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Against Metroidvania

I dearly love many Metroidvania games. But now that there is a fandom and a very strict definition – stricter than I would’ve liked – I want to speak out against those two design principles: ability-gating and guided non-linearity.

Some games are great because they forfeit those principles, some games are great despite that they are hampered by those principles, and only a rare few gems are well designed with those principles and use them to their advantage.

My fondest memories of Metroid are the platforming, the fighting, the exploration. My fave Metroid game is the 1991 Return of Samus and I have fond memories of trying to find hidden nooks and crannies with the space jump and the spider ball and traversing the weird terrain, finding metroids hidden in deep sand etc.

My fave memories of the Igavanias (which I do love – Dracula’s Curse is my fave Castlevania but I like both the classic and the iga style of Castlevania) isn’t “Oh, I guess I can’t go here until I get some sorta super jump or water traversal power.” It’s the tight boss patterns, the equipment/spell optimization, the feeling of discovery as I enter new areas.

Link’s Awakening was my favorite Zelda up til the release of Breath of the Wild. (Yeah, yeah, I know that it’s not a metroidvania because it’s not wholly side-scrolling.) It is very ability-gated, more so than the 1986 Legend of Zelda. But I don’t love it because of the ability-gating, I love it in spite of the ability-gating. None of my fondest memories of it is “oh, now I have this item, I can finally go here”. The feather and the lift-bracelet are fun to use, not just fun because they are “keys”. It’s fun to jump around and to throw stuff around.

I’ll concede that ability-gating was part of the reason why many of those old games are so good. Ability-gating is a tool to curate progression which can lead to a gradual reveal of story. Some of my fave moments of Link’s Awakening are due to the fact that the owl conversations, the stone tablets and the trade chain are revealed in a certain order.

But some of my other fave games, like Breath of the Wild (again, not side-scrolling) and VVVVVV, don’t have ability-gating. You can just go anywhere, do anything. There are micro-stories throughout the otherwise open world, pockets of linearity. In VVVVVV you’ll stumble upon a series of linear rooms. In Breath of the Wild you’ll find places where there are locked doors that you need to unlock. These are used to create narrative, both story narrative as well as (more importantly) ludonarrative gameplay arcs.

There are also games I love that aren’t even non-linear; they can be level-based like Celeste or Dracula’s Curse, or single-screen like Clu-Clu Land, the 1980 Fire, or Tetris.

Ability-gating is a way for games to try to have the cake and eat it too. Sometimes it works, but often it just feels forced. The hammerable poles in A Link to the Past felt especially egregious. The hammer felt like such a superfluous item (especially coming from Link’s Awakening [which I played before A Link to the Past] where you can flip some with your shield) only there to act as a “key”. If you want to put in linearity in your game, just do it. Like maybe the defeat of a boss (I’ll save the “I wish more games were non-violent for another post, because I’ve been really grooving on non-violent games like Fire, Snake Pass and VVVVVV lately) opens up a new area, or you need to find literal keys, like Cave Story. Or design it to work open world, maybe with linear segments, like VVVVVV.

What’s wrong with ability-gating

Two things:

When you don’t know for sure that an area is gated

There are some spots in Hollow Knight and plenty of spots in Alwa’s Awakening that are really hard to tell whether or not you’re supposed to be able to make it up there. I wasted hours in Alwa’s Awakening trying to jump up a ledge or over a lake (combining a few of the powerups I had at that point) only to give up. And then later find another powerup that made that spot trivial. “Oh, had I known this power was coming I wouldn’t have wasted my time trying to reach that unreachable ledge…”

Especially coming from games that made the gate really clear (like the unscalable wall in The Messenger) where there are some very difficult sections to traverse but the only way to do it is to try over and over again (or be 上手 (jōzu) af, which I’m not). I don’t have to waste my time trying to scale the wall, I just know I need some item. And I am rewarded putting 20 minutes into making a difficult section of cloudstepping because that’s the only way to get to that shard.

So that’s one way to do ability-gating “right”, to make it really clear it’s gated. This can sometimes look super forced, like the beforementioned hammer in A Link to the Past or the upgrades in Duck Tales 2. “Hmm, this suspicious hook, and this suspicious ‘iron block’, seem to be here only for the purposes of some item I don’t have. Gee…”

The other, even better way is to make it completely hidden, to grant an ability that’s a complete WHOAH! I didn’t know I was going to be able to do that!

“What, I can walk on water? What, I can now turn into a painting and walk along the wall? What, I can now fly?!” to open up areas that you never even considered to be reachable.

When the powerup needs to function both as key and as gameplay

The best acquired abilities are when the item is in and of itself

  1. fun to use, but
  2. not essential enough to the gameplay to be available from the start.

The Messenger satisfies the first criteria. Once I had the abilities I really loved stringing them together to complete difficult challenge rooms and bosses. You upgrade your li’l ninja to become a core part of a very well designed game experience.

Buuut it kinda whiffs on the second criteria since new game+ is much more fun since you have all your powers right away.

Having so many restrictions on what constitutes a good acquired ability along with so many restrictions on what constitutes a good key leaves an intersection of very limited design space.

Separation of key and ability can lead to a good design. Again, Return of Samus is an example of where yes, there are some ability-gated areas, but there are also areas that are gated by other things.

It sucks in an otherwise ability-game to get an item that is just a key. “Oh, man… just some boring Book of Mudora, I was hoping to be able to fly around or skate or something else cool”.

Summary of practices

Consider not gating the progression at all

Wholly linear and wholly non-linear games can both work just as well as “guided non-linear”, depending on other factors. If you have a good platforming game mechanic, maybe it doesn’t need to be yet another Metroidvania.

Snake Pass is an amazing game but it’s a clean, level-based design. There are gated areas (opened by levers) but you have all your abilities from the start. The levels are tiny open pockets, micro-sandboxes, that you can complete in separate sittings. But if you have to gate the progression, then…

Consider not separating the keys from the gates

In other words, have gates that you open up by completing a challenge right by the “gate”, without needing a key.

You can have a gate behind a boss room that opens up once you defeat the boss that’s in there. You can have linear sequences (like VVVVVV) reachable from a larger, open hub area. But if you have to have ways to expand your hub area in many non-adjacent directions…

Consider separating “keys” from “power-ups”

The 1990 Super Mario World is an example of this done right. Switches reveal blocks and open doors in a way that is is 100% wholly separated from your character’s abilities. You never get disappointed finding a key switch and you never get disappointed finding a cape or fireflower.

I’d argue that Cave Story also does this right. It’s a tight linear game with exploration segments between finding the right keys.

The acid lake in Return of Samus is another example.

But if you have to have abilities that unlock new areas…

Beware the “you can almost make it there”

Never tease. Never put a ledge “juuuust out of reach”.

The good way is to make it immediately apparent that they can’t get there yet.

The awesome way is to make it such a part of the scenery that the player doesn’t even consider that they can go there.

The first good way is a bit boring, it’s immediately apparent that there’s no way I can make it past there, I just need to wait for the right power…

the second is the “Wait, what… does this mean that I even can go here? I never even considered that!” out-of-the-box style ability. But these kind of mechanics are rare finds and maybe your game would be more fun if you had that ability earlier. Super Mario Bros Usa (SMB 2 Mario Madness) gives you the power to lift things up right away. It doesn’t hold on to this ability in order to use it as a gate.

Closing words

Uh… maybe I put that li’l summary in a bad order. It leads you down a path to do do ability-gating after all, just as long as you follow this or that best practice. But in the end I want to reiterate the first point there. Consider to not use this kind of gates in order to guide progression. Often, either just opening it up wholly or just making it linear is better.

PS. As I was editing this essay after posting it I found that I already had another post on this topic. But I re-read it and that post and this post don’t have a lot of overlap. Phew, what a relief! I’ll forget my own head next!