For whatever strengths or faults it has, From Dust has allowed me to find the answer to this most vexing of issues. I would like to share that answer with you now.
God lets bad things happen because he honestly forgot he put the exploding tree there.
Of course, no one actually called me God. Players in From Dust are cast as "The Breath," a disembodied force that has the power to absorb elements like water, dirt and lava, and redistribute them. The Breath is charged with shepherding native peoples through a series of islands, each with their own environmental challenges.
As they manage to find footholds in this hazardous world, the people set up villages that can grant The Breath other powers like the ability to solidify water (think: parting the Red Sea) or putting out fires level-wide. Villages can defend themselves too by retrieving totems that protect from water or flame. This knowledge can be shared between communities, provided you keep a land path open between the two.
Seeing The Breath in action is practically worth the price of admission alone. It's of course visually impressive watching an amorphous ball of water transform a lava flow into a rock wall, but it's the scale that really sold me. Watching a tsunami sweeping towards your village as a native races to return a water-protection totem is awesome (and I mean that in the strictest definition of the word). Moments like this are perfectly scored by a dynamic, percussive soundtrack that almost seems to be generated by the island-dwellers.
My confinement wasn't so much physical as it was a feeling of being hemmed in by the design choices that creator Eric Chahi and team have made, which seem dead set at every turn on ruining the fun of being a god.
A lot of the blame can be laid at the feet of the corporeal residents of From Dust. Pathing is often inexplicably bad and, a few times, my footsoldiers would just stop mid-journey and wait for death. Oh, and the sound they make when they erect a new village is indistinguishable from the one they make when said village is on fire. Thanks dudes, big help.
A village in peril is something players are going to become intimately, furiously acquainted with. You can lay out the perfect strategy, but if you leave one erstwhile exploding plant lying around it can blow the whole thing out of whack. That's a lot harder to swallow when later levels can take upwards of 30-60 minutes to complete. Plus, hazards often emerge with no warning, so being a few moments away from success can heartbreakingly morph into "Oh snap, everything is covered in lava."
From Dust doesn't want you to play, it wants you to succeed.
There are so many moving parts here that it's almost impossible to know where it is you went wrong. Are you trying the wrong solution? Are you trying the right solution, but not well enough? Have you figured out the solution but are now 20 minutes too late to implement it? And should you do this stupid level again and just pray you don't leave any exploding trees laying around? If the actual Big Guy is more loving and patient than I am, it's only because he has all of eternity to clean up his messes, and I only have until the online press embargo.
The problem is remedied a bit by bite-sized challenge levels. They're gratifying, and the short length encourages experimentation. But even at its best, the play is defined by restrictions, and it seems curiously out of place in a game about omnipotence.
In the main campaign especially, the creativity that your powers inspire (the creativity, in fact, that the game's themes seemingly celebrate) is discouraged at every turn by difficulty, long levels, bad AI and random disasters. Like an overbearing parent, From Dust doesn't want you to play, it wants you to succeed, to progress.
There's a level very late in the game where the shackles are taken off. You have a loose objective, but you're really encouraged to throw mountains where they suit you and have a tsunami wipe the whole thing out if you please. Suddenly, you're unconcerned about meticulously sprinkling out sand bridges and pouring out lava walls just so. A curious thing happens when From Dust stops getting in the way and tells you to just have fun.
You have fun.
From Dust is finally able to dazzle, however briefly, by stripping away practically everything that makes it a "game" and leaving only its base mechanics behind. And you don't have to be all-knowing to realize that's a problem.
I'm not under the illusion than wanton chaos and creation would have held my interest long enough to make for a great game. But there's got to be something between that, and being shoved in a lamp and told to behave myself.
This review is based on 360 code of From Dust provided by Ubisoft. It's out on Xbox Live Arcade on Wednesday, July 27, for 1200 MS Points ($15).