Dustborn Interview – Anomals, Justice, Puritans, and the power of words

One of the game reveals that has stood out to us over the last couple of months was Red Thread Games’ Dustborn, which is due to be released on PS5, Xbox Series X, and PC next year. It is a game about a road trip across the Disunited States of America, where a woman called Pax has been tasked with delivering a package while trying to evade the forces of the Puritans and the Justice. This is a world where words have the biggest consequences, where music plays a large part, and a group of outsiders are trying to survive the pressures of being Anomals.

Intrigued? So were we. That is why we asked Red Thread Games’ founder and developer Ragnar Tørnquist about Dustborn.


TSA: Why did you choose to make a game like Dustborn?

Ragnar: In a way, this game chose us. I know, I know, that sounds trite, but it’s true…sort of. Dustborn (under a different name) was conceived in late 2016, born from our collective feelings about that year in general, and certain high-profile political events in specific. As game developers, we often feel powerless to have a positive social impact. Games are inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, and it can feel equally inconsequential to work on them. Given the state of the world in 2016, and even more so today, we wanted to at least tell a story that felt relevant, that touched on themes that concern us, and hopefully get our players to engage with those themes and stories in a positive and constructive way — while also being entertained, of course.

But Dustborn’s also a game that we want to play; a road trip across a future America populated with interesting stories, iconic locations, quirky characters and robots. Lots of robots. And it’s an opportunity for us to experiment with narrative-driven combat action, using weaponised language and what we call “wordcraft”.

TSA: How did the USA become the Divided States in Dustborn?

Ragnar: In our version of reality, the United States was torn apart decades ago, after California seceded and became Pacifica. The U.S. was rebranded the American Republic as is controlled by the authoritarian Justice, though large parts of the continent are pretty much the new wild west. There’s a lot of history and backstory to the setting, and you’ll learn some of it during your road trip from Pacifica to Nova Scotia. But the setting isn’t the real star here: the characters are, and every bit of lore and history emerges from dialogue and personal interactions. This isn’t a history lesson, but we have spent a ton of time building a rich universe with depth and detail, one that players can dig deeper into if they choose to do so.

TSA: Where did the idea of Pax come from, and at what point did you settle on her as the lead?

Ragnar: Pax was there from the get-go, almost fully formed…although her weapon and wardrobe have changed along the way. We had an idea of this broken and haunted woman who’s a refugee, an orphan, a “freak”; someone who struggles with anger issues after having to hide her true self from the world. We knew her story from the beginning, and the world and narrative and cast grew from that seed. So Pax was always, and continues to be, the emotional and somatic core of the game, even as the setting and story have evolved over time, and continue to do so.

TSA: Can you give us some details about the characters that are with Pax on this road trip?

Ragnar: Sure! Your core crew consists of Pax’s best friend, Sai; Noam, her ex-partner; and Theo, their employer — along with Pax. They’re soon joined by “Robot” (who does get a proper name and personality later on) and CAT: the cute little flying robot that everyone loves. As you travel east, you recruit more crew (and band) members, each of whom brings new skills to the team, and new stories to the game. It’s an eclectic and, um, strong-willed bunch, and you have to keep them happy and motivated, or deal with escalating interpersonal conflicts.

TSA: Could you give us some details about the Justice and the Puritans? Who are these groups?

Ragnar: Justice is the authoritarian militant force that ostensibly serves and protects the American Republic, under the direct command of the President. They were originally formed in the early 1970s as a federal homeland guard, but their mission has been twisted and subverted over time. They hunt and detain Anomals, which means they’re after Pax and her crew. The Puritans are fanatical technocrats from Pacifica, and they want to retrieve the mysterious package you stole from them before the game begins. Fortunately, the Puritans and Justice hate each others’ guts. Unfortunately, you’ll soon be caught between an authoritarian rock and a zealous hard place.

TSA: What is an Anomal, and how do they fit the world of Dustborn?

Ragnar: Anomals (which is not a typo!) are people who, through a significant event in the backstory, gained the power of wordcraft. Pax and most of her crew are Anomals. They use language and vocalisations to manipulate people, emotionally and physically. Sort of like superpowers, but with unpredictable and potentially dangerous effects…so, okay, exactly like superpowers! Anomals are called “freaks” and “deviants” by the authorities who hunt them, and by most of society, who fear them and their powers. It all harkens back to an event called the Broadcast; an infodemic that happened thirty years ago in the game’s timeline. That was the genesis for much of this.

TSA: There’s an old saying of “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” That’s clearly not the case in Dustborn. Where did the choice to make words weapons come from, and why settle on this idea?

Ragnar: Honestly, whoever came up with that saying clearly wasn’t bullied as a child! Words can really hurt, and we’re taking that to the next step: words as actual weapons that can be wielded in combat and conversations. The idea grew from our growing problem with disinformation; corporations and governments using propaganda as a weapon against the populace, amplified by technology. That’s what the Broadcast was: a nuclear bomb of information that infected all of North America, causing chaos and disorder, and leading to the birth of Anomals with their lingual arsenal, fuelled by disinformation. It’s a theme that we feel is relevant and timely, although we put our own twist on it.

TSA: The artstyle has been described as being like a graphic novel, looking different from Dreamfall & Draugen. What was the thought process behind choosing this style?

Ragnar: It has everything to do with our art director, Christoffer Grav, who has a background as an illustrator and comic-book artist. Dustborn’s style is Christoffer’s personal art style, and since we’re all fans of comic books and graphic novels, and wanted to make a game that tapped into the storytelling conventions and techniques of comics, it all came together quite naturally. The team is doing some really neat stuff with the art direction and user interface, and it will hopefully look and feel like nothing else out there.

TSA: Music seems like it will play an important role in Dustborn. How big of an impact will it have in the game?

Ragnar: You’re absolutely right: music is the beating heart and soul of Dustborn. Not only are you traveling undercover as a folk-punk-rock band, and have to learn a set of songs to keep your cover up — we’re also using music to give combat a new twist. Pax puts on headphones before every fray, and she gains focus and energy from the tunes she plays. Simon Poole, our in-house composer and audio director, was responsible for the musical score in both of our previous games, and we have a close working relationship: music is a central part of the game design from day one. There are also other aspects to the game that lean heavily on sound, without getting into any details at this point — so yeah, audio in general and music specifically have a huge impact on Dustborn.

TSA: Dustborn is described as a road trip. Will each stop on this trip have its own enclosed stories or does everything feed directly into the main narrative?

Ragnar: Both! Every stop along the road is like an episode of a TV series or an issue of a comic book that tells a self-contained story, but they all feed into the overarching narrative. The intent is for players to be able to sit down for an hour and play through a single “issue”, and get something of value from it, while seeing the bigger story emerge from the individual pieces.

TSA: Dustborn is confirmed for PC and consoles. Are you able to say if it will be available on current gen, next gen, or both?

Ragnar: Dustborn is coming to PC and next-generation platforms. We’re probably not bringing the game to current-generation consoles. As for technical details, we don’t have anything to share…yet. But we hope to put the power of next-generation hardware to good use, especially when it comes to art and audio.

Thanks to Ragnar for chatting with us. Make sure to keep an eye out for Dustborn as we head to the next generation of consoles and 2021, and you can always wishlist the game on Steam to keep tabs of it there.

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From the heady days of the Mega Drive up until the modern day gaming has been my main hobby. I'll give almost any game a go.