Open-World vs. Metroidvania


I really love Metroid and games like Hollow Knight, Dandara, Dead Cells, Steamworld Dig 2, etc, but I’ve never really found myself enjoying open-world games outside of Breath of the Wild. Something about them always felt too large, unstructured, and intimidating for me to really get into.

Yet I decided to try out God of War, and something really clicked for me a couple hours in when I tried to enter an area but realized I didn’t have the necessary ability yet, and that it was something I’d get circled back around to later. This may be incredibly obvious to most, but it felt really similar to the core Metroidvania loop, and, after the mental shift that caused, I started really enjoying myself in a genre I’d kind of discounted before.

So I’m curious if any other fans of either (loosely-defined) genre feels that overlap. Is the difference a 2D vs. 3D focus, or something to do with sidequests, or are the distinctions more or less meaningless? Are there any games you’d characterize as specifically one or the other, but not both?


To me there is a monumental difference between the “open-world” design philosophy and the “Metroidvania” design philosophy.

The open-world design philosophy has the goal of giving the player a wide range of traversable space, and the freedom to explore it however they want.

The Metroidvania design philosophy has the goal of appearing to give the player freedom to explore, but in reality having some semblance of a necessary order.

Obviously, it’s not this simple, but I hope I’m making sense. To put it simply, open-world games are unstructured in their size, while Metroidvanias are deliberately structured in their size. The result, both through the evolution of these genres and emergent qualities, are games that feel massively different in my opinion. Personally, I like Metroidvanias more. I, too, feel often overwhelmed by choices and scope in a way that pushes me away from most open-world games.


I don’t think that’s a contradiction. If anything, I’d say open-world and Metroidvania are almost opposites - open-world games let you go pretty much anywhere from the get-go, and Metroidvanias make you earn every new area you unlock. That gives the latter, in my opinion, a far better sense of pacing and reward.


I think that the nessecary difference is back tracking. Open world games like to give us these huge maps that take time to traverse and make it harder to go to the same places multiple times. When you have smaller maps, limited spaces, and a need to revisit those spaces to do new things it not only makes the game feel easier to progress but also instills familiarity and nostalgia in the player, something that I feel can’t be done in the same way in games like botw.


I think it’s important to note that a “Metroidvania” game is not just about preventing the player from accessing a certain area until it’s time for them to do so. It’s been years, but I think GTA4 blocks the player from going to the other boroughs until a certain point in the story (which wasn’t that far, if I’m recalling correctly), but I wouldn’t say GTA4 is a Metroidvania-like game. Similarly, something like Assassin’s Creed 4 with the diving bell locations. You can find them whenever, but can’t access them until the game’s narrative unlocks the diving bell, but I wouldn’t say that’s enough to make it a Metroidvania.

I think one big difference between the game types is, with a Metroidvania game, it’s pretty much guaranteed that in a playthrough of the game, natural progression will eventually take you everywhere in that game. Meaning, if you reach an area you can’t go to, it’s pretty certain you’re either missing necessary equipment or the story will make it accessible later.

In an open world game, it’s almost guaranteed that if you just follow the story, you’re only going to see the tiniest fraction of the world. Sometimes even if you do all the side quests there’s still a lot of the game world that’s just left for you to discover on your own.

I like both types of games, and I do think there can be some overlap between them. But in a Metroidvania game, the backtracking is often implemented better. The game creators usually have more control over when and how often you have to backtrack in them, so they can better curate those experiences. Even if the game is somewhat open world, the game steers you more. In open world games you might often find yourself going back and forth to the same location over and over to drop off loot, or buy more ammo, or turn in a quest, and so on, and those trips can get a little boring. The developer has given the player so much freedom that they can’t tell how often the player might need to go back and buy health packs, so the developer has no guaranteed way to really predict the player’s journey.


Not to nitpick, but I’m not sure about that distinction. A lot of Metroidvania games have a lot of areas that are completely optional and that you’d never get to if you just mainline the plot - Hollow Knight comes to mind. Hell, in Symphony of the Night, technically half the game is completely optional.


So, I get a sense that metroidvania games are more tightly structured, requiring you at least sometimes return to previous areas to progress farther. When in open–world the path is more linear with loosely tied progression level (take might and magic series, for example).


Yeah, I didn’t mean it to be like a hard rule, just that in my experience a Metroidvania game usually shows me more of the entire world even if I just follow the story compared to an open world game. I can’t think of the last Metroidvania type game that, after finishing, really made me feel like I missed a lot. It’s possible I have missed a lot, and I just didn’t get that feeling. But in most open world games, after finishing the story, I’ll look at the map and there will be massive regions that the story never even took me to (which is often baffling because the story will always have me going back and forth over certain areas repeatedly.) It just gives me this sensation of “why’d you have me traveling to the same places when there are entire locations left unexplored?”

Like others have said, it seems to be that Metroidvania games have more control over the structure of the player’s journey through the world.


I’d like to point to the Arkham series as an example of the two different genres. Arkham Asylum, in my opinion, was a straight-up Metroidvania action-adventure game. The story lead the player through a number of different areas within a relatively enclosed space, steadily supplying you with new gear and moves to access new areas. The claustrophobia of the Asylum really helped cement that this was a maze for the player to navigate.

Arkham City had some of these trappings, but the ability to basically fly from one side of the map to another made it feel much more like an open-world game than it’s predecessor. Arkham Knight continued in this direction with an even larger map and more traversal options.

The defining characteristic was the access to space, or lack thereof. I think Asylum succeeded where it did because it denied the player the ability to freely move around the playspace.


In a way, both open world games and Metroidanias are very similar in that they use their map to entice the player with the sense of the unknown, the former by showing all the things you have to yet to explore, the latter by hiding all the things you have yet to explore.

However I think that “open world vs Metroidvania” is a false dichotomy, even though the game types are generally opposed. Rather, I’d suggest that Metroidvania is an example of “enclosed world” design (tunnels and small interconnecting spaces in contrast to a wide open world), and an example of “closed progression” (in contrast to open progression and the “soft gating” that a capital letter Open World game uses). Both also are examples of a “consistent world” approach to design that is in contrast to “mission/level based” world design (with or without a hub world).

And we tend to recognise that a “Metroidvania” specifically generally needs progression gated by power-ups or new abilities, particularly to do with movement and have utility besides being keys, since an enclosed world with key items doesn’t make a Metroidvania on its own.

It’s interesting to see how these elements are put together and changed, for instance in games like Spyro series which had aspirations of being open-world (though constrained to smaller connected levels by the technology of the era) but which used power-ups to open up and recontextualise previous areas the way a Metroidvania tends to; Night in the Woods, which features what is functionally an enclosed world of tunnels and light platforming with lots of backtracking, but which has completely open progression through that world; or Pokemon, which ties Metroidvania-esque movement powers that unlock previous areas and that have other utility to narrative progression through a mostly-linear open world.