Posted by Rampant Coyote on February 28, 2012
I’ve got a new term which I’ve been using all week to describe a feature of a particular flavor of dungeon-crawler RPGs: “Technical Dungeons.”
I don’t know how to define it yet. You get it in many roguelikes and old-school western RPGs. You don’t get it in most JRPGs or modern non-indie RPGs. Darklight Dungeon Eternity has a lot of it (thus my pondering on this matter). Frayed Knight: The Skull of S’makh-Daon has less of it than I’d like. Ultima V had it. Ultima VI, not so much. Ultima VII had very little of it. Ultima Underworld, Dungeon Master, the Eye of the Beholder games – they had it in spades. From accounts, Wizardry IV had way too much of it to be any fun at all except to masochists. But all of the Wizardry games had plenty of it, up until Wizardry 8, which didn’t have very much of it in spite of plenty of dungeon crawling. The Elder Scrolls games had tons of dungeon crawling, but didn’t really have much of it either that I could feel.
Am I beginning to sound like Bruce Campbell yet?
What I’m talking about is the technical, analytical approach to navigating a dungeon. It’s a point where the dungeons of a game become more than just a setting where the game and story happens, and more than just a path between combat and puzzles. It’s where the dungeon itself is becomes an obstacle, encounter, or character in the game in its own right, offering explicit or implicit clues to its own nature. Where navigation of the dungeon requires a constant weighing of risk and reward. They can be automapped, but the map may actually need to be studied by the player from time to time to determine how to get to where he wants to go, or to figure out its secrets. A technical dungeon is decidedly non-linear, and is not something that will usually be “defeated” in a single session. While any old dungeon may contain combat, traps, puzzles, and secrets, in a technical dungeon these are not stand-alone elements.
Really big dungeons help. Short, quickie dungeons really don’t have the time to develop themselves in the player’s mind, and are so short that navigating them never requires much effort. In that sense, a “technical dungeon” is pretty old-school, as the early D&D campaigns often revolved around a single dungeon (Castle Greyhawk!) that demanded multiple sorties to plumb its depths, defeat its guardians, and dig out its secrets. Respawning enemies are not required in a technical dungeon, but they do promote the judicious use of retreating to safer spots that is one of the characteristics (to me) of technical dungeon gameplay.
But overall, I don’t know if I can truly define it, so much as describe it. It’s not a clear-cut thing even in my own mind. Unfortunately, it’s not something that immediately appeals to people (myself included!), either, as it’s a very slow-burn kind of thing with delayed gratification. And it’s not strictly limited to “dungeons,” either, though this is its classical form. It’s just one of those things where how you approach a dungeon is as important as what you encounter while there.
CRPG Addict (who’s back after a fortunately short hiatus) talked about this a little bit over the weekend, which was a nice bit of synchronicity. In his post about 1975’s Game of Dungeons, he talks about how RPGs marry the “left-brain” elements of strategy games and deep rules mechanics with the more “right-brain” aspects of setting, plot and character development. In the early days, the “left brain” aspects dominated the games, mainly because it is far easier for computers to crunch numbers than to manage story development. The latter takes up a lot more space, and is very difficult to make it vary on repeat plays. It wasn’t until the early 1980s that these latter aspects gained more equal footing with the technical side of the art. And kept going. Until you get to today, where oftentimes the gameplay mechanics feel like make-work interludes for a linear story.
(Sadly, fans of the mechanical aspect didn’t earn themselves any sympathy when they took out their frustrations on Bioware designer Jennifer Hepler recently over comments she made years ago about making RPGs more “casual” and heresy like making combat skippable in RPGs. It’s fine to disagree, but personal attacks on designers is deplorable).
So where do I sit? Firmly in the “undecided” category. As I enjoy both action-RPGs and turn-based RPGs, JRPGs and WRPGs, I find aspects of highly technical dungeons very appealing, yet sometimes I enjoy getting on with the story and having dungeons that are little more than interesting places where the “real” game happens. It’s all good. Truly technical dungeon-crawling has been in short supply in recent years. I’m not sure what the “last” mainstream game title was that really offered pretty technical dungeoneering. Maybe Durlag’s Tower in Baldur’s Gate, but I seriously don’t remember that one very much. Or maybe one of these several newer RPGs that I haven’t finished playing. Got any nominations?
I have high expectations for the up coming Legend of Grimrock. Between that, and other indie RPGs such as the recently-released Darklight Dungeon Eternity and the upcoming “Gold” overhaul of Sword & Sorcery: Underworld, I’d suggest that we indie RPG fans will still have plenty of that flavor to enjoy for a while yet.
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