“Metroidvania” describes more than a portmanteau of Super Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. It is an icon for a system of design that goes deeper than genre. A game can be a first-person shooter, or an action platformer, or a 3D puzzle game and all of these could still contain a Metroidvania. What it describes is a feeling, one that many of its professed members avoid with the smokescreen of mechanics. It is so difficult to design that accidentalism – random mistakes, glitches, emergent program secrets – is as relevant to its success as actual design. No one has gotten it perfectly right, and I’m starting to wonder if that’s because no one will.
Metroidvania uses exploration to put the game in control of its own world while masquerading themes of freedom and adventure. The environment is designed around the character’s strength, rather than the player’s skill, with new avenues for exploration opening before the might of a new item or ability, doled out at set intervals by the controllling design. But even more essentially, this kind of game gives the player the opportunity to feel discovery, genuinely, even when it was completely preprogrammed. The barely graspable feeling was of a sprawling and organic adventure directed by your sense of exploration, but the games were often simpler than that.
The easiest way to make a Metroidvania is to color-code the game world to deny the player entry into new areas. A door, for instance, can be red to symbolize the missile or the bomb or the tomato that the player needs to progress. This is the classic Super Metroid schematic for giving and taking away progress. A locked door means you must backtrack for the proper item – in the long absence of Metroid games, the Castlevania entries on GBA and DS perpetuated this template. Metroidvania became synonymous with obligatory item-collecting and backtracking.
But a color-coded door in front of the forward path is still a linear progression mechanic, even if it isn’t linear in space. Metroidvania in concept lauds non-linearity as its founding feature, the player’s ability to unlock the game world by unraveling its spaces with new skills. Those doors are just the easiest version of that idea, and though we call it “Metroidvania” when used in Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow, we wouldn’t call it that in the original Doom, even though backtracking to a locked door with a new key card is exactly what we’re asked to do in these new Metroidvanias. Where did this simplicity come from?
The original Metroid certainly had those colored doors, but they were usually optional item runs and rarely the singular forward path. The first time I beat Metroid I got almost none of the items, which are hidden within glitchy walls and under floors and in secret passages you have to make your own map on graph paper to find. They weren’t required to complete the adventure, so progress was not marked purely by avatar strength, or the character’s programmed ability to beat the game. The obscure running around was even more prevalent in Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest, but again, hiding the forward path is not the same as making a truly nonlinear game world. Metroid Prime eviscerated expectations with a world that managed the impossible task of translating the feel of Metroid into a new aesthetic dimension. But in the terms of this discussion, it had an objective on a map with levels that strived to hide the fact that they only had one forward path beneath sprawling beauty and tons of wonderful rigmarole. A truly lonesome explorer, left to unravel the game space in the nonlinear way that Metroidvania implies as a promise, you were not.
One of the great things about Dark Souls is how it advances and challenges the standards of Metroidvania. It doesn’t require a world map to assemble a space that the player feels they need to unravel area by area. It has locked doors, inaccessible until you find the right item or beat another area. But sometimes it takes another step to involve the player in the forward momentum, taking a cue from traditional RPGs by stopping your progression only with enemies that you can’t kill right now. The game funnels you into the proper path by feeding you your spleen in one area and letting you progress at your current level in another. Interconnected spaces, opening into previous areas ex machina of the area you’re currently exploring, brilliantly give Dark Souls the feelings of nonlinearity that Metroidvania has been promising all this time.
But it is still only a feeling. You still have only one forward path in Dark Souls, cleverly obscured by accessible (though impossible) other areas and distractingly genius interconnectivity. You access new areas with a key or with avatar strength or with a tomato, just as you always have. As perfectly as Dark Souls has synthesized the feeling I’ve been striving for playing Metroidvania games all these years, it is in equal measure proof that the promises of the genre are just not attainable.
Video games are programs with routines and eventualities. And the riskiest element of the whole design is the introduction of us – the player – into the machine that runs perfectly without us. The more we can be controlled, the more the designers can plan for, the more likely the game will work as intended. Hidetaka Miyazaki as the designer of Dark Souls proved to be the best at controlling the player in an organic way, a way that the player may not even be aware of, probably since Shigeru Miyamoto, who will always be the grandmaster of intuitive teaching through the act of play. But even Miyazaki could not make Dark Souls truly nonlinear, truly unfolding before the player’s explorative influence. If he had made it less controlled he would not have been able to generate the feeling of the unattainable, as Fallout: New Vegas cannot give you the feelings of spatial accomplishment unique to Metroidvania, in a game that is so without direction that the player has to assume double-duty as the designer of his/ her own fun. The closest Bethesda games come to replicating the feeling of total freedom is in their “anything can happen” attitude towards glitches in the source code.
True freedom requires the game to be broken. A game that aims at any other feeling must be meticulously designed, and for that it must have a progression system that can be controlled. Metroidvania has always done a wonderful job of cataloguing game experiences that emphasize lonely exploration and detouring, great modern examples of which include Hollow Knight and Guacamelee. But contained within it there is a spirit that has never been given its icon, a feeling that emerges out of the act of play when you burst through the map in Super Metroid or slip behind the panels in Portal and discover the primal scrawls of dead unknowables desperately searching for a little warmth behind the walls. Perhaps being unattainable is what makes it so special.
M.C. Myers is a graduate of English Literature and a geek even when it’s in vogue. When he’s not writing about video games he has a semi-regular column on Bright Lights Film called “Watch it Again.” He can be reached at his email: firstname.lastname@example.org