SSPA – Dune

I’ve often thought that the genre of videogames tailor made for expansive storytelling was the point and click adventure. In its heyday, adventure games were some of the most imaginative games around. They could take a player to very imaginative places and involve them in the progression of a story much more intimately than most action games. Games from Sierra and Lucas Arts could tell deep or shallow stories with superb writing in games like King’s Quest and Grim Fandango, Cyan Worlds produced the mind-bending settings of the Myst series, and Tell-Tale Games has used the medium to expand on the stories of popular franchises like The Walking Dead and Batman. These games have shown the versatility and expanded the story telling abilities of the genre through the years.

Back in 1992, a company known as Cryo Interactive Entertainment attempted to expand upon the film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune. Before Peter Jackson showed the world how to film an “unfilmable” story with Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, David Lynch took a stab at Herbert’s space epic. Lynch’s film was the product of a long period of development hell that went through multiple drafts and directors before he was brought into the project. When the film was finally released it was polarizing, and heavily criticized for being confusing and disloyal to the source material. Nonetheless it was a visually striking film that had since developed a cult status and fan base. Cryo’s Dune was released for the Amiga, MS-DOS, and Sega CD, and attempted to put the player in the midst of the story as an interactive adventure game with a focus on resource management.

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Story: Contains Spoilers for Novel and Film

Know that it is the year 10191. Mankind has mastered interstellar travel through the use of a substance known as the Spice Mélange, making it the most valuable resource in the universe. However the Spice can only be found on the desert planet Arrakis also known as Dune. Because of it’s value, Dune is heavily monitored by the Emperor Shaddam and until recently has been under the supervision of a ruling family known as the Harkonnen who has been in a deep conflict with another ruling family, the Atreides. The game starts with the Emperor handing over control of Dune to the Atreides, a position that comes with great power and prestige. Duke Leto Atreides is suspicious of the offer, knowing that the Harkonnen are not likely to simply go away from Dune without a fight, but he is not in a position to refuse. The Duke and his forces occupy the planet and are now responsible for mining Spice for the Empire. You are placed in the role of Duke Leto’s son Paul and are tasked with learning to oversee Spice production and develop relations with the native people known as the Fremen. It is not long before a contingent of Harkonnen forces are discovered to be occupying the northern regions of Dune, and Paul must work to help maintain control of the planet while still providing enough Spice to keep the Emperor happy or else the Atreides will be forced off of Dune.

The story in this game is dramatically cut down from the source material. Multiple plot threads are dropped and certain characters are either met earlier than in the book or are made up entirely. For example, the turning point in the story that leads to Paul starting his journey to lead the Fremen is almost completely changed. In the novel and film, the Harkonnen attack the Atreides palace, capturing and killing major characters, including the Duke. Paul and his mother Jessica barely manage to escape, resulting in Paul determining to gain the allegiance of the Fremen to take revenge on the Harkonnen. In the game, a Harkonnen attack occurs on a small settlement, and when the Duke goes to combat them, he is killed. Rather than being a game changing moment that uproots Paul’s life, things simply carry on like normal, except that you now have to contend with the Harkonnen for control of the planet. None of the characters have any lasting changes. It underplays the importance of the Duke as a character.

On top of that the characters are underwhelming. They are very two-dimensional and don’t have any moments to build a connection with the player. Usually they will only say a handful of lines while you as Paul have no lines or interactions outside of telling people to come with you or stay, with the occasional yes or no decision. Even Paul’s love interest, Chani, just asks to go outside moments after meeting him and they instantly fall in love. This makes the “adventure game” parts of the game weak and just feel like busy work that you have little control over.

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In order to expand upon the story, the game includes a sort of in game library that discusses various aspects of the world and new entries are added as you progress through the game. Included in this library on the Sega CD and PC CD versions of the game are clips from Lynch’s film. These clips do illustrate scenes depicted in the game, but they are not presented in gameplay. For example, there is a point where Lady Jessica, Paul’s mother, instructs you to go and meditate in the desert to tap into Paul’s latent psychic abilities. After doing this and gaining the ability to psychically contacting the Fremen, you unlock a chapter explaining this power and a clip of one of Paul’s visions from the movie. The clip would have been much more effective if it played during the game, however it appears the only scene that automatically plays is the introduction every time you turn it on. These clips are also the only scenes in which Paul speaks. After playing the game through with Paul acting bafflingly mute, finding these scenes after the fact is a real bummer, since they would have given him emphasis as the only character voiced by his film actor.

Gameplay:

Dune is an odd combination of Point and Click adventure, and real time strategy. Although you spend most of the game going from location to location, meeting NPCs and gathering supplies, the principal focus of the game is to maintain the production of spice. Spice can be used as currency to purchase equipment form smugglers, and is necessary to placate the Emperor to stay on Dune. This reliance on maintaining Spice production goes in direct opposition to a movie clip wherein Paul expressly states his goal to bring Spice production to a stand still. Nonetheless, the main goal of the gameplay is to rally Fremen troops to mine Spice and train for military action. Eventually, you unlock the option of terraforming Dune. Doing this raises the morale of the Fremen, but eliminates all the spice in a given region, forcing you to choose wisely where to do this for the greatest effect with the least cost.

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Periodically, the Emperor will call in to demand a shipment of Spice. This serves as a tickling clock that you must contend with to produce enough spice to continue playing. Interactions with other characters are the only way to truly progress through the game, though. Certain plot points won’t progress until you meet certain people. You must pay attention as a number of scripted event happen depending on the calendar. If you aren’t careful, you can find yourself in a bind with too little Spice, or too few soldiers.

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Although most of the mechanics in the game seem simple enough, there are a few lingering issues that trip up the game. For one thing, it can take very long for your troops to get around the planet if they don’t have the right supplies and because the only way to really pass time is to travel around the planet, you may send a troop to a new location, travel to another spot and find your men wiped out between flights. Although you don’t have a set time limit in the game, you do have to be punctual with your spice shipments, and they can only be fulfilled at the palace, which is also the only place to save your game. If you spend too much time away form the base you can end up dangerously close to missing a shipment, and if things start to fall apart on you, being away from the save point too long can have serious consequences.

Presentation:

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Like the other aspects of this game, the presentation is a little odd as well. The environments are a mix of pre-rendered 3D images and 2D art. It’s very colorful and most of the locations look different depending on the time of day. The character designs are interesting. Although the game is movie licensed, only a few actors lent their likenesses. Paul’s appearance is based on Kyle MacLauchlan, Lady Jessica is based on Francesca Annis, and Feyd Rautha, the Harkonnen heir, is modeled after Sting. Everyone else is originally designed, and mainly based on their descriptions from the original novel. The different styles range from rotoscoped picture to cartoonish and the overall effect is somewhat jarring. Also, the Graphics do suffer a downgrade coming to the Sega CD (left) from the PC (right). There is less detail in the Sega version and fewer colors.

Stéphane Picq and Philippe Ulrich composed the music. It is interesting that they chose not to license the soundtrack to the film, but the new music was made with the PC’s capabilities in mind. It has a very ethereal techno sound that fits the setting and story, and was even given a stand-alone release by Virgin Records as Dune: Spice Opera. Unfortunately, the Sega CD version does not emulate the PC’s sound, and all the music is rendered through the Sega Genesis sound chip, which makes everything sound very tinny and unpleasantly loud.

One of the game’s greatest problems is the way it presents the story. For the most part, you experience things second hand. You don’t witness Duke Leto’s death, you are just told about it afterwards. You hear the Fremen speak of you as a chosen one, but you never hear the legend told to you. Also, to accommodate the gameplay, major set pieces are removed, such as Paul’s battle with Feyd Rautha, or are completely unseen, like the siege on the Harkonnen stronghold. As mentioned before, some scenes are explained or expanded upon by the movie clips and in game library, but they can only be viewed after the fact, which leaves the main game lacking.

Conclusion:

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This game was an interesting effort, but a little misguided. The developers were clearly interested in the idea of a game based on the one aspect of the film that gets the least screen time, the Spice mining, but gave little thought to how the story would progress, making it feel a trifle tacked on and incomplete. The game is perfectly playable, but it feels unrefined. A few years later, Westwood Studios produced Dune II for Amiga, MS-DOS, and Sega Genesis, which focused very little on story and bolstered the Real Time Strategy gameplay, and while it is certainly the superior title, I get the feeling that this first game was a necessary step in the right direction. Dune was not fantastic, but as a fan of Herbert’s novel, and Lynch’s film, it was an oddity I am glad I played.

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