I don’t know where the bottomless pit began. Maybe it’s always been there. How can something with no end have a beginning? But I think most of us first encountered the bottomless pit playing Super Mario Brothers, falling off the bottom of the screen, hearing the sad little jingle to notify us of our demise.
I remember now how strange it seemed to me the first time I encountered it. A convention almost as unintuitive as the inability to ever go back – and how curious it is that one of those died with that game while the other is still alive. We still have no end of endless voids awaiting our carelessness, four thousand holes leading nowhere.
But just like any other living language, the language of games shifts over time. Pits stopped being bottomless, and began to lead to new places, the mines that belonged to the mineshafts, the aquifers under the wells. The bottomless pits never went away, still dominating the many run-right platformers that followed in Mario’s footsteps, but along with them came Metroid and other games like it, now rather clumsily dubbed ‘Metroidvanias’.
Personally I prefer it when pits have a bottom. I like it when, if I fall, I fall into somewhere new. It’s a different way to look at the world: One way sees an obstacle, a fall, a chance to fail, where the other sees two diverging paths, one down and one forward. Even if you didn’t mean to fall in the pit, even if down there is definitely a place you don’t want to be, there’s at least something there – and, sometimes, maybe, something worthwhile. There are many dead ends, but you don’t know what will be what until you get there.
This philosophy permeates this style of game. Not all obstacles are deadly, not all side paths are dead ends, and paths which dead-end now might open up later. Playing a Metroidvania feels more real, more mappable to my general experience of existing in the world, than a simple dexterity challenge. Obstacles are never just obstacles, dead ends are never just dead ends, revisiting problems that stymied us before can yield new ways forward, and things that at first appear to be worthless can, in the end, change everything.
It’s a completely different way of relating to an environment; some games create a space for you to conquer, but Metroidvanias create a space for you to live in, to understand, to become a part of. The world is not your enemy, but a character for you to empathize with and interact with, an ongoing conversation. And, later on, we can play with that familiarity, can change areas based on your actions, can warp the world to create something new. The impact of finding the upside-down castle in Symphony of the Night would not have been nearly as impressive if we hadn’t just spent hours becoming painstakingly familiar with the normally-oriented original version.
This may, ultimately, be why Dark Souls 3 leaves me the least excited of the trilogy. Dark Souls truly lives up to this ideal, creates an intricately networked world that can be navigated in many ways. Dark Souls 2 fails to live up to this promise rather spectacularly, segmenting each area harshly and connecting them haphazardly, but encourages you to spend a lot of time in each area, to return to it for its unique covenants and merchants, encouraging real familiarity with and affection for every aspect of every area. Dark Souls 3, however, just gives you a series of levels to overcome: They are beautiful levels, detailed levels, and many advantages can be gained by being thorough in your approach to them, but in the end once you overcome them there is no reason to return. The NPCs all follow you home, the covenants are there as you need them, and the area sits, conquered, never to be rediscovered until a potential future play-through.
Here is where the meat meets the metal, the gear meets the bone; a video game is both an activity to engage in and a space to exist in. Some games embrace the former and some the latter, and there’s a distinct difference in the philosophical view of each, of what it means to interact with a world, of how problems can and should be approached. And, really, there’s nothing wrong with the obstacle model, the view of the game as primarily an activity, a skill to be polished, a challenge to be conquered.
I’d just rather stay in a hotel than run a gauntlet, myself, personally.