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Series Abstract: "Mazes and Labyrinths: Disempowerment in Metroidvania and Survival Horror"

I'm a Gothic ludologist who writes about horror in videogames. My specialty is Metroidvania, but I also research FPS (first-person shooter) and survival horror. This post is the abstract for my upcoming interview series "Mazes and Labyrinths," which interviews speedrunners and Twitch streamers about Metroidvania and survival horror games. It also examines how these games use various kinds of space (re: mazes and labyrinths) to disempower players of varying combat prowess (re: weapons and armor) and mobility. 

Update, 4/16/2021: This piece is currently under construction; in response to conversations within the abstract's reddit postI'm expanding on certain sections. So the abstract might read a bit differently depending on when you read it. :P

Note: The compendium—containing the interviews themselves, and any relevant links—will be provided in a separate, future post. 

The abstract is divided into five main sections: 
  • Overview
  • Space
  • Cross-Franchise Hybrids
  • Action and Power
  • Research Goals
To discuss how Metroidvania disempower players, we'll first have to define what they are. The Overview generalizes each genre—FPS, Metroidvania and survival horror—whereas Space and Cross-Franchise Hybrids focus on Metroidvania specifically. Action and Power ties Metroidvania to FPS and survival horror, and Research Goals explains what the series hopes to achieve.

1. Overview

"Mazes and Labyrinths" is corollary to my past research on how FPS empower players; it explores how Metroidvania and survival horror disempower players trapped inside their respective gameworlds. They offset the player's strength, generally to tell a perilous story. This peril stems from varying lapses of power due to a hero's position—who they are and where they exist within a space. 

Female heroes in FPS are exceptionally rare; we'll explore how Metroidvania and survival horror heroes are often female, or have traditional feminine qualities or predicaments. The stories of such heroines are less about proving how strong they are, like their male FPS counterparts, and more about surviving a larger menace. Some non-FPS heroines, like Samus, are fairly weak from the offset but progressively grow stronger. Some, like Jill Valentine, remain slow and vulnerable throughout the entire game. 

At First Glance

Videogame genres are usually categorized as gerunds. FPS are self-evident: First-Person Shooter. Survival horror is also a gerund, one crystallized by the Resident Evil franchise: "Enter the survival horror" or (depending on the game and translation) enter "the world of survival horror." 


All genres are marketing terms; with videogames, genres are used to explicitly advertise action. "Survival horror" are a bit different; they tie the action to a place, thus making the label a gerund and a location. But the so-called "resident evil" doesn't account for its exact ludic function in spatial terms (re: a maze or a labyrinth). Neither do Metroidvania, except they aren't a gerund at all; they're a combination of franchise labels, generally acting as vague location descriptors that fail to specify space type or action type. 

Nevertheless, Metroidvania and survival horror are both famous for their idiosyncratic gameworlds, which combine highly specific space types with trademark forms of action against perennial threats and scenery. Each reliably contains zombies, ruins, and mad science, but calling either by the other's label would suggest more about them than what's accurate. Likewise:
  • qualifying either genre "horror," or "horror Metroidvania" in Metroidvania's case, would sound vague or redundant
  • calling Metroidvania "action/platformers" and survival horror "action/adventure" would leave out the worlds that made them famous, but also the names of those places that people associate with their iconic action
  • calling either genre FPS or TPS (third-person shooter) would technically be correct, but would also incorrectly lump them in with other videogames that stress those elements more
These are some of the reasons why I think the labels "Metroidvania" and "survival horror" stuck, despite being unconventional marking terms. 


To be fair, "survival horror" was often used in official published material, and as early as 1999:

"Capcom made up the survival horror genre because the company didn't feel that the Resident Evil games really fit in any exisiting category" (PSM 58).

This worked because it all belonged to Capcom. Conversely "Metroidvania" was effectively the combination of two IPs owned by different Japanese companies. So the term was never printed in any official capacity. In fact, it wasn't until the mid-2010s that "Metroidvania" saw wider use in the indie market: PC Gamer, Engadget, GamaSutra, Giant Bomb and Wired.

Metroidvania

Compared to FPS and survival horror, Metroidvania are the vaguest label when it comes to advertising action, while also having the most variable action inside their gameworlds historically. Out of the three, it remains the most misunderstood; some even vilify its use


In 1986, Metroid was advertised as adventure. The term, like the game, is somewhat dated, with "action/adventure" referring to games whose individual components could not be summed up by a single verb—either because said action was too complex and eclectic (re: System Shock), or because a gaming precedent hadn't yet been established. To this, Metroid is technically a TPS, but the label "shooter" didn't exist when the game was published; instead, its other forms of action were eventually married to its primarily mode of movement, platforming. 

Alas, "action-platformer" doesn't do much to separate Metroid from Super Mario Bros., even though both games are incredibly different. If you wanted to be more thorough, you could call Metroid a "horror-themed, exploration-based action-platformer" (this isn't too far from how Twitch categorizes Super Metroid, labeling it as "Action," "Adventure Game," "Shooter" and "Platformer"). But this approach not only fails to account for Metroid's claim to fame, the maze; it also ignores the game's location within an umbrella genre whose considerable hybridity also borrows from Castlevania, as well as other genres: FPS, RPG, action-adventure and survival horror.

Let's start with a basic, comprehensive definition, courtesy of Jeremy Parish:

"Metroidvania" is a stupid word for a wonderful thing. It's basically a really terrible neologism that describes a videogame genre which combines 2D side-scrolling action with free-roaming exploration and progressive skill and item collection to enable further, uh, progress. As in Metroid and Koji Igarashi-developed Castlevania games. Thus the name.

While I don't feel that I stray too far from Jeremy's ideas, my definitions are more numerous and specific. Moving forward, we'll explore these definitions, and apply them to other genres. 

The next two sections, Space and Cross-Franchise Hybrids, catalogue the impressive spatial variety seen in Metroidvania gameworlds. Whilst those are important, an even quicker distinction is power. Metroidvania, FPS and survival horror all afford the player varying degrees of power through action—i.e., the player responding to the gameworld and its inhabitants. We'll explore that relationship more thoroughly in the Action and Power section.

2. Space

This section is a glossary of terms concerning space in Metroidvania. Inside are my specific definitions for "maze," "labyrinth," and "Metroidvania," as well as the spectrum on which they all exist. To hear my extended thoughts on Metroidvania space, please refer to my video on Metroidvania Mazes and Labyrinths, and this reddit post.

Terms

Mazes and Labyrinths: I treat space as essential when defining Metroidvania. Mazes and labyrinths are closed space; their contents exist within a closed structure, either a maze or a labyrinth. A classical labyrinth is a linear system with one set, unicursal path towards an end point; a maze is a non-linear system with multiple paths to an end point.

Metroidvania, etymology: As its most basic interpretation, Metroidvania is a portmanteau of Metroid and Castlevania, specifically "Metroid" + "-vania." However, the term has no singular, universally-agreed-upon definition. Because I focus on space, my definitions—of the individual portmanteau components—are as follows:

"Metroid" =/= the franchise, Metroid; "metroid" = that franchise's unique treatment of closed space—the maze

"-vania" =/= the franchise, Castlevania; "castlevania" equals that franchise's unique treatment of closed space—the labyrinth

At the same time, "Metroid," or "metro" + "-oid" means "android city." "Castlevania" or "castle" + "-vania" means "other castle," "demon castle," or "castle Dracula." The portmanteau, "Metroidvania" ≈ "android city" + "demon castle" + "maze" + "labyrinth."

In terms of appearance, a Metroidvania's audiovisual presentation can range from retro-future sci-fi to Neo-Gothic fantasy. Nevertheless, their spaces typically function as Gothic castles; replete with hauntological monsters, demons, and ghosts, they guide whatever action the hero must perform when navigating the world and dealing with its threats. 


Metroidvania, terminology: Being inclusive, "Metroidvania" has several broader definitions I did not create:
  • The narrow definition, briefly used by American consumers in the late 1990s/early 2000s to inaccurately describe SotN (re: a Castlevania game + Super Metroid's map system).
  • Jeremy Parish's nuts-and-bolts definition from 2006: "a videogame genre which combines 2D side-scrolling action with free-roaming exploration and progressive skill and item collection to enable [further] progress."
There's also the commodified umbrella term from the mid 2010s, which includes a wide variety of "indie" titles related to either Metroid or Castlevania, or various spiritual successors. To compensate, I've created a definition for Metroidvania as a present, broader commodity in the gaming market: 

Metroidvania are a location-based videogame genre that combines 2D, 2.5D, or 3D platforming and ranged/melee combat—usually in the 3rd person—inside a giant, closed space. This space communicates Gothic themes of various kinds; encourages exploration* depending on how non-linear the space is; includes progressive skill and item collection, mandatory boss keys and variable gating mechanics (re: bosses, item, doors); and requires movement powerups in some shape or form, though these can be supplied through RPG elements as an optional alternative.

*Exploration pertains to the deliberate navigation of space beyond that of obvious, linear routes—to search for objects, objectives or secrets off the beaten bath.

The Metroidvania Spectrum

Apart from newer games, my definition also highlights the spectrum actualized and inhabited by older titles over the past thirty-odd years:

CV ---- CV-style ---- cross-franchise hybrids ---- Metroid-style ---- Metroid

The extreme poles are represented by either parent franchise. These franchises appeared in 1986, and introduced a signature space to videogames: 
  • Metroid space = nonlinear, multi-directional mazes, with chimeric boss keys
  • Castlevania space = linear, single-direction labyrinths, with singular end-stage boss gates
More towards the middle, you have franchise sequels or spiritual successors whose space behaves similarly to either parent franchise:
  • Castlevania-style Metroidvania, which borrow spatially from Castlevania
  • Metroid-style Metroidvania, which borrow spatially from Metroid
  • Cross-franchise hybrids, which borrow spatially from both parents
Since 1986, videogame mazes and labyrinths have generally become associated with monsters and locational phobias (re: live burial, isolation, exposure). Mazes and labyrinths are structurally fundamental; Metroidvania developers can draw upon them (and their supernatural inhabitants) without pointedly referencing Metroid or Castlevania. You'll know it when you see it; you might even call it something else.

Soulsbourne

Before we continue onto Metroidvania hybrids in earnest, I wanted to quickly address the "Soulsbourne" games (re: King's FieldDark SoulsBloodbourne) and why I consider them to be Metroidvania.

The fact is, I hesitate to call latter-day Metroidvania "Soulsbourne" just because Dark Souls are currently more popular than Metroid or Castlevania. The notion of Gothic space in videogames has to start somewhere, and it did—in 1986. Since then, mazes and labyrinths never really changed at a fundamental level. That's why Darks Souls feels like a Metroidvania to me; the function of its maze-space is virtually identical to Zebes—non-linear and multi-directional, with boss keys. 

Meanwhile the game's limited, brutal platforming and precise monster battles feels like Castlevania in 3D with RPG components thrown in. Sound familiar? It should; SotN introduced RPG elements into a Metroid-style maze and they called it Metroidvania. In short, Soulsbourne are nowhere close to being different enough to merit their own genre; they simply have too much in common with their forebears. I'll happily consider them a subgenre, but that's still a Metroidvania: Like Zebes, Lodran is a single, giant level, one whose closed space the player must explore, conquer and escape. 

3. Cross-Franchise Hybrids

Metroidvania are hybrids by design. This section explores the cross-franchise hybrids that complicate the framework provided above. This can be through contrasting elements from either parent franchise (re: label trouble), or by adding "outsider" elements: open space and RPG action.

Label Trouble

I've been using the terms "Metroid-style" or "Castlevania-style" for the sake of simplicity and people's familiarity with the games themselves. The problem is, this can suggest connections to a past franchise that:
  • people have essential, pre-conceived notions of
  • contains many parts, not just space
  • has continued to evolve over time
In other words a franchise is iconic, but also plastic. To say "Metroid-style" suggests its original, "essential" cosmetics, but also whatever space people tend to associate with the franchise at any given moment, even if this association is by no means historically constant. Think of it as a recycled blueprint with pathos, except blueprints can be modified over time.

For example, classic Castlevania are linear and classic Metroid are not. Nevertheless, certain Metroidvania set in the Castlevania franchise—especially SotN—rely more on the Metroid treatment of space. Post-SotN, some Castlevania (or comparable games) only appear maze-like; their closed, network-like worlds actually are quite linear (re: Portrait of RuinBlasphemous). 


I've developed a rule of thumb when classifying Metroidvania from either franchise, or spiritual successors with no obvious parent: 

A non-linear or maze-like mid-game (the bulk of the playing experience) classifies the game as Metroid-style Metroidvania, regardless of the franchise involved; a linear or labyrinthine mid-game classifies the game as Castlevania-style Metroidvania regardless of the franchise involved.

For example, Metroid Fusion belongs to the Metroid franchise, and its gameworld is massive, closed and interconnected. And yet, the path Samus can take is incredibly linear. Mid-game, she is repeatedly forced into difficult, multi-staged boss fights (a Castlevania hallmark, reintroduced by Dark Souls). This makes the space in Metroid Fusion feel not just labyrinthine, but Castlevania-esque despite its franchise-faithful appearance.

Conversely SotN is part of the Castlevania franchise; its gameworld is stuffed with recycled Castlevania monsters. And yet, its mid-game is pretty open in terms of where you can go and who you can choose to fight. This owes itself to the Metroid-style blueprint Koji Igarashi used when making the SotN gameworld.  

To this, Metroid Fusion is spatially a cross-franchise hybrid (re: linear, interconnected, multi-directional space). Despite spatially being in the Metroid-style (re: non-linear, multidirectional space), SotN is a cross-hybrid; the action inside its non-linear gameworld is atypical thanks to the RPG elements SotN introduces from games like Zelda II and Dragon Warrior.

"Zeldavania": Open-space and RPG Components

Though inspired by Zelda II, SotN is not a "Zeldavania"; its space is far too closed and mazelike. However, the more experimental a cross-hybrid is, the more it features the open space and RPG action typical known to the Zelda franchise. 

Metroidvania mostly operate inside closed spaces. Whether a giant maze or a series of smaller labyrinths inside a larger structure, these spaces are generally self-contained, and have no outer limits (excluding tutorial areas, re: Ceres Station). The player can never "leave" while the game is at play and there's nowhere else for them to go. They must beat the game to escape, usually by killing a central monster. 

Open space, on the other hand, is somewhere for the player to exit to, often an overworld or town:
  • Overworlds: Large, usually top-down open areas where the player is free to roam and choose where they want to go, but must physically traverse (usually on foot). Multiple closed spaces (re: dungeons) can be accessed from the overworld, and the player is generally free to return to the overworld by exiting the dungeon. The overworld can be explored for its own sake, and often hides many secrets the player must discover.
  • Towns: Places to rest, resupply and interact with quest mobs. Towns cannot always be teleported to; some exist inside a closed space and must be approached through that space.

Overworlds don't exist in Metroidvania. If they did, SotN would have borrowed that from Zelda II. It didn't, and its closed, maze-like qualities feel spatially closer to Metroid despite the game's Zelda II-meets-Castlevania combat. But a future cross-franchise "Zeldavania" hybrid could arguably introduce overworlds to the format.

A smaller overworld would certainly justify "Zeldavania" as a spatially unique subgenre in under the Metroidvania umbrella. This being, a Metroidvania hybrid could only only have so much open space before turning into a Zelda game. That's why Breath of the Wild isn't a Metroidvania despite its non-linear approach; exploring its overworld is fundamentally different than exploring the closed spaces typically seen in Metroidvania.

Despite the lack of an overworld, various classic Castlevania titles (re: Simon's Quest) and Iga-vania (re: Order of Ecclesia) let the player visit towns in between levels, or from a menu-based map screen. Towns aren't a part of the regular gameworld; they're a break from it, even when inside the closed space (re: Firelink Shrine from Dark Souls 3, or Dirtmouth from Hollow Knight).


Another point about "open" space in Zelda games: Overworlds are hilariously easy for speedrunners to break. When broken, they allow players to walk into any dungeon they want, in any order, with no equipment. This issue has existed since 1986, and allows for a variety of speedruns: out-of-bounds, major glitches. This makes it difficult for closed spaces to contain the player, and so-called "exploration glitches" can all but destroy space-faithful routes, obstacles and gates inside dungeons. More often than not, and to varying degrees, this is a normal practice in many Zelda speedruns; not every Zelda game has a Major Glitches category. 

Comparatively out-of-bounds in Metroidvania are generally confined to the limits of the game map. You can go out-of-bounds, but there's nowhere for you to go beyond the black map rectangle containing Zebes or Dracula's castle. Furthermore, Metroid-style mazes are intentionally "brittle," and meant to be explored with missles and bombs that wreck the gameworld, creating multiple paths for the player to choose from. So while glitches certainly exist, they're generally less obvious, and always limited to Major Glitches categories. They're seldom the norm, and runners generally don't go for them except within category extensions.


RPG components are atypical, even ironic, in Metroidvania. This irony stems from that fact that action is generally prefaced by a particular space that can support various forms, but remains historically biased. For example, the classic notion of Castlevania-style space is generally linear, with melee- and platform-heavy combat inside a 2D world. But Dark Souls, despite cosmetically channeling the medieval Gothic aesthetic, is 3D, nonlinear, and fairly grounded in its combat (which can be ranged, melee, or both).

Newer Metroidvania, especially "indie" titles, tend to borrow more from videogames inspired by Metroid or Castlevania. While Hollow Knight sits comfortably in the Metroid-style category of space, it borrows the blacksmith and soul currency systems from Dark Souls, a game spatially comparable to Super Metroid. Context matters—when the game was made and with what. Despite newer Metroidvania venturing beyond Metroid and Castlevania, their use of closed space—either mazes or labyrinths—doesn't change. 

Space contains action; Metroidvania action varies tremendously regardless of the space type. For example, the gameworlds in SotN and Dark Souls are both maze-like, but the action differs radically within each maze, let alone when compared to the action inside Metroid 1. Similarly, the level design in Blasphemous is quite linear for a Metroidvania; its rigorous, demanding action is far more comparable to Dark Souls (or even NES Castlevania) than the sort of pedestrian, RPG-themed melees frequently portrayed in the handheld Iga-vania (re: Aria of Sorrow). 


Iga-vania, Zeldavania, Soulsbourne. It'd be easy to say all of these games have little in common and belong to different genres, but in reality they're all Metroidvania; their themes, imagery and action consistently overlap (to varying degrees) inside linear and non-linear closed space.

4. Action and Power

Despite these definitions and caveats, there remain finer points that FPS, Castlevania-style Metroidvania, Metroid-style Metroidvania, and survival horror tend to emphasize differently. These points—combat, exploration, platforming and survival—revolve around the gameworld, but also the action contained within, and the power it affords or denies the player. 

Note: Some of these points are relatively fixed; some are not. For Metroidvania, the most rigid and identifying component is space (re: mazes or labyrinths); though mazes are entirely possible, FPS and survival horror tend to feature labyrinths. The respective power roles inside each genre tend not to vary much, and player-controlled action more generally is the most flexible and varied component, relative to space and power.

FPS (first-person shooters) traditionally empower players through non-stop combat. Combat is stressed, core; sometimes platforming is also stressed, but not exploration or survival.
  • ubiquitous; emblematic of gaming in general, iconic
  • 1st person POV in a 2.5D/3D world
  • male, one-man-army heroes; empowered
  • combat-heavy
  • projectile attacks; limited and optional* melee attacks
  • copious, powerful weaponry, armor and healing items
  • copious fodder enemies that frequently drop health and ammo
  • boss-gated episodes
  • item-gated maps with color-coded door keys
  • easy-to-navigate labyrinths; no fall damage, but some environmental hazards
  • minimal exploration and backtracking
  • moderate secrets 
  • variable platforming 
  • lack of all-around scares or genuine Gothic sensations** 
  • no death animations

Examples: Doom series and "clones," Far Cry 1, Ion Fury

*Exceptions include melee-friendly games like Amid Evil and Hexen.
**Exceptions include horror-themed FPS like Blood, PSX Doom (1995), and F.E.A.R.

Castlevania-style Metroidvania (re: games based off primarily the Castlevania approach to space and action) empower and disempower players through nonstop platforming and combat. Combat and platforming are stressed, but not exploration or survival.
  • currently indie; dated, retro
  • 3rd person POV in a 2D/2.5D world; side-scroller*
  • male "hunter-type" heroes; half-empowered, half-disempowered
  • combat-heavy
  • melee attacks; limited and optional projectile attacks (re: sub weapons, spells)
  • one-use healing items (re: wall meat, Estus flasks)
  • copious dangerous enemies that don't drop health and ammo
  • boss-gated levels
  • dangerous-to-navigate labyrinths, with killer pitfalls
  • minimal exploration, secrets and backtracking 
  • copious platforming*
  • occupied, hauntological spaces (re: Neo-Gothic) that trap players in emotionally nostalgic worlds (re: monsters are awesome)
  • minimal death animations
Examples: Castlevania 1, BlasphemousBloodstained: Curse of the MoonSekiro: Shadows Die Twice

*Exceptions include the 3D Castlevania titles like Lament of Innocence or Curse of Darkness, which abandon platforming for a more Devil May Cry approach to combat.


Metroid-style Metroidvania (re: games based off primarily the Metroid approach to space) empower and disempower players through occasional combat and nonstop exploration. Exploration and platforming are stressed; sometimes combat is also stressed, but not survival.
  • currently indie; dated, retro
  • 3rd or 1st person POV in a 2D/2.5D/3D world; side-scroller or FPS
  • androgynous "hunter-type" heroes; detectives; half-empowered, half-disempowered
  • moderate combat
  • projectile attacks* and bombs
  • progressively powerful-but-optional weapons, armor and movement upgrades
  • copious fodder enemies that drop health and ammo
  • final area (and boss) boss-gated by elusive "mini-bosses" that must be hunted
  • somewhat-dangerous-to-navigate mazes, with environmental hazards
  • copious exploration, secrets and backtracking
  • copious platforming
  • derelict, hauntological (re: retro-future) spaces that trap players in emotionally intense** worlds (re: intimations of death) 
  • quick, dramatic death animations
Examples: Metroid, Hollow Knight, Dark Souls, Environment Station Alpha

*Hollow Knight primarily features melee attacks.
**Potential exceptions include ShantaeGuacamelee.

Survival horror disempower players through combat and exploration. Survival is stressed, but not combat, platforming or exploration.
  • mainstream, but niche
  • 3rd or 1st person POV in a 3D world; usually TPS, but sometimes FPS
  • female or feminine "prey-type" heroes; always disempowered
  • minimal combat
  • projectile attacks, with limited melee attacks*
  • scarce and/or ineffective weapons, armor and healing items
  • numerous dangerous enemies that hunt the player and don't drop health and ammo
  • one or more "unkillable" bosses that boss-gate different areas
  • item-gated through prop hunts and copious door keys
  • dangerous-to-navigate labyrinths, with plenty of puzzles and traps 
  • minimal exploration; moderate secrets and backtracking
  • zero platforming
  • uncanny spaces that aim to frighten or shock the player
  • multiple, protracted, often gross death animations (re: "You died" or "You are dead").
Examples: Alien Isolation, Dead Space 1, Resident Evil (2002), System Shock

*Exceptions include: Onimusha, which are primarily melee-based.

5. Research Goals

My past two series explored FPS games, which tend to empower players. "Mazes and Labyrinths" explores Metroidvania and survival horror—how they use their maze-like and labyrinthine gameworlds to disempower players/speedrunners while also telling an audiovisual story onscreen. The series examines how space is used in Metroidvania and survival horror to:
  • Ludically disempower players by forcing them inside a gameworld that limits the power and quantity of their weapons, capacity and speed.
  • Visually disempower players through spatial themes of the prison, graveyard, and abusive or tyrannical home: involuntary incarceration, live burial, hereditary trauma and compulsory/sacrificial power rites.
  • Expose players to Gothic situations: monsters, oscillation, Numinous power and other Gothic variables (re: abjection, the uncanny or hauntological, etc).
  • Communicate or contain other popular tropes: paralysis, imposter syndrome/doubles, self-destruction (re: the Faustian bargain, the Promethean quest).
  • Explore various taboos: incest, infanticide, cannibalism, abuse fantasies, etc.
  • Support, not deconstruct, these narratives when speedrun—at various speeds and routes, with various glitches and tricks.
I shall be interviewing speedrunners and Twitch streamers of various Metroidvania and survival horror. These include:
  • The classic MetroidCastlevania and Resident Evil games.
  • Metroid-style and Castlevania-style Metroidvania within either parent franchise.
  • Metroidvania hybrids from other franchises (re: Dark Souls, Bloodbourne).
  • Modern indie titles that continue to experiment with the form (re: Axiom Verge, Hollow Knight, Astalon, etc).

Why Speedrunners?

As outlined in my master's thesis, I'm largely interviewing speedrunners because they illustrate how well these games hold up narratively (from a Gothic standpoint) when played deconstructively. Casual players do the same activities, especially in classic Metroid, but speedrunners provide the so-called "stress test" decades later.

Metroidvania, in particular, feel like they were designed to be speedrun (re: sequence breaks, tech). This shows in the stories that manifest onscreen during gameplay. The story in Metroid, for example, is essentially told through motion—i.e., movement through a Gothic castle (re: a prison, a dungeon, a monster's lair) that elicits fearful and exciting emotions of so-called "past trauma" experienced in the present. These aren't just older, diegetic (re: in-game) heroes and plights that mirror Samus' current struggle; "past struggles" also include the speedrunner constantly trying to beat the game using the same avatar they've controlled for years. 

Onscreen, the game's promise of trauma is literally written on the walls, but also on the armor that Samus pilfers from the vaults. The player borrows this armor to tell the same basic story over and over inside the gameworld. They add to a videogame's ever-growing history within the ludic space, but also projecting comfortably onto the icons themselves. Barring game-breaking categories, runners generally perform the game's audiovisuals in ways that reliably communicate conventional unspeakables: blood sacrifice, imprisonment, futile struggles against "ancient" symbols of power (tyrants, castles), etc. 

The maze or labyrinth is central to these outcomes, and remains integral to the game's story when told by speedrunners. Spaces do not change; a player's actions often do, depending on who's playing the game. Speedrunner have a habit of moving strangely. Often they adopt a kind of "runner's gait," a movement strategy that exploits a character's basic movement mechanics to move as quickly as possible from moment to moment. 


You might argue this deconstructs the story, if only because it's hard to take a hero with an ataxic or comical gait seriously. But this varies from game to game. A common tactic in Super Metroid is arm-pumping, a technique saves handfuls of frames per room. This looks a tad quirky to be fair, but the movement abuse in Castlevania is much more broken. This is largely because movement powerups in Iga-vania don't go hand-in-hand with space; no wall jumps or running starts are needed, which means they can be spammed. This ranges from Alucard's perpetual backdash in SotN, to Charlotte and Jonathan constantly swapping and shouting each other's names in Portrait of Ruin to move as fast as possible. 

The irony is that those aren't even glitches—they're normal features being abused by runners for maximum speed—but they look tremendously strange regardless. It's worth noting that various categories historically allow for different kinds of glitches. There are some glitches in Metroid, to be sure, but "blue suit" or "mock ball" are fairly inconspicuous and nowhere near as busted as the "exploration glitches" seen in Zelda. The Metroidvania umbrella operates under closed space, so these glitches are less common; even so, Castlevania still sports some incredibly wild glitches (re: this CV3 run, at 10:35).

At times speedrunner movement barely registers as normal motion, making their narratives a tad visually incoherent. But more often than not, this feature is category dependent, and generally less common than you might think. Nevertheless, my work will be focusing on "lite runs" that largely preserved the intended audiovisual experience. There with be few if any major glitches from the runs I examine.


As something to explore and survive, I'll be asking runners about the games they specialize in, but also their emotional experiences more broadly. Regardless of variation, I feel like there's still a lot of potential for the player—specifically the interview subject—to feel dominated by the space, imprisoned by it even though they have countless hours in the field. Maybe that domination—of the player by the game—is part of the appeal.

I would argue such attractions to power are generally tacit. Weakness, especially in connection to taboo themes, is generally understated in larger, decent society. For example, my PhD research also explores my own attraction to power, including the sexualized components. It suggests that speedrunners are like anyone in a Gothic tale—guided by instinct and attraction to power (sex, or otherwise) through symbols thereof, without always thinking about why.

Thoughts on Power

This series wants to explore arrangements of power and why people pursue them, including speedrunners.

The keys to power in videogames—at least in terms of player performance—are space, motion and equipment. To this, the exact relationship between the player and the space depends on what means they have to survive. The more guns, movement, and space a player has to operate, the more power they demonstrably have within a game's audiovisual narrative. This being said, the argument remains that players themselves are constantly conditioned by videogames—to play by their rules, and adopt whatever roles it offers to them: to specialize, in other words.

Simply put, powerful guns equal powerful players... provided the space doesn't interfere. Apart from arenas stuffed with jump pads and other means of player empowerment, many non-FPS spaces will enslave, confine or dominate the player (re: the haunted house, underworld, or prison). They accomplish this by denying the player access to their power source: a surplus of effective guns; a glut of useful equipment or environmental aids; or an army of disposable enemies. Denied these luxuries, a player might start to feel trapped by a claustrophobic world, forced to play by its rules (re: its physical boundaries—the floors, vaulted ceilings and walls).


To this, Doom, and FPS more generally, are about shooting stuff. Recursive movement and castle narrative* are dismissed in exchange for straight ahead displays of might. The hero slays the dragon or demon, and does so in a straightforward tunnel or arena. Either there's no haunted house or emphasis on the past, or the playground is nostalgic and fun; in the latter case, the gameworld's "pastness" is nurturing to the player by inviting them to kill demons.

*Bakhtin's notion of the Gothic chronotope, or "time-space," is effectively how Gothic novels and their spaces communicated their sense of time: fatal portraits, effigies, heraldry and other reminders of dynastic trauma and hereditary power exchange. I outline these ideas more in "Revisiting My Masters' Thesis on Metroidvania—Our Ludic Masters: The Dominating Game Space."
 
Conversely Metroidvania and survival horror offer a different kind of pastness. To varying degrees they combine exploration with a partially enfeebled protagonist—one who must either hunt monsters inside a perilous maze, or be hunted inside a labyrinth by monsters stronger than them. But the gameworld itself is littered with icons tied to a traumatic past. This trauma is recursive, bound to an ancestral, hereditary power that's forever contested, ambiguous and bloody. 

Who's winning? Who's the boss? Often, what survives, and what grows in strength, is the space—one whose narrative is repeatedly quenched in blood. In FPS, this grim reminder is effaced or avoided; in Metroidvania and survival horror, it manifests through the gameworld as something to explore. By doing so, the gameworld conditions (re: masters) the player while also reminding them of their lot in a grand, uncaring scheme: power is hollow, or they never had any to begin with. 


One way is the disillusion of choice. Merely this fact, that someone didn't explicitly choose anything  and were instead influenced heavily by the gameworld they're drawn to, can undermine a person's sense of free will. Meanwhile, the space becomes a cathedral, a reliable site of gorgeous rapture and tremendous emotion; it's the hero, the boss, the supreme power. Call it a Dark Mother of sorts: Without its nurturing framework, the player can never be the hero; with it, the player becomes something of a zombie—a brutal, king-for-a-day killer or pathetic victim. 

This arrangement might seem completely alien to players conditioned exclusively by FPS games (to wield power and take it for themselves). The paradox is, the ghastly arrangement outlined above may very well be why many Metroidvania and survival horror fans consent. We're not all conditioned to pursue power to wield it ourselves; sometimes, the role of submission—literally basking in someone or something else's power—can be equally delightful. Pursuit of power is not unusual, but power takes many forms. 

Cosmetics aside, this includes the exchange itself, namely voluntary submission; within realms of consent, submission—not dominance—is the strongest power of all.

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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: Hell-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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