Zelda Style Dungeons and the Stories They Tell
I've been replaying the classic Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, this time with a focus on what I can take away from its game design. Mark Brown's (almost equally as classic) Boss Key's already summaries a ton of great lessons, which I wont rehash here. However, one thing that he doesn't really touch on is how dungeons can tell different stories through their design. It's been on my mind for a while now, lets talk about it!
Delve and Loot
The most basic story a zelda style dungeon tells is the classic "Delve and Loot" tale, probably inspired by classic Dungeons and Dragons. In this "story" you enter the dark dungeon/temple/cave, find the boss, kill 'em, then acquire some new piece of loot. I don't have a lot to say about this, but I feel the need to mention it since its the one most zelda dungeons tell. One interesting thing to think about is how even though "story through design" is basically non-existent, its enough to keep you engaged and playing. Just goes to show gameplay really is king!
Next up is the dungeon that originally got me thinking about this whole thing, Ocarina of Time's Fire Temple. In it, you're tasked with rescuing the Goron townspeople who have been locked away throughout the level. What's neat about this design is that it creates, dare I use this phrase, ludonarrative harmony. By that I mean the story (find and rescue the prisoners) and gameplay (explore the whole dungeon) unionize together. Now the fire temple kind of undercuts this by really only offering a single order in which to save the Gorons, so your exploration is gated to (mostly) one path. Ocarina of Time actually does take this idea in non-linear way with its "Gerudo's Fortress", where you can find and rescue the 4 Carpenters in any order... although the fortress has its own problem of offering little to no classic Zelda puzzle solving.
Its interesting to see how future Zelda games developed this "Prison Break" design. In the Wind Waker you attempt twice to free your kidnapped sister from the Forsaken Fortress. The first time you must sneak around most of the baddies (since Link is fairly weak at this point in the game), but later when you come back fully powered up you can just cut through those enemies. The way you explore the dungeon tells a different story!
Twilight Princess's Forest Temple is setup almost exactly like OoT's Fire temple. However this time the monkeys you rescue end up acting as a key and helping you progress deeper in to the temple. In the fire temple each Goron cell simply contains a chest with a key, so from a gameplay perspective there's really no difference. However its interesting how combining the rescue and key together changes the whole experience and creates a stronger story.
Partners in Crime
The 3rd story through design I noticed was in Ocorina's Jabu-Jabu’s Belly. In it you're tasked with rescuing the Zora Princess, but what makes this different from the "prison break" is that this princess explores the dungeon with you! You can pick her up and take her into different rooms, and she helps you solve a bunch of puzzles. She acts more like a unique partner exploring and working with you. Link's Awakening's Eagle Tower first explored this idea with a metal ball you had to carry around, but future Zelda games really took this idea and ran with it. The Wind Waker has 2 dungeons with unique partners who even more so worked with Link as partners, offering their own unique abilities. This design in my opinion makes dungeons much less lonely, creating a completely different feeling. The story is no longer "delve and explore", its "we're going through this together".
There are a bunch of other dungeons that use this idea. Phantom Hourglass's Goron Temple has a Goron helping link out, with the two able to be more separated throughout the dungeon then in previous games. Spirit Tracks has Zelda herself exploring with you (albeit as a Spirit) throughout the whole game, though she really only interacts with a couple dungeons. There are probably others I'm forgetting.
Legend of Zelda being the influence it is, there are a bunch of "zelda-likes" that have dungeons with interesting stories to tell. Here's a couple that come to mind:
Capcom's Studios Okami loves to make dungeons "lived in". The same monsters you fight act as characters within these dungeons that you talk to, sometimes help, but probably ultimately kill. This "baddies are characters" idea is everywhere, including even the lock and key which have faces & emotions & really don't want to meet. It also informs how the actual spaces are structured, with you running through places like monster kitchens.
Ubisoft's Beyond Good and Evil ties its overall "investigative journalism" story into its design. It does this by literally having you search through the dungeons for incriminating evidence on an evil corporation. The more stealth oriented puzzles, although frustrating, I think plays into this nicely. You're here for the scoop, not to fight.
Welp.. thats all the examples I can think of right now, maybe down the road I'll find enough content to write a part 2.