Friday 5 May 2017

Dune - Final Rating

Written by Reiko

I suspect Dune is going to be a mixed bag. While I certainly enjoyed its blend of story and strategy, it's a rather different sort of game than the usual kind of adventure game we see. Let's dive into the categories to break down what it did well or poorly and where the adventure scale doesn't really address its features.

Puzzles and Solvability

Right away, we have to consider the question of whether the interactions in Dune are really puzzles. If we consider that adventure games include dialogue puzzles, then perhaps they are, except that in most cases, there are no choices in the dialogues: I can choose to talk to someone or not, or ask them to join me or stay there, but if I'm speaking to the right person at the right time, then I'll get the next piece of information, and the story will advance: there are no choices about what to say.

With Gurney, getting directions to the next sietch from the Fremen.

I also have no inventory in the usual sense. However, if I can consider characters traveling with me to be the contents of my inventory, then Dune does contain puzzles similar to traditional inventory puzzles, because there are multiple times when I have to take the right person with me to the right place in order to solve a problem. I have to take Duncan Idaho to the communications room in order to send shipments to the emperor; I have to take Jessica around the fortress with me to search for secret rooms; I have to travel around with Stilgar to win the trust of some of the troops; I have to take Chani to the afflicted sietch to have her cure the plague; and so on.

Mostly these puzzles, if we can call them that, are very simple. Search in every room with Jessica until she discovers a new room. Take a person to the logical place where they are needed. Or take a person to where they or someone else explicitly says to take them. You can call these puzzles, but they aren't the challenging part of the game. Once in a while I had trouble figuring out who I needed to talk to next, but if I systematically checked back with everyone, eventually I found the next conversation.

All my troops are peaceful spice miners for the early game, with no defense capabilities.

The part that the adventure scale really won't address is the strategy part, which involves using resources wisely over time to achieve objectives. While it was fun, it was also a bit too easy. I was surprised that the Harkonnens launched almost no attacks on my territory. I think the only time they counter-attacked was right after I'd taken one of their fortresses. They never attacked my sietches, and if they'd started a systematic elimination strategy like the one I was executing on their fortresses, I could have had a lot more trouble, because there's no way I could have defended my entire border. This isn't Civilization, where you can just keep pumping out units and have a garrison in every city. The number of troops is limited, and each battle depletes the number of men available to some extent.

Actually, the game feels more like a sort of strategy RPG in several ways: Paul "levels up" when his charisma rises enough that he gains more mental strength and ability to reach the Fremen; and the player has to advance the plot by gathering allies and talking to the right people; and the troops can gain better weapons as more fortresses are conquered; and the battles become generally more difficult as the armies reach deeper into Harkonnen territory.

Score: 4

Interface and Inventory

Once I got used to the interface, I found it to be reasonably intuitive, where clicking on something would usually bring up a contextual menu of options in the middle area. It's easy to walk around and talk to people, and the "skip to destination" fast travel feature was very much appreciated.

Whenever I was at a location with an available ornithopter, I could select a location on the map and choose to fly directly to it. But I couldn't do that with riding a worm unless I was standing a screen away from a sietch or other location. I kept forgetting that and trying to jump to a destination on the map, and then having to go back to the main screen and exit my location first.

Maneuvering the map to manage my troops.

Given how much time I spent on the map screen managing my troops, I also didn't like how clunky it was to always have to use the arrow buttons to scroll around the map. I kept wishing I could drag the map or at least use keyboard arrow keys, but the game is entirely mouse-driven. One or two of the features are less than obvious, particularly the "results" screen with the numerical comparison, which is only accessible from the globe screen, which is a button on the map screen.

As I mentioned in the Puzzles section, there is no traditional inventory, but I consider the characters to be a form of inventory. The limit is two people, and the main interface always shows who is with Paul. It's usually easy to pick up and drop off characters whenever needed (they only sometimes complain, and usually for story reasons). Aside from what we learn by talking to them, there is no way to "examine" or otherwise interact with characters, though.

Score: 5

Story and Setting

The story was very much based on the classic novel by Frank Herbert and the movie made from it, so the main question is whether the adaptation to the game format still holds together as a story. Naturally, there are a number of changes from the book, but the primary objective is arguably the same: defeat the Harkonnens using the Fremen, and the path to get there involves his mother, his father's advisors, and a few key people among the Fremen. The theme of winning Fremen loyalty by going native and becoming Fremen himself is also present, although less so than in the novel: it's mostly depicted in the game by showing Paul's eyes gradually turning Fremen blue, and there are a few exchanges where Paul learns key cultural things like how to ride the worms.

I was confused about why the fortresses were switched, though: the Atreides should have been based in Arrakeen, not the Harkonnen. Plus Duke Leto's demise comes about in a completely different way than in the book. It's really much less dramatic when he flies away in a rage and is shot down off-camera, rather than being betrayed.

Automatic boost to Paul's power.

While it doesn't really detract from the fun of the game, I would also argue that the adaptation also lost a lot of what made the novel so classic in the first place. The real point of the novel isn't that Paul is exacting revenge on the Harkonnens, although he does do that; it's more about his struggle to master himself and his powers and achieve his goals while not succumbing to his obvious destiny of plunging the entire galaxy into war. In the game, there's really no struggle, because Paul just automatically becomes better at contacting the Fremen and knowing about things as the story progresses. Also, I haven't read the later books, so I don't know the details, but from what I've heard, Paul doesn't quite manage to avoid war the way he intended. But if we take just the first book, the game ends up in a similar place with the Harkonnens dead and Paul as Emperor.

Even the villages look like desolate and empty places.

The setting is the iconic desert planet of Arrakis, populated mostly by the Fremen and only a few small outposts of offworlders. In the game, it actually seems far more deserted (ha, sorry) because we never see the other nobles, the Emperor's elite troops (called Sardaukar), or the smugglers, all of whom have their part to play in the original story. Not to mention the Bene Gesserit. Plus we never see any other planets, and even the Emperor is merely a source of messages demanding spice. So Arrakis feels much more lonely and isolated in the game. The flip side of that is that the theme of Paul having to trust and rely on the people around him is really emphasized.

Score: 6

Sound and Graphics

I really enjoyed Dune's soundtrack, full of peppy beats subdued a bit by minor tones. Sometimes I'd let the ornithopter ride proceed in regular time for a little while instead of skipping it, just so I could hear the travel music. While I did sometimes play without sound just because it wasn't necessary and I didn't feel like wearing my headphones, I was always happy to listen to the music. You can listen to the whole soundtrack on Youtube if you want; it's only about half an hour long.

There isn't too much in the way of sound effects, contributing to the effect of a desolate and mostly empty land, but the ones that do exist are very effective. I was startled the first time I stepped away from a sietch that had a spice harvester because it becomes visible on-screen and the sound of its engine or machinery plays.

Jessica is beautifully drawn, and so is the garden behind her.

The graphics are also generally very good, albeit visibly pixelated, with beautiful large portraits of each of the main characters that appear during dialogues. Well, most of them are beautiful: Thufir and the Harkonnens are rather ghastly-looking. The mouths and eyes move as well.

Sunset with Chani.

Since the game runs in compressed real time, it also displays a day and night cycle with beautiful sunrise and sunset shading that smoothly shifts to full sunlight or darkness. The game actually requires you to experience a sunset with Chani fairly late in the game, just in case you hadn't noticed them previously. (Never mind that the romance is one of the most rushed and awkward parts of the game.)

The game has other animations as well, such as the worm arrival, or the ground going past when traveling by worm or orni. On the globe screen, the planet spins. Troops on the map screen move in place a little, depending on their job, but when in transit, their locations jump from place to place when the time of day is updated, instead of moving smoothly. That's a minor thing, though. On the whole, the game looks very good; if it weren't so pixelated, I'd have rated it another point higher.

Score: 7

Environment and Atmosphere

The desert is compellingly stark, with few visual landmarks or features, except for rocks, and the twisted trees that appear when in the vicinity of ecological work. Summoning a worm triggers an animation that honestly made me nervous the first time I saw it, just because it looks so huge and dangerous. The sietches only offer one or two screens, but they illustrate the idea of hidden cavernous living areas very well.

I know these things are huge, but surely they can't travel as fast as airplanes...

The planet feels a bit small when traveling around it by ornithopter or worm since even when allowing the travel to proceed without skipping, it doesn't take that long to travel from one sietch to another. Either that, or we've got some very fast ornithopters and worms. I actually tried traveling around the world on a worm, and it took a little over a day of game time. So either Arrakis is significantly smaller than Earth, or worms are traveling faster than jet planes. According to Google, the fastest non-stop circumnavigation by plane on record took 67 hours, and the fastest with a refueling stop still took almost 43 hours.

But then when walking around on foot, it feels endless, in a very literal sense, because I couldn't seem to actually travel from one place to another on foot. No matter how far I traveled in one direction, the map still showed me at the location I started out from. (I know there are probably lots of reasons why it's a really bad idea to try to walk from one place to another in a desert like Arrakis, but I just wanted to see if I could.)

Walking in ecologically-enhanced desert, with a sietch in the distance.

So it's the usual problem when trying to present a planet with a single biome: it doesn't make any sense that the entire planet would have the same climate, due to differences in exposure to sunlight at different angles. It's certainly convenient to show the same graphics for the entire planet, but it makes the planet feel much smaller than it would otherwise.

Score: 5

Dialog and Acting

The underlying story is good, but the way it's told in the game is very weak because it's primarily told through dialogue given by the characters. Everything is character driven, in fact, because all orders to the troops are relayed through the troop chiefs, who are mostly interchangeable but at least have a variety of faces. The player controls Paul by directing where he goes and who he talks to, but all other actions take place through other people. Even the result of Paul's defeat is told through a mocking message from the Baron or one of his captains.

I see three writing errors in this one passage.

And unfortunately, the dialogue is weak and poorly-written. I saw Jessica say "Fremens" a few times, which is odd since I usually just see "Fremen" for both singular and plural, and the troops called the basic weapons "krys knifes," which is quite wrong (should be "crysknives"). Beyond those, the awkwardness isn't just in the content, but in the presentation. Too many ellipses, words in ALL CAPS, extra exclamation points, unnecessary spaces, and so on. That's in addition to the occasional missing word or grammar error. It's quite a mess, really.

As a comparison, here's something that Baron Harkonnen says in the movie (which is supposed to be the closer inspiration for the game than the book): "I will have Arrakis back for myself! He who controls the Spice controls the universe." But in the game, he's a caricature of this, saying, "I've devastated a sietch to show you what will happen to you. Dune is MY PLANET and I intend to keep it that way! HA!" So the game paints him as a petty tyrant, while in the book and movie, he has vast and clever ambitions to use Dune's resources to control far more than just one planet.

Leto's reckless and fatal decision.

Duke Leto, too, is far more impetuous than in the book, where he is a wise and canny leader who was cruelly betrayed by one of his advisors. In the game, he's so enraged by the Baron's crimes that he recklessly runs off with only his personal guard to make a frontal assault. In the book, he says, "Command must always look confident." But recklessness goes far beyond confidence.

Now you tell me! I didn’t know the harvesters needed ornis!

There were also a number of instances where important information wasn't revealed until I managed to talk to the right person in the right context, particularly information about how the equipment worked, but also information about the Fremen. Some of that is explainable both in game and story terms due to the way Paul gains respect from the Fremen over time, so they will share more with him later on. But some things really should have been communicated sooner. I don't know why I had to hear from Duncan Idaho that I should put ornis with the harvesters to watch for worms. Any troop with a harvester but no orni should have told me that when I talked to them. ("Hey Paul, we're probably going to lose this harvester if we don't have a way to watch for worms...") Even if Paul (and hence the player) needed to learn it from experience, it's something the Fremen would have already known.

Score: 3

That adds up to a total score of 4+5+6+7+5+3 = 30/60*100 = 50.

Fourteen people made guesses ranging from 35 to 63. That's a pretty wide range, but Torch hit it right on.

That completes our coverage of Dune. Now back to your regularly-scheduled adventure games! I’ll have a break for quite some time, until we get around to the Island of Dr. Brain. See you then!

CAP Distribution

100 points to Reiko
  • Blogger award - 100 CAPs - for blogging through this game for our enjoyment
15 points to Laukku
  • True Companion Award - 10 CAPs - for playing along with Dune
  • Music Appreciation Award - 5 CAPs - for information on the game music
15 points to Torch
  • Psychic Prediction Award - 10 CAPs - for guessing the score for Dune
  • Sci-fi Awareness Award - 5 CAPs - for winning one of the contests to recognize classic sci-fi
10 points to Kirinn
  • Music Appreciation Award - 5 CAPs - for information on the game music
  • Saving the Planet Award - 5 CAPs - for the discussion on the use of ecology
10 points to Rowan Lipkovits
  • Literary Linguist Award - 5 CAPs - for information on the real-world language that Fremen words were based on
  • Trivia Master Award - 5 CAPs - for Dune trivia
5 points to Gren Drake
  • Trivia Master Award - 5 CAPs - for Dune trivia
5 points to Antonakis
  • Sci-fi Awareness Award - 5 CAPs - for winning one of the contests to recognize classic sci-fi
5 points to Laertes
  • Sci-fi Awareness Award - 5 CAPs - for winning one of the contests to recognize classic sci-fi
5 points to Adamant
  • Sci-fi Awareness Award - 5 CAPs - for winning one of the contests to recognize classic sci-fi
3 points to Joe Pranevich
  • Desert Humor Award - 3 CAPs - for the dessert mousse pun


  1. A fair review of a strange and interesting game! Funny how some things are quite close to the book or film, and others are quite different.

    I have also started a Discord channel if anyone wants to join a place to chat about things related to my blog & this blog and basically whatever else people want.

  2. Yes! I think that's the second time I've struck gold with a guess of 50

    Good review, Reiko. I imagine it's a difficult one to rate.

    1. Torch, are you just guessing that every game is perfectly average? :)

    2. Well, some are bound to be :-)

      Maybe I can just call 50 for all upcoming games..? :-p

  3. This was an interesting read, especially since the only Dune game I was aware of was the RTS. Though admittedly, reading this made this Dune game feel more like a strategy game with adventure elements than a standard adventure game.

    Now I want to go reread the books.

  4. That's exactly what it was, a strategy game with adventure elements. Now that you mention it, technically it was even an RTS, although not with the quick pace and fluid troop movement that we'd normally associate with an RTS, due to the conversation-based plot.

    Thanks for reading.

    1. I'm not sure I'd describe any of the RTSs I played around when this was released as having a quick pace or fluid troop movement. Still, shame I didn't know about it, what, twenty years ago? I probably would have enjoyed playing it.

  5. Throughout playing Dune you've consistently referenced the book. This game is based on the film, which is based on the book. It's unfair to criticize the game just because it's not like the book (which you have done several times). I love the book (which I encountered first, I even wrote my dissertation on it), and the game (which I encountered a few years later) but I have little love for the film which is the unfortunate weak link between the two.

  6. The game is pretty hollow, but it is maybe the most awesome piece of world building I have ever played. The "Environment and atmosphere" ignores many of the things I find memorable in here: the use of colour rotation (the "red sunsets" being a highlight), the careful artistic approach to graphics, and well, the most impressive and rich soundtrack ever done in OPL3. Game is a bit middle way when trying to approach an adventure design and a strategic one, but please, give it the merit where it deserves it.

    (Yeah, fanboy here) (Yeah, answering too late)