Dovaanas is a dungeon created for The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim for a university course as part of my game design studies. It was created by myself, under the supervision of industry professionals, and focuses strongly on different environmental storytelling techniques. The project lasted for 28 weeks, which includes time for research, concept development, creation of the dungeons as well as several rounds of iterations, and concluded with playtests using surveys.

The challenge of Dovaanas was to tell a compelling story without using any type of written or verbal communication, instead relying only on environmental storytelling. I also only wanted to use existing assets, which I soon discovered made for a combination of restrictions which made my task extremely challenging.

The story of Dovaanas revolves around a single, intelligent dragon. Long ago, the people of the dungeon revered the dragon as a diety and behaved like a cult, occassionally sacrificing prisoners or one of their own to the dragon. The dragon died inside the dungeon, but remains as a reanimated skeleton and attacks the player when they find it. Hidden through small plot points throughout the dungeon are hints towards the dragons demise; one of the cult members revolted against the established traditions and killed the dragon’s baby. The dragon killed the inhabitants of the dungeon in its rage, while also perishing itself.

From this short story sprouted several locations I wanted to show:

  • The sacrificial room, with the sacrifical pit as its focus, as well as room for prisoners, spectators and the ruler of the cult.
  • The dragon’s den, including an exit for the dragon, a small nest and a Word Wall (a type of treasure and the player’s reward).
  • Several common rooms, as well as functional rooms like bedrooms and a pharmascitic’s room, to show how everyday life of the cult was influenced by the dragon.
  • Next, these three layers of the dungeon’s narrative are shown through three different techniques of environmental storytelling. These storytelling techniques are based on the work of Henry Jenkins, titled Game Design as Narrative Architecture. After playtesting, each technique was compared with eachother and evaluated, with the help of my own experiences during development. These three types of storytelling were:

  • The Sacrificial Room: Confrontational environmental storytelling (based on “evocative spaces”)
    The room features a single, central setpiece, which is built to very strongly tell one plot point. The rest of the room only serves to strenghten this plot point, and features as little other narrative sub-stories as possible.
  • The Dragon’s Den: Subtle environmental storytelling (based on “embedded narratives”)
    The focus of this room is the dragon and the player’s fight with it, but if the player explores the room on their own accord they learn about the room’s story.
  • The Common Rooms: Layered environmental storytelling (based on “enacting stories”)
    This type of storytelling does not feature one single setpiece or plotpoint, or even a single room. Instead, the designer only uses small hints spread throughout. Attentive players will learn about this area’s story by moving through it and reading the environment.

    Overall, Dovaanas was very well received and graded highly by my peers. Both the sacrificial room and the dragon’s den were a success in terms of gameplay and aesthetics, with both types of storytelling giving valuable results. The common rooms and its layered environmental storytelling were the most difficult to execute on and are the weakest part of the level. Upon evaluation, I realized that this type of environmental storytelling in actually the most commonly used technique in other games; however, because of the nature of Skyrim’s modular level building and due to the restrictions of the project, it was not a success. In other words, there was simply not enough variation in props to use to test this technique well.

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