Announced last summer at E3, From Dust was perhaps one of the most surprising announcements in Los Angeles; not least because of how stunning and captivating the entire package looked. The brainchild of Eric Chahi and fostered by Ubisoft Montpellier, From Dust can be described as something of a ‘god game’ but not a ‘god game’ in the traditional sense. The reciprocal relationship between humanity and nature is implicit in every action and decision you undertake and make and it is this confluence and interaction that defines the gameplay experience. Survival underscores From Dust and delineates what promises to be one of the most ambitious downloadable titles ever to be released on consoles.
In an Irish exclusive, TGL caught up with the creative director of From Dust Eric Chahi and spoke about what we can expect from the title when it arrives later this year.
Eric Chahi: “From Dust” is a sort of god game where nature is at the heart of the game. The action takes place in a world where the forces of nature are exacerbated. It is an extreme version of the earth, with tsunamis, storms and volcanic eruptions. It is a whole world in its crude state, where men try to survive. The player has to help a tribe to accomplish its quest in this world permanently in movement. The player thus has to face up to cataclysms, and try to master nature by changing the topology in order to protect people and villages. In the game, the player directly manipulates the terrain. You can pick up matter – water, earth, lava, vegetation – shift it and drop it. All the fun of the sandpit! As all environments are based on a physics simulation of fluids and solid terrain, you can really see everything reacting and adapting to the player’s activity. You can divert rivers. You can control volcanoes, create damns, and irrigate zones to cultivate plants, all in the aim of helping a tribe survive in the face of nature and help them flourish and fulfil their mystical quest.
TGL: Was the game ever conceived as a strategy game because it seems to share a lot of its game play elements with strategy-like gameplay? Or was it always envisioned to be a sandpit title?
EC: Yes, to begin with the strategy dimension in the RTS meaning of the word was strong. The player could tell men to act here or there. The player was tied up with a lot of micro-management. It was very laborious and it meant we completely bypassed a really important aspect that was already there: simulation and the pleasure of interacting with the world. That’s when the game started to get really fun.
TGL: The relationship between a God and the world is something many of us can relate to. Is there a specific way you aim to create an emotional bond between the players and the inhabitants of the world? Or is the game a “drop in and drop out” experience?
EC: In the game, nature is practically a character, and the landscape is alive and constantly developing, with its own moods and anger. It is a world full of challenges. From Dust enables us to turn the fantasy of controlling the forces of nature into reality. We encounter tsunamis and volcanic eruptions, and the player is faced with a real struggle to overcome them. “From Dust” gets to the heart of the relationship between man and nature. It presents nature as a whole along with all its beauty.
TGL: The inhabitants of the world appear to have a mix of different cultures in their design. From African to an almost Inca feel, the world seems to represent and contain elements from a wide range of cultures. Was there a particular form the art followed?
EC: We were influenced by the cultures of different tribes likes the Papua and the Nuba in Sudan, or the drum totems of the Vanuatu, or the Batak sculptures in Indonesia. Ultimately we decided to depart from reality and give a genuine identity to the people of “From Dust”. There masks therefore are unique, we have not seen them anywhere else. The other strong point is music. Music is an integral part of the game world and humans in From Dust are capable of altering and controlling elements by using a powerful drum-based music. To create this music we contacted Bashiri Johnson, one of the best percussionists in New York. Alongside, Tom Salta, the composer, they brought a unique colour to the game. Thus “From Dust” has its own unique music, a tribal music that is different to what we usually hear in the genre.
TGL: The effects in the world look stunning. From the fluid water to erupting lava, the effects could be the best we have seen to date. Can you tell us more about the engine used to create these effects and what other direction it can be used for within the gaming world?
EC: The game engine is called Lyn, it is a game engine unique to Ubisoft, and the whole fluid simulation system was developed specifically for “From Dust”. In concrete terms, the simulation is composed of several layers of matter which interact between them: the eternal rock; the earth that sits above the rock, where plant life grows, and which can be eroded; the water which can sweep earth away and form rivers, or extinguish fires. Then there is the lava which can set fire to the plants and solidify to form rock. Everything interacts; the simulation enables a very creative and immersive gameplay. The terrain is made up of a 512×512 grid where each square generates its own physics. Through this we obtain a very malleable terrain which constantly adapts and changes according to the player’s actions. For example, if the player places earth in a river, the water will be diverted according to the laws of physics. It will follow the slopes of the terrain, carrying off earth and creating a new river. The world becomes living. It is a very immersive experience. So, effectively, other games can be created with this kind of technology.
TGL: With so many facets of the gaming world based around escapism and the want to escape our normal lives, do you think a caption like “”creation of a realistic nature simulation” is dangerous from a developers/PR point of view?
EC: Our use of this expression was one way of saying that behind the game there is a simulation dimension that will change the way we play. Like Half-Life2 did by spotlighting their physic engine. This enables us to highlight what is fundamentally new. Naturally there is much more than that in the game.
TGL: Will the game allow the capture/recording of events which can then be socially shared via XBL or the PSN?
EC: There will be some leader board activity, but I can’t tell anything right now. However there will be no sharing of events or state of play. Maybe in the sequel, but, already, finishing off this game is a lot of work and we have to stay focused on the heart of the gameplay.
TGL: Is there an impetus based on the story within the game or does the game focus more on helping the inhabitants of the world to survive the elements?
EC: At the start of the game, the tribe has lost all traces of its origins; its memory is blank. So they set out in search of the Ancients, following the trail of their remains. These remains contain power, the power to master the forces of nature. As the game goes on we understand more and more. There is a strong narrative thread, provided by voice of a mysterious narrator. Throughout the game, the culture and knowledge of the world of these men is gradually pieced back together, creating a cloud of legends, enabling the player to understand their world. Ultimately the game tells the story of a journey, a human adventure, across very different environments – islands, deserts, volcanoes and valleys.
TGL: How will the game evolve and progress? Will players start off with a small list of tools and a small sandbox area, or will the game offer you a substantial array of abilities from the start?
EC: As the game progresses, man discovers powers. Some are deployed by the tribe, others directly by the player. As the quest develops, the tribe/player also develops their ability to harness the elements using their powers. For example, it is possible to “freeze” water – we are witness to a raging sea that freezes on the spot. Then it can be redistributed, furrowed and channelled to create passages for people to cross.
TGL: The fundamental tool in the game seems to subtract from an existing area, only to add to another – a kind of snowball effect if you will. Is this a clever way to conceal a “creation cap” in the game or will players be able to explore beyond the general boundaries of arcade titles?
EC: Yes, the basic principle of interaction is a simple and intuitive tool, but behind this simplicity there is a lot of depth. Even if interaction is simple, the world on which we interact is complex and this enables the player to be creative in the resolution of challenges. There are a lot of possible solutions, and they are discovered every day. When you replay a game, because the world is dynamic, you are never confronted with exactly the same situation. What’s more “From Dust” is a game where we can observe phenomena that are usually invisible, geological phenomena, for example, like erosion, the creation of volcanoes, changes to a landscape. It is truly unique.
TGL: From Dust deals with some powerful messages: you could say the greatest of all being nature itself. Did/or do the team expect any type of political fallout with what could be described as a controversial topic?
EC: I can’t see anything controversial in it. There is no environmental message, no ecological subtext. The game has real depth, though, in the sense that it shows the autonomy of nature reacting to its own rules. Nature is neither good nor bad, everything depends on context, for example a volcanic eruption may be seen as a catastrophe, as it creates fires and destroys villages. But it can also be a positive force as its lava flows create land for men. As I said earlier, I think the game also questions man’s place within nature and his relative insignificance. The most surprising thing here is that the hero of the game is nature itself. This is something that emerged all by itself and it is something that we have noticed talking to players of “From Dust”. It’s fascinating.
From Dust will arrive on XBLA, PSN and Steam at an as yet to be announced date later this year.