Sometimes an excellent operating system can be made even better
From Dust is a wonderful piece of interactive art which rarely feels game-like
- The landscape and morphing geology is an incredible, complex game ecosystem to play with
- The later levels add unnecessary challenge and turn the game into too much of a puzzle title
From Dust is essential stuff, though it’s better as an example of interactive art or a virtual ant farm than a traditional “game” experience.
Price$ 19.95 (AUD)
Occasionally a game comes along that transcends being mere entertainment and puts forward a strong argument for the artistic credentials of games. Portal 2 earlier in the year was certainly that, and From Dust might just be an even stronger case study.
It’s a game of great subtleties. As a spiritual sequel to the Populous series of yesteryear, the game tasks the player to form and destroy land to first protect and then funnel a population of primitive humans through a variety of objectives, and finally a very literal exit from one land to another.
For this purpose you’re in control of “The Breath,” a godly force that has no form, and is brought about by the worship of the people. There’s no requirement to be a benevolent spirit aside from progressing through to the next level and this isn’t a game where failure is punished, if indeed it is even ‘failure’; one of the powerful messages the game offers up is in watching a village swept away as a direct consequence of the actions of The Breath.
The Breath has no direct control over the population of people; they run about on their on volition with reasonable AI, but poor pathfinding. The latter is for the most part irrelevant, though, as the focus is very much on collecting various bits of the environment, and dumping them elsewhere in order to build walls to protect the people’s fledgling communities, and pathways to wander over. The materials available are many and varied; there’s lava that cools to rock for the walls, there’s sand and dirt that form convenient pathways. And then it’s possible to pick up water and deposit it elsewhere when it’s in the way as the slightest puddle can distress the human population.
It’s occasionally busy work, as the primal world these early humans inhabit is an angry one, and buffeted constantly by tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, and waterfalls creating massive, overflowing pools and rivers. It’s incredible to watch a world so dynamic, with a breathing, believable geology and a scale and raw power so vast it reminds us constantly how feeble humanity can really be.
The game is at its best in the earlier levels, where the challenge doesn’t extend too far and it’s easy to sit back and just watch things unfurl as they do. The water physics are the best you’ll ever see in a game, and the growth and evolution of the tribe itself is an elegant and intelligent system that, like an ant farm, is fun to simply toy with.
This is coupled with a soundtrack that is subtle but immensely powerful. The ambient sounds evoke a very strong primal power in themselves, and it is the sound of a tsunami or volcanic eruption that is frightening, moreso than the actual pixels of lava or water menacing the healthy lands you’ve carefully constructed.
Later levels become a touch too game-like and break that powerful ambience From Dust works so hard to build. By adding challenge (and some small frustration from the difficult pathfinding for the humans), the game breaks from the sandbox and becomes the linear experience. This is the only real disappointment to From Dust — it would have been far better remaining an experience rather than a game, and you get the feeling that the later difficult levels are there more as an arbitrary necessity to qualify From Dust as a “game,” and less because the developers wanted to add in any real challenge.
But regardless, this is a wonderful piece of interactive art. It’s a beautiful experience with a strong theme and powerful message. It’s almost a pity that it had to be a game as well.
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