Why all the dungeons in Oblivion look the same

I play a hell of a lot of Oblivion, even now. That game is awesome. It’s even better if you play through all the conversations with the sound off and your hand securely planted over the pasty pasty faces of the chattering NPCs.

But, jokes aside, I think that players can live with the ugly faces and the stupid voices. The only major failing I’ve ever really cared about in that game is that all the dungeons look the same. They do. Well– there are a few distinct varieties, yeah, but they’re awfully similar. You play through a dungeon and see the same landscape asset recycled five or six times; you play through another, and realize it’s practically the exact same as the first dungeon, except instead of being filled with imps, it’s filled with wolves. Or… vampires. Or armored skellingtons. So, yes. If you disagree with me, you’re bad and wrong, and we can never be friends.

Here’s why all those dungeons look the same.

1)      The designers ran out of ideas with the first one

You’ve got to admit, the first time you crawled into a dungeon in Oblivion, you thought it was the coolest shit ever. You found this big old ruined circular castle overgrown with weeds, all crumbling into the mud, directly across from the exit to the Imperial Sewers. And you thought: Forget that main quest—I’m going to explore this magic castle thingamabob! And so you did, and it was awesome. See, that experience was great. People worked hard on it. I dunno, maybe they worked on it for the whole development cycle? It was so cool that it used up all their brain essences, and they had nothing left. They brought the first dungeon over to the project lead, and he plays it, and goes: “Hot damn! This is fine stuff! What else you got?”

And the dungeon designer goes, “I got nothing.” This is it, man. He’s all used up, like Sparrowhawk from that Wizard of Earthsea book The Farthest Shore. It’s noble and epic, see. He’s slain the symbol of his divided soul and reclaimed the world for goodness and purity and all that jazz.

And so the project lead thinks for a few moments, then goes: “That’s cool. Because this is fine shit.” And so they sit around for the rest of the day smoking big old cigars and staring off into the distance and feeling awesome about themselves.

2)      They made others, but had to scrap them all

The Disneyland-, Lord of the Rings-, Star Wars-, NFL-, Capri Sun-, and Harry Potter- themed dungeons were awesome, but they all violated IP copyrights and so, of course, they had to go; so did the dungeon based on September 11th, and the one based on live footage of births. They had partnered with medical researchers to produce a dungeon based on the epidemic of childhood obesity which would teach players about the importance of exercise and healthy diet, but they figured that it might be a bit of a downer, and in the end they couldn’t figure out how to implement it tastefully.

3)      The dungeons aren’t all identical, idiot!

Honeybees see ultraviolet light. This allows them to navigate using the sun, even on overcast days; it also permits them to see identifying markings on certain species of flower. Indeed, the world of the honeybee is filled with depths of color and detail far beyond the capability of mere humans to perceive—theirs is a brighter world, and one more-varied. Truly, the honeybee is a marvelous creature. We ought to envy its life.

If you were to look at Oblivion with the powers of the honeybee’s ultraviolet sight, you would see such a gorgeous wonderland of variance, beauty, and striking design that your brain would flip upside-down in your skull and you would spend the rest of your days trying to eat roses.

4)      All the dungeons are reflections of the Platonic model of Dungeon contained in the mind of God

Oblivion’s dungeons are all reflections of the Ideal Dungeon, which exists only in the mind of God. According to the Greek philosopher Plato, all objects in the real world are merely pale shadows of perfect prototypes, called ‘universals.’ God manufactures these universals and stores them up in the holy warehouse of his mind, where they are preserved forever and made real to the outside universe via his magic. Like, all dogs are different, but we know that they’re dogs because the concept of ‘dog’ is eternal and born from the everliving consciousness of a God whose main purpose is to imagine and sustain the perfect images of things in his holy brain.

We recognize, in the imperfect things of this world, bare echoes of the shining ideals which underly them. We catch the merest glimpses, and see the overarching similarities that tie them together. In Oblivion, that sublime game, we see the underlying framework of the universe! Truly, there is but one Dungeon, and all these many dungeons are but blurred representations of it, cast from different lights, like flickering shadows on the wall of a cave.

Okay, okay! Okay. I’ll shut up.

But seriously. It’s a spiritual experience, man.

Leave a comment


  1. Love it. Have you ever played with the TES Editor? You can see that each dungeon is created using, literally, a tileset. And certain tiles match up with each other in certain ways. Then you can add props like tables and torches and then add NPCs. But really, it’s just like what you see in some of the old 8- and 16-bit RPGs of console eras past.

    I do agree with you though, that first dungeon is great. But I disagree that it makes the other dungeons bad. If one thing was good, and we know this is typical games theory, make it slightly different but in the same spirit and gamers will keep playing it over and over and over. (Hell, MMORPGs have proven that all you need to do is provide random rare loot drops and they’ll play the exact same dungeon a hundred times!)

    Now I want to go play that dungeon…

    • lauramichet

       /  July 14, 2010

      Absolutely correct. I wouldn’t still be playing Oblivion weekly if I actually hated the dungeons!

      I’ve never played with the TES editor– I don’t think the steam version of the game comes with it? Or maybe it does? I know the steam version of morrowind comes without all the neat stuff that was on that second disc.

      Would love to try it out, though.

      • One thing I would like to see a lot more (and would love to have seen in Oblivion) is the Diablo style randomly-generated dungeons. It just adds a whole new level (buh dum tish!) to the experience.

        Let’s see how the Torchlight MMO does it…

      • lauramichet

         /  July 14, 2010

        I played around a bit with the Torchlight editing program back when I was living in Dublin– university students over there do absolutely zero classwork, so I was very bored, and had way too much free time… however, at that time, there wasn’t much of a Torchlight modding community (aside from people who did neverending, poor-quality re-skins of the three main characters) and not much there for people looking for tips on how to use the map-editing tool. I gave it up because the scene felt empty. The program looked fairly friendly, though.

        Last time I was ever into level modding was back with the old Jedi Knight games, and even then I sucked at it.

      • lauramichet

         /  July 14, 2010

        oh, and thanks for the link!

      • You have any of the Half-Life 2 games, yeah? I recommend downloading the Source SDK and playing with the Hammer Level editor. There is a HUGE modding community and the editor is very well made (it is the actual tool that Valve uses in-house). There are great beginner tutorials at http://developer.valvesoftware.com and I think working on the Source engine is quite rewarding.

      • lauramichet

         /  July 14, 2010

        Hammer is actually next on my list after I’m done learning Game Maker 8, a project I began last week and, thanks to a list of common New England garden shrubs provided by my father, is going along quite well.

        The aim of the game is to identify different varieties of garden shrubbery.

      • As an instructor at a game development university, I wish you the best of luck. Shoot me an email if you have questions. :)

  2. I would be 308% more interested in Oblivion if they had been able to ship it with the Capri Sun-themed dungeon.

    • lauramichet

       /  July 14, 2010

      Yeah– all the imps would come riding in on surfboards and SPLASH into a huge posterboard with a grinning Wood Elf on it. Then a huge trailer would drive up and all the imps would get out and drink capri suns. then you’d chop their heads off. That’s how I remember those commercials.

      Also: wrote this post while drinking 4 Capri Suns.

      • That all sounds wonderful. Hopefully you’ll be able to make this vision a reality after you wrap up on your shrubbery game.

        I’m glad to hear they still make Capri Sun! You stabbed the straw into the bottom, of course?

      • It would be impossible to damage the liquid metal monsters until you covered your katana in Capri-Sun or it’s deadly competitor, Sunny-D.

        Or you could get their mums to pick them up for the youth league soccer game they’re late to. Multi-solution quest design!

  3. Laura. Your Plato explanation reminded me of something, er, longish I wrote ages ago. I can’t resist the urge to link, because I am just an imperfect shadow of the perfect prototype: http://www.hammerport.com/?p=53

    • Oh shit dude, I am suddenly compelled to trawl that site and read all of it. That’s some great writing.

    • lauramichet

       /  July 15, 2010

      awesome! I, too am about to start reading the whole site

    • Thank you for your kind words! But now I feel the urge to go back and start reviewing 3 years of writing with a spellchecker. Doesn’t WordPress have some sort of bulk Fix All Articles And Make More Shiny plugin?

      *phew* at least I fixed the chronological ordering on the archive links.

  4. I’m not sure how familiar you are with trends in the imp/wolf/vampire/armored skellington subcultures, but for a while in the early aughts there were some very popular architectural fads that swept the den/nest/sepulcher scene.

    The gloomy post-romano-gothic movement, now sniffed at by trendy Williamsburg imps, came into popularity as an ironic bit of retro kitsch that gained popularity quickly – due in no small part to nostalgia on the part of more traditionalist sects of horrifying monsters such as vampires. While unholy lairs built in this period may LOOK similar, and indeed are often decorated with many identical mass-produced components, there are key differentiating factors to look for: the intact roofs and noteworthy lack of upper windows in vamire nests, or the porous, rat-friendly walls preferred by skeletons.

    These homes sit mostly unused now, as apart from a few aging scenesters holding on to the past most creatures of the night have moved on to more modernist industrial dungeons. Werewolves, notably, have split to form their own subculture, embracing naturalistic dens built largely out of recycled material. Sadly, the unified cultural sensibility on display in Oblivion may now be gone for good.

  5. I mentioned it before, but you might want to check out the Oscuro’s Oblivion Overhaul mod. It deals with this and other such annoyances.

    • Morgon is quite convinced that all problems with Oblivion can and should be solved by that one particular mod.

    • Morgon – not played Oblivion yet, but it sits in my Steam list quietly. It wants to be installed.

      Is it best running Oblivion first time as is – or would you recommend installing this obesity-curing mod for a first-timer?

      • I don’t see any reason to play Oblivion as-is at first, especially if you’ve played any past Elder Scrolls games. OOO makes it substantially harder though, so be warned there.

        Don’t use the bundled mods that come with OOO though — Enhanced Economy is the modern version of Living Economy, and the others have been updated.

  6. I plan on getting Oblivion in the future and using a crapload of mods so that it’s extra-fun. Of course I’ll go for OOO or whatever first, but I guarantee that I’ll be using that Devil May Cry combat mod in no time.

    Maybe they copied their dungeon ideas from MegaMan Legends? It made sense there since all of the ruins were connected… AH! Bethesda obviously didn’t have enough time to add the tunnels between the dungeons! Poor, poor Bethesda…

  7. I remember after I finished the first dungeon and was so excited to “crawl” through the next one, hoping that it would be even better than the masterpiece of a dungeon I had just exited. At first, I thought I had just found a back door to the original dungeon, but it was repopulated with new baddies. Much to my dismay though, they were all the same. I wept silent tears of unsatisfaction…

  8. pupin

     /  September 4, 2010

    ever thought this is like a 5gb game and all?

  9. christuusgnosis

     /  December 25, 2011

    I was looking for a tutorial on creating those all very similar to each other tilesets of dungeon pieces. I landed here.

    This is funny.

    This is certainly funnier than the tutorials on importing static meshes with nifscope and injecting them into .esm files after tweaking crappy fiddly things until you accidentally toast your oblivion install. Way funnier.

    You wonder if all the designers live in grey rooms with misty views too.

  10. christuusgnosis

     /  December 25, 2011

    you could mix your pastimes
    and create better looking shrubs for those boring dungeon entrances.
    Do your part to end the bleakness which the geck/tes editor seems to cast upon everything.

    someone please fix the sun too.
    thx for the laugh
    more meshes to go look at…

  11. haha, now this is the site I should have gone to first, yep thats all good stuff, yet one of the most impratont things in a campaign I believe is what makes the time you spend setting up the game worthwhile is when the PCs really get into the game and character, letting real world thoughts turn into inventive ideas for what their PCs will do. They need to have reason in a campaign, reason to fight and to travel or quest*(I use this word gravely; to go and slay a goblin den, well that is not much if any of a quest, though stopping the dwarf settlement from invading the elf’s forest, thats a quest!), a need to be stronger, maybe a goal, or item to abtain. I base it off of who I know will be there that week, so that I would know that the mage and cleric and her brother the blind monk will meet, which leads to a lot of last minute work. A lot of PCs my friends create do not have much basis for action, so I can only make a list of names and groups and towns with a note or two by each and hope I can counter whatever idea they get, even if they end up being a group of bards they might end up raising an army (Its possible). Its fun no matter the time it takes. I think thats my two cents people. Now, to see if I can’t find a decent name generator.

  12. xello

     /  August 10, 2014

    If you ever have like an hour to spare cuz this thing is LONG then i recommend http://blog.joelburgess.com/2013/04/skyrims-modular-level-design-gdc-2013.html

  13. Bebop

     /  August 14, 2016

    The reason the dungeons look so repetitive is because there was really only one dungeon designer compared to the 7-11(depending on what you consider work) that got to work on world design. True it would have been more interesting with more variety but give the guy some credit since he only had just over 200 dungeons to work on.

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