Metroid Prime represents my awakening to what's out there, in the world. At a time (2003) when I had no real hope of exploring any exotic territory, my investigation of Tallon IV represented the closest I would get to sampling the pure experience of discovery.
Since then, there have been times that the real world has got close to how I felt as Metroid Prime unfurled. While visiting the ancient city of Angkor in Cambodia, thousand-year-old temples looming over me, drenched in sunrise, I was still intoxicated at 5am after an hour's sleep post-Pub Street. Tears of awe were the only possible reaction to this sight. Yes, I cried. My tuk-tuk driver laughed when I told him that. No wonder – he was dealing with abject poverty, but this privileged Westerner on a three-month jaunt in Southeast Asia shed tears over these (admittedly impressive) ancient stone buildings, which he got to see every day. Yet my overriding thought from that first visit to this wonderfully preserved old-world city was that you don't see this sort of thing outside of video games.
To me, it was video games come to life.
The limestone crags of Railay Bay, Thailand; the gleaming white hillside town of Mojácar, Spain; the torch-lit tour of caves in central Vietnam full of hand-sized spiders and their glinting jewel-like clusters for eyes; the volcano-pierced horizon of central Mexico; the humbling beauty and breadth of national parks in New South Wales, Australia – these all have similar proportions in my memory to Angkor, in that they compare favourably to what I've seen in video games. This probably means I haven't seen enough of the world and should get out more. But Metroid Prime certainly made me want to do that, if only to confirm that its vast natural spaces could indeed be outdone by reality.
From island to peninsular, mountain range to tributaries, gargantuan stone building to humble hillside dwelling, most of us – as crushing and sad as this is (and it is crushing and sad) – can't afford and won't ever be able to afford the cost, or even spare the time, to travel as much as we desire. What's the closest we can come to exploring an exquisite world to match our own? Yep. As much as we may moan, £50 for your latest visually spectacular epic is far more affordable than most mixes-'n'-matches of flights and accommodation. And a book just isn't as much fun. You can't throw your avatar off a cliff in a book.
Metroid Prime is one of the most absorbing solo gaming experiences I've ever had. It is immersive beyond the point that many video games fall short. And it was initially greeted – as with some of the best things – with outcry. "How dare you change this thing we love!" "Don't do this to us!" "We deserve what we want!" "Can't things go back to the way they were?" Nintendo's beloved Metroid series going first-person sounded awful to some. Despite the fact that both the Mario and Zelda franchises had successfully shifted to 3D, going as far as to define 3D gaming, people were sceptical that Metroid Prime wouldn't just become an empty, futuristic, brown-and-grey FPS.
But the end result was pure vindication. Those who played, knew. I knew. But for me, it wasn't merely a world to puzzle out, to solve, to shoot things in. No. It was a world I wanted to be part of. It's something every game should strive for; crafting a place you (or anyone) is happy to play in, often. Samus' first landing on Tallon IV dropped me right into an ecosystem whose flora and fauna begs to be examined, occasionally experimented on (through substantial unloading of menacing arm cannon, usually) but ultimately (mostly) left alone to live and thrive. It wasn't necessary to nervously stalk around or blast everything in sight (initially, at least), but it invited fascination and a desire to crawl across every inch of the world in search of its secrets. Unearthing them may have coaxed peril but my efforts were bountiful.
Though at the beginning, it almost felt like exploring could wait because the most striking things were the simplest and most elegant. The first-person perspective afforded me a wonderful view of the planet's weather, as light raindrops blur your vision. What's more convincing than actual weather? Grass swayed seemingly of its own accord and luxuriant strata rose from the land, encircling me and dominating my view. The temptation to investigate came not from instruction, as weaker games might insist on doing, but both by the lack of orders giving you that all important freedom, and by the lush topography I saw. I could well have been in the alien equivalent of Papua New Guinea's untouched environment – not that I've been there or anything.
Tallon IV's environment – water dripping from the visor as I emerged from a sea; condensation from the heat of a magma-pouring cavern; the glare from craggy and luminous rocks in the Phazon Mines – imposed itself on me through the limitations of my perspective, increasing immersion. As I manipulated the scenery with more powerful weapons, it transformed around me like Autobot City/Metroplex in The Transformers: The Movie. The living things that defended their territory when I invaded their space ensured I was not alone, and through their movements, their attack patterns, their habits and habitats, I gathered evidence and stories of the world I now lived in.
All the creatures had adapted to their surroundings – whether through natural evolution or using their newly corrupted, Phazon-induced forms. The details of each creature and mutation breathed life into every sight, making it seem as real as possible. Can you remember your breath hitching in your throat when you first spied the hazy splendour of Phendrana Drifts? I do. I immediately began scanning the icy cliffs for places out of reach, marking them for later. What about when you peeled open the Life Grove after grabbing the X-Ray Visor? It was like piecing together a city by walking through it after only travelling on the underground. It revealed new routes and unforeseen pleasures. A tingle ran though me when everything fell into place.
What also made backpacking around Tallon IV so special was being able to scan each creature (big or small), some plant life, and aspects of the landscape, giving a cold, scientific analysis of the planet. Thankfully, it was possible to learn as much or as little as I liked. I was rarely forced to scan anything beyond doors, bosses (to work out a strategy for defeating them, if it wasn't obvious) and some puzzle elements. I could stop and smell the flowers at any point, too – which I did often if I felt safe or wasn't under attack. And of course, discovering new abilities gave me access to even more beautiful decay or deadly blooming. The deeper I went, the more immersed I was by the sculpted game planet I'd been casually dropped onto.
There were cubbyholes, caves, underwater vistas, and huge collapsible caverns for when I felt hardy and compelled. The scale and scope to do this was previously unparalleled in the Metroid series, at least in terms of the reward: in crisp, gorgeous 3D, vertical and horizontal distances that incited exhilaration, and still do. I wanted to travel and to scour the land, sometimes in unexpected ways. I grabbed that rocket jump to propel myself to new heights; captured the Varia Suit and ventured underwater; learned how to time my morph ball bombs to launch higher into and through slim channels. It took time, technique and patience. It took the heart and will of an explorer.
Which is arguably what some gaming fans are, or have become. We have a hunger to travel and investigate these increasingly huge game worlds. It represents the evolution of our fantasies that science fiction and fantasy novels, films, and television used to provide. As games have become more refined, detailed and precise, we can almost infinitely clamber around ancient cities as in the Assassin's Creed series, tear through gorgeous jungle in Far Cry, terraform and build upon cubist landscapes in Minecraft, and pull a horde of friends together for adventuring to your heart's content in any MMORPG you care to mention.
For me though, Prime reached into my suppressed inner desire to leave my bedroom with a few possessions and wander through jungle, temple ruins, pitch-black caves and past ocean views. It satisfied my needs for a while but was always going to leave this quiet, shy twenty-something wanting more from life. Gaming has never resulted in anything more (and certainly nothing less) than fuel for grander storytelling, for further knowledge, for more living. That's why when games get it right – so right you still cite them as important to your perspective of the world 12 years later – I think they are capable of changing your outlook, improving you through stories and experiences you could never come close to you yourself, just as literature has throughout history. By the same method, it can also minimise, shrink and narrow that worldview; it depends on how widely you play or read, and of course the variety of experiences on offer. There's a reason we're so enthusiastic about characters, developers, publishers, writers and critics who are women, people of colour, LGBTQIA, and of all different cultures and backgrounds being in or part of video games: because wider experiences broaden everyone's perspective.
The sequels to Metroid Prime were also excellent for the most part, but the first did something to me, igniting a dampened wanderlust, a now-perpetual belief in the power of curiosity. I will never be Indiana Jones, and I prefer to take somewhat trodden paths (though hopefully not trampled by hordes, but "touristy" doesn't mean "don't ever visit"). But within these deviously designed, though essentially linear, games – like Metroid, Zelda, Shadow of the Colossus, those not really susceptible to the mission-laden fatigue of truly open-world games like GTA or The Elder Scrolls; instead a path more akin to our skirting the edges of civilisation – I've found the scintillating pleasures of orientating oneself in unfamiliarity, of capturing the elusive feel of otherworldly pursuits, and of pushing into enveloping nature, unsure of what I'll become at the end of it but caring enough to not stop moving.