From Dust PC
From Dust is a game about man’s powerlessness in the face of nature. To be precise, it is a game about Eric Chahi’s vision of man’s powerlessness in the face of nature. Following the eventual release of Heart of Darkness in 1998 (do you remember when a six year development cycle seemed absurdly long?) Chahi apparently left the games industry to explore other interests, until his experiences of amateur vulcanology inspired a welcome return. Quoth Wikipedia:
“I decided to create Project Dust during a trip in Vanuatu in 1999, I was near the Yasur crater and it was strongly active. I could see its explosion; the sound was incredibly loud, like an air plane breaking the soundwall. Bombs were falling everywhere and sometimes really close to us. I was at the same time fascinated by this breathtaking beauty and really scared. I remember I had two thoughts at this very moment: ‘I want to create another game before I die’ and ‘in the game I want to convey this ambivalence of Nature, beautiful and potentially violent at the same time.'”
It’s a dramatic image that I’m sorry to say From Dust doesn’t quite live up to, but its influence remains visible. Players assume the role of a tribal spirit – I’m reluctant to use the word ‘God’ as it implies a less servile relationship – who must protect and assist a wandering band of nomads as they attempt to rediscover the forgotten knowledge of their tribe. As they travel between deserts, volcanoes and tsunami-whipped islands, it soon becomes clear that the greatest threats they face comes from natural forces. The player is therefore tasked to render these lands habitable, by redirecting hazards and creating geological shelters.
The primary method of interacting with the world is to pick stuff up and put it down somewhere else. This mostly relates to materials like sand, water and lava, which behave in vaguely realistic ways (eg. lava can be used to create walls of volcanic rock) although some exciting species of tree crop up later in the game to add special effects to your developing worlds. Secondary to this, certain totems around the map will grant you miraculous special abilities, if you can shepherd your tribe into setting up a village at their base. Most of these powers are functional but unfulfilling, with the notable exception of the ‘jellify water’ power – freezing a tidal wave in its path and then casually carving out sections to prevent landfall never ceases to feel cool. The underlying physics engine that allows you to mess around so freely with the world is impressive, although this leads me to my main criticism of the game.
Once you overlook the ‘physics’ element, there’s not really much game left to worry about. Your tribe regenerates its numbers quite easily should your plucky followers fall into a volcano or be swept away by a river, and almost all materials you might need are abundant. Perhaps I’m just great, but it seems like there’s very little real risk of failure. Sometimes the game will hit you with a surprise flood or volcanic eruption with little warning, which certainly give you something to think about, but feel like cheap sucker punches.
The fact is, all of From Dust’s dynamic environmental features are presented as hazards that must be brought under control. Your goal is not to create a habitat within a living ecosystem, but to sweep the ecosystem aside and replace it with uniform verdant grassland. There are some positive side-effects to each threat, such as harvesting fertile soil from volcanoes or using rivers to irrigate desert sand, but these only really come into play on particular, one-off levels. Most levels follow similar patterns of setting up flood defences and funnelling all lava and water sources off the map as efficiently as possible; Once you unlock the ability to relocate captured totems it becomes even easier, since you only have to set up one solid safe zone and perform quick, totem-snatching raids into hostile areas of the map. It’s disappointing that a game featuring such detailed ecological systems would reward this kind of steamroller development, but I suppose asking the player to create a balanced ecosystem may be too steep a request.
The game is still jolly good fun. The ‘pick up and drop’ control scheme is probably the best implementation of godly influence I’ve ever come across, and I really appreciate the little touches like visual rewards for spreading fertile land across the map. I love the way it deliberately avoids traditional religious referencing in favour of a vague tribal faith in a protecting spirit – there’s a very strong suggestion that the tribe hold all the real power in the world and you are simply a physical manifestation of their faith, in the same way that their kites and music can protect their villages from floods. While not flawless (the PC port suffers from an odd joypad-to-mouse translation), it’s a rare example of a run-of-the-mill game concept elevated by good design acumen.
Oh, and although it has nothing to do with the game per se, I should probably mention the crazy problems some people have had with the ‘always online’ DRM and stuff. Speaking as someone whose computer is always online I can’t say it bothered me personally, but be aware!