How to Make Your Dungeon Stand Out From the Rest
Last week, we began looking at how good planning can make your dungeon really memorable. We focused on planning mechanical and structural elements of dungeons, but this week we'll be looking at how to design your dungeon from an artistic perspective, as well as some pitfalls to avoid that we didn't get to talk about last week. I'll try to be a little more concise this time, so without further delay let us continue our analysis of how to make dungeons memorable.
Shimmer and Grime
Deciding the setting of your dungeon will usually be designed in tandem with whatever mechanic or feature you want to show off there. If you want to make your dungeon distinct from the wealth of dungeons in video games, you should try to avoid what I'll call 'vanilla' settings. For instance, it's really easy to default to the elements of fire, water, and grass as settings for your first three dungeons.
Ocarina of Time came out 20 years ago, and we've seen iterations on this formula both before and since.
Any game with a focus on elemental crystals or relics usually ends up defaulting to this simply because it makes sense. But there are ways to make this formula unique and interesting. For instance, if you're going for a fire theme you could set the dungeon in a forge or power plant of some sort. If you have to go with something standard like a volcano, maybe have the bulk of it take place in vents and conduits rather than the crater. It's also rather easy to mix elements. Mixing the water and grass element gives you locales like bayous and rainforests.
However, what's better than spicing up ‘vanilla’ settings is reaching more toward untapped venues. This is usually a lot harder, but you can create really interesting areas by thinking outside of one-word settings. Look around at your daily life and the world around you and ask yourself, "How would this area look put into the context of my game?" Say, for instance, your next dungeon takes place in a land that was once controlled by ice-demons with an insatiable bloodlust. You might look at your local football field and think, "How did my ice-demons entertain themselves?" Boom, you now have a set of linked, gladiatorial arenas in the freezing wastes as your next dungeon. Seems a lot cooler than 'ice temple', doesn't it?
A simpler, more tangible example is Donkey Kong 64's Frantic Factory. The designers took an ordinary concept, factory, and made it much more interesting by simply adding the word 'toy' in front of it.
Now you need to make sure that the areas within your dungeon are not only mechanically sound, but that they make some lick of sense in their context. Variety is also key at this stage; we see way too many castles that are a series of brick rooms that serve no real function. Castles have a myriad number of different possible rooms: foyer, dining hall, balconies, bedrooms, servant's quarters, armory, torture chamber, kitchen, secret escape routes, throne room, anterooms, gardens, towers, grand staircases, the list goes on and on! Now, you don't have to use all of these, in fact you probably shouldn't. But rooms should have landmarks and distinct features not only to aid in navigation and memorization, but also to provide the player visual rewards and things to gawk at. Attention to detail is going to boost your dungeon's impact by a ton, even if a portion of your players only notice half of what you put in it.
From this angle, you can see not only upcoming zones in this area, but also other areas you will later travel to. Elegant stuff.
There's one last thing to keep in mind: whatever you do, do it big. It'd seem strange to walk into a temple that's supposedly been in disrepair for centuries only to find that most of it is in near-mint condition (unless that's one of the mysteries your dungeon provides.) That temple should be covered in vines or coated in dust; walking around that place should be tricky because the walls are collapsed and bridges have fallen apart. Minimalism is not your friend when you're trying to make an impact, so go big! Not so big that you have a bunch of dead zones, of course, but you can scale up in areas the player doesn't ever reach as well. The Dark Souls series does a great job of keeping the scale big and the walk times low, as its areas don't have dead space. Everything there is exactly where it needs to be, and the areas loop back on themselves to reduce backtracking.
Beware of Pits
Now, let's go over some little pitfalls that a lot of games tend to fall into. For starters, avoid hallways when possible. Hallways should generally only be used for giving the player a rest or forcing them into some space-related combat encounter or puzzle. Don't just throw hallways between rooms because you can. Even worse than that is making rooms that are functionally just hallways because nothing happens in them.
Many dungeons and areas in The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel are just glorified hallways. Their puzzles often involve walking to different sides of the floor to flip switches and not much more.
It's boring. And by that same token, try to avoid making labyrinths or maze puzzles when possible. These types of challenges can bog down the game really badly, regardless of how much you may like the idea (this is coming from someone who loves the idea of labyrinths.) There really isn't a whole lot you can do with a labyrinth that doesn't make the experience more dreadful. If you add enemies, players may lose track of where they are while they're caught up in combat. If you add mini puzzles, you've slowed down gameplay even more.
Persona Q's winding corridors and labyrinthian design are one huge puzzle in themselves, but it's not a format I'd recommend for the average dungeon.
If you're going to put a dead end anywhere in your dungeon, make sure there's something there. There's no worse feeling than trudging through a combat encounter or puzzle only to find little to no reward for your troubles. Making your player backtrack for no gain is just rude. Even if there is something at the end of that hall, try to make the path back more interesting than the path there. It's a small reward to see something that you didn't see on the way in or to have a more entertaining return trip.
Finally, try to make sure everything in a room serves some sort of purpose. Not just for telling the player about the culture of the world or hinting at what's ahead, though that's a good start. You can give spice to puzzles by making the pieces a part of the environment. A standard block-pushing puzzle can be made a lot more interesting by changing those blocks to cages with skeletons inside them. That room's whole atmosphere just made a change for the grim. And while not every game can do this, allowing for environmental kills in a combat challenge can act as a nice change of pace.
Trained in Dungeoneering
This was quite a journey; combining this article with last week's shows just how much thought one can put into the planning phase of designing dungeons. All of this not only applies to dungeons, but it can also work with regular level design as well. As always, I encourage you to look at your favorite dungeons from the perspectives we've outlined here. See if you can make an educated guess as to what the developers had in mind when designing those dungeons. How would you design the same dungeon? Give yourself a set of parameters to operate under and create a mock-up dungeon for a fictional or existing game. Practice and iteration are the only ways you'll truly learn what good design is and how to execute upon those designs.
Dig deep, devs!