Idle Observations about Japanese Pop Fiction
A Cinematic Labyrinth
Due to the fortuitous confluence of a long weekend and a lull in classwork, I had a bit of extra time to spend playing a game this weekend. Rather than continuing my playthroughs of my two current projects (Fate/Extra CCC and Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne, both of which I've played half of once before, before being forced to restart due to lost save data), I decided to grab my Japanese copy of Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth. Atlus has started releasing trailers for its sequel, Persona Q2: New Cinema Labyrinth, and I wanted to see if the original holds up as well as I remember.
The short answer is yes, it does. While PQ does a lot right (and a few things wrong), playing through the second of the game's five dungeons got me thinking about RPG dungeons in general, and what elements make them engaging and fun to play through. There are, of course, myriad relevant components of dungeon design, but in this post I'll be breaking down a few of the most important ones: theming, aesthetics, navigation, and puzzles.
Not Another Random Cave
The best--or, at least, most memorable--dungeons tend to be the ones with strong underlying concepts. Strong theming can, in fact, make up for the other three components if the dungeon is closely tied into the game's overarching story. A good dungeon concept underscores the entire dungeon, informing everything from its visual presentation to its battles to its puzzles, and it keeps the player interested and curious not only throughout the dungeon itself but also through the game as a whole. Games with conceptually relevant dungeons can leave the player excited to see each new environment, which makes the game seem to move faster, potentially covering pacing issues that may arise from moments of weak gameplay or poor writing.
Persona Q's dungeons are representations of the anxieties and emotional anguish of a girl who died young due to a terminal illness. Each starts off under the guise of a joke, but as the player progresses it gradually becomes clear that the dungeon's concept is dead serious, with what seems at first to be quirky humor reading instead as black comedy. Moreover, the contents of each dungeon are everyday things warped by the perspective of a terrified child, which is foreshadowed in the game's first dungeon, "You in Wonderland." This first dungeon draws from Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, a story that also features innocuous things (such as flowers and playing cards) transformed into terrifying, exaggerated forms by a child's imagination.
The second, third, and fourth dungeons apply the Carroll influence to the life of a child living in the present day. The second dungeon is modeled after a cafe and has a romance theme. It ends in a chapel--but the chapel is prepared for a funeral, not a wedding. The third dungeon starts as a cheap haunted house built in a school classroom and then transitions to a similarly haunted but much more threatening hospital, with the dungeon's final location being an operating room presumably familiar to the deceased girl. The fourth dungeon is modeled after a traditional Japanese festival, and it seems to be loosely based on the Bon Festival, in which the spirits of the deceased are believed to return to visit their families.
Setting aside the first dungeon, which provides the context for the remaining four, and the final dungeon, which resolves the game's plot, Persona Q's dungeons all have strong thematic ties to the game's overall premise, representing different aspects of fear of death. The second dungeon plays on the fear of dying young without accomplishing major life goals (such as marriage), the third is built around the more immediate fear of disease and death, and the fourth is centered on the concept of the afterlife. It isn't until the end of the fourth dungeon that their significance is explained to the player, but the dungeons are built around this concept regardless, and even if the player does not catch on to their significance, it is fairly clear even early on that the dungeon design is significant, and curiosity with regards to that significance helps to keep the player engaged throughout.
In many RPGs--especially fantasy RPGs--dungeons tend to lack a fundamental conceptual or thematic basis. The player may be sent into a dangerous cavern system in order to capture a criminal or slay a monster, but the cave itself is not significant, which makes the hour or two or three exploring the cave feel like filler--a mere gameplay convention with no significant reason behind it. Gameplay-driven games (like the recent Octopath Traveler) can sometimes get away with this, but that doesn't mean they should. Integrating storytelling elements throughout dungeons can go a long way towards holding player interest and making the game's world feel more cohesive and believable.
Rivers in the Desert
Aesthetically appealing dungeons tend to be much more enjoyable to play through. Games are fundamentally a visual medium, and visually striking dungeons can be highly engaging. For an example of this, look up a few screenshots of Final Fantasy XIII's "Lake Bresha." The environment's concept is that a floating structure crashed into the surface of a lake, and the disturbed water immediately crystallized. This results in a stilled environment consisting of chaotic, towering waves all frozen in place. The waves are all faintly translucent, adding unique lighting effects to the overall image. It's an absolutely gorgeous environment, and the visuals are incentive enough to keep the player moving.
Music is another way to strengthen a dungeon, particularly when the dungeon's music blends well with the dungeon's concept and creates a sense of motion. "Price," the background theme for Persona 5's third dungeon, fits this description well. The piece has a cocky attitude that matches perfectly the tone of the game at that stage. By the third dungeon, the Phantom Thieves of Hearts have successfully pulled off two heists, and they go in to the third one intentionally, knowing from the outset that their target is a villain and confident in their ability to reform him through their actions. Price's groovy base line and its driving melody build the characters' swagger into the tone of the dungeon as a whole, pushing the player through the stylized bank heist.
Dungeon navigation is an important facet of maintaining player interest and engagement. Nothing is more frustrating than getting turned around for the umpteenth time, having to trek back and forth through a dungeon searching for that one door or switch you've overlooked. There are a few different approaches to mitigating this, and some combination of them can do a lot to ease player frustration.
Maps are perhaps the most obvious answer. If your dungeon's layout is not intuitive, an easy-to-understand map is absolutely crucial. It's also important that the map be visible while moving, as forcing the player to pause the game to open a map every few steps drastically hurts the pacing of exploration (even if it may be more realistic that way). Etrian Odyssey provides a clever solution for this (which Persona Q steals). The Etrian Odyssey games allow players to draw their own maps, covering the DS's or 3DS's lower screen with graph paper and a toolbox of useful symbols (like doors and treasure chests). This map is slightly context-sensitive--it shows the player's location, for example, and the treasure chest icon changes depending on whether the chest has been opened--but the player is mostly free to notate the map as he or she likes, meaning the map should, in theory, always make sense to the person playing the game. The labyrinthine dungeons become much easier to navigate as a result, as there is a detailed map always available and in the course of manually mapping the dungeon the player builds an understanding of the layout of the dungeons.
Another helpful design choice that can make dungeons easier to navigate is incorporating easy ways to return to previously-visited areas. Some games use checkpoint systems, allowing players to instantly jump to previously-visited locations, but personally I'm more fond of the inclusion of shortcuts. The simplest form of these shortcuts is doors that can only be unlocked from one side. Shortcut-based dungeons tend to be structured around a central hub area, and as the player progresses, the dungeon periodically wraps back towards that area, at which point the player can unlock another door that gives quick access to the next section of the dungeon. This sort of layout doesn't make sense for every dungeon or every game, but it can offer a real sense of progress, letting the
player know they've completed a significant stage of the dungeon and also answering a question set up at the very beginning of the dungeon--specifically, "what's behind that door?" A final advantage of this setup is that it makes intuitive sense. Fast travel, while generally a positive thing, asks for a bit of suspension of disbelief on the part of the player, in that the characters are (usually) not literally teleporting to the designated location, but rather are traveling off-screen without the player's input. A shortcut-based design, by contrast, eliminates the need for this compromise, removing one more point in which the players might be brought out of the game's immersion.
Some games handle dungeon navigation by just presenting their dungeons in a linear fashion, moving clearly from one room to the next with little need for exploration. There's a bit of a stigma against this (partially because it's a newer phenomenon), but if the dungeons themselves are thematically and aesthetically strong it can still work well. Persona 5 is an excellent example of this. With a few exceptions, the game's dungeons progress linearly from large set-piece to large set-piece. This works in Persona 5 because the game is heavily narrative-focused, and the dungeons are integrated directly into this. Where in Persona 3 and Persona 4, the dungeon-crawling segments are a break from the text-heavy visual novel that makes up the bulk of the game, Persona 5's dungeons are just chapters of the story presented in a richer way. Each of the set-pieces builds upon the concept and themes of the dungeon, and they generally need to be experienced sequentially in order to make sense. The value of these dungeons is not in the exploration but rather the narrative, so a linear structure is the most natural solution.
Every Puzzle Has an Answer
There is somewhat of an established repertoire for RPG dungeon puzzles. You have the "step on every tile once" puzzle, the "find and defeat this enemy to get the key" puzzle, the "slide helplessly across the ice" puzzle, the endless stream of block puzzles, and so on. Unfortunately, these "puzzles" are rarely very puzzling, and they often blend poorly with the dungeon as a whole. Suspension of disbelief leads us to accept that the boulders lying in this random cave just happen to be placed perfectly so as to create a block puzzle with exactly one solution, but if you step back to think about it, it comes across as kind of lazy--an attempt to break up the monotony of an uninspired dungeon we've been through hundreds of times before. (Pokemon is the prime offender here).
Strong dungeons--and games with strong dungeon design--will incorporate their puzzles into the overall concept of the dungeon. Etrian Odyssey and Persona Q do this through FOEs, powerful enemies that appear on the field (as opposed to being random encounters), and which have fixed patterns of movement, forcing the player to learn and manipulate their patterns in order to get past. While this is, essentially, a variant of the classic block puzzles, it is integrated much more effectively into the game as a whole, and it also gives a sense of stakes that most in-dungeon puzzles do not. Add to this the fact that smart map design means some of these puzzles are surprisingly tricky to solve and you have an effective puzzle mechanic that carries throughout the games.
The most entertaining puzzle dungeons, though, tend to be those where the entire dungeon is built around one central puzzle. These sorts of dungeons offer an entertaining break from the typical "go from point A to point B" dungeons, and they make progress much more meaningful and satisfying. Persona 5's sixth dungeon--my favorite in the game, and among my favorite dungeons in any RPG--is a spectacular example of this. The dungeon is modeled after a casino, and upon entering the dungeon, the players are given a card containing a certain number of casino credits. In order to progress, the players need increasing numbers of credits, but each of the games in the casino is (of course) rigged against the player. Dungeon progress, then, consists of figuring out how the house is cheating on each game and then twisting the system such that the Phantom Thieves of Hearts are able to win. The players' number of credits increases exponentially as the player moves from game to game, until you finally have enough to reach the dungeon's end. This sort of setup ensures that all of the dungeon's puzzles play into both the larger puzzle and into the dungeon's concept, creating a unified and highly entertaining overall experience. It's a masterful example of dungeon design.
Quality over Quantity
While many of the classic turn-based RPGs from twenty to thirty years ago are remembered fondly--for good reason--dungeon design is an often-overlooked way in which games have improved considerably in the past twenty years. This is especially clear playing Octopath Traveler, with its retro-inspired dungeons that are heavy on polish and light on substance. There is certainly an appeal to games that offer a lot of territory to explore (and there are certainly plenty of modern games that have that same quantity-over-quality philosophy), but I much prefer games like Etrian Odyssey that have fewer environments, but in which every dungeon is carefully- and purposefully-constructed.
11/12/2022 06:36:18 pm
Good readinng your post
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A Japanese Lit major and aspiring game designer with a passion for storytelling and music composition