Tales of the Rampant Coyote

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RPG Design: Escape the Dungeon? Is That All?

Posted by Rampant Coyote on November 18, 2014

I’m a dungeon-crawler at heart. When I think of role-playing games, my brain immediately goes to the Mines of Moria or the goblin caves under the Misty Mountains. So I’m usually trying to find my way into dungeons. But that’s me, as a gamer. A lot of dungeon-crawling RPGs have a straightforward goal: You are trapped in a dungeon. Escape.

Wizardry IV, Paper Sorcerer, Legend of Grimrock, Ultima Underworld, Arx Fatalis, and many more games begin with a variation on this simple premise. A lot of action games start this way, too. Escape to safety / home can be a powerful goal.

However, I was playing a game the other night with this premise, and grew almost immediately bored. Really bored. After one death in only a couple of minutes of play, I was ready to call it done. I didn’t, and I’m going to push forward in the hopes that it gets better, but it┬ámy initial impression was an overwhelming feeling of same ol’ same ol’.

What gives?

Well, if Star Wars (A New Hope) had started out with nothing but a text message that says, “Luke needs to rescue a princess locked away in a giant space fortress, so he needs to wander through the desert to find a way to get off-planet and find her” it would have been a pretty lame beginning, too.

Goal isn’t plot. It’s the seed of plot. Now, in games, that might be enough — if you have some other ways of getting the player invested in the character. Now, I’m a strategy guy, and I like stats. When I create a character, I’m already thinking in my head about backstory and possibilities. Who will this person be? What are they like? Why are they really fast but not really strong? Why do they prefer an axe over a sword?

So that works. Game mechanics can substitute for traditional storytelling for some players. An intriguing setting can do the job. But somehow, the player needs to get invested. And quickly.

Long exposition is not the way to do it. That’s boring too. But there needs to be enough that we’re not left in a vacuum. One of my favorite RPG intros was from Final Fantasy VII. This was before Square Enix decided to create intro videos that were feature-film length. Instead, we have an intro that hints as to the setting, and a mysterious girl. It opens with what we think is outer space (and, considering the plot, yeah, it is), with barely audible cries of a crowd in the distance. Then it it fades / resolves into greenish sparks from some kind of fire, and a mysterious girl standing in front of it. And then… she walks up the alleyway into an industrial city. The camera pans back, reveals the entire city (pouring smoke into the air… another plot point hinted at) in an establishing shot, and then zooms in on a train entering the station. Some people (good guys or bad guys) leap from the train and knock the guards unconscious. One motions to another member of the group – and by the way the camera follows him, you know he’s the protagonist, and tells him to follow.

But, as you (the player) move the character forward, he’s intercepted by more guards, and a fight begins. The fight text refers to your character as an “Ex-SOLDIER”, which you might originally take to be just a former military soldier. A little later, you discover that SOLDIER is actually an elite group of super-soldiers who serve the corporation that pretty much rules the city. But it still applies.



There’s not a whole lot of concrete information revealed to the player – in fact, there’s a ton of exposition that doesn’t get revealed until the game is half over. But there’s enough mystery (who is that girl?) and interesting tidbits to pique a player’s interest and keep them playing until the next reveal. Why is your character an ex-soldier? Why is he now fighting against what seems to be the lawful peacekeepers here?

The story in Ultima Underworld is relatively threadbare, but it still throws some meat on the bones. You are a famous hero from another world, but the baron, not recognizing you, falsely accuses you of kidnapping his daughter and banishes you into the giant dungeon where the girl was kidnapped. Only by rescuing her will they let you back out again. Again, it’s not much. You know about your own background. You have questions – like why were you brought here NOW? And who really did the kidnapping, and why?

Anyway, what I guess I’m saying is that you don’t want to overload the player with exposition at the beginning of the game ( a common problem in many RPGs, including AAA RPGs), but you also do need to give them something interesting to go on. It can be through storytelling or through game mechanics, but you have to engage their interest within the first few minutes or you won’t have them a few minutes later.

Filed Under: Design - Comments: 2 Comments to Read

  • Mephane said,

    One of the best good intros, imho, was the one in Half Life 2. Since Gordon Freeman is a hollow shell to fill in your own ideas of who he is, what he is like (he doesn’t even have dialog of his own, so even his voice is up to your imagination), the game does not dump some background story on you, no.

    Instead, you experience, from 1st person perspective, the arrival at a train station in a city which you quickly realize must be rule by an oppressive dictatorship, not because the game says so, but because the environment and the very first things you witness show it to you.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Yeah, if we’re talking all games and not just RPGs – Both of the Half-Life games had excellent intros. The one in HL1 kinda set the standard for a generation of games, IMHO.