August 16th, 2010
Game designers create rules, a system of challenges and a gateway into that challenge (tutorial). Players, through their participation of the game world, mutually agree on the terms set by the designers. Therefore, there is something of a student and mentor relationship at work between player and designer. (Mr. Miyamoto recently commented on this phenomena a little himself). The foundation of this relationship is that of the relevant skills required to defeat the game: the teacher wishes to teach these skills, the student wishes to learn them. In which case Metroid is a test in observation and a test in the application of tools (power-ups).
Metroid‘s challenges, its tests, if you will, are built into its environment in the form of realizing suspicious chunks of area and then devising a way on how to clear that area to make progress to the next planetary subsection. Sometimes you’ll have the means to make headway, and other times you’ll need to mentally bookmark or flag down the spot to return afterwards. On a wider level though, Metroid, keeping in fashion with its exploration roots, also challenges the player in a third test of skill: the skill of mapping out one’s exploration.
In terms of what the player is constructing in their head, Metroid is an array of these “hotspots” (suspicious rooms which may be mined for progress) linked together into coherent routes and mapped around save stations. These mental pathways are connected through distinct visual markers which define particular chunks of environment from one another. When we play a Metroid game, we visualize these mental maps, with support from the in-game map itself (of which doesn’t contain the information gathered from exploration), and, in accordance to this mental map, we pursue the next string of clues.
Not only do we visualize these routes, often with aid from the map, but said routes are cross-checked against our current ability set as to whether they are viable or not to the area in question. Sometimes these clues lead us to undiscovered areas, sometimes these clues lead us to areas we’ve previously visited.
Most vividly we are concious of this play pattern right after we load the game up and begin at the last save point. It’s here that we gather our strategies and formulate a course of action, so at this point, the mental map is most relevant.
Keeping the Squeeze
Super Metroid, above all other games in the series, facilitates exploration management fantastically. The two most obvious reasons for this are the inclusion of an in-game map and the improved graphical capabilities over the original Metroid.
The in-game map works as a crutch for players to refresh their own mental map. Wisely, R&D1 chose to segment the main map away from the core gameplay by virtue of the pause screen, only offering a mini-map of surrounding rooms while the player navigates Samus. In this way, where pausing to check the map disrupts the flow of gameplay, players are persuaded into relying upon their established mental map.
With the added power of the SNES, environments – i.e. the visual markers which we use to identify and compress the landscape – are capable of being more distinct, hence making it easier for players to crystallize visual markers into their memory.
“Dead ends” – pathways that the player would preempetively follow before they receive the respective power upgrade necessary to progress in said area – from the original Metroid, now offer up minor weapon upgrades in Super Metroid, thereby decreasing player pitfalls and frustration while at the same time rewarding early curiosity.
Super Metroid is also a far more smartly segregated title than the original Metroid. The environments, while equally as large as the original Metroid, are focused into shorter, more succinct instances of play. Save points quarantine these instances of play that can later be mined for leads which allows for some dynamic threading of routes. Hub rooms, often near the entrance to a new area, take on a more skeletal structure with the purpose of each pathway conveyed more promptly. That is:
- some areas are hard blocked with sealed doors, indicating a long delay before the player revisits with new power-ups;
- some areas which require a currently-unavailable-but-soon-to-be-acquired power-up are softly marked, promptly too, as in the first room or so. Examples of these soft markers used to detract the player are a sudden absence of background music, flora and fauna met with apparent markers of essential-but-still-not-acquired weaponry (boost tracks, swinging junctions). These indicators, used to steer the player back on course, are made apparent in the first room or so (Metroid would often lead players down long corridors before confirming to players that they’re presence in the area was not currently required); and
- areas that the designers wish the player to advance through are often backed up by the respective sub-terrain theme music, denser wildlife population and a more visually “alive” environment.
The fascinating thing about Super Metroid is how the maps begin by following this skeletal structure and then, as the player subsequently revists one area multiple times over, hidden divergences bleed into the map structure (ingeniously represented by a different colour on the pause-screen map). The maps therefore begin in cocoon-like states, allowing the player to build a foundation of the environment, then, once their mental map consolidates, the pathways blossom into one another as reliance on the in-game map fades.
With the bleeding of the map, cleaner visual markers, fewer dead ends, a more logical and directed conveyance of purpose within the environments, Super Metroid constantly feeds the player’s mental map and thereby continuously drills the emergent skill of exploration management.