Outside, Dungeon, Town: integrating the Three Places in Videogames

Videogames, at least the kind I’m talking about (RPGs, adventure kinds of somewhat narrative videogames, Zelda games, Elden Ring, etc), have essentially three “places”:

  1. Outside – Hyrule field. Most of the game is Outside, just running around in a grassy area or a snowy mountain. It’s kind of the glue between all of the elements but there can be all manner of things Outside. Outside is the most flexible, but it typically has the lowest density of monsters, NPCs, shops, etc.
  2. Dungeon – The sewers, the final boss’ castle, a factory full of monsters, or a literal dungeon. Dungeons have LOTS of monsters, treasure, and usually a boss. You go into a dungeon to kinda clear it, get the treasure, kill the boss. Dungeons rarely have NPCs or shops in them (Shiren the Wanderer is an exception that comes to mind).
  3. Town – This is where most NPCs are, but also the highest concentration of “specific activities”. Towns are dense, there’s often shops, minigames, quests, etc. Kakariko Village from Ocarina of Time is one of my favorite towns. There are almost never fights in town – you are almost always entirely safe in town.

Of course, any time you try to boil down reality into a nice neat little categorization system like this, you’re going to be missing a lot of details, but broadly speaking, I think this holds up pretty well. I’m playing through Final Fantasy VII Rebirth now (which I am loving) and it’s very clear in that game, whether you are in Outside, Dungeon or Town, pretty much at all times.

Videogames are a language, and this pattern is an important building block in that language. It is kind of good that you know you’re always safe in town. It is kind of good that you know what you’re in for when entering a big scary difficult dungeon, and so on. So, I am not saying that we get rid of these designations, at all.

What I’m asking for

What I would love, though, is some more messiness in how they are implemented. Kakariko Village from Ocarina of Time is one of my favorite towns because there are some “grey area” parts, especially underground. It also has a dungeon, arguably inside it.

I would love a dungeon that connects to the back of someone’s house in a town. Or one part in town that is kind of more Outside-like, like a little forest in there. Or maybe something that’s like 50% dungeon, 50% town.

I want the borders of these places to be a little blurrier. It always bothers me in newer games when I enter a dungeon and text pops up on the screen saying “Gorbath’s Cove” or something. Developers do that so that players get a little “check box” feeling, that they have checked another Location off of the List Of Locations, and gotten that much closer to 100%-ing the game. There’s not nothing to that, but it has a cost. The cost of this kind of “instancing” is that the player is sort of robbed of the feeling of discovering a place for themselves. When I first see a cave, I’m like, whoa, there’s a little cave!! But then I walk in and get an announcement, telling me that this is a known site, that my discovery isn’t special, and also that there are many places just like this one in this game.

I am not really that impressed by the underworld of Tears of the Kingdom, specifically because it is so clearly “its own map”. I would much prefer that, throughout Hyrule, there was a network of messy underground areas. Maybe one cave system has a place where it connects to a dungeon, which connects also to a basement in some guy’s house in the middle of nowhere.

The existence of these “three places” is a good thing for videogames and I am not saying that we abandon it. However, I think we should “break the rules” a lot more frequently, because a world that breaks the rules is a world that invites and cultivates a sense of wonder.

I hope to do a lot of this with my own game, Free Tiya Bannet, which I’m working on now. I want the first town to be, yes, a town. It does have shops, and you are mostly safe in most of it. But maybe there’s one area where you aren’t safe. Maybe there’s an underground part of it that is kind of a dungeon. Maybe it even connects to a secret definitely-dungeon, etc.

Videogames, especially the higher budget games, have a tendency towards being conservative: making sure that everyone understands exactly what is happening at all times. I think this is a valid thing to care about, but I also think that, like all things, it’s a balancing act, and I think too many games have been falling on the too-conservative part of the spectrum.