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.
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.