The Edge ExPlay Panel: playing in From Dust’s sandbox

Eric Chahi’s most recognisable game is a distinctly linear experience. Another World, the classic 1991 “cinematic platformer”, offers a couple of very short branches, but ultimately funnels you down one path. It’s punishingly difficult, too. His most recent game, however, and the one I want to talk about, is the exact opposite of that.

From Dust is certainly a great god game, and it’s also a bit of a looker, but what I think it does really well is provide the tools, and the space, in which to play. It is, in the truest sense of the word, a genuine sandbox.

Open world games are becoming increasingly fashionable to the point that even the racing genre’s caught the bug and is moving away from closed circuits to more freeform designs as evidenced by the likes of Burnout Paradise and, more recently, Forza Horizon and Need For Speed: Most Wanted.

But there’s a big difference between an open world and a sandbox, and games like Grand Theft Auto, and even Minecraft, fall very much into the former category. These types of games offer, in their own ways, plenty of components to play with, whether it’s an assortment of vehicles and weapons, a range of materials to build with or an apparently sentient population. But even though the pieces are many, they don’t interact with any great depth.

What allows From Dust to lay claim to the sandbox definition are its closely intertwined systems. The tools you’re given to interact with the world are basic and few, but the resultant potential of toying with earth (it looks like sand, but it isn’t), lava and water is incredibly rich. But that rich sandbox isn’t the inspiring piece of game design I want to highlight: it’s actually the way in which you can switch between the linear adventure and wide-open sandbox play at your whim.

Well, mostly. It’s true that there are times in the game when you’re harried by a time-dependent task, such as protecting a village from an imminent tsunami, or the fallout from a particularly aggressive volcano.But in each such case, the task asked of you is fairly short-lived and, for the most part, once completed you’re then free to toy with the world at your leisure. The game over screen only ever makes itself known if you lose every single one of your followers.

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