game design – Is there an “official” term for the “key-door problem”?


The “key-door problem” is a term I’ve come up with, after playing a number of Metroidvania or Zelda style indie games.

One distinctive feature of these games, is that the player is free to explore the world, but the world is full of obstacles the player cannot overcome from the start. The player is encouraged to explore as far as they can, until they find a new item or learn a new skill, which will allow them to overcome some of the obstacles, and allow them to explore where they previously couldn’t. Backtracking usually makes up a big part of the game’s experience.

For example, in Zelda, bushes can block Link’s way, until he finds a sword to cut them, and cracked walls can be blown away with bombs. And in Metroid, Samus cannot crawl through small tunnels until she finds the Morph Ball upgrade, while large canyons require that she can jump indefinitely in mid-air.

This dynamic is what I like most about these games.

However, I’ve noticed that some indie games (not all) trying to reproduce the same dynamic, actually feel boring precisely because of it. Unlike in Zelda or Metroid, where you’re acquiring a new skill or tool to help you progress, these games feel like you’re searching for keys to open specific doors instead.

This is what I call the “key-door problem”. I’ve also tried to make my own Zelda-like game, only to notice that it suffers from the same “key-door problem”.

Unfortunately, I’m having a very hard time finding anything about it online (such as what causes it, and how to avoid it). When I search for “key door problem game design”, all I get is an article about the “Door problem of Game Design” by Liz England, which is about how much effort it can take to add something as mundane as a door to a game.

Therefore, I’d like to know what the “official” term is for the “key-door problem”, if there is one.


To clarify: I’m not looking for a term that describes “stopping the player from proceeding until they’re ready“, I’m looking for a term that describes “when players feel like they’re collecting keys, rather than upgrades or new abilities” instead.



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