Playing From Dust is like building sandcastles while the tide comes in. The player controls an unseen force, which can lift and drop large quantities of earth and water. The objective is to assist a primitive tribe of pioneering villagers and encourage the growth of their settlements. Moment to moment, the focus is on establishing pathways and platforms to enable the spread of civilization across the land, but all the while lingers an understanding that time waits for no one, and any illusion of manmade permanency will eventually be washed away by the gentle, natural, unstoppable flow of the currents.
If From Dust is a "God Game," it is a decidedly pantheistic one. Players take on the role of a magical manifestation of the will of the people, not the personality of a detached deity with intricate construction plans. Compared with the power to dig riverbeds and build mountains, the accomplishment of nurturing the tribe to cover the land with villages -- thus, solving the level -- sometimes seems anti-climatic. The people are just one more factor in the interconnected game world. Yet it is the tribe's ongoing endeavors that make play compelling. Without them, From Dust would be a fun-for-15-minutes tech demo.
Even wielding godlike powers, players do not control nature in From Dust; they work with it. Challenges are seldom solved so simply as by dumping a load of dirt to build a land bridge to the next island, for example, because flowing water erodes even the most carefully placed mounds and ridges. Players must ply their will with foresight of the interworking of natural forces. From Dust is more about influence than conquest, to the extent that this civilization-spreading puzzle play sometimes feels secondary, serving only to provide a goal in an otherwise limitless world of directionless possibility
This goal makes the game. At the start of a level, players are presented with a barren island chain, empty but for a few challengingly placed totems. As tribespeople establish a new village at each totem, the player unlocks another land-sculpting ability, such as the power to temporarily "jellify" water for easy clearance, or to drip out new mountain ranges from a handful of molten lava. Other in-world functionalities, such as moveable plants that can extinguish fires or blast craters in solid rock, offer additional powers, even if their paranormal presence belies the believability of the naturalistic setting.
Overcoming such juxtaposition, there is a welcoming unity of presentation in From Dust. Ancient-sounding music and language evoke a setting that feels grounded and authentic. Sharp graphics and animations portray a familiar Earth in some mysterious era, innately recognizable but free from the credentials of historical deliberation. This unity illuminates a dualism of the human condition: we are an integral, native part of nature, ever-striving to assert our presence against the natural flow. In this game, as with a sandcastle built at the edge of the sea, the beauty of human design is accentuated by its impermanence.
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