by LeeRoy Lewin
The feeling of beingness in “metroidvanias” has mostly been pigeonholed as a presence of backtracking. Backtracking in order to achieve a goal essentially constitutes our definition of exploration within two dimensional games. But I think, specifically, exploration is a violent and sucky way to be thinking about our relationship to Pitfall II and other games. Instead, I have been thinking that the difference between a “metroidvania” and an archetypical platformer is causal (causal, not casual) and temporal. In other words, play (or specifically being) within a metroidvania takes place in a persistent fictive-reality that isn’t exactly generated for the singular purpose of being an obstacle course, while a platformer typically has much looser relationship to time or being (it is exactly an obstacle course). (Of course, the arcade-derived platformer still intersects with things like time and being, but the container is not explicitly concerned with a stasis of time and being). This being-ness is more essential to the subgenre than “exploration.” I find this distinction difficult to explain. I will try to explain!
I could call these games “exploration platformers,” but what is exploration? Let’s say that exploration is learning about and finding the unknown. There are games with more, or at least feel like they have more, unknowns than others. However, when thinking through games that promise exploration—let’s say Breath of the Wild is the contemporary exploration game—an equal amount of a player’s time, at least, is spent traversing places that are known (e.g. backtracking). Yeah okay, so I’m trying to make a somewhat pedantic point that is also very idiosyncratic: a long linear game would have more “exploration” by virtue of having a larger quantity of unknowns in its world, while games that we consider focusing on exploration typically allot large amounts of playtime to activities and places a player knows thoroughly. Exploration, as we see and apply it to videogames, is not really exploration.
Pitfall!, or Alltynex Second, or Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor, or Super Metroid, or The Reggae Operation, or Pathologic—or your favorite game here—what do they have in common? They can’t be known until you know them! Sorry for the condescending repetition... but I want to emphasize what we take for granted in our framing of “exploration.” There is no videogame without learning, or experiencing, or yes, exploring if you want to use the ugliest verb of the bunch. All videogames contain searches and discoveries. I would guess most players are usually just too desensitized to be thinking along those terms.
(Taking the concept methodically, when it is a given that most games are designed and have known limits, then I would also argue that nothing is being “found,” or “discovered,” only transmitted.)
So, why have we let some genres monopolize on having a concept, which implies that other genres lack that concept, even though this concept is something that is existential to play and life, or in less grand terms, something that is pretty much a constant of all cultural production? What is this separate thing that we are trying to refer to when we talk about exploration? Probably, the thing we're really talking about or desiring is ownership. It’s not enough to center a world being; the designer-player feedback centers a world being for you. The player (typically) fills in blank map cells and gains mastery over the environment through found inventions. Though every game has learning as exploration, this sensation of mastery-cum-ownership is “exploration” in a videogamey subculture sense. I hope it makes sense that this is not the only kind of exploration. But this one is ours!
This way of thinking is closed and siphons possible artistic appeal into player babying (and I firmly believe "conquer uncharted territories" is knowledge-formed by, and motivated by, colonialist attitudes). Modern approaches to the “metroidvania” reflect this axiom, intentional or otherwise. Rather than using the medium as a conduit toward expression, or to tell a particular story, they recycle tired design cliches that communicate a memetic approach to design. Its aesthetic messaging is like familiarity asmr: you are playing a metroidvania, you are exploring, you are getting more toys in evenly spaced intervals. Maybe this is exploration, but I’m not feeling any self-exploration, and I’m certainly not experiencing anything new.
Still, it’s this frame of exploration in general that’s unflattering or nonspecific, even moreso than the muted nothings of a game as shitty as Shadow Complex. Even if, on average, these games offer little more than brain-candy and reaffirmation, to keep circling around these merits becomes a self-fulfilling limiter on their purpose and potential. Despite my critiques, there is still something different about a platformer that takes place in one big area and has no cuts. This difference is more interesting than its player pleasing impulses and can more satisfactorily explain the style’s longevity.
Pitfall II: Lost Caverns is 1. A 2D platformer
2. Contains a single large mazelike cave network
3. In which one can freely travel within the maze
4. It's “linear,” in the sense of having a solitary objective, but
5. Has multiple paths toward completion
6. While objectives completed stay completed as long as the game continues
7. There's no timer
8. Also, it will not kill screen until every (missable) objective is found
9. If played without dying, has no cuts, nor any displacement from the single large mazelike cave network
This intersection of rules constitutes a playing-space that allows someone to play at their own pace, enjoy the sights, and build a relationship with a digital world that has a tangible place-ness. Note that a game could have all of these and not be what people call a “metroidvania," like uhh, Ys III? I don’t really give a fuck either way personally, because later I want to apply this concept of causal and temporal persistance (meaning that when you do things in the world, they stay "done," and that you're constantly anchored to the world itself in a way that could be described as persistent because of the lack of cuts and the freedom to traverse to places that have been traveled before) to other types of games, such as immersive sims, rpgs, and idk, other obviously persistent games.
Now yes, a proper “metroidvania” can omit some of these, or have more identifying features than what an Atari game managed to have. The important thing is that a game with none of these will always not be a “metroidvania.” These are qualities that I want to prescribe to (this is the part where I coin my nerd concept) persistent platformers, what I will also be calling persistent games, because it's a common construction shared between many types of games.
Is this important? Well, not really (I love to write essays on unimportant subjects), at least especially as long as these games are stuck in the mimesis which “metroidvania” and other player-focused interpretations imply. When I draw attention to the fact that Pitfall II (and to an extent Pitfall!) shares a fundamental assemblage structure with the Metroids and Castlevanias that define this style of game, I am definitely not trying to establish some kind of grandfather progenitor innovation tree! But in fact, I want to reconsider our relationship to those aforementioned games. If they are like Pitfall II, they can be played like Pitfall II.
If a videogame is more than a pleasure device that makes us feel good about ourselves, then we also have to start constituting what that “more” is and looks like. All games are complicated interplays of visual aesthetics, sounds, feedback, interfacing, which create meaning, and that meaning elicits reactions.
CastlevaniaMetroids are texts (forgive me) that can be read in a wild number of constituent ways. Exploration is not the expressive limit, or a unqiue feature of the style. Focusing on exploration, level design, or game feel horrendously disembowels the whole expression contained in these games (to get at the succulent meat, we suppose). It’s like a belief that writing can be evaluated on the technique of its prose alone. I think verbs like “being” or “inhabiting” construct more holistic interpretations of these platformers, it points us in a direction of being able to consider videogames as causal and temporal interactions. It’s not just what you do! It’s everything else too.