What’s in a Metroidvania anyway?

Last weekend I revisited Cave Story after almost 6 years, and it has proved an interesting experience. Even today, the thing that stands out of that game is its sense of consistency and confidence, as well as its sense of progression. A sense of progression that is spatial, insofar as it gradually opens you up to the mysteries of the island, and mechanical in the sense that that sense of discovery is finely adjusted to the challenges and your resources. I still think that last part of the test is a little bit too much, kinda like a drum solo from a band that goes a tad too long. The last sense of progression I get from Cave Story is a narrative one, in the sense that there isn’t any flavor text or dialogue that feels redundant.

Playing Cave Story now is a humbling experience, because it makes you realize how much did later games take from Daisuke Amaya’s design choices and failed to achieve in the same way. It is only now that I realize how much do Iconoclasts, Undertale and many other indie games build from this and present the same ideas with a cleaner patina of prestige. I can’t blame later developers for taking ideas from a good games, but I take umbridge twith the fact that this design has been canonized as the Ideal Model to follow if you want to make that receives good reviews.

I could speak for hour about the relationship between Cave Story and (being charitable) half of the indie darling that populate different scenes today, but today to focus on Dandara because it’s the last I one I played and because it’s one that attempts to twist the formula in an explicit but no so meaningful way. This game by the Brazilian team Long Hat Team follows on the model popularized by Metroid, Symphony of the Night and endless games today. And even though it plays very different to them, it’s hard to classify its style as subversive. The usage of local iconography follows a similar model that recent indie darlings like Blasphemous have followed on their decision to mix local with global elements, but it’s hardly innovative on an industry that learnt to market Japanese games since its inception. Cave Story went through a very similar path in its day, being taken by an exploitative publisher and all. The lesson to take from these games is that, since the beginning of the video game industry, there have always some way of catering to international audiences that has now become highly formalized.

It’s very tempting to fall under an “authenticity hole” whenever we talk about “safe design” and classify games according to their adherence to these models. I mostly don’t like it because it fosters certain reactionary vibes on my writing, but also because it deliberately obfuscates me from the material realities that developers have to confront when weighing how they want to adjust their games. It would be kinda hypocritical to ask younger developers to do new things, praise their innovations endlessly and then condemming newer titles for following the conventions that we have been praising all this time.

In order to foster a culture that values artistic expression, we need to abandon this prescriptive attitude and treat every text singularly, without negating the influences and shortcuts that they might take. Cave Story and Dandara share a similar attitude in that they take freely from an already existing model and mix them up in particular ways. It can be seen in Dandara, in Cave Story, in Iconoclasts and even Sundered (though that last one feels a lot more derivative than the rest).

Right now, my mission is putting into task the term Metroidvania so that we can question how it’s been used and shared between writers. It’s commonly used to describe games that share a similar emphasis on exploration and reflex-based gameplay. While we can find these things in almost every game, their presence does not justify using the term to any title. That’s why we don’t use it to describe RPG Maker-based games that equally reward exploration, or well trod-out platformers. At this point, it is currently used to describe any platform game that puts you in a sort of crossroads.

Beyond the franchises that codified the mold, many indie games recluse on this genre because it’s usually associated to a certain degree of sophistication. That ideal, however, is getting less validated with each new title. This is because the term is being used more often as a marketing buzzword than a vague descriptor to explain certain artistic influences. It has also contributed to produce some negativity around titles that provide a more linear experience and aren’t that much interested in exploration, as if that were less artistically valid. The term has been problematized to say the least, and even though it still provides some identity to the ones that adhere to it, it has become too toxified by marketing expectations to be useful anymore.

Nevertheless, I think we need to talk about authenticity when it comes to talking about games that deliberately want to contribute to the Metroidvania mold that so many of us have elevated over the years. Because I could just do what Heather Alexandra did and saying that if you like Cave Story you will probably like Dandara too, but the truth is that there are significant differences here and say that explain why I liked one more than the other. Maybe Metroidvania is not a good enough concept to pair these two, and maybe I need to do something like BeetBeatBit and attempt to find a new term to describe their gameplay style (I’m personally partial to the Exploration Games label that Talen Lee proposes). Still, neither of these approaches will help me explain my uneasiness with Dandara even though they may help rectify my bases.

Instead, I’m content to stick to Ian Danskin‘s style and ask the community how and why we are using it at the moment, and whether we can still use in valuably. Like the word JRPG, it’s possible that we might stop using them at some point, or it might developt a second life on its own and stop its eventual ossification by marketing departments.

Cave Story’s themes are about a world where innocent people are subjected to the machinations of corporatists villains that want to benefit from an act of injustice that has reverberations within the community to this day. Dandara, on the other hand, is a more or less obvious allegory about our impulse towards finding comfort, and how that might lead us to lean into authoritarian and creative-destructive beliefs. Cave Story tells it history through exploration and a very careful pace, while Dandara tells it through a collage of images and concepts that amount to a very vague framework. My best shot at that framework is that everything is happening inside someone’s head, which isn’t a very interesting resolution. That said, one could easily Dandara‘s images as part of a very careful worldbuilding or dismiss Cave Story‘s sekaikan as allegorical representations of the themes i’ve talked about before. The important thing here is that both demand a similar input on the part of the player, which is probably what suits them best to be described as Metroidvanias— and not their pixel art, their “indie” origins or their hidden homages.

In the end, what resonates better with me ar whether the themes that are being transmitted amount to something meaningful or not. With Cave Story I felt a lot of affinity, especially after knowing about Nicalis and its horrible treatment of Daisuke’s work, and I have the suspicion that that affinity gets muddled in later remakes due to that publisher’s interference. Dandara feels like a very simple story about some particularly agreed-upon statements, and even though I find the art useful and the mechanical subversion interesting, I don’t think i takes them far enough to justify its themes of the game. To sum up, tend to veer most to stories that fascinate me rather than mechanical configurations that are unique, which probably says a lot about my preferences and about why I tend to play games that are way less interesting on their gameplay.

I don’t have a particularly interesting note to end this, except to say that, if we want to establish relationships between any game, we have to make an effort to find that commonality beyond surface signifiers that ultimately amount to nothing. For all of its apparent complexity, Dandara felt very short to me, while Cave Story, was deeply impactful despite its simplicity. You can’t never tell when that’s going to happen, because it doesn’t matter how much you try to find common signifiers, they just won’t be able to dictate what you’re going to find interesting or engaging.

Originally published at http://laeradelvideojuego.wordpress.com on April 13, 2020.

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