Gods may shape the earth and all its rivers and streams, but do they feel responsible for the trials and fates of mortals? With so many games that bestow great power on players, games may offer a unique realm to explore the sensation of responsibility and themes of duty, guilt, and regret. From Dust, which grants players limited divine influence over land and sea, wrestles with the dual task of providing dynamic gameplay in a large scale sandbox while creating an emotionally resonant relationship between god-like players and their aboriginal flock.
Designed by Eric Chahi, the acclaimed creator of Another World, From Dust resides unabashedly in the “god game” subgenre. Like Populous or Black & White, players can manipulate the natural world to guide island villagers along their spiritual journey. The breath, or the player’s power manifest in the game, can absorb earth, water and lava, as well as transport various plants around the map. Certain villages grant players additional abilities from temporarily turning water into jelly to creating a black hole that can absorb any amount of material for a limited time. By using these powers quickly and intelligently, players can shepherd the game’s inhabitants from village to village and island to island.
More than any other god game, From Dust attempts to foster a personal relationship between the god-like player and her wards. During the game’s opening cinematics, a small tribe stands upon a flat and desolate rock in the midst of turbulent seas, without a home and without a connection, as they say, to the world. The player, as the breath, composes the personal and spiritual personhood of these individuals, voiced in the narrator’s statement: “Without the breath, can we call ourselves men?” Before ever helping the islanders, the player becomes responsible for their well being.
From Dust subtly humanizes the villagers, who can all too often seem insignificant from the player’s heightened point of view. Holding the right bumper brings the camera down to earth to follow one single villager. Their strange masks, walking sticks, and decorated huts visualize a mystical native culture heard in the game’s songs and stories. When following an individual on the ground, the game states that each “can build villages, gain knowledge and play music.” While the information refers to the game’s primary goals (building villages, gaining knowledge and power from special locations on a map, and playing music to open passages to other islands), it is largely superfluous, as every villager can fulfill these tasks. Yet this information imbues these tiny characters with humanity. Following an individual, itself mechanically pointless, contextualizes the player’s activities in hopes of fostering a sense of personal responsibility for the worshipers.
Looking down from the heavens upon the people of the earth must create a deeply alienating sensation. As From Dust progresses, the relationship between player and flock becomes increasingly difficult to maintain. New abilities like Infinite Earth and Amplify Breath allow grander displays of power while distancing the player from small-scale management of the villagers’ environments. Other special powers, like knowledge that protects villages from floods and plants that put out fires, allow players to reduce micromanagement. As the game’s scale increases, the personal investment into the well being of the population diminishes.
The mechanical value of From Dust’s inhabitants and their personal value differ greatly and perhaps necessarily. Each settled village requires five men to establish, all of whom must traverse a potentially dangerous and shifting map to reach the potential settlement. In this way, the island inhabitants become resources that can be spent, lost, and sacrificed. As increasingly deadly lava flows, wildfires, and floods threaten villages and therefore the player’s powers, individual followers become replaceable. Their cries for help become nuisances to a distracted minor deity. When the natives die, their tiny souls shooting upward for a brief second, or when they sit stupidly atop a hill waiting for a safer path to manifest itself, their pleas represent a failure or inability to account for their every need, not a failure to bear responsibility for the world one has created.
Removed from divine responsibility over worshiping masses, From Dust shines during its large scale dilemmas. Sweeping away floods and frantically moving piles of earth is exhilarating. At game’s end, when the world is shaped almost effortlessly to the player’s will, one can feel a sense of responsibility to the land itself, not the people. Moving seas and birthing mountains provides its own joy in marveling at the process of creation. The ability to will things into existence evokes pure wonder. Stepping back from the personal illuminates the universal.
By wrestling with contradictory desires to create a compelling large scale experience and a personal relationship between deity and worshiper, From Dust inadvertently discusses man’s relationship to divinity. Struggling with the ferocity of nature in the game—even with immense power—can be humbling. The tidal forces and lava flows that set players scrambling are manifestations of a greater force, something beyond the minor deity status manifested by the breath. Players are not truly responsible for the disasters that befall their flock. Those travesties belong to a different power, be it natural or spiritual. In the attempt to contextualize the individual inhabitants of From Dust while also positioning player agency between peon and pantheon, the game reflects the very human need to personalize divinity. How could an abstract force feel connected to us, particularly in the light of tragedy? Only, we hope, by forming a personal relationship with divinity in whatever form. We, and here I speak of mankind in general, shape our understanding of divinity by humanizing it, but wrestling in our own ways with the conflict between personal relationships, divine responsibility, and the awesome scale of creation.
You can follow the Moving Pixels blog on Twitter.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong online. Please consider a donation to support our work as an independent publisher devoted to the arts and humanities. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where advertising no longer covers our costs. We need your help to keep PopMatters publishing. Thank you.