Really Bad Theming

reallybadchess_01

I’ve been playing a lot of Zach Gage’s Really Bad Chess in the past week, and I find myself very fascinated by its use of theming.

Gage goes to great lengths to reinforce the “Really Bad” theme. Some examples:

  1. The Title
  2. Marketing text like “A definitely balanced game.” and “For everyone who quit playing chess”
  3. Quotes from Gage ranging from “This could be perceived as an affront to chess” to “It’s a stupid game”.
  4. An art style that goes beyond minimalistic; it looks like placeholder art that never got replaced.
  5. Somewhat awkward UI layout (examples: awkward line breaks in the title, no visual priority in coloring/shading)

It’s sort of sneaky and unassuming, but I think this theming accomplishes a few key things for the game.

The Impact of “Really Bad” Theming

1. It’s Inviting to “Really Bad” Players

To start with, the theme lends a helping hand to anyone who feels like they are “really bad” at chess. Chess is so embedded in our culture that it’s hard to make it to adulthood without playing a few games. And since Chess skill is often perceived as an indicator of intelligence, it follows that players who struggle might feel bad about their ability on a personal level.

…which is a bit sad, because who can blame anyone for stopping at one of Chess’s huge learning spikes, particularly the ones that involve lots of memorization? Or for being discouraged by crippling defeats, which is common with such potentially wide skill gaps? Players have no reason to feel bad, because their struggle often stems from inherent flaws in Chess itself rather than incompetence.

But the frustration is there, and Gage’s theming capitalizes on it to great effect to create an “us vs. them” feeling.

2. Players Are More Forgiving of “Really Bad” Flaws

Like any Chess variant, it’s impossible not to compare and contrast to the original subject matter. How could anyone compete with such a monumental game? But here the “Really Bad” theme offers a bit of humility – which in turn makes players more forgiving of the game’s flaws. Compare that to David Sirlin’s naming of Chess 2, which I wouldn’t call arrogant but certainly elicits a different emotional response.

A little more subtly, the “Really Bad” theme calls attention to its randomness as a direct counter to Chess’s near-perfect balance. In an era where many gamers still see luck as the opposite of skill, and designers regularly underestimate and misuse randomness (see: No Man’s Sky), it’s no wonder that randomness gets a bad rep.

The designer in me hates this misconception, but I can’t help but be impressed at how Really Bad Chess leverages it. It seems to apply imply “randomness indeed makes this game worse than the original chess, but that’s okay because we’re all in on the joke”.

3. It’s Not Bad At All!

Underneath it all, perhaps what makes the “Really Bad” theme so clever is that ironically, there is nothing really bad about the game at all. It’s not without flaws: the AI is painfully slow, the blue bar is confusing, and there could be better messaging for your turn state. But counter to the theme’s suggestion, the use of randomness in Really Bad Chess is exactly what makes it so damn good.

Really Bad Chess’s randomness does a great job of eliminating the reliance on book learning and putting the focus back on emergent strategy. But what really makes it shine is the rubberbanding system in Ranked mode, which determines your piece distribution. For example since I am hovering around Rank 75, I can expect lots of horses, a few bishops and/or Rooks, and maybe 1 Queen (and I can expect my AI opponent to have at least 2 Queens). It’s just enough of a constraint to prevent the game from feeling too random. And when combined with the promise of a static AI level, the result is a systemic learning that does for my Chess fatigue what Spelunky did for my platformer fatigue.

Of course none of that systemic depth comes from the theming. But when the press says things like “Who knows, that’s the point of Really Bad Chess, it throws out the balance in the game for random chaos!”, I get the impression that maybe the depth is sneakily slipping its way in for some players… just under the cover of its “Really Bad” Theming.

Takeaways

I think the major takeaway here for designers is to not underestimate the power of theming.

Really Bad Chess is not the first Chess variant to randomize pieces. It may not even be the first to combine randomization with rubberband ranking. But its unique theming invites players of all skill levels, highlights its randomization in a fun lighthearted way, and cleverly hides a strong focused design with satisfying depth.

It’s the combination of strong gameplay and intelligent theming that makes it worthy of some extra attention in my opinion, regardless of how much of its success might be attributed to outside factors (such as Gage’s existing reputation and network).

And nothing makes me happier than a great design getting love. So I wish it the best!

References:

  1. Really Bad Chess Press Kit 
  2. How Zach Gage breaks all of the rules in Really Bad Chess” (Gamasutra)
  3. Zach Gage’s ‘Really Bad Chess’ Will Shake up Chess on October 13th” (touch arcade)
  4. Really Bad Chess makes chess fun even if you’re really bad” (The Verge)

A Better Term For “Metroidvania”

Metroidvania term_1

What Exactly IS A “Metroidvania”?

I’ve never liked the term “Metroidvania“.

Metroidvania (a portmanteau of “Metroid” and “Castlevania”) is a well-known subgenre definition in the game industry which generally refers to “any game containing the major gameplay concepts shared by the Metroid series and later Castlevania games.” (Tvtropes.org)

If you have played a Metroidvania, then you probably have a pretty decent idea of what kinds of experiences to expect from other games of the same type, and perhaps you even have a conceptual model of the underlying formula itself. When used right, it is a strong approach that can lead to some really awesome games.

But in practice, the term “Metroidvania” is very clumsy and confusing, and does not get to the heart of the formula within. In this post, I will attempt to outline the term’s flaws, break down the formula into its components, and suggest a more useful alternative.

Falling Short of the Mark

According to Doug Church’s Formal Abstract Design Tools (FADT), a useful definition must be both formal and abstract. A formal definition is precise and can be explained to someone else. An abstract definition focuses on underlying ideas rather than genre constructs. So how does “Metroidvania” fall short of these goals?

To begin with, there is ambiguity regarding which shared properties are essential components of the formula, and which ones are not. Does a Metroidvania need to be 2D side-scrolling? Could it be 2D top-down, or even 3D? Does a game need to have platforming to be a Metroidvania?

metroid_upgrade acquired

Many sources define it as a subgenre of the “platforming” genre. This majority includes Wikipedia, where if you search the term you will be redirected to “platform-adventure games”, a header under platformer. But what about games in the Metroid Prime series, which contain only minor platforming elements and are labeled “first-person action-adventure” games? Do they have enough platforming to be Metroidvanias, or are they excluded?

Another well-accepted trait of a Metroidvania is nonlinearity. But the very first Castlevania game consists of six levels in a strictly linear progression. Tvtropes attempts to remedy this by specifying “later” games in the Castlevania series, but that must have been written before  “Castlevania: Lords of Shadow”, a modern 3D title that returns the series’ linear roots. Will they further update the definition by specifying a range of years JUST to exclude this game?

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow does have some light exploration, but in general the design is linear.
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow does have some light exploration, but in general the design is linear.

It feels silly to map the definition to series. Instead of continually adjusting the set to fit the definition, we need to recognize that because our definition is imprecise, it is informal.

The second problem comes from the use of concrete examples instead of abstract concepts. Let’s say that for sake of argument, we limited “Metroidvania” to just “any game containing the major gameplay concepts shared by Super Metroid and Castlevania II. Even though this makes it easier to figure out the what those “major gameplay concepts” are, Metroid and Castlevania are not two different concepts that combine to create the formula, but rather two specific video game franchises that make use of the formula.

To illustrate why this is an issue, lets look at an outside example: Just as many Metroid games and Castlevania games are great examples of Metroidvanias, firetrucks and apples are great examples of “things that are red”. But we don’t use “fapple” (“firetruck” + “apple”) to refer to objects that are red!

A stop sign isn’t red because it shares its color with firetrucks and apples – it is red because it reflects certain wavelengths of light. Properties are not defined by the objects that have them; objects are defined by their properties. So because it does not focus on the underlying formula itself as a set of shared properties, “Metroidvania” is not abstract.

Breaking Down The Formula

To create a FADT, we need to move away from examples and get at the heart of the formula; the real underlying structure and resulting behaviors. What are the component properties of a Metroidvania game?

1. A world design that emphasizes exploration in an open-ended environment full of highly inter-connected areas.

Map of Phendrana Drifts (Metroid Prime)
Map of Phendrana Drifts (Metroid Prime)

2. Obstacles in the environment hinder your ability to explore, and by extension your progress. “Obstacle” in this context is very broad, and can include everything from pits to high ledges to certain kinds of enemies to colored doors, etc

This wall cannot be passed unless you have a bomb (Twilight Princess)
This rock wall obstacle cannot be passed without a bomb. (The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword)

3. Power-ups, or key abilities attained, give you the power to overcome obstacles in your way. This puts huge emphasis on personal growth, because where you can go and what you are capable of is directly proportional to the power-ups at your disposal. Power-ups include but are not limited to: suit upgrades, magical powers, weapons, tools, creatures, and artifacts.

In Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, the
“Soul of Bat” lets you fly freely through the air in Bat Form.(Castlevania: Symphony of the Night)

4. Although movement and presentation is generally non-linear, the order in which you obtain these powerups and gain access to new areas will often follow a sequence. This sequence is crucial to the inclusion of a clean difficulty curve and narrative arc.
(Update: Since writing this post, The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds was released. ALBW notably breaks the sequence rule – more on that in another post!)

While there are other similarities between core Metroid and Castlevania games, to me these are the traits that define the Metroidvania play experience.

Reframing the formula

Now that we have our component properties, I’d like to propose a new term to replace “Metroidvania”. A possible name could be: nonlinear power-up progression (NPP). “Nonlinear” covers exploring an open-ended environment, and “power-up progression” covers using power-ups to overcome obstacles in a sequence. It’s not catchy, and I hope that one day someone can come up with a nickname that rolls of the tongue… but it works.

Pretty much any game currently in existence can be tested against NPP’s parameters for a conclusive decision. Metroid Prime games feature NPP, while the first Castlevania and Metroid Prime Pinball not. NPP includes widely accepted Metroidvanias like Outland and Guacamelee, but also 2D and 3D games in the Zelda series.

The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap
Link opens a chest and uncovers a new power-up in The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap.

Including Zelda might be strange to some, but for someone like me who grew up playing Metroid and Zelda games and seeing those relationships all along, the proposed “platforming” requirement seems much stranger. Zelda games fit NPP because they are nonlinear in physical progression (yet follow a clear sequence), place emphasis on exploration, and promote growth through key powerups (items/artifacts) which are used to overcome obstacles such as pits and destructible walls.

One of the major difference between Zelda and “traditional” Metroidvanias is density. Zelda games will often boast a large but relatively sparse overworld for exploration, then pack the meat of the puzzles and combat scenarios into dungeons. Whereas Metroid games tend to offer spread exploration, puzzles, and combat across the world in a relatively uniform manner. Each approach results in a very different feel, but I think they both fit inside NPP.

Where Does It All Fit?

How do we place our terms into a clean hierarchy? On the one hand we have “Metroidvania”, which exists as a somewhat vague subgenre of the “platforming” genre. On the other we have games that follow non-linear powerup progressionwhich are a subset of all nonlinear games. Since the sets overlap, NPP does not outright replace Metroidvania. But as a design tool, I think it’s more useful to focus on NPP as a formula that subsets nonlinear progression than to worry about “Metroidvania”, redefined as “a platforming game that follow NPP”.

I think that meaningful progress in critical language development requires us to think about game formulas and categorization by genre in completely different ways. Maybe we need a new tree hierarchy, or maybe we don’t want a tree at all! We’ll talk more about genres another day, but for now I hope that this post provokes some thought and invites you to help me question paradigms.