Even within the internet’s vast digital memory, nothing is guaranteed to last – especially not games. Maybe a company runs out of money and has to cut the cord. Or maybe disinterest turns servers into ghost towns, with not even a pixelated tumbleweed in sight. Dustnet takes the latter idea to its utmost extreme, positing a world in which there’s just one server separating iconic Counter-Strike map de_dust2 from being consigned to the trash heap of time. In Dustnet, you can explore these ruins and, if you’re feeling especially audacious, build on top of them.
Dustnet, released earlier this week, describes itself as an “asymmetrical cross-platform deathmatch” with different interfaces depending on whether you play on PC, in VR mode, or via a mobile-only AR mode. These options are extremely cool, with VR turning you into a giant floating pair of hands while AR gives you a god’s eye view set against the backdrop of your living room or what have you. I only got to try the game on PC, which is how it seems most people are playing anyway. You start out by choosing to join the terrorists or counter-terrorists, just like in Counter-Strike. After that, the rest of the experience is... nothing like Counter-Strike. Technically, yes, there is a bomb somewhere, but it’s not a particularly pressing matter.
The whole thing is more of an eerie museum that just happens to (sometimes) have de_dust2's layout. Other times, the floor shifts, and portions of the map vanish into digital purgatory. You can wander, collect weapons, and try to damage other players, but given how few players were on the server, I didn’t find that to be a very interesting pursuit. Instead, the best way to experience these cavernous, texture-free halls (and most places, really) is as an untethered deity with near-limitless powers of creation and destruction. With the press of a button, you can enter edit mode, which lets you no-clip around and do as you please. You can add objects and weapons, or – if you really have no reverence whatsoever for the quietly weeping ruins of de_dust2 – jump pads, teleporters, and giant pyramids made of fire.
I marveled at the player-made structures that are already in the game, from skyscraping towers to messages written on the sky itself. It was a fitting juxtaposition, given that dust2 is, itself, one of the most popular and influential player-made creations of all time. People have, in their own ways, been building on top of it for years. Or at least, trying to, even if topping it has proven to be an impossibly tall order.
Then there’s the additional meta-layer of Dustnet itself being a small multiplayer game predicated on the precarity of multiplayer games. If I don’t play dust2 in Counter-Strike every day, will it go away? Probably not. But Dustnet’s population isn’t exactly bustling, and these sorts of games have a way of disappearing when their player bases dry up. Is Dustnet a game about dust2, or is it a game about itself? Who, really, is to say?
Speaking in more practical terms, Dustnet is what you make of it. I built some objects, enlarged some others, and added a teleporter near a spawn that would raise people high into the sky and then drop them right back down to the first teleporter. I’m not sure if anybody ever took the bait. I also found a lever that controlled the appearance or disappearance of much of dust2's layout and activated it to make the scenery appear. Then another player immediately made it go away. We went back and forth like this for a solid 45 seconds. I thought it was pretty funny. What did they have against dust2?
It wasn’t long, though, before my interest waned. Dustnet is a fascinating place to visit, but there’s not much in the way of structure or goals. That’s fine. It’s a museum to which people can add their own works, which is cool on its own merits, and has the chance to become even cooler. For now, though, it just doesn’t lend itself to long stays, unless you have an elaborate creation in mind or some friends along for the ride.
I look forward to seeing how it changes in the coming days and weeks. I’m sure I’ll be back. After all, if I don’t return, what’s to stop the “final” dust2 server from popping out of existence altogether?