Metroidvanias and the Value of Discovery

I recently played through a game called Supraland. It’s a lower budget title that fuses exploration, platforming, and puzzle solving into a cohesive package. As much as I loathe the name, the game is a Metroidvania through and through. After finishing Supraland I was reflecting on my time with it and that caused me to realize something: discovery is an important aspect of exploration within these kinds of titles.

Wait…what? You’re just now realizing this?

Yes and no. Let me explain.

There are no short supply of indie games presently available that do the whole Metroidvania thing. Explore an interconnected world until you get stuck, go find one of several power-ups, use said power-up to overcome said problem and continue trucking along. It’s a tried and tested formula that a certain subset of customers, myself included, really enjoy. But recently I’ve been less and less enraptured by newer entries in the genre and it was through playing Supraland that I realized why.

Let me ask you this: if you encountered a ledge you couldn’t quite reach what would your first thought be? Perhaps it’d be along the lines of, “I need a higher jump, or some kind of double jump to reach that platform“, yeah? If so that’s precisely what I think is at the heart of the problem.

When you as a player encounter an obstacle and immediately work out what tool overcomes it you’ve ruined any sense of discovery that would accompany finding said tool. This is by no means your fault. Reasoning an obvious solution to a problem is perfectly normal – we do it all the time. Rather, the onus falls on the developer to invent creative solutions that are a joy to discover.

For the purposes of providing an example I’m going to spoil one of the upgrades from Supraland. Consider this a spoiler warning for the remainder of the post.

Throughout the world of Supraland there are a ton of metal pipes and girders that make up the structures you explore. They feel like a cohesive part of the world’s aesthetic design. It’s because of how innocuous this element is that I was completely taken aback when I unlocked the magnetism ability. Suddenly this seemingly useless visual detail within Supraland was provided a completely new context. Metal objects became an integral part of how I navigated the world and its many puzzles from that point forward.

The key takeaway is that until I discovered magnetism it never crossed my mind that I’d need it. Plus, thanks to the sheer originality of it, finding all of the ways I could use magnetism further reinforced the sense of discovery. Each new use case helped to shape a completely new context from which to view the game’s world. In a genre where you spend so much of your time repeatedly exploring the same space it is imperative that the game’s world continues to surprise you otherwise you’re just trudging listlessly from one location to the next.

While I have been banging on about unique abilities it should also be noted that discovery can come in other forms. I feel like Hollow Knight is a largely derivative game when it comes to the assortment of abilities you gain throughout your journey. However, the unique flavor of each local within Hollownest and the variable vestibule of foes offer a similar experience. Each new area discovered gives way to a host of unique enemies which challenge and compel you to push further into the depths of the fallen kingdom.

Hollow Knight

For me though, I think having more interesting abilities would help to reignite my spark for Metroidvanias. I’m certainly not the first person to call this out as Adam Millard has made their own video on how the genre has largely become stale as a result of too many copycats. It’s great to take inspiration from games you enjoy, but if you don’t have any of your own unique ideas you become predictable and miss out on a core aspect of the Metroidvania: the joy of discovery.

Where do you stand on this? Are you A-okay with the status quo? Are you in the same boat as me and would appreciate seeing some more unique ideas? Sound off in the comments below, or on twitter. Whichever medium you’re more comfortable with and I’ll aim to reply back for some discourse.

19 thoughts on “Metroidvanias and the Value of Discovery

  1. We’ve talked about this a bit on Discord. When people see a game work and want to use [parts of] that game’s design for their own game, it can lead to problems. First of all – copying, or “clones”. These devs may be able to replicate the mechanics, aesthetics, sound design, story, etc. of the original game, but they have no idea why it worked. As a result, these games are of distinctly lower quality than the original ones, even if they might improve on a few technical limitations of old.

    The next problem is – the follow-up games simply aren’t first. And probably not second or third either…You can’t reinvent the wheel. We already have Dark Souls, Metroid, Tetris, Super Mario, etc. Even when recreating what worked previously, it doesn’t mean that it works again. The first video about “1-1’s invisible tutorial” was eye-opening. The 1.000th is just another meme.

    Players also evolve. They have played video games before. Something that is genre-defining in one game, is expected in another one or – worse – stale. For example, when I first played Prince of Persia, I thought the time-manipulation mechanics to be absolutely amazing. Since then, I have played a lot more games that play with time, many of them far better than PoP. Still, after the third game, at the very least, whenever I was able to rewind or slow time my thought was no longer “That’s amazing!” but more like “so what? big fucking deal…”

    It’s similar to people getting into video games just now. If we pick up a new game, we instinctively know our way around. We are expected to know things…A LOT OF THINGS. And that’s good. That means that we have capacity for other, more exciting stuff. But “new” players don’t know that and often have to be eased into it with other games, that might be objectively worse than many others, but that don’t overburden them…Also, I realise I’m losing focus here, back on track!

    So, if we know (or think we know) what we can expect from a situation, a lot of that sense of wonder and exploration gets lost. There are a number of ways we can tackle this problem, in my opinion. First of all, just subvert expectations. We have cool examples of that. Baba is You, Antichamber, Undertale, just to name a few. This works pretty well, but only for a limited time. Stuff like that is exhausting. And, we learn pretty quickly to expect to be surprised, which severely dampens the effect. Even if we are still surprised (kind of like jumpscares in horror games) by the game, we expected it, so it can feel cheap. So, that approach needs to be taken sparingly, and balanced with “normal” gameplay/storytelling.

    Another approach would be to deepen a (set of) mechanics. Really make it your own and dig in. Obra Dinn certainly isn’t the first game to feature deduction work, but it just went balls deep and did its thing. Nothing in this game is really new, per se, but it put things together beautifully! The problem here is, you absolutely mustn’t half-ass it. Go Hard or Go Home. A good example would be Inversion, a shooter that plays around with gravity a bit. Notice how I said “plays around a bit”? The game ended up being mediocre to a T. Or Event[0] (I imagine you know GMTs video on it): it’s a neat concept and definitely has its moments, but in the end, it was far too simple to really be more than a great concept.

    What I see pop up more and more is “Mechanic X, but…” where you take a more or less simple mechanic (or other element of the game), but limit it in some way. Easiest to describe are games centred around movement mechanics, like Dandara. It’s a game about movement, BUT you can only jump around. Everything else is tailored around this limitation. It’s less a category of its own, but more of a subcategory of “deepening”. THe problem is that it can leave you with too little substance for a full game.

    Alright, I’ll cut off the comment here, since I’d write up about three times as much before I’d get to any point here. I know it’s all over the place, but I hope you can see a few connections to some points you made. To shortly answer your questions at the end of your post: I, too, notice a stagnation in this (and some other) genres, and I’d like to see a leap forward. The problem is that simply saying “We want new and unique stuff” does not cut it, as uniqueness is a very limited resource, as you can be the first at something once, and only be unique as long as you’re first AND nobody else does it.

    I might even make a post of my own about all of this, if you don’t mind, although seeing as it is, it’s more likely to wither away in the backlog of half-finished posts. When I die (famous and rich through my blog, of course) I want my great-grandchildren to unearth all those posts, finish and publish them, and make boatloads of money. JRR Quietschisto, if you so will 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yeah I get where you’re going.
      Should be obvious by how I chose to talk about the subject, but I was less interested in thinking of solutions to the problem then I was identifying it. Though…that may be an area to work on in future.

      And by all means, if I write something and you feel you need to write your own post feel free. I look forward to reading it.

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  2. I’m always into reading and discussing things about Metroidvanias ^_^

    I was actually complaining about yesterday while playing Metroid Fusion. The powerups have been sooo predictable. Now I haven’t actually finished the game yet, but so far every single powerup I’ve gotten has been in the other two games I’ve played. Water? Gravity Suit. Heat room? Varia Suit. High ledge? High Jump or Space Jump. It feels so boring.

    Castlevania often has some dumb, gimmicky, and useless abilities, like going into mirrors or turning into mist, but I’m now appreciating those useless but creative abilities much more.

    Also I’ve never heard of Supraland before but it’s definitely on my radar now.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Fusion is largely a retread. That’s actually a big part of why I like Prime 2 and 3 so much more than the majority of the 2D games. Something about having unique problems and abilities. 😛

      I don’t necessarily think that one off gimmicks are the best solution either. True it does help to break things up a bit, but surely if you can use the ability once there has to be more than one place or way to use it. At least, that’s what I – the guy who writes about games, but doesn’t make them – is saying so the problem is likely more challenging than I’m making it out to be.

      It’s only on PC as far as I could tell. Not sure which platforms you play on, but if you do get around to it I hope you enjoy it.

      Also note, I merged your 2 comments into a single one because I have God powers on my site. XD

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I definitely agree, I’m just very frustrated at Metroid Fusion right now haha.

        I think the thing with gimmicks, is that if it’s done well, it’s not necessarily gimmicky anymore, if that makes sense. At the very least, the mist ability is one that definitely feels like it had potential to be more useful, whether with i-frames in combat or unlockable places idk (the mirror example though I think is actually pretty useless).

        Honestly, I think Hollow Knight has some really well made abilities. In Metroid, when you get the varia suit, it’s only necessary in specific and marked out rooms. In Hollow Knight, there’s not actually a lot of places where you NEED Isma’s Tear…but it also makes traversing through certain places much easier, even if it’s not required. I don’t know if that’s the best analogy, but I thought of it because heat and acid are mildly the same thing right? 😅😅

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        1. I had the same thought with regard to Isma’s Tear. “Oh this is Hollow Knight’s version of the Varia. Neat.” Though I must admit that Hollow Knight becomes a lot more interesting when you don’t grab every power-up along the way. I’ve finished the game before without the double jump and that is…you need to really know how to do your sword hops for that kind of a playthrough.

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  3. More original ideas are always a good thing as long as they’re implemented well. I don’t have a lot of patience for a game that’s doing a standard thing in the same way other games I’ve played before have done without any other hook — plot, nice art or music, something at least. If a Metroidvania is putting some of its content behind barriers that I can’t reach until I get a particular skill or weapon or something, and there’s a lot of cool stuff to find beyond those barriers, that’s a sure way to hook me.

    Quietschisto is also right that subverting expectations too often can have the opposite of the intended effect. I don’t know if anyone’s done that with a Metroidvania — maybe those intentionally aggravating platformers from ages ago like I Wanna Be The Guy are the closest examples. I think you can’t go wrong with just making a high-quality product that avoids too many tired or overused elements. Though saying that’s a good thing to do is really easy, and actually doing it isn’t.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Well made points.

      I didn’t mention it in the article for the sake of focus and brevity, but I think one of the contributing factors for this is how often games that don’t necessarily benefit from using the Metroidvania formula make use of it. Ori is a game that always comes to mind when I think about this. It’s a game where the first half of the game is actively hindered by a subset of the basic movement abilities being locked behind upgrade walls. Once you get over a certain threshold the game becomes incredibly fun to play, but before that point it’s a painful experience. In cases like this I think that simply introducing new platforming mechanics when they’re needed (like Celeste does) would suffice. In this case, I would argue it’s not just about making a high-quality product, but also examining if the exact genre you’re aiming for is the right target.

      Also, as I’m writing this I think that Adam actually uses that exact same example in his video…crap.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Funny that you’d mention Ori here. True, many “basic” abilities, like a dash or multiple jumps, are locked for some time, but many “collectables” (health and spirit upgrades) can be accessed if you are good enough at the game. There were many instances where I though “phew, that was a pain in the ass to get”, only to get a new ability half an hour later and thinking “ooooooh, that’s what I was supposed to do there!”. But actually putting effort in reaching that stuff made it all that more enjoyable and memorable. I think more games should be like Ori, at least in that regard.

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  4. I still very much enjoy the Metroidvania sub-genre, but I completely know what you’re talking about. Asking yourself, “when do I get my double-jump?” when you notice a ledge just out of reach means you know what to look for or expect.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Exactly.

      I almost wonder if just including a double jump as part of the standard movement set would make things more interesting. Having the whole world built around a double jump from the onset could create more interesting platforming opportunities. Plus any game that didn’t include such an ability would immediately feel very different from the games that do.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I don’t find that I play enough metroidvania style games that I have this issue but I can understand what you mean. When I see a ledge and can’t jump to it my first thought isn’t ‘Oh, I need a power-up’, its usually ‘Way to fuck that up’.

    That being said, you gotta ask yourself the question, is the only reason you find surprise game mechanics so refreshing because the genre is so standardised now? I mean, if games of the metroidvania genre were always throwing surprise mechanics your way would you still find it refreshing or would you be hoping for the game to be a little predictable?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That’s a good question! Personally, I think that some “standardisation” is unavoidable, that’s how genres are formed. You shoot in shooters, you platform in platformers, and you race in racing games. In the end, it probably comes down to balance. If you can never be sure what you are supposed to do, it can get frustrating very quickly. On the other hand, if you always know (or think you know) when and what’s going to happen, the desired sense of wonder and meaningful exploration gets lost.

      Liked by 2 people

    2. I think that, in general, there should be some surprise.

      When thinking about the design of these types of games I think about how Zelda dungeons are designed. In many a dungeon you’re introduced to a key item partway through which has its own subset of unique interactions and mechanics within said dungeon. It always feels like these interactions are designed to give the item purpose. I’m of the mindset that if developers tried to come up with at least one unique idea and several use cases for it then they’ll end up creating something interesting. The current problem is that far too often the world design and the problems therein are designed around what could be considered a standard set of abilities and that seems to be constraining what is implemented.

      On a similar note, at this point I’d consider something like a double jump and dash standard across all of platforming, not just the Metroidvania sub-genre. I think that creates another interesting problem. When you play something like Doom or Ion Fury those don’t feel like identical experiences do they? They share some similarities, but the design of the levels, enemies, and weapon specific mechanics help to keep the experience fresh between a variety of FPS games. I don’t see that same kind of creativity being used within the Metroidvania space. Rather it feels like folks are copying things that worked before because “this is how it is done” without necessarily thinking about why it is done, or a better way to solve the same problem.

      I think that all makes sense, but shout at me here or on discord if I’m rambling. 😛

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I have for years now, been very anti Metroidvania games, as they to me are a genre inside a genre(2D platformers) which have become so stale and overused… That for most times you don’t even need to play then to point out the flaws.

    To me, these games suffer from being developed by fans of the genre to a degree, that they try so hard to live up to the games they grow up to idolize… That they forget to actually to make the games their own, because while the games don’t look alike, they very much play alike.

    When you have the same feeling in every game, when will I get this or that upgrade, then you know the formula have gone stale… Because the main reason for doing so, is that every other game in the genre is doing it.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Great point. I think the same could be said for a lot of the retro throwback titles which fail to really carve out their own identity because they’re riding off the back of another game’s name and success.

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    2. “To me, these games suffer from being developed by fans of the genre to a degree, that they try so hard to live up to the games they grow up to idolize… That they forget to actually to make the games their own, because while the games don’t look alike, they very much play alike.”

      I think that is a big problem. The can emulate the art style but not the soul of the original games.

      Liked by 1 person

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