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Revisiting My Masters' Thesis on Metroidvania—Our Ludic Masters: The Dominating Game Space

This piece explores some of the ideas outlined in my master's thesis, "Lost in Necropolis: The Continuation of Castle-Narrative beyond the Novel or Cinema, and into Metroidvania." I attended the Manchester Centre for Gothic Studies (represent, homies) at Manchester Metropolitan University. I started writing my thesis around December 2017 (or thereabouts); I finished it September 26th, 2018 when I returned home to Michigan. MMU accepted it, and my diploma was certified December 7th, 2018.  I received it later in the year through international mail. 

My thesis is not something that MMU would share with anyone, but it does exist. Maybe top men are working on it right now. In any case, I still have it (and not just one physical manuscript like Paul Sheldon). Like my graphic novel and my Prometheus fan edit, it's just kind of there. Sometimes, I work on them, but largely they're entombed on my website. Like the Triforce.

This blog post is me working on my thesis. Back when I wrote it, I was deathly afraid of sharing my work and my ideas. But if my ideas are connected to older stories, my labor at least belongs to me. So now I'm less afraid of sharing my work. Rather, I'm planting a flag and saying, "This is mine, as much as it can be." This is my thesis, motherfuckers:

Sure, I want to be a professor someday. Some people want solid gold toilet seats and cats that meow "The Star Spangled Banner." In the meantime, this post is the plaque on my office wall (actually my office is my art website, where you can read more about my actual thesis, including the abstract). My research never stops. I'm writing this post less to convey what my thesis was, and more what it's become. My thesis is about castle narrative in Metroidvania. This includes casual play and more advanced play styles like speedrunning. Regardless of which, a Metroid player must master their surroundings to survive until the end. 

Game mastery is a large part of my research. However, I'm interested in players being dominated by the game, not the other way around. Seth Giddings and Helen Kennedy touch on this in "Little Jesuses and *@#?-off Robots" (2008). They write:

conventional assumptions that players learn the game system to achieve mastery over it—and that this mastery is the source of the prime pleasure of gameplay—is in fact an inversion of the dynamics and pleasures of videogame play. Games configure their players, allowing progression through the game only if the players recognize what they are being prompted to do, and comply with these coded instructions (13-14).

According to them, the game prompts the player. My argument is less interested in games at large, and more in the relationship between players and Metroidvania. 

The mere phrase "game mastery" might suggest the player mastering a particular game—an idea popularized by the FPS (first-person shooter). Since their inception, the FPS affords the player power fantasies by turning the game into a sparing partner, one with limited attacks. It can be mastered, but mastery of the player by the game is much less omnipresent in Doom. Metroidvania master players in so many different ways, and communicate this mastery as the game is played. This includes the audio-visuals, but also the metaplay surrounding them. This dominance is felt by casual and hardcore (re: speedrunners) players alike. 

As stated, a common stance regarding games mastery is that "players master the game." The FPS, especially Doom Eternal and the franchise more generally, grant the player an ability to master the space by killing demons. Unless your game is Blood, few games are so difficult as to discourage players en masse, and only on higher difficulty settings. These arduous difficulty settings are the exception, which the player can ultimately choose ahead of time; they always have a choice and can consent to whatever horrors the game dishes out. 

Consent equals power. FPS stress power through games mastered by the player. This occurs, at least ostensibly, through action. The visual narrative supports the metaplay by showcasing a player avatar that rips demons apart with ease. The better the player, the more demons die, but even casual players on easier settings are awarded a sense of visual might. There is a sense of failed mastery over the game at the highest possible level (re: speedrunners); the visuals don't support it

A classic Doom speedrunner fails not just because he dies. He can also fail by running into a wall and humping it. This kills the run, not the avatar. The avatar can be killed, but the odds of this happening don't reflect the game's total dominance over the player as part of a larger onscreen narrative. In other words, death becomes a reset point; the player can simply restart the level, usually through a password, checkpoint or save system, and pick up where they left off. When they do, the might their avatar exudes overpowers any reminders of death the demons can promise. As an action to perform, the ripping and tearing allows the player to visually demonstrate their mastery over the gameworld more often than not. Counter examples do occur, but only at the highest level; the casual narrative afforded by the game communicates a hero who is basically unstoppable: unlimited lives, a giant arsenal, even God mode.

Conversely Metroidvania denote a different sense of domination, of the player being mastered by the game more often than not (even when the player runs into a wall or gets lost). This occurs through all forms of metaplay, including outlier strategies like speedrunning. When played, Metroidvania visually remind the player of a larger, stronger force than themselves (often decentralized, and felt throughout the castle). The Metroidvania might be a maze that can be mastered; in terms of exploratory motion, the number of ways it can be mastered far exceeds the simple, linear strategies seen in Doom. Not only is this factually true; it's promoted by the space itself as fundamentally unmappable. 

I say "unmappable" in the sense that Metroidvania routes are communicated by a single map whose territories exceed what the filled-in image can convey. Or as Alfred Korzybski writes:

"A map is not the territory it represents, but if correct, it has a similar structure to the territory, which accounts for its usefulness. If the map could be ideally correct, it would include, in a reduced scale, the map of the map; the map of the map, of the map; and so on, endlessly..." (58, Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics).

A completed map outlines the total area of exploration; the space inside the map—the tunnels, chambers and rooms—shows what can be explored, not how. Also, the map is old, found. The space has been occupied before, a hereditary component conveyed historically in what Bakhtin refers to as the Gothic chronotope, or "castle narrative." This narrative conveys past heroes, or tyrants, who have lived and died in the space, have moved through its halls in dynastic power relations—a sort of give-and-take. This occurs between the environment and the occupant at any given moment. 

Metroid and similar titles—e.g., Metroidvania—present these concepts perfectly. Their maze-like spaces offer scores of broken routes and passages. There's no single route to master, but a castle "conquered" along many roads, with countless combinations of equipment and power-ups. In turn, these upgrades change how the player moves, enabling different narratives of motion and combat through a space fraught with peril (monsters, traps, dead-ends, bottomless pits, natural hazards, ghosts, evil doubles, etc). This peril is written, quite literally, on the walls. Playing Metroidvania at a casual level, the player will initially become lost; then, they will "master" the game, only to discover another route, and another, and another...

This recursive motion is fenced inside an endless graveyard. The castle is not simply a home, but a hall to die in. Not just once, but time and time again. Unlike Doom, where death is largely a side note to be passed over, the Metroidvania narrative is replete with ghastly reminders. The whole experience becomes liminal in terms of textual and thematic elements that are, themselves, infused with metaplay on various registers. It's felt by casual players from moment to moment, and by speedrunners who pride themselves in "mastering" the game. Or so they think.

Take Super Metroid, for example. The game has been played for 27 years and players are still finding new routes. Every victory is offset by a constantly mobile goal post. Visual reminders of this domination echo through the game's audio-visual presentation. Does the player really win when they kill Mother Brain; or, do they become the destroyer themselves, only to return to Zebes to start the cycle anew? The armor of past heroes is the armor worn by Samus, which she steals from Mother Brain, who stole it from the Chozo. Claim over the space is contested, ambiguous and liminal. 

I say "liminal" because the Gothic conflict is communicated and reinforced from moment to moment. Not only is the space unmappable (in the completionist sense) and the player reminded of a viscous, hereditary cycle; the space around them is a tomb that conveys "live burial" from second to second. Even if the player somehow masters the space, they will die and be reclaimed. Then, the space will be forgotten, waiting for the next explorer to emerge (re: At the Mountains of Madness). This new explorer will be compelled to investigate the mysterious ruin, haunted by the ghosts of those who came before. For veterans of the exercise, this ghost is an older version of themselves (also see: The Darkest Dungeon).

All of this dominance—of the player by the space—is felt onscreen and off. Doom has none of this. There are dead or dying marines, but the hero sees their deaths as a casus belli, the call for war. At no moment do the scales fall from his eyes (the hero for Doom is very much male). There's no sense of creeping doom, despite the title; there's no twist at the end, invoking an ignominious death. The player kills all the demons, or loves killing those that remain—so much so that the prospect of perpetual combat becomes orgasmic to him. He's not the Destroyer in the sense of self-destruction; he's locked in a cycle of constant pleasure by forcing himself upon the game and taking from it what he wants.

Fatal attraction is a large part of Gothic stories. But this attraction is one of abjection. This means it leads to some kind of confrontation, denoting the self as monstrous, alien. Think of the final, hidden ending in Hollow Knight. The player transforms into a bigger, nastier creature than the Radiance, who they kill before evaporating like smoke. Hardly a ringing endorsement for self-fulfillment, it's actually a narrative of self-destruction—preceded by a game design that promises final mastery through completion. Even if the player maps the entire space, there's more to be explored, new routes to find. Every attempt fills in the same map. And every time the player reaches the end, the game pulls the rug out from under them. Not only does it depict the player as monstrous; it demonstrates them as hopelessly compelled: "Would you kindly?" indeed.

Autonomy, namely choice, all but defines selfhood. Self-destruction, amongst other things, is the obliteration of choice. Gothic stories anticipate but delay impotency until the so-called "moment of triumph." Then, the player's victory is outright denied by the game; or, it's presented as pyrrhic in a way linked to the player themselves. Players normally self-cultivate through gameplay. Doom players become the Slayer by controlling him; controlled, he embodies them. Metroidvania players control their own avatars through a relationship that leads towards self-destruction. This destruction is not literal; it's the sensation of death told through gameplay. The more time the player spends inside the gameworld, the more they project onto the hero. When this hero is killed, or their heroic mastery is threatened, this bounces back onto the player.

Remember what I said about consent? In this manner, the Metroidvania players consent to the game by adopting a submissive position. Most people sexualize BDSM, but power is exchanged in any scenario, sexual or otherwise. This being said, Gothic power exchanges are often sexualized. Samus is vulnerable when denuded, her naked body exposed to the hostile alien menace (re: the end scene from Alien). Metroidvania conjure dominance and submission through a player that winds up "on the hip" (an old expression that means "to be at a disadvantage"). Another way to think of it is, the player is the bottom, and they're being topped by the game. 

With any power exchange there's always an element of ambiguity and danger (doubly so in Gothic stories). The participants have to trust one another. In this sense, I trust the Metroidvania not to hurt me, but the castle is always somewhat uncanny. I know the gameworld can't hurt me because it's a videogame; it can no more kill me than a dream, or C. S. Lewis's mighty spirit:

suppose that you were told simply "There is a mighty spirit in the room," and believed it. Your feelings would then be even less like the mere fear of danger [of the tiger]: but the disturbance would be profound. You would feel wonder and a certain shrinking — a sense of inadequacy to cope with such a visitant and of prostration before it — an emotion which might be expressed in Shakespeare’s words "Under it my genius is rebuked." (4, The Problem of Pain).

Nevertheless, the paradox—of near-danger in videogames—mirrors the plight of the Neo-Gothic heroine. 18th century women read these stories to feel danger in a controlled sense, but they still submitted to it. By comparison, the Lovecraft junkie submits to cosmic nihilism, and the survival horror enthusiast seeks danger of a particular kind. So do Metroidvania players.

As a Metroidvania enthusiast, I submit to the game's castle narrative. Like a Faustian bargain, this exchange is part of the game's ludic contract. This is not quite how Clint Hockings describes it, in "Ludonarrative Dissonance": "seek power and you will progress." Rather, on some level, the player plays Metroidvania to be dominated. Progression may appear to conquer the space. In reality the space conquers back, and fairly often. I experience these sensations when I control the avatar. However, the vicarious nature of this relationship can become even more framed (concentric): I can watch other people try to master the game, and watch them be dominated by the space. Not even speedrunners can escape this embarrassment, their blushing faces conjoined with the statues already screaming on the walls. How fleeting a victory like Shiny Zeni's is, when it will eventually be bested. Or buried. 

These symptoms and the choices they inform are endemic to Metroidvania. The space is comorbid, boasting a variety of disempowering symptoms. All result from the way the game is played. This play is deconstructive, the player not only invited, but tacitly instructed (there are no explicit tutorials) to blast the world apart: bomb walls, missile doors, and kill bosses for even bigger keys. Not only this; the hidden functions of the gameworld include a reward system: Beat the game quickly enough and you get to see some space booty. 

A person motivated by sex is hardly in control. Not to mention, the sex historically offered by Metroid  is fraught with peril. The entire drive is illustrated by gameplay conducive to speedrunning at a basic level. The same strategies employed by the best runners are executed by regular players. You play the game and begin to play it faster. In some sense, this "maze mastery" is involuntary. The player cannot help but play the game faster as they begin to re-remember the maze. The game exploits this, repeatedly leading the player towards self-destruction and domination.

These feelings are orgasmic, but differently than the Doom Slayer's own attempts at conquest. They're a Gothic orgasm, a kind of exquisite torture. I say "exquisite" because they occur within the realm of play. For Metroidvania, this jouissance is ludic. But sometimes a game can blur the lines. Though not a Metroidvania, the RPG Maker game The Witch's House remains a salient example. I didn't play the game until recently, but want to apply some of my thesis ideas to it through a close-reading.

Note: I will be spoiling this game. I recommend at least watching a no-commentary playthrough of it before reading what comes next!

You play as Viola, a young girl visiting her mysterious friend's spooky house. Inside the titular house, the player can learn its rules, thus explore the gameworld. This inexorable progression is inevitably doomed, the outcome heinous no matter the player or their skill. Like Charlotte Dacre's titanic Zofloya providing Victoria with poison, the game lends the player the instruments for their own demise. Tenacious players are even promised a "best" ending if they "master" the game, beating it without dying. The game only doubles down, punishing the player with virtually the same ending. 

This ending is about as brutal as they come. Even so, such players will have beaten the game already and know the ending—if not it, then games with a similar outcome (re: self-destruction). Players are expected to revel in the game's sadism, deriving pleasure from "punishment" while the game, for lack of a better term, bends them over and fucks them. 

There are many phobias and taboos surrounding this position, from men being afraid of penetration, to women wanting what they can't have unless it's given to them. Being fucked by a videogame, the player consents or stops the game, thus has power. But if the game fucks them at the end, the player can feel like they've been fucked from the start. Sneaky! There's invariably a sense of misdirection at times. The game—and by that I mean many games, not just The Witch's House—remain dominant. Metroidvania and The Witch's House use Gothic situations and imagery to suggest danger while simultaneously misleading the self-deceiving player to be fucked.

Sometimes the already-initiated go willingly and joyously partake of the Numinous pounding. Even so, the ending for The Witch's House is brutal. The "witch" isn't actually the witch; she's Viola, the story's victim. The avatar is Viola's body, possessed by the witch. The story begins when "you" take control, sending "Viola" to the witch's house. Before you do, Viola's father sends you a note telling you not to go into the forest; you aren't the witch, so the forest is dangerous. Little do either of you know… 

The note misleads the reader—in this case the player—into thinking Viola is you, not the witch. Turns out, you're controlling Viola's body but the witch is inside with you. Zoiks! The possession is gradually hinted through journal entries you find inside the house: The witch "swapped" bodies with Viola before the start of the game (it starts right after the possession, in the forest). The house tries to kill you upon entry. So why go back?

Turns out, the witch's powers are tied to her body not her mind. But her original body is occupied by Viola's spirit, who angrily tries to attack the witch using the witch's powers. These include the house, which is effectively an extension of the witch's power (re: Dracula's castle, in Castlevania). To steal her power back, the witch needs a knife locked inside a cabinet near the front of the house (spatially the start of the game). To get the knife, the witch must use Viola's body to navigate the house, reach the "witch," and steal a key from her. The key unlocks the cabinet, which has the knife. 

Once the power is hers, "Viola" leaves the house; the "witch" follows her, crawling along the ground with her eyes gouged out (symbolizing the player's blindness). "Viola" taunts the dying girl until a man approaches, Viola's father. He sees the "witch" and panics, drawing his gun. He rushes to protect "Viola," yelling for the "monster" to get back. Viola doesn't heed him, crawling closer while saying his name. But she has no actual voice; her words appear only in her mind. He fires his weapon, killing her. With the "witch" killed, the house (an extension of its owner's original body) collapses into itself and disappears.

During the finale, the player is meant to identify more with the "witch" than their own avatar. Viola becomes "Viola" through the player's realization that she (thus the game) has been lying to them for the entire story. The avatar is occupied by two individuals: the player controlling her, and by an imposter the player can no longer control. Almost like being possessed, no? The player thinks they are Viola, hence Viola's body belongs to them. They aren't Viola, they're the witch; or rather, the witch is inside them, and assumes control once Viola is dead.

The real horror is retrospective: One, the hero was already dead, trapped inside a blind, disintegrating body while attacking Viola to warn the player (the player reacts towards the hostile home like Viola's father did towards his transformed daughter—with fear and aggression). Two, every action made by the player to preserve "Viola" was actually keeping the witch, the hero's destroyer, alive. Three, the hero ultimately fails, and the villain wins. The player is hoodwinked into self-destruction. Ignominious death? Check.

Initially the player controls the hero thinking they are the hero. Future playthroughs are made by a player who knows they're playing an imposter. Perhaps they think they can defeat this menace by "really" beating the game: acquiring the "best ending." Instead, the game wins, trapping the player inside a foregone conclusion. There is no escape.

This entrapment highlights the game's storybook nature. The words on a page are fixed, fating the hero. Slowly by surely they're lead down an ominous path, and to the Spooky Room Where Bad Things Happen. This promise of danger becomes Radcliffe's infamous Black Veil—known not for its ability to conceal (which it doesn't), but for its constant threatening nature. This danger is liminal—felt regardless if the veil is parted or not. 

Part of the joy is the journey, but the destination remains important. The so-called "bad ending" is famous in Gothic stories, delivering feelings of self-destruction through reliable modes (abjection, the uncanny and the Numinous, etc). In this sense the aforementioned "fucking" is received by the player through these modes. The Witch's House employs them expertly. Yes, the ludic structure is different than Metroidvania typically are; their rapturous, self-destructive outcomes are more similar to each other by far than to Doom.

***

My name is Nick van der Waard and I'm a Gothic ludologist. I have my MA in English Studies: The Gothic from Manchester Metropolitan University. My blog is about horror, but also sex, metal and videogames.

Check out my interview series: From Vintage to Retro: An FPS Q&A seriesHell-blazers: Speedrunning Doom Eternal, "Giving My Two Cents: A Metal Compendium," and the Alien: Ore" Interview Project.

My favorite posts: Dragon Ball Super: Broly - Is It Gothic?, Mandy (2018): Review, Gothic Themes in Perfect Blue. Also check out my guest work on Video Hook-Ups.

Follow me on Twitter! Watch my Gothic podcast! Purchase a commission through my art website! Or support me on Patreon or Ko-Fi!





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