One of the salutary developments of the new wave of indie games is the return of the one-man auteur, a turn away from the assembly-line construction that defines big-studio games toward experiences where every element has been defined by a single person’s unique approach. There’s obvious inspiration for all bedroom coders in the success of Dust: An Elysian Tail, a game created by the dedicated artist/programmer Dean Dodrill with some additional sound and music created by the delightfully named HyperDuck Soundworks. Originally a home project that was going to be dumped on Microsoft’s backwater Indie Games service, victory in the Dream-Build-Play contest rocketed Dust to release on the much more prominent Xbox Live Arcade. But even more impressive than the story behind the game is the game itself, a love letter to classic 2D video games that often does better than its influences.
Dust first attracted notice for its beautiful screenshots, and it looks even better in motion. It’s mind-blowing to contemplate the dedication it took for one person to create the panoply of detailed characters and environments; each of the game’s many levels has unique enemies and NPCs, and their distinct movement and attacks makes it clear that these aren’t just re-skinnings of the same model. Especially notable is the limpid, colorful lighting, which gives everything a warm glow befitting the fantasy setting and often becomes a gameplay element in its own right as manipulation of light and shadow creates interesting puzzles.
But there are lots of games that look nice. The bigger surprise is that under those pretty pictures is an honestly moving story. Some gamers might be turned off by the funny-animal style that’s already earning the game creepy attention from the furry-fetish community, but it does little to impede the touching and sometimes quite mournful story. Dust takes on issues of redemption, identity, and personal failure with a clear-eyed lack of sentiment that puts to shame many ostensibly “realistic” games, and it’s willing to undermine the conventions of video-game heroism to an extent that can be a little shocking. But nothing in the story is quite as shocking as how well it’s told. Even the voice acting, for all its conventional baby talk and goofy accents, is better done than most AAA titles I’ve played. While plenty of people are asking how Dodrill managed to singlehandedly create all that art, I’m even more interested to know how he got such emotional and camp-free performances out of the voice actors.
Best of all, the beautiful visuals and interesting story are wrapped around a rock-solid action-RPG engine. Combat is in real time, with moves whose potency is determined by leveling up and finding items to boost your stats. You don’t have that many moves, but boredom is prevented by the ways moves can be combined, and by the moment-to-moment calculation necessary for maximizing both XP and destructive potential. It helps that the combat is both fluid and great to look at; if you’re only going to have a few moves, it’s good for them to always look and feel completely awesome. And anyway, action-RPGs aren’t fighting games; no one rhapsodizes about the swordplay in Zelda.
Ah, but there I go making excuses for the genre, and that points to the lingering weakness of Dust. There’s a fierce nostalgia for the great 2D games of yore hanging over the production, and there are times when I wished the developer would interrogate and surpass his models rather than just celebrate them. There are some great fourth-wall-breaking jokes in the dialogue (the first time you see an enemy, your companion screams at you to “Mash the buttons!!!”), but the game sometimes seems content to skillfully execute genre conventions rather than improve on them. The story of an amnesiac discovering his past has maybe never been done better in a video game, but I wish it could have been a whole new kind of story, instead of a great version of a familiar narrative. Similarly, while seeing paths you can’t take until you’re assigned a new ability later in the game is practically the definition of the Metroidvania subgenre, I wish the developer had found a way to improve on, or at least subvert, the arbitrary nature of your skill tree, rather than letting it go by without comment.
But if Dust doesn’t necessarily innovate, it’s no small accomplishment to be the best exploratory platformer since Shadow Complex, the prettiest 2D game since Rayman Origins, and a way better action-RPG than Diablo 3. Every aspect of the game radiates a deep personal love and care that’s impossible to reproduce in the dispersed responsibility of corporate development, so the player feels in very good hands every time they pick up the controller. Add in the fact that its eight-to-12 hours of story is much longer than the average $15 XBLA title and you have a game that deserves every bit of success it gets. Humble Hearts (another great studio name!) seems poised to become a very big deal to the future of gaming, and I’m eagerly awaiting the game where Dodrill decides to create something I’ve never seen before. In the meantime, we’ll have to settle for playing one of the most enjoyable games of the summer, and that’s one hell of a consolation prize.