Michael McWhertor — Being a god in Ubisoft's From Dust ain't easy. Though you can manipulate the elements of this world, you'll sometimes feel less like an all-powerful deity than you might a hopeful local politician, a cog in a powerful, sluggish, bureaucratic machine.
You may feel as powerful as a child on a beach, building a sand castle against the unstoppable force of a rising tide. You may feel like a mini-god, struggling against your nemesis, Mother Nature, as you do good things at a micro level. After all, children playing in the sand can't hold swirling balls of lava in their hands or jellify a river, dividing its waters like a virtual Moses. But mini-gods can.
You are not quite a god, but you are god's breath in From Dust, the latest game from French game designer Eric Chahi, perhaps best known for seminal and stylish action adventure Out of this World (née Another World). As god's breath, you look like a serpentine strip of light, skimming along the sand, water and rock of this dynamic world.
From Dust lets you play as a god preserving the lives of small bands of villagers, protecting them from tsunamis and floods. As god's breath, you'll snake your through sandy beaches, into volcanoes—something From Dust designer Eric Chahi has a passion for—and through delicate and powerful rivers, guiding people to totems, to new villages, and eventually to portals to safety.
I played From Dust, jumping into its world with an Xbox 360 controller last week, finding it a challenge to play as a deity with limited omnipotence. Really, my powers as god were to reshape the earth, inhaling spheres of dirt and water and lava, redistributing them to give people better lives.
My first goal, in one of the games 13 territories, was to guide people to a totem that would grant them a magic song. A countdown clock warned me of a rising tsunami, a wall of water that would wash away people, their huts and some of the sandy highways I'd designed. That totem would help the people recover a knowledge that could help them repel water.
First I had to curb the flow of a river, diverting its rushing waters into a lake and then into the sea. God's breath inhaled (right trigger) a huge ball of earth, then exhaled it (left trigger) in another location, slowly building a shoal for the villagers to walk across. Reshaping the land is not as instantly dramatic as being god in a Populous game, for example. Engineering earth takes some time and some thought. God's lungs only have so much capacity (about the size of a four story building, maybe.) Rushing waters will easily wash away your attempts at constructing a sandbar, I quickly learned. It felt like painting in a rainstorm. Eventually, I got enough to stick.
So, I did get these people to their first totem, though Mother Nature did subject the people to at least one crushing wave. They learned a song and fought off future water walls with dancing, singing and drumming. I could zoom in for a closer look, witnessing the celebration from a human perspective. The people have the power here, I'm just their local representative, I thought.
The people of From Dust built new villages as they prospered. I guided them to new totems, beckoning them to walk across newly safe pathways. "Come here!" I would say with a button press that delivered some god sounding tone. On-screen, a series of icon totems filled in as villagers touched them, a border of blue surrounded those icons as villagers learned their songs.
I guided people to their next expansion, a landmass of rocky cliff walls and magma spurting volcanoes. The tsunami was still a threat here, but at least one village was partially protected by those rocks. As god, I needed to reinforce that rocky barrier. I learned I could slip up a hill, into a volcano and inhale a ball of lava, then drip it atop the rock wall, slowly reinforcing it.
I also learned that villages and swirling balls of molten lava do not mix well. (Sorry, my native worshipers! Hope too many of you didn't burn to death. Nice village rebuilding, by the way!)
It was in this land where I learned how to jellify water, after finding the rushing rivers too powerful to stop with simple balls of sand and dirt. Using my god powers, I held river waters still, inhaling a globe of clean water, carving out trenches of gelled liquid, and disposing of it elsewhere, giving the people a glowing pathway to safety.
The goal was the same, get villagers to totems, get them there safely, do so with simple earth carving super powers. It was the dynamic environment, the wholly natural feel of this level that had changed, presenting new challenges.
From Dust was and was not what I had expected. It was a mostly relaxing struggle against imposing countdowns and natural disasters. It was an experience in which I felt less like a macro-god and more like a micro-god, still benevolent, but more like a local hero.
What is perhaps most captivating about From Dust is its beauty, a dynamic, gorgeously realized set of mini-worlds in which to design a life for little people. It's nothing like the Eric Chahi game I'm most familiar with, Out of This World, but it's just as beautiful and unique.
From Dust comes to the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and PC as a downloadable game this summer.