“You’re welcome” – Josh.
Last year when Josh asked Lawn and I to play Ori and the Blind Forest for our bourgeoning podcast series, RePlay, I was less than excited. In fact, I was virtually dreading the experience. When I was young, the moments that always annoyed me the most in games were where I didn’t know whether or not I should be able to reach an area at that point in time. It’s one of the reasons that walkthroughs became a very pivotal part of my playing experience; I like knowing where to go. It’s because of this outlook that I always avoided Metroidvania style games. Though now, I’m coming to realise my love for this style, and my latest foray in the genre, Hollow Knight, is what made me finally come to terms with the truth.
The biggest concern I would raise with regard to Ori and the Blind Forest was those devastating moments when you try to jump a gap or ledge, and continually miss by mere centimetres. How do you know if you’re meant to be able to do it at the time, or whether you’re just stuffing up the execution? That fear honestly plagued me, the fright of POTENTIALLY running out of places to go because I’m too bad at these types of games made me virtually immovable on the subject of trying them. I mean, I literally had to be forced to give Ori an attempt. The interesting thing is, these moments have probably only consisted of about 1% of my playtime in any Metroidvania style game I’ve ever played – so why did it bother me so much in the past?
Ultimately, I think it comes down to the fact that I’m just plain impatient. Any title that causes me to second guess myself, or give me pause when I want to be persistently pushing forward is going to put me off it. What I’ve realised though, is that GOOD Metroidvanias avoid this feeling almost entirely because there’s another place you always know you can get to. Take Hollow Knight for example. I’m constantly in awe at the fact that every time I hit a dead end, I can either pull up the map or remember exactly where another place I can try is. But how do you know it’s actually a dead end? I think that’s where the genius of these games lies: you just do, for different reasons.
In God of War, a character will specifically say you can’t go there yet, and the colour differences from new abilities clarify your assumption that you’re missing a tool; In SteamWorld Dig 2, the world opens up in a way that it’s never too overbearing, and in Hollow Knight, the world design is clear enough that if you can’t get somewhere, you know it ain’t your time yet. However, the brilliance is that even if these games — in one way or another — make it fairly obvious that you can’t go somewhere, they also need to make you feel accomplished when you discover something new.
Every time you crack a secret passage in Hollow Knight, find a new mini-dungeon in SteamWorld Dig 2, or reveal the interconnected nature of multiple islands in God of War, each of these moments makes you feel smart. It’s a different form of puzzle-making, and one that I’d be terrified to try and design. Instead of creating smaller segmented mind-challenges, developers of Metroidvanias have to find a way of threading all these different pathways together to make them challenging and obvious at the same time. How!?
Hollow Knight excels at evoking that profound sense of accomplishment. The beginning of the game is almost directionless; the player is essentially dropped off in a town and told to go down. From there, you start filling in the world. Players come across a handy map seller, but you’ll need a few more items to start truly filling out the black areas. You traverse from zone to zone, unravelling new pieces of the story to face difficult foes. Along the way, you discover new abilities and secrets to unlock new areas and very weirdly placed NPCs, but everything is doled out to you in a way that you can’t help but think: “fuck, I’m brilliant”.
They’re usually quite long, they’re often very challenging, and sometimes they can drive you crazy, but not for the reasons I have grasped with a cold intolerant hand for the majority of my life. I love Metroidvanias, and I desperately hope that more games will incorporate their ridiculously satisfying mechanics into their own systems. If you’re anything like me and have avoided giving this whole genre of games a crack in the past, please reconsider. There’s a whole lotta gems.