A Narrative Strategy Game That Confronts the Nature of Power
A lot of games are about collecting of power and resources, but 'Dust & Salt' asks how and why you want to wield them.
screenshots courtesy of Prime Games
Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.
The title of Dust & Salt came into focus about an hour into the game. I had fought the Horse Lords, a regional power who had been raiding trade caravans out of the local major city, and they were on their knees before me. I had proven my military might over them, and my advisors gave me two possible ways of proceeding.
Ragnar told me that I should bind them with the Curse of Dust: they would declare fealty to me, and if they ever betrayed me I would have the right to kill them, destroy their bodies, and distribute their ashes across the land. Naan explained that I should hold them to the Oath of Salt, which entwines our fate in brotherhood and fealty. In either case, the Horse Lords are in a bad spot, and my army becomes much more powerful. Dust & Salt is a power simulator, pure and simple, plopped in the middle of a well-written tale of revenge. It’s my ideal adventure game.
I’ve spent the last year or so getting stress out about RPGs. In my long-running Mages & Murderdads show, I have played through the classic isometric RPGs, the Baldur’s Gate games and Planescape: Torment, and come out other side frustrated. I love these stories and the way they are told, but I have negative interest in how they tell those stories. When I reviewed Pillars of Eternity II earlier this year, I lamented that I had to do all that combat in order to experience an interesting story about the clash between commerce, colonialism, and an ancient past.
To my surprise, Dust & Salt achieves this. It hands you a complicated, gritty fantasy story with some hard choices baked into it that rarely kicks out to mind-destroying combat encounters that require me to properly manage a character within the context of a proprietary RPG stat system. Instead, it’s a story, a choose your own adventure game with stats attached to it, that is stronger because it has the ability to dispense with all of the tactical game play in favor of narrative strategy.
Because at the core, Dust & Salt really is a “narrative strategy game.” In the same way that the Civilization franchise or Crusader Kings II asks you to make big, top-level strategic moves while the world changes around you, Dust & Salt’s gameplay experience revolves around your character, Wayward of the Nameless People, uniting allies in the North against the violent, imperialist city of Murk. This, of course, requires adventure game choices that are about individual actions in the same way that Civilization V asks you to manage individual cities, but the real pitch is in that macro game of gathering allies, choosing who to support in regional conflicts, and determining how you want the world to look if you can manage to take down Murk.
That moment of choice between the Curse of Dust and the Oath of Salt is one of those moments where you’re deciding how you want the world to look. And in the framework that the game gives you, there’s room for the cruelty of Dust. After all, your quest is animated by the death of your father, who was killed when you were a child because he defended you from the soldiers of Murk who intended to abduct and conscript you into their military. They burned your village, too, and scattered the Nameless People across the North. It’s very Conan.
But it also works because it gives you a simple choice: is my character, Wayward, simple about revenge? Or is he about building a world where the conscription army and pillaging ways of the city of Murk could never exist?
Dust & Salt makes a choice to give you ample opportunities to play this question out, not only in the context of weighted decisions like the choice between dust and salt above, but also in how you deal with the various rules of the Sin Lands (the region the game takes place in) to lure them to your side in the battle against the city of Murk.
For example, I went to a city of miners and metalworkers to try to secure some siege weapons to help with my attack on Murk. Divided for years by a clear caste system that separated the workers for the aristocracy, the lower classes revolted, leaving me with the choice of who to support in the conflict. Initially I supported the revolutionaries because, well, their whole deal. Following down that narrative path revealed that they were definitely outnumbered, and the game forced me into a pitched battle in the limited “tactical battle” mechanic of the game (a very basic grid battle system that I’ve been forced into maybe 10 times total).
I died in the battle. I realized that I would need to be much more powerful to support the rebels, and the ruler of the city pleaded with me to quash the rebellion. If I did, he explained, I could have as many siege engines as I wanted. I reloaded my game, destroyed the rebellion, and went on my way, the caste system still in place.
I didn’t like it! It sucks! But it was also the logical outcome from other military decisions I had made earlier in the game that had cost me valuable infantry. My strategic choices, delivered wholly through narrative decisions about my ruler Wayward and the world he wanted to create, constrained me as much as a lack of funds or nutrition might in another strategy game or the way that a lack of a +1 weapon might in one of the classic RPGs.
And I find that so much more fulfilling than many of the traditional “mechanics” that these strategy games and classic tactical RPGs are tied to. I want the richness of a world delivered in story that is equivalent to the richness of the world Civilization offers via its computational interactions. And Dust & Salt gets there, or at least gestures enough to show me the thing that I’ve been looking for.