I'm in the process of creating a prototype for a 3d space game (3rd person). My question is this:

How can a 3d space game have Zelda-like (or similar) dungeons in open space?


  1. Space has no walls (obviously) - how to restrict movement?

  2. No movement restrictions - no doors.

  3. No doors, no interesting mechanics of opening them.

  4. No backtracing (for example after acquiring new power at the end that enables access to a place at the beginning of the dungeon).

More info: The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages and Seasons' dungeon design - to see how some Zelda games do it.

The dungeon should be in 1 star system.

The EVE Online example is a good one, in the sense that it has been done before and it works, but for me it always somehow felt like cheating because in EVE you can travel anywhere... but not to a pocket of space right behind the dungeon gate. Even if you had a bookmark there.

And since my game will most likely feature even more free-form travel then EVE (think Elite: Dangerous) then what I'm saying is I'm looking for something that could improve that can be found in EVE.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Eve Online does it by having "warp gates" that send you very far away to the 'next room'. \$\endgroup\$
    – Vaillancourt
    Oct 2, 2016 at 14:17
  • \$\begingroup\$ I've added an edit based on your comment. \$\endgroup\$
    – Engos
    Oct 2, 2016 at 14:33
  • \$\begingroup\$ The first game that comes to my mind is the Dead Space Series. They've implemented sections of gameplay which puts the main character out in the vast space but unfortunately I cannot figure out how to Google for one of those videos and keep getting results for scientific papers, lol :-( \$\endgroup\$
    – MonkeyZeus
    Oct 3, 2016 at 14:08
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Freelancer would often restrict movement with fields of Space Mines. If your movement is precise enough you could do structures with tunnels a la Descent... \$\endgroup\$
    – SethWhite
    Oct 3, 2016 at 16:15
  • \$\begingroup\$ @MonkeyZeus Youtube Markiplier. He's got an awesome Deadspace let's play. \$\endgroup\$
    – Krythic
    Oct 3, 2016 at 22:53

10 Answers 10


Level designers I've spoken with often lament how difficult it is to create interesting challenges & spaces in open areas, so you've definitely set a hard problem for yourself.

That said, the core structure of something like a Zelda dungeon is often about finding a number of MacGuffins (items required to progress) or switches (locations where you modify some dungeon state) in a particular sequence. And so even without walls, you can still introduce structure via the dependency graph of these actions.

Let's run through an arbitrary example (which may not directly align to your gameplay or fiction):

  • The player wants to get to a warp gate to go to the next space sector (something to act as an end goal, you can replace this with whatever...)

    • Because there's no walls, they can just fly up to it, so we have it begin in a powered-off state to put some challenge in their way.
  • To activate it they'll need to turn on three power-beaming stations around the map.

  • One station is missing an energy crystal, so they need to go to a nearby asteroid field to collect one.

  • Another station has a turret that keeps you from getting close. The player needs to go back to the asteroid field and tow an asteroid they can use as a shield.

  • The final station is damaged, but the spare parts to fix it are in locked chests at the other two stations. The player collects a maintenance key at this station that lets them access the chests.

  • spare parts collected, they can return to the third station, repair it, then head to the warp gate to escape (and maybe fight the space monster boss lured to it by all the activity)

This lets us construct a reasonably interesting dependency graph without a hard wall that blocks the player anywhere, and gives them cause to re-visit a few previously explored areas in a new context.

Diagram illustrating dependency relationships in the scenario above.

Here the variety of interactions has to take up some of the slack left by variety of spatial layouts & approach, since we have fewer tools in open space to control the latter. (Though that doesn't preclude you from introducing constrained spaces at key sites along the graph, like big space stations or wrecks the player needs to navigate into through a controlled number of doors - I avoided such cases above just to show you can get interesting dependency relationships without always going to interior spaces)

The other side of this challenge is landmarking. It's extremely easy to get lost and disoriented in space. If the player is to feel like they're purposefully solving challenges, rather than just chasing a waypoint, you'll need to give them tools to understand where they are and let them plan.

In the example above, we led the player to the asteroid field landmark to find the energy crystal, which ensured they knew it was there when they later needed an asteroid (or vice versa). Coming back to a recognizably familiar landmark like that, with a new purpose in mind, can really help a scenario feel like a space the player is exploring and mastering, rather than a sequence of arbitrary roadblocks.

Consider using things like gassy nebulae, debris fields, space stations, planets, etc. to give players these kinds of landmarks they can recognize.

  • 7
    \$\begingroup\$ You've not only answered my question but also given me a very nice framework to use as a base point to design other elements - thank you. \$\endgroup\$
    – Engos
    Oct 2, 2016 at 18:57
  • \$\begingroup\$ This seems to describe a game called Everspace... \$\endgroup\$
    – Nelson
    Oct 3, 2016 at 7:40
  • \$\begingroup\$ Dead Space 3 had a good example of this - essentially several floating ships in space which you had to complete certain tasks on. You had to jump between the ships via a transport shuttle in order to complete the section. There were also some sections outside the ship on the hull which were cool. nextgenxreview.files.wordpress.com/2013/02/ds3_05102012_q.jpg \$\endgroup\$
    – Charleh
    Oct 3, 2016 at 15:54
  • \$\begingroup\$ Descent 3 had these elements, as did the subsequent Freespace series. \$\endgroup\$
    – nijineko
    Oct 5, 2016 at 21:45

One thing you could do is place derelict space ships and space stations into the game. When large enough they can be explored with a small one-person space ship. Puzzles requiring backtracking can be implemented by alien machines which need to be activated in order to open paths.

Another option are large asteroids with elaborate cave systems in them to explore. These might also contain derelict alien artifacts or abandoned mining equipment the player needs to interact with in order to progress. You might want to take a look at the Descent series for inspiration.

When your player controls a space ship which is far larger than a one-person fighter, you could build dungeons from asteroid fields or hazardous nebula which can only be navigated through narrow paths. Yes, this is extremely implausible from a hard-science perspective, but it's a sci-fi trope which is so common it's usually accepted by the audience. Backtracking can be enabled by having the player acquire weapons which can destroy certain kinds of asteroids or protection equipment which allows them to pass through certain kinds of nebula clouds.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Thank you for contributing. The last part is something that I will definitely think about. As for the fist 2: they are definitely good, I even thought about something similar, but with this question I was looking something that could be done in open space. Could you share more ideas that could work such environment? \$\endgroup\$
    – Engos
    Oct 2, 2016 at 14:39
  • \$\begingroup\$ I like the derelict space station idea. If it's large enough (think of Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama it may work very well. \$\endgroup\$
    – Rodia
    Oct 4, 2016 at 13:09

If you are creating a fly-around-free in outer space as if you where in an airplane game you are almost certainly bending science so far that the game is fantasy.

So make up spacey things that act as barriers. So long as they are spacey, you should be fine.

Asteroid fields so dense that you'll be destroyed going through them, with a path through it that is free of debris. Maybe that path is described through nav beacons, maybe it is kept clear by mining robots, whatever.

Or nebula. Or swarms of planets. Or space geese. Or force fields. Or lazer beams in a gravitationan nexus. Or space grues.

All science fantasy, but so are the engines of the spaceship used in every space-like game I've ever played short of KSP.

If you want technobabble (why don't see seem them now?), take whatever handwavium you use to make your engines and tie them to the new space fantasy elements.

The engines used to travel around space as if you where in an airplane (your thrusters) cause temporal anomolies / gravitational eddies / random babble. That changes the nature of space from the current "well, really, nothing here" to whatever random excuse you need to make "dense" terrain for your gameplay.

So, suppose a gravitational "knot" that has caused a asteroid belt cluster with nebula.

The 3d maze you can navigate through is the first wave. You have to go to various spots in the maze, defeat various foes. (The maze is a home for pirates, or whatever foe you want players to fight. And maybe space monsters, because that is spacey. The space monsters can have magic gravitational powers.)

There can be parts with dense asteroid fields or whatever. Picking up navigational solutions to these swarms can let you fly through them. Or upgrading your ship with a streamlined "frictionless" surface can let you penetrate some "nebulas". Or narrow choke points defended by automated defences or "force fields" that you have to deactivate.

You could so this on a large scale. Suppose that the disaster that resulted from the activation of the experimental reactionless drive destroyed entire planets and shoved the debris into a shell, locked there by the gravitational knot. (Enough technobabble?). This was later used as weapons, destroying planet after planet. Only some planets have survived, and since then a defence has been developed. The existing shells are still out there, and civilization has taken hold in them. Navigating between them is free-space, but in them it is a set of 3d maze like paths.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Thank you, quite few ideas to use with the framework @DMGregory provided. I also like the point about the technobabble :) \$\endgroup\$
    – Engos
    Oct 3, 2016 at 16:21

After the OP's reply to my earlier answer, I now understand the question better. :) So, in "open space", you need a reason not to go in a certain direction. If you want to recreate walls, all you need is a HUD representation of hazards and a reason for the player not to cross into the hazardous areas (or at least to have some risk of harm in those areas), and you've got your walls. They don't really exist, but cross them and you die instantly.

Asteroid fields in reality aren't very dense. However if you're orbiting a planet/moon/asteroid, a small bit of fraction-of-C shrapnel intersecting your orbit could really spoil your day (see Gravity). Your HUD could represent this as a tube circling the planet with a "ball" in the tube showing where the shrapnel is. Now you've got a "hazard wall" which they're best avoiding, as well as a HUD representation of instant death coming towards them.

Lasers don't have a range as such - what they have is a certain amount of decoherence over distance. The further you are from them, the less each hit will hurt, and there'll be some range where it doesn't really have any effect. So each laser emplacement has a solid sphere of "you die here", shading out to nothing as you get out of its ability to hurt. Again, you've got a hazard wall, this time deepening in hazard as you get closer.

For all anti-ship weapons, you can't be hit if they don't know you're there; and as the king of a space castle you wouldn't want your death rays frying your own ships by accident. So every emplacement will have a detection threshold for where it can identify incoming ships and consider engaging them. If you're trying to sneak into somewhere, your HUD will need to show all the detection "walls" which you need to avoid. For bonus tactical points, your ship might get quieter if you turn off shields/weapons, so you can sneak in more easily if you're completely defenseless when someone spots you.

Or conversely, if you're defending an asteroid against incoming enemies, then you might want to not go outside the HUD representation of your emplacement's lasers. Your emplacement might not be able to shoot down the enemy ships itself, but it could still take out anti-ship missiles. So within laser range of the asteroid you have some protection against missiles; outside laser range you're a lot more at risk.

All of this is going to limit where you can go. I have to be clear though, this will limit where you can go in a 3D way. Anyone who played games in the 90s will remember the difference between Doom and Descent, when suddenly you had to remember maps in 3D with no obvious up or down. Don't fall into Wrath of Khan's "two-dimensional thinking" trap.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Your idea with lasers + threshold + HUD indicators is a very solid one. I already see how I can use it combination with @DMGregory answer. Thank you. \$\endgroup\$
    – Engos
    Oct 4, 2016 at 15:27

As I don't know anything about your game, I don't know if this answer fits your problem; but I will give it a try. You can make a level a complete star system (or even a galaxy depending on the size of your gameplay). From one star system to another you cannot travel to the next, because there are lightyears between them. So you can make the player fly "out of the level" and simply never arriving anywhere, because it would simply take years to arrive somewhere.

The doors which enable you to get to another level aka star system is then a black hole/warp point/whatever fits which enables instant travel. If it is technology based you can insert a mechanic to act like keys to activate.

If this is too big for the scope of what you have planned you could go down to a level being the orbit of one planet. The player could not be able to leave this orbit because the gravity is too strong. A door could then be either a new technology, special fuel or the same portals from above. With the latter two options backtracking should be easy to integrate.

Hope one of these ideas helps you.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Thank you for your answer, the 2nd part especially, I've edited my question to supply more details. \$\endgroup\$
    – Engos
    Oct 2, 2016 at 14:34
  • \$\begingroup\$ So what are you thinking about now? The both answers gave you some food for thought, what is still open? :) \$\endgroup\$ Oct 2, 2016 at 14:47

Restrict movement with resources

Rather than trying to actually block the path of the ship, just make sure they need to have access to resources frequently to keep going.

  • They need to refuel uranium/food/water frequently, or perhaps even gather different fuel components in a specific order
  • There is an infrastructure which provides laser beams, whose energy they need most of the time to power the engines
  • They need to consider their angle to the sun to keep the solar sails/panels working properly.

If you don't want to change your whole game for this, just introduce some 'problems' in certain areas. For example space radiation that disables regular engines, or a crappy wormhole that squeezes you a bit on arrival.

Additonal random ideas

  • They need the gravity of objects to change course (or perhaps even tag along with a comet to move at all)
  • They are getting chased by baddies and need to lose them by manouvering near obstacles
  • In an open area, they still need to manouvre carefully to avoid radiation overdose

The space sim Freelancer had trade lanes - these offered fast travel between points of interest within a star system.

freelancer game map

Note the light-blue lines are trade lanes

It's an interesting mechanic; while players are usually unrestricted and can fly anywhere, taking the trade lanes is much more attractive, as you get around in a fraction of the time - from memory, it takes 10-20 minutes to cross the breadth of a typical map without the lanes. So in practice, the trade lanes create a map layout, which you can use to lead your players to landmarks, points of interest, and even risky situations.


Take Deadspace as an example. The game had open space environments, however the areas were restricted in the form of clustered "debris fields". If you venture too far out there wouldn't be any oxygen tanks, thus the player would die. It looked large, but it was restricted to linear ideal paths.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ That's actually very interesting idea, restricting movement by putting essential supply only where we want the player to go. \$\endgroup\$
    – Engos
    Oct 4, 2016 at 15:32

Depending on the % of realism you want, just solve the problem and actually do walls. An old space RTS i know (Conquest: Frontier Wars) is doing just that (battle occurs on 2D plane). They invented streams of whatever science stuff who justs act as impenetrable walls (no light of sight and no passing through).


Warhammer 40K invented the "space hulk", and a game of that name which is basically a rip-off of Aliens. Doors are kind of optional there - what matters is lots of creepy corridors in a derelict (but not uninhabited!) drifting spaceship. This is very much a "dungeon crawl", but in a sci-fi setting with a sci-fi justification for why it looks like that. Can you do the same?

  • \$\begingroup\$ Your answer does not seem to answer the question at hand. \$\endgroup\$
    – Vaillancourt
    Oct 3, 2016 at 13:03
  • \$\begingroup\$ @AlexandreVaillancourt Edited to make it clear that this is answering the question. \$\endgroup\$
    – Graham
    Oct 3, 2016 at 13:09
  • \$\begingroup\$ Galak-Z makes good use of space hulks like this that you can navigate in a small fighter craft. They give excuses for all kinds of obstacles or interactive tools/hazards that would be difficult to justify in open space. \$\endgroup\$
    – DMGregory
    Oct 3, 2016 at 13:59
  • \$\begingroup\$ Nice example, but like I indicated in my question, I was looking for "open space" as in you fly with a ship outside of structures. \$\endgroup\$
    – Engos
    Oct 3, 2016 at 16:24
  • \$\begingroup\$ Its also worth pointing out that space hulk is not set in a derelict spaceship. It is set in a "spaceship graveyard", where many ships have crashed into each-other, and merged to form a giant "catacomb of spaceships". That is how games workshop achieve their level design; a single spaceship would not fit the purposes of the game, or its 'user generated' nature. \$\endgroup\$
    – Gnemlock
    Oct 3, 2016 at 23:53

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