Creating the illusion of non-linearity
Most games are linear. Even "open world" games like the original Zelda appear to allow the player to go about the journey as they please; however, you must first go through dungeon 1 to get the item necessary to access dungeon 2, then complete dungeon 2 to get the item needed to access dungeon 3, etc. In most RPGs you have a world map from which you can access any town or dungeon, but it is usually sectioned off to require that the player go through areas in a certain order. Between dungeons you may have the choice of visiting a town to buy items/rest/accept a quest/etc., but that is usually the extent of the non-linearity of a game's structure (until the player gets a vehicle that allows them access to the whole map at the end of the game). The feeling of non-linearity comes from wandering around and figuring out what you have to do in which order. This usually requires navigating twists and turns and backtracking through them a few times.
This post will go through my process of designing a temple I tried to make appear non-linear, although it is actually very linear. The temple is a bonus dungeon in my project "The Epic of Gilgamesh", which you can read all about on my website, Gilgameshgame.com
. You can download a demo of this level by itself here
,and I've included screen shots at the bottom. I'd appreciate feedback on my process and the level itself. Feel free to ask me to clarify anything that is poorly written.The Concept
I started with the idea of a temple with two floors with two wings each and a basement. The temple contains four bosses and the player must defeat them all before they can access the goal. Here is the skeleton I started with. The colored dots are bosses and the gray letters represent connecting flights of stairs (so A on F1 takes the player to the A on F2 and vice-versa):
Pretty simple and boring, right? But this is what you'd expect a temple to be built like: symmetrical with easy access between floors. The basement is slightly more intricate since basements are usually used for storage. An actual non-linear approach to designing this would be to give the player free-reign and let them defeat the bosses in any order they want. The benefit of that approach is that the player has to figure out on their own the best order to beat the bosses (as in which is weakest/strongest or if the bosses grant skills/items/experience points which would be helpful in defeating the other bosses.), ala Mega Man style. However, because the temple is symmetrical, just finding the bosses would be pretty boring.
So how can I make navigating this simple dungeon interesting? I tried adding locks and keys. By blocking off some of the doors and having each boss drop a key, I can create a critical path
that the player must follow to beat the stage. Locked doors let the player know they will eventually have to come back to that area, which means they must make a mental map in their head, and keep up with what keys unlock which doors. Here is what the dungeon looks like when I added locks and keys. The colored lines represent locks, and the corresponding dots now represent bosses and the keys they drop (the color of the boss/key corresponds to the color of its locks):
Can you figure out the critical path? Take a minute and try. The player has some options, but could easily get through the level without having to backtrack through previously explored rooms more than a few times. There can be slight variations in the path in terms of backtracking, but this example of the critical path roughly follows the alphabetical order of the stairs (the player wouldn't know that though, as the stairs are not actually lettered in the level and this map was just for my reference):
The critical path is the most direct route to the player's goal. But in this dungeon, the player would not know which way to go without checking the doors and exploring through trial-and-error. Notice the critical path does not require going through every room: these are where I placed my good treasurer chests, since they are not required (though the player may find them by accident while trying to figure out the critical path).
To make things even spicier, I require the player to answer ten questions based on facts given by ten NCP's spread throughout the dungeon to access the final goal (in addition to getting the final key). Here is how I laid out the NCP's:
So now the player has people to talk to as they explore, has an incentive to seek these people out and remember what they say, explore every room and to backtrack if they need to.
Finally, here are some examples pulled from my final product, just so you know what it looks like:
Spliced together image of F1 west wing (actually 5 maps)
I hope this is helpful...if not, please let me know what doesn't make sense and how my design can be improved!