It would seem Dust: An Elysian Tale has everything... Well designed platforming elements, intuitive controls, fluent (and quite spectacular) combat, a variety of levels to explore, balanced difficulty, and a logical (non-frustrating) checkpoint system. Yet, in the end I wasn’t able to finish it. Not because I couldn’t, but because I’ve not only lost all interest – I simply wasn’t able to stand any more of it. Let’s be honest – I mostly don’t have time to play video games these days, so not finishing a game, when I finally decide to check it out, is quite a big thing...
I have no intention of complaining about the artistic decision to make a game featuring anthropomorphic animals. I also understand there are communities that are build around anthropomorphic animals, that are also very serious about their hobby/passion. I have nothing against the chosen style – I’m just neutral(I never considered it an argument towards or against playing it). But a style can also be poorly executed, or just it’s variation can be made unattractive. Here, however, we are stepping in to the realm of subjective opinions and those will naturally be present further down the text.
The more I played the game, the more unattractive and boring the visual look of the characters started to seem, which I found strange considering the variation in the anthropomorphic aspect. “That’s it!” – I thought at one point. Suddenly the game reminded me of mass-produced animated shows from the 80’s / 90’s featuring animal-like characters for the sake of adding a bit of of cuteness to lure the children in front of the screens (and the idea stuck in my mind till the last second I spent with the game). Soon, the positive aspects of the whole began to fade – the combat became repetitive, the enemies boring and unchallenging, and the platforming element simply tedious. All the shortcomings became more apparent. But... why?
Well, because 5 hours in I didn’t have any emotional investment in the game, nor I had any curiosity towards the story’s development. What I had, was a lot of time to fixate on every negative aspect I could find. In the end, I had literally no reason to play it, and backtracking side quests combined with a redundant crafting system were only making the matter worse. The story destroyed the experience.
The player’s avatar manages to be a mysterious man of few words (an amnesiac, if the rest wasn’t cliché enough), while being an infuriating chatterbox at the same time. This was accomplished by splitting the protagonist in to three separate entities – a gloomy samurai-like character (with a personality of a bad crayon drawing), a talking sword with literally no useful input(equipped with a voice of a wiseman), and a flying sidekick (cat? squirrel?) with the appeal of a comedic relief in a show designed to keep toddlers occupied. Seriously, the squeaky voice and horrible lines will haunt me for years to come – the writer tried to make “Fidget” (that’s the name of the sidekick) funny by making her brake the fourth wall and throwing self aware one liners which seemed very stilted. The story itself circulates around destructive evil that – what a surprise – has deeper meaning to it and is the reason why the protagonist is special. Everything is seasoned with some war and good old lofty narration. Simply put – a naive story full of generic characters, cringy plot-twists, and badly written dialogue. All of it is forced on the player constantly, because instantly skipping an annoying conversation, or a cutscene, is overcomplicated or some times not possible at all (after some time I literally cringed preemptively every time another one was triggered).
There are two important lessons to be learned from this, even for someone who would disagree with me on the harsh opinion about the narrative (and that’s the reason behind this text to begin with):
For the most part of my contact with Dust I wondered: “for whom is this game made for?”. It’s to violent and dark for children, yet so badly written that any person who read a single objectively skillfully written book, or had contact with any narrative of decent quality, would probably cringe on many occasions, to finally find most of it boring and vapid. It soon occurred to me, that most of the game’s target audience are people for whom the visual art style will be more important than the overall quality. Naturally, finding a niche is also not a bad idea, but not every game will fall on such fertile ground as Dust certainly did (as the stunning amount of positive reviews show).
If you are not accustomed to arts – read books, confront classics, find inspiration in the genre you are approaching. Grow as a storyteller.
The game’s design and the writing both are as important aspects of the whole, just as the visuals, the sound, and the programming certainly are. All those elements create the final form of your project and ignoring anything is bound to have consequences. Dust: An Elysian Tale was made mostly by a single person, a professional animator and visual artist, and this alone makes the end result very impressive. Just as building a house alone is impressive, even if the house is bound to collapse soon, because the builder was not experienced and skilled enough to handle some of the tasks. I believe the game could gain an infinitely larger audience, and more people would be interested in seeing more of the developers work, if only ideas like “let’s find a skilled writer” would be taken under consideration.
I remember visiting a game convention, a couple of years ago, and meeting a perfect example of the above mentioned sin – a group of game developers, most of them IT engineers, trying to debut in the video game industry. One of them created this impressive and nicely optimized 3D engine almost from scratch (the amount of work done, basically by himself, was stunning!) and the rest of them handled scripting and 3d modeling. None of them was a skilled game designer and none of them knew anything about what a good story is. In fact, when constantly advised(by other developers) to find at least an observant gamer to help design the gameplay, and a person who actually writes fiction to work on the story, they’d just dismiss those remarks. And yet, they didn’t understand why almost no one was interested in their game – a generic shoot’em up with mechs, unexciting missions and a boring narrative.
As one of the core pillars of a game’s narrative/presentation, characters and the ways they engage with one another represent some of the most valuable opportunities for a designer to sell the player into the experience, which can be done through compelling interactions that strongly contextualize the gameplay.