This weekend I decided to replay a game I remembered from when I was a young’n. A game based on one of my favourite science-fiction novels ever, Franks Herbert’s Dune. However! Spoiler alert – I am not talking about Dune II, the game that basically invented the Real Time Strategy genre (although that’s most definitely worth an article). No, I’m talking about it’s predecessor. The original Dune (1992) is a hybrid of an adventure game, interactive novel, puzzle, and real-time strategy (although not in the sense used today).
The game starts out like a classic adventure game. You’re in your palace, you can wander around and talk to your parents and other advisors. Amusingly, everyone seems more than happy to fill you in on who they are and what their relationship and background with you, but I forgive this as some of the character relationships in Dune are pretty complex (anyone who has tried to make sense of one of the movie adaptations will agree).
After a while, you head out of the palace and over the desert sands of Dune itself, travelling via a insect/helicopter hybrid called an Ornithopter, and visiting the native Fremen caves (known as Sietches). Talking to the Fremen troop leaders, eventually you’ll start to convince them to work for you. And here’s where the game adds it’s first extra dimension.
Real Time Strategy
With some Fremen troops under your control, you’ll ask them to start harvesting spice for you. The Emperor demands that you send him regular (and always increasing) spice shipments, and Fremen are your only source. You can also instruct them to move elsewhere on the planet, or go find more equipment (like Harvesters) to gather spice faster.
Troops respond in real time, and there’s a finite amount of spice in the world. Combined with the Emperor’s demands, this puts a clock on game time. Spend too long and your accessible spice will be depleted, and the Emperor will eventually come and kill you. Your Fremen will also increase in Spice Mining skill the longer you keep them doing it. So far, so simple.
But wait! The evil House Harkonnen (I’m sure you will remember these guys from Dune II) are also on the planet, and they don’t like the Atreides. Once you’ve got your mining operations up and running, they’ll start attacking some of your Sietches, interfering with your spice operations and capturing your precious Fremen troops.
In response, your advisors and Fremen squads will tell you to seek a great Fremen leader. He’ll let you train your Fremen troops to fight instead of just mine spice, and through him, you’ll find a girl.
Through the girl, you’ll find the Fremen have dreams of terraforming Dune into a less… deserty… planet, and her father will let you teach the Fremen to capture moisture from the atmosphere and plant bulbs to develop the planet’s ecology instead of just fighting and mining spice.
At this point in the game, you need to carefully balance the needs of spice mining, military training, and ecology. Meanwhile, spice volumes on the planet are continually depleting (forcing you to venture into the desert looking for new territories) and the Harkonnen are always threatening to attack. Everything you do is mediated by your character talking to the other characters: go and talk to troop leaders to get them to change tasks. Talk to Duncan Idaho to go send the emperor spice. It feels cumbersome by modern game standards, but the whole setup totally immerses you in the role and lends a really powerful atmosphere, at times of almost quiet desperation to the gameplay. This is why I called it the best game based on a book. It honestly captures the feel of the rebel Paul Atreides from the novel perfectly. The story has changed a few key points from the book while keeping the essence, so you don’t see the plot twists coming.
Once you have spice harvesting under control and you’ve trained a sufficiently powerful Fremen army, and you’ve talked to your Mentat advisors and weaponsmasters and probably smuggled in some lasguns and atomics, you’ll be ready to go on the attack. This is where the game is let down a little bit, because actually attacking Harkonnen structures is very hit and miss. It’s difficult to get reliable info on Harkonnen fortresses before you actually attack them (there’s an espionage function, but it’s not well implemented). Often you will end up saving a game, trying an attack, and then reloading if the attack fails (since a loss of any significant portion of your military troops means game over, since you can’t spare your spicers for the time you’d need to train them).
Once you reach a “critical mass” of Expert-trained Fremen and they have all the weapons, you’ll be able to essentially steamroll every Harkonnen fortress. Every liberated Fortress typically gives you a new Fremen troop as well (former slaves). From here, victory is inevitable. Sadly, the game can’t sustain the atmosphere of pressure and risk it had while you were trying to gather an army.
Another shortcoming is also revealed around this time: the whole “ecological” path is essentially a red herring. Unless there’s another way to complete the game (I didn’t find it), all you really need are 1 or 2 token ecological troops to keep the morale of the rest of your army high. This is really disappointing, as terraforming the planet seems to be a sophisticated mechanic (you need to collect both water and vegetation for each sietch, vegetation will slowly spread, moisture destroys any spice in the area… it’s not a tacked-on system… it just… doesn’t do anything).
The very end of the game has you busting down the doors on the Harkonnen capital, Arrakeen. The ending is pretty satisfying, and does a reasonably good job of reconciling all of the plot deviations to bring the game back to where it was at the conclusion of the novel.
Overall, the thing that this game does so extremely well, is tell the story of Dune. I’ve never seen any other game come close to telling the story in such a fashion. Putting so many game systems in (travelling around in 1st person, talking to people to solve simple puzzles, and managing troops on a planetary scale) really conveys what’s happening. For a game from 1992, the graphics and gameplay have both held up extremely well. None of the gameplay feels shallow. I played this from start to finish over about six hours, and loved it.
This is a really rare gem. There are plenty of games based on novels (and movies) that provide great gameplay (hell, I could just look at Dune II for that!), but games that focus on telling the story of a novel (and doing it well) just seem so rare. Am I forgetting anything? Leave a comment below if you have a favourite!
If you are a fan of the Dune universe, OR a fan of adventure games, OR you want to see what genuinely innovative gameplay looked like in 1992, I highly recommend exploring this world!