Dungeon Design

Dungeons replaced the linear structure of players completing level one, two then three with a hub world containing unique environments that could be accessed in a unique order. This created a more dynamic feeling to exploration, allowing players to run around aimlessly until they encountered the next dungeon. By segregating dungeons to sub-levels, the entire world felt connected and the game was larger than before. Final Fantasy and Legend of Zelda pioneered this technique on the NES but the same concept is utilized in AAA titles today such as Skyrim, World of Warcraft, Dark Souls, Diablo III, and pretty much every Ni No Kunimodern RPG. The dungeon is a necessary mechanic in game design, but unfortunately it is not always developed as awesomely as fans would like.

The Good

Amazing dungeon design utilizes a theme and applies it to every nuance of the environment. There are numerous examples of designers successfully capturing this concept, but one of the more recent entries is Ni No Kuni. When players control Oliver throughout the world map the terrain is dynamic and constantly changing from forests, to deserts, to volcanoes to magical habitats. When the player enters a dungeon there are visual cues and themes that highlight the tone of the region.

While climbing a volcano there is ash falling on the ground and the enemies are fire based. Of course they are! But so often, designers just palette swap previous foes to fit the new environment. The big boss is a large fiery beast that encompasses all the fear being burned alive. The puzzle aspects of each dungeon make sense for the theme, while in a swamp the player must avoid poisonous gas by utilizing a newly acquired hovering spell. Oliver and company explore ice caverns and their clothes change to necessary parkas to capture warmth. There are details in the background that players can never reach but accentuate the entire Water Templeworld surrounding the hero. These are linear(ish) dungeons that the player is exploring but it is obviously part of a much larger interconnected world.

The Bad

The Legend of Zelda series successfully captures everything that is great about dungeon design, in most of the levels. But there is one world that is the pinnacle of poor design—The Water Temple from Ocarina of Time. Everything that I praised Ni No Kuni for could be applied to this level as well; where the Water Temple fails is containing an unnecessarily complicated structure, forcing players to double back and is an aggressive difficulty spike compared to the rest of the game.

Good dungeon design will utilize a map to help players keep their bearings of where to go next. Within the Water Temple’s various floors which overlap each other, there is no obvious order. Player’s don’t start at the bottom and work their way up, but instead oscillate between floors to open additional chambers and adjust the water height. If a mistake occurs during the guess work, the player must backtrack and resolve puzzles to reset the water levels. This is the greatest sin for dungeons, repetition. Players want Dragon Age 2new experiences and the opportunity to push forward, by forcing them to redo sections the game is artificially padded.

The Ugly

Speaking of being repetitive, the randomly generated dungeons in Dragon Age 2 are the same level over and over again. Players explore numerous caves, caverns, underground walkways, grottos, fissures and canyons that reuse assets. If you play through this game and thought you saw that wall before, or opened up that chest in the exact same location you are probably right.

Randomly generated dungeons such as Rogue or Dark Cloud can expand the replayability of a game and offer unique experiences for each player. Diablo is able to successfully create random dungeons that players feel compelled to reveal every aspect of the map, but Dragon Age 2 falls far short of these examples. The joy is sucked out of the game and 80% of the quests feel like a remixed version of the same mission. There are a few good levels, but they are unique one-off situations and are too far apart.

The Call to Action

What are some of your favorite dungeons that you explored? Was there ever a level that forced you to turn to a guide, such as The Water Temple forced me? Let me know in the comments if there was ever a game that you stopped playing because of poor design or replay constantly because of brilliant dungeon layout.

Level Up, Friends!