediately — once for the High Jump Boots, once again for the Speed Booster, and once for the Grappling Beam. Coming back to my assessment of the planet Zebes as a representation of the maternal figure, Norfair as an aspect of Zebes implies this confrontational dynamic between the subject and the maternal abject/object. Norfair is the manifestation of the maternal rejecting the subject, of the willful severing of the maternal bond and the literal expulsion of the Child/subject from the maternal space. Norfair is perhaps the most explicitly and traditionally Gothic of any of the Zebes biomes, evoking imagery reminiscent of Dante’s Hell in the Inferno, as well as the combative wilderness of the Transylvanian countryside in Dracula. Yet, Norfair goes further, acting as the lair of the dragon itself, Ridley.
The entire narrative thrust of Super Metroid is centred on the theft of Samus’ adoptive child, the Baby Metroid, at the hands of Ridley. As a Gothic monster, Ridley represents in the psyche of Samus the forceful shattering of the parental bond through violence. Ridley is a manifestation of trauma, as well as its cause. Prior to the series, Ridley is revealed in the Metroid prequel manga to have been responsible for the death of Samus’ parents, an event she witnessed as a child. Later in Metroid, it is implied through Ridley’s installation within the planet Zebes under Mother Brain’s control that it is responsible once more for the eradication of the Chozo, at least to some degree. Ridley’s appearances across the franchise are characterised by resurrection, its constant reappearance, literally haunting Samus with the trauma of her parents’ deaths. Ridley is, in fact, this trauma personified. In this way, the lives of Ridley and Samus run parallel, as Samus continuously returns to sites of trauma, haunted wherever she goes by the past-presence of her Chozo family, scattered across the galaxy. As much as the Metroid franchise is concerned with general subjective responses to the abject sensation of existence, personified in the maternal form, it deals more specifically with the trauma engendered by this very reckoning with the abject. It is not the figure of the Mother which is the ultimate source of horror in the franchise, but rather what this figure stands for, as matrilineal trauma echoes throughout history, inexorably informing and shaping both the present and the future.
Following the fight with Ridley, the player proceeds to a small room, adjacent to the boss arena, in which lies the shattered, empty case of the Baby Metroid, which is nowhere to be found. The game continues, leading the player back to Crateria, wherein lies a golden statue of the four major bosses. It sinks into the ground, revealing the elevator to the final area of the game, and the lair of Mother Brain, Tourian. While the other regions of Zebes with the exception of the Wrecked Ship have to this point blended natural landscapes with artificial features — remnants of the Chozo past — Tourian is entirely artificial. Tourian is a blank slate, coldly inhospitable, functional and featureless, embodying the vision of a Future Gothic space as one which projects the terrific future rather than the horrific past. Yet, this projection is complicated, as within Tourian resides the echoes of that very same past — the Metroids, and Mother Brain herself. Tourian is the final site of conflict between the subject and its abject reality, where history and futurity blend into one. Faced with nothing to which the psyche can attach itself — the blank walls and empty hallways reflecting subjectivity back onto itself — Tourian necessitates introspection. By this point, Samus’ alienation from her once home has been completed. She has returned to the womb twice — once barren, once fetal — and erased it of all within, leaving her with nothing else but to face the figurative Mother at the heart of all. Yet, before this, she must face her own fellows — the other children of the Chozo, the Metroids themselves. If the bosses of Super Metroid have in their own ways represented variously a series of anxieties surrounding reproduction and the feminine form, then the Metroids represent the image of the nightmare Child. The Child represents the apex of the hierarchy of reproductive futurity. The Child is the figure around which the societal order is organised. All is in service of reproduction of the image of the Child in the ideal. In the same way that the monstrous mother represents fears surrounding the pregnant female body as it relates to issues of reproduction as articulated earlier in this essay, the monstrous Child represents a hostile future, the innate anxiety that the cycle of history necessitates the destruction of the parent by the Child-figure. It is this anxiety around which the entire Metroid franchise is structured, as embodied by the title creatures. They are a parasitoid organism, latching onto the host, draining it of all life. They are brainless, floating mouths which exist only to drain and consume. The metaphor is obvious. The Metroid is the abject Child, which exposes the horror underpinning the notion of reproductive futurity by making explicit the relationship between parent and child as adversarial/destructive.
Yet, having fought her way through a gauntlet of Metroids, Samus arrives at a series of chambers filled with sand, and the desiccated corpses of previous enemies. At the end of a corridor, she is attacked by a giant Metroid, which is immune to her weaponry. However, rather than killing her, it drains her almost completely of energy, before pausing, and releasing her. What we are to understand is that Samus has just encountered the Baby Metroid, which has recognized her as its kin, its mother. The cycle of parasitic destruction has been broken, and Samus is left to recover. This interaction represents in many respects a counter to the notion of reproductive futurity as a system of ensuring hegemony over the future. Samus’ relation to the Metroid is tangential — each are children of the Chozo, emerging out of genetic experiments — yet they form a kin bond which is strong enough to override Samus’ instincts to kill Metroids on sight (as in the franchise’s second game, Return of Samus) as well as the Metroid’s natural lust for energy. This cross-species kinmaking echoes the theories of Donna Haraway, who puts forward interspecies kin-networks as the next step in the evolution of societal relations. What this would mean then is a reconfiguration of the primacy of the individual subject along the lines of a more egalitarian paradigm, in which the subjectivity of each individual is understood on its own terms, rather than a system of independent subjects which regard all else as objects/abject or un-subjects. With this in mind, the player then moves forward to Mother Brain, to destroy this ultimate symbol of the horror of reproductive futurity.
Mother Brian begins the fight in the exact same manner as Metroid — history repeating itself verbatim once more. In this case, she is the ultimate representation of the subject-as-abject, a brain in a jar, the body reduced to merely the source of consciousness, a single subjective eye squared on Samus in front of her. Samus destroys this form, at which point the room collapses around them both, and Mother Brain emerges with her new body. In this form, she becomes the apotheosis of the abject Mother, her body’s proportions evocative of the female form, yet twisted by exposed, skinless flesh and protruding metal. Saliva drips from her mouth, reinforcing again the abject imagery, and the fight begins anew. Only this time, Mother Brain overtakes Samus. Again, the cycle appears to be broken, with the Mother devouring the child. Samus is weakened by a laser from Mother Brain’s eye — again, a projection of the subject directly from the source — and crouches on the ground, awaiting her demise. At this point, the Baby Metroid returns, latching onto Mother Brain, draining her energy before transferring it to Samus. Yet, Mother Brain recovers, destroying the Baby Metroid itself, but not before it grants enough energy to Samus to overcome her foe. The narrative of the fight becomes clear once we understand it in the terms already articulated in this essay. Mother Brain represents in this case the established order, in which futurity is predicated on the cycle of maternity, with the Child at the forefront and centre. She figures in as the monstrous mother, which represents the subject’s underlying anxieties surrounding the precarity of this order, manifesting as the female body as agent of destruction, especially that of the Child. The Baby Metroid arrives as representative of the notion of kin-making beyond the maternal paradigm, forging new paths of futurity which put forward a multiplicity of subjectivities in harmony. In between stands Samus, simultaneously Mother and Child, caught at the precipice of either side. Ultimately, however, the Baby Metroid dies, and Samus in return destroys Mother Brain, and with her, the planet of Zebes itself, which explodes in the game’s finale. The cycle has been fulfilled, Child returns to destroy the Mother.
Conclusions: Optimism, Pessimism, and Agency
In this way, the narrative thrust of Super Metroid emerges as ultimately engaging with anxieties that this relation between subjects within the scope of reproductive futurity points towards a dead-ended project of self-annihilation. It is a pessimistic outlook, one in which an alternate pathway is proposed, embodied in the inter-species meeting of subjectivities in a constructive manner, before being dismissed and devoured within the already-established hegemonic order. The Gothic horror of Super Metroid, articulated through its game-spaces, evokes the horror of the subject faced with its own mortality, the abject reality of a future constricted within the bounds of a self-consuming cycle of destruction. In the game’s final moments, as the player navigates out of the collapsing planet, there is a moment in which they can divert from their course in order to rescue a group of aliens resident on the planet. They are encountered optionally earlier in the game, and teach Samus advanced movement techniques not required to progress. If they are freed, they thank Samus, and can be (barely) seen in the game’s ending sequence, flying away from the exploding planet. It is this encounter, and specifically its nature as an optional encounter, which leads us to Super Metroid’s final position. At once, the player may choose to ignore the animals (or, indeed, may not even be aware that it is possible to save them), leaving the narrative in its pessimistic state, wherein there is, in Edelman’s sense, No Future. Or, they may save the animals, inciting another brief moment of kin-making between species, injecting a moment of optimism which leans towards a future in which these cycles of self-annihilation may be themselves destroyed. It is the agency afforded to the player as a subject which complicates potential conclusions, and which opens up the game’s narrative into this multiplicitous perspective. Super Metroid’s nature as a game affords it this flexibility, enhancing its capacity as a critical text.