Eric Chahi’s comeback was unexpected, the return of the prodigal author straight from the golden age of videogames into the cesspool of contemporary times. Seeing as his previous venture, “Heart of Darkness”, was “Another World” complemented by a Spielberg imaginary, one would expect any new work of his to be further evolution of his adventure masterpiece. Such expectations were soon abated, as “From Dust” was quickly established to be a strategy game. Produced by Ubisoft no less, the grand evil birth-parent of the greatest brood of mediocre sequel-driven franchises (its legacy somehow unrelated to EA’s by some collective medium blind-spot). And to top all that, though highly publicized, Chahi’s participation (like Mechner before him in the “Prince of Persia” series) was not in a lead designer role, instead relegated to “original concept and creative direction” functions (whatever that means). The good news is that, while “From Dust” is clearly a product of its time (today) and place (Ubisoft), Chahi’s influence is there. And that is, to be frank, a hell of a compliment.
The design is deceptively simple: players control a spiritual wind which can take spheres of elements such as sand, water and lava and move them elsewhere to build beaches, lakes and mountains, doing massive geographic make-over (a subtle reference to “Doshin the Giant” as keenly observed by dieubussy). With this environmental palette in hand, you’re asked to help a “Populous” meets “Lemmings” race of indigenous natives survive, build settlements, gain knowledge and reach gates in search of the ‘ancient ones’. The twist is that the rather cumbersome strategy processes which typically undermine the genre are extraordinarily streamlined, molding the game into a simple landscape painting experience, using each level as new canvas for experimentation. If not for its otherwise tainted use, the word sandbox would be the most adequate adjective to describe the game, for more than antagonistic goal-conquering, you are invited to playfully mold the world and watch how everything interacts, in the process coming to understand the governing rules of all – gravity, fluid viscosity, density.
Chahi’s stroke of genius is that, though coherent, each environment seems to have a mind of its own, with devious architectural features that surprise you constantly in the elemental interactions they enable, forcing you to constantly elaborate on your strategies to constrain Nature’s destructive force. The result of your actions is never as you initially imagine and no matter how good you are at the game, your power over the world is always bound in time, as every dynamic rule interacts in such a way that it brings about unexpected consequences sooner or later. The message is clear, Man’s rule over Nature is never complete and forever temporary, forged in unstable equilibrium; the greater Man’s power, the greater the destruction it ensues as reaction. The final level is, in this regard, an excellent verse in this essay, affording god-like powers to your palette only for you to realize that its use inevitably leads to cataclysmic disaster. And while this point is further explored in narrative terms, it is only fully fleshed during the interactive portions of the experience, its simple metaphors shining ever brightly as you continuously struggle to exert your dominion over Nature… and fail miserably.
What is most surprising in Eric Chahi’s return is the sense of awe and mystery he is able to inspire in us, despite the menial genre he chose to express himself in, and the mechanicist form his design took. For no matter how construed by these traits, he kept his mind on subtle emotions that translate into pure aesthetic terms – the eternal dread face Nature’s forces, the beauty of its landscapes, our empathy towards our more simple tribal selves, the folly of Man’s aspirations – evoking them holistically through the artifact, leaving no expressive part unrelated to his vision. The soundtrack alludes to this perfectly, with an emotional score that treats all these movements equally – fierce tribal didgeridoo bass lines in times of danger, mellow ambient tunes in periods of calm. Naturalist depictions in soft impressionist tones further push this contrast – the fiery volcanoes versus the blue summer sky, the bright beachy sand versus mountain’s black ashen rock. Even the tribesmen, perhaps the most poorly treated element in the genre, are given simple but tremendously expressive characterizations, their masks a thing of child-like naiveté, their language both alien and familiar, so telling of the strange, fantastic, but oh so earthly landscapes they must journey through.
“From Dust” has an engineering side to its conception, heavy on rules, math and physics and subscribing to somewhat naïve game design ideals, such as the notion of simple rules enabling emergent (meaningful) gameplay. However, unlike most examples of this marketing-friendly current, such notions are actually translated inside the realm of a work that is purposeful, aesthetically rich and which dares go beyond mere entertainment. And while disappointment over the lack of a spiritual successor to “Another World” is hard to get over, the fact this little game aspires to be so thematically rich as to dare touch the relationships between Man and Nature, Science and Technology, Equilibrium and Destruction, is proof that “From Dust” is the welcome return to form of one of the most talented game designers in the medium. Let us pray that he never has to repeat this long absence.