The Nod Problem: if God is all-powerful, can God create something too heavy for God to lift?
I’m nearly finished with From Dust, so once again I violate the implications of our “First Impressions” category, but I didn’t want to shoulder in on any other writers in case they wanted to do some impressions. So here are mine.
Very quickly: Eric Chahi.
This gentleman is considered one of our auteurs – more independent and unpredictable than your Miyamotos or Schafers, a bit of a rogue, or a roguelike perhaps; he reminds me of Jason Rohrer without the whole I-live-in-a-meadow-and-eat-only-lentils thing. Chahi gave us Another World, he gave us Heart of Darkness. His games are ruminative meditations, experiential environments, ponderings and musings.
I’m making his games sound boring as hell, aren’t I?
I’m sorry. That’s just the way I talk. Chahi’s games aren’t boring at all, they’re delightful. Another World innovated the 2D roto-style platforming we first saw in Prince of Persia and then saw perfected in Flashback. Heart of Darkness gave us plenty of rich narrative coupled with a brutality toward the protagonist that’s aped even today, in games like Limbo. So yeah, disregard what I said earlier. Chahi’s games are deep, but they’re fun too. And I’m pleased to report that From Dust doesn’t deviate, not in the slightest.
From Dust is his latest, the first outing the French gent has made into games in many years. This Ubi-published 360 Summer of Arcade title (coming soon to PS3 and PC) has been misleadingly characterized as a Populous successor, or possibly a Black & White successor, or both. Really From Dust is more of a puzzle game, though you’ll see obvious influences from those two.
Your objective in From Dust is to shepherd a neolithic tribe safely throughout its Journey. While said Journey is presented as a geographical meandering, it’s also a matter of self-discovery, of mastery over their surroundings, of learning how to touch the divine. The Tribe visits lands left behind by ancient forebears whose secrets they’ve forgotten, and attempts to settle each. As the Breath – not God, exactly, just an entity, a being of power made real by the faith of the tribe – you’ve got to help them. Because the Ancients left these lands in a sorry state, and the Tribe lacks even the most basic tools to make the earth livable.
So you must manipulate the land, moving soil and water and even lava; redirecting rivers, creating islands, undermining volcanoes, delving for springs, so the Tribe can settle each of the monuments the Ancients left behind. With each monument settled, the Tribe creates a village, and you gain extra powers, either specific or general: the ability to slurp up more material, to destroy matter, to evaporate water or quench fire. These powers, in turn, make it possible for you to make it possible for the Tribe to continue its Journey.
From Dust’s unique conceit is that you have exactly zero influence over the Tribe’s development. All you can do is tell them when you want them to go somewhere. You don’t expand their territory, as in Populous, you don’t give them new structures or send them to war as in Black & White. All you do is manipulate the topography of each map to maximize the Tribe’s capability to survive there.
Which is why From Dust is a puzzle game, not a “god game” in the usual sense. Each map has the same objective – settle all the monuments, then get your Tribe through a gateway to the next land. It’s the makeup of these regions that offer the challenge. There are no rival tribes, no dangerous animals, no tech tree, no nothing, really. You barely pay attention to what the Tribe’s up to. And this may be Chahi’s greatest accomplishment with From Dust, a game that is nothing but great accomplishments. After all, God doesn’t pay that much attention to us, no matter what we might elect to believe. God could give fuck-all whether you choose to have an abortion, or whether someone’s written a scripture, or whether you even believe. Only our monstrous egos convince us that God is focused more on we puny nonentities than on gravity, or time, or the movement of galaxies.
And, I might add, God doesn’t love universally or deliver vengeance or any of the bullshit conventional boneheadedness would have you believe. God just is. God is doing God’s thing; you do yours. In From Dust, you get a chance to do God’s thing, while others do their own. Now, in fairness to God, you do get to part seas in From Dust. In fact you’ll part so many seas it’ll be as miraculous as Wednesday. But you’re not doing it for them. You’re doing it because you are.
The first three or so hours of From Dust offer gentle hand-holding and ramp up to the mind-bendingly tough final four or five maps, the solutions to which require immense planning and foresight… almost as though you’re expected to understand the universe. Between each mission you’re treated to the same cutscene, which is unskippable, but brief enough that it hardly matters; another objective is to track down the “story” of your Tribe, which means gathering knowledge of the land, of animals, of vegetation and the tides, and – of course – of the Tribe’s forgotten history. These are secondary objectives, and the game is so cleverly conceived that you don’t have to do any of it if you don’t want to: in each map you’re busily doing what needs to be done to complete it, and once you’ve met that objective you can move on immediately if you like. Those who take the time to spread their Tribe’s influence across enough of each map unlock challenge levels that add significantly to the game’s six-hour singleplayer.
Pick up dirt, put it down. Pick up lava, put it down. Pick up water, put it down. That’s From Dust in a nutshell. And… it’s hypnotic.
This is unquestionably one of the most beautiful XBLA games I’ve ever seen; the water effects alone are worth $14.99. Watching plant life spread across islands as your tribe’s influence grows; replanting special flora to control (or set) wildfires and bring down mountains; and, of course, zooming to individual Tribespeople to watch them dance and sing, carry knowledge from village to village, or just stand there (hey, just because God doesn’t watch everything all the time doesn’t mean there’s no zoom-in button), these simple actions are pleasing.
Now, From Dust does have a few glaring issues that might drive you crazy, depending on your personality. First and foremost, thumbsticks are not the ideal control mechanism when you’re trying to precisely lay a line of soil to create a path from one island to another, where once there had only been raging sea. I’ll admit that my thumbstickery has dramatically improved thanks to playing this game, but From Dust cries out for mouse controls and I’m eager to see what the August 17 PC version brings.
The other issue is that the Tribe, while purposely ignorant and helpless, is pretty god damned ignorant and helpless. I don’t mind their inability to cross running water, but refusing to climb even subtle grades or running straight into the caldera of an active volcano is a little less forgivable. It’s not annoying, per se, because if you’re playing properly you don’t really need to care what they’re up to except in a general sort of way, but it will make you want to smack them.
Beyond that, though, I can’t think of a single reason why you haven’t already bought From Dust. What’s the matter with you? Here’s a game that offers a profound meditation on the relationship between man and God, a brilliant series of puzzles, a beautifully executed game engine and a top-notch dollar-to-doughnut ratio. Yes, it’ll be nine cents on Steam during the holiday sale, but sometimes we have to contribute so the special stuff can survive. I’d hate to see From Dust go the path of Child of Eden, so take out your credit card and do the right thing.
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