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Castlevania, and the case for linearity

A love note to the wonderful back-breaking pressure of being Simon Belmont.

Ever since I got to play the first NES version of Castlevania in the 80s, I’ve had a serious crush on the early incarnations of this game series. The name, box art, the theme is perfect. It’s a game about killing Dracula, and to do so you have to single-handedly invade his castle, reach his evil tower, and whip him to death. Not only are you defying this terrifying force of evil, but you are doing it through a solo suicide mission seemingly designed to humiliate him.

Look this up in the dictionary. I believe you'll find it under

In my young mind, before games like Ninja Gaiden played around with more complex narratives, laden with actual dialog and exposition, this was the most amazing story to be allowed to play. There is something to be said for simplicity and linearity that the early Castlevania titles exemplify: Gravity.

As Simon Belmont stands outside the imposing gates of the castle courtyard, looking up at the dark castle looming ahead. This is his first opportunity to turn back. He passes through the eerily quiet courtyard, lit by a few lone torches. He reaches the entrance to the castle proper, and you, the player, make him walk inside. The gate slams shut behind him. The music kicks in. He is immediately assailed by panthers, bats and ghosts.

He fights his way to the end of the entrance hall, defeating a giant killer bat by throwing axes at it (you know you did). Then the gravity of his situation settles in.

The need to fight.

The thing about Castlevania, and by extension the linear narrative, that I like so much, is that once Belmont breaches the gate, there is no turning back. Every door slams behind him. He is being led inextricably towards the final confrontation with Dracula himself in the lonely peaking tower of the rotting castle, and the path ahead is gruelling indeed. But he must fight. Simon has gone and gotten himself into this nightmare because it is what the Belmont family does. When Dracula reappears, the Belmonts must defeat him. That is what they are born for, it is what they do.

Someone said every generation has to experience some sort of war, well, every generation of Belmont has to experience some sort of Dracula.

As modern Castlevania titles and other games experimented more with freeform gameplay, the systemic complexity of the gameplay perhaps changed for the better, but the impetus to fight became blurred. Since Castlevania became Metroidvania, the primary reason a Castlevania character fights is out of duty. There is no real gravity felt by the player. Just the battle, for the battle’s sake. Our reward is watching numbers go up, to see the castle uncovered, that Diablo trickle of loot. While I consider Dawn of Sorrow an incredible game, I couldn't tell you what the theme of it was, other than getting stuff and killing stuff.

Game map, taken from the japanese manual. Your path is clear.

Other games “suffered” for me in this regard too. I’m not about to say nonlinearity is bad. I’m trying to say that linearity used well with purpose can imbue the player with a sense of need to play that nonlinear games simply cannot. I’m not ashamed to say I haven’t completed a single Grand Theft Auto game, ever, though I’ve played them all and enjoyed them for their sandbox fun. Given such freedom, there simply isn’t enough need to go on, once the honeymoon is over. 

So Simon goes to the castle, alone. First out of a sense of duty perhaps, but once that gate slams shut his path is clear. There is no turning back. There is no time to dilly dally around the place or “explore” or any of that nonsense.

Either Simon dies, or Dracula dies. Death or victory. That’s all there is.

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