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Bob’s Dungeon Maker Rant; Or: Mr. Blandings Builds His Grind House

I’m not usually the type to get excited over anything. Even when pursuing my passions I tend to approach things with a kind of intellectual calm, a distance brought on by refusing to give in to the cascades of immediate emotional reaction in favor of a studied, logical and analytical meditation. I’ve done my best to relax this impulse in my Dispatches, and was probably most successful at it while evaluating God of War, partly because my experience was already so varied between the highs and lows of the game’s successful and problematic qualities that I didn’t feel unafraid to register unabashed satisfaction or, more often, displeasure with what I was experiencing. For games I’ve almost completely enjoyed (you know what they are) I’ve had force myself to restrain my enthusiasm, if for no other reason than I don’t like appearing biased. Obviously, there’s a delicate kind of irony there– if you’re talking about your favorite game/film/book, etc., you are necessarily going to be exercising the very definition of favoritism– but I remain firm in my belief that, for the most part, it’s been best possible way to write for this blog.

Every once in a while, however, you encounter a title that forces you to reevaluate your positions and provokes you to consider more than what is merely thought provoking, emotionally moving or instinctively stimulating, and instead focus on what is just plain fun. Ape brains and lizard brains can’t help you figure out anything at a time like this. The only kind of gray matter that matters is your own, and the scrutiny of everyone else’s opinions be damned– if you’ve just got to say it, you’ve just got to say it:

Taito’s Dungeon Maker is the best goddamn game I’ve played for the PSP, and anyone out there who owns this system and hasn’t picked this title up should be goddamn ashamed of themselves.

The Japanese and American covers, side by side. Both are kind of cheesy in their own way, but it works.

Does this come as a surprise? Frankly yes, to me at least. When I bought a PSP back in December last year, I wasn’t expecting much of anything else besides Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops to wind up drawing my attention. As time went on I bought a few other games, partly out of benign interest and partly to make sure I got my money’s worth out of the system. The 3D graphic update of Mega Man X was decent enough, but mostly only in a nostalgic sense, and while other games like Loco Roco were pleasant enough, they didn’t sustain my curiosity for a long enough period of time to make me forget about Big Boss. Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories was the only other game that I found genuinely of note, partly because it was the first (and to date, admittedly, the only) GTA game I ever played. Still for months on end I’d keep MPO tucked snugly into that little black brick everybody loves to hate, playing the same adventure of the San Hieronymo Peninsula over and over again, enough to the point that I’d more or less memorized all the enemies’ patterns, figured out all the boss fights’ tricks and learned almost every line of every cut-scene by heart. That’s all well and good, especially for somebody like me who believed Hideo Kojima’s work is worth investing that much attention into, in order to study every possible secret one can find (and there are a bundle of weird ones in that game), but after my 7th or 8th playthrough, I couldn’t help but feel a bit depressed. It was still fun and all, but I wanted something different, and knew that it wouldn’t be a long time before a sequel to the game was even considered. So what then? Could there be a game that could make me kick my Metal Gear habit once and for all and get MPO out of my PSP, for a little while at least?

Yes. Yes there was, and yes there is, and that game’s name is Dungeon Maker.

Not that MGS didn’t have anything to do with why I knew about this game in the first place. For a while I’ve been following Tim Roger’s writing at insertcredit and ACTION BUTTON, where at the former he wrote one of the premier pieces of new games journalism, the tasty MGS2 critique “Dreaming in an Empty Room.” It was on the latter, however, that I discovered this review for a game with a rather elaborate set of regional names, which I prefer to simply and shortly refer to as Dungeon Maker. Its premise was intriguing– an action RPG in which players build their own dungeons in order to slay the monsters inside, collect their treasures and use that to build more dungeons. It interested me for three reasons: Third of all, it had a very nice example of cyclical gameplay, something I’m very fond of and an artifact readily present in the Metal Gear system of hiding, getting caught, escaping and hiding again. Second of all, it had a ringing endorsement from a game journalist whose work I not only respect, but usually happen to agree with, meaning that I at least had a fairly decent chance of agreeing with him this time.

But first of all, and not at the very last or least, this interested me because it was a game about game design, something I’d always wanted to play. Some of you may recall the “Labyrinth” idea I posted before, a game I still intend to work on next semester somehow, and an idea I’ve perhaps been convinced is even more valid after playing Dungeon Maker. After the deja vu settled from comparing my idea to that of this game, I resolved to pick up a copy as soon as I could get my greedy little hands on it, and that very day I managed to snag one in the middle of my subway route back to Grand Central, and almost a month since then the game hasn’t left the cozy confines of my PSP since. If you have to ask how I’ve been enjoying it since then you obviously haven’t been paying close attention, but just in case, let me spell it out for you:

I fucking love this game.

Now, if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you’ve either been a classmate of mine or you’ve followed my posts for some time now, so you know that it isn’t like me to just blurt out something like that without some kind of consideration for evidence backing it up. Rest assured that I’ve sat with this game a while now (a whole month!) and at this point, barring any major, unforeseen turns for the worse in terms of its gameplay and flow, I can safely say without any reservations or purpose of evasion that it is, quite frankly, the best game I’ve played on a portable system, and in terms of the quality of its design and procedural mechanics manages to rank right up there with my all-time favorites. The fact that it is an original piece and not simply a continuation of an already existing console franchise, as was the case of my beloved Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening and Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops, goes a big way in earning this estimation, though I’ll admit both of those games remain as high as they ever have in my eyes. What they do is very particular and very effective– move a homebound game experience to a handheld one while tailoring and translating that experience to fit the curves and contours of portability strikingly well. Still, at the end of the day they mostly remain efforts bound to the experiences of their televisual big brothers– Link’s Awakening might be the best Zelda game in years, but it’s still the same Zelda game we’ve all played for years, and MPO might be some of the smartest and most refreshingly non-linear work Kojima’s done to tell the stories of Big Boss and Outer Heaven, but in the end it’s still the same old box you’re hiding in. Dungeon Maker succeeds above these games primarily because it has an advantage that neither of them would ever have, except for the greenest of rookies and the newest of newbies.

That advantage, pray tell? Elementary, my pleasant dreamers: because it’s new.

Am I sure it’s new? Absolutely. Have there been any other games which involve building your own levels, piece-by-piece, and then stalking through them yourself to hunt for monsters and treasures, Gauntlet-style? I think not. Sure, there’s been titles like Molyneux’s Dungeon Keeper which allowed players to design levels and attract bait NPC’s, but they didn’t allow you to actually jump in and roam around those levels yourself. Ultimately games like that can’t really satisfy because it always feels as though there’s something missing, which there is. If you draw a maze it stands to logic you ought to be able to test it out yourself before handing it over to a friend to solve, much less a computer. The same goes with levels of a game, or for that matter games themselves, because in the end that’s what these titles are trying to replicate, after a fashion, for the player– the act of creating an interactive experience. To a certain extent I’ve got the feeling that’s what a lot of Sandbox Games are aiming for, with varying degrees of success, and it’s why if I had to lump Dungeon Maker into any one specific category it might be that (the other one would be whatever genre that games like Harvest Moon or Animal Crossing belong to, but I’ll get to that in good time.)

As a Sandbox Game, DM has a lot that other games can learn from, primarily because it does something the rest of them either haven’t done or have merely tried, and failed, to do– it provides a bridge between the sand castle and the sand piles, between the distanced games of creation and the close-up games of destruction.

A tale of two cities...
Allow me to explain– in my opinion, there are two extreme ends of the Sandbox Game, and those are Sim City and Grand Theft Auto. Everyone takes the former for granted as one of the first and definitive titles of the genre, but I hold that the latter is every bit as much a member of this category as well, in that it allows players to perform much of the same primary experience that others do, though in fundamentally different ways. Both games are about control, either as a mayor of a metropolis or as a criminal operating within one. One is about the power of building a city infrastructure while the other is about running a rampage within one, free of consequences. Both maintain the pretense of progress in pointing players along the path of slowly but surely gaining that power by meeting certain objectives, but also allow gamers to satisfy those urges immediately as possible through comprehensive options, commands and cheat codes. In Sim City one doesn’t have to wait for a natural disaster to test a town’s emergency readiness– all you have to do is order up a tornado, earthquake or big Kaiju monster to come and wreak havoc. GTA may set up a world full of plethoras of mini-games by which to earn the right to every jurisprudential privilege this side of jus prima nocte, but by putting so much of the game’s emphasis on beating up civilians to gain immediate access to funds and weapons it makes just as much sense to simply input secret passwords to save all the hard work, breaking the game’s laws instead of the city’s.

In the end, they’re polar opposites of one another, yet merely different ends of the same spectrum– Sim City lets you play as God, and Grand Theft Auto lets you play in God-mode. However, it takes a game like Dungeon Maker to show that these two ends aren’t mutually exclusive, and that you can build a comprehensive experience out of both building and inhabiting (or destroying) Sand Castles, instead of just one or the other.

From a Catholic perspective, Sim City is about God, the Father, Grand Theft Auto about God, the Son, and Dungeon Maker about God, the Holy Ghost.

It’s a refreshing experience, and an enlightening one. Mixing its functions together is one way it helps you perform old things in new ways, right down to how you go about designing your mazes to begin with. Instead of treating the whole act of creation from the same top-down perspective Will Wright’s forced all his games into, making every act and decision a mere interface away through pointing and clicking with the mouse button, Dungeon Maker forces the player to actually navigate through their maze in order to build more of it, allowing you to only construct outwards from dead-ends in your dungeon, asking you to effectively mine your way through the caves at the same time as you’re carving them into your desired shapes. It’s a very nice system, and offers the feeling of actually taming a wilderness and building civilization on top of it, a motif that’s repeated by continually going into the dungeons to weed them out of monsters, pick up their treasures to sell and purchase more building materials and return to rebuild. Furthermore, it brings the player as God down from their ivory tower and into the actual game themselves, which invigorates the genre with a great amount of immediate challenges.

One of the reasons I’ve never been able to get into Wright’s games is because of how distant they feel, not only in terms of point-of-view but also in tense– Sim City and The Sims don’t really feel like active tales of cities and people living and working in the present, but in the past, instead. By placing the player high above the experience, far detached from any personal sense of risk or reward, you effectively remove them from the drama unfolding and force them to become a mere observer, ironic considering the degree of control they offer. This is what makes the pool of options feel so limited, in my opinion, and why ultimately they become rather impotent experiences, games told from the point of view of a disappointingly agnostic deity. Wright’s games, while plotless and open-ended, become increasingly deterministic in this light, and surprisingly linear, as well, without containing any of the satisfaction more narrative-driven games are built upon. That’s not to say that his games aren’t entirely without merit, or that they don’t do what they set out to do– it’s just that I, personally, don’t feel it. Part of it is because I don’t particularly enjoy point-and-click games to begin with, but if the game is good enough I’ll certainly go along with the ride. Maybe my personality is just not suited for the “Sim” experience, but whenever I look at one of those games I can’t help but feel that something is missing. The same thing, of course, happens when I look at Grand Theft Auto.

I’ll be honest, however– I enjoy GTA. Running around in the open-ended atmosphere they’ve created is a genuinely fun thing to do, especially when you marry it to a particular pop-cultural landscape that fits your own personal fix of nostalgia. Mine happens to be the 80′s, so I can’t get enough of listening to Flock of Seagulls while running over pedestrians in a faux-Miami and stealing their wallets. It’s a genuinely addictive experience, and it’s an addiction that’s partly captured by Dungeon Maker, though to a much more satisfying, and far less guilty scale, partly because what I’m engaging in is to a certain extent a much more creative act. GTA is pretty much a pure, unadulterated expression of what a large portion of gaming is to the world– physical navigation, real-time combat and collecting resources. It’s the gaming equivalent of a nice, fat, juicy sirloin steak, extra rare, serving you up exactly that kind of unmuddied interaction with almost nothing else in terms of gameplay to get in the way, save for a handful of entirely skipable side missions. When you play GTA (or when I play it, I suppose) you might as well be starring in the video-game adaptation of Natural Born Killers, rampaging on the digital streets as Hillary Clinton’s worst nightmare (no, I suppose that’d be Obama, nowadays).

It’s a great, undistracted piece of design, but in my opinion it could be doing more. Dungeon Maker hit upon something here you’d think the gaming world would’ve considered sooner (more on that later), which is that it’s not only fun to inhabit a world or create one, but to inhabit one you’ve created yourself. Dungeon Keeper and Sim City accomplish creation, without inhabiting. GTA gets the inhabiting part down pat, but it feels like there’s still room left empty for players to create. After riding along with Dungeon Maker for a month, I think that the Rockstar people could learn a lesson or two from this game, albeit in small ways– if you’re going to build a criminal empire, after all, wouldn’t it be fun to actually build a few things for real? I mean, you’re in organized crime, for crying out loud! There isn’t that stereotype about “construction workers” for nothing, after all? Watch Scarface again and look at the goddamn mansions and palaces the man commissions! Crime can be a big boost to a city’s economy (just look at Miami in the 80′s), so wouldn’t it be interesting if you could try and legitimize yourself as a kind of Donald Trump and erect skyscrapers across the landscape? I’d feel so much more invested in the GTA experience if I could claim some kind of ownership over the environments I was navigating across. That’s just an idea, and maybe it wouldn’t carry the game much further than it’s already gone, but the fact that a little PSP game nobody seems to be talking about could figure this out before the likes of so many other experienced franchise-makers out there is at once bewildering and disappointing.

That’s the main complaint I have, actually, though I suppose it doesn’t count as much of one against the game itself. Dungeon Maker is a beautiful surprise for the PSP, and if it were handled correctly maybe even the killer-app it’s so desperately dying for, but it doesn’t feel as though it is exactly indigenous to the PSP. Instead, it feels as though this were a game that came out on the original Playstation years ago, and not just because it’s cursed with graphics that are just barely above that of PSX era polygons. No, it’s because there’s nothing going on in this game that you couldn’t do on a system ten or more years ago– you go through menus in the town, cruise through dungeons like the best of any hack-and-slash and build your mazes outward likewise, with the option of sending them off to a friend to play. All that could’ve been entirely feasible, saving maze maps on a memory card instead of using the wireless ad-hoc feature (in a future update, they’ve got to include much more comprehensive internet options, for crying out loud) to share. Because of that, I can’t help but wonder why nobody thought of this sooner. Why didn’t Dungeon Maker come out on the PSX? Heck, you could’ve had a version of this game on the SNES, without the memory card sharing! Even Excitebike on the old NES toaster let you design your own courses, even if you couldn’t save them. I’m willing to bet money that you might’ve gotten this game crammed into the old black & white GameBoy, for crying out loud, complete with the connection wires to trade your dungeons back and forth!

There’s absolutely nothing in terms of gameplay that couldn’t have been achieved on any of those systems, and aside from graphical downgrades from generation to generation the game itself wouldn’t change all that much in terms of operation! Heck, it might’ve even worked better, considering you’re basically using Zelda controls in what amount to awkward polygon figures that don’t always have the same straightforwardness of regular ol’ pixel sprites! I’m willing to admit that the game, as it stands on the PSP, has some weird aim-control issues, but those wouldn’t exist if it had come out a decade or so ago! This is, at the end of the day, a 2D game done up in 3D, and it’s distressing to me that we didn’t have it back in the 2D era. We ought to be playing Dungeon Maker 6 by now, not the very first one, tripping over itself with stumbling Bambi legs!
You see what this game is doing to me? Really, what bothers me is that it feels as though this is a game that missed its time. Ten years ago, people would’ve eaten this game up. Now, I find myself writing this rant for our blog mostly so that there’ll be a little bit more word of mouth on the ol’ Internet up there for anybody who decides to Google the game and see if it’s worth plunking down a couple of deceased chief executives for. I’m afraid that this game might get swept up in the tide of all the crappy titles with better advertising and the scrutiny of jaded game reviewers who can’t quite recognize all of what this title is doing right (I’m lookin’ at you, IGN.) Hopefully, this game will survive and thrive on the PSP, garnering a sequel or two before it moves on and spawns on further consoles. Maybe in the end this game is just a preamble, a foresight echo of LittleBigPlanets to come, but I can’t help but feel that this game knows what it’s doing, and furthermore knows that we need at least just a little bit of what it has to offer. I’ll admit that this is a bit of a niche title, a game that requires a lot of attention up front, because like Harvest Moon and Animal Crossing it’s a game of cultivation, only instead of being a basic simulation of real-world cultivation, it’s something else– it’s a game about cultivating games themselves, nurturing gameplay in level design. You build your mazes, wait for monsters to come, kill them, reap the rewards and keep on building. How is that any different from tilling soil, planting seeds and waiting for them to grow so you can sell them at the market, and buy more seed?

There’s something fairly interesting going on in there, metatextually, though I’m not going to do any more than graze it with a ten foot pole like I’ve done just now. I’m having far too much fun. The game’s great for what it does, and while I wish some more time and money were invested into it I have to applaud how much it was able to make of its humble allowances, or so it would seem. I don’t quite mind the graphics, taken in the context that X-Seed, Taito and Global A are no Kojima Productions and Konami, or any other suitably taken care of developer and publisher. The music’s kinda awful, but some will probably appreciate the cheese and call it awesome instead. The townsfolk are entertaining enough, especially the magical witch twins who reward the hero with affection and undying love with the same pomp of in-game presentation as they would any piece of monetary payment. The game’s clever enough to clue you in on the comments it’s making about the game industry without beating you over the head with them in the same way that you might defeat swarms of enemies, and I sincerely hope that they continue to get better as they come up with the next iteration of this title (hopefully, really). I can only hope I’ll run into people who have a copy of this game on their own PSP’s, so I can finally find out how I stack up in maze design.

Nevertheless, I’m going to keep losing sleep and wasting time I could be spending working on my brilliant thesis for implementing interactive game dialogue playing this game. Kudos to you, Saburo Yotsuya, Kouhei Mouka and Takashi Ohtomo, for designing, directing and producing this game, respectively. Next time I post here, it’ll be the start of my long promised Psychonauts Dispatches. Until then, pleasant dreamers, sleep tight and don’t let the kobolds (whatever those are) bite…

2 Comments

  1. 1 wrote:

    “I’m not usually the type to get excited over anything. Even when pursuing my passions I tend to approach things with a kind of intellectual calm, a distance brought on by refusing to give in to the cascades of immediate emotional reaction in favor of a studied, logical and analytical meditation.”

    In other words, you try your damnedest not to have fun.

    Sunday, August 19, 2007 at 5:45 pm | Permalink
  2. Bob wrote:

    Good news: “Dungeon Maker” is getting a sequel in Japan. Despite the none-too-warm reception it recieved stateside, let’s hope that it sees a release here, and we’re not deprived of its architectural goodness.

    http://www.pspfanboy.com/2007/08/29/dungeon-maker-gets-a-sequel/

    Monday, January 28, 2008 at 4:45 am | Permalink

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