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Labyrinths: Deep In The Dungeons Of Daggerfall

Way down in the hole

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An exploration of the uncanny architecture of Daggerfall's dungeons and the interconnected worlds of Dark Souls.

Dungeons, as a concept in games, are one of the great pillars from which disbelief is suspended like a ragged banner. They are functional objects, from the perspective of designer and player alike, but their function as part of a world is unclear. Occasionally, they are prisons of a sort, as their name suggests, but they are more likely to be ruins of uncertain utility. As to the question 'why are ruins so often underground?', we can perhaps answer by recognising that no visible architecture is required on the surface if such complex spaces are buried. The conjuring of the momumental without the pesky need to build the monument.

One of the many unusual and innovative aspects of world-building in the Souls series is the inversion of the subterranean design of many fantasy environments. The dark bowels of the world, the deeps where treasures sparkle and terrors creep, pierce the sky, regurgitated by the soil and frozen against ominous skies. The architecture and innards are made explicit, which allows From to spin a novel tapestry from the familiar corridors and catacombs - not by peeling back layers and peering beneath the surface, but by excavating the components from beneath the surface. Compared to the barrens and bunkers of a typical RPG, Dark Souls is the fortress revealed in the Louvre's basement, along with the discoveries that lie above it.

Perhaps the Souls games can't be said to do good dungeon but if so, that's because their interconnected realms transcend or sidestep the traditional sense of dungeons. Where, then, are memorable dungeons to be found. Daggerfall, one of the earliest and grandest entries in The Elder Scrolls series, takes an entirely different approach to the structure of its dungeons. On the flat geography of the enormous world, they are marked as simple doorways with a scattering of thematic scenery sprouting around them. The entrance to each is like the door to a Lewisian wardrobe leading to a delirious new world.

Daggerfall's incidental dungeons are chaotic, preconfigured as part of the game's data but assembled pseudo-randomly from a cluster of components.
While dungeons associated with the main storyline have specific quest item and 'boss' locations, those discovered through guild quests or exploration have unpredictable enemy layouts and goals. The Unofficial Elder Scrolls wiki has details on how assembly works:

"...a dungeon consists of up to 32 blocks, each of which may be connected to any (or all) of the four cardinally adjacent blocks since there are two connecting passages in each of the four cardinal directions, and thusly there are eight paths leading out of each block. While most dungeons may appear to be a random conglomerate of different modules, they were hard-coded in the release media and thus are never-changing. These were most likely generated via a pseudo-random program of some type, but Main Quest dungeons are an exception, because these were all hand-crafted."

The list of blocks contains such delights as "wooden suspension bridge grotto, torch moves wall, teleporter", "hollow pyramid, turnwheel in upper mini-maze, skull fountain teleport" and "flooded pig sty". Having spent countless hours playing the game, even those dry descriptive phrases are capable of summoning memories of nightmarish tunnels, seemingly without end.

From the first encounter with the undead, during the game's opening moments, it's clear that Daggerfall's dungeons are intended to be places of claustrophobic terror. I'm used to skeletons that skitter - clickety-clack - but in Daggerfall, the bastard things scream. The scaffolding of a body, stripped bare, yet still able to shriek in distressed fury. It's one of the most horrifying sounds in gaming, along with Lysandus' cries of 'Vengeance', and you can import it into Skyrim should you want to make your modern day Elder Scrolling far more harrowing.

Whatever else might change, no mod can make the dungeons of Skyrim, or any of the other post-Daggerfall entries in the series, as strange as the discombobulated blocks beneath High Rock and Hammerfell. The layouts can be frustrating, particularly when a quest object is in a distant corner, separated from the entrance by flooded passages and spaghetti junctions, but there has been nothing quite like those ominous charnel labryinths before or since. I find it a shame that their unnerving perplexity is caught up in a fantasy RPG - albeit one that is itself unusual and superb - rather than a Lovecraftian property akin to Eldritch, where the confusion and anguish that the dead-ends and dead spaces create would be thematically appropriate.

Are the dungeons of Daggerfall a mark of good design? Not entirely. They're too haphazard and visually bland to trigger great stores of imagination. I began with a reflection on Dark Souls and its brethren because its treatment of place and placement is almost entirely the inverse of the early Bethesda experiment. Physically, the vertical layers and connected areas of From's games are a direct inversion of Daggerfall's subterannean muddle.

There are no exterior views of the dungeon architecture, apart from the mindboggling maps created during exploration, and they exist apart from the world rather than extruding from it. Their randomised structre and population are also at odds with the carefully crafted locations in Dark Souls, in which every enemy is positioned with knife-edge precision. But, despite those fundamental differences, there is a connection.

Both designs show an unwillingness to fill an existing template with treasure and threats. Neither game treats dungeons as mere troves or sets of puzzles and traps, choosing instead to imprint a sense of mystery and uncertainty. These are not places in which parties of adventurers go through familiar motions to wend their way to a glowing chest of goodies guarded by a monstrous villain - they are places for lone wanderers to lose themselves, the thread that leads home and their lives. They make these imagined worlds far richer and far stranger than a library of lore ever could.

Daggerfall is available to download for free from Bethesda's Elder Scrolls website.

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