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Long read: The beauty and drama of video games and their clouds

"It's a little bit hard to work out without knowing the altitude of that dragon..."

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From Dust


In From Dust you're God, and God, in turn, is a vacuum cleaner. He's a frantic, over-worked, middle-managery kind of vacuum cleaner, if that's remotely possible, and one that's locked in constant, hectic mediation between populace and environment. You know, just like a vacuum cleaner.

Heavenly influence is indirect here. As you try to coax your people into moving from one ancient monument to the next and then ensure they actually get there, drilling paths across the sea or sucking up huge balls of sand and earth when they block the way, it feels a little like Katamari Damacy - if Katamari Damacy had been designed by Moses, which I'm almost certain it was not.

The game was born, like so many other things, from a form of volcano worship. Eric Chahi, the creator of Another World and Heart of Darkness, found he needed some time away from the video game industry towards the tail end of the 1990s, and so he ended up messing around with art and photography and – eventually – volcanology.

"As a creator I'm excited by a lot of things," he says. "I love the mineral world, where there's a lot of geological features, and the biggest thing for me during this part of my life was volcanoes.

A metagame involves enlarging your tribe’s area of control on each map, bringing forth foliage and – eventually – other animals.

"I went on actual active volcanoes. I wasn't even aware that was possible at first. It was a real passion to be there to see the earth erupt and become alive. You see the earth breathing, and watch as lava flows create incredible landscapes. To see lava just feet from you is amazing. It changed my understanding of the world, and it really influenced From Dust."

Chahi's latest tells the story of an amnesiac tribe seeking to rediscover its past. This plays out, for the most part, as your followers pick their way across a series of roomy maps, building villages around a series of ancient totems and gathering a sense of their history – and cool new powers for their deity – as they go. For the player, it comes down to directing your AI-controlled tribe from one spot to the next and then nannying them in creative ways.

It sounds like an endless grind of escort missions, but From Dust is actually quick-witted, entertaining stuff, and the central mechanic feels a little bit like debugging, as you blaze a trail, one obstacle at a time.

There's a good range of camera options: you can easily zoom in or out and even snap straight to a specific tribesman.

The path-finding AI of your tribe is surprisingly good – cut off a route, and they will try and work out a new one organically – and that's pretty handy by itself, but what's even better is that the game always makes your followers' intentions enviably clear. Set a waypoint in the distance and the path your tribe will take to get there is emblazoned across the ground in the form of a spectral white ribbon. When the intended path reaches a geographical feature that your charges won't be able to cross without intervention, the ribbon turns red, highlighting the areas that need your attention.

That's where you come in. At first, the trials this particular god has to face are fairly simple: you'll have to get your worshippers past a small body of shallow water, which can easily be achieved either by bringing in sand to create a bridge, or building up the walls to create a lake, and then draining all the water out.

As your powers evolve, however, and the environment become increasingly complex and dynamic, challenges become much more interesting. Later levels offer up complex peninsulas for you to pick your way across, or places where your ultimate targets are buried under the sea or threatened by oozing lava. ("Listen to the lava," says Chahi. "We captured that audio from a real volcano.")