What are the origins of the dungeon-and-village structure of computer role-playing games, and is there some equivalent parallel to be found somewhere in the design of contemporary first person shooters? In order to explore the concept of village and dungeon, it is useful to look at the kinds of activity players undertake in the fictional worlds of games, and how that relates to the spaces of play.
Back in 2005 when Richard Boon and I wrote 21st Century Game Design, we were just beginning to dig into the elements of videogame structure, a topic which we still believe is underserved and crucial – both to game design and narrative design. One of Richard’s contributions to the book was the dual concepts of pathfinding and housekeeping, which describe the basic activities of any player during a game. Unfortunately, the former term is overloaded since in game AI ‘pathfinding’ means the code that works out routes for game entities so for the current discussion I’m going to substitute trailblazing as a synonym for what in the book is called ‘pathfinding’.
Any activity that advances the player along the spine of the game, and therefore attains progress towards the ultimate goals or end points of the story, constitutes trailblazing. Conversely, those activities which involve poking around in corners, repeated actions, and revisiting areas constitute housekeeping. Most games are a blend of the two kinds of activity, although certain genres steer more heavily in one direction or another: the typical First Person Shooter, for instance, is almost entirely trailblazing – pushing forward, overcoming foes to enter the next area and so forth. Conversely, a social sim like Animal Crossing (Nintendo EAD, 2001) is almost entirely housekeeping (quite literally!), with the player filling their time with a variety of collection, decoration, or money-generating activities.
Looking at this model from the perspective of neurobiology, it’s striking to note that both branches of this fork are dopamine-generators. Trailblazing leads to the big hit of dopamine that is the emotional buzz of triumph (or fiero) – and games that favour trailblazing, including FPS, fighting games, and strategy games, are always focussed on the experience of triumph over adversity and the powerful payoff it leads to (eventually!). Housekeeping activities utilise B.F. Skinner’s reward structures (or schedules of reinforcement) to deliver dopamine – which for many players is far more addictive than direct challenge. In fact, it is a minority of players who have the willingness to persevere against difficult challenges (20% according to our last survey), a tendency that I have suggested may correlate with testosterone levels. (I hope in 2012 to begin investigating this further.)
What interests me currently are the representational consequences of these dual trailblazing and housekeeping activities. It is immediately striking that housekeeping activities tend towards mathematical representations (experience points, money, percentages of items collected) while trailblazing activities tend towards spatial representations (e.g. finding the way forward) and personifications (e.g. bosses). Given that mathematical competence and imaginative capacity are psychologically connected, as discussed in Imaginary Games, that could mean that trailblazing activities are more accessible than housekeeping activities in terms of appealing to a wider audience. While money is certainly an accessible representation, levels and experience points are somewhat obscure, and other housekeeping approaches become increasingly arcane. Next to this, the apparent clarity of trailblazing has a definite advantage – at least for anyone not troubled by spatial navigation (which may include a significant proportion of female players). It is possible that this factor has had a major role to play in the contemporary popularity of the FPS genre, since the challenge-focus of these games narrows rather than widens appeal.
Whereas the FPS trades on a certain lack of imagination, the most popular genre in Japan remains the computer role-playing game – a form that inherently requires greater imagination to enjoy when compared to the simplicity of the gun game. Traditional cRPGs, such as the Dragon Quest (Chunsoft et al, 1986 onwards) or Grandia series (Game Arts, 1997 onwwards), represent the dichotomy between trailblazing and housekeeping in the dual structure of the dungeon and the village. Progression through the story (particularly in the Japanese cRPG form) requires completion of dungeons, which culminate in the archetypal boss fight so central to trailblazing play. Between the dungeons, the player is offered a village, which may involve some small amount of trailblazing but is principally an opportunity for various kinds of housekeeping. This is particularly true in the case of games in which character advancement requires an establishment. In the typical Japanese cRPG, each new village also provides new weapons for the party, providing another regular housekeeping activity.
The Western-style cRPG, with its emphasis on autonomy and an open world, is less explicit in terms of the dungeon-village model, but the same basic pattern can usually be found since both share common lineage through the Wizardry (Sir-Tech, 1981 onwards) and Ultima (Origin Systems, 1981 onwards) series, and ultimately from Dungeons and Dragons (TSR, 1974) itself – from which the ‘dungeon’ in its contemporary sense originates. The dungeon-village split seems in part to have been inherited from Lord of the Rings (Tolkien, 1954-55), one of the key influences on D&D, with The Fellowship of the Ring alternating between village areas (The Shire, Bree, Rivendell, Lothlorien) and dangerous interstitial areas (The Barrow Downs, Weathertop, Moria). It seems to be solely the dwarven mines of Moria – a vast underground space overrun by monstrous creatures – from which the traditional dungeon template emerges, however (although D&D also made the countryside into a dungeon via the concept of a 'wilderness'). Along with the adventure party concept, and the inn as a locus of quest origins, this has been the enduring legacy of Tolkien’s laborious masterpiece. Lord of the Rings is by no means the source of the fantasy or sword & sorcery literary form, but it is the most successful book of this form by a wide margin.
The dungeon is, in effect, the location that represents the trailblazing activity in its archetypal form – to the extent that we could call trailblazing areas (those levels designed with trailblazing as the primary activity) ‘dungeons’ without too much difficulty. Thus the FPS corridor is a form of dungeon in this terminology. Similarly, the village is the location that represents the housekeeping activity in its archetypal form – it is not coincidental that Animal Crossing, the quintessential housekeeping game, is set in a small village. Similarly, Harvest Moon (Victor Interactive et al, 1996 onwards) – the franchise from which housekeeping social games such as FarmVille directly descend – may be set on a farm, but still clearly operates on the principles of Japanese cRPGs. Calling all these kinds of location ‘villages’ is not too much of a stretch.
However, returning to the contemporary FPS, we find no sign of the ‘village’ either literally or figuratively. Historically, the genre developed with a single-minded focus on trailblazing, and all attempts to deviate from this pattern met with commercial failure, eventually leading to the challenge-soaked ‘corridors’ of the modern shooter. Despite this, the contemporary dominance of the shooter in the blockbuster market has come about about in part as a result of the inclusion (or re-introduction) of housekeeping activities. Franchises like Modern Warfare (Infinity Ward et al, 2007 onwards) offer substantial housekeeping between fights in the form of long term reward structures designed to entail considerable repeat play. These elements are borrowed directly from computer RPGs (cRPGs), which in turn acquired them from Dungeons & Dragons, the legacy of which cannot be overestimated.
Interestingly, the housekeeping in contemporary FPS games appears outside of the fictional world of the game itself (i.e. the 3D virtual space), and inside what might be called the fictional world of the game menus. The ‘village’ disappears even though the housekeeping remains: the activity has moved out of the game world, into the meta-world of the menu systems. This is a striking inversion from the norms in cRPGs: while much of the housekeeping of a digital RPG also occurs in game menus, these menus are usually accessed while the player is already present in the fictional world of the game – they are additional aspects of that game world, represented in text and numbers, and summoned by the player on demand. The game world enfolds the housekeeping menus for the cRPG. For the new style FPS, on the other hand, the menus enfold the game world in a strange mirror image of what we are used to seeing. The stepping point for this change may have been GoldenEye 007 (Rare, 1997) which in the late 1990s was already making the external game menus part of the world of the shooter – both in terms of flavour text before each mission, and in terms of an explicit reward structure (in that case, ‘cheats’ unlocked by hitting completion times).
Because the FPS ‘village’ occurs in the meta-world of the menus, it has no abstraction, no spatial representation, and doesn’t have any of the village flavour that is so central to the housekeeping game forms – neither is it ever likely to regain this. The village as a representation entails greater imagination, and also a far deeper narrative space, neither of which fit with the quick-fire play of the shooter – and as already mentioned, the lower demands on the imagination entail a greater audience (outside of Japan, at least). This reach is still severely capped by the complexity of the controls, but the split in the market for videogames brought on by the Wii has successfully segregated the wider audience who are unwilling or incapable of mastering ‘twin stick’ controls, and left Sony and Microsoft competing over the bulk of the more dedicated gamers, as discussed earlier this month.
As specialist genres such as racing games are increasingly squeezed out of commercial viability on consoles by the rising cost of development, the mainstream portion of the gamer audience is facing a weird channelling of game design towards the elimination of the village – either by removing it from the game world, as in the FPS, or by integrating the village and the dungeon, as in the much-imitated Grand Theft Auto model (DMA Design et al, 1997 onwards). While the dedicated gamer hobbyist can continue to enjoy a variety of village-and-dungeon games, primarily coming out of Japan, expect the clear contrast of dungeon and village to disappear from successful commercial games originating in the West. Given the expense of the integrated world, it is perhaps only a matter of time before genres other than FPS experiment with moving the village out of the game world entirely.