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.