Wednesday 9 November 2011

Why Does A Dungeon Look Like A Dungeon?

Everywhere from the Zork logo to Hirst Arts adventure scenery, the standard architecture of a "dungeon" - meaning, underground medieval fantasy adventure setting - is:

  • walls of regular or irregular gray stone blocks, anywhere from shoebox size to two or three times that
  • wooden doors fitted with iron hinges and reinforcing bars
  • floors of gray flagstone
  • torches in wall sconces

More on CRPG dungeons
It's shorthand for our conception of what a fiendish antique maze stretching many, many levels underground would look like. But what does it really represent?

Certainly, high medieval castle architecture used those big stone blocks for aboveground walls, as we see from Alnwick Castle in Northumberland and similar fortresses. When delving into earth, it might also be a good idea to reinforce the walls with stone, right? Except if the idea is just to reinforce and insulate and make it look neat and nice, then your typical medieval cellar made do with much smaller, brick-like stonework, as seen in this undercroft in Norwich.

Or the stonework might be plastered over, or it might be made of bricks, or packed earth might suffice.

Another problem for the "dungeon look" comes when, digging down, you hit bedrock. Granted, in agricultural plains this might not happen for a hundred feet or so, but castles, wizards' towers, and other such dungeon-toppers tend to be built on hills with rock not far below. In that case the dungeon tunnels are best dug directly into the rock, faced and decorated by planing the rock itself. There's no need to emulate the look of Garden State Brickface by carving fake mortar crannies into the stone.

Could it just be that the big-block idea comes from artists who wanted to draw fewer lines in their medieval settings? Maybe, but there's another reason an architect might want to divert those hard-to-move, yard-long stone blocks from building the important castle walls to facing the underground cellars.

If you are keeping prisoners down there - you know, in your dungeon - then it's important to make the blocks big, so it's hard to get past them to the diggable clay beyond.

So the answer to "Why does a dungeon look like a dungeon?" may very well be: "Because it's a dungeon..."


  1. I think the most important reason that this occurs is not for a historical or logical reason, but for an artistic one.

    If the dungeon had solid walls, it would be very hard for the eye to distinguish distance and perspective. And early computer representation systems could not do anything more complex than simple lines - textured surfaces are right out.

    That said, modern games like oblivion and skyrim have a variety of dungeon type areas that are far removed from the brick and mortar model. And for a game like legend of grimrock, the point is to explore that type of maze.

  2. the limits of procedural texturing is definitely one reason. I'd also cite 50s and 60s era Three Musketeers and Robin Hood films as major culprits, where yes, they were depicting dungeons. "Carved from the living rock" is as big a cliche in fantasy writing as ashlar stone is in movies, but it tends not to play well on film, for the reasons -C cites. Ashlar stone is also a visible sign of wealth and well understood as such: that's why Gotham was made out of it - it represented the civic pride of the Robber Barons. If the Overlord can afford to make his dungeons out of it, he must truly be Invincible.

    ...actually, that's an entertaining thought: there is no better place on Earth for grabbing hyperreal Disneyfied dungeon textures than I-495, through North Bergen and Union City, or the George Washington Bridge/Cross Bronx Expwy interchange (which offers disorientating fun times even on google maps). It's quite possible that our collective consciousness of Hyperborea owes more to Calvert Vaux and Robert Moses than it does to any kind of European carcereal grandeur.

  3. D'oh. That GWB/XBE link should go here. Clicking around takes you up and down levels, through solid walls, across highways... Google maps really wasn't made to deal with 3 dimensions.

  4. Thanks, and especially richard for some very perceptive comments (ashlar stone is also easy to fake in set design). Another thing to remember about the faux-gothic New York architecture is it was built at a time when the Old World was still the arbiter of global taste, so showed aspirations to historical heft as well as grandeur.