Warning: The following content features incredibly dull screenshots.
I hate dungeon crawling.
It turns games into a chore. When trying to enjoy a story, a world or even a combat system I don’t want to overdose on the latter. They are almost always just filler, to get in the way of progression or things worth playing.
Long and boring dungeon crawls ruined Dragon Age: Origins for me and put me off playing Dragon Quest VIII altogether. If I wanted to go through a dull, repetitive environment mindlessly fighting meaningless hordes I’d play Diablo.
In Fallout 3 you travel to Vault 87 – the only known location of a mysterious item you desperately need. You find it populated by the huge and deadly Super Mutants. They are a result of the horrific viral experiments conducted on the Vault’s former inhabitants.
Sounds tense, mysterious and very atmospheric…Then you run up some stairs, see some Super Mutants, shoot them in the face and spend the next half an hour killing identical enemies through identical corridors and looting useless items in identical rooms. Not so tense or mysterious, never mind atmospheric. It’s pretty much the same thing as the caves and the sewers and the buildings and every other dungeon.
It’s not just Bethesda, even beloved Bioware are ridiculously guilty of this too. In Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, you are sent to investigate the underwater Hrakert Station on the planet Manaan. You take a submarine down and meet the only surviving mercenary the Republic had sent after communication was lost. You discover that a large shark appeared on the Hrakert Rift, then afterwards the native Selkath workers went insane and killed everybody.
Sounds tense, mysterious and…Well, you can probably see where this is going. Identical corridors, identical enemies. Circular design with lots of little rooms means it all becomes needlessly complicated and drawn out with frequent map checking. Same as the many dungeons on Taris, Kashyyk or anywhere else in the game.
Here’s five guidelines I’d suggest to avoid ruining dungeons that had potential like those above:
1. Locational awareness
Seriously, stop with the identical corridors. Ask yourself if the player needs to head down another hallway. Design rooms with a purpose – what was the point of the room in-universe? Is it worth looking at? Cut the ones that shouldn’t exist, put them behind a broken door. Differentiate the areas to make them memorable.
Think atmosphere. Why is the player here and what are you trying to convey? In both previous examples, the player is trapped in a claustrophobic location packed with mindless hostiles. So make it tense, make it scary. Use sound to imply that evisceration is one room away and the player never knows what to expect when they open the next door. Then there’s the mystery of what happened to the residents – each room can subtly eke out information. Even it’s just in the state of the bodies.
3. Keep it short
Don’t waste time, no unnecessary repetition.
4. The Hook
Something to make the gameplay in that dungeon unique. Could be as simple as timer or a puzzle that changes the gameplay formula. In Vault 87, they could’ve made the Super Mutants exceptionally tough, or had a gas leak remove your ability to use guns, forcing non-melee characters to sneak or run through.
All of these basically boil down to one rule though:
5. Make every moment matter.
Final Fantasy VI, VII and VIII managed to hit this target for most of their dungeons. The crawl was part of the gameplay, but far from the bulk of it. Say what you will about its story or the Draw system, Final Fantasy VIII, in particular had a lot of interesting dungeons with examples of “The Hook”.
Whereas Final Fantasy XIII repeatedly defies every single one of these guidelines. The dungeons serve no purpose, go on forever and never have a hook. You wouldn’t miss anything in the story if you cut them out, as they’re just filler in-between cutscenes – the equivalent of an interactive loading screen.
For comparison, let’s look at the first five dungeons of each game:
Final Fantasy XIII
- Hanging Edge – You run forward fighting guards to get to the other side.
- Pulse Vestige – You run forward and fight stuff to get to a thing.
- Lake Bresha – You run forward and fight stuff to get to the other side.
- Vile Peaks – You run forward and fight stuff to get to the other side. For about a minute you get to move forward and fight stuff in a mech.
- Gapra Whitewood – You run forward and fight stuff to get to the other side.
Bear in mind this is literally all of the gameplay. The first four make up the entire first disc of the 360 version. They are just for moving through and fighting respawning monsters between actual things happening in cutscenes.
There is the city of Palumpolum – the only area that actually bothers to have you moving through something akin to an actual place, with different areas. But that doesn’t make up for the rest, like the nonsensical airship dungeon or the parody that is Orphan’s Cradle.
Final Fantasy VIII
- Fire Cavern – A test for mercenary recruits, you get to set the timer to complete this.
- Assault on Dollet – Assault to retake an occupied city ends with a giant regenerating spider robot chasing you back the way you came, with a time limit, multiple fights and the possibility of permanently beating the machine.
- Training Center – Basic but short dungeon with a circular shape, has one enemy that is considerably more powerful than you and takes strategy to beat (the game tells you to just run away from it) – a small hook.
- Tomb of the Unknown King – Repetitive labyrinth that is optional past the first room.
- Sewers – Bad typical dungeon where you run through identical tunnels fighting monsters between point A and point B.
Bear in mind how many hours of gameplay there are in-between these. There’s towns, world maps, small hostile areas, mini-games, etc. Like how the train mission has a sneaking section instead of a dungeon. Admittedly, the game occasionally falls into some more typical dungeon crawling (and the less said about the prison – the better) but for every basic and fortunately short Great Salt Lake, there’s an optional timed dungeon in the Centra Ruins, or the speech-giving and jetpack melee mixed into Galbadia Garden, etc.
Maybe this is why so many yearn for the heyday of Final Fantasy on the PlayStation over the JRPGs of today. Pre-rendered background probably helped because instead of endlessly repeating a set of textures, they had to sculpt each screen of each area.
But it’s more likely a problem with modern gaming. Now they have to stretch out dungeons to fill the time and space they’ve traded for graphics. Personally, I’d risk length for a more enjoyable product. I’d even sacrifice the bad and stilted voice acting for a better JRPG.
If designers worldwide learned from the games that get it right, they could make a dungeon crawling less of a chore, less like filler and just part of a great experience – the way it should be.
Have you had any experiences with good or bad dungeons in video games?