On metroidvanias

On metroidvanias

Let's talk metroidvanias. Metroidvania is a genre (or subgenre in more thorough classifications) of video games. That doesn't explain much without a talk about the genres. So scratch metroidvanias, let's talk genres.

What's wrong with the genres?

The thing you've probably noticed about video game genres is that there's an awful lot of acronyms among them. That's not problematic itself, but what does it indicate? Genre name commonly points to some game mechanic, being it jumping on the platforms (platformer) or calculating character stats with a spreadsheet (role-playing). This leaves story (if a game has one), visual design and other details out of the equation.

Fallout and Baldur's Gate are both parts of RPG label in this system. That makes sense with all their similarities.

Things get messier when it turns out that the defining feature isn't unique. Traditional distinction between FPS and TPS seems logical; “camera” perspective affects the ability of the player to control complex combat situations. And yet, let's approach RPG. The perspective suddenly doesn't matter anymore. Skyrim and Dragon Age: Inquisition are considered games of the same genre. Okay, technically you can still play Skyrim from a Third-Person perspective. There are a lot of examples from the early 90-s though. And isn't it bizarre that a capacity of a game for being “role-playing” is in any way affected by its camera perspective?

Inconsistent choice of features is what divides strategies into RTS and TBS. It again feels natural. The rhythm of the game, your approach to planning — major parts of the game are affected by the flow of “game time”. Let's now study Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt and Divinity: Original Sin. Different camera perspectives, turn based combat and real-time combat. Still, both are considered RPGs. Is RPG some kind of special genre which is more inclusive than others, maybe?

No, not really. At the very least there is amorphous multitude of Action-Adventure. Pick two random games from this category and you'll likely get a pair with a very few similarities like Assassin's Creed and Beyond Good & Evil.

Subgenres are supposed to be unequivocal. And that they sometimes are. TRPG is by all means a more defined thing than an RPG. Not that RPG doesn't have any tactics. It's more about focus on combat (and minimizing other mechanics presence, leaving only the bare minimum). This is an ambiguous criteria for a label though.

The decades of video game evolution consisted not only of inventing something new, but more often that not copying your predecessors. New genre hybrids and such terms as RPG-elements are the results of the process. Sci-fi action FPS is a set of labels which is as ephemeral as it is easy to slap on a game. It communicates some information, but withholds just as much.

So, why all this mess matters? It's all about that question again.

What is metroidvania?

Metroidvania is a subgenre of Action-Adventure. Still doesn't make sense, doesn't it? Let me try again. The name is made out of titles Metroid and Castlevania. These are the two important for the genre series of games. Well, in case of Castlevania it should be pointed out, that the turning point for the series was Symphony of the Night. Someone noticed that it suddenly became very similar to Metroid games (but actually was inspired by Zelda games).

It's not easy to track who first coined the term. An earliest mention in Google Usenet archive is dated 2001, four years after the release of Symphony of the Night. Jeremy Parish denies being the author of the name, but he was the one that popularized it.

The key feature of the genre is an interconnected game world which is available for player's exploration. There are different obstacles in your way varying from a closed door to an unreachable high passage. Finding a key to that door and a boots with a double jump are typical means of dealing with those problems. You can find similar mechanics in other genres. The interconnected world adds one more layer to that. You can stumble upon some problem prior to finding means to deal with it. Or it can be the other way around. In both cases that adds emphasis to the exploration and urges you to re-visit the places you've already seen. Going back to the start and unlocking a chest with some equipment or a path to a new zone with an optional boss is the essence of metroidvania.

There are more similarities between Metroid and Castlevania. It's a combat system, and inventory, and the concept of bosses, and accessing new areas with new abilities, and a camera perspective. The latter is the reason why Legend of Zelda series aren't usually considered metroidvania. And yet both series were largely inspired by Zelda.

By this logic Metroid Prime is considered an FPS “with metroidvania elements”. But what are those elements? Are combat, inventory and bosses by any chance among those?

Do you need those in metroidvania?

The thing with mentioned features is that they aren't unique for the genre. Side-scrolling perspective, upgrades or shooting are fairly typical in video games. The interconnected world isn't so trivial. True, it has existed before a small figure in a yellow combat suit has appeared on TV screens. Even The Legend of Zelda wasn't the first one; Adventure, Brain Breaker, Super Pitfall, Xanadu organized their worlds in a similar fashion.

Puzzle-like labyrinth structure connects the beginning of player's path to its end. This is a bigger detail than the ability to hack some pixel monsters on your way to the ending screen. There are all kind of perks that come with non-linear composition of metroidvania if it's performed right. Environmental story-telling is invigorated with the connections between the micro-stories. Immersion increases. And it's important that roots of this are in games. A linear path from start to finish is a valid form, but it's something that video games took from movies and books. It's a form that's suitable for telling stories, but not the only one possible. A set of rules and a play field can work too.

With this principle mind you can see that there's a lot of metroidvanias. The genre wasn't really pushed in a niche, though there are numerous fantastic examples of indie releases in recent years. And that's expected: making a world that is its own story is the most ambitious and interesting tasks for a game designer.

So why this blog exists?

It's odd with all that rant about how genre labels are stupid, that I've decided to focus on a specific one (though with a more broad definition of it). I don't have a good answer. I don't find myself particularly good at writing (in general and even more about video games). There are all kinds of topics, that won't make it here. Add insult to injury: why Mass Effect 3 ending sucks more with Director's Cut. I wanted Buffie, but got Donnie Darko: how Life is Strange punched me in a gut.

On a plus side: my loose definition of the genre technically can be applied to Dragon Age II.

What's next?

There's a lot of ground to cover. There are classics like Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night and their respective series. Like how Castlevania II: Simon's Quest flopped. It got inspiration in The Legend of Zelda, but kept the slow pace and combat of the first game; and illogical puzzles were the last drop. Speaking of which there's a lot of Zelda's. The very first one was one of the earliest examples of the genre. And in all that old stuff there's a lot nearly forgotten games like Zeliard or Blaster Master.

And the modern ones. Demon's Souls does stuff with a genre in 3D which is on the opposite spectrum from what Zelda's do. Lords of the Fallen is its clunkier younger brother. And finally there's a ton of indies: Momodora, Guacamele, Teslagrad, Ori and the Blind Forest. And that's just a fraction of what's come out. Eventually we'll see Chasm, Ghost Song and Legend of Iya released. So, covering that all. Is it possible? Does it have to be possible?