We see our world as a three dimensional experience, where we factor in the length, width and depth of objects. We factor this into our construction as well, building objects into towers, pyramids and other such structures, usually to meet criteria for its use as well as for some artistic values that we are going for. However, when it comes to dungeon design there is little use of the Z axis in the majority of puzzles and challenges in dungeons that I have encountered, beyond simply going up or down tunnels and stairs to make it larger and increase distance from lock to key for their puzzles.
The Legend of Zelda games are probably one of the best examples of making a dungeon that includes a variable Z-level in its puzzle design, even when it was still just a 2D sprite based game in Link to the Past.
The Swamp Temple required you to open the floodgate to adjust the level of water in the dungeon, allowing you to reach layers that were blocked off previously as you couldn’t reach them.
The Water Temple in Ocarina of Time and the Great Bay Temple in Majora’s Mask are two more dungeons using changing water states to adjust access to parts of the dungeon in different ways.
Other examples can be seen in games like Golden Sun and Portal. In essence, the concept is having to change something on one Z-level which will cause something else to happen on another Z-level.
In Portal, you find ways to manipulate the environment, as explained in the trailer, using a portal gun. For example, open a portal at the wall a laser hits, it will continue out the other portal you elsewhere and hopefully manipulate the environment in some way.
Golden Sun is a great example, as for being a simple 2D game like the Link to the Past, it makes use of three dimensional logic in many ways through the game as illustrated in these three early puzzles.
The first where you encounter a reservoir dam that you cam open the floodgate to drain the water and them move logs to make platform bridges to jump upon to travel when you let the water refill the reservoir.
The third is a puzzle that makes you conceptualize the dungeon design as one whole environment, as when you progression up a dungeon you see holes in the center of the floor on the various levels and once you reach the top you need to fall through those holes to reach the boss. This takes what would otherwise be negative space in the dungeon and actually makes it useful for something beyond filler.
This strategy of using height to make challenges like falling from above into a key area can be seen in games like Landstalker for the Sega Genesis using its isometric view to display dungeons as levels where you need to rise into or fall from to get to area, as well as Mirror’s Edge where, like in this short clip of the sewer level, you get to see how much you can pack into small spaces when you factor in height. Just look at this picture which is a better view of the same area at the end of the video, the area that Faith has to use to climb out.
Another traversal style game worth checking is Rise of the Tomb Raider as seen in this 10 minute clip where you can see the challenge of having to get to different locations in X, Y, Z dimensions to solve puzzles to continue. Assassin’s Creed, Uncharted and I am Alive are similar games, such as we can see in Uncharted 3’s Rooftop Chase Scene. The Chase Scene is a good example of thinking 3D in games and movies, as we can see in this Beyond Good & Evil 2 trailer or the District 13 parkour chase.
Also, while trying to find good examples of games that made use of the idea of three dimensions, I found one that makes use of 4 different spacial dimensions. In this video about the game Miegakure they explain how they can do a puzzle game using 4 Spatial Dimensions by showing how a 2D character would experience a 3rd Dimension before going to illustrate a 3D character understanding 4D by using getting around a wall as a puzzle. If you’re interested in the concept of multiple other physical dimensions, there’s all sorts of mathematical explanations you can find to try and wrap your head around, but I like the literary versions as seen in such writings like Flatland and how I was first introduced to the 4D concept, Greg Bear’s short story Tangents, where they talk about seeing 3D shapes in a 2D world and 4D shapes in our 2D world.
Getting past all this talk of how video games do it, the question becomes how to incorporate this in your tabletop game. The answer is very simple, but it does require you to think about the environments as a complete space. You will need to figure out what it looks like from an external view, to give you an idea of the space you are working with. Relic Hunter is a show which has Tia Carrere as a female version of Indiana Jones going around the world seeking various relics, and in the first episode they explored a giant hollow Buddha statue in search of treasure by climbing into its third eye, as you can see in the second screenshot. That would limit the sort of dungeon you could have because it couldn’t be a huge sprawling map that was larger than the statue. Plus, by the Buddha being on its side, all the dungeon layout has shifted so that a traditional map of the dungeon has been turned roughly ninety degrees, changing up the navigation options of the dungeon as well as all encounters that they might have. So, considering what space you have to work with will influence the design you have to play with as well. Perhaps your dungeon is in a tower so you need to think contained areas going up vertically like the sewer exit from Mirror’s Edge with the gaps being jumping from ruined ledge to ruined ledge in a Prince of Persia style of exploration, or perhaps instead you a large dome shaped mountain ridge known as “Turtle Rock” and have your dungeon going up in smaller levels before hitting the small top floor.
Another way to make your dungeons a bit more interesting, have an entrance be in a weird place besides ground level doors. This is something that you can see in movies in a lot of different ways, like the entering from the roof scene in Mission Impossible 2 or having to go in underwater from Tomb Raider: Cradle of Life. Another example comes from the How to Train Your Dragon cartoon series where the heroes went into a well which had opened up into the caverns beneath the city, much like the horror movie The Cave. To come up with ideas of why the entrance might not be on ground level, think about how the civilization that used this area would have gotten to it and how the terrain might have changed over the years, especially if no one is around to maintain it. Once there was wooden stairs up to it that have since rotted away due to the elements, which means the party must climb up the side of the cliff so that they can enter and then begin their trek back down the inside of the caves. This could have some really bad connotations if you think about a culture where the simple act of getting to the entrance is a test of worthiness. By having it get worn down over the test of time could make it harder for people to get there, if not impossible, for reasons like the river that powered ancient mechanisms have been dammed or diverted by later cultures. Another example of environmental changes making location access harder could be what was once a temple on an island in a large lake with a dock is now a spire in a crater with a balcony as the water has gone away.
By figuring out the layout you have to work with, you can then examine the area to see how to make some Z-axis puzzles. When the floors are able to be stacked up on each other, as you can see in this video tutorial on building 2.5d Battlemaps or this post about building a ship prop for their game, you could then see areas where you could add pitfalls to drop down to lower levels, vines or walls that could be climbed to the next level as an example of some puzzle options. In Chrono Trigger, the prison area is a perfect example of this concept, as you see in this map here, as there were cells who you could only access by dropping in from above or climbing the outside walls to get to. A more physically interactive example is from a designer’s blog entry about coming up with puzzles for the Tomb Raider: Underworld where Lara has to pull something down from above before racing it back up before it rises back to where it was.
Adding additional features to the dungeon is a great way to make things that much more challenging to the players. The Water Temple from the Legend of Zelda would still be complex if you could get everywhere at once because it is so large, but to add to the challenge the developers decided to add a changing water level to make traversing the different levels a puzzle in themselves. Having extra slippery ‘ice’ floors could be another way to challenge them, especially if they need to do precise navigation and any extra sliding would lead to failure. That will make them have to predict their path ahead of time and thus you could change things on them midway to cause them to have to re-evaluate their strategy, such as a section of the floor has given way and can no longer be slid upon. The Hall of Ascension from rise of Tomb Raider makes use of wind and shutters to change how you move around the area as you turn off the wind and turn it back on. You are using the same three dimensional space, but by adding a new element you are changing their interaction method with the space, like the NES game Metal Storm’s changing gravity feature. Pretty much any element could be used, as you can see in this list of Dungeon themes from Legend of Zelda, including many more examples the Water Dungeons. To challenge the players, make sure that the theme is more than just a different type of ‘wallpaper’ for the dungeon dressing, it is incorporated into the actual dungeon in design or implementation to make it that much more for players to deal with. For some examples of how the theme matters, take a look at Boss Keys, a series on the study of Zelda Dungeons game by game by the creator of Game Maker’s Toolkit. The series basically an example of his views as they change and grow through his studying of the games in research for a Game Maker’s Toolkit episode.