Picture in a Frame
idle thoughts about “x meets y”, cultural canon and how we talk about games
I think a lot about how we frame things. The way we present subjects can immediately change its perception. A change in headline can be the difference between someone engaging empathetically or turning away in disgust. It’s something that continually reappears within cultural discussions, and its important to helping define cultural attitudes.
It’s something that feels repeatedly relevant in games, a space where the practice of describing games as “x meets y” or “game x with twist y” is a common format for arriving at an explanation of a title. Regardless of the accuracy of the individual comparisons, this approach always flattens the nuance of the subject, and often frames games as products that are composed of the chopped up pieces of past works.
This isn’t to say that games don’t owe anything to their history — art often changes in reaction to other work and movements. The problem comes in the way that this descriptor prevents work from being considered on its own terms, and in turn seeks to build a cultural canon by mythologizing particular games.
Let’s talk for a second about Rain World. Rain World is a subject that I’m afraid will be continually torn between the frustrations of those whom it turned away, and the vehement, dismissive defenses of those enamored with it. I didn’t enjoy it, and I still struggle to salvage something from its fascinating world despite the frustration of playing it. In the end I’m not really invested in the consensus of whether it’s a enjoyable game — it makes the argument for multiple positions by itself. What caught my attention was a repeated sentiment that appeared in the reaction to it.
This is best exemplified in Eurogamer’s review of the game by Simon Parkin. In it Parkin compares Rain World to Trent Reznor, Tokyo Jungle, Metroid and of course, in keeping with the zeitgeist, Dark Souls. But what caught my attention was his description of Rain World’s style of platforming, in which he remarks, “ for those raised on Super Mario’s crisp, reliable leaps, it’s a disorientating devolution of platforming ability.”
I don’t mean to pick on the man, but I found this sentence to be a baffling sentiment, one that fundamentally misunderstood the intentions of Rain World. Like many of its design choices, Rain World’s platforming is intended to communicate a sense of vulnerability and fallibility. It plays with procedural animation and fuzzy edges to force you to work with your wits rather than rely on maneuverability to get you out of tough situations. Again, it’s not something I got along with and I don’t begrudge any others who felt it hindered their ability to enjoy the game. What’s upsetting is the way Parkin casually insinuates, knowingly or not, that this is the wrong way to make a platformer, and that the genre should aspire towards Super Mario Bros.
Pay close attention and you’ll find it’s not an uncommon sentiment, either. Similar ideas resurface not only within criticism of Rain World, but the genre as a whole. Super Mario Bros has become the blueprint for the genre, and alternative approaches such as Mighty Bomb Jack, or other deviations are considered either distractions or defects on the way to its refinement.
Similar problems arise when considering applications of the terms “Metroidvania” or the burgeoning “Souls-like,” which define entire genres by their similarities and debts to the Metroid, Castlevania, and Dark Souls series. Often the quality of a game in the genre is judged by its adherence to or ability to emulate aspects of the entries considered to be the series landmarks (Super Metroid, Symphony of the Night, and Dark Souls 1). This even extends to other entries within their own series, and can even retroactively alter the way their predecessors are approached. Consider Symphony of the Night became the blueprint of the Castlevania series, and subsequently gave its predecessors a reputation for being stiff and outdated movement due to their restrictions. Likewise, Dark Souls and Metroid both had their sequels criticized for not adhering to the tenets of design set by the original, and saw the follow ups to those sequels — Dark Souls 3 and Super Metroid — praised for returning to those designs, sometimes even regarded as the apotheosis of their genres.
Metroid II in particular is an interesting case, often marked as a compromised entry in the series, despite its important contributions. In the words of Jeremy Parish, often credited with popularizing the term Metroidvania, it is “ a dark spot on a brilliant series’ reputation”. His criticisms of its reflect the popular conception of it, citing the constrained screen space, oppressive aesthetics, and more restrictive structure as its major faults.
This became complicated in 2016 with the release of Another Metroid 2 Remake [AM2R], a fan remake by Milton Guasti that recreated Metroid II within the style of Metroid Fusion and Super Metroid. Guasti’s work on its own is admirable and impressive, and by itself doesn’t pose a problem. What makes it troubling is the reaction to it, which often positioned it as a fix to the problems of Metroid II, or even as a carrier of its spirit in a world that’s troubled by poor game preservation efforts. All of this fails to understand Metroid II on its own terms and contributes to the erasure of the original work, while positioning AM2R, which hems closer to the genre blueprint of Super Metroid, as a replacement for it.
As S.R. Holiwell explains in A Maze of Muderscapes, Metroid II is ultimately a game about genocide. It’s a singular minded push into the territory of an indigenous species to wipe out a lifeform that has been designated a threat to the galaxy, despite their inability to escape their native planet. Everything about the game contributes to that: the hostile, painful soundscapes, the restrictive corridors, and the counter that makes a permanent space on your HUD, counting down the number of Metroids left alive on the planet.
AM2R retains none of that, replacing every aspect with elements that imitate the blueprint of Super Metroid. The music is more soothing and atmospheric, the tight, encroaching corridors are replaced with open air spaces. Even the Metroid counter is altered, only telling you how many Metroids are left in a particular space, not as a total. By altering these aspects of the original, AM2R arguably creates a smoother, and even more fun, experience. That’s also where it diverges from the spirit of the original. As Holiwell explains:
Metroid II’s music is unaccomodating and discomforting because it’s reflective of the premise of exploring outer space and alien worlds. Games should be uncomfortable if they have purpose, if they’re handled with tact and emotional intelligence. Too often games are about endless pleasure loops — the moment we’re frustrated or confused, we’re taught to see this as a flaw because videogame tastemakers of yore sold us the toxic myth that fun is paramount.
When judged by this criteria, and taken on its own merits, Metroid II is a successful piece that eschews the series identity to establish its own tone. But by the criteria of the Metroidvania, which prizes a continuous, pleasurable sense of exploration and wonder, Metroid II is a failure. It is a black sheep. AM2R, by contrast, plays to the blueprint, and becomes seen as more successful for it. Had AM2R been positioned as a simple alternative to Metroid II it would be fine. But combined with a consensus that undermines the original and positions AM2R as a successor, it becomes an act of cultural erasure.
This speaks to the problem with the term Metroidvania. By positioning particular games as the blueprint, the term has limited the ideas of what constitutes a legitimate approach and erased alternatives. It doesn’t allow space to deviate from those ideas, or allow games to be understood on their own terms.
This is why we no longer refer to first person shooters as “Doom-clones”. It’s an absurd term that positions Doom as the shooters that should be the blueprint for every subsequent entry in the genre. While this line of thinking isn’t exactly dead, talking about the genre with new terms has also allowed space for alternative approaches. Can you imagine a world in which Portal had to be judged by its merit as a Doom clone? It’s an absurd idea, but only because we’ve changed the way that we talk and think about the first person shooter. After all, it’s not too long ago that the original System Shock was judged by these exact criteria.
For games to change we need to change the way that we talk about them. We need to understand them on their own terms, away from the constraints of a genre, or a the legacy of the games that define it. This is why constructions like “x meets y” and the constant mythologizing of the same few games is limiting. It doesn’t allow space for individual experiences and judges the success of a work by how well it imitates its predecessors. It’s the difference between understanding a work within a historical context, and being limited by a narrow view of what that history contains. It reminds me of the mindset of early critics of impressionism, who failed to understand the technique on display, and could only see unfinished works. If we don’t want to imitate the failures of those critics, we’ll need to think about the ways we talk about games, and understand that the frames we put art in change the way we look at it.
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Amr is the Editor-in-Chief of deorbital.media (@deorbital), and clickbliss.net (@clickbliss).