I was recently chatting with my partner about my very favorite niche genre of games. He’s a game developer, so we have these kinds of discussions a lot, and we’re usually trying to figure out what we like best about a particular game, scene, or genre – but this time we tried to figure out exactly what that genre is even was.
Well, I have a particular bogeyman when it comes to game genres, and that’s that they’re all pretty dumb. They’re not helpful to casual users (who often don’t know what things like “roguelike” are), and they largely describe the actions one performs or reacts to (“shooter,” “platformer”), rather than the tone or feel. I mean those genres can be useful, like when you’re making really cool game lists and need some sort of unifying feature so you can tell people where to find what they’re looking for, but otherwise game genres are oddly unhelpful, mechanical, and self-referential.
[A MetroidBrainia] Gates progress until you have the right key for the right door. In this case, however, the key isn’t physical…it is mental.
This problem is particularly egregious when it comes to describing story-oriented games, as they’re all lumped 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 genre of game we were talking about pertains to what we tentatively and placeholder named “knowledge-node puzzles”. Similar to Metroidvania, a “knowledge node puzzle” game progresses until you have the right key for the right door. In this case, however, the key isn’t physical…it is mental. We thought of it as a series of connected nodes, with each game going from A to B through these nodes in a non-linear way:
Games like Return of the Obra Dinn, Fez, Your history, and Outer Wilds all depend on understanding something – be it a mechanic or some piece of information cleverly hidden from you – to advance. (Side note: I can’t believe Her Story isn’t on Switch yet!)
However, what’s exciting isn’t the fact that you can bypass the entire game from the start. it’s finding out that the answer was literally right in front of you the whole time
The exciting thing about knowledge knot puzzles is that you often progress to the end from the start of the game, if you already know what that information is. Since the progression gates are mental gates, these games are really difficult to replay since you already know the secrets. However, what’s exciting isn’t the fact that you can bypass the entire game from the start. it’s finding out that the answer was literally right in front of you the whole timehidden in sight.
Except, well, the internet has apparently decided that this is a “knowledge node puzzle”. 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 let me know there was one already a name for this genre and that it was “MetroidBrainia” I melted into a puddle of despair.
I don’t want genres to level out more veiled and in jest, but well I guess it’s too late – the term has been around ever since at least 2015, although it is not used in the mainstream. The first mention I could find is 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 games The witness and language archeology adventure Heaven’s Vault. On the surface they seem to have little in common, but it turns out they both obscure information in interesting ways, slowly unraveling a story through the player’s own understanding 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 lack context or key words, you won’t discover the full story. The Witness’ riddles, mysteriously scattered around the world, are solvable if you know their secrets, but first you must find and learn those secrets.
Game designer (and funnily enough a friend of mine and my partner) Tom Francis calls these games “information games”, which might be better than “knowledge node puzzle” but less catchy than “MetroidBrainia”.
“An information game is a game where the goal is to gather information and also the way you do it is to use information already gained,” he says in a talk on his YouTube channel . “I’m not going to label it a genre – I think it’s a class of games that can span many different genres,” he adds. I’ll fight him of course, but that’s another time.
My partner likened the experience of being a MetroidBrainia to being an archaeologist (which is one of the reasons Heaven’s Vault is such a good example of the genre) – because the “answer” or “solution” to the central conflict, the question or The mystery is there from the start, it’s almost as if the game isn’t made for you, but you simply discovered it. Like an archaeologist, you must gather more information, examine context, form theories, and test them to fully understand the story. The game – like the story – is in front of you, and you can’t really do it change anything – just get it.
I think the experience of a MetroidBrainia is like being a detective (disclaimer – I’m neither a detective nor an archaeologist so my apologies to anyone who is as I’m probably talking my bum). Something happened – sometimes a literal crime, like in Her Story and Obra Dinn, sometimes just someone setting up a few puzzles or leaving a bunch of clues – and you’re trying to solve it. You are looking for an answer to a riddle, a solution to a puzzle and follow all the carefully crafted clues until you reach it.
I love Metroid Brainias. I don’t like the name, mostly because it makes me feel like someone who has such a stupid hobby that I can’t talk about it with normal people, but that’s probably just me for being a grump . 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, nobody asks me ever really what my favorite genre is, so maybe it’s a moot point.
At the end of the day, I’m just glad there are enough of these kinds of brilliant, puzzling, mystifying games to justify their own genre name. So, despite my general musings, long live MetroidBrainia.
Turn to page two for a list of the best MetroidBrainias for Switch…
https://www.nintendolife.com/features/what-the-heck-is-a-metroidbrainia-introducing-the-newest-genre-on-the-block What the heck is a “MetroidBrainia”? Introducing the newest genre on the block