Videogame Art: Rust (2013)

By Alex Kierkegaard / June 27, 2017

Videogame Art: Volume I

Rust is a fusion of the Arma II MP survival mod DayZ with Minecraft. It is superior to DayZ because of the crafting system, and to Minecraft because of the fully fleshed out PVP/PVE aspects that were only gradually and grudgingly and half-assedly added to Minecraft, mostly when some people started complaining that Minecraft is boring and not really a game. The problem, which no one seemed able to recognize, much less articulate and analyze, but which I homed in on in my iconoclastic review of the game, was that the stuff you built in Minecraft didn't really do anything. The castles and cities and Death Stars that people were showing off in lame Kotaku pseudo-news posts didn't really function like the castles and cities and Death Stars players built in games like Age of Empires and SimCity and Planetary Annihilation; they were just 3D models of structures that simply sat there and did nothing, because the "game" did not contain sufficient mechanical systems to simulate their functioning. So while the Death Star in PA could actually blow up entire planets because there were actual planets in that game designed to be blown up, the ones in Minecraft could only be used to generate Kotaku news posts for the edification of people who don't play games but prefer to pass their time reading random gossip about them. Similarly with the hollow, lifeless "castles" and "cities" that Minecraft "players" kept autistically churning out because they were too lame to play a real game and too stupid, if they were really into it for the pure creativity of it, to install a copy of Photoshop or AutoCAD or Maya and learn to use the programs that the ACTUAL creative people use when they feel like creating complex 2D or 3D structures. The badly botched (and ugly to boot) bastardization of creativity apps and videogames that Minecraft represented ended up appealing to the same demographic that for example guitar games appeal to (as I will also be explaining in greater depth in my upcoming Guitar Freaks essay): people who are too stupid to learn to use AutoCAD or play real guitar, and who require an immensely dumbed down and "gamified" version of the activity in order to ever engage with it at all.

Welcome to the insanity that is Rust

   But that is not to say that Minecraft was a complete failure, which is why I gave it a 2/5 rating, instead of 1/5: the concept of crafting items and structures in first-person view, block by block, which is precisely how people craft things in real life, was an extremely attractive and engaging one (which is to say an extremely immersive one), and one which therefore was simply waiting for a real game designer to adopt it and turn into a fully fleshed out, proper game; an extremely rough and simplistic prototype, if you will, of this new and revolutionary crafting mechanic, as e.g. Wolfenstein 3D had been a great prototype of first-person shooting mechanics, while still being a pretty crappy game if viewed and judged by the criteria of finished games meant for general public consumption (as opposed to consumption by studio directors and producers evaluating whether to use them to build a proper game based on them).
    It is with Rust then that crafting in videogames finally comes into its own, and no other previous game can compare and compete with it in this regard. The crafting systems found in various CRPGs are laughable in comparison, and not even in comparison, since these systems are so universally boring and superfluous that I have never bothered to use them in any game ever, while still progressing in all of these games just fine without them, which is precisely the definition of bloat. But crafting in Rust is no bloat, since without it you likely won't even get hold of a spear to defend yourself against animals, let alone against players with rocket launchers and assault rifles. Admittedly, it seems possible to circumvent all the crafting in the game by simply preying on other players and stealing their stuff, but this is the toughest way possible to play the game, and I would recommend it only to those who have already "beaten" the game via the normal crafting route, and experienced everything it has to offer, and are looking for a fun alternative way to engage with the gameworld in what seems like an "Impossible" mode for me at the time of this writing, just for the fun of seeing how far they can get in it, as I myself and my friends plan to do eventually. More realistically, such players will still be doing a little crafting to supplement their raiding, but in any case the existence of this "mode" by no means renders the crafting as bloat since it is precisely in the crafting mechanics that the most complex and engaging and innovative interactions that the game brings to the table can be experienced. If you craft stuff in CRPGs — whether Western or Eastern — you are just wasting your time with those games' most boring aspects; if you don't craft in Rust you are missing out on the coolest mechanics the game has to offer.

Brick by brick, my friend, plank by plank

   Does that mean that Rust is the first good crafting-based game? It depends on how you define the concept. If you take it in the personal, single-avatar sense that the CRPGs mostly use it, yes, but if you apply it more broadly, to cover the type of more abstract "crafting" seen in something like Civilization and Age of Empires, then no. In my case, I am not going to get into semantics because nothing would be gained by it for the purposes of this examination; I'll just say that CRPG crafting is bullshit because it merely gives you a boring, menu-based method to get the same type of items you get in the far more fleshed out and entertaining combat and exploration phases of these games, while strategy-game crafting is awesome because it is orders of magnitude more complex and the only method of getting the "items" (units/gear/structures) that you need to face your adversaries in those games at all. And it is here, in the examination of the nature of its crafting system, that Rust's real relatives in the evolutionary videogame tree can be discerned: Wikipedia and all the blogs and forums can see the connection between Rust and DayZ and Minecraft, but who can see the connection between it and Civilization and Age of Empires? Who can tell you that what this game really delivers, if played properly, is a first-person version of Civ and AoE? Only a real critic can do this. The stuff you guys are reading are not criticism, they are bullshit. That's why you think that Wolfenstein and Minecraft are great games instead of prototypes and technology demonstrations that should never have been treated by any critic as finished games meant to be played by the general public.
   So, though Rust does indeed take its first-person crafting from Minecraft, that's only the most superficial, and therefore easily discernible, thing that it does. At a deeper level, it copies the evolutionary nature of its crafting system from Civ's elaborate tech tree, which was modeled on real historical scientific and technological evolution, as opposed to the simplistic quasi-arbitrary systems employed by the traditionally fantasy-themed — and hence necessarily shallow and tedious — crafting systems of CRPGs (which are shallow and tedious precisely because it is in the very nature of fantasy to deny and oppose evolution, while science-fiction glorifies it, and that's why researching a +3 longsword after you've found a +2 one is not exactly the most gripping experience that interactive entertainment can afford the game-playing public today, or ever). And while Civ goes from more or less cavemen to jet fighters and the final spaceship that leads to Alpha Centauri, Rust stops somewhere around laptops and rocket launchers, while also omitting some stuff like e.g. vehicles on the way, which, though far less ambitious than Civ's implementation of the concept, is still by far the most ambitious that such a system has gotten in a first-person real-time game by an absurd margin, to the point where I struggle to even think of what the second-best game in this regard would be, after Rust, and before its release. So, essentially, this is a trivia question best left for genre specialists and scholars, and for our purposes Rust may as well be the first game that does proper evolution-based crafting in first-person real-time perspective at all. And since Civ's "crafting" isn't even in real-time, let alone in first-person, the loss of complexity in the breadth and depth of things you can craft in Rust is more than compensated for by the fact that you are crafting this stuff in real-time, and first-person. And this is where Age of Empires comes in, since that's essentially a real-time version of Civ that stops at the Iron Age (at least in the first game), and again with a much simplified tech tree and "crafting" system than Civilization, which however is once more compensated for by the fact that this system functions in real-time. DayZ and Minecraft, then, are only two of the influences discernible in Rust's DNA, and Civ and AoE are two more that are just as important, and that no one is pointing out because they are harder to discern, and, I am afraid to say, also harder to play and experience at all.

It's goin' down tonite

   The problem is that most people still play Rust essentially alone, and the "critics" are not doing anything to change this because they too are playing alone (if they can be bothered to play the game at all that is, which judging by their reviews is doubtful). If you are therefore rolling around the island dolo, or at most with a couple of friends or randoms you met in-game, struggling for weeks and months to set up even a basic cabin in the woods without it getting demolished every ten minutes by gangs of marauding clan members, it is understandable that you won't make the connection between the game and Civ or AoE. If, on the other hand, you are part of a 15-player clan, and go out to cut wood for 10 minutes with half a dozen other players, which wood is meant to be supplied to teammates of yours who are in the middle of building a castle, what are you doing exactly, if not precisely the same thing as a villager in Age of Empires, only in first-person? And if the clan is comprised of 100 players, instead of 15, operating in separate groups spread out across the map tackling specialized objectives which boil down to eXploring, eXpanding, eXploiting, and eXterminating, what are you doing, precisely, if not participating in a real-time MMO version of a 4X game like Civilization?
   Of course, when playing the game in this way, you are running into the same types of "problems" that you do when playing stuff like PlanetSide and Planetary Annihilation properly, and which I will explore at length in my respective essays on these games: the social and psychological "challenges" involved in interacting with groups of human beings, or simply with other people at all. And since the type of gamer who is willing to delve into games as deep as these is typically a neurotic shut-in who views social interaction with the same enthusiasm that normal people view a disease, it's not hard to see why no one besides me has so far managed to grasp the true nature of this breath-takingly ground-breaking, insanely revolutionary game. That's not to say there is no fun to be had in playing Rust solo. The most hardcore way to play the game would indeed be to start solo, and go about trying to recruit an army IN-GAME (and with the threat of the impending wipe hanging over your head every step of the way, no less!), like a real-life leader and conqueror would. Don't think I am a double standard-employing hypocrite who fails to realize that my leveraging of the gaming clan I created OUTSIDE this game (and indeed outside of ALL games) isn't "metagaming", which is to say cheating. Any in-game goal accomplished by out-of-game means is "metagaming" = cheating pure and simple; but in a game world that exists for barely a few days at a time, the vast majority of the population of which is utterly useless for any collective pursuit, and many of them even for simple human interaction, I judge that the most hardcore way to play the game would NOT in fact be the most enjoyable, not because there is something fundamentally wrong with the most hardcore method (which, in itself, is in fact the best, which is why the Great Game employs it), but simply because the game has not been designed with a view to this method, and hence is not well-suited for it. There is simply no time to recruit, and get properly acquainted and form yourself into an organization with, a large enough team in Rust, and the only way to play as part of a large-enough and well-organized group to experience fully all the systems that are in place in the game is to bring that group with you from the outside, hence the massive and uncontested dominance of the bigger clans, and hence my claim that clan-play is the only way to fully appreciate what Rust has to offer to the artform — and hence why no one besides me has so far managed to offer an analysis of this game that is not instantly laughable. To be sure, there are a few thousand people in the game who belong to the big clans, and who therefore do experience the game fully and properly, but apparently there is none among them with the required expertise in the medium, intelligence, and analytic and critical ability required to offer up a decent evaluation and analysis, unless there is already an essay on the game comparable to mine out there and I've so far failed to find it.

10/10 would raid

   Still, I am not entirely condemning solo play, as long as one realizes and accepts at the outset that one will get about as far in the game in this way as a villager in Age of Empires would get if he made his own flag and country and proceeded to attack all the other nations on the map on his own. This is part of the beauty of the first-person perspective, as it is indeed of life itself (which is also played from a first-person perspective, nota bene): that madness and unfathomable stupidity are also allowed in this perspective, so that all the other players, who are not retarded, have something to point to and laugh at, as comic relief from the more serious and stressful parts of the game. For there is no madness and comparable stupidity allowed in Age of Empires... unless I guess you don't bother to make any more villagers beyond the one you start out with, and attempt to beat the game in this way. Then again there is probably an entire autistic subculture of gamers out there devoted to doing just that, which I am not plugged enough into autism to have heard about: perhaps they call it the "single-villager-running" RTS community. Don't laugh; stranger things have certainly happened! Your favorite blog is probably being updated with the latest goings-on in this community as I write this.
   By the way, I am not saying it's impossible to craft all the items in the game solo, via means of extreme guerrilla and squirrel tactics, and playing when most of the server is asleep and so on; but I AM saying that, at least with official rules on official servers, you will neither manage to build any reasonably large and complex base (since the moment it goes above average size it will attract the attention of clans, who will take it over from you if not indeed pulverize it), nor will you experience any of the complex tactics that, by their very nature, become only possible when being part of a team (and the most complex of them only as part of a large team). I will be exploring this at length in other essays, but for the time being consider the tactics possible if football was a 1v1 game, instead of 11v11 (at least in Europe; I've no idea how many players the misnamed American version has). And while there is a place for Rambo-play in an MMO that is purely about action like PlanetSide, there is precious little such space in the far more complex 4X MMO that Rust is, and if you are playing the game in this way you are seriously misusing and borderline abusing it. Of course, if, as part of a clan, you get sent on a lone-wolf commando mission, that's all well and good, because you are operating out of a base which you helped build, and are armed with gear you helped craft, and so on, and have a target that is relevant to the goals of your clan and whose parameters are deeply intertwined with the strategic situation the clan is in at that particular moment — and which situation and strategy you yourself have participated in shaping and deciding on, in various ways — so it's all well and good in that case, and indeed a testament to the superiority of Rust's first-person, one-player-one-avatar design over the traditional strategy game's one-player-many-avatars, god-view of the action which precludes the player from experiencing anything remotely related to such a scenario in those games. For such a scenario we have so far had OTHER games, first-person action games which specialize in the Rambo-like, commando fantasy, but which are devoid of interactivity with the larger tactical and strategic context of the missions undertaken in them. In those games everything is scripted, and your missions are handed to you by NPCs, affecting essentially nothing that happens in the next mission, while in Rust they are dynamic and unique, affecting, to a smaller or larger extent, everything that happens in the entire server until the end of the game, and being affected by everything that happened beforehand (once again, as in the Great Game). Show me a game released before Rust that does anything comparable at anything even remotely approaching the scope and depth that Rust offers, if you can. And it is precisely because you can't that I say Rust is the only sensible choice for 2013's Game of the Year.