Animal Well tricked you into thinking it’s a Metroidvania

If there is one thing that people who make and play video games love more than video games, it’s labels. People love to label a game, to invent a genre, to categorize and sort and declare some kind of rudimentary ownership. YouTubers have built entire careers around this.

Animal Well encourages this thinking. It looks like a Metroidvania — you know, the kind of game where there’s a sprawling 2D map and you run back and forth, finding locked doors and impenetrable thresholds that become trivial once you find the appropriate tchotchke to get past them. I would discourage you from thinking about it this way, though, or telling others that’s what it’s doing. It’s all a ruse.

I should probably clear the air here. I’ve got some history with the word “Metroidvania.” The short version? I don’t like it. This is purely a semantic distaste, a strongly-held opinion about jargon and what it’s useful for. Actual games in that genre? Love ’em.

Anyway, the first hint that something might be amiss with Animal Well is in how — if it is, in fact, a Metroidvania — it refuses to work like any Metroidvania you’ve seen before. High platforms are not reached by a double jump. Every item has multiple functions. Nothing is particularly obvious.

What Animal Well really is, is a collection of puzzles. Puzzles upon puzzles. Puzzles that are very apparent and puzzles that you can walk by dozens of times and not even realize they are present. Its items are puzzles, and using them allows you to try your hand at even more elaborate puzzles. It challenges you to understand the world in front of you, and then it complicates that understanding.

I’ve had a couple conversations with friends who don’t love Metroidvanias and love Animal Well, and I’d say this is why. Every screen offers something new to figure out, maybe even more than one. And while “puzzle game” is not the sexiest or particularly evocative genre descriptor, it is describing something that human beings instinctually like to do. We love to solve puzzles. Solving them is how we learn to do most things in life; it’s a skill so fundamental we forget how enmeshed it is in our perception of the world.

I think most people who spend any amount of time with Animal Well realizes this on some level. Even if we disagree on the words we use to describe Animal Well, it’s immediately apparent that figuring out what it is is the primary pleasure found in playing it, and whatever labels we affix to it are secondary.

Let me leave you with one final suggestion, then: Ignore what I’ve just said and don’t call it a puzzle game. Call it a mystery.