Most dungeon-delving games concentrate on what goes on underground – after all, that’s where all the monsters and excitement are. But a dungeon is a relative point in space. To work, it needs somewhere else. Traditionally, somewhere above.
This can be proven scientifically.
After the jump, behold the incontrovertible evidence.
- Without the village of Tristram, Diablo just doesn’t work. A chap needs a place to stay a while and listen, and he can hardly be expected to do it while being chased around level 3 by undead Leoric.
- The Temple of Elemental Evil could be ignored as the sordid den of squabbling chaos-hipsters that it is, were it not for their hissy-fits affecting a certain sleepy hamlet called Hommlet..
- The game Torchlight is called Torchlight, not That Place Under Torchlight.
Even games that never set foot outside the dungeon benefit from establishing a context for it. Ultima Underworld takes place wholly in the Stygian Abyss, but every bone-strewn corridor of it is steeped in the history of sunlit Britannia, a realm developed across half a dozen earlier games.
The world above does three things in a dungeon game: it establishes normality, it provides an economy, and it applies liberal amounts of plot.
Part 1 – Establishing Normality
Dungeons are properly weird. They’re clogged with traps and bustling with monsters. Lots of monsters. We can describe their monster-density as “high”.
If you hit the monsters, treasure comes out. There are mazes. There are traps. There are barrels. Sometimes there is treasure in the barrels. But sometimes there are monsters in the barrels, and treasure in the monsters. Maybe there’s something in that treasure, too. Maybe it’s another monster.
A wise man once said that there are worse things than orcs in the deep places of the world. Well no shit, Gandalf. Specifically, there are ferrovorous anteaters, malevolent sausages, cuboid electro-jellies, and Damoclean living stalagtites just looking for an excuse. The dungeon is where these things live. It’s where they evolved.
Dungeons are weird, is the point.
But if everything’s weird, nothing is, and the wonder and terror of delving is reduced to experience point tourism.
The world above is what life is supposed to look like. A life you chose to abandon in favour of death-spelunking. Above are the blacksmiths, the sages, the priests and the innkeepers. Not one of them has ever looked an owlbear in the bloody beak and laughed. You’re exceptional, because you’re not like them.
Visiting the world above asks the question ‘why you?’ What made you take up the sword and leave sunlight and sanity behind? Delving is about staking body and soul on the thinnest, most desperate chance of winning glory or justice. What could push you to that? Was normality too boring? Too hard? Are you fated? Do you have no other choice?
Or maybe you do it because someone’s got to.
There are worse answers.
Come back soon for part 2, wherein we explore fiscally-responsible delving and the Adventurer’s Dream.