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Full Steam Ahead – From Dust

Time logged before Full Steam Ahead: 8

Sandbox games are a blanket term used to describe games which have an open world, an optional narrative, and give the player great freedom to choose how they will pursue and achieve their objectives. Sandbox games were once something of a rarity; personal computers only recently became powerful enough to generate and maintain sandbox worlds. One must also take into account the strain on game developer resources that creating an open world must demand.

However, given that computers are more powerful than ever, game studios have more resources at their disposal than ever, and players are more demanding of immersive experiences than ever, it is unsurprising that many of the most popular games in recent years have been sandboxes.

Ironically, From Dust is not a sandbox game.

…for dust you are and to dust you will return… (Genesis 3:19)

From Dust is a game that, truthfully, is about two gameplay mechanics: picking things up and putting them down. In the game, you control “the breath” a powerful divine force, summoned and powered by the faith of a small tribe of nomads. The tribe journeys through strange landscapes ranging from the beautiful to the bizzare, from peaceful to perilous, with nothing but the assistance of the breath and the leftover ruins of another tribe from ages past.

What exactly can the breath do to assist, you may ask. The breath and draw matter to itself (we’ll call it inhaling) and it can release that matter elsewhere (which we’ll call exhaling). The matter on this journey takes on four forms: dust, water, lava, and trees.

The breath can interact up dust, sand, earth, or soil to create land bridges between islands, to provide room for trees to grow on the island. It can use water to nourish the growth of trees and put out fires. It can use the lava to create more permanent walls, able to withstand wind and wave better than mere dust. Trees, such as the swollen water plants, can be placed strategically to protect the tribe from fire, while phoenix-like fire trees can be used to changed the course of rivers.

As the tribe grows more accustomed to the world, discovering relics and spreading vegetation through the territory, animals come to live in these once-barren lands. New powers are discovered for the breath, such as the ability to evaporate large quantities of water, or generate and endless supply of soil, for a brief time. Eventually though, curious about the outside world, about their past and their future, the tribe will move on from their settled lands, moving to the next.

That’s the whole game, really. I could talk about how the game lacks precision controls, or about how the tribe seems to really, really enjoy walking straight into flooding river. At the end of the day though, this isn’t a game review, it’s a game retrospective. I purchased it because it was on a steam sale. I beat the story, and I had little interest in completing the survival challenge maps. I uninstalled it, and in all honesty, never thought about it again until it came up in Full Steam Ahead.

“The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls” Pablo Picasso

Recently, Graham talked about finding and pursuing your own objectives. From Dust isn’t precisely like that. After all, I, as the breath, have a clear objective: keep the tribe alive, and usher them to new lands. At its core, this game of shaping sand and water, much as one might at a beach or sandbox, is fundamentally not a sandbox game.

That isn’t to say I can’t fulfill my own objectives; there’s nothing to stop me from building a massive inland sea. There’s nothing to stop me from building up the sand and stone around my tribe because it amuses me to make them live on a mountain. The game’s controls and building materials aren’t quite focused or versatile enough to let me build, say, a sand castle with moat, but I can give the tribe a decent island to live on.

My personal objectives are limited by the simplicity of the game’s mechanics. My imagination can’t exactly run wild, but it can go for a pleasant jog. This game is fun enough, and after the stress of Bioshock, I really appreciated getting to play something more calm at heart. That’s probably why this game was in my library in the first place.

Part of me wonders what a team of developers with just a little more could accomplish. I don’t know whether the game was hampered by a lack of development time, or a lack of ambition, or if it was truly meant to be, and I mean this in a positive way, uncomplicated. I don’t know.

In any case, If I really want to build a sand castle, I can go outside (although the current weather lends itself to snow forts). This was a nice breather for the end of the year.

Next Episode: Poker Night At the Inventory

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