Narrative and "dungeons": how to a game designer to associate locations with a plot

Many times it was thought that narration in open-world games is a separate art of game design. It is necessary to involve the player in the study of locations, diversify all side quests, not too distract from the main line, and so on. And I found an article that describes one such tool – the concept of "dungeons" for a sequential transition between the important parts of the plot. All on examples of Metroid, Zelda, Control and with general conclusions.

I already wrote about games with a classic narrative structure (approx.: it was about three acts, when the player first gets acquainted with the environment and the situation, then the plot develops, in the third act – everything is brought to its logical end).

Now we will consider the acts in more detail and display all the plot elements inside them with the help of a diagram. This approach will give the game designer enough freedom, regardless of the overall structure of the story.

For example, take metro diving with the open world. At certain points of linear progression, the player gains abilities with which he can explore new areas. This is what Zelda looks like, where most of the map is accessible from the very beginning, and the player tries to open access to certain places, the so-called "dungeons", which add a new experience to the game.

In general, Metroid and Zelda have the same structure: an open world that you can explore until you reach a dead end. Then you need to look for a way to move on.

The plot of these games uses "dungeons" as points of development of narrative – they act as guides and transitions from one part of the global storytelling to another. After the passage of the dungeons, new plot details are added through the NPC, the environment changes, and so on. Let's take an example.

This is The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening. You get access to a certain region by completing the necessary dungeons. Exploring the world, you open more locations and find new dungeons.

The picture reflects the progress of the game. A launch pad and a small area below are connected to the first dungeon. The second dungeon only slightly expands the available territories and complements the locations that we have already studied. But the third dungeon gives access to a huge territory – almost half of the remaining map. The fourth and fifth dungeons also allow us to explore the vast world of the game, opening up the map more and more. The sixth, seventh and eighth dungeons themselves are quite extensive, but open up small territories.

What happens in the open, changes during the passage of these dungeons. The earliest just give access to new locations and the opportunity to chat with residents. Later – they are directed to certain points on the map, where you can find treasures that the player has always had under his nose.

On the diagram, the advance to the first dungeon will look like this:

Intro> find the sword> find the toadstool> find the magic powder> help Tarin> get the key to the Cave of the Tail> enter the dungeon.

Link’s Awakening has a linear plot that does not require much research to find all the necessary items (although the player receives minor quests that can be completed at any time and in any order). And the starting location is a thumbnail of the whole game, and in this case the thumbnail is as linear as the game itself. In more modern titles, the situation is slightly different, for example, in Breath of the Wild, although its dungeons are not as developed from the plot point of view as in Link’s Awakening.

This structure is not unique to the Zelda franchise. For example, Norfair in Super Metroid is an atmospheric location full of danger and fire. The Ghost Ship provides a powerful linear experience, like dungeons in Zelda. And Maridia is full of water and walls that you have to destroy – this territory has its own mood, and the first Metroids that we meet in the game live there. Although Super Metroid has a simple plot, the player feels differently in each location. The mood changes as you progress, and all the necessary plot information is easy to get just by exploring the world.

You can add to the metro diving and more interesting "dungeons" to emphasize important moments of the plot.

Now let's figure out what is included in the narrative structure

I believe that the foundation is a large gaming area with a common idea (overworld). In an old article, I called them acts, but now I perceive it simply as part of the plot. Each part can be represented in the form of a diagram, sorted out, for example, the entire first act. And then make another diagram inside for that part of the narrative that is associated with only a few dungeons of the first act.

Imagine that you are creating a fantasy game, and the first hour of the story is that the Evil Lord Sorkk’naal, King of all orcs, is planning an attack on the neighboring kingdom. You find yourself in the kingdom, and everything around speaks of this invasion. Nothing more important is happening now. Even if you leave these lands, ideally, all quests should remind about the aggression of the orcs or give a new assessment of their actions.

If we know the territories to which the player has access, we can control where and how the story will be told. This may include something like a hub world (approx.: a game area between other areas), such as in Mario 64. This game isolates the levels from overworld, while the characters in the hub world tell the player the necessary information as they progress. As a result, the castle changes – in it you can open new doors and locations. I cited Mario 64 as an example, because even games without a narrative can use a similar structure. The world should have remained harmonious, even if there is no purpose to tell a story.

Having decided on overworld, you need to deal with linear "dungeons" that expand certain concepts. “Dungeons” can become locations in the literal sense of the word – they also need to be explored and passed. But they can also be presented in the form of quests, revealing another aspect of the global plot.

For example, quests in Control lead to a certain area for a specific purpose – as you approach it, it is told what is happening there – whether it is a reasonable mold or mountains of watches. In a new place, a quest is always given, which briefly spurs the player to research. As a result, when the user returns to the main plot, he is again ready for linear narration.

There are also several “real dungeons” in Control: you end up in a certain room or corridor, and reality is distorted, creating an enclosed space. The player needs to solve several puzzles or fight off enemies to get out. However, most of the time the player simply follows a linear plot and moves from one location to another, as in standard metro-diving.

The concept of "dungeons" is not just in locations isolated from the main gameplay, but rather associated with a linear, organized sequence of events at a given pace.

I'm serious. In Control, this concept is simply amazing. Be sure to play it, if not already

Ok, but how to use this structure in production?

1. To get started, break your story into pieces. In most cases, the First Act, the Second and Third will come out. Great start. Each act must have a special narrative purpose.

  • The first act: an army of orcs attacks.
  • The second act: the army attacked, and we must fight back.
  • The third act: we won, but at what cost.

2. Having identified the main elements, we break them into smaller ones. Each quest in Act One must be associated with an upcoming attack. The player can search for information, try to sabotage, lure the enemy troops to his side or conduct peace negotiations. Whatever happens, the narrative should reflect the overall plot.

3. Turning to the Second Act, forget about the quests from the First. Show the player clearly that it will not be possible to go back: the orcs have already attacked, there is nothing to waste energy on reconnaissance.

4. It would be nice to come up with a couple of quests that just complement the game world. There may be quests in the game that are independent of which act is unfolding right now. For example, Mrs. Poppowitz must be rescued, and it doesn't matter whether the orcs attacked or not, the unfortunate creature will sit on a tree. Such quests are not necessarily tied to the events of a particular act, while they help to diversify the plot or carry some other functional value. Entertainment is already a worthy reason.

Instead of the total, I will outline the key points of this article:

  • Identify the overworld in which part of your story takes place.
  • Fill it with what will move the story forward.
  • Use neighboring spaces as a transition from one part of the plot to another.
  • Interrupt the overworld with elaborate, purpose-built dungeons.

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