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From Dust XBLA Review

05/11/2011 Artistic Novel Gamer Review
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From Dust XBLA

From Dust




Further reading:
Another World

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From Dust makes a nostalgic return to the god sim and for the first time reveals something of the joy of being a creator of lands.

I felt irresponsible, but I wanted to leave my people to themselves for a while so that I could watch the natural world progress. I revelled in the flow of the rivers and the formation of the mountains. I watched the majestic creatures populate the land and the inexorable spread of vegetation out from the primitive village. If ever there was a Garden of Eden. this was it.

From Dust provides nostalgia for two reasons. Firstly, its creator - Eric Chahi - has not released a videogame since the 1998 Heart of Darkness, (which itself was Chahi's long-awaiting follow-up to the classic Another World). He hasn't made a game since.

It's remarkable to look back and consider how much the gaming landscape has changed in 13 years. It's fitting for a game which deals with tribal memory as one of its core themes, that From Dust remembers things about gaming's yesteryears which many of us have forgotten. It recalls Populous more than any other game in recent memory, as with god-like powers the player sculpts the landscape around a tiny and vulnerable tribe, leading them onwards and providing space to thrive. However this is less about building a successful and bustling city as it is about going on a journey. Each location allows for the tribe to make a temporary home, but the direction of travel is always onward, accessing the next cave to continue travelling the world.

The lava is at once the enemy and an opportunity.

The true star of From Dust is the landscape itself. It is a celebration of the power of natural forces as water flows, topsoil erodes, plants grow and lava spreads and cools to form new land. Typical player challenges revolve around directing the flow of water away from carefully constructed mud pathways, or protecting villagers and vegetation from the fire of lava.

Every now and again the game hits a sweet spot of calm amid the chaos and it is in these moments that the natural forces at work in From Dust can be appreciated the most. It's nice to ignore the agendas of the humanity in the game for a moment and appreciate the way in which water carves a path across a plateau: exploiting weakness and creating new channels to become a mighty river. Or to watch as muddy deposits form a natural bank which can be carefully dried out to provide more soil for landscaping.

It's an interesting mechanic that the lava is at once the enemy and an opportunity. Left unchecked, it destroyed the tribe and force me to rethink my approach to the level. However, the incredible natural resource the pooling magma provides in building channels, damming flow and creating land bridges is eye-opening.

While there is little overt environmentalism on display in From Dust, it is hard to play the game - with its race to protect from incoming tsunami and the scarce supply of precious topsoil - without being mindful of mankind's responsibility to manage the world. The scarce resources and the precarious existence of those with the least choice and least access to technology call to mind third-world issues. In fact the god-like powers which are collected in-game to tip the balance against the rebellious forces of nature are surely analogous of the responsibility of those with more power and more resources.

From Dust is at once retro and modern.

Taken in content with Chahi's other work, it's remarkable how much narrative drama is generated by such an basic set of systems. Another World and Heart of Darkness were both very tightly-directed experiences, with every beat and moment laid down at the creator's choosing. Here, there are natural disaster-movies which play out in every level, as the player fights to rescue a stray villager from a rushing current, sprays water to slow a wall of lava, or even watches helplessly as a tiny figure races against the clock to reach a totem.

From Dust is at once retro and modern. The complex simulation of natural forces and fluid dynamics could only be delivered in this way by the massive power of modern gaming devices. However, the focused challenge of each map and the indirect relationship with the game's stars are surely a reminder of a time when gaming's approach to telling a story was more indirect. From Dust really is a journey to another world.

Written by Chris Jarvis

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Chris Jarvis writes the Novel Gamer column.

"I write stories to say what I think about games, for me it's the only way I can really communicate what I feel about them. Do you ever have a response to something that's hard to put into words? I find that sometimes I have something to express that can't be communicated by trying to explain how I feel, directly."

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