Level design is a broad topic, and some design philosophies might not translate well to different games. Today we are going to focus on dungeons, the playhouse of adventurers. Ever since the olden days of pencil and paper games, players have been trudging through dungeons. Fatal traps, bloodthirsty monsters, and perplexing puzzles are promised by the dungeon. All of this, with the scent of loot in the air, make for a lucrative setting for any game.
For the purposes of this article, we will be looking at the dungeon designs of Bloodborne, The Legend of Zelda; Ocarina of Time, and Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup. These three games have dungeon layouts at the core of their level design, yet take different approaches.
A dungeon is not limited to the setting of an actual medieval prison. Rather, the dungeon will be used to describe an area of a game which is comprised of linked rooms. Players find their way to the end of the dungeon through these rooms, often with an exciting climax, leading to the completion of the dungeon. These rooms, at times, provide the player with some obstacle to overcome, and other times provide a key item to another room. Bloodborne takes place primarily in the city of Yharnum. The layout of the city, however, is reminiscent of a dungeon, as players traverse up and down ladders, over bridges, and through darkened homes.
In some cases, a dungeon may not be a structure at all. Take, for example, lord Jabu Jabu’s belly from the Legend of Zelda, the Ocarina of Time. This would still be considered a dungeon, it is comprised of interlinked rooms, despite the setting being that of a giant fish’s body. There are puzzles, obstacles, and items in each room. There is even a boss battle at the end, as you try to exorcise a parasitic monster from Jabu Jabu’s intestinal tract.
When designing a layout for a dungeon it’s important to think about what the players can keep track of in their minds. Having the player become lost within a dungeon is not inherently bad, it creates a sense of claustrophobia and confusion, two effective feelings in the right game. Bloodborne is one such game that uses these elements to its advantage. Bloodborne drops players into a sprawling city, with thin winding corridors and streets. The goal of this is to create a sense of dread when rounding a corner. In this case, creating a dungeon where players get lost, compliments the setting of gothic horror. The structure of the town is confusing the first time through, but is very clever in creating things for the player to latch onto. There is a large bridge that stretches over a portion of the level, which can be seen from almost anywhere in the city. There are also very distinct objects that players recognize as landmarks, like a large bonfire, or an area with caged dogs. This allows players to get a general idea of where they are. Players triangulate their position by using these markers with large distinct structures, like the bridge.
A complicated dungeon, however, is not without its drawbacks. If the player has no landmark to grasp onto, they could end up frustrated as their idea of progression could lead them backward. There are a few moments like this within Bloodborne. The city of Yharnam is cut into multiple parts, yet buildings and roads look identical in architecture. The first time through a city section can be disorientating. This frustration compounds with boredom if the player backtracks through completed, empty rooms.
One way around this is creating a big, centralized room that the players constantly return to.This is especially effective in dungeons with walls and ceilings, as the player can’t use distant structures to approximate their position. Instead, they base their idea of their location relative to this central hub area. The Legend of Zelda uses this with the majority of its dungeons. Take, for example, Dodongo’s Cavern from the Legend of Zelda; Ocarina of Time. This dungeon starts you in a large room with several different doors. There is also a large, looming skull of an unknown creature (presumably a Dodongo), which is later revealed to be the path to the boss. Players loop back into this room multiple times and are brought back here if they die, or are starting a new session and they saved within the dungeon. Having this distinctive room that’s connected to the rest of the dungeon allows players to reset and take a moment to plan their next move. It also provides an easy way to leave the dungeon if they want to, for whatever reason, as the room is usually close to the exit.
I know what you’re thinking, dear reader. Why not just give the players a map? This allows players know for certain where they are, assuming they trust the map. While maps are useful for players, cartography isn’t the solution for every game. Bloodborne, for example, would not be nearly as tense or suspenseful if you knew what lies around the next corner. Arenas, for encounters, become obvious when looking from a bird’s eye view, consisting of a large, open area. Maps are most effective in the second type of dungeon layout, with the Zelda-esque hub room. As mentioned earlier, the dungeons ceilings and walls hide distant locations. The map and the central room give the player an idea of where to go.
The Legend of Zelda; Ocarina of Time, along with every other Zelda game, uses a formula for dungeons that is focused around the map. In Ocarina of Time, players are given a map screen in their pause menu. This shows the player the shape of the room that they are in, where they are in that shape, and exits to different rooms. Players will eventually obtain a map which will show the entirety of the dungeon layout, and highlight rooms the player has already been in. Lastly, players can obtain a compass, which marks treasure chests on the map. This approach to maps allows players to plot out their next moves, and avoid becoming lost.
It is important to note that if there are multiple dungeons in a game, the formula should be varied and mixed up in order to stay engaging. The Legend of Zelda; Ocarina of Time falls victim to this, as the dungeon formula becomes overused and predictable. Find the dungeon map, then find the compass, then find the dungeon specific item, then find the boss key, then beat the boss. To counteract this, the dungeons in the Ocarina of Time have a different layout and theme. The puzzles are also different from dungeon to dungeon, usually requiring the specific item found within. Having a predictable dungeon, however, takes away from the fun of exploring it. Overuse of the formula turn the experience into a banal checklist of finding items you know will be there.
One solution to this is having a randomly, or procedurally, generated dungeon. Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup is a roguelike game set completely in a procedurally generated dungeon. After the player creates a character, they are dropped into a dungeon with randomly placed hallways and rooms. Despite the layout being randomly generated, Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup adds in things that are predictable in every one of their dungeons. For example, Every floor will have 3 stairs going up, and 3 stairs going down, and the Ecumenical Temple, which always spawns between floor 4 and 7. In addition to this, there are specific features that are added on top of the generated crypt. The NPC Crazy Yiuf, a gnoll that spawns in a room that has a rune locked door.
Like Zelda, Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup provides you with a map. This map functions differently from Zelda’s map, as it catalogs the area’s that you’ve explored, rather than show you where to go. This is useful in Stone Soup because if the player encounters a monster that is too great for them, they can retreat up a flight of stairs where the monsters can’t reach. The map, in this instance, aids to the survival of the player in a harsh environment.
This approach to dungeon design is effective at creating a new experience each time. But like every other approach, it has its own issues. Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup places it’s items, traps, and enemies randomly. This sometimes creates unfair situations for the player like falling down a shaft onto a party of wraiths or encountering a monster that is too strong for the level they are on. Inversely, it sometimes creates situations that give the player too much power like getting a strong artifact that eliminated the challenge of the next few floors. It’s important to balance encounters in this design method, because nothing is more frustrating than a random event killing you.
These are just a few examples of dungeons in games, but why would you use one in the first place? Different games have different goals, which creates a distinct need that a dungeon can fulfill. In addition, the way each game is played is going to create different problems that the design of the dungeon needs to assess. Is your game a top-down, two-dimensional hack-n-slash? Then you probably are going to need a map, as you cannot pan the camera up to see far away landmarks.
The design of any dungeon comes down to one thing; clarity. Unless the goal of the dungeon is to frustrate and confuse the player (which could be your goal), You’re going to need to put something in that the players can latch onto. Whether that is an object in the distance that you can work towards or a map that they can pull up.
Let’s suppose you wanted to make a dungeon in your game. For the sake of argument, let’s say it’s a first person game, something that hasn’t been covered in this article. It’s a space themed shooter game and the setting is in a space station, abandoned and adrift in space. Because there are walls and a ceiling, players won’t be able to latch onto a landmark in the distance to triangulate their location, like in Bloodborne. However, you want to create a tense threatening environment for the player, you opt to not use a map. What are your options?
You could design your dungeon to lead the player to either side of the ship, where there might be bay windows that peer out into the inky void of space. If there was something distinct to look at, like a breach in the hull or another ship, then the player would have a goal to strive towards. Alternatively, you could pepper in maps of the ship on walls in certain areas. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that a colony ship would have a map of the area for civilians, like in a shopping mall.
Dungeons are great areas to add to a game. They evoke a unique sense of adventure that can only come from the faint promise of loot in a dangerous crypt. There are many different kinds of dungeons, and any type of dungeon should be chosen carefully. And always remember; when in doubt, go left.