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Zelda’s Puzzle Box Dungeons Require Global Spatial Thinking

Mark Brown conceptualizes a kind of dungeon that appears regularly in Zelda games: a “puzzle box dungeon.” Rather than simply being a series of connected rooms with challenges and puzzles gated by keys, items, and locks, the dungeon itself is a puzzle that changes or is reconfigured.

Think Water Temple in Ocarina of Time, or the Ancient Cistern and Sandship in Skyward Sword.

Brown outlines four key concepts:

  1. The puzzle element is in a different room to the switch
  2. The player cannot see the entire dungeon at once
  3. The player can switch back and forth between layouts
  4. The switch will open some pathways but close others


  1. You have to build a mental map that includes the entire dungeon, not just individual rooms.
  2. Changes to the dungeon state have to be made intentionally. (If the state changes were irrevocable, you’d know once you flipped the switch that the dungeon was now in its correct state. If the switch were in the same room as the thing the switch affects, then you’d simply keep toggling it until you could progress.)
  3. Changes to the dungeon state change how you navigate the dungeon.

Brown does note that some players find these sorts of dungeons to be especially challenging.

I think this is part of why I didn’t find the Chamber Dungeons in Link’s Awakening (2019) that interesting. While you do have to make some global decisions while designing the dungeon (each room’s exits have to line up, you need enough chests for the number of locked doors, and so on), once you’re playing the dungeon each room is more or standalone, and the dungeon itself has no global, changing state.

  1. Mark Brown. “How Zelda’s Puzzle Box Dungeons Work” (external link). Game Maker’s Toolkit, 20 November 2020. Accessed 20 May 2023.