So, we’ve got the best geology simulation outside of a supercomputer bank. We’ve got a considered, thoughtfully majestic style, following the best tenets of terse, suggestive dialogue in games. So where do they put the game?
From Dust is an occasion of technology in search of gameplay, an idea too good to pass up but too lazy to suggest a genius game to go with it. The story goes that Eric Chahi, having released enough good games for one lifetime just by making Another World, took a break and spent about a decade looking at rocks. And you know, there’s some pretty interesting rocks in both Another World and From Dust.
So he wants to capture the power and beauty of a volcano in a game. If anybody’s going to have the wherewithal to imbue bytes with the unspoken energy of Nature, it’s this guy. And it works! From Dust has moments in it to take the breath away. It’s one of the very, very few pieces in video games that stretches across the complete artificiality of the medium to make something real. When the first tidal wave sweeps over the land, completely engulfing the miniscule humans, the game is singing. Literally, too: as the water sweeps in, the heartbeat rhythm of the drums kicks in and the spell of the music pushes the water away from the village, pulsing with the energy. It’s a Charlton-Heston-as-Moses moment – you might indeed spontaneously grow a grizzled yet stately beard as you part that damn water.
And there’s more! From Dust has volcanoes, uh, underwater springs, hills that magically rise and fall… After a while it starts to get a bit stretched. And it’s apparent that the developers were having trouble building out a game from their mechanics.
Mechanically, From Dust is a sim. There’s a complicated simulation working along geological rules, so that constant natural inputs continuously shape the land as you are playing. A spring, logically originating at the top of a rocky hill, will generate water which flows forever towards the lowest point. It naturally sorts into rivers. As the rivers level out near the ocean, they split into deltas. These deltas grow over time as silting is simulated. Leave it long enough and you’ll watch acres of land form. As rivers flow, the soft earth becomes eroded, and realistic river bends form and reform periodically. Volcanic sites spew magma, which cools into rocks, which eventually decays into pliable earth, to be coated again by a fresh coat of magma. A tidal wave sweeps over the land and disturbs the earth, wearing down protrusions.
The player’s only real input is collecting and dropping material, typically earth. A great godlike handful can be carved out of the earth, and the hole will even out due to simulated erosion, and the dirt, dumped, makes a new hill. Earth can be placed to dam up a river, though the water will be fighting it, eroding it, and may eventually break through. Pick up water and use it to cool approaching magma or water desert areas. As humans spread, connect fertile regions with deserts by shaping the land to spread foliage across the map.
It’s a great toy. It gives as much as it gets; one spends as much time playing as watching the accelerated natural forces effortlessly mimic reality, gaining real applied knowledge of geology as expressed in the world. But the game built around this toy is there only because From Dust is a packaged and sold game (well, digitally packaged).
With interaction built around shaping the world, gameplay is built around protecting small human groups from natural disasters and ensuring the safety of slowly-pathing units. The player directs the humans when to move to new locations but not where – essentially, the only interaction the player has with the NPCs is the order to tell them to expand to the next stage in the level. It gives the player a reason to shape the land but not a deep enough one to motivate playing with dirt for longer than is absolutely necessary. It doesn’t encourage the deep play that the simulation has within it – no scenario asks for a river delta, for instance, though they’re exquisitely modeled.
And it isn’t as deep or long-lasting as was anticipated by the designers. It shows dearly in how often scenario-specific mechanics are thrown at the player. Beyond carving walls for humans, no lasting mechanics develop throughout the game; no favored tricks are expounded upon. An idea is introduced, played with briefly, and then discarded. One level (it should be called Khazad-dum) has dozens of infinite water springs just below the surface, ready to flood the level if the player digs too greedily and too deep. Another is built around two plant species that alternately set fire to vegetation and put it out, and the careful gardening is needed to manage the two populations (The Patient Gardener?). Another is actually a seesaw –two hills that alternately rise and fall in thirty-second intervals, sloshing a lake of water between them. They all work well enough but the inability to recycle, expand on, and combine content is an obvious tell that they didn’t know where to build the game. It’s an expensive and time consuming slog to keep slapping content down to justify a great idea that nevertheless does not want to work the way it is. It’s something I recognized in my last game, which suffered a painful enough birth that I eventually made it about the struggle to create.
With the technology and purpose of From Dust, something good had to come of it. What other areas could they have explored for gameplay? Given the terrain creation, destruction, and reformation that constantly takes place, one could make a killer ecology game built around providing specific habitats in specific quantities. Sort of a SimCity meets Viva Pinata – the player as the cosmic zookeeper attempting to attract the most diversity, or the most specific niche to attract the rarest animals, the animals arriving after their specific biomes are in existence. It’s what I would do, anyway.
From Dust is a great idea struggling to make it through the medium of videogames. It only works because it’s interactive, but it’s almost crushed by the burden of being a game. If only we could do something other than win in a game… It works despite itself because it’s real. Any piece of art approaching veracity, if it starts to reflect the complexity of the world, can start to be read like a kōan, as a parable for life. From Dust teaches that infinite power can still only be applied indirectly, that seeking control is futile and more than that unnecessary. You may control nature but you can’t save that village – sometimes, the current is just too strong. You may have the best tech and an assured hand but sometimes the game doesn’t take shape. From Dust may have gotten a bit out of hand but it’s as powerful as nature herself.
Cross-posted at the Game Design Guild.