From Dust: Playing God

Video games by their very nature often make inter­esting argu­ments on the things they por­tray. This struck me quite power­fully while playing a recent digit­ally dis­trib­uted title called From Dust [wiki]. The game was designed by Éric Chahi and developed by Ubisoft Mont­pel­lier, and it essen­tially revolves around being a god and over­seeing the fate of  ‘your’ people.

A dra­matic land­scape

The player of this game, which the gaming press aptly pigeon­holes as a god game and sandbox game, con­trols “The Breath”, a tiny sphere of divine force which was called into being by the music of a small tribe of people at the start of the game. This very short sec­tion already makes explicit a point that so often is implicit in the descrip­tion of the rela­tion­ship between deities and their people. Here, the people them­selves strengthen their Breath (spir­itus). And for what reason? To exert through their deity a modicum of con­trol over a hos­tile envir­on­ment: “First we must learn to speak with the world.”

If there is an enemy in From Dust, it is the Earth itself. For humans, par­tic­u­larly ones with little tech­no­lo­gical advances, such as those por­trayed in this game, a single flood or vol­canic erup­tion can spell dis­aster for a whole people. Your job playing The Breath is to pro­tect your tribe from such haz­ards by manip­u­lating the nat­ural envir­on­ment. The divine force The Breath pos­sesses is the ability to move ele­ments around, cre­ating land bridges by dumping soil into a river, throwing up hills and moun­tains by slath­ering lava over the world, or dousing wild­fires with a well-placed blob of water.

The Breath scoops up sand into a sphere

In addi­tion, the tribe in the game can be guided to totems, remains of a civil­isa­tion of “ancient ones”. The tribe in the game is described is amne­siac, and unaware for some reason of their his­tory, which is somehow tied to these totems. The totems are essen­tial to the prosperity of the tribe, because they grant spe­cial tem­porary powers to The Breath. In other words, the power of The Breath rises and falls with the fateful journey of its tribe, a pecu­liar sym­bi­otic rela­tion­ship that in a way is a state­ment about the nature of reli­gion.

In the con­text of the tribal society in From Dust, reli­gion is about exerting power (magic) over one’s envir­on­ment in order to ensure sur­vival. The core of the tribe’s belief seems to be that the com­munal breath and music of the tribe’s people can grow into an entity that has power greater than the human indi­viduals that make up the tribe. By fur­ther infusing The Breath with lost know­ledge, or at least the feeling of con­nec­ted­ness with ancient fore­bears (the oper­a­tion of the know­ledge is never made con­crete, only the res­ulting power), the power is enhanced. Of course, in the game, unlike in the real world, this belief is well-founded, because in the what-if uni­verse presented in the game, The Breath is quite adept at helping its tribe over­come seem­ingly insur­mount­able obstacles. Indeed, were it not for The Breath, the tribe would surely perish in this world where destructive forces like tsunamis and vol­canic erup­tions are fre­quent occur­rences.

A vil­lage built around an ancient totem

Apart from the reli­gious (pro­ced­ural) rhet­oric of the game, it’s also a lot of fun to play and edu­ca­tional in other ways. The way the dis­place­ment of ele­ments is handled by the game engine is pleasant and fluent, and reshaping the Earth is about as intu­itive as you ima­gine it would be for a powerful albeit it not all-powerful deity. All the same, you have to be con­stantly paying atten­tion to the con­sequences of your actions. Diverting a river might keep one vil­lage dry, but it may flood another one if you’re not careful. Pack­aged in the form of a game, this is a very important lesson on the way geo­logy, and even eco­logy, works. There are no static situ­ations, ever, and every action has a reac­tion.

Repla­cing the reli­gious magic of From Dust with the actual river-diverting and mountain-moving tech­no­lo­gies human­kind has today, we can apply the same les­sons to our own manip­u­la­tions of the Earth, for­cing us to think about the pos­sible con­sequences of every action for flora, fauna, weather, and cli­mate. The raw forces of the Earth are rel­at­ively per­manent, but the eco­sys­tems cre­ated by them are fra­gile.

From Dust is avail­able for XBOX360, Play­Sta­tion 3, and PC through digital dis­tri­bu­tion for ~15 euros.