Eric Chahi likes lava. He likes talking about lava. He likes emailing a photo (above) of some lava that he photographed on Reunion Island. This man likes volcanoes more than you or I do.
His zeal erupted in the past decade when, Chahi told me, "I discovered a passion for volcanoes." Pause. "For active volcanoes."
The day I met Eric Chahi, a video game designer of some renown, he was backstage at the E3 circus of video games with a public relations man from Chahi's employer, the massive French publisher Ubisoft. The PR man chuckled about Chahi's volcano mania. He recalled how, one day in France Chahi heard that a volcano was erupting somewhere in the Indian Ocean. The next day, Chahi had plane tickets to check it out.
Chahi takes pictures of volcanoes, as close as he can get. He records sounds of the lava, the so many types of lava, the gushers and the slow-rolling lava, the cracking, cooling lava and the lava that makes the sound like, in his words, "a monster crying".
Chahi's enthusiasm for volcanoes is well-timed in this year when volcanoes made a big comeback in world news. This is the year the erupting Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull put Europe's aeroplanes on the ground for a week. Next year, Chahi's volcano could be a headliner. He's making what should be video game's best volcano.
The volcano will be the dominating influence of Project Dust, a game that Chahi and 16 other developers at Ubisoft Montpellier have been working on for a couple of years and plan to release as a downloadable game next spring. "It is a god game where nature is the epicentre of the gameplay," he told me in Los Angeles at E3 after showing me a trailer.
Project Dust is a fully-simulated virtual island world with little people trying to survive the activity of a raging volcano, rivers, tsunamis and other natural hazards. The player has the god hand that can divert rivers or reshape the land, hopefully keeping the people on the island alive. Chahi described the game as "an action adventure on an epic level" and "like playing with sandcastles on the beach."
Chahi hasn't made a major video game in well over a decade. His 1991 adventure game Out of this World is considered a refined and restrained classic. But following 1998's Heart of Darkness, Chahi disappeared from the gaming scene. Chahi explained his long break to me: "I wanted to travel and do some painting." And then he discovered volcanoes.
Project Dust began with Chahi deciding to make a simulated volcano. A game was shaped around it, around what he believes will be the best volcano ever made in a video game. These days his development team sometimes leaves their best-volcano-in-the-making running overnight. They return to find its lava has spilled and cooled and grown the land around it. It's nearly natural and it is fully thrilling.
Atop this post is the Piton de la Fournaise, the Dolomieu crater on Reunion Island, one of the many real volcanoes to impress Chahi. It is an inspiration for the one we will be able to play with in the spring. And if you listen to the rumbling and whistling of Project Dust's beautiful lava, we might hear the sounds, recorded by Chahi, of nature at its most powerful, captured in a video game.