‘Get Off My Lawn!’: From Dust, and an Old God’s Lament

From Dust screen

IMAGE: From Dust (Ubisoft)

For my birthday they made me a god.

I had the power the reshape the world in my image.  I could conjure floods; could mould grasslands and vegetation like putty; could scoop lava into the air and remake the landscape on a whim.  I could speed across the face of the world like an unseen wisp, and rain down bounty or pestilence as I desired.  My resplendent, verdant landscape boiled with potentiality and promise as I cast my omniscient eye upon it and set myself to work.

And so, my people worshipped me.  Sang praises to me.  Adorned themselves in trinkets to win my favour.  They sought out teachings that would strengthen me with their belief.  They trusted in my grace and my mercy, and had faith that I could lead them to salvation…

They were devoted.

They were loyal.

They were…

Mistaken.

I was a terrible god.  I’m awful at it.

In fact, playing through designer Eric Chahi’s sumptuous From Dust (developed by Ubisoft Montpellier) has reconfirmed my every failing as a gamer and a deity.  I’m haphazard.  Ill prepared.  More often than not I find myself fiddling around with a puddle of water that has no effect on anything while my people stand idle on a rock, waiting to starve and be picked off by vultures.  And no one goes where I tell them too!  And there’s gravity and stuff.  And time!  Why is there a timer ticking down?!  I’m a god, aren’t I?  What’s with the whole being-beholden-to-linear-progression thing all about?  If I was a real god that would be the first thing to go.

No, it’s not like back in the good old days where being a god was about little more than raising and lowering the landscape on which my worshipers built their homes.  I still remember the giddy power of tediously indenting swaths of land in Populous just to uproot a handful of homesteads so that they would move sideways enough to reform into a castle…

Ah… the mighty omnipotence – when being an all-powerful deity was akin to bashing out the dents on a used Honda.

But nowadays it’s all crisis and peril!  My little nomadic From Dust-ians are being ravaged by a hostile landmass that wants to burn them off its surface like an unsightly wart, and nothing that I try seems to work.  Suddenly the universe keeps throwing freaking tsunamis at me!  I mean, what the hell is that?!  And enough with the volcanos!  We get it!  You’re a portal to the Earth’s molten crust.  You don’t need to go on about it all day.  And you have got to be kidding me with the wildfires!  Come on, guys!  Help me out.  Don’t walk straight into the flames…

When I think about it, this is the same reason I was always so terrible at Sim City.  I lack that godly methodical foresight.*  It’s why my cities would always fall into poverty, illness, and ruin.  Why I would watch the elegance of a neatly drawn road grid on grass gradually descend into unruly chaos, every decision I made somehow compounding the disaster of the one before it.

What – you need indoor plumbing, now?  And power?  Geez.  Greedy.  And stop being so sick!  …No.  No, I’m not going to build you a university if you’re just going to burn it down like you did the hospital.  …Actually, that’s probably a good time to bring this up: why can’t you idiots do anything without setting yourselves on fire?!  What’s wrong with eating some food raw occasionally?  Haven’t you heard of sushi?

Even when playing Caesar or Age of Empire – games set before the advent of gas stovetops – I would somehow always be brought to cultural collapse by a lack of forethought and planning.  All my effort in building a portentous armada of soldiers, squadron after squadron of fully trained archers with the finest gear, an army that was the envy of all other leaders, warriors that would rain down terror upon their enemies who – wait!  Who let that foreign cavalry in there?!  Come on, shoot!  Shoot the horses!  Stop dying!  You’re embarrassing me!

And here in my latest foray into omnipresence, with the requirements of a precarious social structure stripped away, again I somehow still continue to prove myself a discordant, shambling mess of a divinity.  Sure, the tribes people of From Dust don’t ask me for paved roads, or threaten to move to a better terraformed primordial rock because I’ve taxed them too high, but they nonetheless choose to selfishly die simply because my grotesque incompetence repeatedly inflicts unholy natural disasters upon them.  …What a bunch of jerks.

I wish that I could turn away – just switch off the game and let these sorry, wayward travellers find their own way (or in actuality, die of their own accord) – but that power is just too enticing; and there is a genuine sense of responsibility to protecting these figures.

Firstly, the expanse of this geological Petri dish is unutterably majestic and beautiful.  The crystalline blues of the ocean, seething with whitewashed peril as it hurls itself against charred rock.  The sizzling hiss of molten earth writhing against the sea.  The delicate bounty of flora and fauna blossoming momentarily amidst the elemental chaos.  The game designers have done an exquisite job giving this landscape a grandeur that belies its relative brevity as a DLC title.

Secondly, like all of the best god-games, From Dust is masterful at drawing the player into a collaborative web of responsibility.  It offers the illusion of freedom while actually necessitating a symbiotic relationship of obligation and compromise.  Even as you shape the very fabric of this world, the game is shaping you, teaching you patterns and systems and consequence.

And this interdependence is even built into the conceit of the game-mechanics, cultivated by the lovely metaphor of these villager’s prayerful songs giving the player agency.  When the game begins, the player effectively is brought to life by their dance (literally given ‘breath’ with which to manipulate the world), and it is their cheers and cries and melodies that guide the action, warning of oncoming danger, holding back incoming tidewater, acting as indicators in this elegant absence of a HUD on the screen.

From Dust trains you – through failure; through your increasing familiarity with the game’s structural DNA – to be a god.  To be the god of this pocket universe, alert to the myriad reactive pathways your actions have in this space; to know its balance and boundaries.  It teaches you methodological thought to respond to an amorphous, self-regulating system hostile to life.

…At least that’s how it works for everyone else.

As for me, devoted to the cause as I remain, I maintain that nature is too unwieldy, to irrational, to be shackled by gods who still think like humans.  Gods like me who get impatient and snotty, who yell at a homeless wandering villager because he somehow can’t spot the heat-blasted trench I constructed for him half a mile away that almost certainly isn’t accessible anyway.

This, I am supposing, must be why the pantheon of Greek Gods were always so touchy.  Why they snapped at their heroes and egged them into battle and got so pissy when people insulted their temples, or failed to give them the most suckling cuts of food in their prayerful tributes.

It’s like at the beginning of The Odyssey, when the Olympian gods meet for their periodic staff meeting, poised to hurl snarky insults at one another and make requests for their favoured heroes.  Poseidon has sent his apologies for his absence (he’s off on a business trip to check in on his Ethiopian worshipers), so Athena gets to table a proposal to let Odysseus finally be freed from the punishment Poseidon has inflicted upon him.  The motion is carried, and no doubt someone records it in the minutes.  But it’s in the ‘Other Business’ portion of the meeting’s agenda that Zeus points out a fundamental hypocrisy in human beings blaming their gods for the suffering they bring upon themselves:

‘Ah, how shameless – the way these mortals blame the gods.

From us alone, they say, come all their miseries, yes,

but they themselves, with their own reckless ways,

compound their pains beyond their proper share.’ (1:37-40)

…Sure, he’s talking about Aegisthus, a guy who is whining because conspiring with a wife to murder her husband didn’t work out as perfectly as he would have liked; in contrast, my people are complaining because the incompetence I have inflicted upon them has meant that they now have a plural word for ‘Armageddon’ in their vocabulary.**

But Zeus is right: it’s hard being a god.

Everyone is always at you, crying out for help, wanting to be saved from themselves.  And no matter how many times you swoop in to rescue them – douse the lava flow before it decimates their village; redirect the waterfall that threatens to sweep them away – they keep just wandering back into danger, wailing about it all over again when it all, inevitably, goes pear-shaped…

All right, fine Odysseus, I’ll help you out.  But you know you brought this upon yourself when you started mouthing off to that Cyclops, right?

Wait, really?!  You villagers are just going to build your houses beneath that suspicious dried magma while the ground beneath you rumbles ominously again, are you?  You know what’s going to happen, don’t you?

Sure Achilles, I’ll do what you want – but you could maybe stop being such a petulant cry-baby and not just sulk on a beach all day…

Aw, come on…  I built you a whole railway system and a hydroelectric dam, and you still hate me, just because of all the rampant, unchecked crime?  Cowards.

No wonder Zeus was always so quick to throw a plague at you fools.

Nope.  That’s fine.  Be that way.  I’ll just be over here pushing the ground up and down, doing my omniscient best to ignore the way that games such as these provide striking reflections of our own psychological makeup; trying desperately to forget all those idioms about ‘playing god’, or god ‘being in the details’, and what that must inevitably says about me…

IMAGE: From Dust (Ubisoft)

* Although, given the new Sim City’s tragicomic debacle of a launch it looks like the developers themselves were also suffering from a rather unhealthy dose of misplaced godly hubris…

** Of course, right now I am a god, complaining that my humanity makes me too human to be a god…  So I’m not sure what Zeus would make of that.  Probably he would ignore the contradiction.  After all, he is, ironically, fairly comfortable overlooking the trouble that his all-too-human libido has brought upon himself throughout the years…

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