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game design

2d and 3d metroidvanias

This article was originally posted on Tuesday, April 29th, 2014.

So about a year ago, I completed Dark Souls for the first time. It was amazing, as a whole. The level design was fantastic, as well as difficulty. It is, in very many ways, a “Metroidvania” game. It has inspired me to pursue the adaptation of some of its mechanics, albeit modified, into a 2D platformer.

I want to discuss some of the pros and cons of a 2D style ‘Metroid world’ vs. a 3D one, mainly in reference to games that I am familiar with, such as the 2D Metroids (i.e. Super Metroid) and the 3D Metroids (i.e. Metroid Prime) and how Dark Souls fits into this scheme.

> the world

Metroid Prime and Super Metroid both divide their game worlds into rooms. Rarely is any room visible to the other in both games, and this is something Prime failed to take advantage of. The design in Prime was a near exact replication of the formula used in Super Metroid. While not a bad thing per say, Dark Souls reveals a much more intricate and ‘immersive’ world by seamlessly connecting the play-spaces with very little (or noticeable) traditional segmentation. Every building that is accessible is built entirely within the world and its internals do not exist in hammerspace.

Youtuber Phrexeus demonstrates the intricacies of Dark Soul’s world

This is an impressive feat, since rarely do modern video games take this approach.  In Dark Souls there are no jumps in the seams. Everything exists as a solid geography that does not intersect.  Super Metroid as well has no broken seams, and after the jump from Ceres Colony (like the Undead Asylum in Dark Souls), it remains one giant cohesive world.

I’m not quite as familiar with how the level geometry in Metroid Prime fits together, but it does not appear to be disconnected in any major ways. While there exists a few situations where the background scenery becomes a play space, for the most part, Metroid Prime remains heavily segmented, ala 2D style. It does not take advantage of the unique opportunies a three-dimensional play space provides.

This is where Dark Souls excels.  Right out of the gate, you are greeted with some of the most excellent level design of modern video game development.  Dark Souls is so transparent with their consistent use of designing their play spaces to be visible from other areas that the foreshadowing almost goes unnoticed for a major portion of the early game.  From the bridge of Undead Burg above Firelink Shrine, to the visions of Ash Lake at the edge of the Tomb of the Giants, Dark Souls takes full advantage of its ability to show a three-dimensional Metroidvania world.

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Platformers like Super Metroid will always be limited in this regard. Without a way to see ahead, the game simply cannot be designed in any other way then a flat ‘room-centric’ approach that Super Metroid takes. The player’s field of view simply can’t extend past the confined, screen-sized, static environment. Being able to adapt a similar ‘room’ segmentation without abolishing the advantages of its 3D medium (unlike Metroid Prime) through its bonfire mechanic is one of the things that makes Dark Souls so greatly unique and admirable.

> hp, checkpoints and game lockout

All three of these games make use of a checkpoint system but it is important to note the differences between these games. With Dark Souls, game balance is regulated between bonfires very easily, because the developers know exactly how much ‘life’ the Player Character has. In contrast, Super Metroid’s checkpoints are not involved with the health system.  Although rare, it is possible to be stuck in an ‘unwinnable’ situation via lack of a reliable HP replenishment source, but such occurrences are almost always brought onto the Player Character by her own actions. If the player saves in such an unwinnable state, she can be locked out of the game.  This was later rectified in Metroid Prime, where the player’s health was restored upon saving.

This type of game over can be frustrating, because all progress is lost and the player has little means to overcome certain obstacles with little health.  Two major contributions to game lockout are non-regenerating health and unrestricted save-states.  For example, Half-Life has both of these and it is not uncommon to corner yourself and be forced to reload a different game file or start over.

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To combat this, a popular trend that has emerged is ‘regenerating health,’ popularized in shooters such as Halo, and has now become an industry standard within the first person shooter genre. It provides an easy way to balance the game as well as eliminating unwinnable situations.

But Dark Souls sets itself apart, once again.  Despite having most of what makes a game seem frustrating, poorly designed and nearly unwinnable, Dark Souls side steps the burden of that responsibility with its restructured death mechanic.  It’s interesting how much the concept of no penalties for death (besides the player’s soft inventory) can change the perception of a game. It avoids the perils of restarting from game-lockout that can be present in games such as Super Metroid and Half-Life, and also allows the deep gameplay mechanics that a numeric HP system provides.

> personal adaptation

So, what type of gameplay am I seeking to emulate in my future video game developments? I am very eager to explore and experiment with a style very reminiscent to Dark Souls, but adapted into a traditional 2D ‘Metroidvania’.  The particulars are:

  1. Numeric HP system (no auto-regen)
  2. Soft death penalty (continuous world through death)
  3. Unlimited save states (auto saves)
  4. Checkpoints (HP replenishment)

What follows are a few of the questions I have proposed to myself with regards to my experimentation and that I hope to have answers for as I continue development on my game.

  • Can these aspects be integrated into a platformer successfully, or is there a better variation?  
  • What is the best way to implement checkpoints, and how lopsided can you make the soft death penalty without frustrating the player?  For example, suppose in Super Metroid, on death, you dropped your current ‘power-state’ at your death coordinates and returned to the last save station without losing any of the progress you had made.
  • In what ways would the gameplay mechanics have to be altered to make these mechanics balanced and frustration free?

These are just some of the ideas that I’ve had, regarding video game design. In a future post, I will discuss the ideas that I have for my current game, code-named Project Knight Girl, and how it is associated with these gameplay ideals.

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