Leave it to an open-world game set in a bleak northern wasteland to demonstrate the power of tight, imaginative, indoor level design.
When developer Bethesda announced the follow-up to The Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion, I scoured every preview, bulleted list, and press release in pursuit of a single piece of information: What’s going on with the dungeons this time out? Should players steel themselves for another run though one hundred or so variations on the same three maps?
"Hey, remember how we had one guy handling all of the dungeons last time? Yeah, sorry about that. But don’t worry, we’ve got eight dedicated designers doing the dungeon thing now." That's the quote I was looking for.
Luckily, with The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim, Bethesda has made hanging out indoors feel like a truly worthwhile endeavour. No longer does every cave feel like a padded excuse to tick a couple of quest checkboxes, grab some random loot, and get back out to what really matters — journeying freely in the open air and discovering new corners of civilization.
Some truly impressive sights await players in the countless grottoes and labyrinths that wind below Skyrim’s surface — roaring waterfalls, rays of sunlight poking through holes in the rock, and a divine tree surrounded by a bountiful garden.
Equally impressive are the many elements that lend these locations a true Dungeons and Dragons feel. It takes more than muscle, magic, and overbearing stats to plunder the dungeons to their fullest and return to the world above with a proper bounty of new treasures in tow.
Pressure plates and other trap-springing mechanisms protect hidden passageways and treasure chests — excellent speed bumps for the overconfident. Some dungeons even incorporate a puzzle or two to make sure you're not humming along on autopilot. It is absolutely worth a player’s while to slow down and take in that musty dungeon air.
This one's for you, Lara.
OK, so Skyrim’s dungeons are packed with traps, puzzles, and amazing sights. Good for Skyrim, but does it offer any meaningful design philosophies that can be taken outside the context of this game and applied to games of all types, regardless of genre (and regardless of the size of a development team and its budget)?
After all, funneling players through tightly coiled passageways of traps and puzzles isn't the final solution to dungeon design. A great dungeon doesn't need to offer the complete D&D experience. Fortunately, the most important nugget of design wisdom that Skyrim embraces is one that any rich, well-realized game world can integrate with little effort.
Make your dungeons matter. Make them congruent with and complementary to the world and lore you've put so much heart into designing. Show us where these places fit in with the world at large; share the bloody history and the shady secrets. Tell their stories through the words of the people that inhabit them, or shed light on tragedy through fellow adventurers' notes and journals.
A designer doesn't even need to use text to accomplish this, especially if it would hamper the game's pace. Environmental cues and clues provide endless possibilities for memorable experiences. Some of Skyrim’s best tales are told by corpses that lie slumped against a stone dais, desperately clutching treasured possessions in their dead fingers.
And every time I lure a skeleton or Draugr into a gauntlet of swinging blades, giggling idiotically all the way, I feel compelled to express my appreciation for developers who don't forget about those little moments and victories that count so very much.
Scenario: Skeletons chilling in pool of oil below, makeshift torch
dangling precariously above. You've got a bow. Any questions?