Dust: An Elysian Tail first grabbed gamers' attention as the winner of Microsoft's Dream Build Play competition in 2009. Developer Humble Hearts (comprised of its one-man team, Dean Dodrill) spent the intervening years crafting Dust into one of the best downloadable titles on XBLA. When it finally released in August, the game proved to be the standout in Microsoft's yearly Summer of Arcade promotion, winning praise from gamers and critics (I loved it, by the way). To give some insight into this excellent game and the extraordinary process behind it, Dodrill answered a barrage of questions about his goals and inspirations for Dust, as well as its future.
GI: Dust was largely developed by a one-man team – an impressive feat these days. What elements of the game didn’t you handle yourself?
Dodrill: Thanks. Yeah, doing all the art, code, and design myself was grueling, but I had help in some very important areas.
The musical score was handled by Chris Geehan and Dan Byrne-McCullough (HyperDuck SoundWorks). HyperDuck also took over sound effect duties and redid most of my earlier audio. Additional music were produced by Alex Brandon (Funky Rustic).
Casting director Deven Mack worked with me to audition all the voice talent, and he personally directed and edited all the lines, which HyperDuck and I prepared for the game. Of course there are the over 40 talented actors who lent their voices to the game.
Finally, Alex Kain came halfway into the third year to polish up my script and assist with nailing down unfinished story bits.
Playing Dust, it feels like pieces from many different games and genres were assembled to form a “dream game.” Was that the case?
Definitely. I’ve often said that Dust: AET is my love letter to a variety of genres, and there are a number of specific games (some of which I blatantly “homage”) that I can name.
The most obvious influence would probably be the Castlevania series, with Simon’s Quest, Symphony of the Night, and Order of Ecclesia being the main inspirations. Also, any 2D game with the open world formula, such as Blaster Master, Cadash, and Metroid.
There’s a bit of Strider and Megaman within the combat, and the projectile combat is heavily influenced by side scrolling shooters of the 8- and 32-bit eras. The combo-based combat references more modern games, like Devil May Cry and Xbox-era Ninja Gaiden.
The role-playing elements (story, quests, loot) kind of come from everywhere, but mostly from JRPGs. My favorite console was the TurboGrafx 16, and I love role-playing stories from that era. My favorite game of all time, Ys Book I & II, somehow finds its way into everything I do.
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Art and programming are usually completely different departments when making a game with a bigger team. What are the advantages to splitting your time between them both?
Since I’m visually oriented, and most of my programming duties were to achieve something visual on screen, I found that I was able to work incredibly fast and iterate much more efficiently than if I had had to spend time consulting another team member.
Nearly every evening I would take a couple hours to retouch visual effects, whether through the art or code, and found that to be the most enjoyable part of making the game. I suppose I’m pretty technically minded, as an artist, and wouldn’t mind a future just doing visual effects. I do enjoy handling both sides, mainly because it kept my work from getting too dull. Whenever I felt burned out doing background art, I could jump into code and work on inventory or UI. There are certainly disadvantages to having to do everything, but it’s what kept the job exciting.
The art style is beautiful, and has drawn comparisons to everything from Disney movies to games like Odin Sphere. What can you tell us about your goals for the visual experience of Dust?
Dust: AET is actually based on a film I had been working on (with a different story/characters), so that’s where I drew the visual inspiration. And both borrow heavily from Disney and Studio Ghibli fantasy. Hand-drawn, flat-colored traditional animation on hand-painted backgrounds.
I create all the art in the game in the same way I create it for the film, which is very tedious but it gives it that animated film look. And although it was a massive technical challenge, I wanted to fully hand-animate the protagonist without using segmented or polygonal animation, which most 2D games use these days. I think it helps the animation to stand out, although squeezing hundreds of hi-def frames into RAM was a technical nightmare.
A surprisingly divisive aspect of Dust was the use anthropomorphized animal characters. Did you expect that some gamers would have such strong negative reactions to that decision?
I sort of knew going in that the visual style would be a turnoff to some, but I admit I wasn’t expecting how divisive it was. I think a big part of it is age, and what the audience grew up with. I’m 35, and grew up when a large number of game characters were animals, and talking animals were the norm on animated shows and movies.
But the internet happened, kids grew up with seemingly “mature” games, and a nasty stigma was attached to anthropomorphized animals. In hindsight I wouldn’t have changed anything, since I chose animals for very specific reasons (ease of animation, unique visual look, and to tastefully tell a story of a race war), but yeah, I think it’s an unfortunate reality of where tastes have gone. I sort of wish there was more character variety in video games these days.
Next: Cameos, boss fights, and what ended up on the cutting room floor...