A Girl is A Gun: How Violence Lives in the Body in Metroid Dread

When all you have is an arm cannon, everything looks like a Metroid.

The following article contains spoilers for Metroid Dread.

Nintendo has called Metroid Dread an ending to an era for Samus Aran’s adventures, as it concludes a number of narrative beats and themes that originated in Metroid for the NES. As Samus’ struggle with the parasitic alien Metroids comes to a kind of close, her character comes to the forefront in unusual ways. Beyond her gun arm and inscrutable helmet, Samus as a character hasn’t opened up much, but Metroid Dread does offer key insights into her past, her true nature, and her bodily autonomy. While past Metroid games have coasted on Samus being a silent protagonist, Dread takes her opaque character and depicts a Samus that is, both through her experiences and her own will, living a life that has been sanded down to being a weapon of violence. To paraphrase a common aphorism: when all you have is an arm cannon, everything looks like a Metroid.

Serving as a symbol for how Samus is positioned within the world of Metroid, her right arm is a literal cannon. It doesn’t get more on-the-nose than that. Half of Samus’ primary appendages through which she interacts with the world are utilized primarily in blowing shit up. Metroid games — and the larger Metroidvania genre — are known for emphasizing exploration as a key part of the gameplay experience. Once you’ve progressed far enough in a Metroid game, you’re better able to explore areas you’ve already navigated and interact with the world in ways you couldn’t have before. For Samus, crucially, most of these new exploration tools are tied to her gun since differently-colored doors only open when hit with different types of energy or projectiles. For Samus to progress in her journeys, her primary means of expanding her world is by shooting. You can explore, yes, but that exploration is itself rooted in the use of that big ol’ arm cannon.

The arm cannon is just a single aspect of Samus’ power suit, the body-obscuring armor that turned Samus’ gender into a twist ending in the original Metroid. The power suit — designed by the ancient Chozo race — is biologically-bound to her and can’t come off without her cooperation. Even when Samus loses all of her abilities at the start of every game, the suit itself remains intact.  Samus is the suit, and the suit is Samus. Any differentiation between the person and the machinery comes after considerable time spent with the two as a unified unit. She was born to wear the suit, and it was made to be her body. Together, they make an entire Samus; without each other, she isn’t fully herself.

Samus being bonded to her power suit makes her a biological anomaly — more than human, augmented by the biomechanical marvel of her outer shell. Her helmet also resembles her enemies, the Metroids, with the same domed shape, tapered bottom and inverted red and green color scheme. Whereas Samus uses her gun arm to deliver death, Metroids are created to take life, sucking energy out of victims like interstellar ticks. Metroid Fusion added a new wrinkle to this food chain in the X-Parasites, which can change shape and transform to look like any living thing that they consume — even creating a sinister duplicate of Samus that resembles her classic power suit look. Samus was only saved from the X-Parasites by receiving a vaccine based on Metroid DNA, further blurring the line between Samus and her targets. Battling these monsters has rendered Samus more monster-adjacent than she might have wanted — though she, ever the professional, soldiers on. Hunting down the enemy, whoever or whatever it may be, has been her primary directive from an early age. 

Entries like Metroid: Other M and Metroid Fusion have attempted to expand Samus’ emotional depth by tying Samus to a love interest,superior officer Adam Malkovich. These attempts amount to mixed results, at best, because they wrongly assume Samus’ humanity has to be tied to another character (specifically a heteronormative male love interest). In comparison, Metroid Dread knows Samus’ humanity is most interestingly and effectively explored through its active suppression.  While Samus has spoken and had inner monologues in previous games, those looks into Samus’ interiority have largely been lacking and painted her as dependent on male approval. By contrast, Samus’ speech in Metroid Dread is direct and specific — after all, she only speaks twice. The first time is when she says to a kind Chozo who is trying to help her escape: “Don’t worry. I’ll end this. Once and for all.” It’s simple, to the point, and indicative of her objective-first mentality. 

The fact that Samus can speak in Metroid Dread but mostly doesn’t tells us much about her mental state. When faced with old nemesis Kraid, she doesn’t gasp or quip — she charges up a shot without even hunching into a ready position. Every boss battle occurs in silence. Samus is a professional whose job isn’t to crack wise; it’s to hunt down her targets. What good does talking do when staring down giant space dragons? It turns out Samus is Nintendo’s version of Doom Guy — she lives to fight as much as she fights to live.

Samus’ restraint is especially impressive within context, given that her interaction with the Chozo comes after an exposition dump revealing she is actually part-Metroid. The vaccine she received in Fusion has turned her into the last remnant of the invasive species that, until recently, had threatened the entire galaxy. Later, we find out that she’s actually had hybrid Metroid DNA in her since she was a child, as Raven Beak, Metroid Dread’s main antagonist, was present for her training and helped groom her for her life of hunting others. Turns out Samus is a Metroid, and has been all along! The names of the games were about her! She’s the Metroid, and we’re playing through her dread! Samus has been a weapon in someone else’s scheme for longer than she or we ever realized. The strong, silent way she’s been gunning down enemies for three decades takes on new meaning when we appreciate just how thoroughly her fate has been shaped for her.

Toward the end of Metroid Dread, Samus’ Metroid DNA kicks in and grants her the power to sap life from her enemies. Her left hand — the non-gun appendage — becomes the more lethal arm as she gives death with one arm and drains life with the other.

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The second time Samus speaks is when she unleashes her furious and defiant scream toward the end of the game. While it involves no actual dialogue, it’s a crucial moment of radical self-actualization as Samus lets out her latent Metroid abilities. Her suit warps into a thorny, jagged, almost reptilian version of herself and her visor glows a vicious red. She becomes terrifyingly powerful, able to obliterate enormous enemies and obstacles in a single shot. Plenty of previous Metroid games have ended with Samus fleeing an exploding planet, but here at the end of Dread, as the final Metroid in the universe, Samus truly embraces that destructive impulse and becomes Death, destroyer of worlds. 

Samus ultimately gets her monstrous Metroid form under control, but nevertheless, we now know that through this impossible hybrid of technology, biology, and fighting conditioning, Samus was raised to be a weapon. How she operates and who, if anyone, she allows to influence where she’s pointed will have to wait for future games in the series. After decades of silently following orders, it’s incredibly gratifying to hear her speak — and scream — for herself.

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Ryan Stevens

Ryan Stevens is a freelance games writer and playwright. They never met a game they couldn't overanalyze.

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