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Dungeon. Is there any word more redolent with hyper-specific meaning for such a wide variety of people? From the musty specter of peasants locked up in a barren stone cell to the musky vibe of consensual, leather-clad couples getting their 50 Shades on, it’s a word of unimpeachable clarity, despite its panoply of meanings. But with no offense to those assorted tortured peasants or partners, “dungeon” has always gotten what might be its clearest expression in the world of video (and tabletop) games. Almost every video game has levels. Only the greatest (or at least the dankest) have dungeons.
So here’s to these complete and complicated villainous ecosystems, filled with puzzles, evil flying eyeballs with obnoxiously varied and debilitating magical powers, and sweet, sweet traps. They’re not all underground, they’re not all covered in blood-stained spikes (though those are a plus), and they’re not all objectively evil, but here’s a quick cross-section of some of the dungeons that we’ve loved.
Vaporum and Legend Of Grimrock I & II
Originally released on Steam a few years back, but receiving its console release just last month, Vaporum was the initial inspiration for this little trip down one very particular dark and unwelcoming avenue of gaming’s history. Steam-punk-ish, and with an emphasis on telling a singular narrative, Fatbot Games has put together a very classic first-person dungeon crawl, sending players up against the robotic guards and monsters infesting the mysterious Arx Vaporum. Armed only with an armored suit and a host of spell-like semi-magical gadgets, they’ll fend off enemies, dodge big, nasty gouts of flame, and even shove a big giant block or two. Despite (or maybe because of) its core conventionality, Vaporum is ably capable of scratching the itch for a meticulous, step-by-step exploration of an endlessly hostile environment, the sort of game where you check every wall for a trap or hidden button and never, ever rush into a fight without looking both ways. The pleasure, then, derives from the slow accrual of mastery, as you slowly turn uncharted territory into comfortable safety—at least, until a new host of nasty little spider-robots comes crawling out of the walls.
It’s impossible to talk about Vaporum, though, without invoking the series it most clearly lives in the shadow of: Almost Human’s two Legend Of Grimrock titles, from 2012 and 2014. Fatbot’s game is roughly equivalent to the first game in the series, which tasks a crew of prisoners with making their way down the floors of a hostile dungeon. (Notably, both games cite as an obvious reference point early computer RPG dungeon crawls like Dungeon Master and Eye Of The Beholder, which pioneered this sort of real-time hall-walking action.) All of them, though, are blown away by Grimrock II, the most expansive (and best) game this under-served little genre has seen to date. The 2014 title might be best described as a dungeons crawl, plural, as it sends your team of four anonymous heroes across an entire island full of brain-smashing mazes and mines, each more inventively designed than the one before.
Zelda, various games
Outside of Gary Gygax, few people have done more for the cachet of the concept of dungeons than Shigeru Miyamoto, who transformed memories of a childhood running around Japanese hillsides and exploring caves into three decades of frequently subterranean gaming greatness. Zelda is probably the most obvious reason we refer to these discrete chunks of closed-loop gameplay as dungeons, and the series has so many examples of the form that people can get incredibly granular (and angry) when talking about them, down to having a favorite of “the water dungeon” or “fire dungeon” type. (Majora’s Mask’s Great Bay Temple and Wind Waker’s Dragon Roost Cavern, FYI.)
What marks any great Zelda dungeon, though, is its complete focus on itself; the wider world and all its sidequests and problems fall away, and instead you’re tasked with solving a series of discrete obstacles in an enclosed environment. The best follow the tried-and-true teach, quiz, test pattern, introducing new concepts, pushing players to apply them, and then culminating in a big, flashy boss battle where they get to show off their mastery of their latest trick or tool.
Dungeon Keeper and Dungeon Keeper 2
The last truly great game that Peter Molyneux ever worked on—fight us, Fable fans—the first Dungeon Keeper looked at dungeons from the other side, inviting you and your big, spooky hand to try to manage the economics of a horde of ravenous monsters waiting to tear some idiotic heroes apart. What both Dungeon Keeper and its eventual sequel lacked in polish—woe betide anyone trying to plant a trap or lead units in some semblance of formation—they more than made up in charm, whether it was the pleasure of slapping your poor, hapless imps around to make them run faster, the sight of a giant bile demon killing heroic knights with weaponized farts, or little touches like hellhounds visiting your cemeteries to “help” the decomposition process of the corpses interred within.
A riff on the dungeon as hostile, inhospitable force, Red Hook’s 2016 offering traffics in dread in a way that more obvious horror games can only hope to match. Darkest Dungeon never lets you forget that dungeons are bad places, full of creatures, objects, and simple circumstances that seek nothing but your fragile heroes’ deaths—or worse. Few games have ever made the process of stepping forward into the next room of a crumbling mansion or hideous seaside cave more trepidatious; when the game’s narrator tells you, at length, that nothing good can come of delving into these grim halls of despair, it’s not like the game is making him exactly hard to believe.
Sen’s Fortress, Dark Souls
Where, oh where, would the world of dungeons be without the humble giant rolling boulder? The original Dark Souls has many areas that are nasty, monstrous, and cruel, but none express the dungeon aesthetic better than Sen’s Fortress, the penultimate goal of the game’s (frankly superior) first half. Sen’s is the point where it begins to set in that From Software’s opus is, in its blackest heart, secretly a comedy game. The setup comes when you, too-trustingly, step onto a small, blood-soaked elevator, or approach a seemingly innocent chest. The punchline comes when it slams you fatally into a spike ceiling, or opens up to messily devour you, or any one of a hundred hilariously awful fates awaiting anyone traveling a dungeon without a sufficient supply of paranoia in tow.
La Mulana and La Mulana 2
Notable for both their depth and breadth, this pair of brain devourers from designer Takumi Naramura earns their place in the pantheon by being probably the two nastiest, largest, most brutally confusing dungeons currently available on modern systems. (Whether that’s the sort of sentence that appeals to or repulses you will, of course, come down to individual taste.) Obtuse, punishing, and vast, neither game ever lets you forget that you’re playing as a very small protagonist immersed in a very large mystery, with each of the games’ hundreds of screens hiding some sort of twist or puzzle to either delight, or—more likely—kill you. But they also thrive in the overcoming of hardship, with each small token of progress or empowerment pulled from the great beast’s maw carrying the feeling of true triumph. That feeling—of eking out the merest win in the face of a system stacked against you—is a big part of the Dungeon Appeal, and both La Mulana games offer it up in abundance.