Arrakis. Dune. Desert Planet.
Frank Herbert’s novel Dune was, in many ways, the first of its kind in the science fiction field. Arthur C. Clarke compared its detail, scope, and world-building qualities to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Dune was one of the early science fiction works to move beyond space opera and into its own expansive universe in the far future. And in its five sequels, Herbert turned it into a multi-generational epic of politics, ecology, and deconstruction of the superheroic messiah archetype.
Dune is the saga of the noble-born Paul Atreides, son of a Duke in the feudal houses of the Landsraad. He is born into political strife, and the houses are commonly at odds – the Atreides are particularly at odds with the Harkonnen. As the story begins, Paul and his parents Duke Leto and Lady Jessica are preparing to leave for the planet Arrakis – sole source of the spice melange, a drug which prolongs life and unlocks latent prescient abilities in the human mind – abilities which are necessary for the navigation of space. House Harkonnen, the former rulers of Arrakis, plot in secret to wrestle control of the planet from the Atreides.
For he who controls Arrakis controls the spice. And he who controls the spice controls the universe.
Spice harvesting is a dangerous endeavor, requiring expensive harvesting vehicles as well as aerial transports and scouts, as the massive sandworms of Dune frequent the spice fields. When wormsign is spotted, the harvesters make an effort to get out as soon as possible. Often (especially under Harkonnen rule), harvesters are left behind if the carryalls do not arrive in time.
The desert-dwelling Fremen are also an important political consideration on Arrakis. Living in caves among the shifting sands and wearing water-recycling stillsuits, the Fremen have unusual connections to both the spice and the sandworms, and House Atreides makes efforts to form an alliance with the Fremen. Of course, this happens just before the Harkonnen coup comes to fruition and everything goes to Hell.
The original novel has been adapted into many other forms of media – David Lynch’s 1984 film with a cult following, a 2000 miniseries that the Sci-Fi channel made with cheap CG sets, and, probably most notably, it has been adapted into PC games.
The Spice Opera
1992′s adaptation of Dune, developed by Cryo and published by Virgin, drew on the general plot of the novel as well as the visual design of the David Lynch film (and indeed featured the likenesses of a few of the actors from the film). The game mixes strategy and adventure game styles. As Paul Atreides you are in charge of balancing your spice harvesting and military, to keep the Emperor happy with your spice output whilst keeping Harkonnen incursions at bay. A good portion of the game involves flying around in an ornithopter and speaking to leaders of Fremen sietches to convince them to work with you, as well as keeping up morale.
The strategy element comes in when you have to manage your Fremen workers – between harvesting and martial duties. While the strategy elements are quite simplistic, they blend nicely with the adventuring. The look and feel of the game captures the intangible qualities of Dune well.
In addition, it began the tradition (perhaps picking up where the Toto/Brian Eno score of the 1984 film left off) of having great music in Dune games. The soundtrack, composed by Stéphane Picq and Philip Ulrich, was later remixed and released by Virgin Records as Dune: Spice Opera, which is now incredibly rare.
The Building of A Dynasty
Westwood Studios’ first project was a port of the Epyx RPG Temple of Apshai. The fledgling studio rewrote the game from the ground up as a real-time dungeon crawl, not unlike a primitive version of their future rival Blizzard’s Diablo. While the Apshai port wasn’t what Epyx wanted, Westwood would continue experimenting with real-time games such as Eye of the Beholder. Then, in 1992, the tumblers all fell into place. Virgin Interactive had the Dune license. Westwood had the concept for a new kind of strategy game. Westwood founder and Dune fan Brett Sperry made the call.
Real-time strategy had been incubating for some time before Dune II: The Building of a Dynasty debuted. There were prototypical examples of the genre such as Stonkers, Herzog Zwei, and Westwood’s own licensed efforts on Battletech and D&D licenses.
But when it came out, no one had really seen anything like it before. Dune II is considered to be the progenitor of the real-time strategy genre, the first of its breed. The game introduced fast action to strategic military gameplay, and was probably the first PC game genre to be designed around the mouse as the primary input rather than centering around the keyboard; it was the game that launched a thousand clones – WarCraft, Age of Empires, Total Annihilation, and Westwood’s own brainchild Command & Conquer all owe their creation to Dune II.
The story is seperate from that of the first game (as following up with the story of the succeeding novels would be more about political intrigue, religion, and ecology), instead offering us a setup in which the Padishah Emperor issues a challenge to the Houses of the Landsraad: whoever can harvest the most spice for him will gain sole power over Dune. He sets no rules of engagement and three houses converge to war for the prize.
This time, House Ordos, a shadowy member of the political landscape, joins the Atreides and Harkonnen in the conflict for the planet. The three factions build their bases on rock islands in the seas of sand, contending with enemy patrols and sandworms alike. While the sides were for the most part similar, they could each produce their own unique vehicles and superweapons. The Atreides have access to sonic tanks and Fremen warriors; the Harkonnen have the Devastator tank and the Death Hand warhead, and House Ordos has the Raider trike and Deviator tank, in addition to the Saboteur unit.
Between missions (and during, if you choose) you also have access to advice from your House’s mentat, of which the most memorable is the Harkonnen advisor, Radnor. He always reminded me a bit of Max Shreck in Nosferatu. The Ordos mentat is the source of a bit of humor for players my age, because down to shirt color and hairstyle he looks like the Green Ranger from Power Rangers.
Frank Klepacki continues the tradition of great music in the Dune games, while developing a musical style that defines what an RTS should sound like (as he also scored the Command & Conquer games). While the sound of the time was relatively primitive compared to the CD audio he’d be working with in a few years, he still managed to bring a lot of mood and atmosphere to the game.