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Aaron Waite Aaron Waite
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Homemade vs. Factory

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Dust Dust

Do we need more than 'go to the cave'?

I love polished, shiny AAA games. Games that show off the pedigree of the developer. Games that are a picture of the dedication (and size) of the team involved. Games that just scream that they've had a long and arduous climb through rigorous quality assurance and they've come out shining onto the mountaintop of legend. It's honestly a really beautiful thing to see that kind of buildup turn into the game that you knew it'd be.

And then there's the case of a game that you never heard of, slaved over by one-to-two person teams that are life works, things that mortgages, homes and sometimes even relationships have been sacrificed for. These games may not have that million-dollar sheen, but they have such heart. These games are lovingly crafted like Swiss pocket watches, and each pixel shows its handcrafted nature.

I ran into such a game recently. I've gushed about metroidvania titles before (you should not leave this old year without playing 'Metroid Prime' and 'Shadow Complex'), but this little game had a bit more significance to it. You see, I grew up in the era of the JRPG: a legendary time between 1994 and 2002 when Japanese RPG developers reigned supreme. Lengthy cutscenes, cheesy voice acting and even cheesier writing mixed with deep combat produced classics like 'Lunar,' 'Grandia,' 'The Legend of Dragoon' and the PS1/PS2 Final Fantasy games. I lived for each and every experience point, every hand-drawn or CGI cutscene and every hidden optional boss. It was a time of wonder and an almost child-like innocence when it came to telling stories.

'Dust: An Elysian Tail' is obviously made by someone who was a product of these same things, marinated in the sweet Metroid explore-find-item-explore-more cycle and combat that evoked the spirit of 'Castlevania: Symphony of the Night'. It has 2D hand-drawn sprites that are a wonderful combination of Saturday morning cartoons and the anime portraits that accompanied the games I loved as a teenager. The voice acting is both excellent and slightly amateur in a very strangely lovable way.

And it was made by one guy. One guy poured his entire being into this project, and it shows with every bit of groan-inducing dialogue and every contrived little plot happening.
I love it because it's imperfect. Before we started polishing all of the love and care out of our games, there was this homemade feel to them. Since the boom in developer team sizes, it seems the kitchen has been traded for a factory. 'Dust' shows the depth of its passion by evoking that pioneer spirit that was instilled in games before everyone just aimed for that 9.5 on Metacritic.

I want to see games with more mistakes and more heart. More Mario, less 'Call of Duty,' more Zelda, and less 'Heavy Rain.' Just point us in the direction of the gameplay, and give us a creative structure instead of trying to regurgitate everything that the movie industry does. Sometimes, all we need is for a game to be a game and not attempt to be a higher art form. Sometimes, all we really need is a guy with a sword and wisecracking sidekick.

'Dust' represents all that was good in gaming in its early years, because it's not trying to make some giant philosophical point (lookin' at you, 'Metal Gear Solid') or be deep or anything like that. It knows it's a game just trying to tell a simple story, and it's built around that entire point.

And that's why I've enjoyed it more than almost every single blockbuster AAA title this year, because almost every single one of those games seems to feel that to tell a story, it need to get as far away from being 'game-y' as possible. It's like they're bursting at the seams to not be a game, so that someone can spout frilly phrases about its exposition and immersion. If a game is good on a basic, fundamental level (both gameplay and storywise), I'm going to be immersed.

Honestly, the best way for you to see why I'm chunnering on about JRPGs and cheesy voice acting is just to play the game, because I need you to feel what I'm trying to put into words. This game feels like a game. It's not mindless, and yet, at the same time, I don't have to think very hard about it.

That's all I'm asking, developers. Set aside your pens for moment and tell me more about the world you've created with the gameplay rather than a novel of Pulitzer-worthy scripting.

Aaron Waite would like to remind you that your Gamecube still loves you, even if you abandoned it.

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