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'From Dust' review: Can a boring videogame be good?

There are certain videogames that you play when you are very young – say, between the ages of 6 and 9, when your brain is still stitching itself together and your hormones haven’t fully kicked on – that occupy a curiously strong place in your memory. As you get older, the games begin to take on the double resonance of literal memory and recurring dream; they can even begin to seem more real than your actual memories from that time. For me, Eric Chahi’s Out of This World is that game. A semi-forgotten example of a semi-forgotten genre released in the semi-forgotten era when people still owned Amigas, Out of This World (which was rather poetically titled Another World everywhere except America) is an eerily silent cinematic platformer which follows the misadventures of a man who finds himself on an alien world. Even though the game looks a bit primordial now, the actual experience of playing it remains very visceral – there are no directions, no heads-up displays, and no dialogue, just strange unearthly sounds and a seemingly infinite number of ways to die.

I was thinking about Out of This World quite a bit lately, because I’ve been playing From Dust, the XBox Live Arcade offering that marks Chahi’s return to videogames after over a decade spent in the wilderness apparently taking pictures of volcanoes. In past summers, XBLA has produced modern classics like Braid and Limbo. This summer’s other big offering, Bastion, was similar to those earlier games – they’re all modern riffs on retro genres – but From Dust is quite different. In the game, you are a godlike force who can control the classical elements: You can gather up dirt from one area and deposit it elsewhere; you can sprinkle water over a desert landscape to help plants to grow; you can assemble a great big ball of lava and spill it over the water, creating rocks out of nothing. It’s a uniquely meditative game experience. Which is another way of saying that From Dust is kind of boring.

I’m not sure that that’s necessarily a bad thing. More so than any other medium, videogames are hamstrung by the simple fact that people expect them to be “fun” – constantly and without fail. There have always been markets for artsy films and for impenetrable novels; there is an emerging vogue for bleak, glacially-paced TV. And I want to stress: artsiness, impenetrability, and glacial pacing can be good things. But the videogame genre is based on immediacy, on forcing the player to do things, and it can be difficult to thread that needle.

Still, I think there’s something low-level fascinating about the gameplay in From Dust. As you build up villages and attempt to divert the path of lava from a volcano, it begins to feel like Chahi is attempting to create something like the videogame version of The Tree of Life – a movie which attempted to juxtapose a single family’s life against the history of existence. In that sense, the problem with From Dust is that there is no juxtaposition: It’s like the “Creation” sequence in The Tree of Life without the movie around it. But I can’t deny that the game makes for a uniquely meditative experience. I mean this as both a compliment and a complaint: From Dust is exactly as much fun as planting a garden. Grade: B-

Follow Darren on Twitter: @EWDarrenFranich

Originally posted August 16 2011 — 11:26 AM EDT

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