Posted by Rampant Coyote on January 17, 2012
A year or so ago this illustration of FPS level design “evolution” over the last twenty years made the rounds, and struck a little bit of a nerve. Yes, many folks agreed – particularly the old-school gamers who remember gaming from the last century – it’s gotten awfully simplistic.
But the maps don’t tell the whole story. The linearity was a little exaggerated, and the map complexity of the old Doom level (E1M5?) hid some inherent linearity of the design that only becomes apparent in gameplay, when you grab the appropriate keys in linear order to allow you access to the rest of the level. But it was an amusing way to make a point.
I’ve been thinking about this a little bit lately with respect to RPGs. In particular, the linear dungeons of Skyrim come to mind (since that’s the RPG I’m playing right now), which are extremely linear.
The comparison becomes pretty stark when you realize the Elder Scrolls games were directly inspired by Ultima Underworld, way back in the early 1990’s. The dungeons of The Elder Scrolls: Daggerfall could get insane in their procedurally-generated three-dimensional complexity. To illustrate some differences in dungeon design in CRPGs over the last couple of decades:
Ultima Underworld (1992)
The Elder Scrolls: Daggerfall (1996)
Dragon Age: Origins (2009)
The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim (2011)
I don’t know if I’d really call this a trend. But since Skyrim seems to have been one of the best-selling RPGs of all time, it’s worth noting (as I’m sure many publishers will follow suit).
I was reading on a blog that this is sort of the 4E Dungeons & Dragons (pen-and-paper) style of dungeon as well – more of a linear arrangement of set-piece encounters. Having not really paid attention to the Fourth Edition adventures and supplements, this is only hearsay, but that seemed to be the “official” trend towards the end of 3.5’s run, too.
RPG level design is a funky thing – particularly with good ol’ traditional dungeons. The linear dungeons of Skyrim are awfully convenient, and in all honesty may be a trifle more “realistic” (does that ever matter?) than the sprawling dungeon complexes of many classic games. It’s easy to avoid getting lost in them – the map screen is usually only necessary to see if you missed a corner or closet somewhere where there may be some additional loot.
But they do rub me the wrong way a little. I like my big, sprawling dungeon complexes. And I do like to harp on having choices. However, a choice between a door on the left or a door on the right – or whether you take the left or right branch in a corridor – is a lousy choice. Without some kind of knowledge about the difference between the two (or more) choices, it’s really no choice at all.
This wasn’t such a problem in the open-ended play of pen-and-paper games. Players could make choices blindly, but they could also use spells and skills to scout out the differences. Were there far more tracks going up and down the left-hand passage? Were there voices behind the south door when the thief listened to it? How about using “Wizard Eye” to check out exactly what’s happening down the hallway? But in CRPGs, those options are rarely represented, and aside from saving and reloading, there’s often not much of a way to gain any background on which to make that kind of choice. In general I support the idea of removing those kinds of uninteresting choices in the name of “streamlining.”
The difference with some (not all, and not even “most”) of the mid-to-late classic old-school RPGs was that the levels were not simply maps of isolated encounters. They weren’t all actually linear designs separated by keys, nor were they just sprawling random encounters arranged randomly. Good level design had all the pieces of the level come together to tell a bigger story or form a larger puzzle. Maybe I’m just looking through +2 Goggles of Rose Tint, but I seem to recall some levels of certain games (I’m specifically thinking Eye of the Beholder and Ultima Underworld series, but there were no doubt others) where this felt like it was the case. While the first time you were presented with the choice of going left, right, or straight may have felt pretty meaningless, they all tied together somewhat both narratively (is that a word?) and mechanically.
But my memory is hazy and I may be applying coolness and wishful thinking where there really isn’t much there. If that’s the case… well, there should be!
I don’t hate linear dungeons, but I do think they are not the ultimate answer to the problem.
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