In 1997 Bullfrog Studios, under the direction of Peter Molyneux, released a real-time strategy game called Dungeon Keeper. In this game, the player takes on the role of an evil dungeon master in order to attract minions, build lairs and mazes, and cast magical spells in an effort to thwart heroic do-gooders. As someone who historically plays ‘the good guy’ in any role playing game, Dungeon Keeper proved to be a really fun excuse to break my routine and try on a different persona.
The game goes to tedious lengths in order to fully immerse the player in the role of a malevolent keeper. The mouse cursor has been transformed into a hand which is used to torture prisoners, direct spells, disarm traps, and slap around minions. The tasks include fighting off waves of adventuring heroes, assaulting rival keepers, and building the biggest ‘pet dungeon’. Due to these elements, Dungeon Keeper is a form of constrained mimicry. It tries to force the player into a role, and depending on the person playing this can have various results. For example when I first began playing, I tried earnestly to build efficient dungeons and keep my creatures happy. I wouldn’t torture prisoners and I never slapped my minions. Eventually I grew to play the game the way it was intended, but my actions at this point had grown above the game context (i.e. I slapped my minions to make them work faster, or tortured prisoners for their information). Still, Dungeon Keeper offered a far different experience that I (even as a pretty avid video gamer) had experienced to date. And as Huizinga describes (p. 103), this is a fundamental aspect of play; it offered something outside my realm of the ordinary and forced me into role play.
There are a number of other gameplay elements that lead to Dungeon Keeper’s immersion. The creatures that inhabit the dungeons have their own ecology, and react in different ways to each other. For instance, various creature pairs would dislike living or working together such as flies and spiders or vampires and warlocks. If prisoners were left too long in their cells, they would eventually die and become skeletons; or if left in the torture chamber, they would become ghosts. These rules, which primarily serve the genre of the game, I feel add a lot to the immersion. As Caillois put it, “Rules themselves create fictions” (p. 127). Just as actors must govern their actions while acting, players are subjected to an agency that too appears to serve no purpose beyond embellishing the aesthetics of the experience. These are valuable constraints to have in any stylized game.
This unnecessary constraint is also a crucial element in Suits’ definition. He argues that the addition of such rules provide the framework for games. Given, his examples trend more towards practical limitation (such as race car drivers abiding by the track or golfers using a club), Dungeon Keeper still manages to fulfill his definition (p. 190) of a game.
Huizinga, J. (1938). Nature and significance of play as a cultural phenomenon. The Game Design Reader, 96-119.
Caillois, R. (1958). The definition of play and the classification of games. The Game Design Reader, 122-155.
Suits, B. (1978). Construction of a Definition. The Game Design Reader, 173-191.