How my Boss Key dungeon graphs work

I’ve had some messages from viewers asking me to share more information about the graph system I created for analysing Zelda dungeons in my YouTube series, Boss Keys (introduced in the Minish Cap episode).

People want to better understand how the graphs work, and also use the system to analyse other games or even make entirely new games. 

So... here’s how it all works! This post will be public.

The symbols

The graphs use the following symbols:

The entrance is where the dungeon starts. The boss is where it ends.

Red diamonds are small keys. Red squares are locked doors.

Orange diamonds are for the key item. Orange squares are the obstacles that the item lets you overcome. (Example: bombs, and walls that crumble when you blow them up)

Blue diamonds are for the boss key. Blue squares are for the boss door.

A green diamond with the letter A is some kind of switch, a green square is whatever barrier is removed when you hit that switch. (Example: hit a switch to make sand pour in and reveal a pathway).

If you have multiple switches, use another colour and the next letter (purple Bs, yellow Cs, pink Ds, etc).

Making the graph

Okay, so let’s make a graph for a very simple dungeon: “Gnarled Root Dungeon” from Oracle of Seasons. But first, we need to make a map of the dungeon, showing all of the key items described above.

It looks like this (I’ve omitted some unnecessary rooms). The dungeon’s key item is the ember seeds, which can light up torches to unlock doors.

First, we want to look at what Link can get to at the start of the dungeon. We only care about things he can physically reach, like doors he can touch but can’t unlock.

So at the start of Gnarled Root he can’t get through the locked door on the left because he doesn’t have a key, and he can’t get through the door in the north east because he can’t light the torch. But he can pick up the key in the room on the right.

We can represent this on the graph like so. A horizontal line comes out of the entrance node, and lines drop down to show you the things Link can do at this point. On the right is the key. Next to it is the locked door. The lock is always lower than the key.

We also have the obstacle, but we don’t know how far down to put it yet so we'll come back to it later.

Right now, we can see that if Link takes the key and uses it on the door, he can access more of the dungeon. This stuff, to be exact:

It’s actually the same as before. A locked door. An obstacle. And a key. 

We need to put a circular node underneath the first locked door, another horizontal line across, and then symbols underneath to show what Link can do. Again, he can use the key to unlock the door and get to….

The key item!

We can put this on the graph, and also move the obstacle squares down so they are lower than the the key item diamond. This shows that while Link can get to the two obstacles earlier in the dungeon, he can't actually get past them until later.

You can imagine the rest. The key item lets Link get the boss key, and get to the boss door. Which he unlock and get to the boss to finish the dungeon.

This was a very easy dungeon to graph out. It can get a bit tricky with lots of branching paths and multiple floors. But keep at it!

Reading the graph

So the best way to read these graphs is often to go backwards.

Like, we can’t get to the boss because the boss door is locked. And we can’t get the boss key because it’s behind some torches. And we can’t light them because we don’t have the ember seeds. And the seeds are behind a locked door so we need a key. But those things are behind a locked door so we need a key.

But beyond reading the graph like a set of GPS directions, we can also see other information.

Because the first line has three lines branching off, the dungeon must have branching paths, with some dead ends. And because the two orange squares are lined up horizontally, that means we can do them at the same time, showing that we have a choice (a very small one, but hey).

Plus, because the line to the boss door stretches back to the very start of the dungeon, it means we have to backtrack to the start of the area after we get the key item.

This is obviously a very simple dungeon, but you get the idea. 

And you can see how a super duper simple dungeon like Dragon Roost Cavern (Wind Waker), which has no backtracking, no choice, and no major branching paths.

Compares to a more complicated dungeon like Wind Temple (also Wind Waker), which branches out like crazy and is full of choice and backtracking.

Other important information

In Zelda, a small key can open any locked door (and the key is erased from existence after it is used). In certain Zelda games, this means that the player can choose where to use the key. 

My graphs don’t really have a great way of representing this (see the graph for Tail Cave from Link’s Awakening, above), unless you do the heavy lifting of going through the steps one by one. I'm open to any ideas for better showing this.

You don’t need to show any obstacles (orange squares) that are beyond the first instance of the obstacle because it’s irrelevant for showing the dungeon’s structure. The graph above, for example, is wrong. 

Dungeons that are more about manipulating architecture, time, water, etc can get very complicated. You can make up new symbols to help but sometimes everything just breaks and it’s better to just give up and cry. See: Sandship (Skyward Sword).

Downloads and usage info

You can download PNGs of all the symbols, plus a sample dungeon PSD file from Dropbox.

You may use this stuff however you like, for whatever purpose. Make new symbols or edit existing ones. Make money from it, I don’t care. Just gimme a shoutout somewhere, or at least don’t pretend that you made it. 

I will be releasing graphs of every Zelda dungeon at some point. But, for now, I'm just focusing on finishing Boss Keys.

Any questions, lemme know here or on Twitter!

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