Recently, I was talking to my partner about my all-time favourite niche genre of games. He’s a game developer, so we have these kinds of discussions a lot, usually trying to nail down what it is we like best about a particular game, or scene, or genre — but this time, we were trying to find out exactly what the genre even was.
Now, I have a particular bugbear when it comes to game genres, which is that they’re all pretty stupid. They’re not helpful for casual consumers (who often don’t know what things like “roguelike” are) and they’re largely descriptive of the actions one takes or responds to (“shooter”, “platformer”) rather than the tone or feeling of a game. I mean, these genres can be useful, like, for example, if you’re making really cool lists of games and you need some kind of unifying feature so you can let people know where to find what they’re looking for, but otherwise, game genres are weirdly unhelpful, mechanical, and self-referential.
[A MetroidBrainia] gates progress until you have the right key for the right door. In this case, though, the key is not physical… it’s mental.
This problem is particularly egregious when it comes to describing story-focused games, because they all get lumped in together with tags like “narrative” and “visual novel”, from horror dating sims like Doki Doki Literature Club to introspective coming-of-age games like Night in the Woods, which otherwise have little in common. Am I supposed to like all story-focused games just because I like Ace Attorney and Danganronpa?!
The game genre we were talking about concerns something we tentatively and placeholderily called “knowledge node puzzles”. Much like a Metroidvania, a “knowledge node puzzle” game gates progress until you have the right key for the right door. In this case, though, the key is not physical… it’s mental. We envisioned it as a bunch of connected nodes, with each game going from A to B through these nodes in non-linear fashion:
Games like Return of the Obra Dinn, Fez, Her Story, and Outer Wilds all hinge on comprehension of something — whether that’s a mechanic or a piece of information that’s been hidden from you in some clever way — to progress. (Side note: I can’t believe Her Story isn’t on Switch yet!)
The exciting bit isn’t the fact that you can bypass the whole game from the beginning, though; it’s in finding out that the answer was literally right in front of you the whole time
The exciting thing about knowledge node puzzles is that you’re often able to progress right to the end from the start of the game, if you already know what that piece of information is. Because the progress gates are mental ones, these games are really difficult to replay, because, well, you already know the secrets. The exciting bit isn’t the fact that you can bypass the whole game from the beginning, though; it’s in finding out that the answer was literally right in front of you the whole time, hidden in plain sight.
Except, well, the internet has apparently decided that “knowledge node puzzle” is not the name for this genre of games. Listen, I appreciate a pun, and I appreciate a clever genre title, but when my partner ran into the room to inform me that there was already a name for this genre, and that it was “MetroidBrainia”, I melted into a puddle of despair.
I don’t want genres to get even more obfuscated and in-jokey, but, well, I guess it’s too late — the term has been around since at least 2015, although it’s not in mainstream use. The first mention I could find was from Nick Suttner, a bizdev consultant and writer who previously worked at PlayStation as an indie game champion:
People have long been aware of the connection between, say, puzzle-exploration game The Witness and linguistic archaeology adventure Heaven’s Vault. On the surface, they seem to have little in common, but it turns out that they both obscure information in interesting ways, slowly unravelling a story through the player’s own comprehension of the world and its structure.
Heaven’s Vault requires you to translate a language from scratch to understand what’s going on — and if you translate the language poorly, or are missing context or important words, then you won’t discover the full story. The Witness’s puzzles, sprinkled throughout the world in a Myst-like manner, are solvable if you know their secrets, but first you have to find and learn those secrets.
Game designer (and friend of me and my partner, funnily enough) Tom Francis calls these games “Information Games”, which is perhaps better than “knowledge node puzzle” but less catchy than “MetroidBrainia”.
“An Information Game is a game where the goal is to acquire information, and also the way you do it is to use information you’ve already gained,” he says in a talk on his YouTube channel. “I’m not going to call it a genre — I think it’s a class of games that can be many different genres,” he adds. I will fight him on this, of course, but that’s for another time.
My partner compared the experience of a MetroidBrainia to being an archaeologist (which is part of the reason why Heaven’s Vault is such a good example of the genre) — because the “answer” or “solution” to the game’s central conflict, question, or mystery is present from the very beginning, it’s almost as if the game was not made for you, but you have simply discovered it. Like an archaeologist, you must collect more information, examine the context, craft theories, and test them to fully understand the story. The game — like history — is laid out before you, and you can’t really change anything — just comprehend it.
I think that the experience of a MetroidBrainia is like being a detective (disclaimer — I am neither a detective nor an archaeologist, so apologies to anyone who is either, since I’m probably talking out me bum). Something has happened — sometimes a literal crime, like in Her Story and Obra Dinn, sometimes merely that someone has set up a bunch of puzzles or left behind a bunch of clues — and you are trying to solve it. You’re seeking an answer to a riddle, a solution to a puzzle, following all the carefully-crafted hints until you reach it.
I love MetroidBrainias. I don’t love the name, mostly because it makes me feel like someone with a hobby so dorky that I can’t talk about it with normal people, but that’s just me being a grump, probably. I mean, I think a game genre should be descriptive enough that I don’t have to explain A) what it means, B) what a Metroidvania is, C) what Metroid is, and D) what Castlevania is, but then again, no one ever really asks me what my favourite genre is, so perhaps it’s a moot point.
At the end of the day, I’m just glad that there’s enough of these kind of brilliant, puzzley, mind-bending games that they warrant their own genre name. So, despite my general grumpiness: Long live the MetroidBrainia.
Head to page two for a list of the best MetroidBrainias on Switch…