Dustborn Dev on Diversity, Word Play, and Representation Interview 1

Ever since Sony's PlayStation 5 games reveal event, we've seen a flurry of next-generation titles announced at various different digital events. We're quite excited about pretty much all of them, but one game which really caught our eye here at Push Square was Dustborn. Revealed as part of GamesRadar's Future Games Show, this looks set to be an experience all about the concept of weaponising words. It's supported by a diverse cast of characters and in an effort to learn more, we caught up with the game's lead writer and creative director.

Push Square: For those who didn't catch the Future Games Show, could you introduce yourself and Dustborn? What sort of game is it?

Ragnar Tørnquist: Sure! My name is Ragnar Tørnquist, I’m the lead writer and creative director of Dustborn; a third-person road trip action-adventure about a band of outcasts and misfits travelling across a near-future Divided States of America. In this colourful and slightly oddball alternate-history setting, our crew of Anomals (not a typo!) wield weaponised words against the authoritarian regime standing in their way...and the fanatical technocrats chasing them. It’s a game about hope, friendship, love, and the power of words. Also robots. Lots and lots of robots.

What did the team learn during its time developing Dreamfall Chapters that has been incorporated into Dustborn?

Oh, a great deal. With Dreamfall Chapters and Draugen we were able to experiment with branching narratives and dialogue, choices and consequences, and AI companions — all of which are central to Dustborn. We’re taking those features and game mechanics to the next level, mixing it with a graphic-novel inspired art style, and making words and language matter, not just in interpersonal relationships, narrative choices and puzzles, but also in combat. The idea of “weaponised words” is a key feature that touches every part of the game, as we explore themes of disinformation and propaganda, manipulation and deception. In Dustborn, words can be used to affect people emotionally, but they can also have physical effects. Words have actual power!

Dustborn takes the idea of weaponising words to heart by literally making them a part of combat. How does this play out in gameplay? Is this a turn-based title where you select words from a menu or is it more of a real-time experience which allows you to utilise phrases at will?

Dustborn is a real-time experience, and using weaponised words in combat and conversations will often require quick thinking and split-second choices. The way words are used in different situations differ mechanically, but the idea is the same: you can threaten and coerce, charm and distract, use positive and negative reinforcement to manipulate your friends and foes. Context and intent matter, however, and a word, sentence or emotion won’t necessarily have the same effect on an enemy combatant as it will on a crew-member or innocent bystander. Understanding that context, understanding how intent shapes language, is important to progressing in the game.

Dustborn Dev on Diversity, Word Play, and Representation Interview 2

How will the fact that protagonist Pax is pregnant play into the story and gameplay?

It will have a pretty significant impact, and it’s also the impetus behind the story: Pax is looking for a way out of her current situation, a new beginning for her unborn child, and that’s why she’s put together the crew and embarked on this dangerous journey across America. But the pregnancy will also have major implications on certain game mechanics...without going into any details at this stage.

Dustborn sports a stunning art style. What was the inspiration behind this aesthetic?

Art director Christoffer Grav is an illustrator who’s worked with books and comics, in addition to games. The art style of Dustborn is basically his personal style, and it was obvious to us that we needed to make a game that specifically reflected that style, along with comic books and graphic novels in general. We’re using a lot of visual language from graphic novels, both in the 3D art and the user interface and user experience, but of course translating that into something that works in a game.

During what really feels like a time of change, how important was it to the team to lead with a black, female protagonist?

It’s always important for us to create characters who reflect different backgrounds, different experiences and perspectives, and who have new stories to tell — stories that are typically not well-represented in video games. Pax’s character emerged from that philosophy, but also from the narrative and setting. She was always this character in this world. And from the moment Dustborn was conceived, it was fundamentally important to us to put Pax front and centre. Of course, we just happened to announce this game at a time when systemic violence against black people is coming into stark focus, and when the world is taking a firm stand against oppression and racism, which probably casts a different light on our creative choices. But representation and diversity in popular media and video games have always been important issues, and an area where we’ve all fallen short, especially as game developers. We hope Dustborn can play a small role in improving that situation.

Was representation at the core of Dustborn's design? If so, how else has the game diversified its cast of characters?

Dustborn is a game about a particular group of friends: immigrants, exiles, outcasts, misfits, outsiders, refugees. It’s about people who stand apart from society, rather than being part of it, and who are looking for a way out, the road to a better life and more rewarding future. And yes, we wanted this group of people to reflect not just the diversity of America, but the diversity of our players: ethnically, culturally, sexually, religiously, in terms of gender roles and identities, and economic status. Our greatest hope is that we can reach and touch players who aren’t used to seeing someone who looks or sounds like them in a video game, and to perhaps make them feel seen and heard.

Dustborn is planned for launch on PS5 next year. We'd like to thank Ragnar Tørnquist for taking the time to answer our questions and Charlene Lebrun for making the interview possible. Do you like the sound of Dustborn? Will you be keeping your eye on it as we approach its release? Share your thoughts in the comments below.