At PAX East 2012, I had the chance to get some hands-on time with Dust: An Elysian Tale—an amazing 2D side-scrolling adventure platformer coming to the Xbox Live Arcade. (If you haven’t read my impressions of the game yet, you can do so by clicking here!) I also had a chance to talk to the game’s one-man development studio: Humble Hearts, aka Dean Dodrill.
EGM: So, you had to have made some pact with the devil in order to be able to make a game like this on your own.
EGM: What did you have to give up in order to get that talent?
Dean: Well, I’ve basically given up the last three years of my life—and they’ll never come back! But, showing Dust here at PAX East—and seeing so many people being so receptive to it—has made it all worth it.
EGM: So, that question is obviously me being a bit silly, but Dust: An Elysian Tale honestly does look extremely impressive. And I don’t want this to come out the wrong way, but—playing the game reminds me of Vanillaware and their titles, in the sense that you can tell the love and care they put into the visuals of their games. For them, it’s like, “2D is not dead, 2D is still awesome, and we’re going to show you how awesome it is.” That’s kind of the same feeling that I get from Dust.
Dean: I definitely take that as a compliment. I’m a huge fan of Vanillaware, and obviously there are some people trying to keep 2D alive. And you’re right—sometimes you just see a certain amount of love in a game, and I’m glad you see that coming through, because I’m putting my blood into Dust.
EGM: Dust started in 2009, right?
Dean: Yup, I started it in 2009. At the time, I was an independent animator, so I was coming at the project as an artist—but I wanted to learn how to program. I picked up XNA, and thought I was going to make some small little game. The project exploded, I submitted it to Dream Build Play, and Microsoft showed interest—so Dust got picked up for the Xbox Live Arcade. Now I’m here, starting the fourth year of development.
EGM: Before talking to you, I was playing another indie game here at the show—They Bleed Pixels—and that was also a game that started off as an Xbox Indies project, but which now also has a publishing deal of some sort. How do you feel about the trend of indie games getting picked up, and how did you feel when you first found out that Microsoft was interested in Dust?
Dean: It was mind-blowing; it was a dream come true. It’s like a validation of what you want to do. I just wanted to make a game for myself—I wanted to learn how to do it, and wanted to do something fun. The fact that Microsoft then came along and said that my project was worth something—it was incredible. And I think it’s great that publishers are picking these kinds of games up, because they’re seeing that there’s a want and a desire for these smaller games. Obviously there’s these huge games that everybody likes, but a lot of us also like older-style games. So, it’s great that the larger publishers want to show some of that stuff off.
EGM: It’s funny that you said what you just said, because I was talking to the They Bleed Pixels guys about how it’s interested to see the platformer genre making a comeback of sorts. For a while, those types of games were almost gone, and companies didn’t seem to care about them any longer. Is it a case of having people who grew up with the NES and 16-bit consoles now making games, so they want to go back to the genres that they love? Or is it more of just a cyclical thing? Why are we seeing this resurrection of the old-school platformer?
Dean: You know, I think it’s both. Obviously a lot of us grew up with that stuff, and we love that style of game. But I think it’s also kind of fresh for certain people. Since practically every game now is three-dimensional, you see a game that’s hand painted—you look at something like Bastion with its backgrounds—and it stands out. It pops, and I think some people are picking up on that. It’s like when somebody comes along and makes a black & white film—half the people think it’s great and it’s a callback, while the other half see it as an interesting stylistic choice. So really, in the end, it’s that stylistic choice. With the combat and the gameplay, sure, you could find that in some kind of big-budget 3D game, but why not have it in a side-scroller?
EGM: It is funny, because I remember back on the Genesis when Sega did Virtua Racing, and they had a chip in the cartridge to do rudimentary 3D visuals. Back in that era, seeing those 3D graphics was so exciting, because they were so different than the 2D graphics we were used to. But now, it’s reversed—and now what’s different and exciting are games with 2D visuals. What’s also funny is when I play Dust, it makes me think back to the days of game consoles before 3D graphics, and what we thought the future would be like for gaming. We had this belief that 2D was just going to keep going and going, and get more details and more visually complex. Games like Dust, or what Vanillaware does, those were what we thought the future of gaming was going to be.
Dean: Totally. I think for a lot of us, we all love 3D games, but we didn’t know that 2D games were going to die. We thought with the technological advances, 2D games were going to look better and better. But they just kind of stopped, and it was a real shame. Now, though, the technology is really great, and with a game like Dust I can hand paint the visuals, and fully animate it—the tech is there to show that stuff off. It’s a shame, though, that not many other people are doing games like that. So, when you see something from Vanillaware, or when you see Dust, it’s refreshing.
EGM: Another thing I found interesting about Dust is that you’ve put some real depth into it. From the item selection, to weapon upgrades, and also in the moves set—how do you balance between a game that has enough depth that it stays interesting over the course of the entire game, and avoiding giving too much to players for this style of game?
Dean: It’s definitely an interesting mix. Being in an open-world game like a Castlevania, it’ll have towns and NPCs and side quests and such, but then having this crazy combat—I think it’s like if you give the player a bunch of different things, if you give them this big, huge toy to play with, maybe for a while they’ll want to start going crazy and all Ninja Gaiden on stuff. But then maybe they want to take it easy for a little while and just want to do some side quests and talk to people. I’m a big fan of that style of game—giving players a lot of variety.
EGM: Other than the music and sound effects—who is doing the audio again, by the way?
Dean: I have a very awesome group of guys named HyperDuck SoundWorks who are out in Ireland, and they’ve done some amazing stuff. And then I’ve got some additional music done by an old friend, Alex Brandon—he did the original Dues Ex and the original Unreals, so he’s got some background in gaming. These guys are just friends of mine who have been doing some fantastic work.
EGM: So other than that, you’re doing the entire game yourself?
Dean: That is correct.
EGM: I mean, did you consider that before starting a project like Dust? I don’t know how the game originally started in terms of scale and scope, but from the time I spent playing it, I cannot imagine thinking that I’m going to make a game like that all on my own. What got you to do this in the first place?
Dean: I would say a kind of stupidity. [laughs] Originally it was supposed to be small. When I first started to program, I thought, “You know, I’m going to make a game like an NES-style Castlevania with pixel art, and it’s going to be simple.” I had these really basic ideas, but it just kept getting bigger and bigger. I thought, “Well, the Xbox 360 is powerful, I could put in actual painted backgrounds, and I have all of this memory I could play with.” I’m not really great at budgeting time—before I was always announcing new release dates, so that’s kind of why I went dark—but now that I’m in the final year of development, it’s exciting to see that people are so receptive.
EGM: So, you know, on the topic of Dust‘s art style, there’s a topic that I want to bring up that’s mentioned all of the time whenever the game is talked about—the topic of Dust‘s “furry” style. There’s this whole complex argument about human characters vs. non-human characters, what is and isn’t furry, are Disney movies furry, and it all gets very crazy sometimes. From your perspective, what were you wanting to do with Dust in terms of art and character styles?
Dean: Yeah, that was definitely a big issue when I first announced the game. I like the anthropomorphic art style—you grow up with that stuff in cartoons , and it’s nice to have a little variety when you have humans in almost every other game. When I was learning animation, obviously you learn to animate humans, and that’s fun—but it’s very technical, and I’d almost rather be animating silverware or animals or something. When I started working on Dust, I thought that animals would let me do certain expression and certain motions that would look really great, and which might look funny if they were instead given to a human. With an animal character, I can push things a little further. And also, there was that thought of it being nice to have something different than most of the other stuff out there. I know some people hate it—and there’s definitely a stigma attached to animal characters which has kind of grown out from the internet—but really, it seems like it’s calming down. As people play the game, I think they realize that it’s not pandering to any one person. It’s just a game that looks cool, and if you hate the art style, then I can’t do anything for you. I don’t let it bother me too much, though it did bother me a bit when I started.
EGM: What do you think the divide is between the people who are dead-set on not playing Dust because of that style, and those who are now more interesting in playing due to a style that makes it stand out from other games?
Dean: What’s interesting is, you’re kind of seeing that now with anime-style characters. There’s some people who say, “I just won’t play that, because that character looks like an anime.” That seems crazy to me, because I love all art styles. If I’m playing Mass Effect or if I’m playing some JRPG, I don’t care what the characters look like, and I’m kind of appalled that it bothers some people that much.
EGM: It reminds me of the games Tale Concerto on the PS1, and now Solatorobo on the DS. They’re really deep, emotionally expressive games, yet there are people who are like, “I won’t play this because I have to play as a dog.” But, it’s not about being a dog—that was just the stylistic choice. It was done for a reason, but it wasn’t some “furry agenda” or something.
Dean: Definitely. It’s definitely nothing like that. Some people just want to look like themselves in a game, and I can understand that. Me? I don’t want to look like myself in a game. I’m playing a game to escape, and if my character is some 14-year-old girl doing this crazy stuff, that’s something different. Well, hold on—now people are going to start saying things about me for that comment. That was probably a bad example! [laughs]
EGM: No, no, I know what you’re saying! [laughs] It’s a chance to play as characters that give you a different perspective on storylines and worlds and things like that.
Dean: Yeah. You want to experience someone’s story. If you’re playing, say, Elder Scrolls, you’re experiencing your story. But then sometimes you want to play somebody else’s story. You want a crafted experience, and a world like that gives you a unique opportunity.
EGM: Can you talk at all about how big of a game Dust is going to be? I don’t know if there’s what you would call “stages” or whatever, but how big of an experience will the game be?
Dean: It’s going to be a pretty big open world. There’s a world map—and you’ll have different regions that you can go to. Being a love letter to old games, you can kind of guess what the themes of those regions are going to be; what I’m showing here at PAX East is the cemetery-style area. I haven’t really timed Dust in terms of playtime—because when I play it myself I’m sort of speed running it—but I think we’re looking at a 6~8 hour game. Maybe longer. I thought this demo was going to play for five minutes, and people have been playing for 15~20 minutes—so I guess I’m not good at judging that. But it is going to be a big RPG. There’s a main quest, there’s going to be a ton of sidequests which you don’t have to do, if people want to dig there’s going to be a lot of secrets—it’s going to be a pretty full-blown game. There’s tons of dialog, tons of characters that speak, all voiced over—it’s going to be big.
EGM: So, recently, there’s been a lot of games with “dust” in their titles. Have you ever thought that your name might not have ended up being the best choice? [laughs] Or did you decided that that’s the name, that’s that, and you’re going to stand firm?
Dean: I kind of had to, yeah! I had to put my foot down, because when I started Dust four years ago, I named it—because there’s a story related to it, and the character’s name is Dust—and I thought okay, this is cool, this is kind of a unique name. And then, all of a sudden, all of these other games came out. Every time someone would announce another game, there’d be this mass confusion, and I’d just have to go dark again. It seems like now it’s kind of settled down though—the dust has settled, if you will—and I can finally start talking about the game. And thankfully, I think it’s standing out enough that people aren’t too worried about the name
EGM: So do you have a solid date for the Dust‘s release at this point?
Dean: I do not. The game is going to be finished this year, but what that means as far as release is up to Microsoft. It’s up in the air.
EGM: Well then, finally, what one thing would you like people to most know about Dust as far as what they’ll experience when they finally play the game, or what you’re hoping they’ll experience?
Dean: I made a game that I wanted to play. I made a game that I’m not seeing other people make, and I’m combining a bunch of genres that I love—and the fact that people are receiving it is exciting to me, because I want other players to play Dust and say, “You know, I love these genres of games, so it’s cool to see them put together into this thing.”