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Kris Graft is editor-in-chief of Gamasutra (@krisgraft)
A lot of people won't "get" Rust. When you first log in to a server, you awaken -- you're born, really -- probably in the middle of a field, with a stone, some basic first aid, and a torch that hardly would last through the night.
The world of Rust doesn't wait for you or feel obliged to ease you in, and neither does its often ruthless inhabitants. It's like merging with heavy traffic: If you make a wrong move, you'll end up smashed up on the side of the road. Student drivers will end up in a mangled heap more often than more experienced drivers.
Rust, in Early Access alpha development by Garry Newman of Garry's Mod fame and his studio Facepunch, abandons preconceived, tailor-designed structure: quests, skill trees, narrative arcs, level designs, etc. are all out the window. Everything revolves around a straightforward crafting system and your ability to live and learn on Rust Island.
What Rust does provide is the foundation -- the crafting system and the island -- for players to build a social framework, to have experiences and interact with one another in a wilderness survival setting. Facepunch is a small team of developers, so creating framework and countless systems and producing endless content wasn't really an option. Just as Rust conforms to the way players play, it conforms to the way the developers develop.
As someone who doesn't typically play (or "get") "these kinds" of games, Rust has opened my eyes to virtues of emergent design in games with large groups of people. It's "missing" a lot of features we've come to expect in video games, and it works wonderfully. Here are a few of my experiences and a few takeaways from this game, which still isn't even close to being done.
Rust diary excerpt #1
Welcome to Rust Island
"MISSING" GAME FEATURE: TUTORIAL
Woke up, at night, alone. No clothes, that was interesting. Lit my torch. Ran through some scratchy grass for a little while. Calories dropped to near zero before a similarly naked stranger hit me a few times with what I presume was a rock. Whoops, I'm dead.
There is no tutorial in Rust. You learn from playing, which involves a lot of dying. Lesson learned here? I probably need food to replenish calories -- but how? And why did someone hit me with a rock? Maybe if I hit a deer with a rock enough times...
Rust diary excerpt #5
"MISSING" GAME FEATURE: PANTS
Made pants today, so happy. Naked stranger killed me with a rock, unprovoked. Woke up, pants gone. Now pant-less and paranoid. Whenever I see someone nearby, we watch each other, strafing sideways, until we're a safe distance from one another. "I'm friendly, I'm friendly," we'll yell. Sometimes the last thing you'll hear.
At this point, you're starting to understand that you'll have a hard time trusting anyone in this game. And you understand that no one trusts you, either, pants or not.
Rust diary excerpt #6
"MISSING" GAME FEATURE: CONTRIVED POWER FANTASY
Got cloth from a deer I'd hunted. Gathered some wood, more cloth and even some stone. Made a bow and arrow. Was so happy. Dude hit me with a rock and killed me.
It's kind of unnerving in Rust the way that you do feel more powerful, and dominating of others, once you possess more powerful weapons. But a rock was still pretty effective against me with a bow and arrow. Even if you have firearms, it doesn't guarantee your safety. In fact, if you're running around with your shotgun out, you might become more of a target. So even if at first you feel like a "bad ass" when you make your first gun, you're often quickly put in your place. You typically feel disempowered in Rust, but that's ok.
My first bow
Rust diary excerpt #11
"MISSING" GAME FEATURE: FRIEND/ENEMY MARKERS
Weird day. Ran into guy named "Texas" at the warehouse. All of us were unarmed, but he told me to get my rock out, makes me look more aggressive. Sure, ok let's see what happens. Followed him down the road to meet his friend. Ran into three guys with rifles, they told us to get to the side of the road. "We're dead, we're gonna get executed." Riflemen started throwing us all kinds of supplies and weapons, with no ammo. Appealing to someone who's never had anything. Took us back to their place where they locked us in a room for 15 minutes or so. They came back, opened the door. I took off. Texas, my fellow captor, shot me in the face, killed me. Said it was an accident.
This was the first of many tangible social connections that I made in Rust, a real, "what the heck just happened here?" moment. Only immediately afterwards did I realize how having nothing in Rust made having "something," so much more appealing. And when that "something" -- like weapons and armor -- gives you leverage over the people who have nothing, out of naivety, you tend to want to side with the people with the power, even if you're being dominated yourself. Finding out who's a friend and who isn't involves forging an actual relationship.
Texas and his friend, unconscious (with censor.nudity false)
Rust diary excerpt #25
Finding a friend
"MISSING" GAME FEATURE: MAP
A friend of mine now lives somewhere on Rust Island. No map, no coordinates, stars tell me nothing about direction. Found each other using landmarks. That was pretty great.
We're so used to features like minimaps or even on-screen arrows that tell you exactly where to go. Finding a friend (my neighbor in real-life) on the big virtual island, especially when you're not really familiar with the place, is a reward in itself. You lose the convenience of a typical game feature, but you gain back a sense of gratification.
Rust diary excerpt #30
The homeless shelter
"MISSING" GAME FEATURE: FRIENDS LIST
Some kindly folks with houses by the hangar have a nice little one-room house they call "the homeless shelter" - has a furnace, sleeping bags, campfire. Even got the code to the place so we can come and go. Hung out there, it's nice, esp since our wooden shelters were raided.
This isn’t the only instance in Rust where other players are actually nice. More than a few times, someone would just drop a bunch of food or supplies down for us, just to help out. When you do the same, you have potential to make strong alliances. I like how people will ask in chat, "How do you team up with people?" as they look for some kind of built-in system to group up. Facepunch doesn't have that system, at least yet. You have to go up to someone, ask if they want to team up, and hope they don't smack you with a rock, or shoot you. It's purely social, virtually "face to face."
Rust diary excerpt #40
Raided and disappointed
"MISSING" GAME FEATURE: SAVE POINTS
Getting the hang of collecting and crafting. Lots of supplies in our small place, took hours to gather and create. Got raided in the middle of the night, C4 to our side wall, most everything is gone.
There's really no safety net in this game. If you die, the best you can hope for is to respawn at your sleeping bag or bed, if you made one or the other. You'll lose everything on you, though you can go to your body and hope it wasn't looted by the time you get back. This particular instance with my friend and I stuck out in my brain because it forced him to change the way he thought of the game -- he had to willfully mentally adjust to "living" on Rust Island. "I just find myself getting too nervous and anxious about losing everything, constantly. From now on I'm just going to accept that this is what this game is about, and if I lose everything, that's ok." That's a wonderful revelation to have about a video game.
Rust diary excerpt #60
Moral dilemma with "stings2pee"
"MISSING" GAME FEATURE: MORALITY METER
Tim told me recently about a guy who lives next to our main three-story base. The guy goes by "stings2pee" but he's friendly enough, exchanged food and supplies with him with no incident. Today another friendly we know told Tim about a raid on a house, supplies still there for the taking. Tim went along, found out it was nice-guy "stings2pee"'s place. He didn't feel right taking the stuff, but the "friendly" armed raider insisted, "Take it! Take it!"
Another instance in which there is no moral system in the game aside from the system you take into it. So you end up with real actual moral dilemmas. Tim intended on giving the raided goods back to "stings2pee," but we haven't seen him since.
Rust diary excerpt #68
A message from MrZero (me)
"MISSING" GAME FEATURE: REVENGE NARRATIVE
Nighttime. Random friendlies turned out to be random hostiles. Started hitting me with rocks, killed me near base. Tim was in area, told him BigMatt was the one who landed killing blow. Tim caught up with him, laughing "This is a message from MrZero!" and one-shotted BigMatt with a pickaxe.
Tim was no Liam Neeson in Taken here, but this tiny meet-betray-revenge loop was hugely satisfying and hilarious (because really, you do get tired of naked jerks hitting you with rocks). The situation emerged and was over in the course of about five minutes, yet is one of the more memorable experiences I've had in Rust lately.
Rust diary excerpt #81
"MISSING" GAME FEATURE: LEVEL DESIGN
Pat joined Tim and I tonight. We've plenty of supplies these days, getting him up to speed was no problem. Random hostile attacked Tim up by the warehouse, Pat and I came up to see what was happening. Hostile chased Tim into the base. Locked hostile in front room. Hostile made it through our maze of a house, killed Tim a couple times, hacked through a wooden gate with a stone, crafting wood barriers behind him to slow us down. Invader made it to our roof, laughed at me just as he finished crafting a crate, which he used to jump over one last barrier. He screamed, laughing, "THANKS GUYS!" as he made off with Tim's new MP5.
So this was humiliating and hilarious at the same time. It was basically The Three Stooges trying to stop this guy from infiltrating our place. Our home, which we thought was decently-designed for defense, was not. We've renovated since.
A comment from a developer on another wilderness survival game sticks in my head as I think about Rust, and why it's been such a memorable experience. Kevin Forbes of Don't Starve developer Klei Entertainment recently told us the following, so I'll leave you with this parting thought:
"I've read of some players bouncing off [Don't Starve] because it doesn't offer a standard progression model: people will die after hours and hours of play and lose everything they have accumulated in-game," Forbes told us. "They ask: 'What was the point? I have nothing to show for my time!' Well, they had the experience of playing the game, and the knowledge that they gained from it. If that wasn't fun or worthwhile while they were playing, no amount of digital trinketry will make it so. I think that a lot of the social cruft that we've added to games in the past console generation is a distraction that detracts from the joy of playing."