How do I even begin to describe Dust: An Elysian Tail? My instincts tell me to focus on how well designed the game is, from its vibrant art to its gripping gameplay. Yet that’s precisely what’s bothering me. For all the technical polish this game boasts, it has no ideological unity whatsoever. Dust structures itself with myth and hero narratives, but neither holds up to close scrutiny. It doesn’t fully understand how either behaves, or what effect they’ll have on the overall experience. So in using them this way, Dust undermines the myth and hero narratives that it holds so important.
What makes this especially interesting is how well Dust knows the hero narrative. Its own narrative fits that model perfectly. It begins with our hero (somewhat predictably named Dust) waking up in a forest with no recollection of who he is. Soon, he is called into action, fighting in a war against an evil general who seeks to wipe out an entire race. Now the story isn’t without its problems. When it’s not uncomfortably breaking the fourth wall, it’s hokey and melodramatic. And top of that are some weak characters and a horrendously morally one-sided plot. Still, it’s easy to see what the writers were going for: a heroic epic sort of story. All the ingredients are there: a hero who starts off completely removed from the conflict, a story that unfolds in front of you almost like oral tradition, etc. They might not agree with the game’s family friendly Saturday morning cartoon humor all that well, but at least we have a solid grasp of how we’re supposed to view the game now: as a heroic story, infused with myth; where everything has some sort of great significance.
That said, I’m not sure that’s a view the game can reasonably maintain, given how heavily the Saturday morning cartoon aspect influences the design. It’s most apparent in the art, the environments especially. On a technical level, the art succeeds. Judging by the environments alone, Dust could pass for a high quality Flash cartoon.
Unfortunately, that’s exactly the game’s problem: that Flash cartoon style runs counter to the game’s mythic structure. In lending the world significance, myth tends to treat the world as significant in its own right. The world has its own identity outside mankind’s existence. In fact, man and the world are usually at odds in a lot of myths. True, they often achieve that result by anthropomorphizing the world with human-like deities, but the effect remains the same.
Other games have embraced these viewpoints well enough. Skyrim and Xenoblade Chronicles serve as good examples, Xenoblade especially. Both game treat the world you navigate as having a dominating presence in its own right. Dust, however, is not one of those games. Its art style simply won’t allow it. The cartoony atmosphere it’s chosen for itself doesn’t do a good job of communicating natural beauty, at least not in the way that it needs to be communicated. Dust’s environments are less lush and flowing, and more clean, definite, and polished to a high degree. They’re a marketed product above all else. At best, they only suggest natural beauty. Usually, though, the environments feel like static paintings with a few moving elements, or backdrops for your own actions.
With this in mind, we see that the game relies on a base reading of myth and the sense of spectacle it carries. Now we can understand exactly why Dust chose that reading in the first place: as a prop to embellish the gameplay. It’s an understandable position to take, given the gameplay’s strengths. Dust’s quest to take down General Gaius sees him traveling through a discrete set of locations, like graveyards and underground caverns. As Dust, you search these places for new equipment and abilities that let you explore even further, such as jumping in mid-air or sliding through narrow passages. (You can also complete a few quests, if you’re feeling like Dust is too enjoyable for your tastes.) And along the way, the game forces you to fight all kinds of enemies in intricate beat-em-up fashion. It’s all reminiscent of Muramasa: The Demon Blade, albeit without that game’s artistic merit.
Boring quests aside, these are all very well designed systems, and each one does a great job of getting you to engage with the world. However, they still warrant closer examination. What sticks out the most in my mind is how all these systems demand a lot of skill from the player. The combat requires a working knowledge of how/when to perform what moves, and exploration requires memory and basic navigation skills. The focus on skill is a large reason why the game is so fun, but strangely enough, it’s also what prevents the mythic elements from really working. By emphasizing the player’s skill and demanding it so frequently, Dust becomes a player centric experience. Now the world surrounding the player really can’t have its own significance; it exists only in service to the player. It has to offer unique ways to test the player’s abilities time and again. Such a set-up leaves no room for the world to develop its own unique identity.
The enemies Dust faces exemplify that trend. On one level, they have an independent existence. The narrative gives them some presence in the world, and it questions whether what Dust does to them is morally right. However, the narrative only does these things on very specific terms. More specifically, it only asks these questions of the Moonbloods and the Warmbloods, the two parties most directly tied up in the plot.
What about all the generic monsters Dust slaughters, though? What sort of existence do they lead? They’re too sapient to be just animals (IE extensions of the natural world), but they don’t display enough intelligence for us to view them like we do the Moonbloods/Warmbloods. Is it right of you to end their existence in your journey to take down Gaius? Dust is ultimately unwilling to ask these kinds of questions. It doesn’t allow most of the enemies any sort of existence outside that which would justify their slaughter. The only action they ever take is to attack you, and the game outright requires that you kill all enemies on screen before you can advance to another area.
Part of me wants to say that the game’s exploratory aspect is supposed to fix these problems by representing the world as active in its own right. Unfortunately, I’m just not seeing that here. Whether you’re among people or out on your own, I can’t shake the feeling that the world is very passive. It’s most evident in town, since new developments only occur in relation to your actions; like without your presence, the town is this static nothing. (The enemies display similar problems. I never felt like they led any sort of existence outside my encounters with them.) Yet the problem persists even when exploring the game’s more interesting locales. For all their vibrancy, these areas only react to your action. Rarely do they do anything on their own. I’m tempted to say that the game’s linear structure is to blame (especially in comparison to the open fields of Skyrim and Xenoblade). Or maybe the designers did this to emphasize the game’s combat systems more strongly.
Whatever the motivation, the result is inevitably the same. The levels don’t feel like locales in their own right, but backdrops for what you do in them. Granted, the later levels don’t have this problem, but by then, it’s too late. Neither the game’s systems or its levels have done anything to alleviate its world-building problems. And even if that wasn’t true, the focus on skill would always represent a hard ceiling on what the game can accomplish. It would still be a very you-centric experience.
After all I’ve said, I’m still not entirely sure that the game’s problems are totally unsolvable. Other notable games, like Zelda titles and some of the early Final Fantasy games, have reconciled epic hero narratives with their game design. However, the reason those games worked was because they understood that narrative’s machinations in a way that Dust doesn’t. Compared against them, this game doesn’t feel much like a grand, epic adventure, at least not in the sense it hopes for. Instead, it feels more like a game. Maybe that’s what Dust should have focused on all along. Maybe it should have committed more fully to being a video game. Of course, it doesn’t do a lot of good to hypothesize about what could have been.