Over the last few years I’ve picked up and dropped Dustforce several times. I always tried to top my own times and utilize a few improved strategies, but I never got too deeply into it. I would marvel at the top replay’s perfection, it was unrecognizable from my own play. The minute optimizations flew right over my head, all I could understand was pure speed. I thought macros would be required to play at such a level, so I wrote it off as not really worth it. Eventually though, I looked deeper into it, which opened pandora’s box.
Dustforce alone— without any crazy techniques— is an extremely hard platformer. It utilizes a complex system of dashes, jumps, air-jumps, wall-runs, ceiling-runs, to create speed. Completing the base set of levels will easily take 40 hours of practice. This is before a player even thinks about replaying and optimizing to maximize their speed. Levels must be completed with an SS ranking, perfect in completion and finesse. Performance must be near-perfect to pass, making only minor mistakes that can be fixed in under 5 seconds. This emphasizes a concept of flow and retaining it throughout a level. The focus on speed in mechanics and perfection in structure establishes Dustforce’s root in speedrunning. After the completion of each level, the in-game leaderboards displays the fastest times, serving as the game’s own speedrunning hub. This transform the game from a technical platformer into a performance display.
And a nice display it is: Dustforce is beautiful in motion. In a word, the aesthetic is soft. Characters – enemy and player – appear friendly and warm. The small puffy particles convey speed along with each character’s personality. Environments beg to be ran and cleaned by the player. The music is open and inviting, matching the art’s lead. Amidst Dustforce’s high speed, combat, difficulty, and perfection requirement, it’s still kind. The game lays out its tracks and hopes for you to succeed. There are no moving parts, or pervasive threats. Dustforce is a largely pacifist game with pacifist challenges. It’s breakneck difficulty doesn’t lash out at you for failing, but asks you to try again.
The complex set of mechanics and emphasis on flow allows for a myriad of player expression. There are many ways to approach each obstacle, different paths to break and begin, different techniques to transfer fluidly. Each small choice is a tiny but distinct reflection of the self, imprinting their playstyle on the created replay. The act of play itself allows players to express their personality, adding a special kind of meaning for each player. This beauty in flow and play leads into an invitation of mastery, the pandora’s box.
Advanced techniques in Dustforce start with mastering dash rhythm. If you dash once every ~12 frames, you can retain any speed and transfer 100% of downward momentum forward. First a dash must be inputted immediately upon landing on the ground, and then once every ~12 frames to maintain the speed boost. I’ve easily spent 5 hours on the recorded map below, sometimes while listening to 220 beats per minute, just to ingrain the timing.
[play without utilizing dash rhthym vs. with dash rhthym. video is 20 seconds, audio optional]
Other small techniques arise like optimizing the end of a wall-run, finding places to groundboost (and apply the aforementioned dash rhythm), and dash-jumping (a frame-perfect input to dash and jump at the same time in mid-air). Mastering these techniques allows a new charm to blossom in Dustforce: the art of performance. Learning how to systematically optimize and master new and faster lines of play is enthralling. This beauty comes at a price though, as mastery is achieved, expression is diminished. The new satisfaction comes from being able to perform fast, difficult techniques, instead of one’s own techniques. Each improvement and optimization eliminates avenues of expression. It’s impossible to express the perfect route, it is simply a performance of it.
Before learning such techniques, Dustforce was almost a sort of puzzle. How can I maximize my speed, without using the super difficult techniques or routes outside of my skill level? Now most top 100 strategies aren’t super far “outside of the question,” it’s just a matter of how much practice can I stand to achieve it. Mastering these strategies is fun and rewarding, really it is. But endlessly repeating the same 40 second map for hours on end loses its luster. Practicing and practicing the same input just to get more consistent becomes tiresome.
My time in Dustforce has always been off and on, but since plateauing in skill it feels more cynical than ever. After learning advanced strategies and techniques, it’s hard to enjoy the game on its terms. Going slow isn’t as fun as it used to be, and going fast to reach my previous best is harder than ever before. Strategies to beat my previous speeds increasingly require inhuman feats that aren’t worth learning. My hands and fingers cramp at the request of a dozen precise inputs in a single second. Attempting harder sections causes misinputs resulting in frustratingly impotent output. Fumbling with the controls like this feels a lot like when I first started. After everything, as much as I’ve mastered Dustforce, I’ve made no progress at all.
This is a spiral I find myself caught in often. I find a new multiplayer game whose engaging play plus opportunities of expression hook me in. As the boredom with regular gameplay sets in, I’m enticed by the rose of mastery. I want to be good at my hobby. I want to be able to impress myself, to take pride in my progress and performance. I’ll always cap out though, and I’ll never really be among the best, no matter how enticing the idea is. I’ll eventually quit the game, blissfully unaware of why I’ve grown bored yet again. It’s hollow and cyclical, but I don’t regret it. Regardless of whether or not I was seduced by the prospect of mastery, I would still grow bored and quit all the same. I still play Dustforce occasionally, and I still absolutely adore the game. I won’t be able to play it forever, but I don’t think that’s something to be mourned.