Jay 'Rampant Coyote' Barnson has written another one of his posts dedicated to role-playing game design and this time analyzes modern dungeon design and how it compares to older classic titles, using the recent and extremely successful The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, its predecessor Daggerfall, Dragon Age: Origins and Ultima Underworld all as examples. As it turns out, modern dungeons are fairly linear:
RPG level design is a funky thing particularly with good ol' traditional dungeons. The linear dungeons of Skyrim are awfully convenient, and in all honesty may be a trifle more (realistic) (does that ever matter?) than the sprawling dungeon complexes of many classic games. It's easy to avoid getting lost in them the map screen is usually only necessary to see if you missed a corner or closet somewhere where there may be some additional loot.
But they do rub me the wrong way a little. I like my big, sprawling dungeon complexes. And I do like to harp on having choices. However, a choice between a door on the left or a door on the right or whether you take the left or right branch in a corridor is a lousy choice. Without some kind of knowledge about the difference between the two (or more) choices, it's really no choice at all. Those are not interesting choices, and by themselves are probably worthy of being '˜streamlined out.'
The difference with some (not all, and not even (most)) of the mid-to-late classic old-school RPGs was that the levels were not simply maps of isolated encounters. They weren't all actually linear designs separated by keys, nor were they just sprawling random encounters arranged randomly. Good level design had all the pieces of the level come together to tell a bigger story or form a larger puzzle. Maybe I'm just looking through +2 Goggles of Rose Tint, but I seem to recall some levels of certain games (I'm specifically thinking Eye of the Beholder and Ultima Underworld series, but there were no doubt others) where this felt like it was the case. While the first time you were presented with the choice of going left, right, or straight may have felt pretty meaningless, they all tied together somewhat both narratively (is that a word?) and mechanically.