Super Metroid and Building Believable Worlds

We can create so many fantastical worlds in art, but for video games, developers can fall into the trap of relying on tropes and clichés when it comes to level design. Too many games fall prey to creating levels based on established themes – the lava level, the water level, the ice level, etc. Super Metroid is no different, with areas based around plants, lava, and water. And indeed, this approach can make a game’s world feel artificial and formulaic. But its water level, Maridia, shows that you can build a level around a theme that can truly feel like an alien place that evokes feelings of loneliness, strangeness, and a bit of menace.

Super Metroid is built on the concept of exploring a number of different habitats on the planet Zebes as you attempt to find and defeat the space pirate leader Mother Brain. These different regions each have names and share a particular theme. Brinstar, for example, is home to all kinds of flora, while Norfair is a sweltering cavern full of lava. But that’s nothing new for the medium. It’s that classic video gamey thing where you theme your levels off of one concept, like Mega Man stages that theme theirs on whatever robot master is at the end of them. It’s to give the player a varied play experience so as not to let them spend too long in one kind of locale, because that’s boring. But in the process, they codified this practice to a ridiculous degree to the point where the game worlds felt artificial. Metroid Prime suffered from this, including regions entirely defined by their themes and making game world Tallon-4 feel incredibly indistinct and formulaic.

The mistake that a lot of games make is that they envision landscapes as being one thing across the board. Again, Metroid Prime ran with the themes of lava and ice in two of their regions without any thought to how an environment might not be that uniform, and it made those areas feel two dimensional. What Super Metroid did to combat this was dividing each region into biomes that held to the theme of the habitat while not flattening the region into having only one aesthetic. Brinstar, for example, was a plant-based region, but one of its biomes was built of crawling vines, while another felt like the inside of a tree. Finally, the last one you come across is a manmade structure seemingly built around a biological component that pulses with life – this is an occupied planet, after all. By showcasing different takes on the same theme, it accomplishes the goal of making levels more varied while building a more believable world in the process.

The crowning achievement of Super Metroid’s world building, however, is Maridia, the game’s water environment. What could have been like every other aquatic level actually becomes a melancholy, lonely trek through a far flung feeling series of caves, coves, and warehouses. One biome, the one most like other water levels, takes place in a cave system filled with water. Skeleton-like fish and different species of crab make their home there, and progress is slow going amidst the scant signs of artificial structures. But Maridia is also home to a strange biome that seems to be a cove made entirely of sand, with seaweed curtaining in the background. Lastly, you find your way into an empty warehouse-like environment, with pipes jutting all over the place and meshing with the rock walls as if they were always like that. More than anything, though, these biomes come together to form a region that feels distant from the others, leaving you feeling alone and far away from anything familiar as you trudge towards Draygon, the area’s boss.

But the biomes themselves only do part of the work. The rest of the secret to Maridia’s success lies in its excellent music, which encompasses two distinct tracks. One, which is used in the cave portions, is a serene composition that uses sparse tones to match the empty-feeling depths you’re exploring. The other, which is used in the cove and warehouse sections, has more of a jolting edge to it. The sounds used are equally sparse, but the notes themselves feel stark and strange, driving home the point that Maridia is meant to feel alien and unfriendly. The audiovisual presentation comes together to achieve exactly that, a triumph of atmospheric world building.

You never really learn much about the world of Zebes, but that’s not the point. We often associate the concept of world building with establishing the lore, dynamics, and characters of a space, but it doesn’t have to be about that. World building is, at its core, about creating a world you can buy into, and Super Metroid proves you can do that with atmosphere alone. By eschewing the obvious habitat themes and making them more nuanced, Zebes feels like an actual world you’re discovering. Maridia is not only prime example of this, but also proof that world building can be beautiful and melancholy and dangerous all at once.

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