Having recently suffered through the B-grade story and F-grade script of Castlevania: Lament of Innocence, it’s kind of a relief to pick up Metroid Prime. They’re both 3D sequels/prequels to classic action games, but where Castlevania: LoI saddles its gameplay with painfully lame dialogue (enhanced by incompetent translation and hammy voice acting), Metroid Prime avoids spoken dialogue entirely. Both games are interested in expanding the stories around their respective series, but take very different approaches to doing it.

There was a time when all the dialogue a video game had was a couple of expository sentences on the side of an arcade cabinet, or a half-page teaser in a manual. Even a complex game like Defender was uninterested in presenting its story of alien invasion and body-snatching in mere words, instead allowing the player to experience the conflict firsthand. Of course, the limited resources and technology that developers had available to them in those days may have had something to do with the paucity of text and speech, but they made the most of what they did (or didn’t) have and concentrated on being the best games they could, rather than making lame attempts at being some sort of story-telling automata.

MP gives a nod to its silent-game roots by keeping its lips zipped: outside of a couple of popup messages that explain the basic controls, all of the game’s text is delivered through the heads-up display in the player’s helmet, which scans objects and presents the player with a short report. It’s a clever way of delivering needed information without taking the player out of the action. It obviates the need for cutscenes by making the verbal parts of the story completely optional; if the player so desires, the game can be played as a good old-fashioned shoot-and-jump-fest, a simple cross between the older Metroid games and Doom. But taking the time to explore and examine the environment reveals not only practical information (directions to an exit, strategies for different enemies, etc.), but background on the game’s world and on the player’s relationship to it.

The effect is oddly similar to that of another early gaming genre that really was about story-telling automata: text adventure games, in which you wander through a twisty maze of little paragraphs, looking for clues to tell you which way to go next, as well as why you should want to go there. Both MP and Zork deliver their messages in small, discrete chunks, some of which read like fortune cookies, others like prose poetry. The result is that the player is given all the information she needs and all the exposition she wants without being taken out of the action, leading to a more cohesive aesthetic experience. It also helps that it’s harder to seriously screw up a small fragment of text than a long dialogue or monologue: at worst, a short scrap of text will sound flat or dull. For my money, though, that’s a lot better than having to sit through a five-minute cutscene full of turgid, babelfished drivel, which is Castlevania: LoI’s approach to story-driven gaming.

Of course, by the time I’m done with Metroid Prime, I may be completely sick of scanning every object in every room to figure out what’s going on. Or I may just get motion sickness from jumping around so much in a first-person perspective. We’ll see. It can’t be any worse than Castslevania’s shallow, noisy nothingness.