I suspect writer’s block is not so much an encounter with a wall as a maze. Writing, even at its best, involves arriving at many dead ends of research and drafts that never make it to the page, but they do come together. That process makes it hard to predict how long it will take to reach the end, with no promise as to just what is waiting to be found. As such, this is not a review of Metroid Dread so much as it is a review of reviewing Metroid Dread.
Because Dread feels like a labyrinth.
As a kid, I most often encountered mazes at the Renaissance Festival in late winter. The ticketed amusements of two-dimensional forests and castles made of plywood do little to compel. But it’s a maze, you enter. “If you get lost,” said one knight guarding the entrance, “throw your wallet over the wall so we can find you.” We didn’t have to despite reaching many dead ends (my mom’s fault, I swear) and we emerged next to the very entrance from which our journey began.
There is a similarly compelling, even satisfactory disorientation when I open the umpteenth locked door in Lordran to find an elevator that takes me back to Firelink Shrine—the origin of my descent. But these twisting paths, with their dead ends that necessitate doubling back, these mazes are not the same labyrinths with which renaissance fairgoers were familiar.
Found in Christian art and architecture from the 1300s on, the origin of such labyrinths in castles and chapels is not entirely known to us today. But their use in religious sites around the world makes sense, the winding path directing our eyes or our feet to the center only to meet an end. Such designs evoke a meditative pause. Walk this way, and back. A definitive characteristic of these and previous labyrinths, from Crete to the Tohono O’odham tribe’s cosmology, was their unicursal design, like the original depictions of Daedalus’ labyrinth that feature a winding, unambiguous passage to the center. There were no optional turns, and the one dead end was, in this case, very literal.
Yet the labyrinth morphed into a multicursal prison for the minotaur and those trapped within, materializing the modern connotation, that inescapable thing which we find ourselves already trapped in. Similarly, Samus is trapped in planet ZDR. Marooned and with amnesia, she awakens near the planet’s core and must fight and climb and roll her way to the surface. Instead of descending into a sprawling maze, she is fighting outward, upward, and to a single point, tasked merely with survival.
One of the most disorienting features of mazes seems to be the nonplaceness of them. Endless bricks or stalks of corn offer no clues. In Percy Jackson and the Olympians, the architecture of the Daedalus’ underground labyrinth changes gradually, but never in response to what is just outside one of its many exits. In Breath of the Wild, each of the labyrinths in the corners of Hyrule are noticeably uniform with each other, but out of place in their surroundings.
And while some of the zones in Dread make an impression, they quickly blend into each other. In the middle and end game, use of teleporters, elevators, and other zone-shifting mechanics make these feel so connected as to the detriment of placeness, while lava or ice zones look basically the same no matter where in the larger world Samus may be. Certainly laborious, but less a maze, more akin to navigating a winding laboratory.
But such displacement was not enough to shake me. The way out was always clear: straight and fast. Playing Dread reminisced recent run-based roguelites a la Dead Cells and Blasphemous and Hades. These games, featuring fast-paced combat and meditative recursion, are much more labyrinthian than the sprawling, maze-formed maps of a namesake metroidvania such as Hollow Knight. Combat is the modus operandi in this generation of roguelites, each run demanding attention and, at best, grasping the player in a flow-state of play. You just never have to think too hard about where you’re going.
Combat in Dread is less appealing. Movement is snappy, but bosses feel like puzzles that I simply lacked the precision to complete without tedious practice. Powers are cool, but the enemies are all samey—a problem compounded by just how little each new ability changes the ways Samus can interact with the world. Most of the time, you’ll wait for an enemy to charge up a telegraphed attack or run right at you, hit your counter button, and respond with a single, fatal tap on the controller. In Dread, the challenge becomes so repetitive as to dampen my attention.
Though it is not just in strife that we find enjoyment in the labyrinth. As Camus wrote, “If the descent is thus sometimes performed in sorrow, it can also take place in joy.” The leisurely mazes which metroidvanias invoke emerge sometime after labyrinthian art, and are easily recognizable in hedge and corn mazes around the world today. But Dread never lets me get lost in that way, the reason I have returned to games of its namesake genre to wander as on the trail or the page.
I know that Samus will reach the surface of ZDR not because she is the protagonist but because she has but one path ahead of her. She can’t help but walk forward, lest she be pulled back in place. The yarn tied up around power armor like a leash.
While both genres hold a place in contemporary games, it is labyrinths that have found resurgent popularity in the past year off the screen, hailed for bringing “order out of a sense of chaos” and instilling “mindfulness” in its guests. And the image of a much different multicursal labyrinth than what Athenian tributes persevered feels rooted in a primordial fear of what is within—the half bull and half man a personification of many great existential dreads. The labyrinth poses a question of literal and metaphorical escape. “How will we ever make it out of this labyrinth of suffering,” asks the eponymous character of John Green’s aughts YA novel Looking for Alaska. Life as a labyrinth is just one of many tantalizing similes.
Indeed, labyrinths make for appealing metaphors to writers. Crafting an essay is a manicured tour of twists and turns that seldom lead to a dead end to be retread. The essay presupposes a unicursal path; one critical throughline, a line of reasoning, a ball of a yarn, a clue—or a power bomb as it may be. To write is to build a labyrinth, to read, and to play, is to walk such a path.
But the labyrinth that Metroid Dread promises is not one to get lost in. It is just a passing amusement, always sure in its end.