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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.