Growing up I had a friend whose father constantly warned him, “study hard or else you will spend the rest of your life cleaning up other people’s messes.” As one of the world’s most affluent countries, we value cleanliness or at least the appearance of cleanliness. This is why we like to go to Disney World, why we shun restaurants with low health scores, and we flush our toilet paper (this is a largely Western practice—in most other countries it is thrown in a trash can). We value cleanliness, and yet we view those whose job it is to clean with disdain. Truth be told, cleaning is an arduous and incessant task and one worthy of admiration. Dustforce, the new side-scrolling platformer from Hitbox, places players in the shoes of nimble janitors tasked with artfully cleaning various everyday environments.
Enemies in the game are not minions trying to kill you but elements of landscapes dirtied by grime, dust, and filth. Instead of eliminating them with a gun or sword, Dustforce arms players with brooms and leaf blowers with which they free woodland animals from oppressive dust, cleanse mansions, and restore laboratories back to working order. Successful sweeps of the broom at aggressive minions do not destroy them but sets them in order. Angry bears turn peaceful, mad scientists return to sanity, and gargoyle’s resume their watchposts. Given videogame’s tendency toward destructive action, Dustforce’s emphasis on restoration is refreshing.
Early on the game seems to value exploration and observation of the environment. In my first session with the game I played for 2 hours straight, admiring its clean hand-drawn art and soothing ambient soundtrack. The game opens in a side scrolling hub of levels—there are woodlands, old mansion, and laboratories to be explored. Each of these environments are compelling—the woodlands are crested with golden orange sunsets and the cityscapes are dotted with stars. These environments were imbued with so much detail that I found myself pausing to take them all in.
At the end of those two hours, however, I realized that I had played through every unlocked level and that unlocking the other levels requires a key. A key is acquired by completing a level without making a single mistake–you cannot miss any dust, you cannot be hit by an enemy, and you cannot lose your combo, meaning you must clean fast. Take too long transitioning from stain to stain or miss any spot of dirt and you fail to earn a key. Thus Dustforce morphs into a platformer that demands precision and deft hands reminiscent of Super Meat Boy or N+. Apparently, cleaning requires more time, persistence, and dexterity than I can muster.
Thus an ambient platformer quickly transforms into an exercise in cold calculation. Given the amount of the world that is only accessible by key, this is certainly what the developers intended. However, given the game’s aesthetic choices, the transition to merciless platformer is jarring. There is something delightful about hitting your combo just right such that an angry bear turns peaceful or a dusty gargoyle returns to it’s proper position. In such moments, if we are paying attention, we should realize that our actions are making a difference. Sadly, however, the game’s insistence on perfection does not allow us to bask in these moments. We’re all too busy frantically trying to maintain our combos. Continued play devolves into rote memorization and environments that once enchanted us only serve to highlight our imperfections.
The more I played the less I cared that I had swept dusty books back into their cases or restored woodland creatures to their proper habitation—keeping my combo had become my sole fixation. I couldn’t appreciate the beauty of the world–I had to memorize every wall jump and perfectly time every boost. As a result, the game is simultaneously frustrating, rewarding, and honest. It is frustrating because the game is requiring of me diligence that I don’t have, meaning there are large portions of the world I will never have the pleasure of cleaning. It’s rewarding because every perfect score feels like a significant accomplishment and honest because it recognizes the difficulty of the janitorial profession.
Nonetheless, Dustforce is a refreshing take on the side scrolling platformer–one in which honors the simple but noble act of cleaning both through its aesthetics and the demands it places on players. Though this combination is necessarily limiting and at times jarring, the end product is certainly the most fun I have ever had cleaning.