Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Game 80: Dune - Introduction (1992)

Written by Reiko

If you've read any science fiction, you've probably at least heard of Dune, the classic novel by Frank Herbert. It was originally published in 1965 and spawned five more books written by Herbert himself, plus several more written by his son Brian Herbert with Kevin J. Anderson. And of course, it's the basis for the adventure game developed by Cryo Interactive and published in 1992 by Virgin Interactive. Actually, the game was based completely on the 1984 movie, which was based on the novel but has some differences.

Unlike Gateway, which had its own self-contained plot that sharply diverges from the book, Dune's gameplay is heavily based on what Paul Atreides does in the book to unite the native Fremen tribes of Arrakis. Despite my history of reading science fiction and fantasy, I'd never read Dune, so I went ahead and read the whole thing before starting to write this. I decided I'd need the background to understand the game better, and I'd also fill in a gap in my science fiction history. I initially had the impression that Dune was a slow book, hard to get into. While I did find the early chapters slow as the book does some worldbuilding and character building, once the plot starts moving, it doesn't let up much until the end, and I found it generally a pleasure to read.

The game and book both take place on the desert planet of Arrakis and focus on the character of Paul Atreides. In the book, after an assassination attempt that claims the life of his father Duke Leto, who was the ruler of the planet under the galactic emperor, Paul must escape with his mother into the deep desert, make contact with the native Fremen, and use his training and charm to integrate himself into their culture and win their loyalty so that he can use them to defeat his family's rivals, the sneaky Harkonnen.

That summary is an oversimplification, since it completely ignores several important factors, like the interference of the Bene Gesserit, the all-female sect that has been running bloodline projects to breed a specific child with specific foresight capabilities; or the difficulty Paul has with dealing with his own foresight; or the role of the immensely valuable spice that lengthens life and triggers foresight abilities which make FTL travel possible, but can only be gathered in the deserts of Arrakis, nowhere else in known space.

Does Paul look only fifteen years old?

In the game, the goal is still the unification of the Fremen under Paul's leadership in order to defeat the Harkonnens, but he begins the process at the direction of his father. Paul in the game appears to be older than in the book, which perhaps is just as well, since it's rather unbelievable that a fifteen-year-old boy, even one so talented, could perform such feats of leadership and strategy. The manual still says he's fifteen, but I don't think the picture looks that young.

Why Arrakis is so special.

The game opens with a short introduction to Paul, the rivalry of the Atreides and Harkonnen families, and the importance of spice and the planet of Arrakis to space travel. The goal is clear: defeat the Harkonnens, but they start at a significant advantage, with an established military presence and spice production already in place. Paul has to catch up.

In the main hall, Paul can speak to his father the Duke or move to another room.

In adventure mode, Paul can walk around from room to room and talk to people in his home fortress of Arrakeen or other locations he finds, and he can also walk around the open desert or travel by ornithopter, either by himself, or with certain characters. In strategy mode, he can direct individual Fremen tribes under his control to mine spice, move from place to place on the planet map, make attacks, or perform other useful actions. He can also travel from place to place himself.

The game runs in (compressed) real time, although travel time can be skipped over. The real-time nature of the game makes me twitchy and paranoid that I'm being inefficient, but I am consoled by reviews that say the game is not very difficult. I'll just do the best I can and restart only if I have to. In fact, a September 1992 review from Computer Gaming World ends by saying, "Dune features a light and interesting challenge that almost guarantees that every player will actually get to see the denouement."

Paul's first mission.

As in the book, the way to prevail will involve the Fremen, which the Harkonnens discount as a few scattered bands of rabble. After the introduction, the player has control of Paul in Arrakeen and can talk to people there or start exploring the desert. Paul's mother Jessica gives him his first specific task: take an ornithopter to a nearby Fremen location to meet Gurney Halleck, one of his father's advisors.

The bar at the bottom of the screen is the primary interface in adventure mode. The box in the middle gives options for interacting with the people or environment in the immediate vicinity, while the time is displayed with a day number and approximate sun position in the lower left. Next to the time, there are boxes to show which characters currently accompany Paul. The book shifts to a reference screen, and the box in the bottom right is a display of currently available directions. The red dot in the middle triggers a larger map of nearby rooms.

Strategy mode is more complex, involving a map of Arrakis and an interface for controlling known Fremen tribes that are close enough for Paul to reach. I’ll describe that in more detail when I start using it.

Minimalist soundtrack cover.

The soundtrack was released as a CD called Dune: Spice Opera. The composers were St├ęphane Picq, the musician at Cryo Interactive, and Phillipe Ulrich, the project lead for the game.

The manual contains short talent descriptions of some of the people involved with game production, but most of them are far more fanciful than useful. For example, of Picq, it says, "The cryogenic frequency dust has given him a psy-power whose implications defy the imagination: he can tune into mental broadcasts from distant stars and astonish us with hits from beyond the galaxy..." The others say little more of any use. The entire Cryo team was French, but the rest of the manual is surprisingly coherent for a game originating from France. Perhaps Virgin produced it as part of the publishing process.

Dune was originally released both for Amiga and PC floppies but was one of the first floppy games converted to CD. The CD version included significant improvements, including movie footage and voice-acting, but it wasn't released until 1993. The version I'm playing should be the original DOS version from 1992.

So next time, I will begin collecting Fremen tribes and harvesting the spice! Make your score guesses in the meantime.

Note Regarding Spoilers and Companion Assist Points: There's a set of rules regarding spoilers and companion assist points. Please read it here before making any comments that could be considered a spoiler in any way. The short of it is that no CAPs will be given for hints or spoilers given in advance of me requiring one. As this is an introduction post, it's an opportunity for readers to bet 10 CAPs (only if they already have them) that I won't be able to solve a puzzle without putting in an official Request for Assistance: remember to use ROT13 for betting. If you get it right, you will be rewarded with 50 CAPs in return. It's also your chance to predict what the final rating will be for the game. Voters can predict whatever score they want, regardless of whether someone else has already chosen it. All correct (or nearest) votes will go into a draw.


  1. 55

    Hopefully I manage to get some time to play along.

    I read the first volume last year and found it to be underwhelming thus far - extremely shallow villain, and the kid and his mother have these weird powers and shit. I guess the plot/premise is too fantastical for me to relate to. Maybe it gets better later on?

    1. I absolutely love the first book, and got about 50 pages into the sequel before giving up in despair.

      I'd maybe suggest watching the 1984 film first (as I did). I watched the original cut of the film back in the 90s, read Dune about ten or so years later, and then watched a longer, better cut of the film a few years back.

      The film and the book are different, but I do love them both (the film is a bit of a mess though, as lots of parts of the book were cut or rushed through, you're appreciation of it will rely a lot on how much you enjoy David Lynch's style).

  2. I quite liked this game, but I'm not sure how it will fare in the PISSED ratings, seeing as it changes character later on.

    I'm guessing 50

    The image of Paul looks a heck of a lot like the actor Kyle MacLachlan, who played him in the Dune movie from 1984. I would guess some of the other characters and/or visuals are taken from ( or at least inspired by ) that movie as well.

    1. I'm pretty sure all of the character images are based on their 1984 film versions. Certainly the two shown here are.

    2. It's possible that they were based on the actors, but I don't think all of them are as similar as Paul/Kyle. Look up Gurney Halleck, for instance, who was played by Patrick Stewart. The hair ( or lack of ) is sort of right, but the face is way off. Same thing with Feyd Rautha Harkonnen, who was portrayed by Sting.

    3. Perhaps they had to get image rights, and some people said no? I would assume even a bad likeness could get you sued if you used it without permission.

  3. People like this game, right? Let's go with...58!

  4. Is this even an adventure game? The description makes it sound more like a resource management strategy game, but I might be misinterpreting.

    1. It's a hybrid of adventure and strategy elements, as I tried to describe in the intro. It was originally Disregarded on the potential game list for 1992, but enough people traded the CAPs to add it. We'll see how it ends up scoring as an adventure game.

  5. "I'm your mother, Jessica." has to win the 'Cringeworthy Dialogue of the Week' Award.

    I think it'll score low due to only being part-adventure. 37.

    And I thought I'd once read Dune and have been trying to wrack my brain to see if I can coax out a complete memory, but I'm' getting nothing so I'm concluding that I actually haven't read it. I've definitely seen the movie though

    1. I had a little chuckle at that line, writing dialogue doesn't get much worse than that!

    2. Yeah, as if Paul doesn't know his own mother's name.

  6. The book was fascinating, but relied heavily on internal monologue, which doesn't translate well to movies. The 1984 film looked great, but failed to tell the story coherently. And I always liked the game.

    I'd like to draw extra attention to the music:

    From what I can gather, the full-synth soundtrack was written first, mostly by Picq; the game uses arranged versions of the songs, and the Amiga port uses instruments sampled from the full synths, while the DOS version can do FM synth music or MT-32.

    I found this surprising, since the FM music is incredibly well produced, and I had assumed it would have been made first. Different sound synthesis techniques work variably well to produce different instruments, and FM is great for bells, wood blocks, basses, and pads. The music in Dune uses such instruments to great effect, unlike many other contemporary games whose soundtracks are written for more traditional rock band instruments, which don't sound as good in FM.

    Also, it would have been cool to include the full-synth soundtrack on the CD version of the game, but apparently Cryo figured the video clips were more important, and there wasn't enough space on the CD for both. (At that time, good sound compression codecs didn't yet exist. In-game MP3 music only became a realistic option a few years later.)


    The Adlib soundtrack is well worth listening to, and easy to find on Youtube. Additionally, for a real treat, try the MT-32 and Adlib versions mixed together:

    1. Ooh, thanks for the extra details on the music! That's very interesting.

    2. One thing to note is that Dune has one of the few soundtracks specifically composed for AdLib Gold. The sound card contains a more advanced OPL3 chip instead of the OPL2 heard in the likes of AdLib and SoundBlaster, and has several audio effects (reverb, chorus, bass boost) to boot.

      DOSBox 0.74 (last official release from... 2010? Was it that long ago?) doesn't really emulate AdLib Gold but support has been added in SVN builds. A fan-made build cand be found here here (DOSBox SVN r4007.7z). That build also contains 7 years worth of code advancements, so I'd recommend it for that reason too.

      With that build, you can set oplmode=opl3gold, change the corresponding setting in the installer and enjoy the soundtrack closer to what it was meant to be heard like. AFAIK the surround sound module effects haven't been implemented though.

  7. I'll guess 52, mainly because I think it's light on adventure game elements, but I seem to remember it being considered a decent game (if maybe not a great adaptation of the film or the book).

  8. My family had the book in the bookshelf, but since sci-fi never interested me as much I never came around to read it. Or I might have, seems to recall reading the first chapter and it bore me to no end. But I watched part of some mini-series on TV... but it was like the two very last episodes so I didn't get the story at all and it being set in the desert probably turned me away even more since deserts are the most boring parts of most media, be it King's Quest mazes or the long wait between fights in any spaghetti western.

    Oh, and I gotta roll the dice again, if I can find them after almost 4 months. Let's see... 63.

  9. I remember really enjoying it. Is this the version with cd snippets of the movie? 60.

    1. No, the movie bits were added to the later CD version along with voice-acting. The original didn't have either.

  10. I like this game a lot but I don't think it will fare good in the PISSED rating... 37!!

  11. I am one of those people who've found Dune, the book, too boring to complete - and I've tried something like ten times at least. Not my cup of tea. I have seen the movie, but wasn't that impressed about it either. I did enjoy the miniseries by Syfy. And I've once played Dune board game - the worst six hours of my life.

    I'll guess 35.

  12. I'm skeptical that this will score well. I'll say 43.

  13. I love some science fiction literature but I just couldn't stand dune. I found it to be slow, dull and devoid of the great ideas that make good science fiction interesting. Like in Philip k dick and Ursula le guin.

    As for the game, I have much more memories of the RTS sequel than this one, which is strange since I'm much more of an adventure game. I'll try to see with these posts the reason for that.

    1. Dune is indeed slow. The plot is mostly high-concept sci-fi drowned in games of geopolitical intrigue. The phrase "a feint within a feint within a feint" is a recurring one in the book, alluding to the whirlwind of events that happen mostly "off-screen". It's a carefully constructed and very plausible universe, which I believe is one of Dune's strengths, but there's so little action to spice it up. The second book improves a bit on this, with a tighter plot —not to mention it's mercifully shorter—, but I couldn't bring myself to finish the third one, which I only recommend as cure for insommnia.

      As for this computer version of Dune, I remember being unimpressed by it (other than how the graphics captured the likeness of the movie's actors) so I'll go with 40. The sequel IS much more memorable for being the first RTS as we know them (and no, Herzog Zwei doesn't count IMO) and a great game in its own right.

    2. Not to mention that Dune was the book i took with me on a month work trip to Mozambique. So there i was stuck with that boring book on two 11 hour plane trips.

      Well, it's done, and the book looks pretty enough for me to stay in the bookshelf, but I would recommend it to anyone.

      Besides, the islam parallels were maybe exotic and refreshing when it was written. Not so much today.