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After more than a decade's absence from the game industry, Eric Chahi returns with a renewed vision...
We'll each spend three billion heartbeats and ninety million steps buzzing about our busy lives, while the ground beneath our feet (the Eurasian tectonic plate) crawls a leisurely half a metre across the planet. The Earth isn't in a hurry; it's well into middle age now, and far too concerned with thinning forests and thickening smog to consider picking up the pace anyway (in 10,000 years, Great Britain will have moved less than Usain Bolt manages today in nine and a half seconds.) But where our transient human perspective sees immutable mountain ranges, and vast, eternal oceans, the planet's surface - when viewed over millions of years - is more like the foam floating on a bubble bath; shifting and melting with every sudden gust or subtle ripple. Our 'bubble-pop' of existence is too brief to comprehend the fluidity of these changes, as thin rafts of land dissolve and emerge, adrift on a sea of sloshing molten rock.
On one level, From Dust is an island-sized virtual sandbox that simulates land formation on a geological time-scale; lava flows cool to form mountain ranges in moments, while sandbanks fall into the sea and rivers carve paths through the land in seconds. On another, it's a god-sim in which you shepherd your people towards enlightenment while shielding them from the unforgiving elements; helping them to unlock the forgotten knowledge of their ancestors and rediscover their connection with the world. But at its core, From Dust is an existential meditation on the shocking brevity of our capricious human lives; an exploration of our fractured relationship with ourselves and our environment. What else would you expect from Eric Chahi, the visionary creator of AMIGA classic Another World; a man who cites the power of volcanoes and the intentional dissonance present in African folk music as a reflection of the inextricable complexities of life and his source of inspiration for the game.
The technology behind From Dust is undeniably impressive; each level is a real-time geological simulation of a self-contained island, evolving in accordance with natural physical laws on a massively compressed time-scale. You interact with the simulation by sucking up quantities of matter with one analogue trigger, and releasing them with the other; removing some soil near the source of a river might cause it to suddenly divert its course, while dumping water into the sea creates real-time ripples that erode nearby coastlines. Due to the analogue precision of the interaction, and the dynamic nature of the simulation, the result is a wonderfully expressive exercise in fluid sculpture; lava flows cool to form solid rock, while rivers spill and flow viscously as you attempt to dam them in. Vegetation can slow the erosion of coastal sand banks, and will spread organically into adjacent patches of soil, but ultimately there's no holding back the inevitable forces of nature, and any focus you expend on one area, can only come at the cost of neglecting another. The simulation is so dynamic and the rippling consequences of your actions so diffuse, that it's impossible to fully control every aspect of the island in front of you, especially when massive eruptions, earthquakes or tsunamis could transform the landscape at any time.
You are 'The Breath': an ever-moving spiritual manifestation of your tribe; a circling ball of light that dances across the surface of the land. In the opening scene of the campaign, the tribe are stranded on a rocky outcrop in the dead of night; waves crash ashore, buffeted by the howling, piercing wind. The scene pans across to a masked tribesman holding a large conch; you press the left trigger and the man blows into the horn, breathing you into existence. Your tribe need to reach a mystical gateway to complete each level; by clicking on the gateway they automatically find the most convenient path towards it, a path which often changes as the landscape changes around them. Their path is currently blocked by the sea, so you create a small land bridge with a heap of soil and they travel through the gateway, underground.
They emerge reborn, in a serene tropical island paradise; your view pans across the island, lapping up the gentle waves and enormous, docile molluscs that have made their home in its abundant vegetation. A totem stands alone on the beach, and your tribe found a village around it, playing a song which makes new dwellings literally rise up from the dust. Another totem lies across a stretch of water; it’s a simple enough matter to guide your villagers there across a land bridge, and then towards the gate to finish the level, but this introductory space is really meant as a playground in which to experiment with your basic abilities, free from the pressure of natural disasters and inhospitable forces.
By studying certain relics in the game, your villagers gradually unravel the secrets of their ancestral roots, and gain new powers in turn; these powers might be passive effects that protect villages from the elements, or active abilities that you can use directly. In a later level, a tribesman sets out on a journey towards one such relic, his path blocked by a powerful river. You can choose to temporarily dam the river with soil, or divert its course entirely; all problems can be solved in a variety of ways, and the possibilities are really only limited by your interest in finding novel environmental solutions. The journey back to the village is fraught with danger, but should your tribesman return, the villagers play an ancient song invoking the new effect. Finishing the level involves spreading the new knowledge to other villages, and clearing the water from a sunken gateway to progress. Each level is linked with a cut-scene which shows your awe-struck tribe members approaching the next gateway with trepidation and excitement, and follows their journey into the earth towards their new lives; cut-scene use is infrequent but effective, constructing a subtle narrative flow congruent with the sparse minimalist beauty of the games natural aesthetic.
A final level required building a wall of rock to shield a village from the effects of the sea; it also introduced the Jellify Water power, which turns liquid into a thick gelatinous substance. We didn't play this particular level (it was part of a demonstration), but it was evident that a number of alternative solutions existed for every given objective (making a rocky bridge from cooled lava, instead of clearing a path through Jellified Water, for example). Later levels introduce further powers and additional environmental hazards, which range from mildly disruptive vegetation, to devastating volcanic eruptions.
From Dust is evolving into a massively compelling sandbox experience, imbued with fascinating existential undertones. The simulation is a technical marvel, and the game-world a joy to inhabit. Although the campaign objectives initially seem superfluous, they add a welcome puzzle element to the experience, and the underlying story acts as a conduit for the over-arching themes of the work. Even if you're entirely disinterested in the broader message of the game, simply playing with the simulation is hugely engaging, and sculpting the landscape as it dynamically reshapes itself a genuine spectacle. Perhaps the biggest accolade we can give From Dust however, is that it's left us aching to play more.
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