Appreciation for Genshin Impact’s Dragonspine Mountain

in

Occasionally I post some social media threads on game design. Some of them are worth saving here. – Max

So Dragonspine Mountain in Genshin Impact is a masterfully designed open world exploration zone and I just want to gush about it a little bit.

Some background: Most of GI has been a modern open world: you can go anywhere, nothing blocks your path, you have a lot of agency and and freedom to investigate whatever piques your interest. Generally you’re feeling emotions like curiosity.

Dragonspine is very different.

It’s inhospitable. Hostile. There’s a cold mechanic: if you stray from heat sources for too long, you will freeze to death, and faster in windy areas.

There are barriers to progress, and steep walls that you can climb – but it’s dangerous and you must plan around heat sources.

The actual environment is a large mountainous area, with a central peak but lots of dips, valleys and pathways surrounding it. There are areas where, if you fall, you may lose traversal progress – or end up somewhere without a heat source, frantically looking for shelter.

Dangerous foes abound. Some you haven’t seen before, with new mechanics to learn. They’re punishing, higher lvl than the surrounding areas. And because the environment itself is dangerous and a bit more constrained than other parts of the game, you can’t easily disengage.

They picked an emotional tone: inhospitable, exposed. They wanted players to feel the contrast between safe shelter and the uncaring elements. They reinforced this with careful design of the combatants, the cold mechanic, the weather mechanics, the layout.

But… it’s just NOT punishing. It’s also tantalizing to explore, along many axes. Narratively, there are NPCs that warn you of the dangers, stress how it’s largely unexplored. There are quests that send you in, missing expeditions. A variety of emotional tones and motivations.

As you explore, you start finding evidence of the history, environmental storytelling, more of it the higher or deeper you go. A question is posed: what happened here?

You want to find out more. You imagine the novel finds, monsters, loot, areas, and stories you’ll encounter.

There are many things to find or achieve that aren’t quests, but instead things you need to spot in the environment. These Warm Seelies, for instance: they’re heat sources, and if you follow them they’ll give you a chest and create a new permanent heat source:

You can also find new warp points, complete puzzles to open doors or remove barriers. Achieving these goals feels like conquering the inhospitable mountain: you’re increasing your range of movement, your ability to move safely or quickly. Feeling more invested in the place

In the other GI areas I’ve seen so far, these kind of incidental environmental goals are valuable as LOOT sources, mostly. In Dragonspine they feel like lifelines, and achieving them changes the emotional tenor of the environment.

And of course, as you do all this, you’re also getting more powerful and learning the mechanics of the enemies around you, so you’re conquering the mountain via skill and power, too.

I’ve talked a lot about how the Divine Beast dungeons in Zelda: Breath Of The Wild felt out of place, and noticeably broke from the game’s design philosophies. I think Hyrule Castle was a prototype for a new kind of dungeon that meshes better with the game.

I think Dragonspine is a strong 2nd example: it’s an area that embraces traversal freedom, gives a strong sense of exploration, while still feeling dangerous and like a space you progress through while exploring.

In the past I saw GI’s clunky combat, quest waypoints, loot-driven motivations, aggressive gacha upsells, and as a result I thought it had had only superficial similarities to Breath of the Wild.

I was wrong. It’s got some of the same underlying world design principles, and Dragonspine demonstrates that well.