Dust: An Elysian Tale and Game Design

Jonathan Blow has stated in interviews that a game needs to be one of two things: fun or interesting. If the game has both, then you’re playing something truly special. With one quality, though, the game is still good and worth your time.

I’ve recently been playing Dust: An Elysian Tail and am finding myself a bit conflicted. The premise for the story is fairly interesting, dealing with an amnesiac warrior who suddenly grows a heart of gold. The actual design of the game, though, is fairly mundane and bland.

The graphics are a huge selling point in this interesting tale. 2D artwork looks spellbinding in HD and always will. Dust has this in spades and even utilizes some neat effects work. Lightning, fire and smoke all have 3D rendering applied to them and add an extra layer of oomph to your attacks.

The combat is where this game falls apart. One of the tenets of game design theory is the idea of “dominant strategy” or “strategic dominance.”  Dust gloriously fails at this idea. Every combat situation can be solved by a single combo. I’ve certainly tinkered with the other attacks, but apart from massive foes, I’m able to best even the bosses with the air juggle combo.

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This leads to gameplay that feels exceptionally stale. When starting the game, I was actually surprised at how thought-out the combat felt. Multiple different attacks, a sidekick that can distract enemies and upgrades for power and speed; this all should have equated to a game with incredible depth.

Then I got my air juggle and realized most enemies are totally worthless when smacked into the sky. This is a problem when even the bosses can be hit into the air. Like I said, only the gigantic enemies are immune to this, but you can still pull off the combo and float over them.

The game also has a strange sense of humor that ruins the illusion of its game world. Everything is fixated on a 2D plane, so clearly nothing was meant to be taken seriously. Towns are built with a tiered system of placement, but Dust has such nice looking visuals that one can easily get lost in this absurd design.

Then the characters begin to break the fourth wall and make mention of controller commands. I just found it completely jarring when my character was reciting how he should hit the “super mega awesome fidget attack button.”

This will clearly be a personal preference, but Dust has awful tutorials. For filmmakers and a lot of game developers, there is a composition theory known as “Show, Don’t Tell.” With film, it is much more engaging to show a viewer a scene of violence than to simply describe that a guy’s head was bashed in.

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For gaming, every time a text bubble pops up to describe how to perform an action, you are stripped of your control of the game and your immersion is broken so you can learn an idea that would be better taught through practical application. Dust is odd in that the game actually starts off with a great example of teaching by doing.

The game starts with a barely-described flashback that simply has you attacking enemies. A blurb does appear on the screen, but it never interrupts you and one can easily ignore the text and still proceed forward. After this moment, though, the game never ceases to bombard you with endless exposition on how to control the game.

I find the plot interesting, but am perplexed at how often I’m simply sitting with the controller in my hand and doing nothing. Listening to people babble about how the world has gone into disarray is ridiculous when I could be traversing the forests and seeing it firsthand.

Going back to the idea of 2D, the game world does not feel organic. Platforms are strewn across the world in mid-air. I recently finished an indie title called Intrusion 2, which was the full-scale sequel to a flash game made a few years ago. In that game’s levels, everything took place either outside or in caves. When you were outside, the game’s physics engine allowed you to bend trees to make platforms for you to jump up. Along with that, the military encampments also had some elevators and blockades that could be jumped on. These all built into a feeling of a natural world.

Dust just has random rocks placed in locations that guide you to the next area. While it’s nicer than placing an arrow on the HUD or bread-crumbing the paths like in Dead Space, I never truly feel like this game could exist. It just seems silly.

As monotonous and lazy as Dust may be, I do still find it intriguing. The game was also developed single-handedly by one guy, Dean Dodrill. I get a sense that Dean really loves gaming and was a massive fan of Castlevania and Metroid. He probably enjoyed the wilderness feel of Castlevania and the seemingly mechanic and random placement of Metroid.

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Dean just forgot that both of those games set up environments where their absurd ideas were law. Dust seems too realistic, even with its anthropomorphic cast members. All the ideas are set to make a great game, just some mistakes in general game theory and story composition hold it back.

I would definitely recommend playing Dust, even with these problems. It’s not the best game in the world, but the story is pretty damn cool. The graphics are also a joy and knowing that something so polished was created by one guy just blows my mind.

Hell, Konami and Nintendo aren’t making any more classic Metroid or Castlevania games, so even getting one with misguided ideas is better than nothing at all.

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