Gaming on a Timer

Non-Sequential Progression – Metroid Series Retrospect

In which I offer some insights on one of the Metroid series’ staples: non-sequential level progression, the technique in which levels are interconnected – often via “hubs”,  centralised areas which often provide pathways to the “regions” that make up the game’s levels.

The “Morph Ball”; once acquired,
Samus can use the bottom-left path…

The basic premise of the Metroid series follows Samus Aran, an intergalactic female bounty hunter as she battles a variety of foes across the galaxy. The series is credited as being one of the first to introduce “hub levels” and “partitioned” level progression; in most of the series’ instalments, Samus starts out poorly armed and with only a basic jump ability. Exploring the game world eventually results in acquiring upgrades, which in turn allows access to previously inaccessible areas previously encountered (thus encouraging backtracking).

A good example present in every game in the series is the “Morph Ball” item; with it, Samus can reduce her body size to a ball roughly half of her normal size, allowing her to enter various forms of tunnels and narrow passages, which in turn effectively “unlocks” more of the game world for the player to explore.
…and has thus become a staple of the
series, appearing in most instalments.

The importance of such a mechanic is two-fold: Primarily it encourages exploration in a non-linear fashion, rewarding backtracking with either new areas/ levels or various miscellaneous rewards (such as additional health or weapon upgrades). However, an oft-underplayed secondary effect is building a more immersive environment by giving a more (for lack of better word) “believable” structure to the game world, rather than the sequential approach most games favour. Done correctly, it leads into one of game design’s more important attributes; a tangible indicator of player progress, as well as a sense of  personal achievement.

A “proper” sense of achievement is hard to find in most modern games, with developers often falling into the trap of making their product either overly sequential (thus effectively eliminating the illusion of choice and the effect said choices have on the player’s experience) or downplaying on the player’s decisions (most often by burying the player in a multitude of secondary variables and inconsequential choices); therefore losing any sense of achievement altogether. 
An indie title using the Metroidvania
model, Iconoclasts is worth a look.
A good remedy for the aforementioned problem is the “Metroidvania” model (a portmanteau of the “Metroid” and “Castlevania” series’ titles, which are of the earliest examples of this particular style) – in this model, the player initially has limited exploration venues, which gradually broaden with the acquisition of in-game techniques or items. Under this model, the player can effectively pace his experience; at most points they can attempt the next available challenge or hunt for upgrades to their character, thus lowering the actual difficulty of any subsequent content they experience.

Though not platform games, recent
Batman games exhibit this model.
It goes without saying that, while optimal, this model does not work for all genres; in particular (but not limited to), first person shooters – which often rely on a pre-determined pace to convey their experience – are the least likely candidates for this model. Adventure games, which give weight on puzzle-solving and story telling, employ a similar structure; they are, however, sequential by design and linear by nature. 
Ultimately, it is left to the individual designer to assess whether their project can benefit from this model of level design; it is worth remembering, however, that it offers a sense of progression that can be used to enhance the audience’s experience by rewarding progression and pacing – something that modern releases often lack.

Resources
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