I've played as army men, bounty hunters, spies and killers. I've built towering office buildings as a city planner. Raised beasts as a super being. Strategized as a world-conquering general. But I've never been the breath of god.
With one inhalation I draw from the sandy islands of an achingly beautiful archipelago, with another I exhale, depositing that bit of island to form a new outcropping. Repeat the process enough and that outcropping becomes a reef, a land bridge, and finally the matter that makes two small islands one large one.
Inhale water, exhale water to dry out ponds, turn marsh into city. Inhale lava, exhale to create reefs, channel rivers, hold back oceans.
In From Dust players don't control the land's nomadic tribe that dance and explore and learn and cry for help, you are controlled by them. You serve as their guiding spirit, there to help them on a cultural and physical journey across their lands to rediscover their mythos and with it their ancestors' powers.
One trigger pull allows you to inhale sand, lava, water, another allows you to exhale the ball of floating mass in a steady stream directed by your thumbsticks.
The game opens with The Breath, teaching players that trick of inhaling and exhaling earth with trigger pulls. It asks you to ensure the route that the tribe plans to take to get to a passage to a new land. Next you learn about the tribe's ritual to summon a village around a totem. These totem, spread across each collection of islands, are how the tribes create villages and how you eventually traverse through the game through passages in rock.
As you create land bridges across the ocean and bays separating islands, you learn that the more soil you drop near palm trees the more those trees will spread, making the land you deposit less susceptible to the constant erosion that threatens to wash away your deposits.
It is during this early level that you also help a tribe earn its first power: The ability to repel the mammoth tsunami waves that plague the archipelago. Form the paths to the relic quickly enough and protect the shaman's return and the village can defy these walls of water, mess up and watch a village wash away.
This first confrontation, man versus nature, is a compelling thing to see play out. I watched quietly as my son cheered his shaman on, both of us helpless to do anything other than watch the shaman's careful progress across reef and sand, picking his way around reefs and avoiding steep drops. You can float down so close to these little people that you can see the masks on their heads, the clothes they wear and items they carry, but you can't directly interfere.
In the distance the sea rises, first as a wave, then as a wall of water; a thing sliding toward the village. The shaman's tiny form moves across the land bridge as the water towers over the village and Tristan exclaims excitedly, "Hurry up."
"He's too late," I tell him.
But the shaman doesn't give up. He walks into the village, delivering his power as the water seems on the cusp of crushing the huts. Instead, the water roils, sliding past the village, until it has fully surrounded it. Viewed from the full height allowed the breath of god, the village is tiny, lost at the bottom of a well of shimmering water. Finally, the water recedes, washing away all of those land bridges and careful channels crafted by Tristan as he paved the way for his shaman.
In later levels, the game teaches us how to temporarily jellify water, making it possible to scoop up the water and stack it in towers of wiggling transparent blue... until the power gives way and the water comes crashing back down to fill a hole or flow down along the ground to form a lake.
In the fifth level, the final one that I'm allowed to discuss as part of this preview, the tribe learns the power of evaporation. Using it temporarily dries up the low level water in areas and makes it possible to create quick paths across shallow lakes and streams.
It's in this level, The Thousand Sources, that the land itself starts to become a danger. Pulling up so soil in the wrong place can uncover a font of water. These little streams quickly turn flat lands into lakes, canyons into rivers, paths into hazards. Some of the vegetation that grows here is also dangerous, forming impassible barricades of natural spikes.
While I didn't play past the game's fifth level yet, I did sample some of the game's five pages of challenges that timed you as you tried to form a village, block a tsunami and even burn one village to save three others.
The challenges, the changing, beautiful landscape, the growing powers are alone enough to make From Dust worth further exploration, but it's its backward design, the notion that you are a god ultimately held accountable for your minions, that fascinates me most about the game.