To Read This Article You’ll Need the Blue Key

June 3, 2010 § 1 Comment

There are few things that annoy me more than backtracking in games. Never have I come upon a door locked by a key deposited half an hour back in my travels and exclaimed, “Yipee, that last thirty minutes of my life was a roller-coaster ride of epic proportions. I’m sure it’ll be as fun – if not more so – in reverse!”. If that is indeed your reaction to being forced to backtrack, then I humbly salute you, because immunity to bad design decisions is something I think all gamers can be envious of.
Thankfully the trend seems finally to be dying out, the last game I remember forcing me to backtrack a considerable distance was Devil May Cry 4, when on reaching the last level (the last NEW level that is) you encountered a character change, and were then sent on your way back through the entire game. DMC4 at least earns some bonus points for not including the same enemies the second time through, but it’s hard not to feel cheated by the presence of only half the environments you were expecting in your game.
As such I appreciate this article may be a little behind the times, especially considering as Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is the game that got me thinking about backtracking in the first place. That game, as well as Super Metroid and more recently Shadow Complex (though I failed to finish the former and never bought the latter) manage to make backtracking enjoyable to the extent that one could justifiably make the case that this is the core focus of these games. Whether or not that’s the case isn’t the point here, what’s important is that these games make the process fun in a way not many others have managed.

For those unfamiliar with the genre (sometimes called ‘MetroidVania’ in reference to the aforementioned game series) here’s a quick overview. MetroidVanias will generally speaking be made up of one continuous map, with no artificial barriers to constrain where the player can or cannot go. The hitch is that certain areas will only be accessible after obtaining certain items, which then forces you to play through this ‘open’ world in exactly the order the developer intended you to. For example, in Super Metroid you get the ‘Morph Ball’ upgrade for Samus fairly early on in the game, which then allows you to travel through small gaps.
What’s important about these games is that you’re never backtracking for a single-use device. Doom’s system of red and blue keys is fine for its small levels, but when put into a larger game such as the original Devil May Cry it becomes not just irritating to wade back through levels, but unsatisfying when you finally present the lock with it’s key, only to see the key disappear from your inventory, never to be seen again.
Contrast this with the aforementioned Morph Ball from Super Metroid, and the numerous places throughout the game where you can use it. It’s not just some throwaway item you pick up once and then discard, it’s an essential part of your arsenal which you use for hours to come.
It’s also important that you’ve already been exposed to many situations where such an item would be useful, as opposed to just one barrier. During my early hours playing Symphony of the Night I was tormented by one vase on a ledge that try as I might I couldn’t reach. When I finally came upon the double jump I didn’t care I could now reach far more important parts of the castle; I headed right back to that ledge and used my new found ability to reach that vase. It ended up containing a sword less powerful than the one I currently had equipped, and yet reaching it was just so satisfying.
What we can learn from these games is that backtracking is a completely acceptable way of getting more mileage out of the environments you’ve already built. That said, it’s very important that developers don’t just put a barrier in your way, it’s far preferable for them to place the objective clearly in your sight, which makes you curious as to what’s up there rather than just making you angry that you need to jump through hoops to progress.
Done correctly backtracking can flesh out what might otherwise be a short game, and even make games of a decent length appreciably longer. I personally plan to spend some time making a clean sweep of the castle when I’ve got all my powerups, just to make sure I haven’t missed anything. Like many other design choices (such as collectables, or an open world) backtracking does the most harm when developers don’t go for it enough, and instead half-arse it in a way which is neither fun nor satisfying.
A quick note: This article, which is typical of many others of mine, could (and in the past has been) criticised as being “overly-analytical”. People argue that games should just be ‘fun’, that if you examine them in too great a detail then you destroy this.
I can appreciate some would find articles such as this to be a little tedious at best, but that isn’t to say over-analysing games is a pointless endeavour. Does anyone honestly believe Miyamoto walks into his planning meetings and goes, “All right guys, just make it fun. Don’t think about it too much, because if you do it won’t be.”? Of course he doesn’t. It’s important for every developer (and to an extent gamer) to understand what exactly it is about games that makes them fun, even down to the minutest detail, which becomes especially important when you’re creating entirely new genres of games.

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