Your first word of all was light,
and time began. Then for long you were silent.
Your second word was man, a fear began,
which grips us still.
Are you about to speak again?
I don’t want your third word.
The early levels in From Dust move with a slow, breathtaking beauty that encourages creative mind-wandering. For me, this passage from Rilke’s Book of Hours continually surfaced as I idly tore the earth apart at its seams, struggling with these unusual controls to move my small cluster of villagers along their arduous journey. From Dust’s greatest strength comes from this sense of discovery as you marvel at its simple, novel interface. How did someone think to make a game that looks and behaves more like a module construction kit than actual gameplay? The villagers’ cries of anguish when I would stumble were frustrating at first, but eventually I accepted their frequent deaths as I tried to recreate the world as I saw fit. As I saw fit. I had to shuttle these villagers through to the next level, yes, but God, ultimately, always had the better vantage point.
It is disconcerting how detached you become from the villagers you are meant to protect in each level. If you have the power to make and unmake the world, what concern is a small tribe? But what do these people make of you as you doll out life and death with no sort of democratic interface to explain it’s ok, I’m drowning you in lava because I need to finish making this barrier from the tidal wave that’s about arrive? Rilke continues:
Sometimes I pray: Please don’t talk.
Let all your doing be by gestures only.
Go on writing in faces and stone
what your silence means.
From Dust is a very literal interpretation of “sand-box.” The god in this god game—the god whose powers you assume as the player character—has the imagination and dexterity of a child sitting alone in a playground, quietly watching sand glimmer in the sunlight as it sifts through his hands, watching his toys stare up at him impassively as they are slowly covered in earth.
The game starts slowly. It’s stunning landscapes and soundtrack of breathlessly repetitive strings, drums, and primordial chants make the first levels feel like Koyaanisqatsi: The Video Game. You marvel at what you can build with your one control: the breath. An illuminated cursor dances around the matter at creation’s feet until you suck it into an orb, depositing it elsewhere on the map to reshape the land.
Then the challenges arrive—an incoming tidal wave, a volcanic eruption slowly dripping lava towards the village. As quickly as you learned to use these new tools, you are suddenly put to task as the villagers cries of anguish grow to a fever pitch. This is the world you’ve just made, after all. Don’t you have some stake in it? “Be our refuge from the wrath,” Rilke continues, “that drove us out of paradise.”
The game follows a “story,” but in a flimsy way. You are shepherding these villagers as they revisit the abandoned homes of their ancestors. In the beginning, From Dust seems like an oversimplified version of other god games. But in its later levels it feels more like a puzzle game with decidedly odd variables. Timing is suddenly crucial, inconveniently so. Levels begin with no clear path, the raging elements destroy your nomads before you have time to formulate a strategy.
In the beginning—no wait, let’s try that again. Ahem. In the beginning—dammit! Elements are far more tenuous and dangerous as your limited grasp over the villagers becomes more and more apparent. There are moments this is incredibly frustrating. From Dust suffers from many chronic ailments of console-to-PC ports. Controls are sticky, and you have to crank the mouse sensitivity as low as possible to get any grasp on the gameplay, there’s a distinct lack of graphical options and for some ungodly reason, a 30fps limit. And, despite the surprise delay of the PC version, and the added controversy of Ubisoft’s prevarication on the game’s DRM, the developers did not catch all of the symptoms (rather than flip-flopping to their customers, maybe Ubisoft should have taken a cue from the game itself and remained silent on the grander schemes of their design). Control issues, however, were already noted in the console version. I shudder at the thought of trying to command a game that requires such precise movements with joysticks. By the later levels, putting lava down just inches in the wrong direction can accidentally set the entire map ablaze. Given the non-existent quick-saving, I restarted the last levels some twenty-odd times because of such catastrophic twists that demolished my villages.
But I wonder if that is part of the point of From Dust, or at least from where the challenge is meant to arise. If there is is a God, does he or she have the best game controller? I imagine God more similar to your role in the game, struggling to build something new and scrambling back and forth when cracks start to appear. I just feel sorry for the poor villagers, the tortured souls like Rilke that take God’s clumsiness as a sign of wrath. But maybe somewhere down in their thatch-roofed huts they are chugging away at gaming consoles, screaming at the unbelievable ignorance of their pixelated counterparts and realizing from their new perspective that, whatever it is, God’s work is difficult. “Be our shepherd,” Rilke ends, “but never call us—we can’t bear to know what’s ahead.”
Review copy kindly provided by our sponsors GamersGate.