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"metroidvania"-Style Games, Linear Vs. Non-Linear Design

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Hi everyone,

 

I'm relatively new to the website and what you guys have to offer, so bare with me.

I'm in the process of designing a giant map for one of my games, akin to Super Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, but also realize that the games, though very similar in gameplay, offer a slightly different experience.

I find Symphony of the Night to be a very enjoyable game, but due to the linear nature of the experience (you need upgrade X to reach section Y on the map, then upgrade Z to reach the next section, so on and so forth), it has the fault of offering little replay value once all of the secrets have been discovered and the story has been heard.  The linear nature of the story encourages the player to follow a specific path in the open world, and there's not much derivation from it.  While this sounds bad, it makes developing a deeper storyline much, much easier, since every player will have to experience specific checkpoints in their path, creating perfect moments to add some dialogue.  Metroid: Fusion does a lot of this as well.

 

However, I find Super Metroid to offer a lot in the replayability department, thanks to hidden special techniques (and lol glitches) that were clearly implemented by its developers.  This allows the player to experience the world in many different ways, offers multiple solutions to obstacles as opposed to very specific ones, and gives players reason to go through the experience again with a new wealth of gameplay information.  The only real drawbacks from this is 1) development, because you don't want the player to end up "trapped" anywhere thanks to a special technique, and 2) developing a storyline based on how a player got to a location instead of just getting there makes things a bit more complicated.

 

Thoughts?  Do you prefer a linear, story-driven design in Metroidvania-style games, or does the idea of a non-linear approach sound more exciting?

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This is a pretty classic design problem.

On one hand, you have a highly curated experience (linear) that can play out more like a movie.

On the other hand, you have a player-driven experience (open) that plays out more like an improvisation act.

In between, you have a player-driven experience that has nuggets of curated experiences. This is what you see in open-world RPGs like the Witcher 3 or Skyrim. The little bits of story often do not interact much or at all and sometimes do not make sense when contrasted, but individually they can be of high quality.

There's yet another approach which is passive story-telling. You see this in games like Left 4 Dead; all of the story is written in messages on walls or told visually by the level design. The player does not _experience_ the story but it's still there, a mystery to be unwrapped. While L4D is quite linear, this approach can work very well with non-linear games )e.g., Fallout 1, 2, and NV did this to great effect).

You can combine all these approaches, naturally. A world filled with passive story telling and then nuggets of active story, with the main plot comprised of "linked nuggets" (... that sounds weird).

Executing such a combined strategy isn't easy, of course. How exactly do you link the curated experiences? How do you make sure they're good? Perhaps one "easy" way there is to make the main story points linear in nature (e.g. you must defeat Story Boss 1 to get to Story Boss 2). A slightly more intricate solution is to break your story in acts and require only that acts be done in order (e.g. you must default both Story Boss 1 and Story Boss 2 in order to get to Story Boss 3, but you can defeat bosses 1 and 2 in either order). The limitation here is that it either requires more work for the story to adapt to the order or you must make your stories within an act fully independent. Fallout 4 in one of its rare actually-passable writing moments did the former with one a set of bandit camps, where defeating one bandit would result in different terminal notes at the other raider bases. It wasn't particularly interesting, but it was something.

There is of course then a more dynamic approach. Take the Mass Effect games as an example: you could have characters die or live or never even be acquired at various points in the games, particularly the second installment. The rest of the story adapted. If a key character was dead in a previous game, a new NPC would be used in their place, or the story element would be otherwise adapted or elided.

That could even play well with a Metroidvania game from a pure gameplay. e.g., if you kill Joe Vampire and Sally Werewolf before you reach Bob Goblin, then you fight Bob alone. If either of the first two are alive, they in some way join or influence the fight (and any pre-fight story).

In your case, if you want open and non-linear but with a good story, I'd recommend taking the act approach. There are even more dynamic options, but they're very difficult to write for, and just require shipping _lots_ of content.

So far as which I prefer... I just like good games. A good linear story that is well-executed is great. A good open world that is well-executed is great. Anything in between that is well-wait-for-it-executed is great.

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I really don't know if I can fault ANYTHING in Symphony of the night, as far as I am concerned, that game is near perfect in concept and execution. I do agree that replay value, once you got to know ALL secrets is non-existent... yet getting to know ALL secrets without a good walkthrought is nigh impossible. A normal gamer will maybe get to 40-50% completion rate and will fell like he got more than his money back in playtime.

 

Now, as to Super Metroid, I don't feel that game offers way different replay value than Symphony of the night. Sure, you can cross some obstacles multiple ways, there is still some ability gating involved. And once you have seen all the game has to offer, few people will feel the need to go and play it again (until they dust it off decades later and play it for nostalgias sake).

 

 

I think the secret of good Metroidvania games is to give players an "open world" to walk around in, and plenty of reasons to revisit levels (which Symphony of the night does quite well thanks to the ability gating, and cleverly hidden secrets), yet also give enough narrative and story driven level progression that the whole thing does not feel like an empty sandbox.

This is where the ability gating comes in handy, because you offer the player a completly new expierience when he gets the key for a new sections, that is shown off at full swing immidiatly... while in Super Metroid, you often visit strangly empty and deserted places, only to revisit them later and find out that the enemies only have been added to the level once you trigger certain story events. Which, given later enemies would be pretty hard to beat with a less upgraded Samus, makes perfect sense.

 

Now, I think the solution Super Metroid has chosen for making sure you don't run into high level areas with low level gear, yet you are not 100% gated from reaching areas that are not yet important to the story, works fine for Super Metroid, BECAUSE its weird and wacky space pirate hideout which should be spoky, half abandoned, and run down. Running into empty rooms and sections which are oddly deserted only add to the expierience.

In Symphony of the night, you could probably go for something similar. Yet the game is much more going for the WOW factor. Those cool colloseum stage with the upbeat music would look EXTREMLY weird, if the skeletons and other enemies wouldn't be there to add some life to the scene. That is often not a problem in Super Metroid, most stages look deserted or rundown anyway, and the music is most of the time more muted... it fits a stage without enemies or just some small critters quite well. Actually, the big baddies are often sprung on you as some kind of suprise.

 

 

So I think both games go for a different FEEL, and besides graphics and sound they also use game design to get that FEEL.

 

Symphony of the night would feel weird if you could just walk into Draculas Den to find out, nope, hes not in today, gone grocery shopping. Also, one of the important aspects IMO in SotN is your character is no mere human, he is a powerful undead (half undead?) from the beginning. He is not scared of ghosts and monsters, he is one himself, and seems to not care about his own existence. So pretty much the game is about a badass characters walking into a castle of monsters, and slaying the waves of monsters that attack him.

SotN ir pretty much about finding the needed keys to make progression, and getting to new areas of the castle are the mark of that progression above everything else. In the end, most abilities are kinda useless in combat compared to a high level alucard with some of the endgear weapons and protective gear (only thing which IS kinda broken in this game.... Crissagrim Sword and 2 X the +15 defense necklaces = god mode). The only way how stuff like the bat mode add to the game is by making Alucard dependend on that to reach new areas.

 

Super Metroid on the other hand wants to give players that aliens feel. You are a capable soldier, but just a human being, and with the odds stacked against you. You are walking through empty corridors only to be jumped on by powerful aliens. Its a very different feel the game aims for.

gives the player plenty of things to do with those new abilities besides reaching new areas. Yet Samus cannot really level up, and you never get such game changing weapons and defensive gear like you do in SotN. So those abilities are essential in combat too, against the higher level critters. The ability to survive against those critters is the achievement here.

 

 

Personally, I like both... different games, different stories and characters, different look and feel. You cannot go wrong with either, and I don't think replay value will be increased by much by going without a lot of ability gating. If anything, it will make your job harder as you now need to make sure low level players are not insta-gibbed if they walk into the wrong direction.

If you want replay value, you need to add alternative characters (which SotN does pretty good, playing as richter its a completly different game... to bad the other alternative character didn't make it to the PS Version), add player choices having effects on the story and maybe even gameplay, maybe even go with procedural content to some degree.

 

Just make sure, whatever you do, story and game design reinforce each other like they do in both those games, and you are not throwing Alucard into a Super Metroid game... that would dilute the character the story is going for.

Edited by Gian-Reto

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It seems a matter of taste: both games have a relatively sequential graph of levels and locations, but the challenge of replaying Super Metroid with exotic techniques that alter the game experience and allow discovery of further secrets is perceived as more interesting and attractive than the challenge of replaying Symphony of the Night with weaker gear and/or performing better. Rejecting the former as stupid or unfair glitches and pointless dexterity feats, and looking forward to the latter as the natural metagame of a competitive player would be equally reasonable.

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Just as a heads up, Symphony of the Night is a lot more like Super Metroid than you may think - it definitely has it's share of undocumented features that enable sequence breaks.

 

SotN is also far more broken than you realize, with all sorts of exploitable bugs and glitches, just like Super Metroid.

 

To show just how similar they really are: the fastest way to complete Super Metroid uses a buffer overflow triggered by using the X-Ray Scope out-of-bounds to corrupt the game state and trigger the "Escape from Zebes" sequence early, completing the game in about 13 1/2 minutes (conveniently, the glitch is performed near Samus's landing zone). The fastest way to complete SotN uses a buffer overflow caused by fiddling with a corrupted inventory to run arbitrary code that triggers the game's credit sequence, completing the game in just under 9 minutes.

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I really don't know if I can fault ANYTHING in Symphony of the night, as far as I am concerned, that game is near perfect in concept and execution. I do agree that replay value, once you got to know ALL secrets is non-existent... yet getting to know ALL secrets without a good walkthrought is nigh impossible. A normal gamer will maybe get to 40-50% completion rate and will fell like he got more than his money back in playtime.

 

Now, as to Super Metroid, I don't feel that game offers way different replay value than Symphony of the night. Sure, you can cross some obstacles multiple ways, there is still some ability gating involved. And once you have seen all the game has to offer, few people will feel the need to go and play it again (until they dust it off decades later and play it for nostalgias sake).

 

 

I think the secret of good Metroidvania games is to give players an "open world" to walk around in, and plenty of reasons to revisit levels (which Symphony of the night does quite well thanks to the ability gating, and cleverly hidden secrets), yet also give enough narrative and story driven level progression that the whole thing does not feel like an empty sandbox.

This is where the ability gating comes in handy, because you offer the player a completly new expierience when he gets the key for a new sections, that is shown off at full swing immidiatly... while in Super Metroid, you often visit strangly empty and deserted places, only to revisit them later and find out that the enemies only have been added to the level once you trigger certain story events. Which, given later enemies would be pretty hard to beat with a less upgraded Samus, makes perfect sense.

 

Now, I think the solution Super Metroid has chosen for making sure you don't run into high level areas with low level gear, yet you are not 100% gated from reaching areas that are not yet important to the story, works fine for Super Metroid, BECAUSE its weird and wacky space pirate hideout which should be spoky, half abandoned, and run down. Running into empty rooms and sections which are oddly deserted only add to the expierience.

In Symphony of the night, you could probably go for something similar. Yet the game is much more going for the WOW factor. Those cool colloseum stage with the upbeat music would look EXTREMLY weird, if the skeletons and other enemies wouldn't be there to add some life to the scene. That is often not a problem in Super Metroid, most stages look deserted or rundown anyway, and the music is most of the time more muted... it fits a stage without enemies or just some small critters quite well. Actually, the big baddies are often sprung on you as some kind of suprise.

 

 

So I think both games go for a different FEEL, and besides graphics and sound they also use game design to get that FEEL.

 

Symphony of the night would feel weird if you could just walk into Draculas Den to find out, nope, hes not in today, gone grocery shopping. Also, one of the important aspects IMO in SotN is your character is no mere human, he is a powerful undead (half undead?) from the beginning. He is not scared of ghosts and monsters, he is one himself, and seems to not care about his own existence. So pretty much the game is about a badass characters walking into a castle of monsters, and slaying the waves of monsters that attack him.

SotN ir pretty much about finding the needed keys to make progression, and getting to new areas of the castle are the mark of that progression above everything else. In the end, most abilities are kinda useless in combat compared to a high level alucard with some of the endgear weapons and protective gear (only thing which IS kinda broken in this game.... Crissagrim Sword and 2 X the +15 defense necklaces = god mode). The only way how stuff like the bat mode add to the game is by making Alucard dependend on that to reach new areas.

 

Super Metroid on the other hand wants to give players that aliens feel. You are a capable soldier, but just a human being, and with the odds stacked against you. You are walking through empty corridors only to be jumped on by powerful aliens. Its a very different feel the game aims for.

gives the player plenty of things to do with those new abilities besides reaching new areas. Yet Samus cannot really level up, and you never get such game changing weapons and defensive gear like you do in SotN. So those abilities are essential in combat too, against the higher level critters. The ability to survive against those critters is the achievement here.

 

 

Personally, I like both... different games, different stories and characters, different look and feel. You cannot go wrong with either, and I don't think replay value will be increased by much by going without a lot of ability gating. If anything, it will make your job harder as you now need to make sure low level players are not insta-gibbed if they walk into the wrong direction.

If you want replay value, you need to add alternative characters (which SotN does pretty good, playing as richter its a completly different game... to bad the other alternative character didn't make it to the PS Version), add player choices having effects on the story and maybe even gameplay, maybe even go with procedural content to some degree.

 

Just make sure, whatever you do, story and game design reinforce each other like they do in both those games, and you are not throwing Alucard into a Super Metroid game... that would dilute the character the story is going for.

 

Couldn't agree more about the whole "FEEL" concept with both games.  Background music, besitary, and environment have a lot to do with it, along with a sense of character development to give a human element to it.  Everything does need to work together or you end up with an experience that makes no sense.  And yeah, SotN and Super Metroid have very different feels, but still have a lot of similar gameplay elements.  So, it's like they're the same game, but totally different.

I suppose the argument here is what you would want in terms of replay value, and there's a number of different avenues you can take when designing a game.  I personally loved finding out about the "mock ball" technique, wall jumping, and other somewhat hidden gameplay-permissable shortcuts, and that's what has kept drawing me into playing a game like Super Metroid over and over again, attempting a faster time to clear every time (often times with fewer missiles and energy tanks.)  It still backs up the same notion that you can progress with less stuff, adding to the challenge of the gameplay.  I did conveniently forget about the Richter gameplay storyline, and that extra character does add more replay value to SotN.  I don't remember if the upgrades are the same or not, but I do remember the battling element of gameplay being different.  However, SotN also has the RPG elements in it, which encourages the player to find the "best weapons" and level up to great lengths, which can add investment time from the player.  So, I suppose SotN has replay value just like Super Metroid does, just in a different fashion.  My only problem with SotN like i've mentioned before is that some of these "key items" and bosses are things/obstacles you cannot ignore or circumvent around to progress, whereas Super Metroid does that have that capability.  You can skip the Crocomire and the Spore Spawn minibosses, and there's a bunch of other key items you straight-up don't need in order to complete the game (most notably, the grappling hook.)

From a design point of view, I like the idea of being able to traverse through an open-world map any which way you can.  Mandatory bosses and/or checkpoints help develop a story around it, so the real struggle would be to allow the player to travel freely through the open-world, while at the same time, managing the steps the player takes and create multiple storyline arcs around it.  SotN does this somewhat by encouraging the player to achieve different endings and final bosses based on actions taken in the game, but Super Metroid does not (because there isn't a focus on story after Ceres blows up.)

 

One thing I worry about, in this day and age, is a player looking at a complete overworld map on the internet, going "OH OKAY THAT'S WHERE EVERYTHING IS" and achieving all the secrets and hidden stuff easily.  So, maybe another thing worth considering in design is a small puzzle aspect to finding secrets as opposed to just breaking all the right walls and finding the meats in them.  SotN does this as well with a few of its mysterious obstacles (like the room where you can sit down and the ghost will show up? that took me forever as a player to figure out, but it ended up being kinda necessary to access other parts of the game.)

Edited by sixteenbithero

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Just as a heads up, Symphony of the Night is a lot more like Super Metroid than you may think - it definitely has it's share of undocumented features that enable sequence breaks.

 

SotN is also far more broken than you realize, with all sorts of exploitable bugs and glitches, just like Super Metroid.

 

To show just how similar they really are: the fastest way to complete Super Metroid uses a buffer overflow triggered by using the X-Ray Scope out-of-bounds to corrupt the game state and trigger the "Escape from Zebes" sequence early, completing the game in about 13 1/2 minutes (conveniently, the glitch is performed near Samus's landing zone). The fastest way to complete SotN uses a buffer overflow caused by fiddling with a corrupted inventory to run arbitrary code that triggers the game's credit sequence, completing the game in just under 9 minutes.

 

That I did not know.  But does this mean they're similar because they can both glitch the same way, or does this mean they're similar because there are ways to circumvent key items in the game?  From a speedrunner's perspective, sure, that sounds awfully similar, but I'd love to hear more about ways to avoid key items in SotN to gain access to other parts of the game without completely glitching the game out.

Please, do tell me more!

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