Stop Calling Games 'Metroidvania'

Let’s talk about one of my least favourite words in the video game lexicon: metroidvania. A portmanteau combining the video game titles Metroid and Castlevania, it takes two made-up video game titles that are pretty cool and evocative on their own and inelegantly mashes them into something worse. And now, that word is one we use to talk about a whole genre of incredible video games.

Let us count the ways the word is a disaster. Aesthetically, it’s miserable and inefficient, five syllables in the mouth and rakish in the ear. Worse, it is completely meaningless to anyone unfamiliar with either of its root words.

Words which are also portmanteaus—Metroid, the story goes, is a combination of the words “metro” and “android.” Castlevania, meanwhile, is a merging of the words “castle” and “Transylvania” into something that actually worked out pretty well.

Imagine stringing out all those words individually: metro android castle transylvania. It is both 1) way cooler, and 2) far too much to dump on a person and expect them to know what you mean.

Years of use have acclimated people who play and talk about games a lot to the convenience of “metroidvania,” and it doesn’t hurt that the game that it most often points to, 1997’s Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, was a watershed moment in video games, reinventing one classic franchise by borrowing liberally from another. (The borrowing, ironically, came not so much from Metroid but from The Legend of Zelda.)

So influential was Symphony that the term “metroidvania”, which was apparently cooked up and popularised by former 1UP.com writers Scott Sharkey and Jeremy Parish sometime in the early 2000s, was used to denote a formal movement of video game design, with Symphony of the Night as the template.

Here’s where my other problem with “metroidvania” comes into play: It’s at odds with the language we use to talk about video game genre.

Video game genres tend to be categories of interaction. They describe what you do in a video game at a glance. A first-person shooter puts a gun in a character’s hands and a camera where their eyes would be. A turn-based strategy game involves board game-style interactions in the service of a specific goal.

These aren’t perfect terms; they’re not as evocative as genre categories in, say, film, where terms like “horror,” “romance” and “comedy” describe emotions and feelings that you might expect to experience as a viewer. But there’s a logic to them, and they serve a purpose: establishing the ground rules of how you’re going to interact with a game.

In that way, video game genre terms are most similar to genres of music, which use a certain set of basic rules for works in categories both broad and specific. Blues tunes will likely use blues scales and lots of improvisation. Conversely, baroque four-part chorales will adhere to an extremely rigid set of rules of composition.

I used to write about video games at publications geared towards people who didn’t necessarily play a lot of games, so I have spent a lot of time thinking about words that we’ve become accustomed to but are really just nonsense to anyone outside of this particular subculture.

In real life, too, I’ve seen how quickly someone’s eyes can glaze over when they’re presented with something outside their comfort zone. Reducing those potential pain points in the way we talk about games can do a lot to help more people join in on that conversation, especially if it’s as painless as ditching a word like “metroidvania.”

Genre terms are more for our benefit more than that of the art in question. Genre is a loose system that we have for talking about similar works and establishing canon—an academic exercise more than an artistic one. Those conversations are valuable and sometimes even vital works of scholarship, but they also tend to be exclusive, understandable only to those already steeped in the culture.

Video games need to be easier to parse, not harder. We talk a lot about diversity and inclusion in games - how games could become a better, more welcoming space if we just figured out a way to represent more perspectives both in the games we play and in the studios that make them. These are necessary, urgent steps.

But I also wonder how many people have never bothered because we’ve spent all this time using the wrong words.


Comments

    I take your "metroidvania" and raise you a "roguelike"

      Roguelite was a term Totalbiscuit coined as an alternative cause the mechsnic is seperate from the similarities to that game when it apoears in alternate genres.

      Vania-lite. Castleroid. Ability-gating.

    I'm impressed you got through the whole article without giving us your suggestion for a replacement, let's hear it.

    I've seen similar 2D games called an "Action Platformer" but I don't think it does a good job of portraying the RPG or exploration elements of the subgenre.

      I too was expecting possible suggestions for an alternative or replacement word(s), but of course... the article is all complaints, with no ideas for a solution except for "pls stahp".

      But again how is mario not an action platformer. Or super meatboy.
      Metroidvania came into use because it describes something that makes sense and works for those games. Hell a game doesn't even need to be a 2d platformer to be a metroidvania game.

    Oh hey, what are we doing here? Yelling at clouds? Hell yes, I love me some yellin' at clouds! I'll get in on that.

    Hol' up and I'll be back real quick with my essay on 'wow clones vs DikuMUD clones'.

    ...Welcome to the English language, where the rules are made up and 'correct usage' doesn't matter. :)

      You had me at 'yelling at clouds', at the bottom of a throw-away article on Kotaku Australia reposted from the US that the article's author will therefore never get the chance to see.

        That's all any of us are doing ever, anyway. :) Even if we're heard.

    Except at this point, it's a common use term for a specific genre of game. So we shouldn't call things by their name because of your own stupid opinions on the matter? Cool. Cool cool cool.

    We've been defining genres by the games that defined them for decades (Doom-likes, Rogue-likes/-lites, Souls-likes, Dota-likes), and the last time we (well, Riot) tried to generalise a genre term that referenced its game of origin, we ended up with the term "MOBA" (which, at face value, could validly describe anything from Dota to Quake to Overwatch to Starcraft to Mario Kart).

    Metroidvania encompasses a very specific set of mechanics that can only really be efficiently communicated by an agreed understanding of a term that wholly encompasses those mechanics... And until someone comes up with another way to efficiently express "ability-oriented-exploration -focused 2D action platformer with minor RPG elements" in a catchy acronym, we already have a word that works just fine: "Metroidvania".

    No.

      I fully agree with everything you posted.

      Very structured comment, succinct and complete, without wasted waffle.

      10/10

    So I started off outraged (this is one of my favourite genres) but you provide a logical enough argument that yeah okay, I'm on board.

    Like everyone else though, I am disappointed by your lack of suggestions. You've only half started the conversation. Your point would have been stronger and more agreeable had you broken down the key elements of a metroidvania and suggested a similar term of 'interaction'. I would argue that the key elements involve:

    --- a focus on exploration, leading to
    --- upgrades, aiding in the traversal of the world which
    --- gradually expands as you collect said upgrades.

    A focus on environmental cues to suggest progression order, rather than being explicitly told where to go or what to do, could also be argued. However, I think this may be getting too specific.

    So we have 1) exploration, 2) upgrades, and 3) an expanding world as we explore and upgrade. We can use these as a check list to test against other games that may be considered metroidvania:

    --- Hollow Knight; 1/2/3
    --- Guacamelee; 1/2/3
    --- Batman: Arkham Asylum; 1/2/3
    --- Metroid; 1/2/3
    --- Castlevania SotN; (I haven't actually played this, so a chance for someone to support/refute)

    Therefore, I suggest the following terms as potential alternate names for metroidvanias:
    --- Gradual explorers
    --- Incremental explorers

      The problem with the 'explorer' label is that combat is almost always a central mechanic of the metroidvania, where 'explorer' type games (walking simulators, survival games, or arthouse actual 'exploration' games) will often shy away from that while also encompassing so much more. Subnautica would be a gradual/incremental explorer, right?

        I considered that with that exact example. And while yes, combat is generally a central mechanic, it also differs greatly between games. Compare Batman to Hollow Knight to Metroid. The problem with including combat in the core mechanics as well is that almost every genre includes some form of combat.

        But say for example you have a game which is in every way a metroidvania. You explore the world, collect upgrades and explore more of the world. It's even presented in a 2D environment with a focus on platforming and backtracking. But what happens if, say, enemies kill you in one hit and you have no way to attack them? Instead it focuses on stealth and avoidance. Is it suddenly no longer a metroidvania?

          In fact @mad_danny below has come up with a name I like better, 'gear-gated adventure platformer'. GAP for short. Essentially covers the same points I made with a little less ambiguity.

    Your arguments seem to be quite contradictory and self-defeating. Video games can have the same genre as movies. Horror games, comedy games, romance games, etc. They can also have specific interaction qualifiers such as Horror Shooter, Dating Simulator, Horror Survival, Space Flight Sim, Dark Fantasy RPG, etc.

    The music analogy is also fitting since you describe exactly the process by which Metroidvania gives meaning to a description of a game. Just as Blues, Metal, Hip Hop, R&B, Pop, Rock, etc. describe certain constants and progressions in the music so too does the word "Metroidvania". In fact you could even think of it as a subgenre like Thrash Metal, Speed Metal, Prog Rock, Acid Jazz, Trip Hop, Dub Techno, J-Pop, etc.

    So to summarise. "No I won't. You're not my parental figure."

      I was thinking videogame genres are almost more akin to whether you have say a feature film or a short film or a miniseries or tv series or what have you. More about the structure of the story than the contents, which are where the horror/romance/etc comes in. Similarly with music, those genres would more describe what the lyrics are about which is totally independent of the music.

    I literally see the work here on Kotaku more than anywhere else....

    I go with composite descriptions myself to more granularly classify a large selection of hybrid styles - separating the mechanics and the intentions from the perspective (since outside of sports games it usually completely changes the interaction systems)

    gear-gated adventure platformer

    My distinctions here are the gear-gating as a specific progression mechanism across games like Metroid/Castlevania/Zelda/etc. (as opposed to RPG – also a classification misnomer, but now pretty much baked on to the idea of the XP→LevelUp→Loot progression), ‘adventure’ implying a questing narrative (as opposed to ‘action’ whereby the narrative is not core to the experience or level designs, or ‘arcade’ where scoring mechanics are key over progression)

    So much shitposting on Kotaku during the quiet months. It's stupid because it pushes the half decent articles down the page.

      On the other hand, they need to keep people clicking in order to keep the lights on so the decent articles can remain on the internet.

    Stop Calling Games 'Metroidvania'

    Oh, yeah? Try and stop me!

      He is trying! He wrote an article and everything! It's on the Internet, Terry! The INTERNET.
      They don't let just anyone put things up on The Internet.

    Quite unconvinced by the argument. In the end, and prescriptivism of all types, especially in the ol' favourites, linguistics and culture, is a fools errand. It's peeing against the wind.

    It works at this stage. People know what to expect.
    I used to be a bit hipster about it, but now I'm a proper person and just go with it.
    When ya think about it, it's no worse than "Action RPG".

    Nah i'm good.

    I do wish the article was something along the lines of "Why I don't like the term Metroidvania" and not "Stop doing this thing because I don't like it" though.

Join the discussion!

Trending Stories Right Now