Dust: An Elsyian Tail, an independent video game developed by Dean Dodrill in 2012, possesses some of the greatest, most fluent 2D live-action combat I’ve ever seen. Gameplay develops well, presenting few new abilities but providing varied, challenging enemies and environments at a satisfying rate. Boss fights conclude chapters well by placing players in a familiar environment and complicating it with a new, powerful foe. Mediocre voice acting (apart from Fidget, a charming sidekick with a wonderful voice) worsens the game, but fantastic gameplay and beautiful landscapes mostly surmount the irritating voices. Story, however, hinders Dust, for Dodrill revolves story around the themes of duality and choice but fails to both develop these themes and incorporate them into gameplay.
Duality initially develops strongly through the combination of two souls “forever at odds” within the protagonist, Dust. The souls of Cassius, a loyal but heartless assassin, and Jin, a kind child determined to avenge his parents (who Cassius murdered), combine when the two kill each other simultaneously. Dodrill complicates the amnesic-protagonist trope by transforming Dust into a newly-formed being, obscuring the memories of Jin and Cassius in order to highlight Dust’s actions. Present outweighs past as Dust abandons memories for a self-developed standpoint, stating: “Jin is dead. As is Cassius.” By defeating Gaius, the antagonist and friend of Cassius, Dust overcomes all relation to Cassius. The phrase “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” appears throughout the game, quoting a passage in the Book of Common Prayer. Referring to the resurrection of Christ, this phrase emphasizes Dust’s reincarnation and offers forgiveness for all sins preceding his resurrection.
Although Dust claims independence from the past, linear story undermines the theme of choice. Players follow a set path and discover the Moonbloods planned this path, telling Dust: “In all cases, you did exactly what we intended you to do.” Dust acts as a tool, a weapon created by the Moonbloods specifically “to defeat General Gaius and save [the Moonblood] people.” The game associates Ginger and the Moonbloods with good and Gaius with evil, forcing players to act as Jin would without considering Cassius. Dust speaks of an internal struggle yet rarely shows it, battling Gaius with little hesitation.
The greatest—if not only—indication of Cassius’s presence is Dust’s willingness to kill. Dust murders “monsters” without pause, killing under Ahrah’s direction as Cassius obeyed Gaius. This straightforward combat encounters opposition when Fuse, the first boss of the game, speaks. Fuse wonderfully introduces the theme of duality; like the fused souls within Dust, Fuse combines vengeance, justice, and violence to question the distinction between good and evil. Stating Dust has “so casually killed a countless number of [Fuse’s] children,” Fuse challenges virtue and labels Dust (and the player) as both a “monster” and “puppet.” The game parallels Fuse and Dust through the repeated use of “village.” Fuse tells Dust: “You…came to my village, killed my family.” Ahrah justifies Fuse’s death by pointing to “the dead littering this village.” By presenting two similar excuses for murder, Dust questions whether either Fuse or Dust deserves to live.
Fuse doubts the innocence of Dust, showing the player that Fuse—and potentially every monster Dust has slain—possesses sorrow and familial sympathy. However, Dust continues to slaughter all in his path. Linear gameplay forces players into combat without allowing time to question the war they’re participating in. Dust states: “I have a choice;” players, however, must follow the path Dust chooses.
Lack of player-made choice could highlight that the Moonbloods have molded Dust into a weapon without agency, but the game fails to directly question Dust’s role. Though Fuse doubts Dust’s virtue, the Moonbloods dismiss Fuse and his claims. Both Ginger and the Moonbloods forgive Fuse’s death, insisting Dust always follows the righteous path.
Dust further loses potential ambiguity by depicting Gaius as evil. The game makes some attempt to complicate Gaius, ending nearly every chapter with Gaius expressing concern for Cassius. Addressing Cassius as his “friend,” Gaius demonstrates compassion when other characters only note his coldhearted actions. However, these scenes fail to garner sympathy due to the game’s portrayal of Gaius as a narrow-minded racist. No evidence supports the claim that Gaius and Cassius maintained an affectionate relationship. While Jin’s memories resurface and allow Ginger and Dust to both recognize each other and develop a compassionate relationship, Dust ignores Gaius’s pleas for reconciliation. While this friendship remains unsupported and unseen, protagonists provide ample tales of the antagonists’ racist genocide, placing Cassius and Gaius in an utterly negative light.
Linear gameplay and dialogue force players to join and support the Moonblood cause. The game presents every action as virtuous, preventing both Dust and the player from considering multiple choices. All attempts toward ambiguity and duality dissipate, causing Dust to feel disjointed and contradictive. Restructuring story and gameplay for consistency would greatly benefit the game. One option would be to add scenes in which Dust makes bad decisions specifically because of Cassius. Additional scenes would show Dust conquer Cassius, choose to listen to Jin, and defy Gaius because of his previous, inner struggles. Duality would become a more believable theme, and the active choice of Jin over Cassius would justify Dust’s defiance of Gaius. The Moonbloods state their intent to combine Jin’s “innocence” and Cassius’s “power;” making Dust battle and defeat Cassius would produce the Moonbloods’ desired weapon and support Dust’s claims toward internal war.
This option better depicts duality but primarily emphasizes good over evil, supporting the current ending of Dust by illustrating how Dust overcomes duality for pure virtue. In order to properly incorporate duality and the ambiguity of righteousness into Dust, gameplay would require choice. I enjoy the idea of Dust being a product of two conflicting souls; as such, I would love to see a game in which the player—rather than Dust—determines good and evil. Multiple choices producing various storylines would be wonderful, but I understand how complicated this could be. Instead, I envision an ending in which Dust confronts Gaius, Gaius defends his actions and recalls the friendship he and Cassius shared, and Dust decides to either fight for the Moonbloods (like Jin) or Gaius (like Cassius). Such a choice would provide fair consideration for both sides of the war, question righteousness by showing both armies prosper and suffer, and illustrate duality by giving Cassius and Jin equal opportunity for victory.
While Dust suffers from a story which contradicts its messages, Dodrill does well at indirectly, subtly advancing themes with outside sources. The titular reference to Christ’s resurrection explores the theme of forgiveness, allowing players (who recognize the religious quote) to draw connections without dialogue forcing ideas onto the player. Reused words juxtapose characters and claims: both Fuse and Ahrah justify murder because of the previous destruction of a “village,” questioning whether either speaker may be pardoned. Directly after the Moonbloods tell Dust he was created to be their “incorruptible” weapon, Gaius states: “The Moonbloods have corrupted his mind.” The juxtaposition of “incorruptible” and “corrupted” offers two views of Dust’s condition, producing possibly the greatest doubt of the Moonbloods and their manipulative methods.
Subtle touches also stem from names, most of which allude to outside sources without directly addressing them (only the connection between Dust and the Christian quote is emphasized, for he finishes the line by saying “dust to dust”). Dodrill particularly references ancient Roman and Greek cultures. Lady Tethys, the “all-powerful being” who “makes the waters flow,” alludes to a Greek goddess of the same name that controls the major rivers of the world. The Moonbloods, once known as the Cynthak, refer to Cynthia, the Roman goddess of the moon; the Way of the Flameless Light potentially alludes to the moon as well.
Another reference to Roman mythology appears in Aurora, the village in which Dust first meets Ginger. Aurora, the goddess of the dawn, requests immortality for her human husband but fails to ask for eternal youth. Immortality initially appears simple but later deviates from what Aurora had in mind. Dust similarly introduces Ginger as a stranger in the village of Aurora: only later is her true relationship with Dust revealed. The allusion to Aurora questions reality, foreshadows the complications which stem from Dust’s forgotten past, and introduces the theme of misguided intentions.
Like with Aurora, Dust advances themes through the names of Gaius and Cassius. The antagonists together allude to Gaius Cassius, one of the leading assassins of Roman dictator Julius Caesar. Cassius particularly connects to Gaius Cassius through his role as a “Royal Assassin.” However, Cassius differs from the Roman assassin because he loyally serves his king. When accused of evil, Cassius points out that Jin’s parents “turned against their king—an act of pure treason.” Thus Cassius questions the definition of treachery, insisting his murders restore justice and balance (recalling Fuse’s similar self-justification).
Treachery appears throughout Dust and, because of its multiple interpretations, wonderfully complements the theme of duality. Baron Kane is labeled “the great traitor” for betraying friends allied to the Moonbloods. Fuse emphasizes that Gaius “even murdered his own kind,” ending the list of Gaius’s evils with treachery. Dust too slays his own kind, killing soldiers and earning the rank of “traitor” (although the soldiers are specifically referring to Cassius). Unfortunately, this treachery—which could so effectively question Dust’s actions as he murders members of his own race—loses significance because of the game’s constant forgiveness. An entire chapter focuses on the salvation of Kane, yet Dust makes no effort to reason with or change Gaius. Both Dust and Kane are cleansed of their pasts; Gaius, however, receives no opportunity for redemption.
The lack of forgiveness for Gaius characterizes the entire game and its inability to provide duality. All steps toward establishing Dust as a traitorous, misguided weapon vanish because of the overshadowing insistence on Dust’s righteousness. Only Fuse and Gaius question Dust, but these two lose credibility because they massacre innocents. Every character forgives the murder of Fuse and glosses over the slaughter of nameless monsters. Although both Dust and Gaius kill others without negotiation, the Moonbloods support their cause by claiming Gaius began the war and insisting their acts are rightly vengeful (unlike Fuse, who kills uninvolved innocents).
Dust shows great potential for questioning war and revenge, but the linear story, combat-saturated gameplay, and focus on Dust as “justice incarnate” obscure all attempts toward duality. The game fails to establish Gaius as compassionate and forgives all of Dust’s questionable actions. Although characters claim Jin and Cassius are “forever in battle,” Dust joins one side of the war without considering the other. Successful portrayal of duality starts and ends with Fuse; only Fuse actively points out “the darkness within” Dust, whereas the rest of the game insists Dust has transcended beyond past sins. The title associates Dust with the Elysian Fields, the Heaven-like section of the Greek underworld in which dead heroes reside. History marks the adventure of Dust as “the greatest of Elysian tales,” recording Dust’s redemption while ignoring his less heroic counterpart.