My recent gaming diet has been filled with a healthy serving of non-linear explorative platformers, or as they are more commonly known as, ‘Metroidvanias.’ This is the genre that first made me realize the interesting things games can do. After chomping through the latest offering I stumbled upon a deceptively small looking game called Environmental Station Alpha. Arvi Teikari is the individual behind the game and after sinking down the rabbit hole he joined me on the podcast to discuss boss fights, difficulty curve, power creep, and sequence breaking… or all the things that make Metroidvania games special.
The game started off as a map. Arvi created the map of Environmental Station Alpha first, before any idea of what the power-ups would be or what the boss encounters would look like. Rather unceremoniously, he drew up what the world would look like, then built a game around it. This isn’t a crazy means of making a game, and if there were ever a genre to lend credence to this methodology I would argue that a non-linear exploration game would do just fine with out all the rooms figured out in advance. Arvi knew that the lava area would be here, but through the process figured out where to drop in power-ups and what interesting platforming mechanics he could give to the player as they moved through his world.
It is world that is “More silent than dead,” he told me. It is something of a trope in most games, but perhaps in particular in this genre for the world to become more alive as the players gain more power throughout the game. Think about in Super Metroid upon returning to Zebes, that first dive under the surface, how the world laid silent until Samus began to awaken the defenses. One thing that Environmental Station Alpha, or ESA for short, does decidedly differently is that not only does the world become more alive, it also remains a constant threat. For the majority of the game, previous zones rise in threat level as the player is given more tools to deal with previous threats. However, Arvi did mention how some late game power-ups, trivialize many of the threats and end game boss encounters.
Difficulty curve is a hard beast to tame, and often when its a sole developer on a project for a length of time, they can become blind to the difficulty of their game. ESA is a difficult game; it is perforated with boss fights that break up the platforming frequently. In many ways, the volume and style of boss encounters in this game is more reminiscent of games like Titan Souls or Shadow of the Colossus. I actually enjoyed, albeit through discipline, how the boss encounters where at the forefront of what seemed important to the games structure. While the platforming was there, and sure there was exploration, it was the boss fights that seemed to have the most love and care poured into them. Each encounter felt very deliberate in what it tasked players with and what it wanted them to learn moving forward.
But moving forward in games like ESA is a concept in itself. Games like Metroid, Axiom Verge and the like are attractive to players for the ability to allow sequence breaks to occur. Players of the genre are the most secret hungry I know of, I myself am damaged goods in this regard where I often find myself punching/shooting every surface in any game a play for the inexplicable reason of…. secrets. Game design is a lot about playing with expectations and giving players trails to follow, but how do you keep players on track? Is there some grand design?
An interesting discovery was payers will often continue going the same direction even if you force a change in location. Arvi said that in the beginning the player moves to the right and fights a boss, they are then supposed to turn around, heading left, to return to the ship. On the way back the bridge blows up and the player falls down into a new area. Most players continued going left. It was noticing small things like this through playtests and feedback from testers that helped not only create the flow but also lead to the discovery of unplanned sequence breaks that he would then leave in for advance players, but would obfuscate for new players as to not have them get lost.
Near the end of the interview I asked Arvi about what went wrong. He had three examples of the largest mistakes he made in the development of Environmental Station Alpha. First, the pacing was rough. While both he and I enjoy the structure being heavy on Boss encounters, maybe players wanted more exploration. Which is a fair complaint given the history of the genre. Second, was the power creep. The last two power-ups in the game were added at the same time the final boss fights were put together. Because of this it was really considered how it would impact the end games difficulty to the point where it became trivial because of them. Finally, Arvi threw out the term Icebergvania in the podcast. He enjoys game that have deep hidden secrets to find, think of games like Fez or Braid. He designed some deep hidden secrets but as the game drew closer to release he became gun shy and began to surface those secrets so that people would see them. Because of this it short of made it more obvious than he wanted. He really wanted those secrets to be a special discovery for a handful of players, but in the end even I began to see signs that the game will go past 100% completion.
ESA is a worthy entry into the non-linear exploration game genre, and quite honestly despite my own white knuckle frustrations with some of the boss encounters, I really enjoy the direction Arvi took. From its deceptively simple looking visuals to it’s mechanical depth, it is a game that I have been enjoying pecking at over the past few weeks. Be sure to follow Arvi on twitter @ESAdevlog and pick up the game from your storefront of choice on the Environmental Station Alpha website.