Dungeon Master: A greater opening through player engagement

When I first tried Dungeon Master, I was immediately struck by how good the opening was. The very first scenes form a subtle tutorial that not only teaches its players but also immerses them into the game world. It’s a fantastic example of how player engagement is a superior learning tool to mere exposition and also more fun. Let’s have a look.

ENTER THE DUNGEON

The first image you see in Dungeon Master is the doors shown above. There’s no sound and no text beyond the two buttons on the right. Whatever the meaning of the runes on the entrance, they cannot be discerned by a new player. The interface is completely integrated within the game’s world and focus is immediately put on its subject matter: The Dungeon.

The door opens slowly, with a loud crawl. It’s a striking contrast with the reigning silence of the scene and the first insight into the design of the game. Dungeon Master highlights the importance of listening to your environment. It features no music but every monster can be heard and identified, simply by the sound it makes.

Once the door opens, the frame becomes smaller and the first sign of the user interface appears. To the right of the screen you now find a set of arrows that control your movement and let you turn around. With no other indicators and nothing else to do, you click on them and start moving through the dungeon.

The corridor goes forward by a couple tiles before meeting a small cove to the right. It’s a dead-end, with nothing of interest, but to know so you must turn around and check. The goal of this small cove is to let the player know they can both turn and move laterally or “strafe”. Most games before Dungeon Master, including Wizardry and The Bard’s Tale did not feature strafing so this small cove is actually introducing a new movement mechanic.

Moving on, the corridor makes a couple turns before reaching a wider room. Writing on the wall claims this is the “Hall of Champions” and something can be seen on the surface of a nearby wall. This is a painting of a hero that can be chosen for your group of four. There are a bunch of these paintings across the room, some farther away than the others.

In other words, the party creation screen is also part of the game world. And it’s introduced only after the main movement mechanics are. The game would be much less immersive if you went through obvious menus. Also note that, since the painting is on a wall, you must turn to face it. You may have skipped the little alcove, but the game won’t let you progress without learning that move.

FIRST STEPS

The rest of the first level introduces additional mechanics in the same way. You open your first door, face your first enemy, pick up your first items and gather water and food. You find a scroll that tells you to look for small differences in the environment. An obviously fake brick sits in front of you, so, naturally you touch it and get a small reward.

It’s quite literally a tutorial, but a great one. It never quite tells you directly what to do. Rather, it presents you with small problems that can be intuitively solved. This is a much superior method of communicating to players than text, because it lets them progress at their own pace and does not disturb their immersion. More importantly, figuring things on your own is an engaging experience, while being told what to do is a chore.

Soon, the lights go out and the screen turns dark. In Dungeon Master, besides food and water you must also take care of lightning and use spells and torches to keep seeing. By this point, you must have picked up a couple and the game forces you to learn to use them.

Forcing the player to provide light is important, not just because it’s a vital skill going forward, but because now it’s a safe environment to do so. There are no enemies, no traps, no other concerns. You can take your time and face the new challenge in a vacuum. Given you need to read the manual and acquaint yourself with the magical runes, this is for the best.

Again, learning how to cast spells is presented as a challenge or puzzle to figure out, instead of a chore. It’s fun not knowing what to do, and gathering the pieces to continue. If the game took 10 minutes to tell you the necessary steps, it would be both a bore and a dreadful learning experience.

THE PUZZLE

A bit down the line, we find the game’s first real puzzle: A 3×3 room with one switch on every tile. Two gates lie beyond the room but to open them both, you must step on the switches in the right order. Or so it seems.

I was stumped. I took a long time moving around, taking notes and wondering how to get the gates to open. But no matter what I did, I always ended up in the same position with the same closed doors. I ran the numbers and it seemed impossible. No matter how I crossed the room, I would always press a switch that locked one of the doors.

The solution? Simply step out of the room after hitting the first switch. Then you can come back and the switches that would close the door open it instead. You break the cycle by thinking outside the box.

This is a fantastic puzzle. It’s easy to understand, clever and has a very elegant solution. Its difficulty, and simple design is perfect for this section of the dungeon. You can’t even get stuck, because leaving the room is enough to put the player halfway through the solution.

Too often, puzzles in games are exercises in calculation. Most of the challenge comes, not so much from thinking as from exhausting all possible options. This little puzzle, as simple as it is, shows that Dungeon Master strives for better. The fact that it ties its puzzles into its movement system is a great indicator, too.

GOING FORWARD

This is how far I’ve gotten in Dungeon Master for now. And I must say, I’m impressed. I’m not sure how the rest of the game will hold, or whether the real-time combat will prove competitive in this day and age. But if the level design continues to be of this quality, it will be worth it.

In fact, I wish some of its mechanics were more prevalent elsewhere. The use of a detailed soundscape that draws you into the game world was one of the most influential parts of Dungeon Master. Games like Ultima Underworld or Thief II: The Metal Age wouldn’t have been possible without it. And yet, it has almost completely disappeared from gaming. Not even Dishonored or Styx, direct descendants of the latter, include it.

Above all, Dungeon Master just made me wish for better level design in other titles. It’s not as flashy or marketable as player powers, fantasy narratives or higher production values but time and time again, level design proves to be what separates mediocrity from greatness. It’s the reason why Doom, Castlevania or OutRun remain fun today and I hope I’ll be able to say the same about Dungeon Master when I finish playing it.

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