From Dust Analysis: Ebb and Flow

From Dust packs a fittingly holistic philosophy into its theme of man versus nature, despite the tribesmen who are sometimes dumber than lemmings. (WARNING: As always, expect spoilers to be exposed at length)

I love the grave, slow start of the game. It makes me feel like I'm about to witness a story passed down through generations.

The last god games I remember playing for hours at length were Maxis’ Spore, and a bit before that, Lionhead Studio’s Black and White (the predecessor and inspiration for Fable‘s morality system). God games have always daunted me by their sheer scale and interminable length. Thankfully the team at Ubisoft Montpellier managed to create something that was dynamic enough to be called a god-game, and short enough for me to finish.

The art of From Dust was the first thing to catch my attention when I heard wind of this game. The bright color and contrast between the central three elements, water, lava, and sand, are beautiful to watch as they meet, intermingle and react. The game is essentially a dynamic form of rock, paper, scissors between these elements with a few curve balls to keep things interesting.The water in particular is fantastic to watch. The threatening tsunamis form and break across the landscape in a beautiful and fluid manner, and seeing it curve around a village protected by an invisible shield is a trip that just makes you feel powerful.

Nothing makes you feel more all powerful then seeing these waves run against the invisible wall of a protected village. When this mechanic is introduced in the third level, you feel like a bad ass.

The game is essentially a puzzle game within a god game, with thirteen challenges along the story in which you must protect your tribe and help them spread across the islands of each different level. The motivation for the tribe’s exploration is the desire to seek out their ancestors and regain the knowledge they left behind. In each level as you seek out to regain the totems left behind by the ancestors, the land is constantly being reshaped by whatever sources of magma or water there may be, along with the occasional tsunami and volcano eruption. The best example of the change-over-time that the engine in this game is capable of is the third to last level. You start with little more then a few patches of sand and an underwater volcano with the rest of the entire map surrounded by water. As time progresses the layers of lava the volcano emits begin to spread and build on one another. By the end of the stage, a mountain has erected itself and you’re worried the lava may soon begin encroaching on your villages. This kind of fluidity within the environment means you are constantly on your toes, having to rebuild routes that get washed away or barriers that are breached.

The form that you take to do this is that of the tribe’s “Breath,” it’s explained within the “Memories of the Tribe” that every element has its own breath and that the ability of the tribe’s breath is to communicate with these others. This is the tip of the iceberg of the philosophy that lies behind From Dust and its lore.

Throughout the game, there is a constant push-pull feeling. Tsunamis, rising and falling tides, and volcano eruptions are tracked by timers displayed at the top of the screen. Fire spreads along the plant-life that originates from your villages, and the bare sand is then reclaimed once the fire it’s extinguished. Even your tribesmen are put into situations where they must abandon a village in order to survive, only to reclaim it at a later time. These cycles repeat themselves again and again creating a need to regularly halt your attempts of capturing other totems in order to ensure that your defenses within your current villages are secure. The idea of cycles is driven home by both the ending of the game, and the title itself.

“From dust we came, and to dust we shall return.”

The elements create an ever changing landscape that you're constantly having to stay on top of.

The cyclic nature of the breath, the inhale and exhale as you move the elements across the landscape, is a natural way to include the player in the game’s motif of cycles. Credit to the creators, it’s subtle enough that its point gets across without bluntly beating it over the player. It took me some time to finally pinpoint this concept within the game, but once I saw it it became ridiculously obvious.

The game’s ending is a mind bender. The tribe passes through the final portal and ends up on the starting island, with the narrator ominously suggesting that the journey must start anew. Now the final level’s title, “Origins,” makes an ominous kind of sense. Even the level select screen organizes the different stages into a circle, with the final level at the heels of the first. Now the irony becomes clear, the tribesmen are the very ancients they’ve been searching for, trapped in this constant cycle of loss and rediscovery. (If anyone else has read Stephen King’s The Dark Tower, this might feel familiar).

Someone call in Simba because I swear I hear “Circle of Life” playing somewhere in the background. The overarching motif is supported by a dozen or so symbols that all point to cycles, here are a few of the most prominent ones:

The masks in this game always disturbed me a bit because of the dehumanizing effect they have on the tribesmen. They are explained in the game as the method through which the tribe communicates with their Breath in a single consistent voice, citing that the natural faces of the tribe distort their ability to play the instruments that they require to communicate (each unique face created a unique sound). The way I see it the masks serve to create the illusion of the tribe being a single collective element of themselves, and this isn't too far off from the game's lore. The tribe shouldn't be seen as any different than the water, vegetation, or fire that all seek to spread across the landscape. By removing the face, an essential point of reference for empathy, the designers not only save development time by cutting out the complications faces create, but bring the tribe down to the same primal level that the other elements inhabit.

Along with the masks, the generic name of the tribe is simply “the men.” Rather then think of this as a Misogynistic lapse on the creator’s part, I rather think it’s a further attempt to reduce the tribe’s individuality much like the masks. It’s again trying to make the tribe appear more like a single unit then a collection of individuals, much like you can’t sort out the raindrops within an ocean.

Music is also referenced as a source of power in the game. The tribesmen use song to both erect their villages and protect them from disaster, and the Memories cite the use of music by the elements as a basic method of communication. Music and Breath are seen as compliments to one another, where Breath is the manifestation of an element’s spirit, music is the method by which that element communicates with its spirit, or the Breath of another element. To reinforce this, many of the instruments heard or seen in the game are wind instruments, most prominently a didgeridoo-like woodwind seen at both the creation of the tribe’s Breath, and heard when the tribe repels an invading lava flow or tsunami. Though drums are also seen, I suspect they play second fiddle to this first instrument. The literal use of a man’s breath to work this instrument holds a great amount of symbolism as it connects the tribe’s spirit to the tribesmen in a very physical way.

There are many other symbols within this game, it’s something that unfolds the deeper and deeper you look. If you’ve already beaten the game I suggest you replay a few of these levels and see how these symbols interact with the gameplay, particularly the first five or so which the designers would have squeezed as much meaning into as possible in order to draw in the player.

 

Although mechanically the game sometimes disappoints with its not-so-intuitive tribesmen, the high-concept the designers tackle and the gorgeous art design of the game make this flaw more then forgivable. I’d play this game again just to watch the water curve and carve paths around mounds of sand, it’s that enjoyable to watch.

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Be sure to rate and comment if you enjoyed reading this analysis, tell me what you think or mention any symbols or themes I might have missed or skipped. Also, be sure to subscribe by entering your email on that right hand side-bar to stay up-to-date with my latest reviews.

Next up, Ico and the Shadow of the Colossus Collection out THIS TUESDAY, September 27th!!

I can’t wait to finally review these classic of PS2 era classics. See you then!

-The Gaming Hipster

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Posted on September 25, 2011, in Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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