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Metroidvania interview: Tom Happ

An interview with Tom Happ, creator of Axiom Verge, about the Metroidvania genre.

To prepare for writing my look at the Metroidvania genre, I interviewed a number of developers who currently work in the genre -- and while I did my best to include the most interesting quotes and organize them in a way that provides an interesting overview, sometimes you just want to read the original text unabridged.

To that end, I've decided to present some of the original interviews as-is on Gamasutra blogs! Enjoy. And if you want more, the full feature is here

Why is the the Metroidvania genre so enduring?

I think it is largely due to having a balance of elements that players enjoy.  Before Koji Igarashi came around with SotN, you would just call this kind of game "Action Adventure", which I think sums up the appeal pretty nicely:  it has the fast paced action of games like Contra or Ninja Gaiden but with the added elements of exploration and persistent inventory acquisition.  But at the time it also encompassed games like Zelda or Ys.  I think it wasn't until Symphony of the Night and its sequels melded Super Metroid and Castlevania that the classification narrowed to mean something like, "Side scrolling action-adventures with a obstacles in a continuous map that you can surmount only after finding the requisite items and backtracking" (I'm thinking Scott Sharkey or Jeremy Parish may have a better definition but you get the point).

But to make a long story short, I think it is that Action Adventures that are enduring, and that "Metroidvanias" are merely the sub-genre of that which gets the most attention.  One moment that always stood out to me was when Donald Mustard said (to you, no less) that Super Metroid was "the pinnacle of 2D game design"; I kind of feel that was the first moment somebody really tried intentionally to make a "Metroidvania" rather than just an Action-Adventure with aspects of Super Metroid or SotN.

But you know, I feel like the same elements that make Metroidvanias enduring can also be seen in games like Zelda, Tomb Raider, Metal Gear Solid, Soul Reaver... if you translated those games into side-scrollers the differences would be more and more superficial.  For example, I always felt like the Zelda series and the Metroid series were very similar, just with Zelda sectioning off certain parts of the map as "dungeons" rather than integrating them more seemlessly with the rest of the game world.

Why THIS genre, of all, for you?

For myself, as a developer, it largely comes down to what would be most enjoyable to develop.  I like exploration, and designing hidden rooms with secret items.  Over the years I found that I simply prefer making side-scrolling art over 3D, top-down, or isometric.  I also like developing the story a lot - I think if it wasn't for the complexities involved, I might have made a traditional RPG instead.  But you have to really think about whether you want to spend as much time making menus or drawing walls and doors facing four different directions, because, realistically, you'll be doing that a lot.  There is a real danger that you can get discouraged and quit if the actual work of making a game becomes tedious.  So this genre accomplishes most of what I like while still being a viable thing to do all day long.

Is there a lot more design space to be pulled from it?

There is a lot more.  Basically, infinite.  I think we're kind of tentatively probing the boundaries to see what's possible.  I mean, take Fez - it's basically a Metroidvania without combat or upgrades.  And then Hohokum, which abstracts it even further.  It actually has a very similar layout to Fez with doors and hubs and also doesn't have combat, but when you're playing it, Metroid and Castlevania are the furthest things from your mind.  But there is that core.

What are you hoping to add to it?

Well, I like to think of Axiom Verge as having a kind of self-reflexive take Metroidvanias and classic games in general.  Hopefully more in an interesting, David Lynch kind of way than a comedic Woody Allen sort of way - though I'd be super ecstatic if the end result was half as good as either.  I enjoy subverting tropes a lot.  And then there's the glitch feature, which was halfway inspired by the story I wanted to tell and halfway just because I feel like there is some real enjoyment to be had with glitches, and I wanted to bring that enjoyment to a new audience.

How do you manage to look forward, not backward, for inspiration?

I think the Metroidvania genre provides a strong foundation from which you can branch out from and try new ideas.  Inspiration comes from everything.  I just think about how things make me feel, and whether I can use that in a game.  Books, movies, things in nature, things that happened in my life.  What makes me curious?  What makes me anxious?  What situations made me feel helpless?  What situations made me feel triumphant?

Then about the other elements, you always have to ask yourself, "am I doing this just because it's tradition, or because it actually serves the game?"  You might even want to include traditional elements so that can provide context for when you later subvert them.  Or maybe just to ease in players with familiar mechanics until they can become familiar with your game and what's different about it.

What's the appeal of the Metroidvania...

- As a set of mechanics you can apply to your game design?

As I alluded to a bit earlier, I think it's a good foundation for branching out with your own ideas.  I think when I'm designing the game, I'm imagining what it would feel like to discover all of the new features I've put in there, and they're just not as much fun without having the context of a world without them.  In a way the beaten path of the game exists just as an established baseline to allow off-the-beaten-path exploration. For example, I could have the entire game just be about using a glitch ray to glitch things, but then they wouldn't be glitches anymore - they'd just be the game.  But as a beaten path goes, I'd say Metroidvanias are a top tier scenic byway.

- For players?

My personal favorite aspect of Metroidvanias is the exploration.  I think that has to be at the top of the appeal for other players, too.  The semi-openness of the map design gives it the feeling that you're not just experiencing a scripted sequence of events, but causing the events (in some cases not always in the same order).  In a lot of ways other games could benefit from a bit of this (I always think of how much more awesome Uncharted could be if exploration actually had an impact).  Also, many players seem to gravitate towards specific elements of Super Metroid - the sense of tension, isolation, and fear.  Maddy Meyers wrote an awesome piece about this on Paste.

- As a label, brand, or movement?

I see it more of a convenient term for quickly communicating some basic elements of a game.  It's a bit too limiting, I think, to be a movement.  I don't want to set out and say, "okay, what kind of Metroidvania can I make next?"  I think it's better to consider all possible things, and, if the Metroidvania elements happen to apply well to what you're doing, then, okay, maybe intentionally make a Metroidvania.  But boy do I wish we'd picked some other word for the thing.

Remember, the full feature includes a lot more, including new quotes from Symphony of the Night maestro Koji "IGA" Igarashi. 

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