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The Ten: Updated Wednesdays-Fridays-Sundays

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Bi-Weekly JRPG Talk- Part 2: Dungeon Design

Greetings, all, and welcome to another installment of an ongoing discussion of JRPGs. I began writing for this concept quite a while ago, around when I actually finished Xenoblade Chronicles X. (which was around February. It's been a while.) However, the completion of another title in this genre spurred me to finally post my thoughts and begin the series in full. I've done a bit of rumination on where to progress from our last talk, which largely had to do with the progression of story in the genre, but eventually lead into a discussion of the entirety of a game's progression. This lead to two definitions, which I'll reiterate so that we can use them moving forward. I'll do this for all the terminology I coin in each talk, so that we have a little glossary of terms before each discussion:

Organic grinding- the experience (EXP) the game developers force you to accrue because of thoughtful game design.
Artificial grinding- the experience accrued for no other reason than to lighten the burden on the player or subvert the difficulty spikes.

In the first installment, I referenced organic grinding as a result of dungeon design- a complex layout, miniboss encounter, and then a boss encounter before completion. This type of design is what I live for, personally, because I love the feeling of tackling something new, pushing further into it, and overcoming its challenges with a sense of growth not only in my playable party, but as a sign of progress through the game. Not all JRPGs possess this kind of organic grind, and that's okay. When a developer is able to make even the artificial grind enjoyable, that likely means they've stumbled upon a really, really, really, really good combat system.

Tokyo Mirage Sessions uses modern dungeon elements drawn from the Shin
 Megami Tensei franchise as well as quirky objectives and obstacles to
reinvent traversal and the sense of progression.
It makes sense, then, that I immensely enjoyed Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE for the Wii U. Traditional in combat mechanics, TMS instead finds strength in the organic grind presented by its five fabulous dungeons. Way back, when I played through Etrian Odyssey IV: Legends of the Titan, I was similarly entranced by the construction of complex maps, More recently, I was immersed in the world of Phantasy Star as I trudged through its aesthetically-bland-yet-complicated dungeons. While not all of these instances possessed the formulaic "dungeon-miniboss-dungeon-boss" design, they all possessed solid fundamentals of what appeals the most to me, specifically. However, how can we, the appreciators of JRPGs, identify what makes dungeon design good? We need to address the recurring mechanics found in these titles, and more importantly, discuss what makes both good dungeons good AND bad dungeons bad.

In the case of Etrian Odyssey, it seems a bit unfair to post a stratum floor- after all, they are designed to be the ultimate test of the player's party, and feature a number of elements merging together to present a harrowing and challenging experience. But Etrian Odyssey gets some very key concepts regarding dungeon design correct, so it makes sense to use a map as an example. Let's take a gander at another map in order to identify what exactly it gets right.

Etrian Odyssey, AKA dungeon design master-
class, only really lacks in visual aesthetic.
Based off the very traditional concepts of first-person dungeon crawling, one thing you might notice about this cave from EOIV is that it doesn't have an "end" in the true sense- the red "X" on the map marks a connecting point from where the furthest possible path in the dungeon wraps around and meets the beginning again. While we will touch on this later, it highlights one of Etrian Odyssey's "whats," or motifs- the idea of a dungeon looping back upon itself and creating an efficient shortcut or loop. We could use the term foundation, but as it turns out, looping design is a recurring element of pretty much all of Atlus' work, but it isn't applicable to all JRPGs. Therefore, a motif isn't an all-encompassing concept applied to JRPGs but a theme or main idea that occurs throughout the entirety of a title's dungeons. The exact usage is "a distinctive feature or dominant idea in an artistic or literary composition"- applicable to dungeon composition. We can apply this motif to the whole Etrian Odyssey series, while some motifs are specific to certain titles.

Of course, another motif of the Etrian Odyssey series are the F.O.E.s that populate dungeons- extra-challenging enemies that are able to move between combat turns if they are not already engaged in combat. These two motifs in combination make for an addictive cycle that is also fraught with peril, especially when coupled with the overarching mechanic of random enemy encounters. But in this specific cave, the F.O.E.s take on an additional quality, one rather specific to the area- they move diagonally throughout the map as the player themselves moves from space to space. This is relatively specific to this dungeon, which is why we'll give it the well-deserved title of a "gimmick". Dungeons in Etrian Odyssey (as well as many Atlus titles) might have two or three gimmicks that are slowly introduced throughout, but a gimmick can be reflected in either structure or enemy design- F.O.E.s just manage to do both simultaneously.

Legend of Legacy relies heavily on gimmicks, as its
central motif- map completion for monetary gain- offers
little engagement because of a repetitive aesthetic. Crystal
Awakening, on the other hand, is a motif enhanced by
 inventive gimmicks in both the environment and combat.
These two terms are necessary in order to identify good dungeon design, since they actually aren't always present in certain titles, which can result in a lackluster experience. Often, JRPGs rely too heavily on gimmicks while placing little emphasis on motif- sometimes the only motif is the idea that a dungeon is grounded in reality, and the gimmick is simply the variety of enemies within. However, sometimes these elements clash or mesh with the combat mechanics of a JRPG, resulting in additional problems.

Often, dungeons feel the need to possess a distinct aesthetic, as well- this is something the Etrian Odyssey games accomplish with music rather than visuals. However, aesthetic can also contribute to motif and gimmicks- an underground cave wouldn't feel very well-designed if it had birds flying about that shot water-affinity moves at the player. Likewise, you would be a bit confused if the traps within weren't themed appropriately, unless there were a reasonable excuse based around the plot.

Bravely Default features rather simplistic motifs and gimmicks
in response to its deep customization systems, but fails to unite
them with a similarly engaging combat system. This makes the
dungeons themselves feel less engaging.
Motif, gimmick, and aesthetic- keep these terms in mind as we continue our discussion. We have spent a fair bit of time on these terms, but let's address the structure of a dungeon, as well. As mentioned prior, even if a title possesses looping design, like Etrian Odyssey, there must still be a sense of progression. In the olden days, dungeons were given a number of twists and turns to buff player time- the longer one spent on dungeons, and by extension, the game, the more they felt they got their money's worth. Just look at this dungeon map from Phantasy Star 2, for example- sure, if you were familiar with the title, you might understand a great deal of the gimmicks at play, here, but the slow pace of movement and high encounter rate of this game make traversal through such a maze quite tedious. Likewise, the final dungeon of the original Phantasy Star has its own gimmicks, but its easily-mappable format made for a slow progression that was surmountable after a time. However, as the JRPG has developed, there has been more thoughtful consideration of motif and gimmick, to the point where many developers are able to award organic experience based on the progression of their dungeons. However, while Atlus often prides itself on looping design, many other developers implement a straightforward sense of progression- this is the sort of dungeon design that can be tackled fairly easily, especially with the proper equipment and item preparation. Take Chrono Trigger, with its straightforward and rarely-winding dungeons that rely more on enemy variety and combat puzzle solving. Take also The Last Story, Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi's modern take on the JRPG- its "dungeons" are more or less linear scenarios that pit the player against different combat situations.

The Last Story features a design unlike its predecessors and
contemporaries, but this is a central part of its motif. Instead,
it focuses heavily on environmental and combat gimmicks.
In these cases, do motif and gimmick rely on dungeon design, or combat mechanics? Well, it is hard to say, and I won't speak for the design processes of the developers of either title- however, it is important to note that progression of character skills- and progression in general- are informed and accomplished by the identification and victory against the gimmick of an environment. No matter how straightforward, the isolated instances in which gimmicks are implemented are essentially reinventions of the concept of a dungeon. In fact, as we conclude this article, it is important to once again redefine the term "dungeon". It is not, in fact, only applicable towards the places within a game where people are locked up- instead, a dungeon is the area in which organic experience is accrued based on the established motifs decided upon by the developer- looping or linear design, overarching elements and mechanics present in all scenarios, etc- in combination with area-specific gimmicks that challenge the player in combat and traversal.

Some might argue that the usage of gimmick in application towards combat and traversal is too broad- but often, combat mechanics threaten to impede traversal, such as poison. Likewise, a gimmick such as switch pulling is as much as an impediment to progression as is a specific type of enemy encounter.

We will continue to use this terminology in the future, but it is also important to progress further, ourselves. In the next installment of this series, we will be focusing on what is present in-between areas of organic experience- namely, towns and the overworld. We'll continue to add to our list of terms and address the similarities and differences these types of areas have with one another, as well as the similarities they have with dungeons themselves.

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