Friday, December 29, 2023

Soulflayer Canyon and One-Way Doors

I picked up Dragon's Dogma on the steam holiday sale and it's been a refreshing reminder of something one of my old bosses told me - "You can innovate on the technology, or you can innovate on the business model, but as a small company you probably don't have the resources to do both."  Dragon's Dogma declines to innovate in its setting.  The enemy roster is pretty much all classic D&D monsters played straight - they even have a beholder with the serial numbers filed off.  There's a quest where you rescue a princess from imprisonment in a tower and literally carry her across bridges and over gaps.  There are plot holes large enough to ride a griffon through and plot-agency is pretty negligible (why am I working for this asshole duke anyway?).

But the core combat gameplay!  Maybe for Capcom the combat gameplay isn't really innovative.  But taking the language of fighting games, of grabs and throws and parries and knockdowns, and applying them to giant fantasy monsters, played totally straight rather than FromSoft-style "everything is corrupted and weird", is just...  a lot of fun to fiddle with.  To say nothing of the pawns.

But I'm really here to talk about the design of one particular dungeon in Dragon's Dogma - Soulflayer Canyon.  It's a real piece of work.  "Criminally vicious", as the Tucker's Kobolds guy would say.

Spoilers beyond this point.

Soulflayer Canyon has a number of pretty vicious encounters - a cockatrice, ghosts who possess your henchmen (backed up by camouflaged lizardmen), a cyclops on a narrow bridge whose club will absolutely fling you and your hirelings down a long fall to your deaths, harpies who try to grab you and pull you off ledges...  But the thing that makes it really nasty is that it's full of one-way waterslides, rock slopes with water running down them that you can descend but not ascend, where you can't see what's at the bottom until you go for it.  Topologically, the dungeon is mostly a loop of one-way slides (with ladders in between to make up the height losses) with a couple of branches (one is to the treasure, another is to an exit from the dungeon).  I'm not sure it's possible to exit the dungeon by the door I came in through once you've entered the main loop.

There came a point where I'd basically cleared the dungeon and was faced with a choice between three slides.  One went to the treasure, one back into the loop, and one I think to a terminal fall.  I chose the loop and had to re-run the dungeon, some of which had restocked.  Dragon's Dogma has enough mundane resource management of healing items and lantern oil for this to be a really worrying twist if you were already running low.  The cockatrice's lair is also at the bottom of a one-way slide, and while there is a climbable rock wall that you can use to get back out, you probably have to go through the cockatrice to get to the exit.

So anyway, it's a wild dungeon.  The other dungeons in the game aren't like this (mostly).  It's like they took all their most vicious ideas and put them into this one zone that only sidequests point you to.

I had been thinking about using one-way doors in gauntlet dungeons, so it's been interesting to see them in action here.  One thing I like about these waterslides is that they're pretty telegraphed.  They're not a literal door that closes behind you but is indistinguishable from a two-way door until crossed.  It's probably worth thinking up more types of clearly-one-way "doors".  It was also interesting to see a dungeon with a single main loop composed primarily of one-way doors; I had been thinking about one-way doors used sparingly in the context of dungeons composed of multiple intersecting loops, where there are almost always multiple paths to any point.  But Soulflayer Canyon goes all-in on them and it certainly makes for a memorable "level".

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