When you’re God, the world is your puzzle.
That’s the main conceit powering From Dust, a game from legendary designer Eric Chahi, best known for his early PC gaming masterpiece Another World. It’s a graphical and aesthetic update to the god game, a genre which saw its greatest popularity more than a decade ago in titles like Populous and Black & White. The super-popular Sims games carry on this legacy but as a life controller, you don’t have the kind of direct connection to your charges as in From Dust.
The game’s story is presented as a New Age eco-fable of a nomadic tribe trying to reconnect with the Ancients, mystical forebears who’ve left behind totems of great power. You play as the Breath, a theological presence called up by an aboriginal people to intercede in their lives. That intercession isn’t exactly strike-down-our-foes stuff, but it is decidedly Old Testament in nature. You’re parting waters and shifting earth, doing the stuff that allows your worshippers to be fruitful and multiply. Your main talent is in being able to move globs of earth and water, essentially terraforming the levels to make them livable for the humans you serve.
Gather enough people around a totem and they’ll start a praise dance, which will make a village instantly sprout up around the totem. Populate all totems with villages and you’ll open up a passage to the next area. Along the way, you’ll find stones of knowledge that let you learn new skills like Jellify Water, which turns raging streams semi-solid.
This easy progression curve belies some tricky strategy. You’ll learn to worry about how to manage soil erosion, lava flow and underground springs in a way that’s altogether new. The controls for From Dust feel a little imprecise at times and leave you not exactly sure where you’re placing that dollop of hot lava, but that fiddliness is nothing that breaks the game.
From Dust looks beautiful; a weird blend of shiny realism and swirly impressionism chopped into gorgeous dioramas. But the best part of the game is that you can actually affect beautiful vistas. You can make desert plains fertile and stop tsunamis in their tracks, watching your tribe’s growth happen as a direct result of your actions.
But, there’s a dark side to that benevolent thrill. There’s nothing worse than watching the poor hapless souls who’ve depended on you to bend the elements to your will fall prey to a natural disaster. Tribesmen will get stranded on sandbars, swept away by the tides or otherwise frustrated by your poor godliness skills.
It’s a weird thing to say, but in the sum of its mechanics and presentation, From Dust approaches something religious. Yes, the prose gets a little crunchy granola at times, but the idea that a communion with music and the earth generate an interactive and directed deity stands alone in a medium awash in shooters. While it’s decidedly non-denominational, From Dust makes you wonder about the Entity upstairs and how hard a job It must have, especially after what mankind’s done to Earth. For a game to make you think about ecology and the spiritual interconnectedness of man and planet and be fun on top of all of that stands as a significant achievement.
Techland Score: 9.0 out of 10