Thursday, March 16, 2006

Home Is Where the Dungeon Heart Is

There are only a couple of ways that a game can seem like home. When Corvus posed the topic of homes in game, I began to think about games that give you a sense of home, I came up with Uru. The intent of design in this type of game is to provide a place that will form an emotional connection to the player. This bonds you to the game, the characters, the world, and it instils you with a deep sense of nostalgia for the game as you look back on it. Perhaps you saw some of that nostalgia when you read my other entry, I know I felt it. Uru gave me a home – created that connection.

But after I had cleared my system of games that brought up nostalgic thoughts of places close to my heart, I began to look at the other ways a game can become home. I think a second mechanism is to allow the player to create or build a home within the game. So what games have allowed me to design and build my own area to live?

I can tell you that I immediately dismissed The Sims. Firstly, because I have not played it longer than about 30 minutes, total. I have real difficulty playing with something that claims to be a game, but provides no definable goals. Perhaps I’m just too lazy; I don’t play games to define my own sets of ‘win conditions’. Secondly, The Sims has always felt more like a doll house than a home. I get overwhelmed and then bored making pointless aesthetic design choices when the choice makes no real difference to the play of the game. It makes me want to set up the house so I can burn it down (with the stupid little sims inside). This is, perhaps, because I’m crazy.

Anyway, with the obvious choice for home-building style game off of my list, I had to look for other games that provided a way to create a home. This search led me to a weird juxtaposition of expectations. The majority of games are about being a hero, or at least a good guy. In these games you go forth, explore, and in some cases destroy enemies. Even in games where you have to build a base of operations, you wind up with a generic-feeling and sterile boot camp. Some place that is functional, but ultimately stale.

Think Command & Conquer. The bases are all little buildings that you place where there is appropriate room. The requirement for certain buildings is that others exist. The proximity of buildings, and the arrangement, usually have very minor effects on the efficiency and play. Even in a game like Majesty, where you are building your kingdom, you basically just toss down major structures, guild halls, and such. You actually get no input on the placement of houses for your town folk, or a few of the other structures around your castle.

The games that have given me the most feeling of connection to a home are games which flip the expected paradigm and have you play as evil. My two examples, from a very limited playing field, are Dungeon Keeper (2) and Evil Genius. I love these games for a plethora of reasons: they are tongue-in-cheek goofy, they provide a release from the norm, they are well crafted and fun, and on (and on). They also allow me to create a lair that feels like a home.

I think this is true is because, in these games, your primary goal in designing your base is defensive. In hero-focused games you build so as to explore and conquer. You need your base only as long as it makes more units to send into battle. In the enemy-focused games, the hero is still venturing forth to conquer, but he is trying to destroy you, and the wonderful, devious lair you’ve just constructed!

I find that the way you build your lairs is also fairly reflective of the kind of person you are. If you are a casual, cluttered person you tend to build any-old-how. Who needs halls and doors? Just clear out some cavern and section it off to training, or catering, or sleeping, or central operations. Perhaps sensitive stuff gets put behind some traps and doors, but just the most critical. If you are a serious, organized person you tend to plan before you build. You’ll measure out the area you have and parcel it out into individual rooms. The flow from area to area in your lair will have a logical and progressive feel. Each time you play, your base will get more and more organized. The most A-type (like me!) even resort to community tools to plan what you will build and where.

Even if you have to start from scratch every level, you wind up building the same sorts of lairs again and again. Sometimes the level restricts what you can do (space, or type limitations), but you try anyway. It just doesn’t feel right if you don’t. It is your home, after all, it should be familiar wherever you are. You do the same sort of things when you set up a new house, or apartment, or office. Despite the new layout, rooms need to be organized and arranged in a certain way before they begin to feel right.

It really flips the way you look at good versus evil, and their homes, on its head. Bad guys are really just trying to protect their homes from invasion. Those traps? Just trying to stop marauding heroes (like you) from stealing all their ill-gotten loot, and killing all their minions. True, their machinations to take over the world and turn it into a place of chaos and havoc are a problem (ethically). But they really just want to keep people from waltzing in and braking all their shit.

You want to build a home in a game? Be a bad guy. They get all the cool stuff anyway.


  1. I've spent about an hour (maybe two) playing The Sims with my wife. We're happy to make our own goals - I actually like the way you can make your dream home first and then that becomes your goal: "now try and earn enough to be able to live there!"

    But the core play of The Sims is so logistical that neither of us can bear it. However, I do think it's a great achievement to have made a game like this, even though it is not something that I myself want to play. :) At least it managed to attract a new audience. For that, it is worth lauding.

    After all, you, me and the rest of the gaming community have plenty of other titles to choose from. :)

    Take care!

  2. I also agree that the Sims failed to have a feeling of home.

    I really, really liked this post: explaining why Evil Genius and Dungeon Keeper 2 feel like home using my theory is going to be fun, especially since I felt roughly the same way. :)

  3. Chris - I too think that The Sims provides a wide spectrum of play. I'll claim the Penny Arcade Defense for this one, "Its just not for me". The whole genre is something of a neat toy, but not something I'm apt to play with.

    I felt the same sort of things looking at the Spore demo video that's floating around the net. My wife and I were amazed at the detail and level of control. The technology and range of play are quite astounding. I just don't think I could play with it for longer than 30 minutes without going buggy. Watch other people play, sure... just not me.

    Very cool stuff, just doesn't turn my crank.

  4. My explanation:

    It was fun!

  5. I agree with the article - I didn't feel engaged when playing the Sims. It seemed like a cool idea, but I just couldn't care less about buying stuff and going to work. I do that already!

    Ah, Dungeon Keeper!